|San Jose, CA 1987 — They no longer call the shots, but they still wish they could, those former generals and admirals of the defeated Republic of Vietnam. They meet regularly in the San Jose area to secretly map the political future of the Vietnamese, both here and in the homeland. Their meetings are private, and they prefer that they stay that way.|
|“We don’t look for publicity,” said Do Kien Nhieu, once a brigadier general, now a mail room supervisor in a Bay Area city hall. “Even the Vietnamese press does not write about us. No one in this office knows who I am.”Today a dozen of the generals live in the San Jose area selling insurance, investing in real estate and working at such diverse jobs as electronics technician, social worker and catering-truck driver. They live almost anonymously in two worlds, making a living in one and working behind the scenes to influence the future in the second.The defeated warriors in exile, once leaders of one of the best-equipped military forces in history, meet to discuss their future roles in two areas a world apart: Vietnam and California’s Republican Party.Nhieu was a general in the South Vietnamese army and the last mayor of Saigon, a post he held from 1968 until his escape on one of the last flights from the U.S. Embassy in 1975. Shortly after Nhieu left, Saigon ceased to exist when the victorious communists renamed it Ho Chi Minh City.For 12 years in Vietnam, from the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, the generals ran South Vietnam. Sixty-seven generals and admirals escaped from Communist Vietnam. A dozen did not get away. Their fate is uncertain.”A lot of them are in re-education camps. We don’t know what happened to them. They are our MIAs,” said Maj. Gen. Bui Dinh Dam, chairman of the San Jose-based Vietnamese National Military Academy Alumni Association.
Dam is a Santa Clara County social worker. He was one of President Diem’s favorite officers and later was in charge of mobilization in the Ministry of Defense.
While some of the generals insist that they meet strictly to socialize, their real purpose is clear in the name they have chosen for themselves: Dien Hong, the name of the assembly of elders that fought the Chinese during the centuries when they occupied Vietnam.
Nhieu, the last mayor of Saigon and now the secretary general of Dien Hong, is also coordinator of the Indochinese Republican League.
”We (the generals) have monthly meetings in San Jose,” Nhieu said. “We just sit together and talk together. It’s a social gathering.”
”We talk about the country (Vietnam),” said Lt. Gen. Hoang Xuan Lam, former commanding general of the northern provinces and the commander of the ill-fated invasion of Laos in 1971. When he first arrived in the United States, Lam sold insurance in Santa Clara. After his son was killed in an accident, he moved to Sacramento, where he still sells insurance.
”We’re not political yet,” Lam said. “We just stand together.”
But Dien Hong is more than just an occasional social gathering of old soldiers, acquaintances of the generals said.
Dr. Nguyen Ton Hoan, one-time deputy prime minister of the Republic of Vietnam and a resident of Mountain View, has worked with and against the generals in and out of Vietnam for more than 30 years. Hoan said topic A on the generals’ agenda is retaking Vietnam through political means.
Waiting for right person
”They study the issues and are ready to support someone serious,” Hoan said. Today Hoan operates the Mekong Restaurant in Mountain View and said he helps run a clandestine resistance movement in Vietnam.
But Hoan said he is not ready to discuss his role in the resistance.
”Serious people do not talk about their movement in Vietnam, only later when they have strength,” he said.
In this country, the Vietnamese who fled communism, sometimes at great risk, are staunchly Republican.
Nhut Ho, chairman of the League of Vietnamese American Voters in the United States, said an estimated 90 percent of the Vietnamese register with the Republican Party after earning their citizenship. He said there are about 7,000 Vietnamese registered voters in Santa Clara County.
Robert Walker, executive director of the Republican Central Committee of Santa Clara County, placed the percentage of Vietnamese registering as Republicans in Santa Clara County at 70 to 80 percent. Walker said the party welcomes the Vietnamese as “a potent new political force” that already is changing the political tone of some San Jose precincts.
Ho said most Vietnamese are more at home philosophically with Republicans.
Of like minds
”The Republicans are conservative and anti-communist. We are conservative and anti-communist,” said Ho, a San Jose insurance agent who said he was a high school teacher in Vietnam.
”They are involved in politics,” Ho said of the generals. “One goal is to liberate Vietnam. I have a lot of friends in that group.”
Dam, chairman of the national military academy alumni group, said life for the generals, most of whom have settled in the United States, has been difficult. ”It takes time to adjust to a new life. I had to go to San Jose State to get a degree so I could be a social worker.” He politely cut short a telephone interview, saying he had nothing more to say.
Most of the generals are publicity-shy, preferring to plan their strategy in private. None would allow his photograph to be published. They fear that a discussion of their efforts to once again influence Vietnamese affairs might spark unwanted debate, criticism or a backlash.
”They are the true cause of the loss of Vietnam,” said Hoan, the former civilian leader.
Members of Dien Hong refuse to discuss its purpose except to say that it is social.
”Our meetings are private. It is a private group,” insisted Lam, the northern provinces commander.
”I don’t know anything. I’m just a member,” said a tight- lipped Lt. Gen. Lam Quang Thi, who lives in Milpitas and said he works in real estate. Thi was the commandant of the Vietnamese National Military Academy, South Vietnam’s West Point, near the highland resort city of Dalat.
The generals, usually 30 to 35 at a meeting, sometimes gather at Hoan’s Mekong restaurant, said Col. Ngo The Linh, a Sunnyvale Realtor and former commander of a special operations intelligence unit. Linh is not a member of Dien Hong because he left Vietnam as a colonel, but he, like Hoan, still follows the ebb and flow of politics in the Vietnamese community.
”They keep ready,” Linh said of the generals. “If the situation changes they are ready to move.”
Meanwhile, Linh said, Nhieu and the other generals are a power bloc in the Vietnamese branch of the California Republican Party. Hoan said the Vietnamese Republicans are looking over prospective candidates to run next year in a state race.
Hoan, once head of South Vietnam’s rightist Dai Viet Party, is a veteran of Vietnamese politics and intrigue. In 1955 he was exiled to France after scheming to unseat President Diem. He opened a restaurant in Paris.
In 1964 he was summoned back to Vietnam by Gen. Nguyen Khanh to become prime minister. But the general changed his mind, took the prime minister’s job himself and appointed Hoan his deputy. Hoan felt betrayed and conspired to unseat Khanh. Once again, Hoan was banished, this time to the United States and Mountain View, where he opened a restaurant.
Hoan, a deceptively mild-looking medical doctor who no longer practices, continued to dabble long-distance in Saigon politics. In spring 1975, as communist forces moved on Saigon, Hoan offered his services as head of a coalition government. When Saigon fell he appealed to the U.S. government and the United Nations to establish a Vietnam-in-exile on a Pacific island.
Here’s what Stanley Karnow said of Hoan’s 1955 banishment in his book “Vietnam”: “Typically he opened a restaurant, meanwhile maneuvering from afar to influence events inside South Vietnam through a clandestine network of associates there.”
Thirty-two years and one more banishment later, Hoan is still at it as the generals mark time.
The Vietnamese generals and admirals in the United States run the spectrum from top-notch battle leaders to the corrupt and inefficient.
There are at least 11 generals in the Bay Area and two in the Sacramento area, Lam and Brig. Gen. Nguyen Van Chuc, who was a commander in the corps of engineers. Chuc ran a gas station near Sacramento for a short period but now spends his time traveling around the country as head of one of the three main resistance movements.
Dam is a social worker and Nhieu a mail room supervisor. Air force Chief Lt. Gen. Tran Van Minh, Dien Hong’s chairman; air force division commanders Brig. Gen. Huynh Ba Tinh, Brig. Gen. Nguyen Huu and Brig. Gen. Nguyen Van Luong; and artillery commander Maj. Gen. Bui Huu Nhon are electronics technicians in Silicon Valley. Lt. Gen. Nguyen Van Manh, former chief of the general staff, is retired. And the last navy chief of staff, Rear Adm. Diep Quang Thuy, runs a catering truck in San Jose.
Other generals in the area include Thi of Milpitas and Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khac Binh of San Mateo. In addition to running the military academy, Thi served as commander of I Corps, the northern provinces. Binh was commander of the national police and was a controversial figure because he was responsible for keeping thousands of political prisoners.
While the generals talk of a return home or a return to power, time ran out for at least one.
Maj. Gen. Nguyen Van Lanh, former deputy chief of air force operations, died in 1983 of cancer.