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OBITUARIES

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

October 01, 2001|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thieu's governments were rife with corruption, greed, incompetence and petty political jealousies, and Thieu himself was often overshadowed by his flamboyant vice president, Nguyen Cao Ky. But Washington stuck by Thieu as the best man to carry on the war, and Thieu proved to be an obedient and loyal ally.

He supported President Lyndon Johnson's decision in March 1968 to curtail the bombing of North Vietnam in order to start peace talks. But Thieu always believed--and was proved correct--that Hanoi's goal was victory, not a negotiated settlement.

Only under relentless pressure from Washington did Thieu agree to sign the Paris peace agreement in January 1973, which led to the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces but allowed Hanoi to keep its troops in place in the South. Thieu said that President Richard Nixon had promised that the United States would respond forcefully to any North Vietnamese attempts to grab the South's territory.

But a year later, President Gerald Ford did nothing when Hanoi launched a major attack on Binh Long province. To both Hanoi and Thieu, the signal was clear: The United States had had enough of the war.

"The Americans promised us--we trusted them," Thieu said later. "I won a solid pledge from our great ally, leader of the free world, that when and if North Vietnam renewed its aggression, the United States would actively and strongly intervene."

Early in 1975, North Vietnam launched an all-out assault on South Vietnam, sending entire divisions across the unmarked border. Town after town fell with barely a fight.

In Thieu's hometown, elite South Vietnamese marine and ranger units panicked and fled. Hanoi's troops bulldozed the Thieu family burial grounds, plowing its tombs into the earth. It was the ultimate insult in a society that equates ancestor worship with spiritual harmony.

Thieu consulted only two officers before ordering his troops to abandon the highlands, giving them six hours to begin the retreat--which turned into a mad stampede of terrified civilians and soldiers. South Vietnam's forces were never able to effectively regroup around Saigon.

Still, Thieu wouldn't resign, despite Washington's urging. He apparently didn't accept the reality of what was happening until his Saigon commander, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Van Toan, surveyed the pounding that South Vietnam's troops had taken east of the capital and told Thieu, "Monsieur le President, la guerre est fini."

On April 21, tears welling in his eyes, Thieu delivered an address in which he blamed the United States for failing to fulfill its promises and for abandoning an ally.

"I resign, but I do not desert," Thieu said.

Five days later, he was gone, headed for Taiwan in a U.S. C-118 transport plane, carrying 15 tons of luggage and--according to many reports, which Thieu always denied--$15 million in gold.

During more than 25 years in exile, he predicted that communism wouldn't last long in Vietnam and warned that the United States should not be "lured" into establishing diplomatic relations with Hanoi, which Washington did in 1995. The Vietnamese community in the United States paid Thieu little heed and heckled him at a rare speech he gave, in Orange County in the early 1990s.

"When democracy is recovered in Vietnam, I can say that my dream has come true," Thieu told the Boston Globe in 1992. "I can go back to my life. I would like to go back to my own province, my native province. That's the best place."

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Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Dennis McLellan contributed to this report.

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