Today, many Vietnamese American refugees and later generations of their families will visit memorials to commemorate the day that changed their lives and home country forever, more than 40 years ago.
April 30, associated with the name “Black April,” marks the Fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, forcing many South Vietnamese people to flee to the U.S., where Little Saigon communities rose up in the following decades.
One of the largest Little Saigons appeared in Orange County, which includes the City of Westminster where current plans to build yet another war memorial in town have triggered a questioning about elected officials’ priorities.
Namely, the city faces a crisis on multiple fronts:
A substantial leadership vacuum plagues City Hall, where half of the department heads are temporary; the police department is weathering a barrage of likely-costly lawsuits by its own rank-and-file; and officials are teetering along a potential financial crisis in the next few years.
Meanwhile, the city’s existing memorial at Sid Goldstein Freedom Park is already a point of immense pride for local officials, residents, and veterans’ groups, some say.
Those pushing the project — led by Mayor Tri Ta — on the other hand argue the installation will enrich the community at no cost to taxpayers, even as he and others spend time fundraising for it.
In 1972, toward the end of the Vietnam War, one battle gave the people of South Vietnam some hope.
An offensive that year by the North Vietnamese forces, known now among the South Vietnamese as “Mua He Do Lua” or the “Red Fiery Summer,” culminated in the north’s defeat at the Citadel of Quang Tri, retaken by South Vietnamese troops that year.
The battle became symbolic for many reasons — a message to the world that South Vietnam still had some fight left and could hold its own with less help from the Americans, as U.S. involvement was coming to an end.
It’s a battle that some City Council members now want to memorialize, decades after South Vietnam’s eventual loss to the north.
Westminster has made history as the first city in the nation to see a Vietnamese American majority elected to its council. Ideas about the war, and the political ideologies driving it, have also reverberated throughout Westminster’s political scene to dramatic effect.
The City Council unanimously approved the planned Quang Tri memorial project in December of last year, set to be installed at Sid Goldstein Freedom Park while organizers are still raising funds to build it.
The installation will also feature a plaque dedicated to the Mayor and City Council, according to a staff report from last year.
“We have nothing against these monuments, the sacrifices of those who lived through these battles — but Sid Goldstein park should not be their place,” said Bob Harrison of the Vietnam Veterans of America group, at the City Council’s Dec. 9 meeting where the project was approved.
Harrison said the new Quang Tri installation would “dilute” the existing tribute at the park that local veterans helped bring about.
Some of those veterans have disagreed with the new plans.
Westminster Mayor Tri Ta has been seen as one of the main proponents for the Quang Tri memorial.
Ta, who responded to Voice of OC inquiries with a written statement, on the other hand says there’s much support for the memorial — which, after all, is sustained entirely through private donations and will come at no cost to the city.
“Given the significant historical value of this proposed monument, this project has received far and wide support from both American and Vietnamese veterans,” Ta said, as well as those from “veterans organizations, civic groups, Vietnamese-language media, and friends and family members of local Vietnamese communities throughout the US.”
In fact, he said, “the Foundation overseeing the development of this project has received donations from hundreds of donors from all over the US and also from Canada, Europe, and Australia.”
Indeed, the website for the memorial has kept a mostly up-to-date list about the project’s donors, which boasts numerous small and large donations from people in areas outside Orange County, such as Northern California, Washington, and Texas.
“The construction of this monument will be fully financed by private donors. It costs the city nothing and, in fact, will contribute to the cultural, historical, and economic richness of Westminster — home to the largest percentage of residents of Vietnamese descent outside of Vietnam,” Ta said in his written statement.
He added: “Community support for this monument has been tremendous in the relatively short period that it was proposed and the city is proud to give it a rightful home.”
Lan Quoc Nguyen, a local lawyer and political ally to Ta and his majority faction on the City Council, said the project would “highlight the bravery, endurance and sacrifices” of South Vietnam’s soldiers during the council’s Dec. 9 meeting where they approved the plans.
“Something often distorted by the mainstream media and school textbooks,” he said.
Among other things, the proposed installation will feature a circled insignia representing a map of Vietnam and color photo imprint of the now-iconic image of Army Republic of Vietnam soldiers raising the South Vietnamese flag on top of the Quang Tri Citadel.
The project is estimated to cost the organizers $125,000.
Crisis and Priorities
City Councilmember Tai Do, who has frequently clashed with Mayor Ta and members of Ta’s majority faction on the panel, said “the war memorial effort originates from the mayor, not from any particular veterans group.”
“It’s great you’re doing this and honoring these battles,” Harrison added, “but … how many more monuments are we going to build and take away from the essence of that original … memorial?”
Do questioned whether the memorial and Ta’s focus on it is merely an effort to “please voters … instead of working on developing the city and moving forward.”
Though Do was one of the council’s unanimous “Yes” votes on the project last December.
At a council meeting just days before this year’s anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, City Hall watchdog Terry Rains said “several … veteran groups are upset over the (memorial’s) planning and design … saying it was planned in secret without input from those who actually lived it (the war).”
“Many only learned about the project when they were asked to donate funds to build it, which didn’t go over well,” Rains said. “So Mayor Ta went to San Jose this past weekend to raise money for the project.”
Asked about this, Ta in another written statement wrote:
“Any of my official travel outside of Westminster, which is carefully considered and sparingly accepted, must be specific in purpose, short in duration and, most importantly, promote the good name and reputation of Westminster as an “All America” City.”
Westminster for the past few years has faced pressing issues that, without any substantial action by the council throughout that time, manifested into actual and numerous crises:
Half of City Hall’s department heads and leaders are temporary, with some unable to determine who exactly is steering the ship amidst a substantial leadership vacuum.
The city faces a potential fiscal calamity in the next few years, amid the expiration of a sales tax that kept the city budget somewhat above water for the past several years and uncertainty as to whether officials will — or should — put another one before voters.
And the police department continues to field a series of wrongdoing and corruption lawsuits by some of its officers, as well as one high-ranking administrator. Sworn depositions in those cases have been well underway.
Ta, asked about some of these issues, pointed out in his statement that the council appointed a new city manager, Marwan Youssef, less than three months ago.
Yet Youssef took the job because of the existing leadership vacuum. The position has long seen frequent turnover, and the council hired him after he had only served as the city’s Public Works Director.
“He is making quick work to fill in senior positions with capable staff members with whom he can work with as the city moves forward with its mission to serve the residents of Westminster,” Ta said.
On the coming financial crisis — which, unaddressed, staff say could bring about the near-elimination of entire city divisions and staff layoffs — Ta said the city “is prepared to deal with a budget that must be balanced while not overburdening the wallets of Westminster taxpayers.”
Before the sales tax expired, staff for about a year leading up had warned the council and asked them to take some type of action.
“Measure SS is only one puzzle in the city’s budget mosaic and its future will be thoroughly discussed when the city council conduct a comprehensive review of the city’s financial status and resources,” he said.
Ta disputes any notion the memorial project is controversial or taking up too much focus:
“The monument project … is actually a relatively small, non-controversial item out of several dozen items and projects the Westminster City Council has worked on just within the past four months.”