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 next attack will be 'a very important target' inside Vietnam itself," the article continued, next quoting Chanh. "'Our bombs use an electronic system, a new design. And I control the code.'"

The interview was so unnerving that an unnamed TIME reporter approached U.S. Charge d'Affaires Robert C. Porter Jr. in November 2001 about its content. "A TIME magazine correspondent recently informed Charge on Nov. 19 that she recently interviewed both [GFVN's] Vo Van Duc and Nguyen Huu Chanh," reads a diplomatic cable from the Hanoi embassy declassified in 2006. "During the course of the interviews, both men reportedly discussed the objectives and methods of their organization. She indicated that if U.S. legal authorities were interested in listening to the tape of the interviews, they should contact the legal department of the magazine. (She admitted that she wasn't certain that access to the materials would be granted.)"

The cable concludes, "Please protect the source of this information."

The fund-raising pitch to the Vietnamese community
Courtesy Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries / Government of Free Vietnam Publicity and Organizational Materials collection (MS-SEA009)
The fund-raising pitch to the Vietnamese community

By then, the American government was trying to figure out the GFVN. Were they really as credible a terrorist threat as al-Qaeda, as the Vietnamese regime insisted, or was it really just a group of middle-aged men mixing Walter Mitty with Rambo?

The GFVN's pedigree, at least, was legitimate. Its roots were in previous resistance groups, and its senior leadership was dominated by former South Vietnam elite. Its first "Vice Prime Minister" was Linh Quang Vien, an American- and French-educated military officer who held senior positions in multiple governments in South Vietnam before rising to the rank of lieutenant general. The Minister of Justice would be Nguyen Huy Dau, a South Vietnamese ambassador who was a law professor and served as a senior judge in the Superior Court of Saigon. Assuming the title of Prime Minister was Nguyen Khanh, a South Vietnamese general and Head of State of the Republic of Vietnam from 1964 to 1965 after a bloodless military coup that overthrew a military junta put in place by a previous coup.

Leading the troops was Nguyen Huu Chanh. A civil engineer before the Vietnam War, GFVN documents say he became a member of a resistance group located in Central Vietnam. In 1982, the leader of that group, a man named Nguyen Hoang Dan (whom the government of Vietnam identifies as Chanh himself), sent Chanh overseas to build support for the overthrow of the communist regime. Eventually, he landed in Little Saigon, using it as a jumping-off point to travel the world, rallying the diaspora and eventually turning them on to the GFVN cause.

The group positioned itself as the organization most capable of taking back Vietnam. "A peaceful approach must always be the means to settle all conflicts and disputes, including the subversion of the current Communist government," reads the GFVN's mission statement. "All approaches must be nonviolent to avoid unnecessary bloodshed to the nation."

At its height, the GFVN claimed it collected more than $1 million per year in donations from Vietnamese Americans across the globe, and conferences held in Southern California always drew hundreds. But from the get-go, the GFVN ran into problems. Before the organization was even founded, Chanh had attempted to broker a deal with the Republic of Vanuatu to resettle 50,000 Vietnamese refugees stuck in camps across Southeast Asia and the Philippines; the plan ultimately fell through because of political turmoil in the island nation. On May 5, 1997, Chanh and Gary J. Pierce, a Studio City resident who was also the president and CEO of C.S.I. Ag., signed documents establishing an agreement to endorse a $500 million issuance of "bearer bonds" by the GFVN. Investors who purchased a minimum of $10,000 worth of bonds were promised an annual return of 5.5 percent in addition to double their original investment at the end of five years. As collateral, C.S.I. Ag. put up the company's supposed gold reserves in Chile, worth more than $20 billion by their estimates.

The bond sale was publicized on both the GFVN's website and its publications. In a letter to the Vietnamese community explaining the arrangement, Pierce wrote, "By this action, we add our support with all free nations of the world, in support for the Government of Free Vietnam's peaceful program to achieve Freedom, Democracy and the return of Human Rights to the nation of Vietnam." He even appeared in a self-produced "documentary" of the GFVN, interspersed between scenes of GFVN leaders and local politicians, including a young Curt Pringle, giving speeches about the goals of the organization. In the documentary (one of the few items the group ever produced in English), Pierce spoke about plans to purchase an island in Australia that would be renamed "Saigon Island" and serve as a home for the group. He even mentioned approaching the Australian government to open a consulate and eventually a full embassy.

However, on July 14, 1998, then-California Commissioner of Corporations Dale E. Bonner ordered the GFVN to stop offering the bonds. "While the department takes no position with regard to the politics or the viability of the organization, 'Government of Free Vietnam' is illegally soliciting investments in California," Bonner wrote in a statement released by the state. "Political and charitable fund-raising is perfectly proper, but not if the offerings are dressed up as investments and offered through the investment marketplace."

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