“Capital within a Capital”: Covert Action, the Vietnam War, and Creating a “Little Saigon” in the Heart of Northern Virginia

“That flag is the symbol of the spirit of the refu­gee,” Springfield resident and Vietnamese American talk show host Liem D Bui told journalists in 2012. The flag to which Bui referred is that of the fallen South Vietnam government and it along with an American flag fly over Eden Center shopping plaza in Falls Church, VA, a symbolic embodiment of Vietnamese American culture and Ho Chi Minh City that some call “a capital within a capital,” for D.C.’s 80,000 residents of Vietnamese descent. [1]

Eden Center was established over 30 years ago, and it still retains a cultural resonance today–albeit one that remains subject to popular perceptions. “[M]erchants and community leaders worry that, outside their circle, their home away from home is increasingly viewed as a place for gambling and gang activity,” noted Washington Post journalist Luz Lazo, “a perception that some business leaders say hurts business and threatens the vibrant social hub.”[2] Undoubtedly, many residents remember their own difficult arrival in the U.S. Though few recall now, the majority of Americans opposed President’s Ford’s approval of refugee acts enabling Vietnamese passage to the U.S. and in many places they faced discrimination and resentment.

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In his 2014 book Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia, Haverford College professor Andrew Friedman demonstrates how the refugee populations that followed CIA efforts in El Salvador, Iran, and Vietnam reshaped Northern Virginia’s built environment and demographics. Eden Center shopping plaza is a symbol of this change, a piece of Ho Chi Minh City on the edge of the American South. While an obvious result of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, the relationships or intimacies that led to the settlement of Vietnamese Americans in Northern Virginia were forged through not just the war but decades of covert action abroad.

Occupation, War, and Covert Action 

For much of the twentieth century, American legislators severely limited immigration from Asia and refused the right to naturalized citizenship to those that did come. Of course, this is not to say that migration in the nineteenth or even early twentieth centuries evolved only from military conflict. As Yale scholar Laura Barraclough has demonstrated, Japanese farmers and labors migrated to places like California’s Imperial County and San Fernando Valley to work the land even in the face of discrimination.[3]

U.S. involvement in wars in Asia and its occupation of Hawaii and the Philippines helped to create various transnational connections related to economics, politics, and intimacies (referring to friendships, sexual affairs, and collaborations that occurred as part of covert activities) that later contributed to shifts in immigration policies in the early 1950s. The 1952 McCarran Act removed the ban on naturalization, but maintained quotas for certain groups, notably Asians. Not until 13 years later did the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act redefine the rules for immigration, making family unification a priority and replacing racial quotas with hemispheric ones, thereby facilitating greater numbers of newcomers from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

During this same period and afterward, covert action abroad in places like Vietnam constructed refugee and immigration flows to the United States. However, where these new populations settled in the U.S. often depended on the quality of contacts developed between American actors abroad and the nations subject to intervention, in this case the Vietnamese. American empire propped up and then negated South Vietnam but also enabled many South Vietnamese allies to gain footholds in the U.S. as residents and later citizens.

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Market in Ho Chi Minh City, December 2013

The U.S. had an interest in developing capitalist markets in Asia while also building political bridges to defeat communism. U.S. occupation and reconstruction of Japan provides a prime example of this, as was its defense of what became South Korea in the 1950s. In each case, many soldiers stationed abroad developed relationships with Asian women—love, at least for a moment, ensued. Initially, the War Brides Act of 1945 allowed for only non-Asian spouses to enter the U.S. Not until an amendment was added to 1950 legislation were Japanese and other Asian spouses allowed to consistently migrate to U.S. shores. In this way, family bonds, friendships, marriage, and the like influenced government action and policy.

Immigration policy did not dictate the level of migration unilaterally. The relationship between American interventions in Asia and immigration or refugee flows that followed hinged mightily on political realities in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam respectively. During both the postwar occupation of Japan and the Korean War, the nation allied with the U.S. remained, more or less, physically and geopolitically intact. Korea might have been split into two nations but the Korean War, even though it did lead to Korean immigration stateside, did not set off a wave of refugee immigration to the U.S.

In contrast, American actions in Vietnam did not result in victory for its allies; rather, those Vietnamese allied with the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government found themselves targeted by the victorious Communist North Vietnam for imprisonment, torture, and execution. This created a larger flow of refugees to the U.S. and the passage of the 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act by the Ford administration, despite public opposition. The 1980 Refugee Act subsequently resulted in directed flows of Vietnamese to places like Orange County, California and Northern Virginia. From 1980 to 2000, 531,00 Vietnamese sought and received refuge or asylum in the U.S. Today 40% of all Vietnamese Americans live in Orange County.

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Tet Vietnamese Lunar New Year Celebration in Garden Grove | Photo by Jametiks used under a Creative Commons license

While much has been said about how American adventures abroad and the region’s own anti-communist conservatism helped to reshape Orange County demographics, less has been written about a similar process in Northern Virginia or how covert action rather than direct military intervention played a role in facilitating refugee flows. For example, many credit the Marshall Plan for helping to rebuild European economies. It stands as an open symbol of U.S. postwar beneficence. However, as Friedman points out, the same Marshall Plan led to US involvement in Vietnam in the late 1940s, nearly twenty years earlier than the Vietnam War. Indeed the Marshall Plan, established as one expert noted “to help rebuild civilization with an American blueprint,” also approved $685 million in foreign currency for CIA covert political action. By the time the Vietnamese crushed French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the U.S. was paying nearly 80 percent of France’s war costs.[5]

The U.S. agency charged with Vietnamese economic and infrastructural development Special Technical and Economic Mission (STEM), led by individuals like Mark Merrell attempted to “modernize” the Southeast Asian nation and unwittingly contributed to CIA efforts.  In his capacity as STEM leader in Vietnam, Merrell’s activities – road building, economic development, housing complexes – reconstructed the shape of Vietnam’s built environment. “[Y]ears before Americans are seen has having significant spatial impact on the country, [Merrell’s] work … entered, altered, and established crucial aspects of the built environment and material life of Vietnam that became incorporated into its physical expression as a place, that defined how it was experienced by local residents and later observers,” reflects Friedman.[7] Rufus Phillips performed similar duties after Merrell. “He dug wells. He brought fertilizer. He handed out medical kits. He rebuilt markets, roofs, roads, and bridges,” points out Friedman. “[H]e sculpted American aid, American material, and American building techniques into the landscape of Vietnam.”[8] One hears the enthusiastic, Kool-Aid drinking voice of The Quiet American’s Alden Pyle whispering in the ears of men like Merrell and Phillips as they promoted U.S. stewardship of their Southeast Asian allies.

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Ho Chi Minh City, December 2013

If Merrell and Phillips constructed the built environment with materials and U.S. money, others worked relationships. Take Edward Lansdale, who was sent with the “Saigon Military Mission” to ensure that Vietnam did not reunify even as the U.S. agreed at the 1954 Geneva Conference to do just that. Lansdale used his charisma, inquisitive nature, and aptitude for political calculations to build personal relationships with Vietnamese collaborators that forwarded U.S. interests. “Lansdale prided himself on understanding not only the politics, but the cultures of places he entered … He claimed to communicate on good humor alone,” Friedman writes. “And he almost always acquired his cultural knowledge through one on one experiences of extreme intimacy with people he knew for political reasons.”[9] Lansdale supported the efforts of Merrell and Phillips, seeing in medical aid, for example, a way into Vietnamese hearts and minds while also providing U.S. companies an inside track into emerging markets where businesses could demonstrate the superiority of American wares to a people “hungry for technological improvement.” The Saigon Military Mission disbanded once Vietnam formally split, and the agents returned to NOVA.

Soon after, however, in 1965, Lansdale returned to Vietnam as a special assistant to the US Ambassador to “organize and carry out what was now called a ‘rural construction’ program.” Lansdale held frequent parties in his Saigon home, welcoming US dignitaries, Vietnamese elites, and others in a heady mix of politics, camaraderie, and intrigue. Luminaries like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sometimes attended, mingling with Southeast Asian counterparts, developing intelligence, and drawing conclusions about U.S. actions. Creating this “cultural corridor” between NOVA and Vietnam did not ensure real equality between actors. Race and U.S. power always remained a dissident murmur preventing equal relations between individuals. Even those agents who came to treasure Vietnamese culture sometimes expressed their view of the nation’s people in racist terms. One writer noted surprise at the opinions offered by members of Rufus Phillips’ team regarding the Vietnamese. Greeted by the particular team member’s part-Vietnamese and part-French wife in a home filled with Asian artifacts, the biographer encountered a man who seemed less than impressed by Vietnam. “I then proceeded to interview a man who in the course of an hour used such racist epithets as ‘goddam slopes’ innumerable times as I asked for his thoughts and recollections about his time in Vietnam.”[10] Admittedly, Lansdale would do much to help collaborators settle in NOVA in the years after the Vietnam War, but these relationships always rested on unequal partnerships.

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Eden Center Parking Lot, July 2014

Coming to America

By April of 1975, South Vietnam’s fall seemed imminent, but despite clear indications of American failure, no real evacuation plans for Vietnamese allies emerged. While the aforementioned legislation of the mid 1970s and early 1980s facilitated waves of Vietnamese immigrants to U.S. shores, the initial 1975 evacuation symbolically represented their fates. The image of a bedraggled U.S. helicopter taking off from Saigon as thousands of Vietnamese living in “apocalyptic fear” of the incoming regime sat below forced American policymakers to answer a simple question: What had the South Vietnamese earned by allying with the United States? “The evacuation degenerated quickly into an improvised experiment in racism,” one official remembered. “Only those with white skin were assured a way out.” In eighteen hours of emergency evacuation, 5,595 Vietnamese joined their American counterparts in departing Saigon. By the end of April, a total of 42,123 Vietnamese and others found their way out via “black flights.”

Many ended up in refugee camps run by the Pentagon in one of four places: Camp Pendleton, CA, Fort Chafee, Arkansas, Elgin Air Force Base, FL, and Fort Indiantown, PA. The refugee camps ran civics classes to instruct the Vietnamese on US customs and ways to redefine themselves in this new environment. “In lessons about work, when a woman made the motion of casting a fishing net, the teacher would correct, ‘I am a housewife,’” notes Friedman. “When a man made a gun with his hands and said, ‘I rat-a-tat-tat,’ the teacher would recommend, ‘I work with my hands.”[11]Their pasts would have to be wiped clean, though as will be seen, this process contained greater complexity than any camp instruction could hope to solve.

Needing a sponsor to escape the camps and get established on U.S. soil, many refugees fell back on the intimacies established before and during the Vietnam War. As a result, many found their way to NOVA and specifically, the Dulles Corridor, a twenty five mile stretch from D.C. city limits near the Pentagon to Dulles International Airport inhabited by large concentrations of American covert actors often in the employ of the CIA or Pentagon. “Identification by empire,” reflects Friedman, “may have voided the landscape of South Vietnam as their homeland, but it allowed them to settle and claim the CIA’s and Pentagon’s suburban landscape as their own.”[12] By June 19, 1975, 3,733 Vietnamese had settled in Northern Virginia, and within five years 9,541 resided in the area. Many refugees settled in proximity to their refugee camps, hence Orange County’s proliferation of Vietnamese residents. Some migrated to Washington state, New York, and Minnesota, where established Asian American communities resided. Northern Virginia differed in that it was neither proximate to any camp nor could claim an established Asian American population. Intimate connections to CIA covert actors led Vietnamese to NOVA where they settled largely in Arlington County, not coincidently home to many of their military and government sponsors. Many key Vietnamese actors active in U.S. counterinsurgency programs there appealed to and even visited Lansdale; he even hosted gatherings at his McLean home, “where newly arrived refugees could organize some self help groups.”[13]

Not that average Virginians welcomed their arrival. At best, many white residents of Northern Virginia, a region at the time still pockmarked by the legacy of Jim Crow segregation, resented the newcomers and demanded they integrate into local economies and cultures as quickly as possible. Others more maliciously wondered aloud if NOVA would be able to remain truly “American.” Vietnamese newcomers might have used their intimacies to secure a new home in the burgeoning Northern Virginia suburbs but they did so unevenly as their white counterparts, some guilty of subterfuge, torture, and assassination, settled into cushy office jobs in government and private business. For example, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the man photographed famously executing an alleged VC collaborator during the war, settled in NOVA, even opening a pizza parlor named Les Tres Continents, but remained subject to the occasional ominous threats for his actions during the war.

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Eden Center Shoppers, July 2014

Whatever his complicity or guilt (the story behind the shooting remains as murky as during the war), some came to his defense. “Everybody did it, it’s not only him,” the Vietnamese wife of an American State Department official commented. “The past in Vietnam is not in the United States.” The physical and conceptual newness of Northern Virginia helped in this regard. “Violence rests in the past, and the past is geographic, distant in very sense, relegated to the lost Vietnam that can’t penetrate the resilient visual immediacy of Virginia’s suburbs,” Friedman explains.

Even in the face of racism and the difficult process of establishing new identities and careers, Vietnamese refugees first settled in Arlington, Falls Church, Annandale, Vienna, and Clarendon and along the thoroughfares that connected them, like Wilson Boulevard and Columbia Pike. They did not settle en mass in one large “immigrant ghetto” but rather dispersed though a “wide swath of the Dulles Corridor landscape.”[14] They established businesses and worked jobs that radically differed from their occupations in Vietnam. A navy commander worked as a bag boy at a local Giant supermarket on Leesburg Pike; women who worked for large American companies now clerked at the Fairfax Quality Inn.

 

Soon, cultural and business institutions took form. In 1975, Rev. Nhi Tran established the Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Catholic Church in Arlington. In these early years of settlement, Clarendon formed the heart of this new Vietnamese community with its Little Saigon. Even before 1975, in 1972, the first real Vietnamese presence in the county bulged with the establishment of a restaurant, followed by other restaurants like the Queen Bee, and grocery stores. Vietnamese immigrants lived in old government housing, new garden apartment developments, and some of the nation’s first FHA insured demonstration projects. Indeed, the very architecture of the state sheltered refugees from the country’s foreign policies. When the metro line to the area was completed, bringing government offices, Vietnamese businesses migrated further out to Bailey’s Crossroads and Seven Corners in the Falls Church area. [15] In fact, 60 percent of Vietnamese resided within three miles of Seven Corners.[16]

It would be here in the early 1980s, where Vietnamese refuges would take an old run down shopping plaza and refurbish it into an economic hub and a visual representation of their community. Jefferson Village, a 500 unit, 70 building project, and the Willston “garden apartment complex” more or less bookended Eden Center and both came to house large numbers of Vietnamese Americans. Ironically, these apartments also provided accommodations to CIA agents and military officers who had worked for men like Mark Merrell in Vietnam decades earlier.

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Eden Center Water Feature, July 2014

Named after the Eden Arcade in Ho Chi Minh City, Eden Center soon emerged as not only a hub for the NOVA Vietnamese community and a physical reminder of U.S. foreign policy, but also as a sort of capital for the Vietnamese diaspora. “All Vietnamese communities around the world look up to this one as the crown of the anti-Communist government and its sense of duty,” one Vietnamese immigrant told interviewers. Ethnographers found that for many Vietnamese transplants going from the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, to the capital of the U.S. seemed fitting, hence Eden Center’s status as “capital within a capital.”[17] The “Little Saigon of the East Coast,” noted one Vietnamese American and Maryland resident.[18]

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Eden Center Flags, July 2014 

Today, Eden Center continues to fly two flags in the center of its parking lot: an American one and the flag of the fallen South Vietnam. The practice began in the 1980s and while it testifies to the influence of local Vietnamese Americans it also bears witness to American actions abroad. Even local governments have taken formal notice, such as in 2003 when the local Board of Supervisors granted recognition to the South Vietnamese flag as the “heritage flag” of NOVA’s Vietnamese American community. Residents themselves fought for this distinction, arguing that Fairfax County did not have to abide by U.N. regulations and could ignore “international protocol” in regard to Vietnam’s “actual flag.”[19] “It is a wonderful, unique environment,” Falls Church City Council member David Snyder told journalists in 2012. “I often say to people, ‘If you want to get a great, wonderful taste of Vietnam without going, taking your passport and spending a couple of thousand dollars on flying . . . just pop in your car and go to the Eden Center.’ ”[20]

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Eden Center Restaurant, July 2014

Nor do the mechanics of U.S. covert action simply stop, but rather continue in surprising ways. Successful refugees like developer Vietnamese American Tien Hoang, himself a 1975 arrival to NOVA, returned to Ho Chi Minh City in the 1990s, building housing complexes in Vietnam and selling units through a sales office in Falls Church. He even planned a strip mall in Vietnam based on American models and hoped to name it “Little Fairfax,” telling interviewers “It’s like Reston [VA] was back then.” In the end, Vietnamese Americans like Hoang and others who collaborated directly with U.S. actors returned to Ho Chi Minh City in search of development opportunities not as “conquering South Vietnamese Republicans but as American capitalist emissaries looking to develop its land,” Friedman argues.[21]

Unlike other recipients of covert aid such as Salvadorians, the Vietnamese refugees had the “benefit” of a very visible war that flickered across American television screens and polarized popular debate. Facilitated by intimate connections to U.S. officials, a result of their alliances during American occupation of South Vietnam, the Vietnamese carved out conceptual and physical space in Northern Virginia through their own sweat and toil, a capital within a capital.

 

[1] June Q. Wu, “Police Raid Falls Church Cafes,” Washington Post, August 12, 2011; Tom Jackman, “Two Dead in Eden Center Shootings in Falls Church,” Washington Post, July 15, 2012; Luz Lazo, “Months After Police Raid, Eden’s Center’s Vietnamese Community Worried About Image,” Washington Post, March 30, 2012.

[2] Luz Lazo, “Months After Police Raid, Eden’s Center’s Vietnamese Community Worried About Image,” Washington Post, March 30, 2012.

[3] Laura Barraclough, Making the San Fernando Valley: Rural Landscapes, Urban Development and White Privilege, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011).

[4] Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of the U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013), 128.

[5] Ibid, 136.

[6] Ibid, 135.

[7] Ibid, 130.

[8] Ibid, 142.

[9] Ibid, 143.

[10] Ibid, 157.

[11] Ibid, 176.

[12] Ibid, 174-175.

[13] Ibid, 179

[14] Ibid, 180-181.

[15] Ibid, 182-183.

[16] Ibid, 189.

[17] Ibid, 191-192.

[18] Luz Lazo, “Months After Police Raid, Eden’s Center’s Vietnamese Community Worried About Image,” Washington Post, March 30, 2012.

[19] Ibid, 217.

[20] Luz Lazo, “Months After Police Raid, Eden’s Center’s Vietnamese Community Worried About Image,” Washington Post, March 30, 2012.

[21] Ibid, 218.

 

 

 

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