During the January 6 ultranationalist attempted coup on Capitol Hill, numerous hate symbols and flags flew together – incited by the far-rightist US President Donald Trump. The Confederate flag, a historic symbol of white nationalism, made for a ubiquitous appearance on that day. There were numerous far right flags and symbols, each with their own history and political significance.
However, there was one flag included in the chaos of that day, which may at first seem out of place – the yellow and red flag of the defunct South Vietnamese state.
What is the flag of the long-lost Saigon regime, doing alongside hateful symbols of white supremacy? Actually, South Vietnamese nationalists have much in common with their white nationalist and Trumpist counterparts. Let’s elaborate this subject.
The South Vietnamese community have been among Trump’s staunchest supporters. Their anti communism, combined with strident anti-China views, dovetailed with Trump’s boisterous attacks against Beijing. But common Sinophobia is not enough as an explanation for the ideological convergence between the white nationalist conservative support base and the South Vietnamese.
Both white nationalists and Saigon loyalists share not only an ultra conservative social philosophy, but also a deep commitment to the ‘lost cause’ – a retrograde and resentful sectional nationalism. The Confederate flag symbolises the conservative reaction to the progress made by African Americans, and their Anglo American supporters, since the end of the civil war.
The Saigon regime, an installation propped up by American armed forces, waged a decades-long and ultimately unsuccessful war against the Communist North Vietnam. It was an authoritarian military dictatorship, while maintaining a democratic facade. Theoretically, it boasted powerful military forces, bu corruption was eating away at its structure from within. Falling to the Communist forces in 1975, its history of torture and violence has been disguised by its partisans as an outpost of American ‘democracy’.
At the end of the war, in 1975, millions of South Vietnamese fled as refugees, making up the bulk of the Vietnamese populations settling in the US, Australia and other countries. Their conception of a militarised patriotism took hold, and became the lens through which post-Vietnam war generations viewed that conflict. The ‘lost cause’ of the Saigon regime corresponded with the Cold War aims of the United States.
The South Vietnamese acquired a kind of privileged status, when remembering and memorialising the victims of the American war on Vietnam. In a similar fashion to the fallen Confederacy, the Saigon regime became an emblem of a ‘lost cause‘, purportedly abandoned by nefarious elements in the US government. With white nationalists, it is African Americans, along with ethnic minorities and liberal ‘Northern elites’, who have conspired to rob the Anglo white community of their rightful place.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, writing in the Washington Post, noted the similarities between Confederate and Saigon regime loyalists in their nostalgia for a lost cause. This nostalgic view mythologises the regimes to which they follow, and dismisses the many victims of their ruthless and predatory policies. The millions of Vietnamese, tortured in the prisons of South Vietnam, or obliterated by the napalm and chemicals of numerous American bombings, are forgotten as our sympathies are monopolised by the cult of Saigon worship.
Victimisation by Communist authorities makes for good and popular storytelling in the corporate media. The South Vietnamese have steadily contributed towards a narrative of ‘betrayal’; their regime was defeated not by more effective military opposition, but by leftist antiwar activists, and their liberal sympathisers and civilian policymakers, in the United States. This ‘stab-in-the-back‘ mythology sits comfortably with the effort to rehabilitate the Vietnam war.
The notion of being undermined by treacherous elements in the US finds common grounds with the neo-Confederate Right, and with the modern conspiracist QAnon Alternative Right. Blaming conspiratorial forces in the federal government is nothing new for the South Vietnamese loyalists. Since the 1970s, they have heavily contributed, through their Vietnamese language media, to the mythical figure of American aviators, and military personnel, being secretly held captive in Vietnamese detention camps, after the conclusion of the Vietnam war.
This official mythology, marketed by Washington as the POW/MIA issue, was deliberately cultivated with the active connivance of the Saigon loyalist community. Fleeing South Vietnamese refugees, sensing the political opportunity, told American authorities what they wanted to hear – live captives, or at least the remains of, American soldiers left behind in Vietnam.
Agitating for the ‘last man to come home‘ from Vietnam became a story of official government perfidy – a mythical victim hood to buttress the special sympathy for the South Vietnamese loyalists. Any steps taken by successive American administrations towards normalisation with Vietnam were portrayed as ‘betrayals’ of the Saigon lost cause.
Trump, and his Republican supporters, actively platformed ultrarightist views that saw insidious conspirators lurking in the halls of power. This view is not far removed from the political perspective of the functionaries of the defunct Saigon regime. The former military officers and government officials of that regime have formed a strongly conservative, and nostalgically resentful, community.
Longing for a ‘lost cause’, and holding out hope for an eventual military victory has much in common with the apologists for the Confederacy. These conservative ultranationalist communities are not such strange bedfellows after all.