The Government of Free Vietnam Is No Republic for Old Men

From Garden Grove, the organization tried to bring down its former country's Communist regime. Instead, it gave American diplomats a giant headache

The Government of Free Vietnam Is No Republic for Old Men
Illustration: Jared Boggess | Design: Dustin Ames

According to the Government of Free Vietnam (GFVN), the morning of May 1, 1998, began with a hike and gunfire. Hundreds of freedom fighters from Vietnam and beyond gathered at a compound near the Cambodia-Thailand border for a three-day conference. The GFVN members had hoped to do something they had dreamed of since the fall of Saigon.

"I answered with the truth because I have nothing to hide. I am a freedom fighter for my country, and I am ready to face any retribution, even if I will die."

"The group had just reached the bottom of the third mountainside when an explosion was heard," reads the GFVN's account of the morning, published in its official handbook, printed by the thousands and distributed worldwide. "A grenade was thrown from atop a high mountaintop, hitting the lower edge of the flagpole in front of the conference location. Next, a military invasion [by Cambodian soldiers] from the Cambodian territory, who had hid atop the mountaintops [unleashed a] downpour [of] shootings with AK-47s, B-40s and additional tens of grenades. . . . Comrade Nguyen Huu Chanh was present at the scene and calmly arranged for all [GFVN members] to face the current situation without panic as death neared only inches away."

Then, the group says, the Thai military intervened, engaging the Cambodians. Pinned between the two sides, the group fled into Thailand, where it was easily captured by the military. The account concludes, "After the lives of 84 freedom fighters were safely guaranteed, Mr. General Secretary [Chanh] returned to Bangkok in the early morning of May 2, 1998, with overseas delegates to continue the second segment of the conference as scheduled."

Nguyen Huu Chanh: Labeled a “Terrorist” by the Vietnamese government
Riley Kern
Nguyen Huu Chanh: Labeled a “Terrorist” by the Vietnamese government
Nguyen Huu Chanh and delegates
Courtesy Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries / Government of Free Vietnam Publicity and Organizational Materials collection (MS-SEA009)
Nguyen Huu Chanh and delegates

Or so the GFVN say. No independent account of the attack was ever reported, nor did the Thai, Cambodian or Vietnamese governments ever confirm the skirmish. But the attack, imagined or not, couldn't have come at a worse time. Just three years earlier, relations between the United States and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam had finally begun to normalize. In 1994, the United States lifted its trade embargo on Vietnam; in February 1995, President Bill Clinton announced the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries after 20 years of severed ties. By that August, both countries had opened embassies in the other, and the U.S. had sent its first diplomatic mission to Vietnam in more than two decades.

While official relations between the two countries warmed, the relationship between Vietnamese Americans and their former fatherland remained as icy as ever. Though the Socialist Republic of Vietnam began to allow Americans—Vietnamese Americans included—back into the country in 1991, anti-communist fervor remained (and, to an extent, remains) high in the diaspora, and Clinton's move was met with muted anger. In Little Saigon, protests were organized following the announcement, and Vietnamese American community leaders sent letters to the White House and to members of Congress concerning their disapproval, knowing full well their opinions meant little compared to possible profits.

A flurry of anti-communist organizations—with names such as the Viet Tan and the Vietnamese Constitutional Monarchist League—popped up, joining others formed following the defeat of South Vietnam. The largest would become the GFVN, known in Vietnamese as Chính Phu Lâm Thoi Viet Nam Tu Do. Founded on April 30, 1995—the 20-year anniversary of the fall of Saigon—the group defined as its goal "[to] dismantle the Communist dictatorship of the Social Republic of Vietnam by a peaceful, practical and persistent approach."

At its beginning, the GFVN counted former South Vietnamese soldiers, politicians and refugees, as well as some American Vietnam War veterans, among its members. It funded leaflet distributions, radio hijackings, and—according to the government of Vietnam—bombing and arson attacks, all in an effort to overthrow the Reds. With Chanh—who had spent time in the South Vietnamese jungles and appeared in propaganda materials as a dark-haired and fiery man dressed in equally dark suits—as its head, the GFVN became Vietnam's bane, labeled terrorists and even that well-worn cliché: Public Enemy No. 1. While the organization's stated goals were peaceful, its actions drew government scrutiny, ultimately leading to arrests, deportations, and FBI and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigations.

But did it deserve all this attention? The GFVN's dispatches and writings about itself would fit well in a Graham Greene novel, with descriptions of coordinating movements and attacks from remote jungles written with militaristic flourish. Yet the group's claims to have trained more than 100,000 supporters at KC-702, a hidden camp in the Indochina frontier, where part of the above account takes place, seem dubious at best. After all, its base of command was not somewhere deep in the Mekong Delta, but rather an office building on the fringes of Little Saigon off Brookhurst Street in Garden Grove, the city the organization always called home.

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There was a time when Nguyen Huu Chanh would openly—and proudly—discuss bombings.

"Ask Nguyen Huu Chanh about bombs, and for a second, a smile flickers across his face," wrote Kay Johnson for a 2001 TIME magazine article. "In fact, bombings are one of [his] favorite topics—and hobbies. . . . He readily describes the bombs his supporters threw at the Vietnamese embassies in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, and the one they claim to have planted in Hanoi's airport. Chanh's favorite subject, however, is the destruction yet to come.

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