The First Vietnamese-American Political Radical

Christopher Norlund

On October 14, 1964, the Boston Globe ran a story entitled "Politics Delayed Student's Trip to Harvard." Prominent in the article was a large photo with a description reading "FROM SAIGON, Long Ngo Vinh, 17, arrives at Logan Airport." The news article then begins "Long Vinh Ngo." The proper ordering of his name is Ngo Vinh Long, which is ironically analogous to he has been misinterpreted from the day he stepped off the plane in Boston.

Ngo Vinh Long's story is important because he was the first Vietnamese to attend Harvard directly from Vietnam. By no means was Long a typical Harvard student. He taught himself English by memorizing "British novels, ranging from classics to Agatha Christie." And he learned proper pronunciations from playing old phonograph records called "English without Toil" that were given to him by a Christian missionary.

Long graciously told his story to me when I visited his home residence during the Winter of 2003. His story is unique in that he was the first Vietnamese-American (although not officially a U.S. citizen at the time) to speak out against the Vietnam War. He openly opposed the war, opposed U.S. foreign policy, and became the first politically radical Vietnamese-American. His anti-war stance was drastically different from the approximately 350 Vietnamese living in the United States during the 1960s. One-third of the Vietnamese in the U.S. were the offspring of the Vietnamese elite and would not dare speak out against the war for fear of great risk to their families back in Vietnam. The other two-thirds were diplomats and other officials with close ties to the American government.

Ngo Vinh Long, meaning distinguished dragon, was born in 1944 in the Bac Ninh Province along the Mekong Delta ninety miles south of Saigon. "The Ngo family began around the 10th century. And our family was very famous because it produced a stream of scholars."

"After the 18th century, there is a saying in my family. Even if you take exams and pass exams you should not take them, because if you take the exams you will be asked to become bureaucrats. So my family has a tradition of not working for governments."

As a young child, he was encircled by war. His father and mother intermittently went into hiding during the Indochina Wars (1946-1954) when French patrolled the villages drafting Vietnamese for the war against the Vietnamese. There were no elderly family members to take care of Long and for weeks at a time he as his two siblings were forced to take care of themselves. Ponds around his village served as hiding places for his father, who was a well-known revolutionary. His father would hide underwater all day while breathing through a bamboo stick for fear of being discovered by the French. Death surrounded the village. Vietnamese corpses, "bloated big like a buffalo, black, horrible, scary," floated on the surface of the ponds. Long grew up hating the French for killing so many Vietnamese. His father continually stressed that the French were not malicious people, rather it was the French government and its policies that were hurting Vietnam. Long's father also told him of the Americans and how America was in his father's words, "the beautiful country" and "interracially harmonious country," which was a loose translation of the melting pot theory. In Long's imagination, America was the ideal place, which was in stark contrast to Vietnam.

Long's fascination with America led him study English, the "language of the interracially harmonious country;" however, this task was quite difficult for a Vietnamese in the 1950s. The Ngo family was traditionally a scholarly family. Long's father-who also taught Vietminh to read and write-had trained Long in mathematics and French. His father did not speak English and in fact at the time there were few Vietnamese who could. His father agreed it would be beneficial for his son to learn English and together they traveled to Saigon in search of English textbooks. On the road to Saigon, the two came across several travelers in need of direction. As a six year old child, Long was literate in both French and Vietnamese and was able to read street signs for travelers. In return for Long's impressive ability to read and give directions at an early age, travelers would give him a few piasters (Vietnamese coins). By the time they reached Saigon, Long carried an empty bombshell as a purse. He filled the bombshell full of piasters and had enough money to buy several books. Ironically, this weapon of war, which had once devastated his country, was now being used as a canister to hold money for education.

On the streets of Saigon, they did not find any English textbooks nor could they find an English-Vietnamese dictionary. However, they did find a French-English pocket dictionary that had been left over from when the Americans transported the French back to Vietnam after the Japanese occupation of Vietnam had been defeated in WWII. With French-English dictionary in hand, they translated the titles of various English novels for sale in the Saigon marketplace. At the time "not too many people would buy them (English language novels), because they couldn't read them." Long and his father bought several books including such authors as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, and Charles Dickens. The title that caught Long's eye Charles Dickens' Great Expectations by and it became the first of many English language books Long read and memorized.

"So my father and I started memorizing Great Expectations first word for word, then sentence by sentence, page by page. After a year we memorized most of Great Expectations. 'My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name being I called myself Pip.' And that's how we learned how to speak English. I still have a slight accent now because I never had no teacher. But my writing is very good." Long continued his studies of English between 1950-1954.

Around 1950, Long's father was captured and tortured horribly because his father refused to work for the French. The French realized physical torture would not succeed in converting him. As an alternative, the French took his father on patrols. French soldiers would murder a Vietnamese and behead them. Long's father was then ordered to attach a piece of twine to the head's ears and carry it until the twine broke. Finally the French gave up on converting Long's father and released him. His father was badly wounded and had tuberculosis; it took him a year to recover and eventually he got a job working as a stationmaster at a train station. During this time, Long also came down with tuberculosis and was bed ridden for the next few years. To pass the time while lying in bed, Long focused his energy on learning the English language and memorizing all of the books that he and his father had bought in Saigon. In 1954, a healthy young ten-year-old Long went to Saigon and made a living teaching the sons and daughters of Vietnamese elites mathematics and English. After passing the English proficiency test given by the Vietnamese consulate two years later, Long was awarded a certificate in English; he was only one out of two people who passed that year.

As a teenager, he was ashamed of his family's lack of wealth and humble lifestyle, so he lived by himself in Saigon continuing to make a living as a private tutor for the children of Saigon's elite. "I was tutor to rich people and the ruling elite in Saigon. I was tutoring their children. I would live in my house. I would go from one famous family to the next teaching them." Having access to Saigon's upper class supplied him with inside information of what was happening in Vietnam. He was able to frequent the Saigon country clubs and meet American officials there. In October 1959, he heard the American government was making military maps of Vietnam. There were not enough Vietnamese who had expertise in making military maps, so the U.S. government hired Filipinos and Japanese who were proficient in mapmaking. Long sent out numerous letters to American military advisors warning against the dangers of sending out foreigners to make maps of the countryside.

"When I heard about this, I said, 'Hey, you are going to get people killed. In order to go around making maps in the way you are making them, which is walking all over the country. You need to know people who know about the culture and life in the countryside. You will get many people killed very, very quickly that way' [by sending foreigners]." Long felt Filipinos did not respect women and would get themselves in trouble by using money to pay for sex in the countryside.

Many of Long's female students wanted to meet Americans at the Saigon country clubs, so this gave him additional opportunities to meet several American military advisors. One of his students became the girlfriend of John Paul Vann--the subject of Neil Sheehan's Pulitzer Prize winning book: A Bright Shining Lie.

From the beginning Long was supportive of American's involvement in Vietnam. He spoke to the American generals and convinced them that he was perfect for the job of making military maps.

"'If you want to do maps I have to be able to do maps, I have to have the technical know how because this would be a good cover for me, so if I get caught out in the countryside by the Vietcong then I tell them I am a technician and prove to them I am a map specialist. Otherwise, if they know I am a [American] public relations officer they would have me killed."

In December 1959, Long was sent to Quezon University in the Philippines to learn mapmaking. "So they trained me and within three months I knew everything about mapmaking. I knew mathematics so it was easy and they were very impressed." One of his motivations to help the Americans produce good maps was so that if the Americans were to drop bombs on Vietnam "they would not bomb the wrong village."

"We measured heights, angles, distances.water levels sometimes. It was during this period that I witnessed what was happening in the countryside. I saw the creation of Agrovilles, the Strategic Hamlet Program. Where they put people in concentration camp like homes."

In 1962 when Long came at a crossroads in his life. He arrived at the village of Karom (located in central Vietnam north of Phang Rang and south of Cam Ranh bay) that he questioned his involvement with the Americans. "I witnessed mass starvation in the countryside, tremendous suffering and I began to question myself about what the U.S. efforts in Vietnam really were." America had a policy of defoliating Vietnam's farmland in efforts to control where food could be grown and hence control its people. When Long arrived in Karom, military doctors had told him that two hundred villagers had died of hunger in the previous year and most in the village continued to live with diseases caused by hunger. Long immediately sent word to the U.S. Embassy of what was happening in Karom and asked for medical assistance. "The American Embassy said, 'Long you are crazy like hell, this is how we defeat the communists.'" The American government had difficulty discerning friendly Vietnamese from hostile Vietnamese, so the government had a policy of using strategic hamlets. The concept was simple: create Agrovilles where food could be grown and destroy food crops in places not controlled by American forces. America would win the war by starving out the other side.

The embassy did send medical doctors to Karom, but they said there was nothing they could do and they left. For the next month, Long used what money he had to buy food for the village and direct efforts to nurse the village back to full health. "People in Saigon were mad like hell and they said I was hired for making maps, I was not hired to become doctor. So I said if this is the way you look at it I resign. And I resigned." America's strategic hamlet policy in Vietnam in actuality created more enemies than friends.

Upon returning to Saigon, Long started organizing student demonstrations against the Diem regime. His CIA friends warned if he did not stop his anti-government activities he would be arrested. In 1963, he was asked to leave the country and in that year CIA officials assisted him in enrolling in a student exchange program which sent him to Joplin, Missouri for seven months. "While in Joplin Missouri, I spoke out frankly to the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, the newspapers about if the United States went to war in Vietnam it would be disastrous for the two countries." In June 1964, he returned to Vietnam. After the death of President Diem, there was a new constitution written in South Vietnam, which included an article stating that all Vietnamese should turn their property over to the military in order to defeat the communists. Long strongly opposed the new constitution and organized student demonstrations, "We burned copies of the constitution in the streets of Saigon."

In October 1964, a protest Long organized was broken up by Saigon police. "I was chased by the police and I ran into the house of an American general." He ran to the home of General Maxwell Taylor. General Taylor was not at home, but his wife was home and invited him not knowing he was running from the police on this particular occasion. She was quite comfortable speaking openly to Long and told him how disgusted she was with the current situation in Saigon. "She was complaining how the universities were shut down. How it was disgusting in the streets there was industry and economy. There was no industry going on. The economy was going to pot. The only industry in Saigon seemed to be the banner industry, student writing banners [of protest]." She asked him why he had not applied to attend college in the United States. Long told her he had been accepted to Harvard with a full scholarship, but the South Vietnamese government would not let him leave the country. Long's admittance to Harvard was extraordinary because at that time Harvard only admitted fifty foreign students yearly and had a policy of not accepting student from countries that were not English speaking; however, his application was quite unique and Harvard made an exception. General Taylor's wife was furious that Long was not being allowed to accept his scholarship to Harvard. "You are nice person and you work for us for many years. Harvard, no one can deny you the opportunity to go to Harvard. My grandfather tried to go to Harvard, couldn't go to Harvard. My whole family, many tried to go to Harvard for many generations, but we couldn't go there ever. And you have a full scholarship to Harvard and they [Vietnamese government] will not allow you to go?" She picked up the phone and called the wife of another American General and explained the situation. Three hours later, the phone rang. The American Embassy had arranged for Long to get him a visa and a one-way ticket to Boston.

On Columbus Day, October 14, 1964, Long arrived in Boston. "When I arrived at the airport, the stewardesses asked me to be the last person to get out, let other people get out first, I wondered why. Then I step out of the airplane and there on the tarmac was something like 30 or 40 reporters and photographers taking pictures of me like mad: "I became an instant celebrity.the next day my picture appeared in the Harvard Crimson, the Boston Globe, the Boston Monitor." In addition the Saigon Post and the Saigon Daily ran front-page stories about Long's admittance to Harvard. Reporters asked Long how he felt being the first Vietnamese at Harvard: "I was very honored and at the same time I was very worried. They said, 'Why are you worried?' I am worried that the United States will go to war in Vietnam very soon. And if that happens it will be detrimental to the interests of both countries." Long's frank comments caught the attention of distinguished faculty at Harvard: Howard Zinn, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Huntington; plus he also caught the eye of MIT's Noam Chomsky.

During Long's first year at Harvard, he began traveling on an anti-war lecture circuit with Zinn and Chomsky. Long was the only Vietnamese voice during the anti-war teach-ins and many referred to him jokingly as the "token Vietnamese." Long would always speak toward the end of the series of lectures because people always wanted to hear what a Vietnamese had to say about the war. According to Long, it was a way to keep people seated for the entire teach-in.

"A lot of people were very angry at me for telling the truth.a lot of people hated me for opposing the Vietnam War." Long's activities were not merely isolated to speaking at teach-ins. He also published his own newsletter Thoi-Bao Ga which he described as "the longest newsletter of the peace movement, it lasted for six years." Later in the early 1980s, he founded and oversaw the publication of an academic journal called Vietnam Quarterly now known as Critical Asian Studies.

Long became a permanent resident of the United States in 1976 and a citizen in 1991. "The most difficult period for me was not during the war years because I knew the war would end. The most difficult period was what happened after 1975. After 1975 Vietnam was becoming a socialist country, so anybody who was sympathetic with Vietnamese (i.e. the Vietnamese people) was red baited as Communist. The peace movement here in this country. So I became the focus of all the hatred and attacks. So for the next 20 years from 1975-1995 my life was hell. And especially I continued to talk about issues in Vietnam. The refugees. I was also part of the anti-nuclear movement. So as a Vietnamese you just become how do you say that. And then people in Vietnam, because I was critical of the development in Vietnam, you know and different policies. And people in Vietnam accused me of being a CIA agent." He was banned from returning to Vietnam until 1979. In 1981, there was an attempt on his life. After speaking on a panel discussion at Harvard, a 28-year-old Vietnamese-American narrowly missed hitting Long with a gasoline bomb. The bomb did not explode but slightly injured two police officers that were escorting Long; the man who threw the bomb was arrested.

"That's the price you have to pay when you want to be useful. As an intellectual or as a specialist. You have to speak out your mind you have to be at the forefront. But when you are at the forefront you get shot in the back."

He is currently a history professor at the University of Maine.

Chris Norlund is a survivor of the Operation Babylift plane crash--a C5-A Galaxy Air Force cargo plane. Operation Babylift was a series of military airlifts, which brought approximately 2,000 Vietnamese orphans to the United States during the final evacuation of Saigon in 1975. In 2002, Chris was medically discharged from OCS after undergoing major surgery. He is currently a graduate student at Brown University.