The trial of General Dang

From Saigon to Sacramento, a South Vietnamese general’s journey proves old soldiers don’t fade away, they stick together

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

In a south Sacramento assisted-living home, Lt. Gen. Quang Van Dang waits out the last moments of his life. He is ill, very ill, and has been for several years. Disease and old age have corroded the 78-year-old’s mental faculties; his eyes, though alert, have the look of a man held captive by his own body. Family members gather around, knowing this might be the last chance they ever get to speak with the general.

To the young girl sitting beside him in the room, he is simply Grandpa, but at one time, Lt. Gen. Quang Van Dang commanded the largest military force in the Republic of Vietnam. Later, he served as national security adviser to President Nguyen Van Thieu, working closely with U.S. officials who considered him a valuable American asset. Then came the fall of Saigon, in April 1975, and Dang’s world turned upside down.With the help of American officials, Dang escaped the chaos and was able to settle his wife and his seven children in the United States and in Montreal, where French-speaking Vietnamese can more readily assimilate. But after visiting one of his sons in Montreal in May 1975, Dang’s visa application to re-enter the country was rejected by the U.S. State Department.

No explanation was given, but at roughly the same time, Canadian and American news sources began alleging that Dang controlled the heroin trade in the Mekong Delta during the war and had secreted away millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts. Dang found himself branded an “undesirable alien” in Canada, the only thing preventing his deportation the certain death sentence awaiting him back home in communist-ruled Vietnam.

For the next 15 years, Dang washed dishes and worked odd jobs in Montreal to support his wife and two sons. Appeals to the State Department by family members in America and military officers who vouched for his character were ignored. The United States had apparently washed its hands of him.

When retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lt. Col. Dan Marvin offered to help him in 1988, the general couldn’t place the name at first. He’d known many American officers during the war. Marvin’s message was simple: The general had once saved his life and the life of his men in Vietnam. It only seemed right to return the favor.

Vietnam in 1965 was a country set to explode. In the more heavily populated south, the collapse of French colonialism had been followed by a succession of corrupt national governments; communist insurgents operating from safe havens in Cambodia had overrun the countryside. America’s arrival on the scene added more fuel to the fire. Caught in the middle, between colonialism and communism, were ordinary Vietnamese such as the 64,000 Buddhist Hoa Haos who lived in the An Phu District, on the Bassac River near the Cambodian border.

Capt. “Dangerous” Dan Marvin fell in love with the Hoa Haos immediately.

This isn’t precisely the same Dan Marvin who earlier this year notified SN&R that Gen. Dang was spending his final days in a south Sacramento rest home. This is Dan Marvin before he found God, when he was not only dangerous but lethal.

“I fell in love with An Phu just going up the Bassac River,” he recalls via telephone from his home in upstate New York. “The people on the banks were waving and smiling, and I remembered thinking I was going to earn those waves and smiles.”

In February 1966, the Viet Cong destroyed two-thirds of An Phu village, shelling the town from their safe haven on the Cambodian side of the border.

Photo Courtesy Of lt. col. dan marvin

Marvin was at the vanguard of the U.S. strategy to use special forces troops to win the “hearts and minds” of Vietnamese villagers. At An Phu, working with South Vietnamese Green Berets and Army of the Republic of Vietnam officers, he directed a force of 692 Hoa Hao “irregulars” to defend the village from the Viet Cong. The team’s medics provided much-needed health care to the villagers, none of whom owned an automobile, and army engineers helped develop local potable water systems and back up food and ammunition supplies.

His 12-member “A Team,” backed up by the Hoa Hao irregulars, conducted the first covert U.S. operations in Cambodia. When the Viet Cong attacked a village, Marvin and the Hoa Hao irregulars defended the villagers and routed the enemy. Casualties were heavy on both sides. He calls the Hoa Haos “the fiercest fighters I have ever known.”

“The VC were better armed and we never fought at less than 4-to-1 odds against us, and we always came out on top!” Marvin says. The Hoa Haos were simple people and they didn’t want what everybody else had. They just wanted peace. Anybody that tried to control their area they didn’t like.”

Bonded through bloodshed, Dangerous Dan was declared an honorary Hoa Hao. He’d won their hearts and minds.

But even before he landed in An Phu, he’d begun to sense a shift in U.S. war policy. Winning hearts and minds no longer seemed to be the goal. Particularly troublesome to him was President Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to deny the Viet Cong safe-haven status in Cambodia, where they could shell An Phu at will. Because his covert missions into Cambodia were illegal and would be officially denied if he were caught, he began mailing a weekly written record using Vietnamese postal channels to a friend back home in the States. If he got killed in Cambodia, he wanted someone to know why.

Marvin’s men depended on regular air drops at their camp just outside An Phu for supplies. Occasionally, new personnel would be flown in by helicopter. On the morning of June 10, 1966, a white Air America helicopter landed at the base. A short, stocky man, Walter Mackem, flashed his CIA identification card. He was carrying top-secret orders for a false flag operation. If Marvin accepted the assignment, Marvin and his Hoa Hao irregulars would cross the border, ambush and kill Cambodian Crown Prince Norodom Sihanouk and blame it on the Viet Cong.

Thrice decorated for valor in the Korean and Vietnam wars, the born-again Marvin unabashedly admitted by phone that he once thirsted for such missions. He told Mackem he would kill the prince on the condition that President Johnson revoke Cambodia’s safe-haven status. Marvin began training the 42 volunteer irregulars for the mission. Three days later, Mackem returned and asked if Marvin was ready to go. Marvin asked if the president had removed Cambodia’s safe-haven status. Mackem admitted that he hadn’t, so Marvin scrubbed the mission.

“You can’t fight the system, captain,” a furious Mackem said before boarding the helicopter. “You know you can’t win.”

For Marvin, as well as the United States, the prosecution of the war had reached its critical juncture. Winning hearts and minds was no longer the goal. Winning at all cost, including a massive influx of U.S. troops; wide-scale bombing of the entire country; and black ops such as the CIA’s Phoenix Program, which “disappeared” as many as 20,000 Vietnamese civilians; became the new modus operandi.

The shift in policy also corresponded with the war’s growing unpopularity at home. As U.S. casualties mounted, people, especially young people eligible for the military draft, took to the streets in mass protests. Eventually those protests would lead to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and the de facto loss of the war.

Lt. Gen. Quang Van Dang was the youngest general in the history of the Republic of Vietnam. He grew up in a small village in the Mekong Delta, where this photo was taken in 1966.

Photo Courtesy Of lt. col. dan marvin

When Vietnam veterans like Marvin say we could have won the war if they’d only let us fight it the right way, that’s what they’re talking about. In their view, we were winning Vietnamese hearts and minds, we were pushing the enemy back. Bombing the country back into the Stone Age only strengthened the enemy’s resolve and increased the war’s unpopularity at home.

Four days after Marvin refused to carry out the assassination of Prince Sihanouk, the camp received a message from headquarters. The Vietnamese government had decided to revoke the amnesty granted to Marvin’s Hoa Hao irregulars. Marvin had spent six months building their trust, but now a 1,500-strong ARVN regiment, sent by the CIA and led by American advisers, was proceeding to An Phu to attack Marvin’s camp and force the Hoa Haos to submit to military tribunals to determine their loyalty to South Vietnam.

It seemed the CIA wasn’t pleased with Marvin’s refusal to carry out the mission, and the Green Beret knew he was at a serious disadvantage. The special forces proudly acknowledge they are the “expendable elite.” Marvin would later use the phrase for the title of his book on covert operations. The ARVN regiment sent by the CIA could attack his men with impunity, since the U.S. government would deny any knowledge of the covert operations on the Cambodian border.

Marvin knew his men and the Hoa Haos were no match for a fully armed regiment. But after conferring with his regular Vietnamese officers, he decided surrender wasn’t an option. They would make a stand on principle, undoubtedly their last. Certain death was hours away. It was then that one of Marvin’s Vietnamese officers, Maj. Phoi Van Le reminded him of the visit several months earlier by Lt. Gen. Quang Van Dang.

Dang, the youngest general in the Republic’s history, commanded the IV tactical zone, encompassing most of the fertile Mekong Delta region in southern Vietnam, including An Phu. In fact, he’d grown up in the Mekong, and knew and respected the Hoa Haos. The general had come to personally congratulate Marvin’s irregular volunteers after they’d beaten back a large enemy force. Like Marvin, he deeply believed in the “hearts and minds” strategy, and granting amnesty to the irregulars was crucial to its success. Without it, they’d desert and be useless as a fighting force.

According Marvin’s book, Expendable Elite, when a Hoa Hao chairman informed Lt. Gen. Dang at IV Corps headquarters that a fully armored ARVN regiment would be attacking friendly forces in An Phu within hours, Dang sprang into action. He requisitioned a helicopter and an armed escort and flew out to the regiment. As he hovered above, the senior U.S. adviser on the ground informed him, “There’s a renegade Green Beret captain named Marvin leading the Hoa Haos against Saigon!”

Knowing the claim was false, Dang ordered the regiment commander to turn his men around, two hours before they would have attacked An Phu.

Word of the about-face didn’t reach Marvin’s camp, and the men prepared for the worst. Marvin and Maj. Phoi Van Le shared what both believed might be there last conversation.

“We have been through many trials and have shared many victories together, my friend,” Marvin said. “We now face a struggle against enormous odds and against a force that none of us could have imagined, but we face it together!”

“Yes, and at this moment I feel confident of victory, yet not knowing how we will achieve it, but certain because we are doing what is right for our people on both sides of the ocean.”

Lt. Col. Dan Marvin calls the Buddhist Hoa Hao volunteers the fiercest fighters he’s ever known. This “striker” was shot five times by the Viet Cong but lived to fight another day.

Photo Courtesy Of lt. col. dan marvin

When they heard four heavily armed helicopter gunships approaching the camp, they figured the end was near. Then radio contact was established, and Maj. Le exclaimed, “It’s General Dang!”

The two men hugged each other, then stood at attention by Dang’s helicopter. The door slid open, and the general stepped out, brass swagger stick in hand. They exchanged salutes, and Dang turned to Maj. Le.

“I have come to tell your brave men that they have my personal guaranty of amnesty,” he said. “They will not go before tribunal.”

Marvin and Le assembled the men, and the general made his announcement.

“I came here to tell you your amnesty has been restored, and I personally guarantee it will no longer be questioned. I am proud to know the Hoa Hao fighters of An Phu.”

Then Dang got in his helicopter and flew off. Their meeting had lasted several hours at most. Nevertheless, it would become a pivotal moment in both men’s lives.

It’s been said that history is written by the winners, and history has not been kind to the general. It’s difficult to understate the role divisiveness within the Vietnamese government and the powerful influence of the CIA during the war played in his fate.

According to a North Vietnamese biography, Dang, a so-called puppet general, collaborated with the French in the 1950s and easily switched masters to the United States in the early 1960s. Nevertheless, he balked at the introduction of more U.S. troops in the IV tactical zone, favoring only South Vietnamese forces that had maintained excellent security against the Viet Cong. He quickly fell out of disfavor with the acolytes of Gen. William Westmoreland, who favored a massive influx of U.S. troops into the area.

Calling off the attack at An Phu could not have enamored Dang with the CIA, according to Marvin. Westmoreland considered Dang incompetent and pressured Thieu to remove him from commanding the IV tactical zone, which Thieu did.

However, if Westmoreland thought he’d seen the last of the general, he was mistaken. Thieu and Dang were college classmates and longtime friends. Thieu respected Dang’s military and diplomatic capabilities and would eventually appoint him as his national security adviser, the second most powerful position in the government.

As a Green Beret, then-Capt. Marvin (kneeling, left) was decorated for valor three times, but one of his most coveted awards is the purple scarf given to him by Madame Bo Huynh (seated, right), declaring him an honorary Hoa Hao.

Photo Courtesy Of lt. col. dan marvin

The earliest report tying Dang to the drug trade came from the aforementioned North Vietnamese biography, which informs that “some puppet generals in re-education classes have said that after Dang was made Thieu’s special adviser, he and his wife continued to buy Western drugs in the IV tactical zone in order to resell them in Saigon, seizing the drug market in the big cities and extending their business to other areas.”

No evidence tying Dang to drugs has ever been presented. But the CIA often waged misinformation campaigns against Vietnamese officials, and Marvin is convinced the agency targeted the general after the incident at An Phu. Dang’s friendship with Thieu would see him through to the war’s end, but the allegations would come back to haunt the general after he fled Vietnam in April 1975 after the fall of Saigon.

He landed in a refugee settlement camp in Texas and immediately felt unsafe. As a high-ranking member of the South Vietnamese government, he’d made a lot of enemies, and he grew fearful that someone in the camp might seek revenge. He decided to visit his son in Montreal to see if the situation was any better there. When trying to return, his visa was revoked, with no reason given. It would be the last time he touched American soil for 15 years.

Marvin believes the State Department’s rejection of Dang’s visa is a direct result of the general’s interference in the plot to kill Prince Sihanouk. Even though the general later worked closely with the CIA, such a transgression would not be easily forgiven, especially by the agents in charge of the operation. There is no doubt that the CIA has the capability to contact the State Department and challenge the immigration status of anyone it sees fit; and it certainly has a file on the general, although it’s not for public consumption.

Another plausible explanation Dang was denied entry is offered by former Saigon CIA station chief Tom Polgar, who ensured the general and his family escaped the fall of Saigon. Leaving the United States to visit his son in Canada was a huge mistake, Polgar told a reporter from Marvin’s hometown newspaper when Dang was finally issued a visa in 1989.

“Under the U.S. practice, the moment a Vietnamese refugee left the United States under his own volition, we washed our hands of him. The cause of South Vietnam and the South Vietnamese leadership wasn’t all that popular in 1975.”

They do not call Lt. Col. Dan Marvin “Dangerous Dan” for nothing. Members of the U.S. armed forces aren’t allowed to kill outside of combat, so assassination missions—which were later proved to be widespread during the war—were volunteer only and kept strictly under wraps. According to Marvin, who said he accepted many such assignments, a “hypothetical” mission might go down something like this:

Suppose the military high command or the CIA has someone they want assassinated in Manila, and Marvin (or another soldier with a similar skill set) is due three days R&R. The top-secret assassination order is handed down through back channels to field headquarters, so it can’t be traced. Marvin accepts the assignment and is classified absent without leave to further cover the tracks.

He reads, chews and swallows his orders, then catches the next plane to Manila, where he registers in a four-star hotel. For the next two days, he follows the target around the city. He discovers the target lives on a boat, and decides that’s where he’ll kill him. Every Special Forces operative has their own specialty; Marvin likes knives. You don’t throw away a knife, he says, because you never throw away your weapon.

Late at night, a hypothetical assassin creeps barefoot onto the boat and slits the target’s throat. He dumps the body in the middle of Manila Bay, then returns to the dock and cleans up the mess. The body won’t be discovered for days, and by then, the assassin will be back in South Vietnam, heading up a new A Team, and no one will be the wiser.

Marvin’s Special Forces team operated out of Camp Dan Nam. The map depicts the planned assassination of a Cambodian prince.

Photo Courtesy Of lt. col. dan marvin

No, they don’t call him Dangerous Dan for nothing. Marvin earned the sobriquet in the 1950s as a touch noncommissioned officer in the 82nd Airborne. The problem soldiers were sent his way. One such soldier didn’t make the cut and killed himself on a weekend pass. In his suicide note, he wrote Marvin was “dangerous” and should be thrown out of the army. Marvin doesn’t care much for its origins, but the nickname fit. At the time, he wasn’t just dangerous. He was beyond redemption.

These are the kind of unflattering details the former assassin frequently relates when talking about his past life, and it adds veracity both to his story and his claim that since finding Christ, he is a new man. He remembers the date precisely: January 29, 1984.

He’s driving with his 20-year-old daughter Danilee down a Florida freeway on the way to the funeral of a relative, Mary Kate. Danilee has a Bible open on her lap and she’s reading. Marvin’s a lapsed Catholic, and though he’s not irreligious, he’s not a Bible man, either.

“Why are you reading that Bible?” he says.

“I want to see Mary Kate get saved so she can go to heaven,” she answers.

“I want you to close that Bible.”

“Daddy, if I can’t read the Bible, then I can’t be with you.”

He orders her to close it again. She insists she’ll walk if she can’t read it. He pulls over and stops the car. He gets out and walks into the woods on the side of the road.

Danilee is his closest daughter, and he’s never seen her like this before. Gradually it dawns on him. If it’s so important to her she’s willing to travel the remaining 40 miles on foot, maybe it can be important to him, too. The secrets he’s been keeping for years, all the killings, all the bloodshed, come flooding out. He confesses his sins in silence to Christ and is forgiven right there on the spot.

For years, the only thing that kept Marvin from speaking out about the incident at An Phu was the top-secret nature of his assignment near the Cambodian border. Officially, the United States doesn’t assassinate people. Unofficially, Marvin knows better, and he feared the government might send someone just like him to kill his family if he went public with the story.

Lt. Gen. Quang Van Dang congratulates the Hoa Hao fighters trained by Lt. Col. Dan Marvin after the retaking of a village. Dang commanded the IV tactical zone, which included most of the Mekong Delta.

Photo Courtesy Of lt. col. dan marvin

Christ had now removed that fear. The day after he was saved, Marvin began working on Expendable Elite: One Soldier’s Journey Into Cover Warfare, the tell-all book that was published in 2003. The book symbolizes what has become Marvin’s life mission, to recognize his South Vietnamese comrades and criticize the U.S. government’s shift from winning hearts and minds in the villages to wholesale bombardment of the entire country.

In 1986, Marvin was astonished to discover that Lt. Gen. Dang was living as an “undesirable alien” in Canada. Although the Green Beret had only met the general briefly on two occasions, the press reports alleging Dang was a murderous drug lord didn’t match the fellow soldier who’d saved his life and the lives of his men. Born again and now able to speak out, Marvin did what any other honorable soldier would do in the same situation. He set out to clear the general’s name.

History may be written by the winners, but in the trial of Lt. Gen. Quang Van Dang, no one really knows the score. There’s the North Vietnamese version depicting the “puppet general” as President Thieu’s corpulent, corrupt right-hand man. There’s what might be called the history as written by sore losers, featuring Dang’s name in a half-dozen prominent Western volumes on the war, the Southeast Asian heroin trade or both. There’s the TV news version, with ABC’s Roger Mudd alleging before a nationwide audience that Dang controlled the Mekong Delta’s heroin trade and secreted away millions of American dollars in Swiss bank accounts.

Then there’s the only history that can be officially substantiated: the record gathered by Marvin on his two-decade mission to clear the general’s name. Composed of previously unreleased classified documents and the testimony of three U.S. generals and two Saigon CIA station chiefs, Marvin’s efforts reveal beyond a shadow of a doubt that Dang was an extremely valuable American asset during the entire course of the war.

Tom Polgar, the Saigon CIA chief from 1972 to 1973, continues to support the general. As station chief, he had worked with a number of designated intelligence and security officials of the Vietnamese government.

“One of these contacts, indeed one of the most important and productive ones, was Lt. Gen. Quang Van Dang, who served—until the third week of April, 1975—as the National Security Assistant to the President of the Republic of Vietnam,” Polgar wrote in the general’s defense in 1989. According to declassified CIA documents, Dang acted as the CIA’s direct conduit to President Thieu, informing the agency of, among other things, Thieu’s frustration with the ongoing Paris peace talks in 1968.

Polgar also dispelled the notion that Dang became a player in the Mekong Delta heroin trade while commanding the IV tactical zone from 1964 to 1966, as alleged by various different media sources. Charges of corruption and drug smuggling, true and false, were rampant in the unstable country during the war, and Polgar says the CIA vetted the general thoroughly before working more closely with him.

“We could never find any substantiation,” Polgar insists. “Indeed my visits to his home and my acquaintance with his family led me to the conclusion that Quang was not a rich man. He lived in Army quarters, his wife dressed simply, they never vacationed abroad, no one in the family displayed expensive jewelry. Quang’s post-1975 existence confirms that he had no secret Swiss bank accounts or hoards of gold.”

That latter fact was also confirmed by a private policy security council study that found that very few South Vietnamese higher-ups, including Dang, escaped the country with more than a few hundred thousand dollars.

Armed with facts and witnesses, Marvin pressed Dang’s case with the U.S. State Department, demanding to see any evidence implicating the general in the drug trade, the reason the department cited for denying Dang re-entry into the United States from Canada in 1975. He wrote letters to his congressman, Rep. Matthew McHugh, as well as Sen. Patrick Moynihan and President George H.W. Bush.

Lt. Col. Dan Marvin (left), Gen. Quang Van Dang (right) and his wife Nam Thi Do were all smiles when the Dangs returned to the United States in 1990. The general was prevented from entering the United States for 17 years for allegations that were proved to be unfounded.

Photo Courtesy Of lt. col. dan marvin

A little more than a month after Marvin wrote Bush the elder, the U.S. Consulate in Montreal notified the State Department that the security considerations in the case had been resolved in the general’s favor. An exhaustive search of civilian and military records found no evidence of any wrongdoing that could be used to exclude Dang from the United States. An immigration visa was forthcoming promptly.

On September 24, 1989, Marvin personally drove Dang from Montreal to Champlain, N.Y., where the born-again Green Beret treated the general to his first American meal in 15 years, a hamburger at McDonald’s.

How much of all this Dang remembers today, if any, is uncertain. There’s still a light in the 78-year-old general’s eyes, and he responds with obvious affection to his granddaughter’s touch. He appears fit and comfortable in pajamas and sandals and can walk with assistance. But his mind has been deteriorating for several years now, and his responses to questions, as translated by his son-in-law, are fragmented.

Dang couldn’t remember who Marvin was when the Green Beret first contacted him in 1988. The incident at An Phu was just one of many in which the general was called to intervene during a long, bloody conflict. Eventually, he did recall Marvin, and he was grateful someone from the United States remembered they had once fought together on the same side. Beyond that, the general can’t recall specific details. He doesn’t talk about the war. He has no good memories.

It’s not a popular subject with many Vietnam veterans. In 2004, six members of Marvin’s A Team, as well as his commanding field officer, filed a libel suit against him and the publisher of Expendable Elite. The plaintiffs demanded $700,000 in damages, alleging that the book’s claim they had fired into Cambodia in 1966 was false and had exposed them to public ridicule. In court, Marvin defended the factual basis for the book, noting that even though he had revealed top-secret information—the cross-border operations into Cambodia and the plot to assassinate Prince Sihanouk—no one in the government had sought to prosecute him.

“If I would have been brought to court by the CIA or the Defense Department, speaking for the Special Operations Command, they would have had to admit that everything in the book was true,” he testified. “I would have welcomed going to court about the situation in Vietnam, because every bit of the top-secret information in the book is based on illegal operations stemming from our government.”

Marvin prevailed in the lawsuit, but his battle isn’t over. The 64,000 Buddhist Hoa Haos of An Phu, who wanted nothing more than to be left alone and live in peace, marked him indelibly. In 1966, the United States was winning hearts and minds, as he sees it. The policy shift to full-scale conventional warfare ultimately led to the loss of the war and what he believes was the betrayal of the Vietnamese people. Marvin intends to make amends for that betrayal. History may be written by the winners, but he intends to have the last word.

To that end, he continues to pressure the State Department to issue an official press release clearing the general’s name. No such statement has yet been issued. In the trial of Lt. Gen. Quang Van Dang, the verdict, like so much of the truth about Vietnam, remains elusive.

The general is near the end of his journey now, and will soon be beyond history’s reach. In an assisted-living home in south Sacramento, not far from the center of the city’s thriving Vietnamese population, he waits out the end with his wife by his side. He has traveled far, from humble beginnings in the Mekong Delta to standing beside the president of his country, washing dishes in Montreal restaurants to make rent to this room where he’ll die.

He doesn’t perceive his path as a fall. The past is simply the past.

His granddaughter squeezes his knee, and he smiles.