Nguyen Cao Ky was named the premier of South Vietnam in 1965, at age 34. (Associated Press )
It was an about-face that outraged a generation displaced by war.
Nguyen Cao Ky, the former South Vietnam leader known for ruthlessly defending democracy, was suddenly, at 73, rubbing shoulders with communist officials — something that seemed unthinkable to those who had fled the country during the painful days after the Vietnam War.
Vietnamese Americans who had rallied around him felt betrayed, and Ky's once-revered stature in the small Orange County community the refugees had adopted was sullied.
Nearly seven years later, sentiments toward Ky among the fiercely anti-communist residents of Little Saigon haven't diminished. But his death Saturday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, may have marked a changing of the tide.
"From a political standpoint, he represented parts of the Vietnam War at its height. With his passing, that era goes with him as well," said Van Tran, who fled Vietnam as a child and later became the first Vietnamese American to serve in the California legislature.
"Many leaders of the South Vietnamese government have passed on, and it's basically the wheel of time turning — that page of history is turning to another generation."
Among others, though, the wounds of war are still raw and Ky continues to be seen as a traitor.
"The overwhelming thought in the community was he was a traitor and most Vietnamese did not trust him," said political activist Ky Ngo, 58, who lives in Garden Grove. "Anyone can go back to the homeland, that's fine, but when you go and openly support the communist movement and criticize the former South Vietnam's government, you lose respect."
Ngo said he was sorry to hear about Ky's passing but said it meant little to a community that has denied him for so long.
Others couldn't help but feel sympathetic toward the former leader-turned-pariah.
"I feel like someone I know died," said Minh Nguyen, 65, of Fountain Valley. "The community is very angry with him, but, for me, I respect him. Everyone is allowed their own ideas."
Nguyen, a retired beauty school instructor who fled Vietnam in 1975, said she could understand Ky's allegiance to his homeland because her own husband eventually returned to Vietnam.
"My husband had been a commander in the South Vietnam navy. He felt like over there in Vietnam he had power, while over here he had lost everything," she said. "So I think it was the same for Nguyen Cao Ky."
Tony Lam, who used to play tennis and mah-jongg with Ky, said Ky had no intention of being the Vietnam government's lackey but rather believed he could help the country.
"He had been doing his best in his own way for Vietnam," said Lam, who became the first Vietnamese-born person elected to political office in the United States when he won a seat on the Westminster City Council in 1992.
There was a time when Ky was a symbol of force in South Vietnam, rising quickly up the ranks of its air force to become a general. In 1965 he was named the country's premier at just 34, famous for sporting a black jumpsuit and violet scarf and making outrageous remarks, once suggesting he admired Hitler. He was later selected to be vice president.
On April 29, 1975 — the day before South Vietnam fell to communists — Ky escaped in a helicopter, flying to a U.S. aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.
He and his family lived in Virginia before heading to Orange County, where he struggled as the owner of a liquor store. He later moved to New Orleans and worked in the shrimp and fishing industry, eventually moving back to California, where he lived in Huntington Beach and, later, Hacienda Heights.
He became an exalted figure in Little Saigon when it was a tiny community just beginning to stretch its legs. Little Saigon is now the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, and the city government, the schools and the bustling commercial district reflect that. His daughter, Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, would go on to become the celebrated host of a Vietnamese variety show.
Little Saigon remained rigidly anti-communist. Street protests materialized when someone was suspected of being sympathetic to the government that now ran their homeland.
But around 2002 Ky began speaking of reconciling with Vietnam. Two years later, he made his first trip back to his birth country at the invitation of the Vietnamese government.
Vietnamese American radio hosts blasted him, and a group of protesters held a rally in Garden Grove to denounce Ky, saying he was allowing himself to be used as a pawn by a Vietnamese government looking to improve business relations with the United States.
Ky was unfazed. "It's time to close that dark chapter of Vietnam history and open a new one," he said at the time. "The road of old warriors has ended."
Lam remembers asking Ky about that controversial trip. The answer stuck with him.
"He said, 'To me, the war is over, and I don't want to be considered a warmonger. I want to try to improve the situation so it will benefit the people of Vietnam.'"
Lam agreed that Ky's name won't resonate the same with the next generation, far removed from the memories of war, but he said the controversial figure will always hold a unique place in history.
"Old generals don't fade away," Lam said.