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Nguyen Van Thieu, 78; S. Vietnam's President

October 01, 2001|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam's wartime president who fled into exile just days before his country fell to Hanoi's Communist troops in 1975, died Saturday, having long believed he had been betrayed by his U.S. allies in the final months of the war. He was 78.

Thieu, who collapsed at home Thursday in the Boston suburb of Foxboro, left many questions unanswered.

Among them: Why did he abandon South Vietnam's highlands to Hanoi's invading troops in March 1975? That decision led to the fall of Saigon a month later.

Thieu played a pivotal role in virtually every major event in Vietnam for a decade, from the overthrow of the Ngo Dinh Diem government in 1963, to the 1973 Paris peace accords, which he bitterly opposed, to the final, chaotic days of Saigon. He had already fled when North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace on April 30 to end a war that cost the lives of 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans.

But his secrets go with him to the grave. He never wrote a memoir, granted few interviews and received few visitors. Neighbors saw him walking his dog around Neponset Reservoir, but they knew little about him.

"I don't go out much," he said in 1992. "I do not, how do you say, go on promenade."

Members of the Vietnamese community in Orange County had mixed feelings about his death. He was criticized for heading a corrupt and incompetent government.

"The feeling is another chapter of history is turned," said Tony Lam, a Westminster city councilman and the first Vietnamese American elected official in the nation.

Lam said he takes a "very moderate stance" when it comes to the controversies surrounding Thieu, whom he met in Vietnam three decades ago, when Lam worked for the U.S. Embassy. He remembers Thieu as a friendly man who motivated others to help people and someone who may have been the victim of circumstances beyond his control.

"He ran a tight ship during that time," Lam said. "I felt that he was led into a primrose path by U.S. policy."

"There's a lot of controversy about his tenure as the former president of Vietnam," said Mai Cong, chairwoman of the Vietnamese Community of Orange County Inc. "The man is dead. I don't want to say anything."

Thieu, in a rare interview, acknowledged the criticism from his former countrymen.

"I talk with them very frankly, sincerely," he told the Boston Globe in 1992. "You say that you blame me for the fall of South Vietnam, you criticize me, everything. I let you do that. I like to see you do better than I."

Nguyen Van Thieu (the name means he who ascends) was born April 5, 1923, the youngest of five children, in the dirt-poor town of Phan Rang in central Ninh Thuan province, then part of the French protectorate of Annam. His father was a relatively prosperous fisherman-farmer and small-land holder.

Ninh Thuan was occupied by the Japanese in 1942, but there was little resistance, and Thieu worked uneventfully alongside his father in the rice paddies for three years. When World War II ended, Thieu, like many young men his age, joined the anti-French nationalist movement, the Viet Minh (later known as the Viet Cong) and rose to the rank of district chief.

"By August of 1946, I knew that Viet Minh were Communists," Thieu once told Time magazine, explaining why he quit the movement after a year and moved secretly to Saigon to support the South Vietnamese government. "They shot people. They overthrew the village committee. They seized the land."

Thieu, with the help of his brother, Nguyen Van Hieu, a Paris-trained lawyer and top government official, attended the Merchant Marine Academy and the National Military Academy in Dalat. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1949, and as an infantry platoon commander in the campaign against the Viet Minh he became known as a good strategist and a capable, if not daring, leader. He rose quickly through the ranks.

In 1954, as a battalion commander with the rank of major, he led an attack on the Viet Minh, forcing the guerrillas to withdraw from his home village.

Thieu went on to become a division and corps commander and twice, in 1957 and 1960, was sent to the United States for military training. In November 1963, he directed an attack on the barracks of Diem's presidential guard, helping ensure the overthrow of the military regime and Diem's assassination.

As a reward, he was made secretary-general of the Military Revolutionary Council that held power in South Vietnam.

South Vietnam had 10 governments in the 19 months that followed. The United States, desperate for an anti-Communist leader to unify the segments of society, put its considerable influence behind Thieu, a Buddhist who had converted to Catholicism and a man who belonged to no military or political clique.

With U.S. backing, Thieu was elected president in October 1967. He promised democracy and social reform and to "open wide the door of peace and leave it open." He was reelected in 1971; both elections were widely seen as rigged in his favor.

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