POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 23, 2013
OLYMPIA, Wash. » The Cold War may have ended, but in the Vietnamese community in Washington state, the muscle memory persists.
Aging refugees who lived through the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon in 1975, many of them scarred by the experience, have not forgotten, nor forgiven. Even now, an accusation of sympathy with the Communist government - real or imagined - can shatter a reputation.
Or settle a score.
That is apparently what happened in the case of Duc Tan et al vs. Norman Le et al, according to the Washington Supreme Court, in a civil defamation case that has offered a rare glimpse into the gut-punching, passionate inner life of Vietnamese America.
Tensions and worries about free speech have surged in recent days all over the nation amid the controversy over federal monitoring of telephone and Internet traffic for national security. And many of those anxieties are heightened in immigrant communities, especially those from the Middle East, where the terminology of religious extremism can raise red flags.
In Olympia, the combatants were men of spare build and thinning hair. One was accused of being a Communist, the other of being a slanderer. Both worked for the South Vietnamese government or military. Both became leaders in local groups that strove to keep Vietnamese language and tradition alive in Western Washington.
But starting about a decade ago, Le, who is 78, said he became convinced that Tan, 69, was a secret sympathizer with the Communists in their birth country. He eventually went public with his assertions, which were published in the Vietnamese press and spread through social media.
Some elements of the proof Le cited might sound comical to outsiders. A cooking apron used at a community fair, for example, was produced at the trial showing a jolly, cap-wearing figure that Le said was a clear representation of Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader, but which Tan said was in fact none other than Santa Claus.
A musician brought in by Tan for a function struck up the first bars of the national anthem of modern Vietnam, before awkwardly stopping and resuming with what people had expected to hear: the South Vietnamese anthem, theme song of a country that no longer exists. Conspiracy, Le said; accident, said Tan.
Tan ultimately sued in 2004 for defamation, itself a rare occurrence in Vietnamese-American communities, where disputes are usually hashed out internally. A civil court jury found Le and his co-authors liable.
An appeals court overturned that verdict, but then last month Washington's highest court restored the jury's original finding, and the $310,000 award to Tan and the Vietnamese Community of Thurston County, a civic group. Le's lawyers have asked the court to reconsider.
But the scorched-earth battle has already changed the community, residents said.
A Vietnamese language school, which Tan once led as principal, shrank in the aftermath of the controversy: from 120 students a decade ago to about 60 now, the current principal said. Large gatherings once common for cultural celebration in the Olympia area, like the New Year, have faded or stopped entirely in the last few years.
"We are trying to avoid additional conflict, or labeling," said Hiep Tran, 50, a transportation analyst for the state.
Mai Vu, 55, said she became convinced in the 1970s, after a few years in the United States, that rallies and demonstrations were futile in ridding Vietnam of the Communists. But now, she said, she feels a concern that not being seen as anti-Communist enough could invite attack.
"When we don't go out in the street and denounce and say, 'Down with the Communists,' then we are Communist sympathizers," she said. "That's the trouble that I see, and I have a problem with that."
Tan said in an interview in his lawyer's office (where Tran and Vu were also interviewed, invited by Tan and his family to speak about the community) that he is not a Communist, and that the very idea is insulting. Speaking through an interpreter, he said he believed the accusations by Le arose over a personal dispute about leadership of a civic committee.
"I believe it was a personal disagreement, a personal vendetta," Tan said.
Le, in an interview in his daughter's house in nearby Lacey, remained adamant, too. He spoke the truth, he said, and regrets nothing.
"We need to speak up, because what brings us here is freedom of speech," Le said, sitting in a living room where the yellow and red stripe flag of South Vietnam fluttered at the entryway beside a U.S. flag, near a portrait of President Ronald Reagan.
Charges of Communist collaboration or sympathy - sometimes accompanied by violence and even killings - tore apart many Vietnamese enclaves in the U.S. in the years after the war. And the tough, nuanced personal choices of the period still resonate: Tan, according to the court record, signed a loyalty oath to the Communist government to secure his release from a re-education camp before fleeing the country in 1978.
But the war generation's political passions no longer dominate the way they did, said Jeffrey Brody, a professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton, who has studied and worked in the Vietnamese community for many years. For many of the children and grandchildren of refugees, he said, acceptance of the current Vietnamese government's right to exist, though rarely an applause line, has at least become a legitimate debating point.
"The younger generation is much more politically tolerant of free speech," he said.
Le, who spent more than nine years in a Communist labor camp after the war, testified at the trial that people who lived through the takeover have "a different perspective" about communism, and an understanding about Communist methods that American courts and jurors could probably never really grasp.
One justice on the state Supreme Court, James M. Johnson, agreed. In a sharply worded dissenting opinion, he called the majority's ruling "a miscarriage of justice for Mr. Le and all those who have risked everything to enjoy the protections of the United States Constitution." He added: "The respondents' experiences with communism are most certainly relevant to this analysis."
Le, in the interview, scoffed at the idea, however, that Vietnamese Communists are out to take over or undermine the United States. The effort, he said, is all about image and control, fostering good opinion about the government in the diaspora among refugees and their children.