The Boat People of Vietnam:
The Surges in Vietnamese Immigration from 1954-1992 that Changed the Face of America
review written by Andrew Bain | book written by Nghia M. Vo
The Vietnamese Boat People, 1954 and 1975-1992 is Nghia M. Vo’s analysis of Vietnamese immigration during the mid to late twentieth century. In it, Vo describes the conditions in Vietnam that lead to the widespread exoduses that occurred, the different groups of people that participated in these exoduses, and the methods by which they escaped Vietnam. In addition to explaining Vietnamese immigration, it paints a picture of what life was like for Vietnamese under Communist rule.
Vietnamese immigrants make up a large contingent of the American population, and over the years they have become an integral feature on the face of America. In his book entitled The Vietnamese Boat People, 1954 and 1975-1992, Nghia M. Vo explores the surges in Vietnamese immigration away from Vietnam in the exoduses of 1954 and 1975-1992. Vo is an avid writer and researcher who has written another book on Vietnam entitled The Bamboo Gulag: Political Imprisonment in Communist Vietnam; he now lives in Virginia. In The Vietnamese Boat People, 1954 and 1975-1992, Vo writes with a certain admiration for the mettle of the Vietnamese immigrants, stating that “Their determination and yearning for freedom under adverse conditions will be the guiding light for future seekers of freedom elsewhere in the world.”1 In his book, Vo analyzes the causes of the surges in Vietnamese immigration during the mid and late 20th century in addition to the methods by which the Vietnamese escaped, the countless hardships the escapees faced along the way, and the difficulties and successes they experienced as they tried to build a new life in a foreign country.
The first portion of Vo’s book is devoted to the 1954 “exodus” that occurred in Vietnam and the conditions that led to it. Vo begins with a description of the conditions in Vietnam that developed between the years 1939 and 1954 and led to the surge in immigration. The events of World War II played a major role in setting the stage for the 1954 exodus. As Vo states, during World War II, “Vietnam was a powder keg ready to explode.”2 At the beginning of the conflict, Vietnam was still a French colony. On June 25, 1940, the Germans defeated the French in armed conflict. As a result, in August of 1940, the Japanese forced the French to grant them transit rights in North Vietnam. In July of 1941, the Japanese established a military presence in Vietnam, constructing military bases and the like. In December of 1944, political instability in Vietnam prompted Japan to remove the French government in the country and to grant Vietnam independence. This decision prompted a vicious power struggle in Vietnam, a fray from which Ho Chi Minh emerged victorious. Only two years later, on December 19, 1946, the Viet Minh—the name of the government under Ho Chi Minh—began the first Indochina War against the French in what would become an eight year military conflict. Over time, the region of South Vietnam, with Bao Dai as its leader, grew apart from North Vietnam. In 1954, the Geneva Accords were signed. South Vietnam gained little as a result of the accords, however, as it lost the chance to completely obtain its freedom from the French. At this time, Vietnam was also completely divided, with South Vietnam representing a more republican form of government and North Vietnam representing a Communist form of government.
After the Geneva Accords, a huge outpouring of Vietnamese from North Vietnam began. Lasting from August of 1954 to May of 1955, the wave of immigration was coined “Operation Exodus.” There were several causes of the mass exodus from North Vietnam. The main cause, of course, was fear of the Communists and the brutal conduct of the government under Minh. Another cause of immigration was the Communist land reform campaign, in which landowners were forced to “study the evils and errors of capitalism and democracy.”3 In a sequence of events resembling the Salem Witch Trials and, later, the McCarthy hearings in the United States, anyone owning more than an acre of land represented a possible counterrevolutionary and could be brought before a people’s tribunal. More often than not, neighbors would accuse each other of being a counterrevolutionary merely to save themselves. The reform program destroyed agricultural and social systems, in addition to bringing “death and suffering to tens of thousands of farmers and their families.”4 Widespread famine was also a factor in the 1954 exodus, as Communist extraction of a portion of farmers’ crops led to a huge food shortage. In what would be the biggest famine in Vietnamese history, more than two million people lost their lives. Finally, the first Indochina War galvanized many Vietnamese to immigrate as they saw the brutality of the Viet Minh.
Various groups left Vietnam during the exodus, from landowners and intellectuals to Catholics, Buddhists, and Chinese. It has even been suggested that the CIA promoted Operation Exodus. Unfortunately, many escapees met with the brutality of the Viet Minh, as the Communists committed numerous atrocities during the exodus in an attempt to keep Vietnamese from escaping. They used torture and extreme violence against would-be-escapees. In one example of Communist violence, Communists would cut off part of the ears of Catholic escapees for listening to Catholic masses, which the Communists saw as a manifestation of the evils of religion. In another instance of Communist violence, when the village of Cua Lo used one of its retarded citizens to distract Communist forces while the rest of the village escaped in boats, “they [the Communists] tied him [the retarded citizen] to a tree, beat him, sprayed him with gasoline, and burned him to death” when they realized what was happening.5 With about 800,000 immigrants leaving by boat during 1954, the exodus represented the largest naval exodus from one country during one period of time. In addition to becoming a traumatic experience for many families, the 1954 exodus polarized Vietnam even further between North and South.
Years later, in 1975, North Vietnamese forces attacked South Vietnam and, as city after city in South Vietnam fell to the Communists, refugees began flooding out of South Vietnam. In response, on April 29, 1975, United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger activated the evacuation of about 200,000 Americans and Vietnamese. Unfortunately, the Communists attacked Saigon before the evacuation could be completed and, though some lucky citizens escaped the city, 98% of Saigonese “were trapped inside the city because of local imposition of curfews, government refusal to grant exit visas, and scarcity of modes of evacuation.”6 In what became known as “Operation New Life,” the United States government ordered several of its ships to wait outside Vietnamese territory to pick up and assist Vietnamese escapees. Over time, numerous refugee camps were developed and floods of refugees changed the face of the regions around the camps. One such region was the tiny island of Guam, which took on 60,000 refugees, almost doubling its initial population of 80,000 people. From 1975 to 1980, the United States began a resettlement program for this first wave of Vietnamese immigrants, which would distribute them evenly throughout the states.
Meanwhile, a second wave of refugees left Vietnam by sea after mainland China closed its borders in July of 1978. There were several causes of this second wave of immigration. The main reason for many refugees fleeing was the increasingly brutal tactics of the Communist government. In its attempt to increase its control over the country’s population, the Communist government sent more than one million South Vietnamese to “re-education camps” after the fall of Saigon. The goal of the camps “was to ‘re-educate’ [the South Vietnamese] through hard labor and thought reform.”7Inmates were treated very harshly, as they “were beaten, isolated, confined to a conex for weeks or months in a row, and starved.”8 In addition, from April to December of 1978, the Communist government initiated another program for agricultural collectivization, which hurt the economic status of many Vietnamese. Moreover, war once again played a major role in immigration. When North Vietnam mobilized against Cambodia, many Vietnamese decided to leave the country because they didn’t want to serve in the North Vietnamese Army.
Immediately after this “second wave” of immigrants came a “third wave” of immigrants from South Vietnam. The third wave of immigration lasted from 1980 to 1986, with a total of about 370,000 refugees arriving at camps during that time. The majority of the immigrants were unaccompanied minors sent away from Vietnam by their parents. The rest of the immigrants were spread across the entire spectrum of professions—from fishermen to teachers to carpenters. Unfortunately, this third wave of immigrants had a far more difficult time adjusting to life in the United States. By 1979, most of the first wave of immigrants was well established, and while the second wave had done more poorly than the first wave, the third wave had the roughest time of all. As Vo describes, the most recent Vietnamese immigrants “were not only placed at the bottom of American society, but also behind the other Vietnamese who came earlier.”9 With the end of the third wave of immigrants came the end of the massive diaspora.
After outlining the three waves of Vietnamese immigration, Vo describes the plans to emigrate, the different methods of escape, and the horrible things that could happen during an escape attempt. In terms of planning the trip, the second and third waves of immigrants were actually the only surges that needed to plot their escape carefully. The first wave of immigrants did not. Over the course of their preparations, escapees were often swindled. Unfortunately, they could not complain to the police because “they would be jailed immediately for attempting to escape.”10 In addition to financial fiascos, several other factors could doom an escape attempt. Communist Vietnam had many informers on the streets, so would-be-escapees were always at risk of saying something to the wrong person at the wrong time. In addition to government interference, bad weather could cripple a voyage. Moreover, some Vietnamese missed their boats entirely because they were a few minutes late. Once escapees made it onto their boats, engine failure or disaster as a result of minimal navigation experience could turn an escape into a disaster. Once at sea, countless boats were the victims of pirate attacks, where brigands would rape, murder, and pillage refugees trying to escape. Over time, attacks became more common: “In the 80s, refugee boats crossing the Gulf of Thailand were attacked by pirates almost two thirds of the time and each boat was boarded at least twice.”11 Trying to avoid pirates by taking a land route didn’t necessarily work either, as brigands that operated on land were sometimes even more vicious than the pirates who hunted at sea.
After finally reaching their destination, adjusting to life in new countries was difficult for most Vietnamese immigrants. Over time, however, immigrants developed a new way of life. Often, immigrants banded together to create new communities such as Little Saigon in Westminster, California. Overall, over the course of the three waves of immigration, more than 3 million Vietnamese left Vietnam, with 1.2 million of those immigrants moving to the United States. After all was said and done, the Vietnamese immigration crisis “opened the eyes of the world on communism” and changed the face of countless countries forever.12
From the beginning of his book, Vo sets out with a very simple thesis that he states outright: “The goal of this book is to review the 1954 exodus and the 1975-1992 diaspora, to compile stories of these sea and land voyages, and to retrace the dangerous paths these modern voyagers took to reach the lands of freedom.”13 He certainly meets his goal. In his analysis, Vo thoroughly explains both major surges of Vietnamese immigration: the 1954 exodus and the massive diaspora which lasted from 1975 to 1992. He also describes the causes of each immigration surge, the demographics involved in each rush and the different methods of escape. Highlighting both the success stories of Vietnamese immigration and the heartbreaks, traumas, and tragedies that often occurred along the way, Vo gives the reader a complete picture of the turmoil and the triumph of Vietnamese immigrants during the mid and late 20th century.
Though The Vietnamese Boat People, 1954 and 1975-1992 is certainly informative, it definitely cannot be called well-written. Occasionally, Vo will introduce acronyms for organizations that he has not previously explained and, as a result, the reader is left to wonder what the acronym stands for and what Vo is trying to explain. More often than not, the reader must infer the meaning of the acronym on his own and continue reading the book in the hopes that it will be explained later. For instance, when describing the process of organizing an escape from Vietnam by boat, Vo states that “All sales had to be approved by the PSB.”14 At no point in the book, however, does Vo adequately explain what the PSB actually is. All the reader can infer is that the PSB is some form of government customs agency that represented a threat to the success of escape attempts. In addition to occasionally lacking explanation, Vo will sometimes stray away from chronological order, describing a wave of immigration through to its conclusion and then backtracking to examine the causes of the surge. Suddenly, the reader will be reading about something that happened 5 years before the event that the previous sentence described. Though this is not a major problem, it does force the reader to determine where each cause fits into the overall scheme of events. In another instance of lack of organization, Vo describes the basics of each surge before going through the actual planning and execution of an escape from Vietnam. It is still fairly easy to follow Vo’s flow of ideas, but organizing the book with a flowing chronological order instead of by topic—and rather roughly at that—would have been more reader-friendly. Indeed, while informative, Vo’s book is flawed in that he sometimes does not explain what he is writing about, resulting in an occasionally disjointed and choppy analysis.
Aside from Vo’s occasional analytical mishap, the mostly objective book thoroughly describes the ordeal of Vietnamese immigrants. However, Vo’s sympathies for the Vietnamese escapees and against the Communist government in North Vietnam are not well-hidden. In fact, Vo will occasionally denounce the North Vietnamese government completely, and while it does not cripple the book in any way, it slightly hurts Vo’s credibility by showing that Vo is indeed an opinionated man. In one biased statement at the end of the book, Vo declares that “There is no other country in the world like communist Vietnam that had chased away its own people twice, mistreated them badly for four decades, and still remained in power” and that “this tragedy should not have happened to any nation or group of people. The pain, suffering, and trauma inflicted were too much to bear and the consequences are unimaginable.”15 Indeed, Vo all but completely denounces North Vietnam as a menace to the entire world, stating outright to the reader that it is completely at fault for the hardship of millions of people. Once again, though his opinion does not hinder the flow of the book in any way—and is probably shared by most of the modern world—it does reinforce the reader’s knowledge that Vo is not an extremely professional writer. In fact, he almost seems to be more of an interested and opinionated citizen writing a research paper than he is a researcher writing an expository and analytical work on a period of Vietnamese history. Despite its numerous flaws, however, Vo’s The Vietnamese Boat People, 1954 and 1975-1992 is a relatively enjoyable and extremely informative book. Certainly, the reader finishes the book knowing much more about Vietnam and Vietnamese immigration than he did when he first started reading the book.
1. Vo, Nghia M. The Vietnamese Boat People, 1954 and 1975-1992. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2006. 5.
2. Vo, Nghia M. 9.
3. Vo, Nghia M. 18.
4. Vo, Nghia M. 21.
5. Vo, Nghia M. 29.
6. Vo, Nghia M. 71.
7. Vo, Nghia M. 95.
8. Vo, Nghia M. 95.
9. Vo, Nghia M. 99.
10. Vo, Nghia M. 104.
11. Vo, Nghia M. 144.
12. Vo, Nghia M. 198.
13. Vo, Nghia M. 4.
14. Vo, Nghia M. 105.
15. Vo, Nghia M. 198.