This July 4, I pledge allegiance. It took two wars to make me an American.

The date on my citizenship certificate has nothing to do with it.

View Comments

When did I, a daughter of Vietnam, become an American?

It wasn’t 1975, when our family fled the fall of Saigon and rebuilt in Phoenix. Not in 1982, the year on our U.S. citizenship certificates. It wasn’t when I married a punk-rock fan. Not even after we had kids and asked our parents to live with us in a bicultural, multigenerational household outside Washington, D.C.

What finally Americanized me was a vote I cast in July 2007.

Why did it take three decades? Wouldn’t a child of 9, even hardly speaking English, assimilate quickly in American schools? Isn’t that what immigrants fear, their children losing their language and heritage?

It’s true that teachers and classmates were so helpful, I progressed quickly from spelling everybody “evryparty” to acing report cards. Girls asked me to sleepovers. Neighborhood kids filled our yard. I fit in.

U.S. citizen

Until middle school. In a history class, the teacher asked us what contributed to how the Vietnam War ended. Cindy, one of my three besties, answered: So many Vietnamese left their country; they didn't stay to fight, so that was how their country was lost.

I was so hurt, I couldn't speak. How could she believe that? Where did she get that? What does she know about how or why my family escaped Saigon? What about how America spent tons of money to back the corrupt and dictatorial Thiem regime? But I shouldn't have been so shocked. Cindy must have learned her belief from her parents. And our group of friends didn't talk about it, so how could she really know who I was?

Answer: a political refugee. My family didn’t leisurely choose to leave Vietnam, debating when and where. We were not economic or tourist migrants. This was a matter of survival: Because Dad was a former South Vietnamese officer and an editor of an English-language weekly, if we stayed the incoming communist government would have sent him to “re-education” work camps, just as it did to my uncles who were taken prisoners at the front. The new regime would have punished Mom not only because of her husband but also for her siblings who served in the South Vietnamese military, who worked at the U.S. Embassy, who married American soldiers.

My parents and five children left with $20 U.S., a change of clothing for each of us and a plastic bag of family photos. We crammed with other families onto a U.S. military C-130 cargo plane that was shot at as we were taking off. From a refugee camp outside San Diego, a church sponsored us to Phoenix.

Thuan Le Elston's family in front of the refugee tent in 1975 at Camp Pendleton north of San Diego.
Their story was chronicled in the Scholastic News Trails edition of Jan. 13, 1976.

I’m tired of people assuming that I opposed the Vietnam War. My parents were born in the north, and when an international summit divided the country into communist North Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam in 1954, their families were among a million who left all they owned to flee south away from Ho Chi Minh’s troops — troops whom my dad once had idolized as nationalist boy and girl scouts.

Scouts honor no more. Escaping to America in ’75 was the second time my parents sacrificed the past to save their future. Second. Anything but communism.

Yes, the South Vietnamese government was corrupt, inept and repressive. But just because our country’s leaders betrayed and disgraced us, did we the people deserve to be abandoned after Washington’s politicians and policies failed to live up to America’s ideals and “exceptionalism”? Do we deserve to be called — as a U.S. military veteran does in Ken Burns’ new PBS series The Vietnam War — “the wrong side”?

I'm getting to that vote.

The incredible shrinking Rex Tillerson: Can the secretary of State reclaim his job?

July 12, 2007. It’s a Thursday, when USA TODAY’s Editorial Board, of which I’m a member, meets weekly to debate and vote on what our editorials say. On the table: After President Bush reports on how the troop surge was doing in Iraq, should America stay or go?

My journal recounting that morning:

7:30 a.m. — Wake up kids for swim team practice.

9:15 a.m. — Leave for work; cry on drive.

9:45 a.m. — Second-floor terrace, reread last chapter of Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History and our past editorials on Iraq.

11 a.m. — Editorial Board meeting, cast my vote to pressure for exit strategy: Just because war was poorly planned doesn’t mean exit has to be.

USA TODAY's editorial on July 13, 2007.

What was I thinking? Somewhere in Baghdad, there was a 9-year-old girl whose parents were agonizing over whether to stay or run. An orderly drawdown of U.S. forces would give her family a chance.

Why did I vote for U.S. forces to leave Iraq when I was against U.S. forces leaving Vietnam? Because I realized on that morning’s commute: I’m an American taxpayer now who prioritizes what’s best for my children and other children who live in America. I accepted that I understood those who had protested the Vietnam War. As a South Vietnamese, I was right. As Americans, so were they.

In Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel, "The Sympathizer," a character counsels, “You must claim America. … America will not give itself to you.”

I claim you. I married you, had kids with you, voted for you. We’ve changed, but we’re still in Iraq, and Afghanistan. Your quagmires now trump 2007, and many say you’re no longer their America. But my family has seen you at your worst and at your best. We’re not going anywhere. Sure, we’ve taken our kids to visit ancestral Vietnam, but America is home. This July 4, I pledge my allegiance. To our union.

Thuan Le Elston, a member of the USA TODAY Editorial Board, is author of "Rendezvous at the Altar: From Vietnam to Virginia." Follow her on Twitter: @thuanelston

View Comments