The Seattle City Council’s willingness to recognize the South Vietnam flag would be a major milestone for refugees.

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What would Americans do if an anti-democratic force conquered Washington, D.C., and forced us to renounce Old Glory? Think about it. Our identity as a nation is so defined by the Stars and Stripes, we’d probably fight until the end for our right to pledge allegiance to a flag that represents freedom and democracy.

Vietnamese people in the United States don’t have to imagine what it’s like to lose their country and its symbol of independence.

As a child, I placed my hand over my heart every morning in school and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. At home, my refugee parents taught me to also honor a yellow flag with three red horizontal stripes — the flag of South Vietnam before Saigon fell to communists on April 30, 1975.

On Monday, the Seattle City Council is set to vote on a resolution recognizing the contributions of the Vietnamese community and acknowledging their “Heritage and Freedom Flag” as their unifying symbol.

This simple but symbolic gesture is long overdue and it makes sense since this is the same flag that flies high at Vietnamese events, throughout the Little Saigon business district and at the entrance to Rainier Valley, where it’s paired with the U.S. flag.

Forty years after the City Council first signed resolutions welcoming Vietnamese refugees, it’s about time this community’s turbulent history is acknowledged. Thanks to Councilmember Bruce Harrell and his legislative aide, Vinh Tang, who is of Vietnamese and Chinese heritage, for seeing this opportunity to recognize a large immigrant population that has struggled to find a political voice in Seattle.

To most outsiders, and even younger Vietnamese Americans, the flag issue may seem abstract. But it would be a tragedy for its significance to be diminished.

Duoc Nguyen, a  76-year-old former South Vietnamese air force lieutenant colonel. (Thanh Tan / The Seattle Times).
Duoc Nguyen, a 76-year-old former South Vietnamese air force lieutenant colonel. (Thanh Tan / The Seattle Times).

The yellow flag is an emotional and integral part of the identity of some 70,000 Vietnamese living in Washington. It symbolizes where we came from and our fight for a free society.

“I truly would prefer to live just one day of freedom in a democratic country and die than to live under communism for the rest of my life,” 76-year-old Vietnamese elder and former South Vietnamese air force lieutenant colonel named Duoc Nguyen recently told me as he clutched his beloved yellow flag. He came to the United States after suffering 13 years in a communist re-education camp where he nearly starved to death. The South Vietnamese who weren’t imprisoned were stripped of their assets, citizenship and their entire way of life.

Such conditions forced millions to escape by air, land and sea. Despite the death, rape and pillaging that often occurred on these journeys, people continued to flee Vietnam throughout the late 1970s and 1980s.

For these survivors, the communist regime’s official red flag with a yellow star in the middle elicits anger and a profound sense of loss. I have seen grown men wince at the sight of their oppressor’s flag. I have heard too many stories of the communist regime’s myriad abuses, which the Vietnamese government has never apologized for or formally acknowledged.


Related video: How Washington embraced Vietnamese refugees

Forty years after of the fall of Saigon, a look back at the unprecedented efforts led by Gov. Evans to welcome refugees to the state of Washington. Read more. (Thanh Tan and Danny Gawlowski / The Seattle Times)    

Maybe that’s why, even though I was born in Olympia, I, too, react when I see the communist flag in books and news stories.

Just as the Jewish people will never forget the Holocaust and Japanese Americans know the pain of being sent off to concentration camps during World War II, Vietnamese Americans have a responsibility to preserve our legacy as survivors of a war that claimed more than 1 million civilians. In the fight for South Vietnam and its flag, some 58,000 American service members also died along with more than 200,000 South Vietnamese soldiers.

A formal resolution by the City Council would help Seattle’s 10,000 Vietnamese know that they can become part of the mainstream political process. It also offers them some comfort in knowing that where they came from, and how they suffered, will not be forgotten.