Buddha's Child: My Fight to Save Vietnam

Buddha's Child: My Fight to Save Vietnam

by Nguyen Cao Ky, Nguyen Cao Ky, Marvin J. Wolf, Nguyen Cao Ky
     
 

The history of the Vietnam War has rarely been told from the Vietnamese perspective-and never by a leader of that country. In Buddha's Child, Nguyen Cao Ky reveals the remarkable story of his tumultuous tenure as Premier of South Vietnam, and offers unprecedented insight into the war's beginning, escalation, and heartbreaking end.

A thirty-four year old

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Overview

The history of the Vietnam War has rarely been told from the Vietnamese perspective-and never by a leader of that country. In Buddha's Child, Nguyen Cao Ky reveals the remarkable story of his tumultuous tenure as Premier of South Vietnam, and offers unprecedented insight into the war's beginning, escalation, and heartbreaking end.

A thirty-four year old pilot and Air Force commander, known for his fighter-pilot's moustache, flowing lavender scarf and his reputation as a ladies' man, Ky in 1965 agreed to lead South Vietnam after a series of coups had dangerously destabilized the nation. Ky's task was to unite a country riven by political, ethnic, and religious factions and undermined by corruption. With little experience in governing and none in international affairs, and while continuing to fly combat missions over Vietnam, Ky plunged into a war to save his homeland. He served as premier until 1967, continued to be active in the war after his resignation, and finally left Vietnam in 1975 during the fall of Saigon.

Buddha's Child offers Ky's perspective on the crucial events and memorable images of the Vietnam War: the coup against and execution of President Diem; the self-immolation by the Buddhist monk, and the radical Buddhists' attempt to topple Ky's government; the bloody and pivotal Tet Offensive; the shooting of a Vietcong prisoner, captured in one of the war's most notorious photographs; the Paris Peace talks that sold out South Vietnam; and the last, desperate days of Saigon. In frank language, Ky discusses his own successes and failures as a leader and dramatically relates the progress of the war as it unfolded on the ground and behind the scenes-including anecdotes about Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, William Westmoreland, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Colby, Henry Kissinger, and many others.

Buddha's Child is a revelatory, fascinating account of a nation at war by a most unusual man.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Ky's story provides an interesting picture of the man who ruled the tail that wagged the American dog in the mid-1960s."—Peter Ross Range, The Washington Post Book World

"Insightful . . . Modest and keenly detailed, a welcome contribution to the literature of the Vietnam War."—Kirkus Reviews

"A remarkable, fascinating read. An unbelievably candid yet credible account of the tortured U.S./Vietnam relationship, and the incompetence and corruption of many of the senior Vietnamese leaders. Buddha's Child reveals previously unpublished incidents of significant importance. Students of the French and American Wars in Vietnam will find this hard-hitting book difficult to put down."—Harold G. Moore, Lt. General, U.S. Army (Ret.), and coauthor of We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young

"Nguyen Cao Ky reveals what went on behind the scenes at the highest levels of the Saigon and Washington governments: the coup d'état, the secret deals, the rivalries and intrigues, the revolts, the astonishing greed and corruption of his fellow generals, the conspiracies and betrayals, and, ultimately, the tears. Intimate, honest, and revealing on every page, this is a necessary piece of the history for all who want to know what really went on at the top."—Jack Laurence, former CBS News correspondent and author of The Cat from Hue: A Vietnam War Story

"[Ky] makes a case too remarkable to doubt. His take on America's role in Vietnam makes too much sense to dismiss . . . Honest criticism from an informed ally is well worth our attention."—Ron Honig, Santa Cruz Sentinel

"Against the background of the war, and expressions of his patriotism, Ky's recollections will certainly contribute to assessments of South Vietnam's viability and fate."—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

"Ky provides an insider's look at the political machinations within South Vietnam during the American war."—Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly
The one man who knew how to defeat the communists in Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s and had the wherewithal to do so was Nguyen Cao Ky, the South Vietnamese Air Force general who was the unelected prime minister of that nation from 1965 to 1967 and vice president from 1967 to 1971. But Ky was thwarted by venal, incompetent and corrupt South Vietnamese politicians especially his successor, Nguyen Van Thieu, by the evil, double-dealing Vietnamese communists, and by wishy-washy, ignorant American political and military leaders. That's the version Ky presents in this self-serving, self-aggrandizing memoir. Ky says his plan to lead an invasion of North Vietnam in 1966, which "would have ended the war," was squelched by timid Johnson administration officials. His plans to introduce democracy were continually beaten back by his political enemies, including Buddhist leaders who Ky says acted as little more than communist dupes. Ky whitewashes his government's excesses, which included a violent crackdown on the protesting Buddhists, heavy-handed intimidation of the press and of his political enemies. Ky (with the aid of veteran author Wolf) provides an insider's look at the political machinations within South Vietnam during the American war. But that view is shown through his vehemently anticommunist and egocentric lens. In addition, his explanation of the most portentous event in his political life allowing his political archenemy Thieu to be nominated as the military directorate's candidate for president in 1967 is stupefyingly unbelievable. Ky claims that the reason he gave his blessing to Thieu to become president "remains a great mystery, even to me." That mystery led to Ky's political downfall and to eight years of a corrupt, ineffectual Thieu-led South Vietnamese regime. (May 8) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
attention. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An insightful memoir by the former prime minister of South Vietnam. "Most Americans thought of me as a young, flamboyant pilot, a playboy partial to purple scarves, a bon vivant who wore his hair too long," writes Ky (with the help of frequent ghost Wolf). But it's clear from these pages that he was a man of more substance than that: committed to social justice and the rooting out of corruption, a Jimmy Carter–like character who after leaving office in 1968 set up South Vietnam's first modern farm, modeled on the Israeli kibbutz. In his fights against entrenched interests, Ky often had to fly solo; though he is gentlemanly, he harbors a special scorn for his successor, Nguyen Thieu, whose "salary as a senior general and then president never came to more than a few thousand dollars" but who "went into exile a few days before the end of the war with so many tens of millions of dollars that President Gerald Ford sent word that he was not welcome to live in the United States." Ky is also none too complimentary about the CIA spooks and American embassy staff who tried to steer things their way and, he charges, deliberately sabotaged the war effort by refusing to offer support to South Vietnamese army units during the Tet Offensive of 1968. Ky speaks up in defense of the much-maligned South Vietnamese army, which did not enjoy the material wealth of its supposed American allies, and for Nguyen Ngoc Loan, "the rarest of South Vietnamese birds, the honest cop," who will be forever remembered for the photo showing him shooting a suspected Viet Cong guerrilla: "In the click of a shutter, our struggle for independence and self-determination was transformed into an image of a seemingly senseless andbrutal execution." Modest and keenly detailed, a welcome contribution to the literature of the Vietnam War. Author tour

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312281151
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
05/17/2002
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
272
Product dimensions:
5.62(w) x 8.64(h) x 1.36(d)

Read an Excerpt

Buddha's Child

My Fight to Save Vietnam


By Nguyen Cao Ky, Marvin J. Wolf

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2002 Nguyen Cao Ky and Marvin J. Wolf
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-312-28115-1



CHAPTER 1

PREMIER


Playing with my toddler son and daughter, laughing and teasing and very much enjoying fatherhood, I was spending a rare quiet evening in my quarters at Tansonnhut Air Base. Then my wife beckoned me to the telephone, and the voice of an army officer told me that there was an emergency: The Armed Forces Council was to meet in the prime minister's office immediately. I threw on my uniform and hurried off. It would be a long time before I would again enjoy the leisure to roll around on the floor with my children.

In Prime Minister Phan Huy Quat's office I found several army generals, along with Quat and President Phan Khac Suu, South Vietnam's chief of state. I learned that Quat and Suu were determined to resign their posts.

Suu was a picture postcard of Vietnam's past. Although trained in France as an agricultural engineer, this goateed octogenarian, a member of the Cao Dai sect, wore the black silk robes and circular cap that in the colonial era had symbolized a mandarin, a learned official. Such dress had gone out of fashion in my father's time; to Americans of the 1960s, Suu looked like a character from a Charlie Chan movie.

Appearing equally obsolete, Dr. Phan Huy Quat, leader of the Dai Viet party, was looking like a frail, white-haired schoolmaster, then in his sixties. Together they were symbolic of Vietnam's biggest problem: too many leaders and not enough leadership.

In the eighteen months since an army coup d'état toppled the repressive Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963, five military-dominated regimes had held power in Saigon. After so much infighting, the military brass was sick of politics. The generals hoped that the Phans, who were not related, would lead a sixth and purely civilian government that would provide at least steady management of our nation's many urgent problems.

Diem had been toppled by a quartet led by Duong Van "Big" Minh, who made himself chairman of the Military Committee and ran things, after a fashion, for less than ninety days. General Nguyen Khanh's coup drove him from office, but Big Minh came roaring back nine days later. He lasted just thirty-six days, until Khanh's second coup. Five months later, Big Minh again maneuvered Khanh out and returned for a third try as boss. In between these successful coups were several that failed.

By the time Big Minh returned for the third time, the communist leaders of North Vietnam had taken full advantage of this boiling pot of political instability. Not content with supplying and controlling the Vietcong guerrillas who terrorized many of our rural areas, Hanoi had begun to move well-equipped regiments and divisions of its regular army into South Vietnam, especially into the thinly populated Central Highlands region. We had an invasion to repel, and so the Armed Forces Council, of which I was a junior but outspoken member, finally tired of Big Minh and Khanh and their game of musical chairs. Two months after Minh's last coup, we invited a pair of widely known, white-haired civilian politicians to take over. The army's leadership had hoped that this combination of Suu, a southerner, or Cochinchinese, and Quat, an Annamese from central Vietnam — both familiar political figures of the colonial era — would cancel some of the regional animosities that infused almost every Vietnamese political issue.

But just like the military, the civilians could not resolve their differences. When Premier Quat shuffled his cabinet following an attempted coup, two of the ministers he had dismissed refused to leave office. Chief of State Suu backed them, arguing that Quat had no authority to fire anyone without Suu's approval. When neither would back down, both decided to quit. Trying to patch things up, we pleaded and cajoled and discussed for hours, seeking ways to narrow the gulf between these two stubborn politicians, each beholden to relatively small but very different constituencies.

The problem went beyond the current impasse. Quat and Suu could not agree on anything. If President Suu wanted to do something, the prime minister, who held more power, vetoed it. If Prime Minister Quat tried to institute some activity that Suu objected to — which seemed to be every initiative that Quat held dear — the president used his influence to undermine, obstruct, or delay.

Personally, I was disgusted by both of these dinosaurs. They had learned their trade under French colonial rule, and their values and methods were inappropriate to a republic. South Vietnam was backed by the United States, a world power that sought to contain the spread of international communism. America had made a commitment to help defend our small, struggling nation, but along with their millions of dollars and the legions of young men who were prepared to die for our freedom came a thicket of restrictions and advice. I suppose that everything was too new for Quat and Suu, that they were too set in their ways to accommodate the change required by our situation. Nevertheless, like most of the other generals, I would have preferred them to continue in office. The military needed to focus on fighting.

"There is no use talking any more!" said Quat. "The military must now assume responsibility for the government." It was past two in the morning, and everyone was exhausted. Quat picked up the phone and in minutes a man with a tape recorder appeared. While we generals watched, Quat and Suu read resignation statements. The man with the tape recorder left for the government radio station, where the tape would be broadcast a few hours later. We scheduled an emergency session of the Armed Forces Council for 8:00 A.M., and I went home to sleep.

Our meeting convened in an enormous, air-conditioned conference room at the Saigon headquarters of General Le Nguyen Khang, commandant of the marines. Behind a table at the head of a room that seated 500 was General Nguyen Van Thieu, who as minister of defense was ranking officer. He was flanked by the Armed Forces Council's other leaders, four senior generals.

In a room almost half filled with generals and colonels, I sat in the cheap seats. Around me were the other so-called Young Turks, men in their thirties who commanded elite military units: Nguyen Chanh Thi, the airborne brigade commander; Khang, commandant of the marines; navy boss Commodore Chung Tan Cang; and army generals Nguyen Duc Thang and Nguyen Bao Tri. As a group we had tried to reform the military and had publicly opposed the excesses and corruption of many senior generals.

Thieu explained the situation with Suu and Quat and announced what we all knew: Because the civilian leadership had failed, it was now up to us, the military, to form a new government. No one had to say why; the failure of these two veteran politicians, who despite their limitations were the most able and popular of a contentious multitude of inept power-seekers, was proof enough that the military represented Vietnam's only organized power.

And we were at war. Someone must take the helm of our rudderless ship before it was overwhelmed by the elements and capsized. We could not afford a long lapse in leadership.

Thieu proposed that the assembled military leaders nominate one or more of the group to become the new prime minister, then put these nominees to a vote.

"Who will volunteer to serve as prime minister?" asked Thieu. The room fell silent. "If there is no volunteer, we will proceed to the next phase," he continued. "We will nominate someone, and then the whole membership will vote to approve him or not. At this time are there any volunteers?"

No one raised a hand. No one said that he wanted to become prime minister. And why would anyone? Six governments in eighteen months, and the Americans, never long on patience, were already irritated. Six governments in eighteen months, and none of the army officers who had served as prime minister or president still had a command. If you were one of the country's four corps commanders, you were the next thing to a warlord, with virtually total freedom within your fiefdom. Commanders of divisions, regiments, or brigades controlled thousands of troops and were free to run their commands much as they saw fit.

I certainly did not want to be prime minister. I detested politicians, whom I regarded, as a class, as corrupt sellouts. I hated politics. I had no political experience, no aspirations for power, no desire for any job but the one that I held. I commanded the Vietnamese Air Force, the VNAF, the largest and most important of my nation's elite services, and I felt then and now that it was the most enjoyable job that a man could ever wish for. I was at home in the sky, glad to be among the few who could carry the fight to the enemy by attacking the North, and I loved the challenge of building my service into a modern force. Our American friends had promised new jet aircraft, expansive base facilities, and far greater firepower, and I looked forward to many years in command of the VNAF.

Why risk losing all that for a position that might last nine weeks or nine months — or nine days?

I listened quietly for several minutes, until it was apparent that no one would volunteer to serve as prime minister. Then, because I was considered not merely one of the Young Turks but also their spokesman, first among equals, I got to my feet and raised my hand. "I nominate General Nguyen Van Thieu," I said. "He is the most senior of us. He has some experience with government."

Everyone applauded, and I sat down.

When the room quieted, Thieu shook his head. I tried to engage him in a dialogue, enumerating all the reasons why he was the best choice for the job.

Thieu was eight or nine years my senior, a trim, compact man just starting to bald. He had been among the generals who deposed Diem, though he concealed his role so well that few westerners ever knew it. We had had little contact, but even then I could sense that he was a wait-and-see type, very ambitious but even more cautious. After I nominated Thieu to serve as prime minister, he replied at length about all the reasons why he should not accept — but would not commit himself either way. When I politely pressed him, he replied in the negative. "No, no," he said. "Not me." I thought that perhaps he would like a chance to change his mind, that he wanted to be begged, but no, he declined. "I will not serve as premier, that is final," he said.

With Thieu at the head table were the army's other senior generals. When it was clear that Thieu would not accept the responsibility, each man at the table was nominated, in order of seniority. Each declined in turn, and all quite forcefully.

I looked over at Nguyen Chanh Thi, the tough paratroop commander. Five years earlier, a cabal of his junior officers had forced him into accepting the most visible role in the first attempted coup against Diem. The move had failed, in part because of Thi's lack of sophistication, and he had been forced into exile in Cambodia. Before he fled, however, during the brief moment when it looked like Diem would fall, Thi had declared himself head of a provisional government.

"I propose General Thi," I said. "He likes politics. He was among those who first tried to oust Diem."

Thi demurred and could not be coaxed.

Three more generals were nominated; one by one each declined, offering a variety of reasons.

What it came down to was that nobody wanted the risk of losing what he had in such an unstable and dangerous time. Maybe another time, but not now.

The posturing and speechifying and excuses consumed hours. At noon Thieu called a break and we adjourned to another room, where small tables had been set up. The marines had set up an American-style chow line with sandwiches and coffee, and we helped ourselves.

I took some food and went looking for a vacant table when Thieu, sitting with a group of five or six top generals, caught my eye. He waved me over.

"We have been talking," he said. "Everyone agrees that you are the one best qualified for this job."

This took me by surprise. But I was already convinced that we in the military were Vietnam's only hope. If we cared about our country, there was no other choice: We could expect dire consequences if we failed to name a new prime minister within twenty-four hours of Dr. Quat's resignation. It might well lead to the end of our nation, to the triumph of the communists.

Later I had many opportunities to think about this moment, about the heavy responsibilities that I was so casually asked to take upon myself. But at that instant, I thought of nothing but the problem at hand — and I did not feel as if I had any choice. "If you all think that I can do the job, then okay," I said. "I accept.

"But," I continued, "you must go back to the meeting and raise the matter again to the Armed Forces Council. If no one else will take the job, and if all the members want me to serve as premier, then I will accept this position as an assignment from the military."

When the meeting resumed, Thieu proposed me as prime minister, saying that he was certain of my fitness for this duty. He asked if anyone objected, and instead everyone stood and applauded as if I had just won some important prize or donated a big sum to charity, and the meeting came to an end. At the time I was flattered that so many top officers had so much confidence in me. I have had thirty-six years to reconsider, however, and now, having dealt with many of those generals, I suspect that the older generation, those who had served the French and risen to power under Diem, approved my selection because they were sure that I would fail and, in failing, I would lose not only my command but also my life.

There were no reporters present at our meeting, and the only statement issued by the Armed Forces Council said that it had accepted the resignations of Dr. Phan Huy Quat and Mr. Phan Khac Suu and that Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, the new prime minister, would form a government. The Western news media, perhaps conditioned by our interminable coups or unwilling to consider the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power, reported that Thieu had headed a "Young Turk's coup" and made me prime minister. U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam Maxwell Taylor also wrote of a coup by Thieu in a telegram to President Lyndon Johnson. Now these diplomatic and press errors are enshrined as history in every American encyclopedia and history book. It is a mistake. Thieu was never a Young Turk, and there was no coup.

I became prime minister of the Republic of Vietnam on June 19, 1965. At thirty-four years of age I had never held office, never joined a political party, never commanded more than a few thousand men — and my impoverished nation was wracked with internal dissension and engaged in war against a pitiless and able foe.

American diplomats, generals, and journalists nattered about my preference for purple socks, noted that I wore my hair longer than a U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor, or reported, erroneously but often, that I packed a "pearl-handled" revolver. Others, including many well acquainted with bar girls and brothels, clucked over my reputation as a bon vivant and boulevardier. Newsweek reported that I was a lady killer, although it also reported my response to this accusation: "I've never killed a lady, but lots of ladies have killed me." William Bundy of the U.S. State Department concluded that I was "the bottom of the barrel," the last, worst choice of a desperate military. Author Frances FitzGerald wrote that I was a dupe, a tool of the ARVN corps and division commanders, "the one general who they felt confident lacked the capacity to take power himself." And, writing in 1991, a year before sometime saxophonist William Jefferson Clinton became president of the United States, journalist Stanley Karnow described me as "looking like a saxophone player in a second-rate nightclub."

There were shreds of truth in some of these observations, although I am only familiar with first-rate nightclubs. But I was not aware, then, of this outpouring of criticism. Instead I focused on my responsibilities: the welfare of more than 15 million of my countrymen, including the many who would be glad to see me fail. I might not survive the week, as practically every "informed observer" predicted, but I knew my duty. My office was a sacred trust, no less a charge from Buddha and my nation as from my military brethren, and I vowed that I would do as much for my country as my abilities and energies permitted. I might well fail, but it would not be for lack of effort or because I compromised my principles.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Buddha's Child by Nguyen Cao Ky, Marvin J. Wolf. Copyright © 2002 Nguyen Cao Ky and Marvin J. Wolf. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Nguyen Cao Ky was the Prime Minister of South Vietnam for three years, until he wrote himself out of office by penning his nation's first constitution. The intimate of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Bob McNamara, and other American leaders, he has lived in the US for 25 years.

Marvin J. Wolf, who photographed Ky for the US Army in Vietnam in 1965, is the author of nine books, including the bestselling biography of American Indian leader Russell Means, Where White Men Fear To Tread (1995).

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