Written by guest blogger, Evyn Lê Espiritu.
In recent years, activist solidarity with the ongoing Palestinian liberation struggle against Zionist erasure has been gaining national momentum and visibility. In 2016, for example, the Movement for Black Lives Statement (M4BL) included language critiquing the US’s alliance with the State of Israel and, by extension, American complicity with the displacement and genocide of the native Palestinian people. In summer 2018, following Israel’s violent military response to the Great March of Return, M4BL reaffirmed its demand that the US end its financial and political support of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Rather than remain at the level of abstraction, such solidarity rhetoric was grounded in historical and contemporary linkages between the situated struggles of Palestinians and African Americans against entwined processes of settler colonialism, racism, and segregation. In the words of a recent M4BL statement: “We understand that we are connected to the Palestinian people by our shared demand for recognition and justice and our long histories of displacement, discrimination and violence.” Palestinian activists, in turn, expressed solidarity with M4BL, citing parallels between occupation in Palestine and Ferguson.
In light of these articulations of situated solidarity, the research and writing of my recent article in Canadian Review of American Studies, “Cold War Entanglements, Third World Solidarities: Vietnam and Palestine, 1967–75,” was driven by my desire to connect contemporary solidarity with Palestine with my own historical inheritances as a second generation Asian American and daughter and granddaughter of Vietnamese refugees on my mother’s side. In other words, I was motivated by a desire to ground my solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle in the specificity of my situated positionality. In 2013, the Association of Asian American Studies passed a Resolution to Support the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, affirming its mission to “advance a critique of U.S. empire, opposing US military occupation in the Arab world and U.S. support for occupation and racist practices by the Israeli state.” Shaped by histories of American imperialism, militarism, and capitalism in the Asian Pacific, Asian Americans are intimately familiar with formations of U.S. empire and therefore uniquely positioned to critique contemporary imperial intervention in the Middle East. But what about Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese history more specifically?
The late 1960s moment was one of anticolonial struggle and Third World Solidarity. In particular, two major wars in the Global South would influence American geopolitics and shift the balance of world power: the American War in Vietnam (1954-1975) and the June War in Israel-Palestine (1967). While the former would precipitate the unprecedented defeat of the American superpower, inspiring anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggles around the world, that latter would dramatically expand Israeli occupation over the West Bank and Gaza and consolidate American military and financial support of the Zionist nation-state.
The fates of Vietnam and Palestine, and their concurrent anti-colonial struggles for national independence, were thus entangled. American withdrawal from Vietnam was motivated in part by a decision to strengthen military presence in the Middle East, in an attempt to curb the threat of Soviet Union influence in the area. Yet the shared histories of these two revolutionary struggles has been largely neglected by scholarship on the Cold War, American empire, or the Global South, in part due to area studies divisions that dictate the cartographies of knowledge production.
This article seeks to rectify this gap in scholarship by charting political entanglements and demonstrations of solidarity between Vietnam and Palestine that have been structured both by and in spite of US imperialism. Wary of reproducing American exceptionalism by re-centering the US in its critique of American empire, this article highlights direct articulations of solidarity between Vietnamese and Palestinian freedom fighters from 1967 to 1975, drawing from archival research conducted at the Institute of Palestine Studies (IPS) in Ramallah. For example, in a message to the International Conference for the Support of Arab Peoples held in Cairo on 24 January 1969, Vietnamese anti-colonial leader Hồ Chí Minh asserted that the “Vietnamese people vehemently condemn the Israeli aggressors” and “fully support the Palestinian people’s liberation movement and the struggle of the Arab people for the liberation of territories occupied by Israeli forces.” Likewise, in a press interview conducted in 1970, Palestinian Liberation Executive Committee Chairman Yasser Arafat affirmed the “firm relationship between the Palestinian revolution and the Vietnam revolution through the experience provided to us by the heroic people of Vietnam and their mighty revolution.” On a more quotidian level, following General Võ Nguyên Giáp’s unexpected victory over the French colonists in the 1954 Battle of Điện Biên Phủ, Palestinian soldiers took inspiration from the Vietnamese and adopted the nickname “Giap.” Remembrances of this historical moment of solidarity still exist today. When I conducted research in the West Bank in 2016, I was often asked my ethnicity. When I mentioned that I was half-Vietnamese, some of the older men exclaimed excitedly and shared memories of their celebration of the Vietnamese victory over the French and then the Americans, drawing parallels with their own experiences of struggle against Israeli occupation.
While I draw inspiration from these Third World articulations of Global South solidarity, I also remain cognizant that Asian American Studies and postcolonial studies, rooted in a legacy of leftist political activism, have a tendency to romanticize the anti-colonial rhetoric of revolutionary leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Hồ Chí Minh, ignoring the violent byproducts of their state-building projects. As a child of a Vietnamese refugee and subject of the South Vietnamese diaspora—many of whom were displaced by the very Communist state established in Vietnam in the wake of Hồ Chí Minh’s death—I also want to take seriously critiques of the Vietnamese Communist state’s retributive justice against the South Vietnamese anti-Communists and its continual human rights abuses against its citizens, as voiced by members of the South Vietnamese diaspora as well as Vietnamese human rights activists currently working in Vietnam.
As an Asian American and South Vietnamese diasporic—that is, as the inheritor of both leftist, anti-imperial politics as well as insistent criticisms of the Vietnamese Communist party—I am motivated by a desire to reconcile these seeming political contradictions between the revolutionary rhetoric of Hồ Chí Minh and the oppressive control of the Vietnamese Communist party. Here, I turn to postcolonial feminist Neferti Tadiar’s concept of “divine sorrow,” which dwells with the residual affective ghosts of Vietnam’s painful war-torn past. According to the current Communist Party in Vietnam, 1975 marked a moment of revolutionary victory: independence from American imperialism and the fulfillment of the late Hồ Chí Minh’s Communist plan. However, the concept of “divine sorrow” entails a rejection of this state-sponsored narrative of teleological success— which works to silence critiques of the current Vietnamese government’s human rights abuses and curtail other political imaginaries— in favor of pre-1975 Third World Liberationist revolutionary promise. “Promise” here refers to the radical potentiality of multiplicitous revolutionary futures, too soon foreclosed by the Vietnamese State’s monopolistic consolidation of political power.
In the 1960-70s, it was North Vietnam’s revolutionary victory that heartened and inspired Palestinian freedom fighters struggling for their own national liberation. In the contemporary moment, in the wake of Vietnam’s seemingly concluded revolution, it is perhaps the ongoing Palestinian liberation movement that could stimulate today’s Vietnamese activists to reactivate the revolutionary potentials of their seemingly foreclosed anti-colonial struggle and hold the contemporary Vietnamese state accountable to its own revolutionary ideals.
Evyn Lê Espiritu is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow of Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies at College of the Holy Cross. Her research engages with critical refugee studies, settler colonial studies, trans-Pacific studies, and diaspora theory, and has been published in Canadian Review of American Studies, Amerasia, qui parle, and LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory. She is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively entitled Archipelago of Resettlement: Vietnamese Refugee Settlers in Guam and Israel-Palestine.
Read Evyn Lê Espiritu’s recent article in the CRAS Special Issue on Vietnam, War, and the Global Imagination “Cold War Entanglements, Third World Solidarities: Vietnam and Palestine, 1967–75”—free for a limited time on UTP Journals Online.