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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.
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.
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.
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