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PORTRAITS / JOSEPH N. BELL

Vietnam's Once-Fiery Ky Now Just a 'Papa San'

October 14, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Things have been relatively quiet the past few years for Nguyen Cao Ky of Huntington Beach. No hooded witnesses have accused him of heading up organized crime in the Vietnamese community. No creditors have threatened to foreclose on his house. Columnist Jack Anderson hasn't renewed his charge that Ky, a former Vietnamese premier and air force general, arrived in the United States in 1975 with $10 million of booty.

And that's just fine with the 58-year-old Ky, who describes himself as an "old papa san" (he now has eight grandchildren) who decidedly prefers a low profile. This interview is the first he has given in more than four years--when he angrily denied the charges above. He is even trying to withdraw from his acknowledged place of leadership in the Vietnamese community.

"I'm very visible here," he said in the living room of his Huntington Beach home the other day, "very accessible to my people, and they still come to me for help. But now I tell them, 'I'm ready to retire. You young guys take over the responsibility.' But when someone comes asking for help, I can't say no."

He is also ready to acknowledge that he is a better pilot than businessman--although he's now learning a new trade. The famous liquor stores that figured so prominently in his financial problems a few years ago are now gone. Ky says he sold them and paid off his creditors three years ago. Soon afterward, he was invited to New Orleans to attend a convocation of American Vietnam veterans--something he does half a dozen times each year--and while he was there, he met with a group of Vietnamese fishermen, who were deeply resented by their American counterparts in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ky was able to help calm the situation, and his new friends persuaded him to become one of them--so he bought a fishing boat, all the while protesting, "I'm an aviator, not a fisherman." This venture, however, has not only fared better than the liquor stores, but has now grown in some unexpected directions. Ky organized the Vietnamese fishermen into a co-op, and earlier this year headed a group that took over a seafood factory that now processes and sells the catch of the fishermen under the label of Southern Gulf.

As a result, Ky now virtually commutes between New Orleans and his Huntington Beach home. He expects that to taper off soon and says he has no intention of moving, just of "retiring."

Ky looks almost exactly as he did in his Vietnam glory days except for some gray hair. He is diminutive, almost tiny, a rather startling anachronism for a man who cut such a wide swath in world affairs two decades ago. He smokes incessantly and speaks fluent English, but with a decided Asian accent and an occasional garbling of idiom.

His eyes are wary and contemplative, and he is thoughtful and deliberate in speech, also a decided contrast to the brash young man who pleaded with Lyndon B. Johnson to "let us invade the north." (In a recent New Yorker article, Neal Sheehan quoted the late American adviser John Paul Vann as saying of Ky: "The . . . little fool can't even drive a mile outside of Saigon without an armed convoy, and he wants to liberate the north! How damned ridiculous can you get?")

Ky doesn't remember it that way. "When I met President Johnson at Guam," he says, "I gave him a briefing. I'd resign as premier and head an invasion force of the north. It was our right to go north, and I proposed that only Vietnamese troops be used. If American forces were used to secure the south for us, all we needed to invade the north was supply and firepower support.

"I told him I knew the American people didn't have the patience for 10 years of war, so the U.S. should do like the Russians. Stay behind the scenes and give us what we need. Conventional warfare won't work here; it's too heavy and too slow. But he was listening to Rusk and McNamara then--not to me."

Ky insists that the collapse of South Vietnam within two years after American forces were withdrawn under the Paris Agreement of 1973 doesn't disprove his thesis. "I honestly admit it was our fault," he says, "but that only happened because of poor leadership." Ky had refused to run against Nguyen Van Thieu in the presidential election of 1971 "because the Americans were 100% in favor of Thieu; with him, they could do anything they wanted."

Thieu chose to cut Ky totally out of the power structure, and when a Newsweek reporter asked Ky in 1973 what would happen when the Americans withdrew, he said: "The Communists will come after us within two years, and if the leadership doesn't change before then, that final drive will be a debacle."

The prediction was right on target, and when Thieu fled before the Communists reached Saigon, Ky says he flew his helicopter to the presidential palace and offered his services to Thieu's successor. The offer was turned down, and a week later, Saigon fell.

Does Ky really think he could have turned the tide at that point?

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