Nguyen Van Thieu

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The Independent Online

Nguyen Van Thieu, army officer and politician: born Phan Rang, Vietnam 5 April 1923; Chief of Staff, Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces 1963-64; Deputy Premier and Minister of Defence, Republic of Vietnam 1964-65, Head of State 1965-67, President 1967-75; married 1951 Nguyen Thi Mai Anh (two sons, one daughter); died Boston, Massachusetts 29 September 2001.

The death of Nguyen Van Thieu, the former President of South Vietnam, is likely to provoke mixed feelings amongst his compatriots both at home and abroad. His demise will not be mourned in Hanoi, where he was always regarded simply as an American "puppet". But many Vietnamese who lived in the south of the country, which he presided over for 10 years from 1965, consider him to be personally responsible for the fall of Saigon. Hence, after fleeing the country on 21 April 1975, 10 days before the final Communist victory, Thieu lived quietly in exile, first in Britain and later in the United States, scarcely daring to show his face in public for fear of recriminations by those of his fellow countrymen who believe he failed them.

Unlike many of the generals who were responsible for the fate of the Republic of Vietnam, as it was officially called, Thieu was a true southerner. He was born in 1923, in the coastal province of Ninh Binh about a hundred miles south of Saigon. It is a land of poor farmers and fishermen: a natural breeding ground for people attracted to Communist ideals. In fact Thieu himself is believed originally to have joined the Viet Minh during the late 1940s in struggling against French colonialism. But for one reason or another, he soon became disillusioned and chose the opposite path, joining the fledgling national army which was being developed under the aegis of the state of Vietnam led by the ex-Emperor Bao Dai in the hope of outflanking the Communists and eventually gaining independence from the French by a different route.

In this young army Thieu quickly rose to become an officer and by 1956 found himself appointed as head of the Military Cadet Academy in Dalat, the former French mountain resort. People who remember him there say he was still very much a country boy, lacking the manners of more sophisticated urban dwellers who aspired to become officers rather than serving in the ranks as military conscripts. But Thieu was quick to learn and hone his own ambitions. He was also helped by the fact that he married a Catholic and converted to that religion, which virtually guaranteed advancement under the presidency of the very staunch Roman Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem.

Yet by the early 1960s the increasingly dictatorial rule of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his family, together with their discrimination against Buddhists, began to cause disquiet within the top echelons of the military, including even Thieu. Although he was not one of the main plotters behind the coup of 1 November 1963 which resulted in the assassination of President Diem, Thieu played a vital role by leading troops to seize the presidential palace. From this he gained the reputation of being a Young Turk among the more senior generals who squabbled among themselves over who should rule South Vietnam – much to the dismay of the Americans then becoming increasingly involved in what they saw as the more vital struggle against Communist forces infiltrating from the North.

There was therefore a sense of relief when General Thieu and Air Vice-Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky seized power in 1965 with a promise to pursue the war more vigorously. To legitimise their position the Americans persuaded them to hold elections throughout South Vietnam, which they duly won, becoming respectively President and Vice-President.

It was an uneasy partnership, however. Thieu was a rather reserved character, whereas Nguyen Cao Ky, a northerner by birth, was far more flamboyant. This manifested itself during the Tet Offensive at the end of January 1968. The Communists and their supporters launched a series of surprise attacks on Saigon and numerous other towns and military installations throughout the country during what was supposed to be a ceasefire to mark the national holiday. At that crucial juncture, Thieu had gone to celebrate the new year at his wife's home in the Mekong Delta. Remaining in Saigon, Ky took the helm and ordered the armed forces into action, which together with American assistance, managed to blunt the initial impact of the Communist attacks and eventually secured their defeat.

This did little to improve relations between the President and his immediate deputy. Over the next few years Thieu, with dogged determination, gradually edged his rival out of power and by 1972 was able to win re-election virtually unopposed for a second term as president.

By then the Americans were anxious to get out of the quagmire in Vietnam and "bring the boys home". But the negotiations on which they had embarked in Paris with representatives of Hanoi seemed to be getting nowhere until Henry Kissinger, then Secretary of State, and Le Duc Tho, a senior member of the Politburo, started to talk tough in summer 1972.

They agreed that all American forces would be withdrawn from Vietnam as long as there was an exchange of prisoners of war by both sides. That however made no provision for the withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces from the South. President Thieu raised immediate objections. The Americans tried to quieten his fears by promising massive amounts of arms and other military supplies for the South Vietnamese armed forces before any agreement was signed with Hanoi. Thieu was still not happy and managed to delay the signing of what became known as the Paris Agreements for several months until January 1973. In the end he had had to bow to American pressure and accept the fact that South Vietnam would have to stand on its own to face further Communist threats which he believed were inevitable once all US forces had been withdrawn. Thieu's fears proved to be justified.

The South Vietnamese army was greatly superior in numbers and military equipment to the Communists, but its morale was far weaker. Attempting to retain power as both President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, Thieu had surrounded himself with weak and often corrupt generals. Rather than bolstering his position, this attracted increasing criticism of his rule among the general population.

Naturally this situation was followed closely in Hanoi. The Communists decided in a series of meetings in mid-1974 to launch a major offensive during the forthcoming dry season to try to seize total control over large parts of South Vietnam. After careful planning and various initial sorties, the offensive was launched on 10 March 1975 with an attack on the Central Highlands town of Ban Me Thuot, The South Vietnamese army were caught completely by surprise. The sense of shock in Saigon at losing such a vital outpost virtually overnight was palpable.

Thieu, however, did not rise to the occasion and seek to rally the nation to withstand any further attacks. Instead he tried to suppress the news of the débâcle at Ban Me Thout whilst consulting in secret with his cronies. Their decision – for which Thieu was held ultimately responsible – was to withdraw all remaining forces from the Central Highlands and abandon the whole region to Communist control. Although this decision was never announced, it was soon public knowledge in gossip-prone Saigon and quickly became not only a military but also a public relations disaster. Vietnamese all over the country began to flee outlying districts along with the soldiers who were supposed to be protecting them. The Communist side stepped up their attacks and within three weeks managed to capture over half of South Vietnam including its second largest city, Da Nang.

Demands grew rapidly for Thieu to resign in the hope that a compromise candidate for the presidency would be able to negotiate a ceasefire with Hanoi in order to save what remained of South Vietnam. For several crucial weeks he stubbornly refused to go. Finally, on 21 April 1975, with Communist forces moving ever closer to Saigon, Thieu accepted the inevitable and announced in a televised speech to the nation that he was quitting. Even then he did not accept responsibility for what had happened.

Instead he sought to place the blame on the media and particularly foreign broadcasting organisations for lowering the morale of the armed forces and creating panic among the general population. He then flew off to Taiwan with his family, allegedly having already sent South Vietnam's gold reserves abroad for his own use in exile. The subsequent fate of Saigon and South Vietnam is history, as Communist tanks rolled into the capital on 30 April 1975.

During the new few years, as well over a million of his compatriots attempted to flee the country, Thieu kept a low profile, well aware that many of them blamed him for the collapse of South Vietnam. Since one of his sons was at Eton, he managed to get a visa to move quietly from Taiwan to south-west London, where he refused to give press interviews or to try to justify his actions. In one respect, though, he was vindicated. In 1990 it emerged from various eye-witness accounts that he had not stolen South Vietnam's gold reserves amounting to 16 million tons. They were still intact in the National Bank in Saigon when the Communists took it over.

This seems to have given Thieu the courage to emerge somewhat from his self-imposed isolation and move to Boston, Massachusetts, where he did find a few old friends and lived peacefully until he died. His historical legacy will nevertheless continue to be debated.

Judy Stowe