General Duong Van Minh

Thursday 09 August 2001 00:00

Duong Van Minh, army officer and politician: born 16 February 1916; President, South Vietnam 1975; married (two sons, one daughter); died Pasadena, California 6 August 2001.

Duong Van Minh was the last president of the Republic of Vietnam in Saigon, albeit for only two days before the city was captured by Communist forces, most of them coming from the North, on 30 April 1975.

He remained in the presidential palace in Saigon until it was captured by the opposing forces and then broadcast a statement calling on all Vietnamese on both sides to lay down their arms and observe a ceasefire. Some members of the South Vietnamese armed forces have always regarded this statement as a cowardly capitulation. Others applaud it as a brave gesture in the face of an inevitable defeat which could have led to the total destruction of Saigon.

"Big Minh", as he was known because of his exceptional height for a Vietnamese, was always a controversial character. Born in 1916 in the My Tho province of the Mekong Delta, his parents were rich enough to send him to the main French colonial high school in Saigon. He did not, however, choose to become a French citizen as did many of his classmates. Instead he opted to join the Corps Indigène, as the locally recruited army was known. When the Franco-Vietnamese War broke out in 1945, Minh remained loyal to the French and was subsequently promoted to the rank of officer and then general in the army which took over the struggle against the Communists in the south of Vietnam.

Once the Geneva agreements had been signed in 1954 and Vietnam was partitioned, Minh faced a different task. To establish its authority over the whole of South Vietnam, the government called on the army to wipe out the guerrilla gang known as the Binh Xuyen as well as the armed forces of the Cao Dai religious sect. These were battles in which General Minh was actively engaged and they increased his popularity in Saigon.

As soon as President Ngo Dinh Diem had established himself as head of the republic he would brook no potential rivals for power. He gradually started to undermine the standing of Minh and antagonism between the two men grew. It reached its peak in 1963 when Diem and his brothers, all of them fervent Catholics, provoked the anger of the majority Vietnamese Buddhists by seeking to ban some of their activities. This caused a national crisis at a time when the Communists were becoming an increasing threat.

What happened next is a matter of controversy. Some historians assert that it was the Americans who encouraged Minh and his fellow officers to stage a coup to oust Diem. Others claim it would have happened in any case because of the President's unpopularity. However in the coup of October 1963, Diem and his influential brother Nhu were brutally murdered. The question of who gave the order to kill them has never been answered satisfactorily.

After the coup, Minh and his co-conspirators remained silent on the issue before falling out amongst themselves. It was widely expected that Minh would assume control in Saigon, but he was instead sent into exile in Thailand by his fellow generals, who proceeded to squabble amongst themselves for the next few years thus plunging South Vietnam into an ever deepening crisis from which it was barely rescued by the arrival of American troops in 1965 to continue the war against the Communists.

In Bangkok, Duong Van Minh occupied himself with his favourite pastimes, growing orchids and playing tennis. He eventually returned to Saigon in 1972 but stayed in the background, watching events unfold. He retained considerable influence and popularity, however, both within the army and amongst the population at large, because he was believed to be unsullied by the whiff of corruption which surrounded most of South Vietnam's other leading generals. So in spring 1975, when the Communists unleashed a major military offensive, eyes were turned to General Minh. Was he the person who could save South Vietnam from final collapse?

The French in particular seemed to believe so. They were active in promoting the idea that if Minh took over the presidency, he would be acceptable to Hanoi and would succeed in bringing about national reconciliation rather than a military solution to put an end to the war. Such hopes were in vain. Minh was finally installed as president on 28 April 1975 but by then Communist forces were in easy reach of Saigon and with the scent of military victory in their nostrils were not prepared to compromise. Their tanks swept into the South Vietnamese capital and went straight to the presidential palace.

President Minh and his newly formed government had already decided there was no other option but to order what remained of the South Vietnamese army to lay down its arms and surrender. When Minh conveyed this decision to the victorious Communist officers who confronted him in the palace, he was summarily informed that he had nothing to surrender. The war had been won on the battlefield.

The fate of Minh himself was unclear. Would he be arrested and put on trial or would he be sent to a "re-education camp", as eventually happened to most of the officials of the defeated army and government who remained in Vietnam? Apparently a decision was taken in Hanoi that since Minh had not taken an active part in the war during its final years, he should be allowed to return to his home in Saigon as long as he lived quietly and did not try to stir up trouble.

Nothing was heard of Minh until 1983 when he was allowed to depart into exile in France, again on the apparent understanding that he would keep quiet and say nothing to the press about his two days as president or what had happened to South Vietnam since. It was a promise he kept. The question hanging over his career, about who ordered the killing of President Diem back in 1963, was never answered. Although there were rumours in the late 1980s that he would be allowed to return to Saigon to live out his final days, Minh preferred instead to remain abroad and moved eventually to his daughter's home in California, where he has taken his secrets to the grave.

Judy Stowe

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