The First Vietnamese in America

(JSTOR Daily): After English and Spanish, the third-most-spoken language in Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Arkansas, and Georgia is Vietnamese. Over 2 million people of Vietnamese descent live in the United States today. The generation that migrated here did so, by and large, after the end of the Vietnam War. There is, however, an older history of Vietnamese in America, people who came before 1945.

According to scholar Charles Keith, these earlier migrants “came from the most elite and the most marginal parts of Vietnamese society, and they left traces ranging from detailed travelogues to the barest administrative fragments.”

This letter is famous because that young cook’s helper is better known to history as Ho Chi Minh.
Keith writes that the “first documented presence of a Vietnamese in America” is in a 1912 letter from New York City. The author, Nguyễn Tất Thành, got to North America working in the kitchen of a French steamship. This letter is famous because that young cook’s helper is better known to history as Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969), the Vietnamese revolutionary who would go on to fight the Japanese, the French, and then the Americans and their allies.

The possible details of Ho’s life in America are hazy: he might have worked in Boston and Brooklyn, and he later said that he attended a rally by the famous Black nationalist Marcus Garvey. There is, however, no corroborating evidence to support these parts of his official biography. Keith writes that these later accounts, “inextricable from the charged politics and propaganda of the Vietnam War,” are “likely embellished or even fabricated as part of the communist efforts to cultivate political sympathy in the U.S.”

If so, then Ho and his image makers were probably incorporating the experiences of other Vietnamese in the U.S. into his story.

The First Vietnamese in America

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