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|Nguyễn Văn Thiệu|
|President of South Vietnam|
14 June 1965 – 21 April 1975
|Prime Minister||Nguyễn Cao Kỳ
Nguyễn Văn Lộc
Trần Văn Hương
Trần Thiện Khiêm
Nguyễn Bá Cẩn
|Vice President||Nguyễn Cao Kỳ (1967-1971)|
|Preceded by||Phan Khắc Sửu|
|Succeeded by||Dương Văn Minh|
5 April 1923|
Phan Rang–Tháp Chàm, Ninh Thuận Province, French Indochina
|Died||29 September 2001
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, United States
|Political party||National Social Democratic Party (1969-1975)|
|Spouse(s)||Nguyễn Thị Mai Anh|
|Children||Two sons, one daughter|
|Allegiance||State of Vietnam
|Service/branch||Vietnamese National Army
Army of the Republic of Vietnam
|Years of service||1949–1967|
|Commands||Vietnamese National Military Academy (1956-1960)
7th Division (1960-1961)
1st Division (1961-1962)
5th Division (1962-1964)
IV Corps (1964-1965)
|Battles/wars||1960 South Vietnamese coup attempt
1963 South Vietnamese coup
Nguyễn Văn Thiệu (Northern Vietnamese pronunciation: [ŋwiən˧ˀ˥ vǎn˧ tʰiəw˧ˀ˩ʔ]; Southern Vietnamese pronunciation: [ŋwiŋ˧˩˧ vǎŋ˧ tʰiw˨˧] ( ); 5 April 1923 – 29 September 2001) was president of South Vietnam from 1965–75. He was a general in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), became head of a military junta, and then president after winning a scheduled election. He established rule over South Vietnam until he resigned and left the nation a few days before the fall of Saigon and the ultimate communist victory.
Born in Phan Rang, Thiệu was a descendent of the Tran Dinh dynasty of Annamese nobles. Thiệu initially joined the communist-dominated Việt Minh of Hồ Chí Minh but quit after a year and joined the Vietnamese National Army (VNA) of the French-backed State of Vietnam. He gradually rose up the ranks and, in 1954, led a battalion in expelling the communists from his native village. Following the withdrawal of the French, the VNA became the ARVN and Thiệu was the head of the Vietnamese National Military Academy for four years before becoming a division commander and colonel. In November 1960, he helped put down a coup attempt against President Ngô Đình Diệm. During this time, he also converted to Roman Catholicism and joined the regime's secret Cần Lao Party; Diệm was thought to give preferential treatment to his co-religionists and Thiệu was accused of being one of many who converted for political advancement, although he claimed to have converted because his wife was a Catholic.
Despite this, Thiệu agreed to join the coup against Diệm in November 1963 in the midst of the Buddhist crisis, leading the siege on Gia Long Palace. Diệm was captured and executed and Thiệu made a general. Following Diệm's death, there were several short-lived juntas as coups occurred frequently. Thiệu gradually moved up the ranks of the junta by adopting a cautious approach while other officers around him defeated and sidelined one another. In 1965, stability came to South Vietnam when he became the figurehead head of state, while Air Marshall Nguyễn Cao Kỳ became prime minister, leading a junta that ended the cycle of coups with two years of continuity, although the men were rivals. In 1967, a transition to elected government was scheduled; and, after a power struggle within the military, Thiệu ran for the presidency with Kỳ as his running mate—both men had wanted the top job. To allow the two to work together, their fellow officers had agreed to have a military body controlled by Kỳ shape policy behind the scenes. The opposition claims that the election was rigged, though an article in Time magazine from 1967 quotes South Vietnamese citizens saying that they thought the election was more fair than any under Diem. Leadership tensions became evident and Thiệu prevailed, sidelining Kỳ supporters from key military and cabinet posts. Thiệu then passed legislation to restrict candidacy eligibility for the 1971 election, banning almost all would-be opponents, while the rest withdrew as it was obvious that the poll would be a sham; Thiệu won more than 90 percent of the vote and the election was uncontested, while Kỳ retired from politics.
During his rule, Thiệu was accused of turning a blind eye to and indulging in corruption, and appointing loyalists rather than competent officers to lead ARVN units. In 1968, he was caught out by the Tết Offensive due to complacency, and during the 1971 Operation Lam Sơn 719 and the communists’ Easter Offensive, the I Corps in the north of the country was under the command of his confidant, Hoàng Xuân Lãm, whose incompetence led to heavy defeats until Thiệu finally replaced him with Ngô Quang Trưởng. After the signing of the Paris Peace Accords—which Thiệu opposed—and the American withdrawal, South Vietnam resisted the communists for another two years until the communists’ final push for victory, which saw the South openly invaded by the entire North Vietnamese Army. Thiệu gave contradictory orders to Trưởng to stand and fight or withdraw and consolidate, leading to mass panic and collapse in the north of the country. This allowed the communists to generate much momentum and within a month they were close to Saigon, prompting Thiệu to resign and leave the country aboard an American helicopter, just before the communists completed their conquest. He eventually settled near Boston, USA preferring not to talk to the media, until his death in 2001.
Born in Phan Rang on the south central coast of Vietnam, Thiệu was a son of a small, well-off landowner who earned his living by farming and fishing. Thiệu was the youngest of five children. According to some reports, Thiệu was born in November 1924, but adopted 5 April 1923, as his birthday on grounds that it was a more auspicious day. His elder brothers raised money so that he could attend the elite schools run by France, who were Vietnam's colonial masters. Although not yet a Catholic (he would convert later in life after getting married), Thiệu attended Pellerin, a French-run Catholic school in Huế, the imperial seat of the Nguyễn Dynasty. He returned to his hometown after graduating.
During World War II, Imperial Japan invaded French Indochina and seized control. Ninh Thuận was taken over by the Japanese in 1942, but the reaction from the locals was muted, and Thiệu continued to work the ricelands alongside his father for another three years.
When World War II ended, Thiệu joined the Việt Minh, led by Hồ Chí Minh, whose goal was to liberate Vietnam from French colonialism. With no rifles, Thiệu's class of Việt Minh recruits trained in jungle clearings with bamboo. He rose to be district chief, but left the movement after just one year, following the return of the French to southern Vietnam in 1946 to contest Việt Minh control. Thiệu said, "By August of 1946, I knew that Việt Minh were Communists … They shot people. They overthrew the village committee. They seized the land." He defected and moved to Saigon and joined the forces of the French-backed State of Vietnam.
With the help of his brother, Nguyễn Văn Hiếu, a Paris-trained lawyer who served in the upper echelons of the State of Vietnam government, Thiệu initially was enrolled in the Merchant Marine Academy. After a year, he was given his officer's commission, but he rejected a position on a ship when he discovered that the French owners were going to pay him less than his French colleagues. This incident was said to have made him suspicious of foreigners. Thiệu later became known for his paranoia and distrust of his American allies when he rose to the top of politics.
Thiệu transferred to the National Military Academy in Đà Lạt. In 1949, upon graduation, he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant from the first officer candidates' course of the Vietnam National Army, which had been created by former Emperor Bảo Đại who had agreed to be the Chief of State of the State of Vietnam to fight against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam of the Việt Minh. Thiệu started as the commander of an infantry platoon fighting against the Việt Minh. He quickly rose up the ranks, and was known as a good strategist, albeit cautious, with an aversion to attacking unless victory appeared almost assured. He was sent to France to train at the Infantry School at Coëtquidan, before returning home to attend the Staff College in Hanoi. Nevertheless, Thiệu was regarded as "very much a country boy, lacking the manners of more sophisticated urban dwellers who aspired to become officers". By 1954, he was a major and led a battalion that attacked a Việt Minh unit, forcing the communists to withdraw from Phan Rang. At first the Việt Minh retreated into Thiệu's old family home, confident that he would not attack his own house, but they were mistaken.
Thiệu was a lieutenant colonel when the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) was founded and officially gained full sovereignty after the withdrawal of French forces in 1955, following the 1954 Geneva Agreement. In 1956, he was appointed as head of the National Military Academy in Đà Lạt, and held the post for four years. There he formed ties with many of the younger officers and trainees and who went on to become his generals, colonels and majors when he ascended to the presidency a decade later. In 1957, and again in 1960, Thiệu was sent to the United States for military training. He studied at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and in weapons training at Fort Bliss, Texas, as well as at the Joint and Combined Planning School of the Pacific Command in Okinawa.
On 11 November 1960, Colonels Vương Văn Đông and Nguyễn Chánh Thi launched a coup attempt against President Ngô Đình Diệm, but after surrounding the palace, they stopped attacking and decided to negotiate a power-sharing agreement. Diệm falsely promised reform, allowing time for loyalists to come to the rescue. The rebels had also failed to seal the highways into the capital to block loyalist reinforcements.
Thiệu sent infantry from his 7th Division from Biên Hòa, a town just north of Saigon, to help rescue Diệm. As the false promises of reform were being aired, Trần Thiện Khiêm's men approached the palace grounds. Some of the rebels switched sides as the power balance changed. After a brief but violent battle that killed around 400 people, the coup attempt was crushed. On 21 October 1961, Thiệu was transferred to command the 1st Division, based in Huế, the former imperial capital in central Vietnam. He remained in the post until 8 December 1962, when General Đỗ Cao Trí took over. Twelve days later, Thiệu was appointed commander of the 5th Division, which was based in Biên Hòa, the 7th having been moved to Mỹ Tho. Diệm did not trust Thiệu's predecessor, Nguyễn Đức Thắng, but Thiệu's appointment proved to be a mistake.
Thiệu turned against Diệm late, and led his 5th Division in the revolt. Late on the night of November 1, as light drizzle fell, Thiệu's tanks, artillery, and troops advanced towards the grounds of Gia Long Palace. A little before 22:00, infantry started the assault, covered by tank and artillery fire, which flattened the Presidential Guard barracks. Demolition units set charges to the palace, and rebel flamethrowers sprayed buildings, as the two sides exchanged gunfire. After a lull, shortly after 3:00, the shelling resumed, and just after 5:00, Thiệu ordered the start of the final stage of the siege. By 6:37, the palace fell. He was then made a general by the junta after they took power. Diệm had been promised exile by the generals, but after running away from the palace, was executed on the journey back to military headquarters after being captured. Dương Văn Minh, the junta and coup leader, was generally blamed for ordering Diệm's assassination, but there has been debate about the culpability.
When Thiệu rose to become president, Minh blamed him for the assassinations. In 1971, Minh claimed that Thiệu had caused the deaths by hesitating and delaying the attack on Gia Long Palace, implying that if Diệm was captured there, junior officers could not have killed him while in a small group. General Trần Văn Đôn, another plotter, was reported to have pressured Thiệu during the night of the siege, asking him on the phone "Why are you so slow in doing it? Do you need more troops? If you do, ask Đính to send more troops—and do it quickly because after taking the palace you will be made a general." Thiệu stridently denied responsibility and issued a statement that Minh did not dispute: "Dương Văn Minh has to assume entire responsibility for the death of Ngô Đình Diệm."
Diệm remained a taboo subject until Thiệu became president. His regime first approved of public memorial services for Diệm upon the eighth anniversary of his death in 1971, and this was the third year that such services were permitted. Madame Thiệu, the First Lady, was seen weeping at a requiem mass for Diệm at the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica.
Thiệu was rewarded with membership in the 12-man Military Revolutionary Council led by General Minh, and served as the secretary general; the leading figures in the MRC were Generals Minh, Trần Văn Đôn, Lê Văn Kim and Tôn Thất Đính.
In August 1964, the junta head, General Nguyễn Khánh, decided to increase his authority by declaring a state of emergency, increasing police powers, banning protests, tightening censorship and allowing the police arbitrary search and imprisonment powers. He drafted a new constitution, which would have augmented his personal power. However, these moves only served to weaken Khánh as large demonstrations and riots broke out in the cities, with majority Buddhists prominent, calling for an end to the state of emergency and the abandonment of the new constitution, as well as a progression back to civilian rule.
Fearing that he could be toppled by the intensifying protests, Khánh made concessions, repealing the new constitution and police measures, and promising to reinstate civilian rule and remove the Cần Lao, a Catholic political apparatus covertly used to maintain the Diệm regime in power by seeking out dissenters, etc. Many senior officers, in particular the Catholics, such as Khiêm and Thiệu, decried what they viewed as a handing of power to the Buddhist leaders, They then tried to remove Khánh in favour of Minh, and recruited many officers into their plot. Khiêm and Thiệu sought out U.S. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor and sought a private endorsement for a coup, but Taylor did not want any more changes in leadership, fearing a corrosive effect on the already unstable government. This deterred Khiêm's group from following through on their plans.
The division among the generals came to a head at a meeting of the MRC on 26/27 August. Khánh claimed the instability was due to troublemaking by members and supporters of the Catholic-aligned Nationalist Party of Greater Vietnam. Prominent officers associated with the Đại Việt included Thiệu and Khiêm. Khiêm blamed Khánh's concessions to Buddhist activists as the reason for the trouble. Thiệu and another Catholic General, Nguyễn Hữu Có, called for the replacement of Khánh with Minh, but the latter refused. Feeling pressured by the strong condemnations of his colleagues, Khánh said that he would resign. However, after further deadlock, Khánh, Minh, and Khiêm were put together in a triumvirate to resolve the problem, but tensions remained as Khánh dominated the decision-making.
On 15 September 1964, Thiệu became the commander of IV Corps, which oversaw the Mekong Delta region of the country, and three divisions. This came after the Buddhists had lobbied Khánh to remove General Dương Văn Đức from command of IV Corps; Đức had responded with a failed coup attempt, along with Lâm Văn Phát, on 13 September. During the coup attempt, Khiêm and Thiệu's torpor, combined with their criticism of Khánh was seen as tacit support of the rebels. U.S. Embassy logs during the coup claimed that Thiệu and Khiêm "seem so passive that they appear to have been either tacitly supporting or associated with his move by Đức and Phát". However, after the coup faltered, the pair "issued expressions of firm support for Khánh somewhat belatedly".
Thiệu was part of a group of younger officers called the Young Turks—the most prominent apart from himself included commander of the Vietnam Air Force, Air Marshal Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, commander of I Corps General Nguyễn Chánh Thi and Admiral Chung Tấn Cang, the head of the Republic of Vietnam Navy. They and Khánh wanted to forcibly retire officers with more than 25 years of service, as they thought them to be lethargic, out of touch, and ineffective, but most importantly, as rivals for power. Specific targets of this proposed policy were Generals Minh, Trần Văn Đôn, Lê Văn Kim and Mai Hữu Xuân.
The signature of Chief of State Phan Khắc Sửu was required to pass the ruling, but he referred the matter to the High National Council (HNC), an appointed civilian advisory body, to get their opinion. The HNC turned down the request. This was speculated to be due to the fact that many of the HNC members were old, and did not appreciate the generals’ negativity towards seniors. On 19 December, the generals dissolved the HNC and arrested some of the members as well as other civilian politicians. This prompted U.S. Ambassador Maxwell D. Taylor to angrily berate Thiệu, Thi, Kỳ and Cang in a private meeting and threaten to cut off aid if they did not reverse their decision. However, this galvanized the officers around Khánh for a time and they ignored Taylor's threats without repercussions as the Americans were too intent on defeating the communists to cut funding.
Thiệu was again plotting the following month when the junta-appointed Prime Minister, Trần Văn Hương, introduced a series of war expansion measures, notably by widening the terms of conscription. This provoked widespread anti-Hương demonstrations and riots across the country, mainly from conscription-aged students and pro-negotiations Buddhists. Reliant on Buddhist support, Khánh did little to try to contain the protests, and then decided to have the armed forces take over the government, and he removed Hương on 27 January.
Khánh's action nullified a counter-plot involving Hương that had developed during the civil disorders that forced him from office. In an attempt to pre-empt his deposal, Hương had backed a plot led by some Đại Việt-oriented Catholic officers, including Thiệu and Có, who planned to remove Khánh and bring Khiêm back from Washington. The U.S. Embassy in Saigon was privately supportive of the aim as Taylor and Khánh had become implacable enemies, but they did not fully back the move as they regarded it as poorly thought out and potentially a political embarrassment due to the need to use an American plane to transport some plotters between Saigon and Washington, and as a result, they promised asylum only for Hương if necessary. The plot continued over the next month with U.S. encouragement, especially when evidence emerged that Khánh wanted to make a deal with the communists. Taylor told the generals that the U.S. was "in no way propping up General Khanh or backing him in any fashion". At this stage, Taylor and his staff in Saigon thought highly of Thiệu, Có and Cang as possible replacements for Khánh. Thiệu was quoted in a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report as being described by an unnamed American official as "intelligent, highly ambitious, and likely to remain a coup plotter with the aim of personal advancement".
Thiệu took a cautious approach, as did Có and Cang, and they were pre-empted by Colonel Phạm Ngọc Thảo, an undetected communist double agent, who launched a coup with Phát on a hardline Catholic platform without U.S. backing. With U.S. support against both Khánh and the plotters, Kỳ and Thi put down the coup attempt and then ousted Khánh. This left Kỳ, Thi and Thiệu as the three most prominent members in the new junta. There were claims that Thiệu ordered the military to capture and extrajudicially kill Colonel Phạm Ngọc Thảo, who died in 1965 after a series of coup attempts between various ARVN officers. Other sources blame Kỳ. During this period, Thiệu became more prominent as other generals fought and defeated one another in coups, which forced several into exile.
In mid 1965, Thiệu became the figurehead chief of state of a military junta, with Kỳ as the prime minister. After a series of short-lived juntas, their pairing put an end to a series of leadership changes that had occurred since the assassination of Diệm.
Kỳ and Thiệu's military junta decided to inaugurate their rule by holding a "no breathing week". They imposed censorship, closed many newspapers that published material deemed unacceptable, and suspended civil liberties. They then sidelined the civilian politicians to a "village of old trees" to "conduct seminars and draw up plans and programs in support of government policy". They decided to ignore religious and other opposition groups "with the stipulation that troublemakers will be shot".
Kỳ and Thiệu were more concerned with attacking the communists than their predecessors. The generals began to mobilize the populace into paramilitary organizations. After one month, Thích Trí Quang began to call for the removal of Thiệu because he was a member of Diệm's Catholic Cần Lao apparatus, decrying his "fascistic tendencies", and claiming that Cần Lao members were undermining Kỳ. For Quang, Thiệu was a symbol of the Diệm era of Catholic domination, when advancement was based on religion. He had desired that General Thi, known for his pro-Buddhist position, would lead the country, and denounced Thiệu for alleged past crimes against Buddhists.
In 1966, with Kỳ leading the way, Thi was sacked in a power struggle, provoking widespread civil unrest in his base in I Corps; Quang led Buddhist protests against Kỳ and Thiệu and many units in I Corps began disobeying orders, siding with Thi and the Buddhist movement. Eventually, Kỳ's military forces forced the dissidents to back down and defeated those who did not. Thi was exiled and Quang put under house arrest, ending Buddhist opposition and any effective threat to Kỳ and Thiệu's regime.
On 3 September 1967, Thiệu ran successfully for the presidency with Kỳ as his running mate. Thiệu took 34% of the vote and held the position until 21 April 1975. He promised democracy, social reform and vowed to "open wide the door of peace and leave it open". However, the poll was the start of a power struggle with Kỳ, who had been the main leader of South Vietnam in the preceding two years. The military had decided that they would support one candidate, and after both men wanted the job, Kỳ only backed down after being promised real influence behind the scenes through a military committee that would control proceedings. Thiệu was intent on concentrating power into his own hands.
During the Lunar New Year of 1968, the communists launched a massive attack on the cities of Vietnam in an attempt to topple Thiệu and reunify the country under their rule. At the time of the attack on Saigon, Thiệu was out of town, having travelled to celebrate the new year at his wife's family's home at Mỹ Tho in the Mekong Delta. Kỳ, who was still in the capital, stepped into the spotlight and took command, organising the military forces in Saigon in the battle. The ARVN and the Americans repelled the communist onslaught. Kỳ's overshadowing of his superior during South Vietnam's deepest crisis further strained relations between the two men.
Although the communists were repelled and suffered heavy losses, South Vietnam suffered heavily as the conflict reached the cities for the first time in a substantial way. As ARVN troops were pulled back to defend the towns, the Việt Cộng gained in the countryside. The violence and destruction witnessed damaged public confidence in Thiệu, who apparently couldn't protect the citizens.
Thiệu's regime estimated the civilian dead at 14,300 with 24,000 wounded. 630,000 new refugees had been generated, joining the nearly 800,000 others already displaced by the war. By the end of 1968, 8% of the populace was living in a refugee camp. More than 70,000 homes had been destroyed and the nation's infrastructure was severely damaged. 1968 became the deadliest year of the war to date for South Vietnam, with 27,915 men killed.
In the wake of the offensive, however, Thiệu's regime became more energetic. On 1 February, Thiệu declared martial law, and in June, the National Assembly approved his request for a general mobilization of the population and the induction of 200,000 draftees into the armed forces by the end of the year; the bill had been blocked before the Tết Offensive. This would increase South Vietnam's military to more than 900,000 men.
Mobilization and token anti-corruption campaigns were carried out. Three of the four ARVN corps commanders were replaced for poor performance during the offensive. Thiệu also established a National Recovery Committee to oversee food distribution, resettlement, and housing construction for the new refugees. Both the government perceived a new determination among the ordinary citizens, especially among previously apathetic urbanites who were angered by the communist attacks.
Thiệu used the period to consolidate his personal power. His only real political rival was Vice President Kỳ. In the aftermath of Tết, Kỳ supporters in the military and the administration were quickly removed from power, arrested, or exiled. A crack-down on the South Vietnamese press followed and there was a return of some of Diệm's Cần Lao members to positions of power. Within six months, the populace began to call him "the little dictator". Over the next few years, Kỳ became increasingly sidelined to the point of irrelevance.
In 1971, Thiệu ran for re-election, but his reputation for corruption made his political opponents believe the poll would be rigged, and they declined to run. As the only candidate, Thiệu was thus easily re-elected, receiving 94% of the vote on an 87% turn-out,