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Street Cred: Dauntless Antiwar Icon Nguyen Thai Binh and His Tragic Death

If one were to see the streets of Vietnam as a tangled network of people whose names they took, every city would resemble a messy collection of historical fragments.

Saigon's streets occasionally remind one that to ride around a city is also to move within a nation's history, to engage with a geographical past and glide through the events of collective memory. In Saigon, the Trung sisters, Vo Thi Sau, Pham Ngoc Thach and Suong Nguyet Anh all take residence at a certain location perceived to be part of modern-day Vietnam. The history behind the namesake of Nguyen Thai Binh streets in District 1 and Tan Binh District, however, takes place on a whole different continent.

Born in Can Giuoc, Long An Province in 1948 to Le Thi Anh and Nguyen Van Hai, Nguyen Thai Binh had eight siblings and moved to Saigon after finishing primary school to attend secondary school at Petrus Ky, today's Le Hong Phong High School For The Gifted. In March 1968, not long after the Tet Offensive began, Binh got a scholarship from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to go to the US for his undergraduate studies at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Vietnamese Students' Revolts

Established in 1961 by John F. Kennedy and a successor of the Development Loan Fund and the International Cooperation Administration, USAID oversees all American aid programs, including technical, economic and military training, in foreign countries, including Vietnam. USAID’s main role during the American War, according to a report from the agency, was to aid US counterinsurgency efforts and later the Vietnamization policy while developing a nation-building program in the country.

Besides military training and economic assistance, the agency also sponsors grants and scholarships. According to Ngo Thanh Nhan, who received a scholarship at the same time as Binh and is now a professor at New York University, there were several USAID student groups who came for different purposes and lengths of time.

The first group (USAID Group I) mostly included personnel from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, although there were some exceptions. Binh and Nhan were part of USAID Group II whose members were selected based on exemplary academic achievement and involvement in extracurricular activities. Binh studied at the University of Washington's Department of Fisheries.

According to an article on the experience of Vietnamese students in the US published in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars in 1971, Ngo Vinh Long notes that when one accepted a USAID scholarship, there was an obligation that lasted from about five to ten years requiring the student to work in positions sponsored by the American government after they graduate. On top of these requirements, Vietnamese studying at American universities received very limited academic freedom or freedom of speech, as they were subject to deportation if they expressed opinions that were deemed against the “national interest.”

This particular circumstance didn’t stop these students from expressing their voices against the war, Washington’s policies and the nature of USAID itself. Ngo Thanh Nhan notes in 'Many Bridges, One River: Organizing for Justice in Vietnamese American communities':

“By the time we got to the United States, we started to oppose the war, immediately after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. We participated in antiwar activities locally, and exchanged ideas through zines in Vietnamese.”

Nguyen Thai Binh was no exception. While he didn’t express political opinions while still in Saigon, Binh became more frustrated and anguished at what the American government was doing in Vietnam after his arrival in the US. In an open letter addressing his resistance, Binh wrote that during his time in the country, he had studied the damage the war was having on the people of Vietnam. In the summer of 1970, Binh took an opportunity to travel across southern Vietnam, and what he witnessed had strengthened his antiwar stance.

Nguyen Thai Binh. Photo via University of Washington.

On February 10, 1972, Binh participated in an antiwar protest with nine other Vietnamese students, a majority of whom were also on the USAID scholarship. The sit-in lasted for three hours, and every member of the group was later arrested on charges of criminal trespassing. In the following months, Binh gave a series of speeches in an auditorium, federal court, churches, halls and coffee houses.

A flyer for an event in February organized by Binh and friends and a list of Binh's activities from February to April in 1972. Photos via University of Washington.

In the process of learning more about the role of US imperialism, Binh had also realized the nature of the very program that had brought him to the country in the first place. On April 24 of the same year, Binh, together with 15 other Vietnamese, staged a "Vietnamese Invasion of Carbondale" at Southern Illinois University (SIU) to protest against the policies of Saigon and Washington, USAID and the Vietnam Studies Center at SIU. The establishment of the center was funded by USAID to provide consultant and training services to US corporations and government agencies, and offer technical assistance and support in postwar reconstruction projects.

SIU’s involvement in the war had become a controversial issue within Asian academic circles, such as the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS) and Association for Asian Studies (AAS), for its complicity in Washington’s neocolonial efforts and resemblance to the earlier Vietnam Advisory Group project at Michigan State University (MSU) when Diem was still in power. The MSU advisory helped build the then-puppet government police force and trained secret police for political policing.

Poster for the event. Photo replicated from the Douglas Allen article 'Universities and the Vietnam War: a Case Study of a Successful Struggle.'

Douglas Allen, a member of the CCAS, wrote in an article that, while resistance among academics helped shut down the center, it was this group of Vietnamese and local antiwar activists that played the most important role in making “the issues of neocolonial technical assistance and postwar reconstruction projects moot.” These Vietnamese include Nguyen Thai Binh, Le Anh Tu, Nguyen Huu An, Tran Khanh Tuyet, David Truong, Doan Hong Hai, Tran Vu Dung, Ngo Vinh Long, Vu Ngoc Con, Vu Quang Viet, Do Hoang Khanh and Nguyen Trieu Phu.

“The Vietnamese, most of whom were in the U.S. on AID scholarships, came at great personal risk; several were visited by immigration officials shortly before their trip to Carbondale,” writes Allen in 'Universities and the Vietnam War: a Case Study of a Successful Struggle.'

The event at Carbondale was led by Ngo Vinh Long, who was among the USAID Group I students and was a major Vietnamese anti-imperialist radical and activist. Both Long and Binh are the co-founders of Thoi Bao Ga, a monthly newsletter that published analysis, literature and essays on the peace movement. The Vietnam Studies Center at Carbondale ended up closing for three days during the sit-in.

Deportation, Death and Legacy

Binh planned future activism, though he was aware of the risks he was facing and even predicted his own death in four letters: one addressed to the “peace and justice-loving people in the world,” another to US President Richard Nixon, one to his friend Nguyen Huu An and the last to his family.

In June 10, 1972, Binh officially graduated from the University of Washington, Seattle with honors. At the ceremony, he turned his graduation into a one-man protest by handing out leaflets and attempting to grab the microphone to speak. On Binh's graduation gown, white tape spelled out “Blood Debts” and “US in Vietnam Immoral.” On the skull of his academic mortarboard, “Viet Nam” was written.

Nguyen Thai Binh at his graduation. Photo via Flickr user manhhai.

Three days before his graduation, the New York Times reported, Binh and three other USAID scholarship Vietnamese students received phone calls from the aid agency to inform them of the termination of their program under USAID sponsorship, and that their tickets to return to Vietnam were available. The students included Nguyen Tang Huyen from the University of California, Berkeley and Nguyen Huu An and Vu Ngoc Con from the Northrop Institute of Technology. Vu Ngoc Con and Nguyen Huu An also participated in the Carbondale incident and all three students, including Huyen, were among those arrested at the consulate sit-in back in February. However, the students refused to go home, fearing that the Thieu-led government would prosecute and torture them for their views.

Binh’s visa was also revoked on that day and his flight home was scheduled for July 2, 1972 on Pan Am flight 841 departing from San Francisco for Saigon through stops in Honolulu, Guam and Manila. After the aircraft took off from Manila, Binh, carrying a knife and a package that he claimed contain bombs, took stewardess May Yuen hostage.

Through her, he passed a note to Captain Gene Vaughn demanding that the plane fly to Hanoi instead, where it would be shot down, according to the New York Times. When the captain didn’t comply, Binh passed up another note, this time written in his blood, emphasizing how serious he was about being taken to Hanoi. Vaughn then went to meet Binh after the plane touched down at Tan Son Nhut Airport. Binh threatened the captain with his “bombs,” which were later found to be two lemons. Vaughn had guessed that Binh was bluffing, so he told Binh to come closer and found an opportunity to grab him and pin him down, with the help of several passengers.

The captain then shouted “Kill that son of a bitch!” to a passenger on the plane who was believed to be an ex-cop flying to Saigon for a security guard position and had a gun. Binh was then shot five times while Vaughn held him by the throat, according to Vaughn’s statements. The captain then threw Binh’s body out of the plane.

A snippet of reports on Binh's death in the Bangor Daily News. Photo replicated from Bangor Daily News.

"A lot of time and effort has been spent on trying to prevent hijackings, but the only thing that will be effective is a mandatory death penalty, without any loopholes," said Vaughn at an event honoring him for killing the unarmed hijacker. The shooter, who was never publicly identified, even gave Vaughn the cartridge from the gun used to kill Binh as “souvenir,” and Vaughn showed it to reporters from the Bangor Daily News like it was a trophy.

May Yuen, the stewardess who was taken hostage, didn’t share this celebratory spirit. In an interview with the Bangor Daily News, she said she felt “sorry for him [Binh] because he ended in such a disastrous way” and that “he was very nice to me and he did not mean to do anything rough.”

“Binh's death hit the front pages of all major newspapers. The clips were a startling contrast to how his friends describe him. His college professors and friends knew Binh as a peace activist. He was the one always seen on campus carrying a 'Stop the War' sign. An honors student at the College of Fisheries, he wrote poetry, but he could also box and play soccer,” wrote Lily Eng in the Seattle Times in 1992.

A report by the Airport Security Committee was filed and led to a preliminary investigation by the local authorities. According to a Tuoi Tre article series investigating the files of the incident in the National Archive in Saigon, both reports from the Airport Security Committee and the police conclude that Binh didn't intend to blow up the plane, and further investigation should be conducted to determine whether it was illegal or just to apply deadly force in such a situation.


Report from the Airport Security Com (top) and the police report. Photos via Tuoi Tre.

However, the investigation mysteriously ended and the shooter immediately returned to the US and canceled his plans to work in Saigon. Though never publicly identified, according to the confidential documents that Tuoi Tre gathered, he was revealed to be William H. Mills, an ex-cop in California who was flying to Saigon to work for the Federal Electric Corporation.

The ambiguity surrounding the investigation also led Binh’s mother, Le Thi Anh, to write a letter to the US president, to no avail.

To read the letter in full, visit the University of Washington.

Among activists, Binh’s death led to anger and mourning. Ngo Thanh Nhan writes in 'Many Bridges, One River' that the assassination prompted the formation of the first leftist union of Vietnamese in the US: “As soon as we learned Nguyen Thai Binh was secretly extradited and later on killed on the tarmac of Tan Son Nhat airport, all the groups joined together to form the Union of Vietnamese in the United States.”

This group started out with 2,000 to 3,000 people, who were mostly from USAID group II, and were later joined by more members from more backgrounds and perspectives, such as the anti-colonial Vietnamese refugees who arrived in New York in the 1940s as French “coolies” during the World War II, as well as anti-war wives of GI and army trainees.

The union’s first joint action was a memorial for Binh, conducted with the help of the Black Panther Party in Oakland. From that point on, the group formed alliances with other activist groups in different communities, such as Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Iranians, Palestinians and Latinos.


Photo via 'Many Bridges, One River' (top) and the University of Washington (bottom).

Binh’s name was also taken to name the Thai Binh Brigade that marched in Nisei Week, an annual Japanese American cultural festival, to oppose Japan’s militarism and advocate for peace. One month after Binh’s death, the Thai Binh Brigade, along with the Van Troi Brigade, took to the streets where Nisei Week was held and burned the Rising Sun flag as a demonstration against militarism and Japanese corporations profiting from the war.

The brigades in Gidra, a revolutionary Asian-American newspaper-magazine. Photo via Densho Digital Collection.

In his letter to "the peace and justice loving people around the world," Binh writes:

Going home to stand in the line of the Vietnamese people in the struggle of national salvation, to take part in the resistance against the U.S. aggression, to confirm the justness of our cause, to dedicate to the freedom fighters of Vietnam, living and dead, to strengthen the confidence in the eluctable victory of our people, I direct Pan Am 841 to Hanoi.

I promise myself I shall not hurt any innocent person.

Street Cred is a Saigoneer series to tell the stories behind the historical figures and events after which many streets and public infrastructures in Vietnam are named.

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