South Vietnamese leader who presided over his country's destruction
Nguyen Van Thieu, who has died aged 78, came to power in South Vietnam in June 1965 as leader of a junta of senior military officers committed to ending the chronic political instability that had plagued the country since the CIA-aided assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963. The French-trained Thieu was soon able to shunt aside his fellow conspirators. He got himself elected president in the rigged elections of September 1967, and remained virtual dictator until he fled Saigon as the Vietnam war ended in April 1975.
Like Diem, Thieu made certain that the principal function of his huge army was to reinforce his political power, and he was both unprepared and unwilling to fight either a conventional or a guerrilla war in so far as it weakened his control over the armed forces. Top officers were chosen solely because they were politically reliable, and heads of the four military regions were forbidden to communicate directly, even in battle.
In an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, Thieu was converted to Catholicism by his wife. The son of a fisherman and farmer, he was born the youngest of five children in Phan Rang, in Ninh Thuan province. He studied at the merchant navy academy and the national military academy, and went on to fight the Viet Minh in their struggle against the French, which ended in 1954. He rose to the rank of corps commander in the South Vietnamese army, and underwent training in the United States.
Unlike Diem, however, he had no firm ideological convictions; seizing and holding power was all that mattered to him. He neutralised, co-opted and pressured his rivals far more gently and effectively than his predecessors, and widespread corruption and avarice became the crucial lubricant keeping his alliance intact. The US had detailed knowledge of his many peculations, but when Richard Nixon became president in 1969, he and his then adviser Henry Kissinger determined to "Vietnamise" the war and greatly reduce American involvement. Thieu's army was to win the victory that had eluded Washington.
Thieu believed that the Americans needed him desperately, and that they would continue to assume the principal military burdens of the war. It was not long before he began to clash with Kissinger over the terms of negotiations with the communist North Vietnamese in Paris, and although the two men detested each other, Thieu was able to shape America's political stance and military behaviour decisively.
The infamous carpet bombing of Hanoi by B-52s in December 1972 was designed to assure Thieu that he could rely on the US should the communists violate the Paris Accords he refused to accept until January 1973. But although he was given assurances that American air power would re-enter the war in the event that the North Vietnamese violated the accords, neither Nixon nor Thieu calculated the extent of congressional opposition or the Pentagon's growing reticence, much less the impact of Watergate and Nixon's resignation.
After Gerald Ford became president in December 1973, the US supplied Thieu with huge quantities of military aid, and experts to teach his army how to use it. In purely firepower terms, Thieu was always far stronger than the communist forces, but he insisted on holding as much territory as possible - often seizing it in violation of the peace terms - thereby thinning out his forces and making what was, in the spring of 1975, a decisive military error.
In early 1973, the Nixon administration had staked the outcome of the war on Thieu. At home, however, his grip on power was already beginning to erode, not merely politically, but also economically. His political difficulties were inevitable given tens of thousands of arrests, numerous press closures and his one-party state. Corruption kept his 120,000 policemen reasonably loyal, but, by 1974, his regime lacked political credibility.
The opposition included not just communists, but also progressive Catholics, Buddhist leaders and millenarian sects. In late 1974, even American officials established contact with Thieu's rivals. Economically, the situation became especially serious after the Middle East war of October 1973 produced a global inflation that eroded the value of American aid. Thieu no longer had the resources to pay his bloated army of roughly 500,000 men and air force of 1,400 planes, as well as maintain the loyalty of his huge bureaucracy. Morale and discipline in the largely draft army sank with the economic crisis, and soldiers stole from the peasantry as never before.
In early 1975, with the US Congress balking at additional aid for Saigon, Washington's experts were increasingly pessimistic that Thieu himself would survive. Few, however, anticipated a total collapse. The communists didn't either. When they attacked the central highlands on March 10, they believed the war would last another two years. No one expected Thieu to order his troops back from the highlands and the north, but as demoralised soldiers abandoned their units, the retreat became a rout. Thieu was a shrewd political manipulator, but wholly incompetent as a military strategist. On April 24, with two huge suitcases stuffed with gold, the CIA flew him to Taiwan. The longest and most divisive war in American history had ended ignominiously. He spent most of his exile in Wimbledon, south London, later moving to Massachusetts. He married his wife in 1951. They had two sons and a daughter.
Nguyen Van Thieu, politician, born April 5 1923; died September 29 2001
Little Saigon: Many older immigrants revile the late leader. To the young he is a mystery.
For young Vietnamese Americans, Nguyen Van Thieu is a figure from their history books. For older generations, the longtime Vietnamese leader's name brings up a mix of emotions, many of them painful. Thieu, wartime president of South Vietnam for a decade until just before the fall of Saigon in 1975, died Saturday. He was 78.
"Only history can tell whether he has any credit," said Lan Nguyen, a Garden Grove planning commissioner and attorney. In Orange County, home to the largest U.S. population of Vietnamese immigrants, reaction to Thieu's death largely followed generational lines. For those in the Little Saigon area of Westminster who are old enough to remember him, the news elicited myriad emotions. "It's mixed feelings from the Vietnamese community," said Westminster City Councilman Tony Lam, the first Vietnamese American elected to office in the United States, who met Thieu in Vietnam while working for the U.S. Embassy. "Some people blame him for letting Vietnam down and running away from Vietnam eight days before the fall of Saigon."
One of those people is Hai Vo, 48, who served as a soldier in the South Vietnamese army under Thieu's presidency. "I hated him," said Vo, who blamed the former leader for plundering the country and overseeing its takeover by Communist North Vietnam. "He wasn't the president for my country," Vo said, "He was president for himself. He ruined everything. He lived too long--he should have had to pay a price, but I don't feel that he ever did." Lan Nguyen said that Thieu "presided over a long period of time, fighting the war. Also, during that time he contributed to the defeat . . . because his government" was corrupt and plagued by political infighting. But Nguyen said that Thieu's passing is a loss for history, because key questions remain about some of his decisions that were pivotal in the war, such as abandoning South Vietnam's Highlands in March 1975.
After Thieu left Vietnam, he kept a low profile and shunned attention. He never wrote his memoirs and rarely gave interviews. He made a rare, invitation-only appearance in Orange County in 1990, speaking to 400 people at the Westminster Community Hall. As expected, he was greeted by numerous protesters. "We've lost an important link in history," Nguyen said. "I really don't think the Vietnamese community will [mourn him]. We're at a loss. We don't know if he was causing the defeat . . . or if he was trying his best in the circumstances. We're still debating among ourselves what he did and didn't do. "We don't know if we should respect him or denounce him," Nguyen said.
Tri Tran, 45, said he had mixed emotions regarding Thieu, whose hand he once shook during an official state visit. "As a president he was dishonest," Tran said. "As a citizen he was [OK]." He paused before expressing a thought that, in many ways, embodies the ambivalence felt by many of his countrymen. "[Thinking of him] as a citizen," Tran said, "I didn't want him to die. [Considering him] as president, I did." Once he fled the nation, Thieu failed to use his voice to bring attention to the plight of refugees stranded in Southeast Asia, said Cong Minh Tran, a community activist who lives in Irvine. "He shunned the light since he escaped in 1975," he said.
Radio commentator Thanh-Phong Tran, who knew Thieu from when he worked for the U.S. government in Vietnam, said that when he heard of Thieu's passing, "frankly, there was no reaction." Tran fled the country in 1973 after Thieu issued a warrant for his arrest. He said he has no bitterness or anger. Eventually on Sunday, Tran said, he began having mixed feelings about Thieu's death: "Whether we should remember what he did or we just let . . . bygones be bygones. "It's too bad--he could have done many things since 1975. He had a name he could use and do good things, if not for Vietnam, then for the world. He wasted his time."
Others who had little reaction to Thieu's death were those too young to recall his life. "I never heard of him," said Michael Nguyen, 21, who left Vietnam in 1987 at the age of 7. Hien Ty, 20, had a similar reaction: "I heard the name from my parents, but I don't know him that well." But a generation of refugees will forever have ties to Thieu. Relaxing at the entrance of Asian Garden Mall in the hot Sunday sun, Hai Nguyen, 56, who bore arms for Thieu, said, "I feel a little sad. . . . He was the commander-in-chief, and I was a soldier."
Chuyen Nguyen, state Sen. Joe Dunn's district representative, agreed: "For myself as a former service man under his supreme command, I have respect for the man because of his age and the position he was in. But I think I will leave it to history to judge his decisions."
Seema Mehta & David Haldane