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Duong Van Minh; Last President of S. Vietnam

Obituaries

August 08, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gen. Duong Van "Big" Minh, the man recorded in history as the South Vietnam president who surrendered unconditionally to Communist forces on April 30, 1975, has died in Pasadena. He was 86.

Minh, head of his small country for only 48 hours, suffered a fall Sunday at his Pasadena home. He died Monday night in Huntington Memorial Hospital.

The four-star general and former chief of staff of the armed forces of the Republic of South Vietnam had also served as chief of state for several months in 1964 after a U.S.-backed military junta overthrew South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Considered something of a neutralist by the mid-1970s, Minh was elected as the third president in eight days after President Nguyen Van Thieu fled the country. The South Vietnam Senate and Assembly voted unanimously for Minh in a last-gasp hope that he could negotiate a political end to the war and forge a coalition government with the Communists.

Minh, nicknamed "Big" because at 6 feet tall and 200 pounds he dwarfed his Vietnamese contemporaries, called for an immediate cease-fire and national reconciliation of all Vietnamese in his inaugural speech. But reconciliation and coalition were by then beyond possibility.

Nothing in his ever-so-brief tenure became him like the ending of it.

At 10:24 a.m. on April 30, 1975, just hours after the final evacuation of 900 Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin, and with the People's Liberation Armed Forces approaching his presidential palace, Minh went on the radio to announce:

"The Republic of Vietnam policy is the policy of peace and reconciliation, aimed at saving the blood of our people. We are here waiting for the Provisional Revolutionary Government to hand over the authority in order to stop useless bloodshed."

Minh sat with his 30 top advisors in two rows of chairs on the palace steps, awaiting the victors. When the first Communist tank crashed through the palace gates at 11:10 a.m., Minh said: "The revolution is here. You are here."

That afternoon, Minh went on the radio again to announce to the people: "I declare the Saigon government is completely dissolved at all levels."

Unlike many influential South Vietnamese leaders, Minh had not made Southern California his home since the fall of Saigon. Arrested after his official surrender, he was permitted to return to his villa a few days later and lived in seclusion there for eight years, continuing to grow exotic orchids and raise birds.

Diplomatic observers speculated that the Communist Vietnamese, with whom Minh was known to be in contact before the fall of Saigon, might "rehabilitate" Minh and give him a place in the new South Vietnamese government. But in 1983, Minh was allowed to immigrate to France. He lived near Paris until a few years ago, when he settled in Pasadena with his daughter, Mai Duong. He did not write his memoirs or discuss the past.

On Tuesday, Minh was little mourned by Southern California's large Vietnamese community, which is concentrated in Orange County.

"He was seen as the officer responsible for Vietnam's fall," said Lan Quoc Nguyen, a community activist and Westminster attorney. "Many people are still angry at him for ordering the soldiers to put their weapons down."

Orange County Superior Court Judge Nho Trong Nguyen, who met Minh in the mid-1950s, said, "He was a good man, a good general but not a politician. He was a popular man, but he didn't have the good political leadership skills to deal with the turmoil and intricacies of politics at the time."

Minh had a long-term, checkered reputation with the Americans who waged war in Vietnam. The CIA befriended him enough to pay for his dental work and ease his way during a period of exile in Thailand, yet U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker frequently referred to him publicly with obscenities.

Born in the Mekong Delta province of My Tho, Minh was a Buddhist and attended a top French colonial school in Saigon, where Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk was also educated.

Minh built his career in the military when Vietnam was controlled by France. He earned American notice in the mid-1950s, when he led troops in putting down an uprising by the Binh Xuyen sect, which controlled crime in Saigon. Minh was then sent to study, despite his poor English, at the U.S. command and general staff college at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.

Always well-liked by his own officers and Americans, Minh was tapped by the CIA to help lead the ouster of Diem. Political opponents would later claim that Minh personally ordered the execution of Diem, who was shot by Minh's bodyguard.

When he took power, Minh was an American favorite, playing tennis and sharing war stories with Gen. Maxwell Taylor, then U.S. ambassador, and impressing Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.

But the dilatory Minh preferred playing mah-jongg and giving tea parties to fighting with the Viet Cong or administering his troubled nation. He was easily ousted by Nguyen Khanh and exiled to Thailand in 1964.

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