Following the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, Vietnamese émigrés have often heard of or read about the Vietnamese flag and national anthem. Among the information and opinions presented, some are inaccurate, while others are true but have generated confusion and anxiety. In writing this article, the author intends to present historical facts regarding the Vietnamese flag and national anthem and to refute allegations that may cause doubts and confusion among the Vietnamese people.
I. THE VIETNAMESE NATIONAL FLAG
A. THE EMERGENCE OF THE CONCEPT OF A NATIONAL FLAG IN THE HISTORY OF HUMANITY
The use of a piece of material or cloth with defined colors and shape to represent an individual, a leading clan, or a political community goes back thousands of years. In the violent skirmishes on the battlefields of ancient times, soldiers from opposing armies have used their flag as their rallying point and battle cry, often sacrificing their own lives to protect it. In the military history of all political communities, planting one’s own flag on enemy territory or stealing the enemy’s flag both constituted brilliant victories.
Prior to the French Revolution in 1789, however, most countries in the world were under the rule of monarchies, either despotic monarchies where the king alone held all the power and was the sole proprietor of the country, or feudal monarchies where below the king there were nobles who owned lands, with sometimes self governed towns administered by a group from the rich local bourgeoisie. A small number of political communities in those days were run as republics or citizen states. Under these types of regimes, the leadership powers were held by a few influential families. Whether completely independent or subject to a larger community, these political entities all had their own flag. Because these smaller communities were considered as the possession of a family or a small number of ruling families, however, their flags also belonged to these families.
The idea of a flag as a symbol for the entire country only appeared with the French Revolution of 1789  With this revolution, the country was no longer viewed as the possession of a family, but the possession of all the people living in the community. A corollary to this new concept is the notion of one national flag not as the symbol of the ruling family, but as the symbol of the entire nation. The French used the word drapeau national to designate this type of flag. The French concept was gradually accepted by other countries and English speaking nations have used the words national flag when referring to their flags. The French drapeau national and the English national flag were translated into quốc kỳ by the Vietnamese people.
The concrete execution of the first national flag in the world was France’s tricolor flag with blue, white, and red stripes arranged in that order. The design of the flag was the result of negotiations between the French royal family and the citizens of the city of Paris. The flag which had represented the French royal family for many dynasties used a white background with an embroidered gold lily. Even under the French monarchy, the city of Paris was governed autonomously and had its own flag represented by two blue and red stripes of equal size.
When the people of Paris revolted to demand governmental reform, they still accepted the monarchy. The French king at the time, Louis XVI, both weak and lacking resources, did not use military force to deal energetically with the revolutionary movement and acceded to the demands of the people of Paris. Subsequently, the two sides agreed to take the flag of the royal family and that of the city of Paris to create a symbol for France. The king was the national chief of state with Executive powers, so the white of the royal flag was placed in the center, with the two blue and red stripes of the Paris flag on either side to create a tricolor symbol. This symbol was gradually disseminated across the country, and in 1793, the National Convention officially voted to make the tricolor flag the national flag of France.
One must say that from an aesthetic viewpoint, the tricolor flag is beautiful. On the other hand, the French Revolution at the time used Liberté – Égalité – Fraternité, or Liberty – Equality – Brotherhood, as its slogans. The three colors of the French flag represented these three slogans: blue for Liberty, white for Equality, and red for Brotherhood. In addition to being attractive, the French flag is fully consistent with the common ideals of humanity, which is why the French people have embraced it enthusiastically and accepted it as their symbol.
Later on, many other Western countries influenced by the French Revolution also chose blue, white, and red for their flags, with slightly different explanations, but still using these three colors as symbols for the ideals of liberty, equality, and brotherhood as the foundation for free democratic societies.
B. THE FLAGS WHICH HAVE EMERGED IN VIETNAM AS NATIONAL FLAGS
- The First Appearance of a National Flag: Emperor Bảo Đại’s Spirit of the Dragon Flag (See picture at the end of this document)
In ancient Vietnam, as in all monarchies of the past, flags were used as symbols of the leaders. The banner of a general at the head of an army usually incorporated colors matching with the general’s astrological sign: white for those under the astrological sign of metal, green for those under the sign of wood, black for water, red for fire, and yellow for earth. The founder of each new dynasty selected the colors of its flag by relying on calculations from the Yin and Yang scholars who researched the rise and fall of the five basic elements (namely, metal, wood, water, fire, and earth) in the universe and aligned these elements in such a way as to bring prosperity to the dynasty. In addition to the dynastic flag, each emperor could have his own flag. However, these flags only represented the royal family. The concept of a national flag as a symbol of the Vietnamese people only appeared in our country when it fell under the yoke of the French imperialists.
Throughout most of the period under the French domination, however, the Vietnamese people still did not have a national flag. At the time, Southern Vietnam (called Cochinchina) was a French colony and had to use the tricolor flag of France. Northern Vietnam and Central Vietnam (known as Tonkin and Annam, respectively) in theory were territories of the Nguyễn dynasty. The Vietnamese emperors at the time had a flag that represented them, similar to the days when Vietnam was independent, but the flag was displayed only where the emperor resided, and not everywhere in the country, and of course, it did not have the character of a national flag. It was not until World War II that Emperor Bảo Đại established the first national flag.
At the time, the French had lost the war against the Germans and were weakened considerably. They lacked the military power to protect their distant colonies. Particularly in Indochina, the Japanese took advantage of the French weakness to invade the region, using it as a springboard to blockade Southern China and to attack Southeast Asia with the ultimate goal of conquering the entire Asian continent. The French government could not refuse Japan’s demands and the Governor General at the time, Admiral Decoux, was assigned the task of cooperating with the Japanese occupying army, while at the same time trying his best to protect France’s interests in Indochina. Aware that the imperialist policies of the French prior to World War II were unpopular with Vietnamese people from all social strata, Decoux implemented a two-pronged approach: on the one hand he suppressed harshly all revolutionary elements opposing the French, while on the other hand he appeased the Vietnamese people in general. Within the framework of the second component of his policy, Decoux advanced measures to enhance the prestige of the Indochinese monarchs. Bảo Đại took advantage of the situation to make some reforms and to issue an imperial order establishing the national flag of Vietnam. The flag called Cờ Long Tinh or Spirit of the Dragon Flag had a yellow background with a red stripe in the middle across the entire length of the flag. The width of the stripe was one-third the width of the flag. The Dragon Flag was used in the Vietnamese territory, that is Tonkin and Annam, since Cochinchina at the time was still a French colony and had to use the French tricolor flag.
2. The Second National Flag: The Fire Flag of the Trần Trọng Kim Government (See picture at the end of the document)
The French colonial government in Indochina was overthrown by the Japanese military on March 9, 1945. Two days later, Emperor Bảo Đại declared independence. The first independent government was established on April 17, 1945 with Trần Trọng Kim, a well respected scholar, as the head of the government. The country was renamed Ðế Quốc Việt Nam or Empire of Vietnam and according to the program of national renaissance proclaimed by the Trần Trọng Kim government on May 8, 1945 period, the chosen flag was called cờ quẻ Ly or Fire flag. This flag also had a yellow background, with a red symbol representing Fire or Sun in the center. Fire is one of the eight trigrams. It is symbolically represented by one solid line, one broken line below it, and another solid line at the bottom, with the length of the lines equal to the width of the flag.
In principle, the Fire flag was supposed to represent all Vietnam including each region of the country. In reality, however, the Japanese military authorities did not return Cochinchina to the Court of Huế. They finally did so on August 14, 1945, that is four days after Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces and ten days prior to Emperor Bảo Đại’s abdication. As a result, representatives of the Court of Huế never really held complete power over Vietnam and the Fire flag was not used.
From the time when the Japanese overthrew the French until the Việt Minh consolidated the Communist government in Vietnam, the entire territory did not have a national flag. The flag which was used as a rallying symbol for Vietnamese nationalists determined to fight for Vietnam’s independence at the time was the flag of the Advanced Guard Youth Organization (Thanh Niên Tiền Phong). This organization was established on April 21, 1945, after the Japanese had overthrown the French, to help in the rescue efforts for victims of bombings by the Allied Forces, and thereafter to assist the starving population in the North. The flag of the Advanced Guard Youth Organization had a yellow background, with a red star in the center. It could not be considered as a national flag, but because it mobilized young Vietnamese patriots rising up with sharp bamboo sticks to fight against the French Expeditionary Corps which had returned to reconquer Southern Vietnam, I feel it is my duty to mention it in this research paper about the flags that were used In Vietnam.
3. The Red Flag with a Yellow Star of the Vietnamese Communist (VC) Party
When they usurped power in Northern Vietnam in August 1945, the VC party, under the name of Việt Minh, used a red flag with a yellow star. This flag was used afterward in all the places they seized and, to this day, continues to be their national flag.
4. The Flag of the Republic of Cochinchina (See picture at the end of the document)
After it reconquered the large cities in Vietnam, the French government encouraged a movement of autonomy for Cochinchina. On March 26, 1946, it established the Republic of Cochinchina, République de Cochinchine in French, with its own national flag. This flag had a yellow background with five stripes across, similar to the current South Vietnamese flag, but instead of three red and two yellow stripes like our flag, it had three blue and two white stripes. From an aesthetic point of view, this flag was very unappealing. As a result, in satirical articles in the Vietnamese Torch (Ðuốc Việt) newspaper, the semi-official forum for the Chapter of the Nationalist Party of Greater Vietnam (Đại Việt Quốc Dân Đảng) in Southern Vietnam, I nicknamed it “malaria flag”.
5. Our National Flag Today (See picture at the end of the document)
Our current flag was designed by Lê Văn Đệ, a famous painter from the World War II era. It was selected by Former Emperor Bảo Đại among various drawings presented to him at a meeting in Hong Kong in 1948, which he attended with representatives from various political and religious organizations and other distinguished Vietnamese nationalist dignitaries. The flag has a yellow background with three red stripes interspersed with two yellow stripes, all of equal width across the middle, and with the five stripes together equal to one-third of the entire width of the flag. The yellow flag with three red stripes was used as the national flag for Vietnam when the temporary government of Vietnam was established on June 2, 1948 under the chairmanship of General Nguyễn Văn Xuân. It was used throughout the First and Second Republics of Vietnam and is still in use today.
C. THE MEANING OF THE FLAG USED AS A NATIONAL FLAG
Among the flags described above, the yellow flag with a red star cannot be considered a national flag, while the “malaria flag” of the Republic of Cochinchina was just the flag of a puppet government used only in part of Vietnam. Therefore, strictly speaking, there are only four flags: the Spirit of the Dragon flag, the Fire flag, the red flag with a yellow star of the VC party, and the yellow flag with three red stripes of the Vietnamese nationalists. When the latter flag appeared, some people referred to this group of flags as the four supernatural creatures: the Spirit of the Dragon Flag, of course, represents the dragon, the word Ly in the Quẻ Ly Flag or Fire Flag has the same sound as the word unicorn in Vietnamese, the VC flag corresponds to the tortoise since the star has five branches just like a turtle with its head and four legs sticking out, while our national flag is the phoenix because it has three parallel red stripes like the tail of the phoenix.
1. The Meaning and the Colors of the Four Flags Used as National Flags
It is worth noting that all four flags used as national flags for Vietnam used yellow and red. However, the colors of the VC flag with its red background and yellow star have a meaning completely different from the three flags of the Vietnamese nationalists.
a. The Meaning of the Red Flag with a Yellow Star of the VC Party
The flag of the Third International Communist Party had a red background with a yellow hammer and sickle. When the Russian Communist Army revolted and took over the government, it used a red star as its emblem. The Soviet national flag incorporated the insignia of the Party and of the Army and, therefore, also used a red background with a yellow hammer and sickle and a red star.
However, for the red star to stand out against the red background of the flag, the Soviet Communists had to use a yellow border around it. The VC used the Soviet flag as a model for their national flag. Since they still had to hide their communist identity, in 1945 they did not dare display the hammer and sickle on this national flag and used only the star to represent the communist army. Another difference with the Soviet flag is that the star that symbolizes the VC military power is yellow, not red with a yellow border.
We should not forget that two of the basic clauses in the statutes of the Third International Communist Party founded by Lenin require that individuals who take the oath to join this party must consider the Soviet Union as their first country of allegiance and must strictly obey orders from the Party’s leadership located in the Soviet Union. By adopting a red flag with a yellow star as their national flag, Hồ Chí Minh and the VC party expressed their desire that the Vietnamese military forces be an auxiliary force to the Soviet Army and, therefore of course, Communist Vietnam had to be a vassal of the Soviet Union.
This wish was fully realized following 1975. When the VC conquered South Vietnam, the U.S. had already withdrawn its military forces from Southeast Asia and was ready to shake hands with them.
Though Communist China is no longer an ally and even at times has led adversarial activities against the VC, there has been no significant military oppression from them. If the VC had remained neutral between Communist China and the Soviet Union, while at the same time appearing conciliatory toward the U.S., they might have been able to benefit from U.S. assistance for economic development and could have leaned on both the U.S. and the Soviet Union to neutralize the pressure from Communist China. Instead, the VC chose to side openly with the Soviet Union to provoke hostilities against the Chinese Communists and let the Soviet Union use Vietnam as a military base to fight Communist China, while at the same time threatening American military forces in the Pacific. All these facts clearly show that Communist Vietnam is a vassal of the Soviet Union and that the VC military forces are nothing but an auxiliary army of the Soviet Red Army.
While the facts described above only came to light later on, the intentions of the VC party were revealed from the time it chose the red flag with a yellow star as its national flag. Therefore, the red flag with a yellow star is the symbol of the party’s spiritual aspiration to be a Soviet vassal. It implies the Soviet Union’s right to interfere in Vietnam’s internal affairs. For those who believe that the Third International Communist Party was dissolved in 1943, and that, therefore, the Soviet Union no longer has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of its communist vassals, we have to remind them that when Mr. Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Soviet Union, justified Soviet intervention in the internal affairs of communist countries in Eastern Europe in the 1960s, he publicly stated before the world community the theory of limited sovereignty. According to this theory, a senior socialist country (i.e., the Soviet Union) has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of junior socialist countries (which of course include Vietnam) to protect the principles of socialism.
b. The Meaning of the Yellow and Red Colors in the National Flags of the Nationalist Groups
The yellow and red colors in the national flags of the nationalists have a completely different meaning.
According to some Vietnamese people, the two colors on the country’s national flags symbolize the yellow skin and red blood of the Vietnamese people. This notion may have been influenced somewhat by explaining the meaning of the half yellow and half red flag which the Nationalist Party of Vietnam (Việt Nam Quốc Dân Ðảng).used in the 1930 uprising at Yên Báy. This explanation, however, is not accurate for the Vietnamese national flags of the nationalist groups. These national flags in fact have a much deeper meaning, related to the worldview of the Vietnamese people.
In this worldview, there is a close relationship between the colors, orientations, and the five basic elements. Yellow belongs to the element of earth and holds the central position in the graphic representation of the five basic elements. As such, it symbolizes at the same time the territory and the power of the supreme leader as the sole proprietor over that territory. The rulers in ancient China considered themselves as sovereigns over the entire world. Therefore, they called themselves emperors above all kings and rulers of any country, and held the exclusive rights to wearing the color yellow. The kings of ancient Vietnam, who were in a weaker position against the rulers of China and did not want to be in constant war with China just over matters of status, resigned themselves to be vassals of the Chinese emperors with the title of kings. Unlike the kings of Korea who used the title of king in all circumstances and never dared to wear yellow clothing, the kings of Vietnam only used the title of king in their relations with China. For the Vietnamese people and other neighboring countries, they called themselves emperors. On the other hand, they wore yellow clothing just like the King in China. Thus, in the minds of the Vietnamese people going back thousands of years, yellow has always been the symbol of the intact sovereignty of the country, and complete independence with respect to China.
Likewise, in the worldview of ancient Vietnam and China, red belonged to the basic element of fire and pointed to the South. Therefore, the use of red as a symbol emphasizes the fact that our nation is located in the South, as opposed to China in the North. Along with the use of yellow, it speaks to the opinion of the Vietnamese people who see themselves as a sovereign nation on a par with China.
This opinion was clearly expressed by Nguyễn Trãi in the first section of the Bình Ngô Proclamation. Essentially, the meaning of the text is that: “Đại Việt our great nation is truly a civilized country. The borders and territories (of our country and of China) are distinct and the customs (of our people) in the South are also different from those (of the Chinese people) in the North. The Triệu, the Đinh, the Lý, and the Trần dynasties have built our country, (our kings, just like the Chinese kings of) the Han, the Tang, the Song, and the Yuan dynasties have ruled as emperors, with each nation sovereign in its own territory.”
In this proclamation, we should notice that Nguyễn Trãi considered the Triệu as a dynasty of Vietnam, though according to modern day historians, it was a dynasty established by the Chinese. That is because Triệu Đà was the first person to apply the principle of fealty towards China to avoid war, while inside the country he called himself emperor and, therefore, considered himself at the same level as the Chinese ruler.
Regardless of our opinion about the Triệu dynasty, the position of the Vietnamese people regarding the complete independence and absolute sovereignty over their country was stated clearly in the Bình Ngô Proclamation and was expressed unequivocally with the use of yellow and red in the national flags chosen by nationalist groups. Hence the yellow and red used in these national flags have a meaning completely different from the red flag with a yellow-star which the VC are using as their national flag. The yellow and red of the national flags created by the nationalist groups are based upon the Bình Ngô Proclamation, a document written by a Vietnamese patriot after our country was liberated from the Chinese yoke, and which demonstrates the spirit of independence of our nation.
By contrast, the red flag with a yellow star of the VC manifests a spirit of servility and dependence upon a foreign country. It is based upon the organizing principles of modern day international Communist clearly stated in the theory of limited sovereignty expounded by Soviet leader Brezhnev, and according to which the Soviet Union has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of socialist nations in order to protect socialist doctrine.
2. The Special Meaning of the Fire Flag and of the Yellow Flag with Three Red Stripes
Besides the general meaning of the colors as described above, the Fire flag and the yellow flag with three red stripes each have their own distinct and profound significance.
a. The Meaning of the Fire Flag
As mentioned earlier, Fire is one of the eight trigrams. Like the color red, it represents the South. In the worldview of ancient Vietnam and China, red symbolized the sun or fire. Likewise, the Fire trigram symbolizes the sun, fire, light, and energy, and from a social context, civilization.
On the flag of the Trần Trọng Kim government, the Fire trigram is represented by one red solid line, one red broken line, and one red solid line. Therefore, inside the Fire trigram, there appears against a yellow background two solid yellow horizontal lines and one vertical line also yellow connecting those two lines. In Chinese characters, this is the word Công, meaning work. This character is also found in words such as workman and handicraft to denote the worker and the job of transforming natural resources to sustain human life. Hence, beyond the meaning of brilliant civilization, the Fire trigram also stands for praising the diligence, dedication, and skills of the Vietnamese people in all sectors of industrial production.
b. The Meaning of the Yellow Flag with Three Red Stripes
- Political Meaning
The yellow background on the national flag symbolizes the country and the Vietnamese people in general, while the three red stripes represent the three geographical regions: Northern, Central, and Southern Vietnam. So, the three red stripes on the yellow background refer to the fact that Vietnam is composed of three regions and that the Vietnamese nation embodies people from all three regions.
Today, the unification of the Vietnamese territory and of its people is a fact that no one can refute. As a result, the Vietnamese people of today have no concept of the difficult struggle for unification in the 1940s, especially in Southern Vietnam. In the Vietnamese language, the word “kỳ”, as each of the three regions is referred to, means one part of the country, not a separate territory. The terms “Bắc Kỳ” and “Nam Kỳ”, Northern Region and Southern Region respectively, in fact were used by the Court of Huế at a time when Vietnam had not yet been invaded by the French to designate two regions of a unified country. After they invaded Vietnam, the French separated the Southern Region (Cochinchina) from the Vietnamese territory, and used the term Central Region (Annam) to designate the two portions of land North and South of the capital city of Huế. Cochinchina was under direct French rule as part of the French territory. The Northern and Central Regions (Tonkin and Annam, respectively) were considered to be territories of the Nguyễn dynasty under a French protectorate. In 1897 however, the French forced the king of Vietnam to cede his power of representation to a French Governor and, as a result, the French intervened in the administration of Tonkin more directly than in Annam.
In the French system of organization prior to World War II, the three regions of Vietnam were considered as three separate territories. After World War II, the French plan was to establish an Indochinese Federation with five countries including the three regions of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Among the five countries, Cochinchina was the territory that the French were most attached to and wanted to maintain dominion over because they had controlled it directly since 1867, in addition to that land being the most prosperous and fertile. Therefore, they were absolutely opposed to a unified Vietnam with all three regions. In March 1946, they established the Republic of Cochinchina. The minority of Vietnamese people who followed them at the time strongly rejected the concept of a unified Vietnam.
The extreme elements in this group considered the people from Northern Vietnam who resided in Southern Vietnam at the time as enemy and often brutalized and mistreated them. In raids or roadblocks set up to verify people’s identification papers, they would force them to say these three words “Tân Sỏn Nhứt” and would cruelly beat up those who did not pronounce them with the proper Southern accent.
After several years of fighting In Indochina, the French realized that they could not apply in Vietnam the system of governance within the framework that they had established. Because they needed the financial backing of the United States to deal with the VC, they had to accept the conditions of the United States that they recognize Vietnam’s independence. As a result, they met and negotiated with Former Emperor Bảo Đại. However, they only wanted Vietnam to enjoy a pro-forma independence while still holding real power. On the other hand, they did not accept Vietnam’s unification and tried by all means to keep Cochinchina under their direct control.
Fortunately, Nguyễn Tôn Hoàn had just returned from China with information about the situation and realized that only Former Emperor Bảo Đại could represent the Vietnamese nationalists in negotiations with the French. As a result, the Chapter of the Nationalist Party of Greater Vietnam in Southern Vietnam launched a movement demanding the implementation of the Bảo Đại solution with an independent and unified Vietnam. The French aggressively repressed this movement in Southern Vietnam. A number of my comrades, among them Dương Quang Tiếp (who later served in the Military and in the police as a colonel, and perished in a communist prison camp), were caught and cruelly beaten by the French for distributing propaganda leaflets demanding the implementation of the Bảo Đại solution.
Despite the support of the United States in the negotiations, Bảo Đại was not able to maintain a completely advantageous position against the French because at the time, Communist China was winning against the Republic of China and the VC were hoping to receive help from Communist China in the future. The French informed Bảo Đại that if they could not reach an agreement with him, they would negotiate with Hồ Chí Minh. Realizing that the timing was not in his favor, Bảo Đại had to give in to the French on the independence issue. That meant agreeing to let Vietnam be part of the French Union with a close relationship with France, but he was uncompromising in his demand that France recognize the unification of Vietnam. The French had to yield to him on this point.
The colonialists in Vietnam nevertheless refused to yield and offered a vigorous resistance right up to the time when the French agreed to merge Cochinchina with the territory of Vietnam. Because Cochinchina was considered a territory of France and since under the French legal system all decisions related to regulations of this land must have the consent of a local committee called the Territorial Assembly of Cochinchina (Assemblée Territoriale de Cochinchine), the French colonialists provided a large amount of money to buy out the French and Southern Vietnamese of French nationality who were elected to the Assembly so they would vote against the merger of Cochinchina with the territory of Vietnam. We knew of this plan and criticized it vehemently in two newspapers, The Vietnamese Torch and Youth (the official forum for an organization established under the name of National Security Youth Corps by the Southern Vietnam Chapter of the Nationalist Party of Greater Vietnam).
Our accusations made the French very angry. General Boyer de la Tour du Moulin, Commissioner of the Republic for Cochinchina at the time, invited a friend of mine, Đỗ Văn Năng, Leader of the National Security Youth Corps, to meet with him and said: ”Please remember that I am a Frenchman with the duty to protect the interests of France. The activities of your organization are detrimental to those interests. You must cease these activities or at the very least reduce them, otherwise I will have to act decisively. It will be with much regret if I have to do so, as I have always respected you and consider you to be a decent person”. Unruffled, Đỗ Văn Năng replied: “I thank you for your honesty with me, and I too feel I have the duty to be honest with you. Please understand that however much you love France, I love Vietnam just the same, and as determined as you are to protect the interests of France, I am just as determined to protect the interests of Vietnam.”
Following this incident, we continued our campaign denouncing the conspiracy mounted by the French colonialists in Southern Vietnam to sabotage the covenant between the French and Bảo Đại on the unification of Vietnam. On the other hand, Bảo Đại, who at the time was still in Europe, had made it be known that he would agree to return home and lead the government only if the reintegration of Cochinchina with the territory of Vietnam was specified unequivocally. In the end, the members of the Territorial Assembly of Cochinchina did not dare oppose completely the unification of Vietnam. They simply added to the voting resolution of April 23, 1949 ratifying the merger of Cochinchina with the territory of Vietnam another condition whereby if there was any change in the relationship between Vietnam and the French Union, Cochinchina would have the right to decide its own fate.
The French colonialists in Cochinchina really hated us for opposing them so forcefully on the issue of the unification of Vietnam. Consequently, they secretly conspired with collaborators from the VC and let one of them named La Văn Liếm kill Đỗ Văn Năng in Saigon in early 1950. In addition to him, surely there were many other Vietnamese from patriotic organizations who were murdered by the French over the struggle to unify Vietnam.
Hence, the people who came from Northern Vietnam and settled in the South prior to 1945 and the Southern Vietnamese who all believed in the unification of the country had to fight very hard, with some losing their lives for this policy. Therefore, the third red stripe on the national flag which represents Southern Vietnam was colored with the blood of many patriots, giving the yellow flag with the three red stripes a deep political meaning that many Vietnamese people today do not see.
Another decision made by Bảo Đại as Chief of State upon his return to the homeland in 1949 and which also had a significant political meaning few know about was the selection of Saigon as the capital. As heir to the Nguyễn dynasty, he very much wanted to establish the government of the unified Vietnam in Huế, the traditional capital city of his dynasty. An elderly and experienced revolutionary named Trần Văn Ân advised him, however, that if he chose Huế as the capital, the merging of Cochinchina with the territory of Vietnam would not be as clearly evident to the Vietnamese people and to foreigners, and the unification obtained with so much difficulty would not be stable. Placing the capital in Saigon so all official edicts promulgated throughout the entire country would originate from Southern Vietnam would unequivocally show and prove to everyone without any shadow of doubt the unified character of the Vietnamese nation from the southernmost tip of Cà Mau to the northernmost pass of Nam Quan. Bảo Đại agreed with Trần Văn Ân’s idea and decided to establish the unification government in Saigon, even though he did not like to be in Saigon because while the French government at the time agreed to give him the Residence of the High Commissioner in Hanoi, they kept the Residence of the High Commissioner in Saigon which was the Norodom Palace (later known as the Independence Palace). Consequently, in Saigon, the Residence of the Prime Minister of Vietnam was inferior in stature compared to the Residence of the French High Commissioner.
- Philosophical Meaning
From a philosophical perspective, among the eight trigrams the one with three unbroken lines, or quẻ Càn, represents the symbol for Heaven, king, father, and power. In modern days, as we live under a democratic regime, this trigram on our national flag can be used to symbolize the nation and the people of Vietnam, and the strength of all its inhabitants.
3. The Yellow Flag with Three Red Stripes and the Red Flag with a Yellow Star
a. Comparing the Two Flags from an Aesthetic Viewpoint
In general, if a flag has two colors, a dark one, and light one, and if there is too much of the dark color and it is used for the background while there is too little of the light color and it is used for the emblem, then the light color will be overpowered by the dark color and the flag will become gloomy. Conversely, if there is more of the light color and it is used for the background while there is less of the dark color and it is used for the emblem, then the emblem will stand out better against the light background and both colors will be bright. On the VC national flag, which has one small yellow star on a red background, the yellow of the star is overpowered by the darker red of the background, and therefore, only appears as a weak ray of light, so the entire flag looks very gloomy. By contrast, our national flag uses yellow for its background and three stripes in darker red which stand out clearly against this yellow background, so both colors are bright. Hence, from a strict aesthetic viewpoint, our national flag is much brighter and much more attractive than the VC national flag. This is no surprise. Our flag was designed by a famous painter, while the VC flag is nothing but a slavish imitation of the flag from an imperialist nation with murderous policies and with no concept of beauty.
b. Comparing the Two Flags from a Philosophical Viewpoint
Using the traditional philosophy of the Vietnamese people as a basis for judgment, our yellow flag with its three red stripes is also much more meaningful than the red flag with a yellow star. According to ancient beliefs in Vietnam, yellow belongs to the earth element and red belongs to the fire element, and because fire generates earth, the two colors fit very well together. By contrast, on the red flag with the yellow star, there is too much red and too little yellow, conjuring the image of a big fire or harsh sunlight burning and drying out a small piece of land. Meanwhile, on the yellow flag with three red stripes, the stripes are small like rays of sunshine beaming down on a vast expanse of land warming up that land and providing favorable conditions for rich vegetation.
This philosophical meaning described above is also in line with the nature of the political regimes of both sides. The communist regime is a tyrannical system that oppresses its citizens, denies all their fundamental rights, and inhibits all new ideas and initiatives thus impeding any growth and development. Under the control of the VC party, Vietnam has become an arid land lacking vitality and the Vietnamese society has fallen into extreme hunger and suffering. The nationalist regime embraces the notion of freedom, respects people’s basic rights, and encourages creative initiatives. Therefore, although the leaders on the nationalist side have committed grave offenses, and although the VC have caused many deaths and much destruction, the part of Vietnam’s territory under nationalist control is a land full of vitality and the Vietnamese people who live there have benefited from a relatively free and prosperous lifestyle.
D. THE ISSUE OF CHANGING FLAGS
1. Arguments in Favor of Rejecting the Yellow Flag with Three Red Stripes
After 1975, some people within the Vietnamese community abroad advocated rejecting the yellow flag with three red stripes. Among them were those who declared that it was the flag of defeat, while others believed it was the flag of a corrupt and rotten regime. Still others considered it to be the flag of Emperor Bảo Đại, the flag of Ngô Đình Diệm, or of Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, all three of them unworthy leaders in their minds.
2. General Perceptions around the World Regarding the National Flag
In reality, a country’s flag usually has a deep significance related to the culture and history of its people. Regardless of who chose the flag and how it was chosen, once it has been used as a national flag, it can no longer be identified with one individual, but rather, it must be viewed as belonging to all the people in the country. As such, the fate of a national flag cannot be tied to the fate of a leader, the strengths and weaknesses of a regime, or the success or failure of a struggle. In the history of the world, no one has ever advocated rejecting their national flag or changing it for any of the above reasons. Changing a national flag has only been an issue for a country when there are new political concepts completely different from the current fundamental concepts of the country’s regime.
As mentioned earlier, the first national flag used in the world was the tricolor flag of France. It is the result of a compromise between the King of France and the citizens of the city of Paris. Afterwards, Louis XVI opposed the Revolution and was executed, but the French revolutionary government kept the tricolor flag as its national flag.
When the legitimate kings of France returned to the throne, they used the royal white flag with the gold lily for the national flag, but this flag was only used from 1816 to 1830. With the Revolution of 1830, the Orleans dynasty was brought to power to replace the legitimate king and the tricolor flag became the national flag again.
The Orléans dynasty was overthrown in 1848. A number of leftist revolutionaries wanted to replace the tricolor national flag with a red flag, but following an impassioned speech by the famous poet Alphonse de Lamartine, the French decided to keep the tricolor flag. At the time, the French established the Second Republic. One problem, however, was that the first elected President of this republic was the grandson of Emperor Napoléon I. In May 1850, he took power in a coup d’état and ascended to the throne as Emperor Napoléon III. In 1870, following a disastrous war against the Germans which he lost, he was forced to abdicate.
The French National Assembly elected at the time included many royalists who wanted to reestablish the monarchy and enthrone Earl Chambord, the leader of legitimate royal descent since 1836. Unfortunately, Earl Chambord insisted that the tricolor flag be replaced by the white flag with the embroidered gold fleur-de-lys as the national flag. Even the most fervent royalists knew that the French people would never accede to such a demand and they tried to persuade him to abandon that idea. Marshal MacMahon, a royalist leader declared, “If we use the white flag instead of the tricolor flag then we will not need to pull the trigger for the gun to go off.” Because Earl Chambord persisted stubbornly in his rejection of the tricolor flag, in the end the royalist faction had to abandon its efforts to reestablish the monarchy.
During World War II, Marshal Pétain surrendered to the Germans while General De Gaulle escaped to England to call on the French to join the Résistance movement. At the time, there were two opposing French factions and both used the tricolor flag. To distinguish his group, General De Gaulle just added a Lorraine Cross made of two horizontal branches and one vertical branch on the flag as a symbol of his Free French Forces (FFF). After he liberated France, he did not look to replace the tricolor flag just because Marshal Pétain had used it when surrendering to Germany. Therefore, the tricolor flag is still the French national flag and the flag with the Lorraine cross is considered the flag of the FFF only.
In short, since 1789 in France there have been three basic political concepts represented by three different flags: the concept of hereditary monarchy represented by the white flag with the embroidered gold fleur-de-lys, the leftist revolutionary concept with the red flag, and the concept of free democracy with the tricolor flag. The tricolor flag symbolizes the common ideals of the majority of the French people and therefore was chosen as the national flag and all the attempts to change it have not succeeded.
3. The Duty of Vietnamese Nationalists Regarding the National Flag with a Yellow Background and Three Red Stripes
As Vietnamese people we are very fortunate to have such a beautiful and stately flag. You must see it fluttering against a bright blue sky to truly appreciate its majestic beauty. At the same time, this yellow flag with three red stripes has an exceptional philosophical and political meaning, much more so than the opposing red flag with a gold star. Since the Nation of Vietnam has been recognized as an independent state, the yellow flag with three red stripes has been known to many countries throughout the world. Within Vietnam, it has been a rallying symbol for millions of soldiers as well as civilians fighting for the freedom of the Vietnamese people. It has been draped over the coffins of hundreds of thousands of people who have died for their Vietnamese Homeland. As such, it is a sacred treasure for our people.
Currently, the national flag with the yellow background and three red stripes is no longer used officially within Vietnam, but all the Vietnamese people in the country know that it represents the symbol of the independence and freedom of our Nation, against the regime of tyrannical and inhumane communists who are enslaved to other foreign states. Outside of Vietnam, it is also recognized by foreigners as the symbol of anti-communist Vietnamese. No other symbol can replace the yellow flag with three red stripes in those respects. Therefore, the expression of respect for the national flag with the yellow background and three red stripes and its expansive display wherever there are Vietnamese people is a considerable contribution in the effort to liberate the country from the communist yoke.
The fact that a Vietnamese association uses as its own flag the national flag enhanced with the association’s own emblem is a useful thing for the struggle against the Communists. When the Alliance for Democracy in Vietnam (ADVN) applied that principle and added five blue five-branch stars to the yellow flag with three red stripes to create its own flag, a number of people criticized it arguing that it was disrespectful to the national flag. This, however, is not true. The combination of a symbol with the national flag as the emblem for an organization fighting for its Nation has been done by people in other countries. As mentioned earlier, when he established the FFF to oppose the Pétain government, General De Gaulle used a Lorraine Cross superimposed on the French national flag. Therefore, the fact that the flag of the ADVN is a national flag with five blue five-branch stars only implies that the ADVN is an organization of the Republic of Vietnam fighting under the Vietnamese national flag, and the five blue five-branch stars are only a way to distinguish the ADVN from other fighting organizations which share the same goal.
While Vietnam has not been liberated yet and the national flag has not been re-legitimized over the Vietnamese territory, the duty of Vietnamese expatriates is to use the flag wherever there are Vietnamese nationalists, especially in events and activities that are relevant to other non-Vietnamese people. On this matter, we must acknowledge the contribution of now deceased Colonel Ðỗ Ðăng Công, former Secretary General of the Vietnamese Chapter of the World Anti-Communist League (WACL). After 1975, following the capture of South Vietnam by the VC, the League’s organizing committee did not use the yellow flag with the three red stripes at their meetings. Using arguments that were logical, decisive, and emotional, however, Colonel Ðỗ Ðăng Công was able to change their minds and from then on, our national flag was solemnly displayed everywhere with those of other member nations of the WACL.
Additionally, many others have achieved equal success. When I came to Oregon State University (OSU) in Cornvallis on November 30, 1987 to present a lecture on Vietnam, I learned that the Vietnamese students at OSU had fought twice with the administration for the right to display the yellow flag with the three red stripes as the Vietnamese national flag, along with the flags of other countries. The Vietnamese Community in Canada had to fight with the City of Toronto to display the Vietnamese national flag in the center of town for one week around April 30 each year to commemorate the fall of South Vietnam. In Los Angeles, California, the Vietnamese Community was given permission to erect its own flag pole to hang the Vietnamese national flag permanently. In San José, California, the Vietnamese Community will erect a similar flag pole. In addition, during the Têt Festival, the Vietnamese national flag is displayed prominently for an entire week at the administrative building of Santa Barbara County, and of the cities of San José, and Milpitas.
There are perhaps other places around the world that we do not know of to record here, but where Vietnamese people have fought and succeeded in getting the yellow flag with the three red stripes to be accepted for display by the international community. As for the International Committee for a Free Vietnam (ICFVN), it, of course, formally recognizes this national flag. On December 4, 1986, when he organized the first public conference of the Committee, President Paul Vankerkhoven himself monitored the arrangement of the conference room. In that room, the national flag with the yellow background and three red stripes was displayed along with the flags of the nations from the European Community, and it was positioned in a place of honor next to the Belgian Flag which was the flag of the host nation. There is no doubt that in all public meetings of the ICFVN where flags will be hanging, our national flag will be displayed with those of other nations.
The fact that our national flag has gradually re-appeared around the world next to the flags of other nations is a proof that the struggle to liberate Vietnam from the Communist yoke is evolving in the right direction. Currently, this flag is the emblem rallying all Vietnamese nationalists: despite their differences of opinions, despite their mutual hostility, all Vietnamese nationalists must respect the national flag and if they all resolve to fight together or at least struggle along parallel paths then in a not too distant future, the flag with the yellow background and three red stripes will flutter over every roof in Vietnam from the southernmost tip of Cà Mau to the northernmost pass of Nam Quan.
 Note from the Translator: The first official flag of the United States was adopted on June 14, 1777. Other nations may have adopted flags prior to the French flag as well.
 Note from the Translator: A trigram is a three-line diagram. There are eight trigrams in the I Ching Book of Change. They represent the interaction between the yin and yang principles and the five basic elements. The eight trigrams stand for the sky, earth, thunder, wind, fire or sun, water, mountain, and marsh.
Professor Nguyễn Ngọc Huy