Nguyen Cao Ky

views updated Jun 11 2018

Nguyen Cao Ky

Born September 8, 1930
Son Tay, Vietnam

South Vietnamese military officer and political
leader; premier of South Vietnam, 1965–67

Nguyen Cao Ky was a top pilot in the South Vietnamese air force during the early years of the Vietnam War. He quickly increased his military rank and political power as the government of South Vietnam changed several times in the early 1960s. In 1964 Ky became head of South Vietnam's air force. A year later, he helped overthrow the government and became the youngest premier in Vietnamese history. Although Ky made some positive changes as the leader of South Vietnam's government, he also launched a violent crackdown against Buddhists who disagreed with his policies.

A top South Vietnamese military pilot

Nguyen Cao Ky was born September 8, 1930, in Son Tay province. Ky's hometown was located twenty-five miles northwest of Hanoi, which eventually became the capital of North Vietnam. But at the time he was born, Vietnam was a colony of France known as French Indochina. Ky's father was a schoolteacher. His family also included two older sisters.

Ky attended high school in Hanoi. After graduating in 1948, he enrolled in a French military academy in northern Vietnam. Once he had completed his military education, he volunteered for pilot training. In 1951 Ky left Vietnam to train with the French air force. He flew practice missions in France, Algeria, and Morocco over the next few years. In 1954 Ky returned to Vietnam as a fully trained military pilot. By this time, however, Communist-led Viet Minh forces had defeated the French to gain Vietnam's independence.

The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the war between the French and the Viet Minh, divided Vietnam into two sections. The northern section, which was led by a Communist government under Ho Chi Minh (see entry), was officially known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam but was usually called North Vietnam. The southern section, which was led by a U.S.-supported government under Ngo Dinh Diem (see entry), was known as the Republic of South Vietnam. During this time, Ky moved to South Vietnam and quickly rose through the ranks in the nation's air force.

The Geneva peace agreement also provided for nationwide free elections to be held in 1956, with a goal of reuniting the two sections of Vietnam under one government. But U.S. government officials worried that holding free elections in Vietnam would bring power to the Communists who had led the nation's war for independence from France. They felt that a Communist government in Vietnam would increase the power of the Soviet Union and threaten the security of the United States. As a result, the U.S. government and South Vietnamese President Diem refused to hold the elections. Ky spent 1956 in the United States, where he received additional training as a fighter pilot.

North Vietnamese leaders grew angry when the South Vietnamese government failed to hold the required elections. The Communists remained determined to reunite the country, by force if necessary. Within a short time, a new war began between the two sections of Vietnam. North Vietnam's main weapon in this phase of the Vietnam War was a group of South Vietnamese guerrilla fighters known as the Viet Cong.

The U.S. government sent money, weapons, and military advisors to help South Vietnam defend itself against the Viet Cong. Some of the Americans in Vietnam were agents for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1960 Ky began flying secret missions for the CIA. He and other pilots used South Vietnamese military planes to drop guerrilla fighters and sabotage experts by parachute into North Vietnam. The idea behind these missions was to isolate the Viet Cong guerrillas operating in South Vietnam from the Communist leadership in North Vietnam.

Head of South Vietnam's air force

Over the next few years, however, the Viet Cong took control of large areas of the South Vietnamese countryside. Part of the reason for the Communist success was that Diem's government was very unpopular with the people. In November 1963 a group of South Vietnamese military leaders overthrew the government and assassinated Diem. Duong Van Minh, known as "Big Minh," became the new leader of South Vietnam.

But this was only the first in a series of political changes in South Vietnam. In January 1964 General Nguyen Khanh took control of the government from Big Minh. Ky was one of several key military figures involved in the overthrow of Big Minh's government. In appreciation of his support, Khanh named Ky as the head of South Vietnam's air force.

At this time, Ky became the leader of a group of youthful South Vietnamese military officers known as the "Young Turks." They put pressure on the older military officers who had taken charge of the government. As a result, South Vietnam saw several more changes in leadership over the next year.

Meanwhile, Ky continued to build his own reputation as a top pilot and military leader. He implemented a number of changes that made the air force the most effective part of the South Vietnamese armed forces. Ky also became known as a playboy. He was often seen at popular nightclubs dressed in a stylish black flight suit. He also carried a gun in a holster in public, which led people to refer to him as "The Cowboy."

Premier of South Vietnam

Through the early 1960s the United States deepened its military involvement in Vietnam. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) sent American combat troops to South Vietnam. In June of that year Ky joined forces with two other South Vietnamese generals, Nguyen Van Thieu (see entry) and Nguyen Huu Co, to overthrow the government once again. The three military leaders then formed the National Leadership Committee to rule South Vietnam. This takeover marked the ninth change of political leadership in less than two years since Diem was assassinated.

The American military officials in South Vietnam supported Ky over the other two generals for the position of premier. The premier oversaw the day-to-day operations of the government. The U.S. officials thought that Ky would make the best premier because he was outspoken, held the respect of the country's armed forces, and was a Buddhist (the religion of the majority of citizens in South Vietnam). Thanks to the American support, Ky became the youngest premier in Vietnam's history.

Upon taking office, Ky surprised many people by admitting that the war against the Viet Cong was progressing slowly. He claimed that South Vietnam's political instability had destroyed people's confidence in the government and undermined the war effort. He expressed his determination to restore order and establish a stable, democratic government in South Vietnam. "Our only object is to restore peace and return prosperity to the country after defeating the Communists," he stated.

But Ky also became the subject of controversy shortly after taking office. Several months earlier, he had said in an interview with British journalist Brian Moynahan that he admired Adolf Hitler, the brutal German dictator whose policies resulted in the murder of millions of people during World War II (1939–45). When Ky came to power, these comments created a stir in various parts of the world. But Ky claimed that his statements had been misunderstood. "I had in mind the idea that Vietnam needed above all leadership and a sense of discipline in order to face the criminal aggression of communism," he explained. "The idea is far from me praising Hitler or adopting his view."

Ky did make some positive changes in South Vietnam. He improved the armed forces, introduced land reform programs, built new schools and hospitals, and removed corrupt officials from power. But he also took some harsh steps to silence people who disagreed with his policies. For example, he launched military attacks against Buddhist protestors in the cities of Danang and Hue in the spring of 1966. In both cases U.S. troops helped the South Vietnamese military crush the Buddhist uprisings.

In June 1966 Ky improved his political position in South Vietnam by meeting with President Johnson in Hawaii. During a two-day conference, the two men agreed that South Vietnam needed to make further social and economic reforms and hold national elections. Three months later, Ky followed through on a promise to Johnson by organizing a convention to create a new constitution for South Vietnam. A large percentage of voters turned out to select representatives to attend the convention.

Ky claimed that the large voter turnout showed that his policies enjoyed strong public support. But some observers said that Ky and his government could not hold on to power without the help of American troops. "The military junta [government] in Saigon would not last a week without American bayonets to protect it," Neil Sheehan (see entry) wrote in the New York Times.

Loses power and leaves the country

In 1967 South Vietnam held a presidential election in order to make the government seem more legitimate and democratic. The two main candidates were Ky and one of the generals who had helped him overthrow the government, Nguyen Van Thieu. But the nation's top military leaders felt that Ky's comments about Hitler and handling of the Buddhist uprisings had damaged his reputation. They pressured Ky to give up his bid for the top office and instead run as Thieu's vice president. According to American observers, the military leaders also rigged the elections so that their preferred candidates would win. So when the results came in, Thieu was the new president of South Vietnam and Ky was the vice president.

Ky and Thieu never really got along. In his book Twenty Years and Twenty Days, Ky said that Thieu "wanted power and glory but he did not want to have to do the dirty work." Relations between the two men got even more tense after North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive in 1968. During this time, six of Ky's main military supporters were killed in a bombing incident that was supposedly ordered by Thieu.

In 1971 Thieu took steps to reduce Ky's power by disqualifying him as a presidential candidate in the next election. Ky responded by announcing his retirement from politics. He went back to his position as head of the air force and became a vocal critic of Thieu's government. In 1973 the United States withdrew its troops from Vietnam. Then in 1975 North Vietnam launched a final attack in hopes of taking over South Vietnam.

As Communist forces won a series of battles in central Vietnam, Thieu decided to remove his forces from the region. This action resulted in the collapse of the South Vietnamese army, which triggered a wave of panic and chaos across much of the country. Ky criticized Thieu's decision as a "strategic error" that led to "the eventual disintegration of our entire armed forces."

Over a matter of weeks, North Vietnam's forces rolled across the South Vietnamese countryside, capturing city after city. In early April Ky led a demonstration in the capital city of Saigon. Along with 400 other military officers, he publicly declared that he would never leave Vietnam. Ky hoped that his words would help calm South Vietnamese citizens, who were afraid of what might happen if North Vietnam won the war. A few weeks later, the Communists captured Saigon to end the Vietnam War.

When Saigon fell, Ky went back on his promise and fled from Vietnam on an American military helicopter. He moved to the United States with his wife, Dang Tuyet Mai, and six children. Ky eventually opened a liquor store in Los Angeles, California. In 1985 he filed for bankruptcy when he was unable to repay his business loans and gambling debts.


Harrison, James Pincklney. The Endless War: Vietnam's Struggle for Independence. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.

Lacouture, Jean. Vietnam: Between Two Truces. New York: Random House, 1966.

Nguyen Cao Ky. Twenty Years and Twenty Days. New York: Stein and Day, 1976.

Excerpt from Nguyen Cao Ky's Memoir Twenty Years and Twenty Days

In 1976 Nguyen Cao Ky published a book about his experiences in the South Vietnamese government during the war, Twenty Years and Twenty Days. In the following excerpt, Ky admits that South Vietnam needed U.S. help to fight the Communists. But he claims that the Americans did not understand the basic needs and concerns of the Vietnamese people. Ky defends the good intentions of his government and says that the United States interfered with its ability to gain the trust and loyalty of the South Vietnamese people.

Alongside the military war, fought with bombs and bullets, we had to fight another war—one to convince our own people that South Vietnam offered a way of life superior to that of the Communists. It was a war for the hearts and minds of the people.

It was not, as some thought, a matter of simple materialism, a philosophy that started with filling bellies. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker [the man who served as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, 1967–73] was hopelessly wrong when he told me on one occasion, "People are drifting toward communism because they are poor. If you give the people everything they want—television sets, automobiles, and so on—none of them will go over to communism."

Poor Bunker! He was trying to impose American standards of life on people he did not understand, people who basically had no desire for the so-called good things of the American way of life . . . .

Yet we had one ace in our hand, if only we could play the hand properly, an ace that did not even exist in the Communist deck of cards. It was freedom, the world's most precious—yet most elusive—treasure. The freedoms that [U.S. President Franklin D.] Roosevelt had preached, not only the freedom from fear and want, but the freedom for us to choose our leaders, and the freedom to boot them out if they proved unworthy of the trust reposed in them . . . .

But if we held an ace, we also held a deuce [an undesirable card]. For while I was preaching the need for freedom, I was not always free myself. True, we were not puppets [controlled by the United States], yet we never achieved the standing or appearance of an independent, self-governing country. The Americans criticized us for not having a highly developed system of government, but how could we have that when every Vietnamese in Saigon referred to the American ambassador as "the Governor General"?

The Americans did not seek this; they were not colonists, but South Vietnam had been a colony until the defeat of the French, and in many ways it remained virtually a colony, though without the restrictions imposed by the French. We still lacked our own identity.

We never produced a leader to unite the country with its many religious and political factions. The North had one in Ho Chi Minh; rightly or wrongly, the Communists believed in him and fought and died for him. He had a charisma [attractive personality] that won many supporters even in the West and not all of them were Communists. Neither Diem [Ngo Dinh Diem, leader of South Vietnam, 1954–63], nor Thieu [Nguyen Van Thieu, leader of South Vietnam, 1967–75]—both backed by the Americans—won the hearts of even the South Vietnamese.