The Vietnam War and the “Good Refugee”

Authored by: Yen Le Espiritu

The Routledge Handbook of Asian American Studies

Print publication date:  December  2016
Online publication date:  December  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415738255
eBook ISBN: 9781315817514
Adobe ISBN: 9781317813927


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At this moment of reinvigorated U.S. imperialism and globalized militarization, it is important to interrogate a new public recollection of the U.S. war in Vietnam. As a “controversial, morally questionable and unsuccessful” 1 war, the Vietnam War has the potential to upset the well-worn narrative of “rescue and liberation” and refocus attention on the troubling record of U.S. military aggression. Having lost the Vietnam War, the United States had no “liberated” country or people to showcase; and as such, the Vietnam War appears to offer an antidote to the “rescue and liberation” myths and memories. Yet, as I will show, in the absence of a liberated Vietnam and people, the U.S. government, academy, and media have produced a substitute: the freed and reformed Vietnamese refugees. In this chapter, I first show how the narrative of the “good refugee,” deployed by refugee studies scholars, mainstream U.S. media, and Vietnamese Americans themselves, has been key in enabling the United States to turn the Vietnam War into a “good war.” I then flip the script and argue that what appears to be an act of economic assimilation on the part of the Vietnamese—an act of moving beyond the war— is in actuality an index of the ongoing costs of war, not only for the refugees but also for their children.

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