Flags of the Vietnam War

On this 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, here is a look at some of its flags.

The flag of unified Vietnam flies above Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee (formerly Saigon City Hall).  Photo by Joshua Rappeneker, 18 Sep 2006.
The flag of unified Vietnam flies above Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee (formerly Saigon City Hall), with the HSBC bank tower in the background. Detail from a photo on flickr by Joshua Rappeneker, 18 Sep 2006.

The flag of Vietnam, a large yellow star on a field of red, has a simple, bold design.  Designed in 1940 for an uprising against French colonial rule, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed it the flag of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945, and the flag of the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976. Accounts vary on which Communist cadre designed it, official accounts saying Nguyễn Hữu Tiến, though others suggest Lê Quang Sô.  Tiến composed a poem about the flag, reading in part:

… All those of red blood and yellow skin
Together we fight under the nation’s sacred flag
The flag is soaked with our red blood, shed for the nation
The yellow star is the color of our race’s skin
Stand up, quickly! The nation’s soul is calling for us
Intellectuals, peasants, workers, traders and soldiers
United as a five-pointed yellow star…
Determined to fight the French and Japanese fascists…

A seven-flag safe conduct pass, one of billions of leaflets dropped over the war zone encouraging North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to defect.  Photo from flickr by Sean Svadilfari.
A “seven-flag” safe conduct (“giay thong-hanh”) pass, one of billions of leaflets dropped over the war zone encouraging North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to defect. Around the flag of South Vietnam are the flags of the US and its five allies Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, New Zealand, and South Korea. Photo on flickr by Sean Svadilfari.

This same theme of “red blood and yellow skin” is also understood to underlie the flag of South Vietnam (now also known as the Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag): three red stripes on a field of yellow.  Catholic Vietnamese painter Lê Văn Đệ is credited with the 1948 design, which was based on a one decreed in 1890 by Emporer Thành Thái to be the national flag.  The stripes can be interpreted to refer to Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina (the northern, central, and southern protectorates of French Vietnam), or the trigram ☰ symbolizing, among other things, south.

Members of the Vietnamese Student Association at San Jose State University march with the Heritage Flag.  Photo on flickr by Bao Thien Ngo, 29 January 2006.
Members of the Vietnamese Student Association at San Jose State University march with the Heritage Flag. Photo on flickr by Bao Thien Ngo, 29 January 2006.

Both flags, the red and the yellow, remain divisive symbols, especially to the Vietnamese immigrant community in the US.  After the surrender of the South to the North in 1975, the yellow flag became a banned symbol of disloyalty in Vietnam; and after the Clinton Administration normalized relations with Vietnam in 1995, as the flag of an unrecognized country, the yellow flag was banned from US military facilities.  This recently led to the last-minute cancellation at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendelton (near San Diego) of a large event for the American Vietnamese community when organizers insisted on flying what they saw as their flag there.  (Pendelton was where many thousands of refugees from Vietnam were processed upon arrival in the US following “Black April” 40 years ago.)  Conversely, the red flag is de-facto prohibited in Orange County’s Little Saigon and other areas dominated by Vietnam War-era immigrants.

Flag of the Vietnam Veterans of America
Flag of the Vietnam Veterans of America

Two organizations in the US related to the Vietnam War have noteworthy flags.  One is the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), whose flag is displayed in the Senate and House changers of the Veterans Affairs Committee in Washington, DC.  According to the VVA, the flag is based on the green, yellow, and red Vietnam Service Ribbon which was awarded to those “who served in Southeast Asia and the contiguous waters or air space thereover from July 4, 1965, through March 28, 1973”.  The brown stars represent the 17 official campaigns of the war.  Around the VVA insignia are a laurel branch and a sheaf of rice stalks bound together with black barbed wire that “serves as a reminder of the POWs and MIAs who are still unaccounted for”.

Flag of the National League of POW/MIA Families.
Flag of the National League of POW/MIA Families.

The other noteworthy flag belongs to the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.  Annin Flagmakers (the largest US flag manufacturer) was instrumental in creating the flag in 1970, describing its origins:

In 1970 Mrs. Mary Hoff, an MIA wife and member of the National League of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia recognized the need for a symbol for our POW/MIAs. She read a newspaper article in the Jacksonville, Florida Times Union about Annin Flagmakers that explained how Annin helped to design and subsequently manufactured the flags for the newer UN member nations. After contacting Annin, Mrs. Hoff found Norman Rivkees who was VP of Sales at the time very sympathetic to the cause. He in turn contacted a local advertising agency and contracted graphic designer Newt Heisley to design a flag to represent the group.

Federal legislation in the 1990s gave official status to the flag and required its display on certain days at post offices and other government facilities.  Annin notes that “it remains one of the most popular organizational flags flown in the United States, selling in the tens of thousands every year”. By 1998 Congress had broadened the meaning of the flag from those missing in the Vietnam War to Americans unaccounted for in all past, present, and future wars.  Although most POW/MIA questions arising from Vietnam have long been settled, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency was formed this January to continue investigating cases from World War II through the First Gulf War. (Just 8 days ago it accounted for the remains of Richard Whitesides, an airman whose plane had crashed in Vietnam in 1964.)

With the Vietnam War over now for four decades, is it time to take down these black flags?  One brave editor of the Metrowest Daily News in Massachusetts thinks so — Rick Holmes published a long and thoughtful editorial advocating what sure to be a controversial proposal this week.

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Author: SDM

Ethnography * Technology * Design

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