April 30, 1975, is a date seared into history. In Vietnam yesterday, the Communist government commemorated its final victory over the Americans with red flags and a festive parade in Ho Chi Minh City; Raul Castro, the brother of Cuban President Fidel Castro, was a guest of honor.
Half a world away, thousands of Vietnamese Americans, the ones who fled the city they knew as Saigon, gathered on the east lawn in front of the U.S. Capitol to grieve the day when the last U.S. helicopters loped away from Vietnam and Communist tanks smashed through the presidential palace gates. They vowed to keep fighting -- not with guns and rockets, but with words and political pressure.
Snow Tran, left, of Norcross, Ga., and Phuong Vy, 13, of Meriden, Conn., listen to speeches at the event.
(Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
Vietnam -- the country divided in half by the United Nations in 1954, the war that claimed more than 58,000 U.S. lives and those of at least 3 million Vietnamese -- still inflames.
More than 2,000 Vietnamese Americans had registered for the Vietnam Freedom March in Washington, which billed itself as the "biggest rally ever" to commemorate the day with emotional calls for democracy and an end to oppression for the relatives and friends they left behind.
"We are the voice of our people in Vietnam, because the dissidents have been muted, imprisoned and not allowed to speak their minds," said Chan Tran, an economist from California and one of the event organizers. "So this is a show of force . . . to send the message back home that their fight for freedom, dignity and human rights is backed up by the world."
Thirty years ago on April 30, the last U.S. helicopter lifted off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Within hours, tanks from the Communist People's Army of Vietnam, with barefoot soldiers jogging alongside, met no resistance as they barreled through the streets of the exotic city that had been known the world over for its Western ways, silky nightclubs and bustling street life.
Over the next few years, more than 1 million people, many of whom had worked for the Americans or fought the Communists in the North, crammed into small fishing boats and launched themselves out to sea or fled through Cambodia. They and their descendants now form the backbone of the Vietnamese American diaspora.
Many of the Vietnamese Americans who came to Washington for the march also spent several days lobbying their members of Congress to support the Fall of Freedom in Viet Nam Commemoration Act.
The legislation calls for the government of Vietnam to respect human rights, requests the immediate releases of all prisoners of conscience and pushes for democracy. Organizers also lobbied to keep Vietnam on the State Department's list of Countries of Particular Concern for violating religious rights.
"Why is it that an 85-year old Vietnamese monk . . . is under house arrest because he insists on running a Buddhist church independent of government control? How come a 37-year old internet activist . . . sits in jail for translating an article titled 'What is Democracy?' " march promoter Hoang Tu Duy wrote on the group's Web site.
The rally, the march to the Capitol, the "Thank you, America" slide show, the raising of the old flag of South Vietnam -- all of it, organizers said, is so people see Vietnam through their expatriot eyes.
In 1975, Roivan Cao, 57, was a soldier for the South. On April 30, his commanders told him to lay down his arms. "The war is over," they said. "Go home." Instead, the Communists put him in jail for five years. He escaped to the United States by boat. Yesterday, he came from Boston to remember that day and to try to shape the future of Vietnam.
"It's no good over there," he said as young girls in traditional flowing ao dai dress hoisted an enormous yellow flag with three red stripes and the crowd chanted, "Freedom! Freedom!"