Nguyen Van Thieu and the 11th September terrorist attacks

Recent talk: Two Sides to Every Story: Perspectives on the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, Quynh Dang. The text of this talk is now available.

The fall of South Vietnam was the inevitable consequence of America's failure to provide the support it committed to President Nguyen Van Thieu. Thieu's death in September 2001, raises the question: will America commit herself to winning the war on terrorism?

IntroductionThe Bush administration's resolve to commit the United States to the task of nation building in a post Taliban Afghanistan will be a gauge as to whether the United States has fully shaken off the destructive legacy of the so-called 'Vietnam Syndrome'. This psychosis holds that American involvement and/or sustained military intervention in the affairs of another country is inherently wrong and subsequently doomed to failure. As a result of the Vietnam Syndrome, the Ford administration's capacity in 1975 to effectively aid South Vietnam was thwarted. Consequently the South Vietnamese people suffer under totalitarian, communist rule to this day.
The seminal role that the Reagan administration played in laying the groundwork for the United States' victory in the Cold War is all the more impressive when one considers that the Vietnam Syndrome is still to be fully expunged from the American psyche. This was evident when the first Bush administration failed to consolidate its military victory in Kuwait by taking out the regime of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. This failure on the part of the first Bush administration not only means that Saddam continues to pose a regional threat, but that the Iraqi people continue to suffer under his tyranny.
The outbreak of relatively small anti-military demonstrations in New York and Western Europe opposing military action against Afghanistan's Taliban regime in the wake of the 11th September terrorist outrages were as disturbing, as they were disingenuous. Do these critics of American intervention appreciate that the Afghan people would have continued to suffer, had the Taliban regime been allowed to remain in power? The answer is that they do not care, just as the opponents of the United States involvement in Vietnam did not really care or understand about the suffering that a communist victory would - and did - inflict on the peoples of Indo-China.
It is therefore ironic that the September 2001 terrorist attacks were followed closely by the death, on 29th September 2001, of a major figure of the Vietnam War, former South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu. Due to the mythologies that underpin the Vietnam Syndrome, the complexities and objectives that the United States faced in attempting to forge a viable South Vietnam are now generally overlooked. Hence it is not surprising that Thieu's death received scant media coverage. Due to the Vietnam Syndrome's residual affliction, questions of whether or not the United States should commit itself in the long term to nation building in Afghanistan have arisen. It is in this context that an appraisal of Thieu's role in the Vietnam War is appropriate.
Early Life
Nguyen Van Thieu was born into a moderately prosperous, hard working peasant family in Central Vietnam's Phan Rang Province in December 1924. (Because he considered it to be more astrologically auspicious, Thieu claimed that he was born on the 5th of April 1923). As with nearly all Vietnamese, Thieu was galled at the prospect of France resuming its colonial rule over Vietnam at the end of World War II. He accordingly joined Ho Chi Minh's communist Viet Minh guerilla forces. Within a year of joining them, Thieu broke with the communists and fled to Saigon because he was disgusted by their 1945-46 terror campaign against non-communist Vietnamese nationalists.
Thanks to the patronage of a wealthy uncle Thieu entered a Merchant Marine Academy in 1947. In 1949 due to the communist victory in China France grudgingly conceded the establishment of a 'Vietnamese Free State' headed by the former Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dao. This concession was made by the French in order to gain the support of anti-communist Vietnamese nationalists. Between 1950 and 1954 thousands of Vietnamese served in the National Army for fear of a communist victory and in the hope that Vietnam would eventually gain full independence from the French.
As an anti-communist nationalist, Thieu transferred from the Merchant Marine Academy to a Military Academy in Dalat and upon graduation was commissioned as an officer in the National Army. Following the Viet Minh's victory at the battle of Dien Bien Phu over the French in 1954, colonial rule came to an end. Vietnam was divided into a communist state in the north and a non-communist state in the south. Thieu served as an officer in the new South Vietnamese Army which upon the proclamation of a republic in October 1955, was re-named the Army of the Republic of the Vietnam Nation (ARVN). As an ARVN officer, Thieu received further training in the United States and gained a reputation as a cautious, calculating but effective commander in South Vietnam's fight against the northern-backed Viet Cong communist guerillas.
and the
1963 Coup
While Thieu admired South Vietnam's autocratic president, Ngo Dinh Diem for his courage in forging a South Vietnamese state against the odds between 1954 and 1956, he resented the president's over reliance on his family at the expense of accessing the strata of available nationalist talent.
A political campaign launched by the Buddhist monk Thich Tri Quang in May 1963 galvanised much of South Vietnam's Buddhist community against Diem. Due to US media mis-reporting, the misperception took hold amongst American public opinion that President Diem was discriminating against Buddhists. Accordingly the Kennedy administration threatened to sever military aid to Diem unless he cut off from his brother Nhu.
Knowing that an American aid cut off would be fatal to South Vietnam, Colonel Thieu reluctantly joined a group of officers led by General Doung Van Minh -'Big Minh' - who overthrew Diem in a bloody military coup in November 1963. It was Thieu who led the successful attack on the presidential palace. With the success of the coup, Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were subsequently murdered on Big Minh's probable instigation. The shock of the Ngo brothers' murders was so profound for Thieu, that it unfortunately affected his personality. Thieu subsequently became paranoid, distrustful and suspicious in his general dealings with people. As President, Thieu would become notorious for his reluctance to issue precise orders to subordinates and for placing a higher premium on loyalty than ability.
Because the late President Diem had unfortunately concentrated too much power in his hands, the President's demise created a power vacuum. Between 1964 and 1965 a breath taking spasm of coups and counter coups, which were either led by, for or against General Nguyen Khanh plunged South Vietnam into turmoil. It was during this period of chronic political instability that the United States sent more aid and advisors to help the South, undertook a bombing campaign against the North and directly committed American troops to South Vietnam, with the number reaching over 500,00 by 1968. The influx of the American military was not only due to the South's chronic political instability, but it was also in response to the commitment of units of North Vietnam's regular army, the Vietnam National Army, (NVA) into South Vietnam. They gained entry into the conflict by utilising an ingenious network of secret jungle trails that meandered through Laos and Cambodia and into South Vietnam, called the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
General Thieu initially kept aloof from the cycle of coups and counter coups until he teamed up in February 1965 with the Commander of the South Vietnamese Air Force, Air Vice Marshall Nguyen Cao Ky to banish General Khanh into exile. After the provisional civilian Suu/Quat government imploded due to northern/southern rivalry within the Cabinet, Thieu and Ky stepped into the void by forming a new military junta in June 1965. Thieu assumed the post of Chief of State while Ky took the position of Prime Minister. Ky's control over the air force enabled him to crush any coups that were launched against the new regime.
The crushing of a Buddhist backed civilian - military revolt in Central South Vietnam in 1966, effectively ended the political turbulence that had ensued in the aftermath of President Diem's demise. While a strong anti-war movement was emerging in the United States at this time, the majority of American public opinion still backed military involvement in Vietnam. This support reflected the continued prevalence of post World War II internationalist idealism at this time amongst the American public. Furthermore, the conduct of fair balloting in September 1966 (in which communists and neutralist sympathisers were barred) in elections to a constituent assembly in September 1966 to draw up a new constitution boded well with respect to the positive aspects of nation building that the United States was supporting in South Vietnam.
The promulgation of a new South Vietnamese constitution in April 1967 however precipitated a split between Thieu and Ky, because both wanted to run for President. Up until this point, the personality differences between the introverted and calculating Thieu and the flamboyant and dynamic Ky were considered to be beneficial because they seemed to balance each other out. Although Ky was in the stronger position, he agreed to give way to Thieu and run for Vice President. This surprising concession on Ky's part was made because the ARVN's senior officers believed that Thieu as a southerner would be more acceptable to the public than Ky, who was a refugee from the North. As part of the political deal between Thieu and Ky, the latter was empowered to name a post election Cabinet and to head a secret military committee that would covertly run the country.
Contrary to assertions by sections of the US media at the time, the conduct of the balloting in South Vietnam's September 1967 presidential election was generally fair. The Thieu/Ky slate won with a 35% plurality of the vote because the other nine competing civilian candidates could not match its capacity to extend government patronage into village hamlets. Elections to the National Assembly held in October were also conducted fairly. Due to the absence of a strong party system the legislature however lacked the necessary cohesion to challenge the executive branch.
The NVA/Viet Cong's surprise Vietnamese New Year Tet Offensive of February 1968 in which attacks were launched on urban centers was both a military disaster and a brilliant political success for Hanoi. The Tet Offensive was a military failure for the communists because they lost thousands of soldiers and also because civilians in the cities declined to rally to their support. Furthermore, communist massacres of civilians during the month whilst they held the city of Hue was a warning to the South Vietnamese people of how ruthless the communists could be. On the other hand, the shock to the American public that the Tet Offensive caused - compounded by US media mis-reporting which exaggerated the extent of the offensive - commenced the fatal process by which the majority of Americans began to turn against supporting military involvement in Vietnam. For Thieu, an unexpected dividend of the offensive was that a number of powerful officers loyal to Ky were killed. This development coupled with US Ambassador Elsworth Bunkworth's staunch support for Thieu enabled him to effectively politically neuter Ky and consequently render the secret military committee redundant.
The Nixon
and US
While Thieu was inaccurately portrayed by both the US media and anti - war critics as an American puppet, his last minute decision in October 1968 to announce his government's boycott of US sponsored peace talks with Hanoi probably clinched Richard Nixon's narrow election victory over the Democrats' Hubert Humphrey.
The Nixon administration was viciously attacked during its first term (1969 to 1973), by 'anti-war' demonstrators for resolutely refusing to immediately and unilaterally withdraw US troops from South Vietnam. From July 1969 the Nixon administration commenced a phased withdrawal program of American troops called 'Vietnamization'. Under this plan, the ARVN would progressively fill the vacuum resulting from allied troop withdrawals.
The new US administration also took political initiatives to help bolster South Vietnam as it commenced its process of disengagement. Due to American prodding the representatives of various groups in the National Assembly in 1969 were brought into the Cabinet and a pro-government bloc was formed called the Front for Freedom and Democracy. Furthermore a very successful agrarian reform program was commenced in April 1970 which received American funding and technical assistance. This 'Land for the Tiller' program markedly improved the lot of South Vietnam's peasantry and thereby considerably expanded Thieu's support base. The formation of village based militias called 'Popular Forces' in January 1970 also bolstered the Thieu regime's military standing, as did the development of the 'Miracle Grain' strain of rice.
Nonetheless the Thieu regime failed to take measures and initiatives during the period of US withdrawal which might have strengthened South Vietnam. In contrast to Chiang Kia-Shek's Chinese Nationalist regime on Taiwan, Thieu failed to build up a local arms manufacturing industry. Furthermore Thieu neglected to follow the example of his South Korean counterpart Park Chung Hee in establishing a congressional lobbying operation in Washington to help secure the continuance of US aid. Thieu's failure to take initiatives in these two areas would eventually prove fatal to South Vietnam.
The spread and intensity of the US's 'anti-war' movement, particularly amongst university students and academia, during the period of America's phased withdrawal threatened South Vietnam's long term viability, as did the bias of the US media. In August 1970 South Vietnam held senatorial elections. The fact that one the Thieu's senate tickets went down in these elections received relatively little US media coverage. By contrast Thieu's unopposed re-election in October 1971 received saturation coverage in the US media because it seemingly confirmed its caricature that South Vietnam was a corrupt military dictatorship.
The One-Man
Critics of Thieu's unopposed re-election in 1971 ignored the fact that he had raised the standard necessary to qualify to run as a presidential candidate in order to avoid a rerun of the 1967 presidential election in which a multitude of presidential candidates competed. Both Big Minh and Vice - President Ky qualified to run, but declined to in order to embarrass Thieu. While Thieu's re-election was unopposed, the US media generally ignored the fact that in the proceeding legislative elections held in September, only 22 National Assembly incumbents were returned. US media commentators also negated the context that the South Vietnamese press was amongst the freest (up until February 1975) in South East Asia and that the Thieu regime generally gave its political opponents, including neutralist advocates of a coalition government with the NLF, the latitude to express their opinions.
By late 1971 the Viet Cong insurgency had been broken due to the success of the US military intelligence 'Phoenix' program in which the ARVN/Popular Forces focussed on securing village hamlets. Consequently the Vietnamization program was on course for successful completion in 1972. In Easter that year however, North Vietnam in a major strategic shift launched a conventional invasion of South Vietnam across the 17th parallel, which marked the border between the two Vietnams.
The North's
1972 Easter
The success of the Vietnamization program was demonstrated by the ARVN's capacity to withstand the full might of the North Vietnamese invasion. By late November 1972 the ARVN, with US air support, had successfully countered the invasion. Throughout the period of conventional combat in 1972, the US media generally neglected to report the heroism with which the ARVN fought.
Unfortunately the Hanoi regime retained its uncanny ability of converting military failures into political advances. Between 1970 and 1972 the Nixon administration's National Security Adviser, Dr Henry Kissinger, engaged in secret talks with Le Duc Tho, who was a senior member of North Vietnam's Politburo. Up until October 1972 Tho had dogmatically insisted upon Thieu's removal and the formation of a coalition government - including the Viet Cong's 'Provisional Revolutionary Government' (PGR) as a precondition for reaching any political settlement.
In October 1972, Tho suddenly dropped his demands for Thieu's removal and the formation of a coalition government and ostensibly agreed to an internationally monitored cease-fire. Tho also consented to Kissinger's proposal for a tripartite National Council for Reconciliation and Concord, which would be composed of representatives of the Thieu regime, the PGR and and an ill defined Neutralist 'Third Force' which would help supervise elections as part of a post war political settlement in South Vietnam.
The fatal mistake which Kissinger made in endorsing Tho's proposal was that it made no provision for the withdrawal of over 140,000 NVA troops that were based in jungle sanctuaries in South Vietnam along the Cambodian/ Lao border. Therefore, at the point at which the United States was about to militarily disengage from South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese would be in a position to maintain a significant component of their army in the South. By utilising the Ho Chi Minh Trail, North Vietnam would be able to supply its military and subsequently increase its troop levels in South Vietnam.
Thieu therefore initially refused to be a party to any agreement which did not facilitate the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops. Relations between Washington and Saigon between October and December 1972 seriously deteriorated over the issue of the continued stationing of North Vietnamese troops in the South following a cease-fire agreement. During this period Nixon and Kissinger placed intense pressure on Thieu to capitulate on this issue. Due to Thieu's intransigence, Nixon even sent the South Vietnamese President a letter in November 1972, in which he obliquely warned him that he might share the same fate as Diem, unless he sanctioned the continued presence of NVA troops in the South.
During this tense stand-off period between Washington and Saigon, the US media, which had previously portrayed Thieu as an American puppet, now lambasted him as the obstacle to reaching a peace settlement. Believing that they had successfully engineered a fatal rupture between Washington and Saigon, the Hanoi leadership badly miscalculated by breaking off negotiations with the United States.
Nixon courageously countered by ordering the massive Christmas 1972 bombing of industrial and military installations in North Vietnam and the mining of Haiphong harbour. The aim of the bombing resumption was to force both Hanoi and Saigon to accept a cease-fire agreement. By bombing North Vietnam, the Nixon administration sent a powerful message to Thieu that any communist violations of a cease-fire agreement would be effectively countered by massive American retaliation. Although the United States sent over one billion dollars in military aid to South Vietnam in late 1972, in order to head off a congressional aid cut off, the Nixon administration simultaneously threatened to sever any future aid to South Vietnam unless Thieu agreed to the political settlement that it had negotiated with North Vietnam.
While the Nixon administration's approach in its dealings with its ally were heavy handed, it should not be forgotten that had Thieu not agreed to the political settlement, the newly elected US Congress probably would have cut off any future aid to South Vietnam when it convened in January 1973. Furthermore the outbreak of massive anti-war demonstrations in the United States and the intense international condemnation of the December 1972 bombing campaign exhausted the Nixon administration's political capacity to sustain military action beyond January 1973.
The 1973
The January 1973 Paris Peace Accords formally 'ended' the Vietnam War. But this formal cessation of hostilities was just that - a formality. The reality was that the Paris Peace Accords were an expedient by which the principal participants could obtain their respective immediate objectives. For the United States the Paris Agreement facilitated the final withdrawal of its troops from South Vietnam and the repatriation of its prisoners, both of which were achieved by March 1973. In the case of the Thieu regime - the party which had the most to lose and the least to gain from the negotiating process - the Paris Agreement left it in place because it did not facilitate the establishment of a coalition government which included the PGR. From Hanoi's perspective the fundamental concession that it gained was the continued stationing of its troops in South Vietnam in jungle sanctuaries along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Therefore none of the parties to the Paris Agreement were under any illusions that it would end the fighting. The real issue was whether or not the United States would continue to adequately support South Vietnam with military aid, or provide it with air support in the event of a military crisis. No sooner had the Agreement been signed than regular NVA troops and supplies re-commenced coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The massive - and congested - influx of NVA military conveys streaming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail provided the United States with a golden opportunity to fatally incapacitate North Vietnam's military capacity by undertaking a short and sharp bombing campaign. Richard Nixon would later regret his failure to order the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in April 1973. This was because by the end of that month, his political authority to protect South Vietnam had been fatally undermined because of the onslaught of the Watergate 'scandal'.
Taking advantage of President Nixon's erosion of power, the US Congress legislated in 1973 to undermine presidential foreign policy prerogatives. Under the November 1973 War Powers Act, a US President was compelled to obtain prior congressional approval for military action abroad. Further legislation was passed in 1973 which specifically prohibited any further US bombing in Indo-China. In August 1973 the US Congress took the tragic step of forcing a halt to American bombing of Khmer Rouge held sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia, thereby laying the groundwork for those genocidal guerillas to take power in April 1975.
The US Congress also passed legislation in July 1974, which placed a cap on the level of aid that could be sent to South Vietnam. This action was quite superfluous, because Senator Edward Kennedy was already successfully leading the campaign to deny South Vietnam military aid. Consequently President Thieu was forced to fight a 'poor man's war' because South Vietnam lacked the ammunition and the supply of spare parts to adequately counter communist aggression. Furthermore an appalling double standard in the US media's reporting of post-agreement fighting emerged in which they portrayed South Vietnam as violating the cease-fire when they responded to NVA/Viet Cong aggression. Due to this mis-reporting it became even more difficult for South Vietnam to obtain military aid from the US Congress. Therefore Thieu's previous failures to establish either a professional lobby group in Washington or a local manufacturing arms sector were thus proving to be fatal to his country.
Another 'justification' that the US Congress invoked for blocking aid to South Vietnam was the allegedly dictatorial nature of the Thieu regime. This analysis was flawed because in the period between 1973 and 1975, a vibrant civic culture emerged which gave to substance to the democratic processes that were stipulated in the 1967 constitution.
Party and
Up until Richard Nixon's resignation in August 1974, Thieu was able to maintain his political dominance within the context of South Vietnam's political scene. In response to North Vietnam's 1972 invasion, the National Assembly granted Thieu the right to rule by decree for six months in June that year. Due to the strong prospect in 1972 that a political settlement might stipulate elections in 1973 in which the political wing of the PGR - the National Liberation Front (NLF) - could participate, Thieu signed a decree regulating the registration of political parties. Under this decree political parties had to demonstrate that they had a nationwide membership and basis of support. Consequently Thieu was able in December 1972 to compel the various groupings that had constituted the pro-government bloc in the National Assembly to coalesce into his newly launched Dan Chu (or Democracy) Party.
To consolidate his hold over the new party and in order for it to meet the registration requirements, Thieu compelled many public servants to join it. The chief organiser of the Dan Chu Party1 was Nguyen Van Ngan, who was an intensely shrewd political operator. As a former Viet Minh cadre, a quirk of Ngan's was that he promoted the use of the term 'comrade' in party circles!1 Ngan continued in this role until he was dismissed as Party Chief in May 1974 at Nha's instigation.
In keeping with the objective of developing a political organisation that was on a par with the communists, all South Vietnamese political officials below the rank of cabinet minister were obliged to attend spartan ideological training camps. Attendance at these camps was an integral component of Thieu's 'Administrative Revolution', which he launched in 1973. The aim of this ideological campaign was to stimulate initiative amongst civil servants and draw them closer to the needs of the people.
The Dan Chu-backed Senate candidates swept to an easy victory in the August 1973 senatorial elections. In January 1974 the South Vietnamese Senate amended the constitution to allow Thieu to seek a third term and extended it from four to five years. To expand Thieu's support base for the October 1975 presidential elections the Dan Chu Party backed candidates that had strong followings in provincial and city council elections that were held in July 1974.2 These successful candidates were then formally recruited by Thieu into the Dan Chu Party and expected to establish party branches from which candidates for the National Assembly would be pre-selected for the October 1975 elections. This development in turn alarmed the sitting National Assembly Dan Chu Party members who had been drawn from the groups that had made up the superceded Front for Freedom and Democracy because they feared that they would be dislodged.2 Peter Collins, A Free Hand For the President, Far East Asian Economic Review, 22nd July 1974, page 26.
Thieu Fails
to Go All
the Way
Unfortunately Thieu's commitment to fostering grass roots support did not extend to reforming the upper echelons of the military and of his regime. Most of the members of Thieu's Cabinet were indolent and/or corrupt. Thieu tolerated and supported these Cabinet ministers because he generally valued loyalty above ability. Similarly, Thieu stubbornly held onto non-performing ARVN officers because of his paranoid fear of falling victim to a military coup.
Instead of revamping his administration, Thieu relied on a small clique of capable and honest officials centered on his cousin Hoang Duc Nha (who was known as 'the Dauphin'), which included South Vietnam's brilliant young Minister for Economic Development and Planning, Dr Nguyen Tien Hung. Under Hung's direction hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees were successfully resettled, as were thousands of urban slum dwellers who had been hit hard by the economic contraction caused by the withdrawal of allied troops. The Planning Minister and the Finance Minister, Chau Kim Nham were responsible for South Vietnam avoiding an economic implosion due to cuts in US aid and in ensuring that the nation remained self-sufficient in rice.
It was also under Hung's direction that South Vietnam began to explore the prospect of exploiting potential oil reserves in the South China Sea. The expectations arising from the possibility of reaping an oil bonanza raised naïve expectations within the Thieu regime that they had found a panacea, which would save the country. (China's action of expelling an ARVN garrison from the Spratly Islands in August 1974 extinguished this hope).
While Thieu may have relied upon these talented select senior officials to sustain his regime, he nonetheless prevented them from building a power base, which could threaten him. Furthermore, Nha - similarly to Diem's brother Nhu - was hated by the Americans because of the role that he had played in 1972 in refusing to accept the terms of a political settlement as Kissinger had dictated. In contrast to Nhu however, Nha sought to remove ineffective officials and replace them with people of ability. For this reason Nha was cordially hated by much of the ARVN's senior ranks and Cabinet ministers, particularly his bete noire, the prime minister, General Tran Van Khiem.
Resignation -
Thieu's Power
Begins to
Richard Nixon's resignation in August 1974 was a political disaster for Thieu and its ramifications sharply accelerated the process of South Vietnam's disintegration. President Nixon's personal support for Thieu had been a vital dynamic in maintaining his political ascendancy. This was because South Vietnam's ultimate survival hinged upon American support. Even while President Nixon was politically hamstrung by the Watergate affair and South Vietnam subsequently hæmorrhaging because of the congressionally induced cut backs in military aid, Hanoi was still very wary about exploiting its military advantage. This apprehension arose from its fear of incurring President Nixon's wrath.
The negative political repercussions arising from Nixon's resignation were not long in coming for Thieu. In September 1974, a Diemist priest, Father Tranh Huu Thanh launched a political campaign against Thieu under the banner of the 'People's Anti-Corruption Movement'. Ironically Father Thanh soon joined forces with the late Diem's former nemesis, the Buddhist cleric, Trich Tri Quang. Due to economic discontent caused by high inflation and unemployment rates arising from OPEC oil price hikes of 1973, thousands of people flocked to the anti-Thieu rallies. Father Thanh called on Thieu to resign in favour of his elderly civilian Vice President, Tran Van Huong, in order to ensure that a fair ballot occurred in the presidential elections scheduled for October 1975.
Thieu's critics in the US Congress cited the outbreak of anti-Thieu demonstrations as a further justification for their denying South Vietnam any further military aid. These so-called liberal democrats overlooked the fact that Thieu did not respond to this unrest by either clamping down on dissent or by censoring the opposition press, which was helping to fuel the demonstrations. Indeed on the 1st of October 1974, Thieu made a national broadcast in which he offered to resign. Thieu's American critics seemed oblivious to the fact that under him the latitude existed for dissent to be expressed and the scope for further democratic development to expand. By contrast a takeover of South Vietnam by the North would - and did - irrecoverably destroy this democratic potential.
In January 1975 the majority of Dan Chu Party legislators led by the Speaker Nguyen Ba Can defected to Premier Khiem's camp to support his presidential candidacy in the October 1975 elections. They made this shift because they were alienated from Thieu due to his desire to remove them in an effort to re-invigorate the ruling party. The following month opposition National Assembly Deputies coalesced to form the Social Democratic Alliance. This new opposition configuration enjoyed the backing of the Peoples' Anti-Corruption Movement and it devised a pre-selection process aimed at ensuring that its eventual presidential candidate enjoyed broad grass roots support.
Because of opposition within the ARVN, Thieu did not have the option that President Park Chung Hee of South Korea and President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines had exercised in 1972 of suspending the Constitution. The ARVN itself was also resolutely opposed to staging a military coup for fear of plunging the nation into political turmoil that it could ill afford due to its precarious military position.
Consequently the pre-conditions existed in early 1975 for South Vietnam to hold a competitive and democratic presidential election scheduled for October that year. Thieu's best hope of winning re-election was to appeal to the peasants that had benefited from the earlier 'Land to the Tiller' agrarian reform program. It was also noteworthy that the NLF/PGR played a negligible role in fomenting the anti-Thieu unrest of 1974-1975. At the time of Saigon's fall in April 1975 there were an estimated 200 NLF activists in the capital.
1975 Dry
The NLF/PGR's lack of political support did not unduly perturb Hanoi, which had always regarded the non-communist elements within it as 'useful idiots'. Indeed the South Vietnamese political situation was a subsidiary issue for North Vietnam because the bulk of its army by late 1974 had moved into the South through the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was therefore only a matter of time before the communists exploited their military advantage.
North Vietnam's Dry Season Offensive, which would destroy South Vietnam, commenced in March 1975, when regular NVA troops took the strategically valuable provincial city of Ban Me Thuot. The fall of this city was a disaster for South Vietnam because it was the linchpin, which underwrote the ARVN's military position in the Central Highlands region. Due to US congressional cutbacks, South Vietnam lacked the military capacity to effectively counter the North's full-fledged offensive. Therefore Thieu resorted to drastic action by deciding to abandon the less populated Central Highlands region and focus on holding the nation's populous coastal cities and the fertile Mekong Delta region.
Thieu's decision to abandon the Central Highlands was strategically sound because it offered South Vietnam its best hope of survival by enabling the ARVN to conserve its strength and hold onto the more populous and defensible parts of the country. Unfortunately the execution of the retreat was inept. Because the families of ARVN personnel tended to live in the barracks, they also tried to flee, thereby fatally undermining the execution of an expeditious withdrawal. As a justified panic set in amongst the general population of the Central Highlands about being abandoned to the communists, hundreds of thousands of civilians cluttered the highways, thereby sabotaging an effective evacuation. The NVA took advantage of this unfolding debacle by shelling the columns of retreating refugees. As a result of this botched retreat the ARVN began to implode as the well armed NVA expanded its offensive.
Thieu was himself partly responsible for the ARVN's disintegration because he created confusion by failing to issue clear-cut orders to officers in the field during the retreat. However the deeper cause of the ARVN's implosion was Thieu's policy of placing a higher premium on loyalty than on ability. Therefore the NVA was able to take Danang and Hue with relative ease, because of the incompetence of General Dan Van Quang. By contrast, the outnumbered and outgunned ARVN garrison at Xuan Loc, held out heroically against the NVA due to the courage of its commander, General Le Minh Dao. Furthermore it was often difficult for the ARVN to effectively fight when it lacked the ammunition to do so because of US congressional aid cuts.
The tragedy of the ARVN's patchy performance during its rout by the NVA in March/April 1975 was that it demonstrated that the South Vietnamese army possessed the capacity to fight effectively when it was properly led. Therefore Thieu's failure (or reluctance) to purge the 'dead wood' from both his regime and the ARVN was all the more reprehensible because there was a talent pool from which he could have drawn. The botched retreat from the Central Highlands illustrated that while Thieu was intelligent enough to know what had to be done, his paranoia unfortunately stopped him from appointing the right people to carry out his orders. Ironically, despite Thieu's suspicious nature, he failed to discover that the communists had successfully infiltrated the highest echelons of the ARVN's military intelligence.
It was noteworthy that the 1975 images of masses of civilians fleeing before the NVA's advance, did not elicit any empathy on the part of American public opinion or an accompanying appreciation that most South Vietnamese were opposed to a communist takeover. Senator Ted Kennedy is still proud to this day of the role that he played in blocking emergency military aid to South Vietnam, even though the Vietnamese people are currently suffering under totalitarian rule. Senator George McGovern even opposed granting asylum to South Vietnamese refugees wanting to flee to the United States.
Even as South Vietnam was collapsing in 1975, the United States was still in a position to win the war for that country. This was because the rapid advance by the NVA left the bulk of it open to obliteration by a short and sharp US B-52 aerial bombing campaign. Thieu sent US President Gerald Ford an urgent cable (which was actually drafted by Dr Hung) requesting that the United States honour its promise to protect South Vietnam by undertaking such a bombing campaign. If such a campaign was short enough, it might have circumvented US congressional restrictions. The United States' capacity to save South Vietnam was sabotaged, due to the cumulative effects of anti-war agitation, media mis-reporting and the consequent shift in US public opinion against their nation taking military action abroad.
The Fall
of Saigon
Thieu's political stocks correspondingly deteriorated with the South's military situation. Although former Vice President Ky was a Buddhist, he received strong support from many Catholics, northern Vietnamese refugees and the hard right of the Dan Chu Party for him to take over the disintegrating nation. These militantly anti-communist power blocs looked to Ky as the man to effectively resist the NVA's onslaught. Alternatively there were political figures that looked to Big Minh to save the nation by forming a coalition government with the PGR before the NVA reached Saigon. In order to facilitate Thieu's departure Hanoi cynically waded into these political machinations by announcing its willingness to negotiate a political settlement on the condition that Thieu was removed from the scene.
Deprived of any capacity to hold onto office, Thieu resigned as president on the 21st of April. He adamantly refused, however, to make way for either Ky or Big Minh and handed over the remnants of South Vietnam to Vice President Huong. Nonetheless within a week President Huong made way for Big Minh, who in turn unconditionally surrendered Saigon and the rest of South Vietnam to North Vietnam on the 30th of April 1975.
Bitterness -
In a televised speech, Thieu tearfully denounced the United States for failing to honour its secret undertakings to assist and protect South Vietnam in return for his having been a party to the Paris Agreement. Although Thieu was in an emotionally unstable state when he delivered his resignation speech, he nonetheless helped salvage his reputation amongst many South Vietnamese by arguing that the ultimate culpability for South Vietnam's defeat lay with the United States' failure to come through for its ally.
Van Thieu's
Denied entry to the United States, Thieu first took refuge in Taiwan. While he shared his host's anti- communism, Thieu might have felt uneasy about living in Taiwan because he had previously toyed with the idea of establishing diplomatic relations with mainland China as a means of fatally undercutting Hanoi. At any rate, Thieu moved to Surrey, England in 1979. There he purchased a mansion, which he dubbed the 'White House' and went by the alias 'Mr Martin'. (This was the surname of the last US ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin).
Although the funds that Thieu lived off in exile were probably misappropriated, his greed was not of kleptomaniac proportions which placed him on a par with some, such as the late dictator of Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Mobutu Seko Sese. Thieu eventually sold his mansion and moved to a flat in London. The former leader rarely granted interviews and declined to write his memoirs. He was interviewed however for one of the best television documentaries on the war, Vietnam: The 10,000 Day War. His interview for this documentary series was very valuable, because it provided a South Vietnamese perspective on the war.
In 1980 Thieu formed a clandestine emigré organisation called The National People's Revolutionary Organisation (NPRO). This organisation did not make its existence known until 1986. In that year, a front group of the organisation the Vietnamese Lawyer's Campaign Committee for the Restoration of the 1973 Paris Agreement was launched in November 1986. This committee was headed by Law Professor Vu Quoc Thuć. The committee he chaired asserted that South Vietnam's continued legal existence was ensured by the 1973 Paris Agreement and that the Republic of Vietnam's sovereignty resided in the person of Nguyen Van Thieu. It was ironic that Thieu's emigré supporters invoked the Paris 1973 Agreement so that their leader could maintain his legitimacy as a president amongst Vietnamese exiles, when the Thieu regime had been such a reluctant participant in the Paris talks.
In 1990 Thieu moved to Boston, USA. Shortly after his arrival Thieu made a speech which, in accordance with the NPRO's policy, advocated that Vietnamese refugees return to their homeland with a gun and overthrow the communists. Coincidentally, in 1990, Vietnam's communist regime uncovered and pre-emptively crushed underground cells intent on taking military actions.
As was the case with many Vietnamese refugees Thieu was naturally elated by the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the subsequent break up of the Soviet Union. In a 1992 interview that was featured prominently in the Boston Globe, Thieu predicted his return to power. This forlorn hope was the major subject of discussion that Thieu had with loyalists when they came to visit him. In an attempt probably aimed at facilitating his re-entry into Vietnamese politics, Thieu unsuccessfully offered himself as a prospective go-between in trade talks between the Clinton administration and communist Vietnam. (If Vietnam ever does manage to free itself from communist rule, this will probably occur as a result of a domino effect in the event of China's communist regime falling).
and the 11th of
The fall of Saigon in 1975 was the worst defeat that the United States suffered during the Cold War. Although this defeat has been negated by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the Vietnamese people continue to suffer under communist rule. Similarly while President George W Bush may identify Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "Axis of Evil", these regimes should not only be eliminated because they threaten international security, but also because they brutally repress their own citizens. In this context, the tragedy of the Vietnam Syndrome is the effect that it still has on the American psyche in influencing the United States against taking military action abroad and from committing itself to promoting democracy by assisting in nation building.
If the world is to become a safer place in which human rights are respected, then democracy must be promoted. The facilitation of this outcome often requires focussing on the historical and political dynamics of a particular country. If the United States is to successfully meet the challenges that have arisen as a result of the 11th of September terrorist attacks, then it will have to overcome the effects of the Vietnam Syndrome. In this context Nguyen Van Thieu is an important historical figure because he was the leader of a nation which the United States failed to rescue. For the sake of the future of democracy and human rights around the world, the United States should not allow the legacy of the Vietnam Syndrome to continue.
David Bennett (Master of Arts) has edited the publications The Sentinel and Serendipity.
Hai Au, Playing to a Powerful Audience, Far Eastern Economic Review, 17th June 1974, pg 24.

Peter Collins, A Free Hand for the President, Far Eastern Economic Review, 22nd July 1974, pg 26.

Bui Deng with David Chanoff, In the Jaws of History, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1987.

Clark Dougan, David Fulghum and the editors of the Boston Publishing Company, The Vietnam Experience: The Fall of the South, Boston Publishing Company, Boston, 1985. Nguyen Tien Hung and Jerrold L. Schecher, The Palace File, Harper and Row Publishers, 1986.

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, Viking, New York, 1983.

Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of A War: Vietnam, The United States and the Modern Historical Experience, City Publishing, United Kingdom, United Kingdom, 2001.

Samuel Lipsman, Edward Doyle and the editors of the Boston Publishing Company, The Fighting Experience: Fighting for Time: 1969 to 1970, Boston Publishing Company, Boston, MA, 1983

Samuel Lipsman, Stephen Weiss and the editors of the Boston Publishing Company, The Vietnam Experience: The False Peace 1972 - 1977, Boston Publishing Company, Boston, MA, 1985.

Richard Nixon, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Grosset and Dunlap, New York, 1978.

Richard Nixon, No More Vietnams, Comet, Kent, 1985.

Frank Snepp, Decent Interval: An Insider's Account of Saigon's Indecent End, Told by the CIA's Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam, Random House, New York, 1977.

Dao Tang, The Struggle for Democracy in Vietnam, Butterfly Books, Melbourne, 1994.

More Nguyen Van Thieu Biographies and Obituaries
Dr Wellington Pham's pageDr Wellington Pham's webpage contains a very brief obituary for Nguyen Van Thieu, with a photograph. Most of the page is dedicated to information about jewellery.
CikadeThis Danish communist website supports the communist dictatorships of both Vietnam and Cuba.
On the event of Nguyen Van Thieu's death, they republished obituaries from a number of news outlets, most of which are worth reading (if one overlooks the terse North Vietnamese News Agency obituary with which the compilation commences.)
VietnamWar.netShort biography of Nguyen Van Thieu on VietnamWar.net
Ignore any 'security alert' messages after clicking this link - they are simply banner advertisements for unnecessary software.
VietnampixVietnampix biography of Nguyen Van Thieu (brief).
Other Pages of Interest
Monarchy of VietnamA worthwhile support webpage for the monarchy of Vietnam in exile.
PWHCE: More Vietnam LinksPWHCE's Asia Resources Page contains links and articles on Asia in general, with a section dedicated to Vietnam.
PWHCE TalkIn May 2004 Quynh Dao gave a talk for PWHCE, entitled, "Two Sides to Every Story: Perspectives on the Vietnam War and the Iraq War"

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