United Front Vietnamese and the murder of refugees here and in Texas

The war back home

Negotiation with the communists was anathema to this crowd.
  • Negotiation with the communists was anathema to this crowd.
  • Image by Craig Carlson

They massed in the parking lot of the Lockheed building on Harbor Island one Saturday in mid-September, a disciplined group of Vietnamese refugees all wearing the brown shirt and tan slacks that constitute their uniform. There were about forty of them, representing a sizable portion of the local chapter of the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, and each one picked up a placard or a small Vietnamese flag and stepped into the two-column marching formation. The sun beat down harder as the morning gave way, and sweat beads formed on brows. The flag bearer, who would lead the group’s march across the Harbor Drive overpass to the airport, stood weaving as his large cloth flag picked up the hot breeze. He explained that the yellow fabric represented the color of his skin, and that the three narrow stripes of red running across the flag represented the blood he was willing to shed for his country. I remarked that such a large flag in a stiffening wind must be awfully heavy. “No,” he replied happily, puffing and sweating, “I like it.”

Of all the groups gathering this morning to march in protest of the downing of a commercial airliner by the Soviet Union, the United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam was the most prepared and the best organized. The Afghanistan Freedom Society; Alpha 66, which is a militant anti-Castro group; the Korean Association of San Diego; POMOST, a Polish resistance organization; and the Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative political club, were all rallying today to protest the Soviet outrage. Members of some unnamed squad carried signs that read, “Let’s Go To War Now!” and “I-ncinerate C-ommies B-y M-ass.” This was a rare opportunity for the Vietnamese group to demonstrate in public, and the seriousness with which they regarded this day showed itself in the vast number of placards they’d made (about half of which were unused), in the old patriotic songs they sang, in their willingness to stand in the heat for nearly an hour before the march began, and in their courage to remain unprotected and defiant as two Oriental men pulled up in a small blue car and methodically videotaped the two columns of freedom fighters. The driver’s eyes darted nervously as the cameraman moved his lens slowly up and down the lines of Vietnamese refugees, and when he’d shot everyone present, the car sped away toward downtown. I asked a few of the “cadres,” as the Front members refer to themselves, if they knew the two men in the car. Nobody did.

Dinh Thach Bich (left) 1953

Dinh Thach Bich (left) 1953

A few minutes later the procession of brown and tan and yellow and red moved in resolute silence across the Harbor Island viaduct and past the airport’s east terminal. In front of the Vietnamese columns were the Afghans and Cubans, and in front of those groups were the Koreans. Startled airport travelers stared and pointed, but mostly they preferred to ignore the marchers, particularly the Vietnamese. Americans are now enmeshing in new foreign conflicts and perhaps do not like to be forcibly reminded of old, failed adventures.

When the Vietnamese cadres arrived at the west terminal, they were told to stand some thirty paces back from the podium and microphone where the rally would be centered. The other groups and various anticommunists crowded in a clot in the shade closer to the speakers. The Vietnamese stood in the hot sun. An elderly couple in wheelchairs sat holding a sign on a tall, thin dowel that quivered steadily in the old man’s hand. The sign read, “San Diego Friends of Free China.’’ All three TV stations were there filming the chief Young American for Freedom, who spoke with the self-righteous intensity of the powerless. It was he who would later hold up a paper facsimile of the Russian flag while it was set afire. His face would register all the hatred generated by the chanting crowd.

Dinh Thach Bich today

Dinh Thach Bich today

A mustachioed Afghan took the microphone just as a big red Oldsmobile pulled away from the curb and eased past the silent Vietnamese. On its rear bumper was a sticker that read, “Welcome to California. Now go home.” "The Soviets are butchers!" yelled the Afghan, reading from a list of fourteen slogans that had been photocopied and passed to the crowd. “The Soviets are butchers!’’ answered the protesters They went down the list. Slogan number five: “The Soviets are murderers!’’ Slogan number eight: “Nuke Andropov!’’ Slogan number ten: “Send the commies to Siberia!’’ Finally, the Afghan called several choruses of “Down with the communists!’’ and then the speeches began.

San Diego City Councilman Bill Mitchell was there to recite the city's proclamation condemning this latest act of infamy, the Young Americans for Freedom read a letter to the president, a Korean pastor said a prayer. These kinds of events have become so ritualized throughout the world as to be almost interchangeable, but the fabric of this one was unraveled between the third round of sloganeering and the burning of the Russian flag. That’s to acknowledge Vietnam’s continued presence here. And the fact that Dr. Nhut represented zealous freedom fighters bent on liberating Vietnam from the communists (though most others in the crowd were probably unaware of that) added to the oddity of the man and his columns of uniformed cadres. It was if others in the crowd, in unspoken acknowledgement of frustration, knew that all they could do was yell some slogans for a while and then witness the eventual passing of this atrocity into the drizzle of yesterday; but the Vietnamese, they knew, were locked in a continuum that extended for thirty years in both directions, past and future. And mobs just aren’t interested in long-term endeavors. “Fourth, acquire the spirit of courage and sacrifice,’’ Dr. Nhut continued. “Standing up to contend with the evil is not only an act of courage but also an act of justice. No one will be safe if the Russian imperialists are allowed to be aggressive and belligerent. Let’s build up our moral and material strength in order to prevent any possible attack and support every negotiation with the communists.’’

The march back over to Harbor Island was uneventful but for one curious incident.

The march back over to Harbor Island was uneventful but for one curious incident.

That did it. Negotiation with the communists was anathema to this crowd, but as soon as Dr. Nhut stepped away, the Afghan grabbed the mike and started chanting again, and the red flag was brought out for torching, and nobody had the time or inclination to reflect upon what the diminutive Vietnamese man had just said. The TV cameras caught the fire footage and then the rally broke up.

The march back over to Harbor Island was uneventful but for one curious incident. The Vietnamese cadres were walking past a cluster of Marines sitting on duffel bags at the east terminal, and one of the few Vietnamese who wasn’t wearing the United Front’s uniform began calling to the American soldiers. Dr. Nhut had made sure I knew that his man was not a member of the Front. He’d introduced him to me as “an associate” of the Front. The man said he’d been a commando in the Vietnamese Special Forces during the war, and he showed me a small pin that signified his membership in a fraternal organization of his old unit members. As he marched along with the Front, he called to the Marines, “Hey man, let’s go back to Vietnam and take it from the communists, okay?” The soldiers sat impassively and glared at him. “Come on, man, let’s go win my country back!” When none of them responded, the man yelled, “Marines number one!” and he raised his fist to the sky.

The man yelled, “Marines number one!” and he raised his fist to the sky.

The man yelled, “Marines number one!” and he raised his fist to the sky.

When the United States lowered its collective fist and skulked away in defeat from what President Lyndon Johnson once called “that damn little pissant country,” the Vietnamese people were left with four choices: suffer the communists, join them, continue fighting them, or give up and try to start a new life somewhere else. A “where do you stand?” imperative continues to shape the lives of Vietnamese everywhere. Those who’ve become refugees and have elected to continue the fight share a common goal: to return someday to a free Vietnam, a democratic, capitalist nation. They are still at war, and the deep divisions and bitter rivalries that contributed to their defeat and forced exile still plague them. Some want to muster the Marines and go back there and mow down more reds; others believe the only way to win their country back is to persuade the homeland Vietnamese population to topple the government from within, using ideology and minimal force; still others see the only hope in enlisting the support of another superpower to overthrow the Soviet-backed regime. This camp is divided between those who still see the U.S. as the savior and those who want China’s backing. At this stage the freedom fighters’ common enemy is lack of unity, which is fueled by spying (those men who videotaped the United Front cadres?), the indifference of Americans (Welcome to California Now go home), and intractable disagreements on the proper approach (“Hey, Marine, let’s go take my country back!”). Their common ally is that improbable dream they have of finishing their lives where they began — at home in Vietnam.

The San Diego chapter of the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam was formed in November of 1982; Dr. Nhut was elected president at that time. Just how many members there are here is kept a secret, but Dr. Nhut says the monthly meetings attract more than one hundred people. By all accounts, the Front nationwide is the largest organized group of Vietnamese freedom fighters, with chapters established wherever there are groups of Vietnamese refugees. According to Dr. Nhut, the Front’s job is to recruit “cadres,” raise money, and campaign to “make people understand our just cause and help us liberate Vietnam.” Dr. Nhut, who is forty-five years old, with a determined, unyielding face (and who would not consent to be photographed for this article), was an ophthalmologist in South Vietnam when the communists took over. He was jailed for three years in a “re-education camp” in the city of Can Tho, south of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). His implacable hatred of the communists crystalized there. “First of all they tried to starve us,” he says, “by feeding us only rice, few vegetables, and no meat or fish.” When people died, Dr. Nhut says there was no effort made to contact their families, and that the corpses, when they were buried, were accordioned into tiny caskets because the shortage of wood precluded the luxury of full-length coffins. Many died during the forced labor — digging ditches, constructing buildings, removing mines from old mine fields. For this last job there were no electronic mine sweepers, says Dr. Nhut, and many prisoners were killed and maimed by exploding ordnance. “But because I’m a doctor, they spare me.”

Hoang Co Minh has returned to Southeast Asia to orchestrate the fight inside Vietnam.

Hoang Co Minh has returned to Southeast Asia to orchestrate the fight inside Vietnam.

He and his wife and children escaped on a boat in 1979 and arrived here in 1980. His wife has gotten a job as a research chemist, and Dr. Nhut has undergone the long testing process to gain a license to practice ophthalmology here but has yet to receive his credentials. For two years he looked over the various freedom fighter organizations before he joined the United Front, which he selected “because it’s based on self-sufficiency, self-trust, and direct action before talk.”

Self-sufficiency: Front members are asked to contribute as much money as they can on a regular basis. This is typically about $20 per month per member. No accurate financial figures are available because the Front is not chartered as a fundraising organization in any state; therefore there are no public records kept. Members accept it on faith that their money goes where the Front’s leaders say it goes. Self-trust: Spies for communist Vietnam are alleged to be continually trying to crack the Front in an effort to undermine its effectiveness. These spies are invariably described as Vietnamese communists and agents provocateur. A precautionary four-month probation period is required of every prospective Front member, in which time his or her background is thoroughly checked. When they are accepted as members, they’re required to pledge to the (old) South Vietnamese flag and to memorize the Front’s political program.

Loc Nguyen: “It’s my life’s duty,”

Loc Nguyen: “It’s my life’s duty,”

When Front members aren’t at work — most are reported to hold regular jobs — they are either meeting to organize local rallies or to send members to participate in rallies and demonstrations in other cities. They often get together to discuss the latest attacks on them by other resistance groups and to talk about recruitment of new members, which, aside from the raising of money and the development of support from American citizens, is the Front’s highest priority in this country. Though it’s impossible to determine how much support the group enjoys within the general refugee community, the nonmembers I spoke with corroborated the Front’s claim that most Vietnamese who are not members do support the Front in principle. To an outside observer, many of those nonmembers seem to be trying to keep an arm’s length away from the “Where do you stand?” crucible. They are without question anticommunist and would definitely cheer the downfall of the Vietnamese communist government, but they live in a world in which commitment to one faction means disavowal of all others, and in a culture at war, that’s dangerous. And besides, most refugees feel they’re already doing their bit for their country by sending back supplies and money to family members. This more or less defuses the Front’s argument that if you don’t do something for the Vietnamese left behind, then you are truly a deserter, as the communists say all refugees are.

So where does all this money go, and what is the Front’s program? The organization’s national leaders are Hoang Co Minh, whose title is chairman, and Pham Van Lieu, who is overseas commissioner. Both men have deep roots in the South Vietnamese military establishment. When the communists took over, Minh was an admiral in the navy who sailed to the Philippines to evade capture. Lieu was a former colonel in the army who also fled one step ahead of the Vietcong. Eventually Minh settled in Arlington, Virginia, where he took a job as a house painter in order to have the time to travel and work on his plans for liberating Vietnam, and Lieu settled in Sacramento. But now both men are constantly traveling, Lieu here and in other countries where refugees have settled, and Minh where the real battles are taking place — in Southeast Asia.

United Front communication cadre

United Front communication cadre

This is the direct action Dr. Nhut was talking about. Hoang Co Minh has returned to Southeast Asia to orchestrate the fight inside Vietnam. He has proclaimed himself commander-in-chief of all resistance forces, and he professes to have a 10,000- man army at his command in and near Vietnam. Minh himself operates from his base in Bangkok but is said to move surreptitiously through Laos and Cambodia, and maybe even Vietman itself. The money raised by the Front here and elsewhere is said to buy weapons, food, medicine, and influence in the jungles. And though the Front has distributed flyers soliciting money for (check the box) M-16s, grenades, and ammo, Minh and his political program claim to be carrying out “psychological warfare,” not military operations. “Before 1975 we paid too much attention to military victory, counting how many bodies we got today,” Minh told a group of reporters last summer when he visited Orange County, which has a very large Front chapter. “So now the strategy is based not on violence, but on winning people’s hearts.” Just exactly how this is being carried out remains vague. “Military victory is not our main goal,” explained Dr. Nhut as we sat amid cheery plasticity in the Del Taco near his home in Clairemont. “We want to set up a political uprising within Vietnam. We have a propaganda unit working inside Vietnam. According to Chairman Minh, we send small groups of armed propagandists into border villages, and they pose as farmers. Many of the villagers know, but they protect our people because they hate the Vietcong. They hate the communists, who confiscate their will, their property, and send their children to fight in Cambodia.” Dr. Nhut says that the Front’s soldiers are armed only for defensive purposes. “They’ve already had small military encounters on the patrol level. They’ve been attacked by Vietcong on the way to propaganda missions.” To bolster their propagandistic capabilities, the Front is said to be constructing a radio station in the jungle somewhere along the border of Vietnam. It’s supposed to be operating within a few months.

There’s no question that anticommunist insurgents are having an impact inside Vietnam today. Communist newspapers and broadcasts have referred to “counterrevolutionary” activities, spies, and anticommunist commandos working within the country. A senior Vietnamese communist official recently gave an unusually candid interview to a Polish newspaper (picked up by the New York Tinies)n which he said the existence of “more than a million people formerly closely connected” with the old regime “complicates the social situation.” A recent issue of the Vietnamese army journal listed the government’s enemies (as reported in the Washington Post) to include 480,000 former members of the South Vietnamese army, about 72,000 administrative personnel and police of the old Saigon regime, 3000 leaders and 450,000 members of disbanded political parties, about 400,000 Roman Catholics who make up almost fourteen percent of Ho Chi Minh City’s population, 60,000 Buddhist monks, and 480,000 Vietnamese-Chinese. The article did not mention the ongoing war between the government and several thousand Montagnards representing strongly independent hill tribes in the central highlands, nor did it speak directly of the 600,000 Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. But it did assert that “reactionaries” backed by the U.S. and China had helped “establish secret bases to launch a guerrilla war in remote areas and foment rebellions.” It went on to detail the discovery and capture of an enemy organization, among whose members were persons from “the ranks of state personnel working in an important place.” Hoang Co Minh has admitted to his followers that a large part of his armed band has been recruited from the huge pool of Vietnamese army deserters. Given the political complexity of the area, it is questionable whether all the forces opposing the communists have even heard of Hoang Co Minh, much less submitted to his leadership. (He claims to have united thirty-six different groups under his command.) So how credible is Minh? Can his claims be accepted uncritically? One man who has made quite a name for himself by raising such questions is San Diego journalist Dinh Thach Bich.

The flag of South Vietnam before  the fall

The flag of South Vietnam before the fall

It’s one thing for American State Department analysts to doubt Minh’s claims (they do), but it’s quite another matter when a fellow refugee and countryman disputes the Front’s facts in print. Bich is a former lawyer and one-time friend of Premier Nguyen Cao Ky, and since 1977 he’s been publishing and editing a Vietnamese magazine called Vietnam hai ngoai, which translates to Vietnamese Overseas. That also happens to be the name of Bich’s particular resistance group. Ever since the spring of 1982, when the United Front held its first series of widely publicized and heavily attended rallies in Washington, D.C., Houston, Dallas, Denver, San Jose, and Anaheim, Bich has relentlessly and virulently attacked the Front’s leaders, motives, and plans. “The Front cannot play any role in the liberation of Vietnam,” Bich says, “because that’s not their real goal. Their real goal is money.” Bich has expanded on this theme in his magazine, which he says now has an international circulation of 5000. “The leadership [of the Front] is not serious, but the followers are. They're being misled.” It’s just that kind of talk that may have brought law enforcement officials to Bich’s door last year, as he claims, inquiring as to whether he felt he needed protection. Refugees familiar with Bich, his writings, and the United Front do believe he’s in danger. Sitting in his East San Diego home/ office, amid a maelstrom of manuscripts, files, notes, magazines, and typesetting equipment, the fifty-year-old pamphleteer shrugged and pointed out, “I’ve always been in danger — here and in Saigon. If you want to do something you’ll be in danger.”

He keeps a photograph close by and he’s proud of it: about twenty men in the traditional black-pajama uniform of Vietnamese guerrillas stand and kneel, surrounded by jungle. A very young Dinh Thach Bich is pictured with this cadre of nationalists, with whom he fought both the French and Ho Chi Minh’s communists thirty years ago. He’s fought against his own countrymen before, and he knows what kind of fate lurks here for those falling out of favor with certain factions of Vietnamese anticommunists. Bich was well acquainted with Houston journalist Nguyen Dam Phong, who was gunned down a year ago last August outside his home. Phong’s friends in Texas accused the United Front of perpetrating the murder in retaliation for Phong’s repeated criticisms of the Front and its fund-raising activities. (Phong criticized many other groups also; he had many enemies.) When asked who he thinks committed the still-unsolved crime, Bich says he doesn’t know, but his speculation is that a Vietnamese gang did the job. English-speaking readers of his magazine say he’s suggested in print that this gang was put up to it by the United Front.

Persistent rumors of a connection between certain anticommunist freedom fighter organizations — not necessarily the Front — and vicious Vietnamese gangs are well known to local law enforcement departments. The most common illicit activity engaged in by Southern California’s Vietnamese gangs is the age-old protection/extortion racket. Vietnamese businesses are threatened with violence and forced to pay for “protection” by giving gang members goods, services, and/or money. What little information law enforcement officials have gleaned from the extorted parties here and in Orange County reveals that gang members sometimes use the pretense of needing money for the anticommunist organizations. It’s unknown whether this tactic is simply a ruse or whether some of the extorted money actually finds its way to the resistance groups. Here in San Diego, the gang linked to last winter’s murder of a young man at the Cafe Ngoc on El Cajon Boulevard has been rumored to be extorting money for some unnamed resistance group. Investigators in that case also heard of successful extortion based upon gang members’ threats to spread word within the Vietnamese community that a particular merchant is a communist. This is common throughout the nation and plays off the fervent and pervasive anticommunist feelings within the refugee culture. Being branded a communist isn't just grounds for ostracism; it can be fatal.

Another unsolved murder almost certainly committed by anticommunist Vietnamese occurred in July of 1981 in the tenderloin district of San Francisco. Twenty-seven-year-old Duong Trong Lam, who frequently printed communist tracts in his little newspaper and who was widely believed in the refugee community to be of communist persuasion, was killed by a single bullet to the heart. Two different groups claimed credit for the killing; one, the Anti-Communist Viets Organization, warned in its communique that . . those with Vietnam origin living abroad, who want to be the servants of the communist regime in Vietnam, should return to Vietnam to fulfill their crimes. They must stop taking advantage of freedom of the free world to lengthen the sufferings of Vietnamese people. ...” The other group claiming credit for the murder called itself the Vietnamese Organization for Communist Extermination.

Dinh Thach Bich could not be considered a communist by any measure, but his personal safety wasn’t bolstered by his affiliation with communist defector Truong Nhu Tang in 1981. Bich’s critics, many of them in the Front, mark that event as the downturn of his formerly very popular magazine, when many of the best Vietnamese writers stopped submitting material, and the circulation plummeted. (Bich says he has lost about thirty percent of his subscribers in the last couple of years.) Bich himself says his support of Tang has had nothing to do with the magazine’s decline. ‘‘The real problem is the economic conditions,” he explains. “Before, the refugees had more money from welfare and food stamps. Now they don’t have so much, so they can’t buy it. And there are a lot more free papers now.”

Truong Nhu Tang now lives in Paris. A former minister of justice in the Vietnamese communist regime, he has been a shadowy figure for decades. In the Sixties he was director of a state-owned sugar company in South Vietnam, and he was openly critical of the war. He came to be regarded as a communist, though that’s questionable, according to Bich, and was jailed by the South Vietnamese. He was later exchanged for an American colonel who’d been captured by the communists. Bich says the communists told Tang that since they’d saved his life, he’d have to work for them. Deep down, Bich doesn’t believe Tang was ever a sworn communist. But to many Vietnamese anticommunists he’s been a criminal since the war, and the ones I spoke with in San Diego give the impression that once a person becomes a communist, he’s always a communist.

Tang has been given access to the highest governmental forums in the world. He spoke in Washington before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and he gave the same message in Stockholm, Paris, and Peking: the best way to bring down the current communist regime in Vietnam is to enlist the support of China. “The only way to keep a superpower from dominating you,” explains Bich, “is to bring in one more superpower.” Bich reasons that, given the Soviets’ massive military and economic support of communist Vietnam, and China’s position along Vietnam’s northern border, help from the Chinese is free Vietnam’s best hope. But Bich is very clear about what kind of help is needed. “First we should organize and stand up by ourselves,” he says. “Then we should ask for China’s support, not her aid. Support and aid are different. Aid is food, weapons, medicine; we don’t need that. In a guerrilla war, you take the enemy’s food and weapons, everything is already there. I want support. What kind of support? Here’s what I say to China: ‘The Vietnamese overseas are stateless. The biggest support you could give would be to recognize us as a state. That would be all we need.’ We get freedom of movement through China, and diplomatic influence. That’s all we need.” (The Front dismisses Bich as naive. Members say China would love nothing more than to replace the Russian-backed communist regime with one under Chinese control.)

Like the United Front’s Hoang Co Minh, Bich believes the liberation has to be effected from the inside. The idea is for anticommunist sympathizers to get deeper and deeper into the political system, become a part of the government, and bring about its collapse. Bich says this could take thirty years. Front leaders think they’ll succeed within ten years. “This is where the Front is wrong,” he says. “They believe that with money they can gain influence, buy their way in, and cut short the process. The reason I denounce them is if people think now is the time for uprising, they’ll destroy the potential in the future. I want to save lives.”

At one time Bich, Hoang Co Minh, and Pham Van Lieu were closely associated leaders of Vietnamese Overseas, the resistance group from which Bich’s magazine draws its name. Bich says Minh and Lieu were kicked out of Vietnamese Overseas when they tried to take over the organization. Minh and Lieu have told other reporters that they left the organization voluntarily. One local Vietnamese journalist, who is not a member of any resistance group, who asked to remain anonymous, and who has also written about these events, told me he believes Minh and Lieu were in fact given the boot. They went on to organize the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, which now enjoys much popular success, and Bich gravitated to Truong Nhu Tang. Now Bich says he’s trying to “liberate” himself from his magazine in order to devote more time to traveling in service of Vietnamese Overseas.

The ongoing permutations of the various Vietnamese anticommunist groups are well-known within the refugee community. Not only is the gossip grapevine thriving, but there are numerous Vietnamese periodicals and newspapers that keep up with events in the growing resistance movement, and in many grocery stores frequented by refugees there are coffee cans on the counter along with entreaties to contribute spare change to the United Front. Many refugees are themselves bewildered by the conflicting names, strategies, and ideas of the freedom Fighter groups, but beneath that confusing surface a common yearning unites all the participants. “What they really want is some connection, some association with Vietnam,” explained a local Vietnamese college professor who asked that his name not be used. “The refugees want a social, personal, family connection with Vietnam, but the only outlet for that desire is this military and political connection. That’s all they have.” A less gentle way of looking at it — Bich’s way — is that most of the freedom fighters feel a profound guilt for having escaped and for enjoying relative luxury while their friends and family continue to suffer under the communists. They’re fighting as much for their own self-respect as for their lost country, their lost identity.

“It’s my life’s duty,” explained thirty-two-year-old Loc Nguyen when I asked him why he was a member of the United Front. “The people say they hate communists, but they can’t just do nothing but hate. They got to do something about it, they got to give money at least.” Loc left on a boat with his family in 1977, after spending eight months in a re-education camp. He’s a typical Front member in that he left Vietnam after 1975 and therefore came away with direct experience of the communist regime. Loc worked as a welder here at the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company for four years, and then a year ago he became a real estate agent at a Century 21 office near San Diego State. He drives a late-model Audi. “Compared to communism, NASSCO was heaven,” he quips, not really joking. He seems to have a permanently fixed smile on his broad, open face. “They talk about equal rights for all people in communist Vietnam,” he continues. “You know what equal rights mean there? It means both men and women have the equal right to work for the government for nothing. Everybody, even the children, want to leave Vietnam. If the light poles had feet, they’d get out too!”

Loc’s infectious enthusiasm has made him a natural leader in the Front. He was one of the six San Diego chapter cadres who flew back to Washington, D.C. last spring for a three-day conference at which United Front chairman Hoang Co Minh was present. It drew 6000 refugees from all over the world. ‘‘When I saw my leader, Hoang Co Minh, I just wanted to hug him,” bubbles Loc, who was describing the excitement Minh creates wherever he goes. ‘‘I’d have jumped in front of a bullet to save him.”

To the Front members, Minh is a national hero because he gave up the comforts of the U.S. and re-entered the underground war in Southeast Asia. “After 1975,” says Loc, “I didn’t trust the Vietnamese leaders anymore. They’d run away and left us. I don’t trust talk, I trust action. When I saw Minh return to fight inside Vietnam, I knew that guy was for me.” As for a timetable, Loc doesn’t think about it in terms of years, he thinks in decades. As he says, “It’s my life’s work.”

In the end, it isn't the factional differences or the arguments for and against certain guerrilla tactics or the dynamics of geopolitics that provide the avenue for an understanding of the Vietnamese resistance movement. It’s the timetable. For although the United Front’s political program reads like an immediate call to arms, the individual members consistently speak of the decades separating them from a free Vietnam. The resistance movement has provided them with a future more durable and satisfying than their adoptive one here in San Diego and elsewhere in the U.S., a vehicle for their hopes as a culture. And to thousands of them, it really doesn’t matter that Dinh Thach Bich may be correct in saying, “Yes, and they’ll die happily with those hopes.”

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