U.S. Military Payment Certificates were an integral part of the Vietnam experience, and like so much else in the war, they played a more complicated role than intended.
For GIs, Military Payment Certificates, along with dog tags, combat boots and C-rations, bring forth vivid memories of their wartime experiences. Of the 13 different Military Payment Certificate (MPC) series in the last 60 years, four were used during the Vietnam War.
During the earliest days of the war, the South Vietnamese economy was wrecked by a large and well organized black market. Trading in American currency, along with printing and distributing counterfeit currency, was a thriving business. As in other conflicts, the military began printing MPCs in 1965 to help restore confidence in the local currency. Intended for use only in combat zones, in theory MPCs could not be legally possessed by anyone other than authorized U.S. personnel. Nonetheless, many local Vietnamese merchants, in particular ethnic Chinese and Indian traders, accepted the certificates and valued them as regular American currency.
The debut of the first series, designated 641, coincided with the arrival of the first major U.S. combat units. Issued from 1965 to 1968 and printed at the U.S. Government Printing facility in Guam, Series 641 had seven different denominations: 5 cents, 10 cents, 25 cents, 50 cents, $1, $5 and $10.
In an effort to thwart counterfeiting, the MPC series were randomly changed. On conversion day, or what became known as “CDay,” the bases were closed to civilians. After each conversion to a new MPC series, the previous series was worthless. When word got out that a conversion was occurring, local merchants would rush to the front gate of a base and try to get in, or at least get the notes to a GI to exchange them. Some GIs, thinking they could get rich by turning in and converting large quantities of MPCs held by the locals, failed to note a regulation that prevented any service member from converting more than his rated pay.
Counterfeiting MPCs became a major problem almost immediately. The principal source of the activity was Saigon’s Cholon district. The ethnic Chinese of Cholon were proficient at producing near-perfect copies of American MPCs. The enemy learned quickly how to exploit the skill of the Cholon counterfeiters: Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army soldiers would go into South Vietnamese villages and demand “tax payments.” The villagers handed over, often at gunpoint, all their South Vietnamese currency. The VC and NVA would then go to the Cholon district and trade legitimate South Vietnamese currency for counterfeit MPCs at high rates of exchange—as high as 50-to-1. The VC would trade the counterfeit MPCs on the black market. In turn, black marketers would pawn the counterfeit currency to unsuspecting soldiers who thought they could get rich by buying up notes at devalued prices to turn in for new MPC issues.
Further complicating the currency scene, allies in Vietnam issued their own MPCs. Thailand’s and South Korea’s were printed at the same Guam facility—which also printed counterfeit North Vietnamese currency, with propaganda messages on the reverse.
MPC Series 661, which circulated from 1968 to 1969, had the same seven denominations but different designs. Series 681, from 1969 to 1970, had only six denominations but included a $20 note. The final series, 692, was used from 1970 to 1973. It had only five notes ranging in denomination from 5 cents to $20. As each series was replaced by a new one, the old certificates were supposed to be counted and destroyed. Nonetheless, Vietnam-era MPCs remain available to collectors, principally via currency dealers in Vietnam and online auction houses. A veteran who recently returned from a visit to Vietnam reported that Ho Chi Minh City flea markets offer piles of tightly bound packets of MPCs for sale. Thus, while Americans left almost 40 years ago, their MPCs continue to circulate.
Dr. Joe Coley is a retired law enforcement officer and teaches history and political science at the ITEP Institute and Beacon University in Columbus, Ga. For further reading he recommends the Comprehensive Catalog of Military Payment Certificates, by Fred Schwan.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.