Saturday, January 11, 2020

Under Two Flags: The Deadly Duality of South Vietnam

Flags of the co-belligerents fighting for control of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War on display among other artifacts and educational guides in the Intelligence section of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's newest exhibit, The Ten-Thousand-Day War at Sea. (M.C. Farrington)
By M.C. Farrington
HRNM Historian

The defining historical event consistently highlighted by the Hampton Roads Naval Museum throughout its 40-year history has been the American Civil War.  Artifacts from that conflict, including naval flags from both sides, bring to remembrance the bitter four-year struggle that took place throughout the United States, particularly in the Hampton Roads area.

Although it is not stated explicitly, the newest exhibit at the museum, The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea, delves into the U.S. Navy’s role in a massive American effort to influence the outcome of a much longer civil war over 9,000 miles away.

Two flags on display in the exhibit symbolize two primary contestants of that civil war, which began in the wake of the decolonization of French Indochina after World War II and ultimately lasted until 1975. One is large, about 55 by 65 inches, of golden silk and bordered with gold fringes. It is bisected by three red lines representing the three areas that constitute modern Vietnam: Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina.
The large flag of the Republic of Vietnam (right) contrasts with the much smaller flag of the National Liberation Front (left) on display in the Intelligence section of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's new exhibit The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea. (M.C. Farrington)
Its design dates from the late-1800s and it is regarded by many as the first truly national flag of Vietnam.  It was officially adopted as the flag of the State of Vietnam in 1949 and after the 1954 partition of the country became the flag of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).  Americans soon arrived to help keep the flag flying.

By January 1961, 875 American military personnel were training and advising the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF), and the Republic of Vietnam Navy (VNN).  When Vice President Lyndon Johnson became president in November 1963, more than 16,000 American advisors were in the country to help the Republic of Vietnam Military Forces withstand continuous infiltration and assaults from the forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) to the north and their proxies based within the borders of the Republic.  Thousands of the nearly two million American Sailors who were deployed to South Vietnam throughout the conflict wore unit patches that incorporated the design of the RVN flag.
American Advisors to the Republic of Vietnam Navy wore berets such as the one displayed in the Beginnings section of The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea exhibit. (HRNM 2013.007.059/ M.C. Farrington
The other Vietnamese flag in the gallery is much smaller (about 15.5 by 21 inches), comprising of a gold star upon a blue-and-white background.  It is somewhat faded and threadbare, and looks handmade. It is the flag of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, which also went by the name National Liberation Front (NLF), or, among the South Vietnamese and Americans who fought them, as the Viet Cong.  It represented the Communist shadow government and guerrilla force trying to overthrow the Republic of Vietnam. 
The NLF flag on loan from the Naval History and Heritage Command display in The Ten-Thousand-Day War at Sea exhibit. (NHHC 2015.033.002/ M.C. Farrington)
While flags like the RVN flag in the gallery once flew over large military installations and were sometimes presented to senior American officers as tokens of appreciation, examples of the NLF flag like the one in the gallery were usually taken by the Americans and South Vietnamese as trophies after successful operations against the Viet Cong hiding in villages or remote jungle encampments.   

Despite the shadowy nature of the NLF, the massive effort to provision and equip them on the part of the DRV and their allies in the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union made them an existential threat to the Republic of Vietnam, prompting the Johnson Administration to send more and more American military forces and material.  After the second year of Johnson's presidency, 187,000 Americans were serving in South Vietnam.
This oil on canvas painted in 1968 by Apollo Dorian depicts a South Vietnamese Regional Force or Popular Force militia commander presenting a NVA flag to one Captain Patella (no specific name, date, or command appears in the accession information).  Such scenes were common in South Vietnam after a successful counterinsurgency operation. (88-161-MT/ Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection)
By 1968, nearly a half-million American service members (as well as thousands from South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and The Philippines) were fighting to keep the RVN flag flying over South Vietnam.  

"By sending these forces to the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the Johnson administration prevented an immediate victory of the Communists," wrote political science professor Anthony James Joes in his book America and Guerrilla Warfare (University Press of Kentucky, 2000), "but it also opened up a fissure in American society that it did not know how to close or even contain."  

Plenty of NLF flags were taken out of circulation in South Vietnam after the Viet Cong were resoundingly defeated during their Tet Offensive of early 1968.  Despite this, NLF flags began waving over cities across America during some of the largest and most violent protests against the Vietnam War later that year, which continued sporadically until the last American combat troops were withdrawn in 1973.   
A painting by Nancy Werlich on display in the Georgetown Neighborhood Library depicts confrontations in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC between local residents and protestors on October 2, 1970.  The protestors were celebrating the decision of South Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky to cancel his appearance at a March for Victory rally in support of the war.  More than 300 of them were arrested.  The next day, around 5,000 pro-Vietnam War marchers were opposed by approximately 500 counter-demonstrators, many of them waving NLF flags. (Courtesy of the DC Public Library
After the Communist victory and reunification of Vietnam in 1975, untold thousands of RVN flags were destroyed and its display is still banned in that country. Meanwhile the NLF flag, much like the shadowy government and armed force that it represented, was subsumed with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam the following year into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. 

Ultimately, over 57,000 American military personnel lost their lives in the fight to preserve the Republic of Vietnam and its flag against the NLF and the DRV.  Among the American Sailors who served there, 1,631 were killed and 4,178 were wounded.  Although a very large number of Americans died, the human cost of the civil war in Vietnam among the Vietnamese themselves was truly staggering by comparison. 

"If American military fatalities had been in the same proportion to the population of the United States as the ARVN's were to the population of South Vietnam," wrote Dr. Joes, "they would have numbered not 57,000 but 2.6 million."

"In the long struggle against an armed Communist takeover," he continued, "the ARVN alone (excluding the militia, whose casualty rates were higher) suffered, relative to the South Vietnam population, more than forty times as many fatalities as the Americans."

Reminders of the RVN flag can be found on the dress uniforms of the war's American veterans.  Towards the end of The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea exhibit is an example of the Vietnam Service Medal, which was originally established in 1965 during the Johnson administration but was retroactively awarded to veterans who served in the geographical area or in direct support of military operations in Vietnam as far back as 1958.  It was last awarded to American military personnel who aided in the evacuation of South Vietnam in April 1975.
An example of the Vietnam Service Medal on display in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's new exhibit, The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea. (HRNM 2017.030.001. Gift of Bob Ponton)
The late Benedict Anderson, the influential scholar of Southeast Asia, called flags "emblems of nation-ness."  No longer symbolizing a nation-state, what is now known generally as the "Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag," still waves above houses, businesses, and temples in Hampton Roads and across America as a symbol of what Anderson called the “imagined community” of the Vietnamese diaspora that settled around the world after the conclusion of the war.

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