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Pham Van Dong: South Vietnamese general who could not defend Saigon against the Communists

Pham Van Dong was a Major General in the now almost forgotten Army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam (ARVN).

As military governor of Saigon he had the hopeless task of defending the capital against a North Vietnamese onslaught; Saigon fell on 30 April 1975.

It was the end of Pham Van Dong’s long military career.

Pham Van Dong was born in 1919 in Son Tay, Vietnam, which was then part of the French empire. He grew up in Hanoi, in the north of the country.

Several generations of his family had been teachers at the Imperial Court and he looked forward to becoming a teacher, enrolling in the École Normale d’Instituteurs. But he withdrew in 1938 and enlisted in the French colonial army, becoming the first Vietnamese officer to command French troops. Dong fought against Japan in the Second World War and later served as a Lieutenant Colonel. He would become one of a small number of officers in the ARVN who had been a French officer. Sometimes confused with the Marxist prime minister of North Vietnam, who bore the same name, he was in fact a member of Vietnam’s Nung ethnic minority, a hill clan with a Gurkha-like reputation as tough fighters. Later he commanded the 3rd Field Division, which was made up entirely of Nung soldiers.

After the end of the first Indochina War in 1954, Vietnam gained full independence and Dong became an officer in the ARVN. When the Geneva Convention partitioned Vietnam into North and South, Dong was appointed Commander of the Quang Yen Military Academy. He redeployed the academy and all its personnel to southern Vietnam, the non-Communist zone. His family made the journey along with 450,000 others, mostly Catholics. A much smaller number moved in the other direction. In 1956, he was promoted to Commander of the 3rd Field Division, a post he held until 1958.

In 1959, Dong, who was self-taught in English, attended the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Returning to Vietnam, in 1963 he was appointed Deputy Commander of South Vietnam’s III Corps.

After the 1963 coup d’état that toppled the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, a succession of ARVN generals assumed the presidency of South Vietnam.

During these years, the United States began taking full control of the war against Ho Chi Minh’s Communists, who were backed by the Soviet Union and China, and the role of the ARVN became less and less significant.

Pham van Dong was appointed Commander of the 7th Infantry Division and then served briefly as military attaché to the Republic of China (Taiwan). On his return, in 1964, he was promoted to Brigadier General and then Major General, serving as military governor of Saigon-Gia Dinh (later renamed Ho Chi Minh City) and Commander of the Special Capital Zone. He was regarded by the Americans as a competent, brave and well-informed ally. Although the US media portrayed the Vietnam War as an exclusively “Americans against Vietnamese” conflict, the ARVN carried the brunt of the fight before and after large-scale US involvement.

By 29 March 1973 all American troops had been withdrawn. The ARVN was, however, hit by corruption among the officer corps and the country’s economy was hit by the world oil crisis. With little fear of US intervention under President Ford, the Communists renewed their offensive actions and finally took Saigon.

When Saigon fell, General Dong and his family were able to escape on a C-130 Hercules military plane that took them to Guam, an island in the western Pacific. From there they reached the United States. “He felt he betrayed his men,” his son, Hiep Pham, later recalled. “I think it was a sensation he carried through his whole life.”

Perhaps as many as 1,170,000 ARVN troops died in the Vietnam War, while thousands of Dong’s fellow officers faced incarceration in Communist “re-education” camps from which few emerged. Among his many honours, he was awarded the National Order of Vietnam and the Gallantry Cross with 10 citations.

Martin Childs

Pham Van Dong, soldier: born Son Tay, Vietnam, 25 October 1919; married 1944 Le Thi Li (deceased 1992; five children) 1998 My-Lan Trinh (three stepdaughters); died Philadelphia 26 November 2008