A Growing Diversity, 1993–2017

In late April 1975, eight-year-old Anh (Joseph) Cao’s long and improbable odyssey to the halls of Congress began as North Vietnamese communists seized the southern capital city of Saigon.1

The trajectory of the soft-spoken, bookish Cao toward Capitol Hill stands out as one of the most remarkable in the modern era, even as it neatly encapsulated post-1965 Asian immigration patterns to the United States.

Congressional Gold Medal of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay3_1_Nisei-Soldiers_USMint.xml Nisei Soldiers of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Obverse © 2011 United States Mint In 2011 Japanese-American veterans received the Congressional Gold Medal for their valor during World War II. The medal included the motto of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, “Go for Broke.”
Still, the origins of Cao’s story were commonplace. For three decades, conflict and civil war enveloped his country. After the Vietnamese threw off the yoke of French colonialism following World War II, a doomed peace accord in 1954 removed the French military and partitioned Vietnam. The new government in South Vietnam aligned with Western world powers, while North Vietnam allied with communist states. Amid the Cold War, the U.S. backed successive Saigon regimes against communist insurgents before directly intervening in 1965. A massive ground and air war dragged on inconclusively for nearly a decade. More than 58,000 American troops were killed, and more than three million South and North Vietnamese perished.2 Public opposition in the United States eventually forced an end to the intervention.

America’s decision to withdraw from Vietnam shattered Joseph Cao’s family just as it did many thousands of others as communist forces soon swamped the ineffectual government and military in the South.

Just days before Saigon fell, Cao’s mother, Khang Thi Tran, spirited one of her daughters and two sons, including Anh, to a U.S. airfield. Along with their aunt, the three children were airlifted out and then transported to Guam. As three of more than 130,000 people who evacuated from Saigon and South Vietnam, Cao and his siblings joined the first of four waves of Vietnamese immigration to the United States that stretched into the mid-1990s.3

Family of Vietnamese Refugees/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay3_2_VietnamEvacuees_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Vietnamese refugees, including this family aboard the USS Hancock in 1975, fled their country in four waves from 1975 to the mid-1990s.
From Guam, the siblings’ paths diverged. The aunt kept one of the boys; the daughter traveled to Florida to live with an American foster family; and Anh went to live with a bachelor uncle in Goshen, Indiana. He entered the first grade and learned English from his classmates, delivered newspapers to earn money, and eventually relocated to Houston, Texas. Cao’s mother and several siblings remained behind in Vietnam, and for seven years, the communists imprisoned and tortured his father, My Quang Cao, a former officer in the South Vietnamese Army. Eventually, in the early 1990s, the family reunited in America.4

Joseph Cao’s story, however, was just beginning. After spending years preparing for the priesthood, he left the seminary and went to law school, believing that he could better serve the poor and disadvantaged as a public servant. He settled in New Orleans in a growing Vietnamese community, practiced law, and was drawn into politics as the city fought to recover from the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2008, running as a Republican for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from a city that Democrats dominated, Cao upended a nine-term incumbent, becoming the first Vietnamese American to win a seat in Congress. “It’s like the American Dream,” a neighbor and supporter observed.5

Cao’s story was inextricably linked with late 20th-century immigration. By 2010 Vietnamese Americans numbered 1.7 million and comprised the fourth largest group of Asians in the United States, behind only Chinese, Filipinos, and Indians. Nearly 84 percent of the group was foreign-born, well above the average of Asian Americans generally, and most were refugees who, like Cao, sought safety from political persecution and the ravages of war. They had settled largely in the West and the South in or near urban areas. While Vietnamese Americans had the lowest voter registration rates of the major Asian-American groups, Cao’s election marked a moment of ethnic pride and suggested the rising influence of Asian Americans.6

The story of the Vietnamese-American community, which grew from several hundred thousand in 1980, was but one piece of a larger mosaic of Asian immigration to the United States. Driven by Cold War conflicts in faraway places like Laos and Cambodia and made possible by the legacy of mid-1960s immigration reform, these trends profoundly affected the story of Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) in Congress.

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1Neely Tucker, “The Possible Dream: Louisiana’s Historic New Congressman Seems to Surprise Everyone but Himself,” 30 December 2008, Washington Post: C1.

2Fredrik Logevall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (New York: Random House, 2012): xv.

3Pew Research Center, “The Rise of Asian Americans” (4 April 2013): 7, 47–48, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/06/19/the-rise-of-asian-americans/ (accessed 1 August 2016).

4Tucker, “The Possible Dream”; “My Quang Cao, Father of U.S. Rep. Anh ‘Joseph’ Cao, Dies,” 21 October 2010, New Orleans Times-Picayune: n.p.

5Tucker, “The Possible Dream.”

6Pew Research Center, “The Rise of Asian Americans”: 47, 163.