Open Access Senior Thesis
Bachelor of Arts
Tomás Summers Sandoval
© 2013 Evyn Lê Espiritu
Who was Colonel Hồ Ngọc Cẩn? He was born in Rạch Giá, Việt Nam in 1938; served in the South Vietnamese army—the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)—during the Second Indochina War; and was publicly executed by the Communist forces on August 14, 1975, after refusing to surrender. Beyond that, it depends whom you ask. To the current Communist government of Việt Nam, whose historical narrative of national unity against foreign invasion denies the legitimacy of South Vietnam, he is a political traitor. To the American state, who conceptualizes the Vietnam War as a struggle between the U.S. and the Communists, he is a forgotten subject. To patriotic South Vietnamese veterans in the diaspora, who push back against these state imposed narratives of “organized forgetting,” he is hero. To Colonel Hồ Ngọc Cẩn’s family members, most of whom live in Việt Nam, he is a loved a one. To me, he is a grand-uncle. But I did not know of his fame—of his story—until I was twenty-one.
Researching Colonel Hồ Ngọc Cẩn, I grappled with the following questions: Who has the power to write history? How do stateless peoples archive their own history? What is the relationship between history and cultural memory? How is cultural memory embodied and enacted? How do cultural memory practices both challenge and constitute “official” history and nationalist discourse? What is the nature and use of a politics haunted by ghosts and oriented towards the past?
In the first body chapter, I draw from websites created by South Vietnamese veterans—what I call a “subaltern digital archive”—to recreate a biographical sketch of Colonel Hồ Ngọc Cẩn. This sketch is interwoven with a narration of the geopolitical context—the different events that were happening in the Asian Pacific during Colonel Hồ Ngọc Cẩn’s lifetime. I acknowledge that all of history is a construction—a process of editing and making sense of the past—and thus I construct a history that centers, rather than effaces, Colonel Hồ Ngọc Cẩn. The other two body chapters examine the cultural memory production surrounding Colonel Hồ Ngọc Cẩn. One chapter highlights the ways in which South Vietnamese Americans engage in cultural memory practices, carving out a space in the present for the ghost of Colonel Hồ Ngọc Cẩn. In these memory acts, Colonel Hồ Ngọc Cẩn becomes a symbol for the Republic of Vietnam—a way for veterans to resurrect the ghost of this now-defunct state. Although South Vietnamese Americans’ resistance to state imposed narratives is admirable, I acknowledge that not everyone has the privileged to be so vocal. Thus in the next chapter, I highlight the oral histories of Colonel Hồ Ngọc Cẩn’s family members, most of whom live in Việt Nam, and thus are not allowed to publicly commemorate their loved one. These are stories that exist only in the space of memory—that are absent from both official state histories as well as the online timelines created by South Vietnamese American veterans—timelines that focus of Colonel Hồ Ngọc Cẩn’s military valor. Instead, Colonel Hồ Ngọc Cẩn’s relatives offer an alternate version of heroism—a more feminine version of heroism that appreciates Colonel Cẩn’s virtues and domestic contributions as well as his masculine victories.
 Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 7.
Lê Espiritu, Evyn, "“Who was Colonel Hồ Ngọc Cẩn?”: Theorizing the Relationship between History and Cultural Memory" (2013). Pomona Senior Theses. 92.