Nguyen Van Thieu

views updated May 14 2018

Nguyen Van Thieu

Born April 5, 1923
Phan Rang, Vietnam

South Vietnamese military and political leader; president of the Republic of Vietnam, 1967–75

Nguyen Van Thieu served as the president of South Vietnam from 1967 until Communist forces took over the country in 1975. When he first came to power, the South Vietnamese government was highly unstable. The country's leadership had changed nine times in less than two years. Thieu brought a degree of stability to South Vietnam during his eight years in office. But his hold on the country became steadily weaker as he lost the support of the United States. When U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, Thieu refused to honor the terms of the Paris peace agreements. His actions reduced support for his government among the South Vietnamese people and ultimately helped North Vietnam win the war.

Fights against the Communist Viet Minh

Nguyen Van Thieu, whose name means "one who ascends" in Vietnamese, was born on April 5, 1923, near Phan Rang in Ninh Thuan province in central Vietnam. At the time of his birth, Vietnam was a colony of France and was known as French Indochina. Thieu was the youngest of five children in a successful family of farmers and fishermen. Two of his brothers also became public officials in South Vietnam.

Thieu attended schools in Saigon and Hue. In 1945 he joined a revolutionary group known as the Viet Minh that was fighting to gain Vietnam's independence from France. Thieu joined the Viet Minh out of feelings of patriotism for his homeland. But he quit the group when he realized that many other members were fighting to establish a Communist government over Vietnam. "By August of 1946, I knew that Viet Minh were Communists," he said in a Time magazine interview. "They shot people. They overthrew the village committee. They seized the land."

At this time, Thieu switched his loyalties to the side of the French. He graduated from a French military academy in 1949, and he received further military training in France and in Hanoi in the early 1950s. Thieu soon proved himself to be a skilled but cautious military commander. In 1954 he led an attack that drove the Viet Minh out of his native village.

The Vietnam War begins

Despite Thieu's success, however, the Communist-led Viet Minh forces defeated the French later that year 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.

The 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.

North Vietnamese leaders grew angry when the South Vietnamese government failed to hold the required elections. The Communists were determined to overthrow Diem and reunite the country, by force if necessary. Within a short time, a new war began between the two sections of Vietnam. One of North Vietnam's main weapons in 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 North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.

Rises through the ranks of South Vietnam's military

Over the next few years, Thieu continued to move up in the ranks of the South Vietnamese military. He became superintendent of the national military academy for several years, where he earned the respect of many young officers. He also went to the United States for further training in 1957 and 1960. The U.S. government sponsored these training programs in the hopes of building a strong South Vietnamese military.

By 1963, however, the Viet Cong controlled large areas of the South Vietnamese countryside. Part of the reason for the Communists' success was that Diem's government was very unpopular with the people. To protect himself, Diem stationed an armored division just outside of Saigon and put Thieu in charge of it. But this proved to be a mistake. In November 1963 a group of South Vietnamese military leaders overthrew the government and assassinated Diem. Thieu's division played an active role in the overthrow of Diem by firing artillery on the presidential palace.

General Duong Van Minh, known as "Big Minh," became the new leader of South Vietnam. He rewarded Thieu for his help by making him a member of the twelve-man Military Revolutionary Council that controlled the government. But Thieu and other young military officers—whom the U.S. military advisors in Vietnam called the "Young Turks"—were not impressed with Big Minh's leadership. In January 1964 they helped General Nguyen Khanh take control of the government from Big Minh.

South Vietnam saw several more changes in leadership over the next year. Throughout these changes, Thieu remained one of the most powerful figures in the government. When Tran Van Huong came to power in 1965, Thieu was named deputy prime minister in charge of defense. In this position, he argued that South Vietnam should resist calls for a negotiated settlement and expand its military operations against the North. He was pleased when the United States launched bombing campaigns against North Vietnam and began sending American combat troops to the country.

President of the Republic of Vietnam

In June 1965 Thieu joined forces with two other young military officers, Nguyen Cao Ky (see entry) and Nguyen Huu Co, to overthrow the government of South Vietnam for the ninth time since Diem was assassinated. The trio then formed the National Leadership Committee to rule South Vietnam, with Thieu as its chairman. Although this was technically the highest position in the government, Thieu found himself over-shadowed by Ky, who handled day-to-day government operations as premier.

In 1966 Thieu and Ky traveled to Hawaii to meet with U.S. president Lyndon Johnson (see entry). During this conference, they agreed to establish a constitution for South Vietnam and to hold national elections. In 1967 South Vietnam held a presidential election in order to make the government seem more legitimate and democratic. The two main candidates were Thieu and Ky. But the nation's top military leaders 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. For example, they stationed troops in several provinces to influence voters and prevent their opponents from holding protests.

Thieu was sworn in as the president of the Republic of Vietnam on October 31, 1967. In his speech at the ceremony, he declared that he would "open wide the door to peace [with North Vietnam] and leave it open." However, he also said that he was "determined not to accept a surrender."

Thieu did make some positive changes as president of South Vietnam. He launched a campaign to remove corrupt officials from the government. He also distributed land to 50,000 families and passed laws that protected tenants from unfair practices by landlords. But he also used harsh measures to silence his political enemies and maintain his hold on power.

In 1969 U.S. president Richard Nixon (see entry) announced a plan to withdraw American combat forces from Vietnam gradually and turn the main responsibility for fighting the war over to the South Vietnamese government and military. Thieu reacted bitterly to Nixon's announcement. He resented the suggestion that South Vietnamese forces had not participated in the war over the previous several years. He also recognized that when the United States departed, his government would be more vulnerable to the Communist forces of North Vietnam. Still, Thieu had no choice but to accept Nixon's plan.

As the American forces began leaving Vietnam, Thieu had to recruit and train new South Vietnamese military units to replace them. In order to do this, he set up programs to draft citizens into the military and increased taxes to pay for more weapons and training. These actions angered many people in South Vietnam. They felt they had already sacrificed enough, and they wanted peace. Realizing that his policies were unpopular, Thieu took steps to ensure that he would remain in power. He passed laws to disqualify Ky and some of his other major opponents from running in the next presidential election. As a result, Thieu was reelected president of South Vietnam in 1971.

Refuses to honor peace agreements

In 1973 negotiators for the United States and North Vietnam reached an agreement on a peace treaty in Paris. Under the terms of the agreement, North Vietnam agreed to drop its demands for a coalition government (one that included Communist representation) in South Vietnam. In exchange, the United States agreed to allow some North Vietnamese troops to remain in the South as long as they promised not to resume military aggression. The treaty also stated that all U.S. troops were required to leave South Vietnam.

The agreement left Thieu in charge of the South Vietnamese government. But it also created a Committee of National Reconciliation that included political representatives from North Vietnam. This organization was charged with supervising elections for a new government in which all parties—including Communists—could take part.

Thieu was outraged by the terms of the peace agreement. He told U.S. officials that he would never agree to its conditions. But Nixon administration officials warned Thieu that America was going to go forward with the agreement whether Thieu approved of it or not. Fearful that the United States would cut off all aid to his government, Thieu reluctantly dropped his objections to the treaty.

A short time after the agreement took effect and U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam, Thieu began violating the peace treaty. He refused to hold elections or form a new government and he took steps to silence his opponents. He also ordered bombing missions and military attacks on areas of the countryside that were controlled by the Communists. These operations disrupted farming and other business activities in South Vietnam. Before long, there were widespread shortages of food and other supplies. As the South Vietnamese people suffered from hunger and other hardships, Thieu's government became even more unpopular.

In 1975 North Vietnam launched a final offensive in hopes of taking control of 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. Over a matter of weeks, North Vietnam's forces rolled across the South Vietnamese countryside, capturing city after city.

On April 20 U.S. ambassador Graham Martin (see entry) asked Thieu to resign for the good of the country. The next day, Thieu gave a tearful, three-hour speech that was broadcast on Vietnamese radio and television. He blamed the United States for the Communists' success. He claimed that the U.S. government had abandoned South Vietnam and forced him to sign the Paris agreements.

On April 26, 1975, Thieu fled from South Vietnam on an American transport plane. The plane also included Thieu's wife, Nguyen Thi Mai Anh, and their two children, as well as fifteen tons of their belongings. The family went to Taiwan and Great Britain before settling in the United States. Thieu has lived in the Boston area since the 1980s. Some reports claim that he is a billionaire. In 1992 he told an interviewer that he was ready to return to Vietnam and lead the country again.


Current Biography, June 1968.

Isaacs, Arnold R. Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia. 1984.

Nguyen Tien Hung, and Jerrold L. Schecter. The Palace File. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.

Werner, Jayne, and Luu Doan Huynh, eds. The Vietnam War: Vietnamese and American Perspectives. 1993.

Nguyen Van Thieu

views updated May 18 2018

Nguyen Van Thieu

Nguyen Van Thieu (born 1923) became president of South Vietnam following the 1967 election in his war-torn country. He led the Saigon government against the Communist enemy during the height of the U.S. escalation of the Vietnam War.

Born on April 5, 1923, in Ninh Tvuan in central Vietnam, Thieu attended the Catholic Pellerin School at Hue and the National Military Academy. A Catholic in a predominantly Buddhist country, he also served in the French-supported Vietnam National Army from 1948 to 1954—fighting against the pro-Communist partisans of Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh.

After the termination of the conflict between France and the Viet Minh, Thieu was absorbed into the new independent South Vietnamese army, rising to become commander of the 1st Infantry Division by 1960. During these and the immediately succeeding years, Thieu was a supporter of autocratic president Ngo Dinh Diem (also a Catholic), who was deposed and slain in a military-led coup in 1963. Thieu was at first reluctant to take part in the overthrow, and had to be persuaded to participate.

In the years after the 1963 takeover, Thieu rose steadily in importance. He became deputy premier and minister of defense in 1964. He was appointed chief of state late in 1965 by Nguyen Cao Ky, who became premier when the South Vietnamese generals decided to form their own government following the weak civilian regime of Dr. Phan Huy Quat. Thieu soon proved his political mettle, emerging as the military's candidate in the American-encouraged 1967 elections. The more flamboyant Marshal Ky was forced to accept the soldiers' vice-presidential nomination.

Thieu won, as expected, in the balloting—partly because the country's most popular military figure, Gen. Duong Van Minh, had been disqualified as a candidate on a technicality. But Thieu ended up with a surprisingly modest 35 percent plurality vote (with civilian candidate Truong Dinh Dzu polling 17 percent to finish second).

Following his electoral triumph, President Thieu sought to make his government somewhat more representative than it had been and to unify it politically and organizationally. Originally, only two of 19 Cabinet members were soldiers, and the premier, Tran Van Huong, was a civilian. In 1969, however, Thieu picked Gen. Tran Thien Khiem as premier in a government in which other soldiers, technocrats, and followers of former president Diem predominated. He had chosen to base his government on military rather than popular support.

This decision was further reinforced when Thieu pressed through an election law on June 3, 1971, which would limit the number of presidential candidates. The bill—designed to cut the number of presidential candidates to give the winner a more convincing majority—stipulated that prospective presidential candidates must have their nomination papers endorsed either by 40 deputies or senators or by 100 members of elected provincial councils. Thieu consequently entered the South Vietnamese presidential elections with only one opponent, former general Duong Van Minh, who later withdrew.

The war's unpopularity in the U.S. grew strong, and following the Paris Peace Talks, the U.S. agreed to withdraw its forces in April 1973. Thieu's government survived only two more years. With the North Vietnamese Army encircling Saigon, Thieu officially resigned on April 21, 1975, and fled South Vietnam five days later. He turned the government over to Vice President Tran Van Huong, but Huong resigned seven days later, turning the office over to Duong Van Minh, who was considered acceptable to the North Vietnamese. Minh officially surrendered as North Vietnamese tanks rammed through the gates of the presidential palace on April 30, 1975.

Thieu originally took refuge in Taiwan, but later moved to London, where he lived for several years. He led a very quite life, avoiding the limelight, and granting few interviews. He later moved to the U.S., living in an affluent Boston suburb. Slowly, he began to reemerge, traveling to portions of the world, talking with sympathetic groups in 1989-90. In a November 1990 interview with Time magazine, Thieu stated he was keeping in contact with expatriates, and was organizing groups to support change in Vietnam. He said he no longer wanted a leadership position there ("I am old, too old to take power again"), but wanted to lend his experience to those pushing for reforms. He said he hoped to return again someday to his homeland.

As of 1996, Thieu was still living near Boston, holding to a quiet life. He told a reporter, "I read. I discuss. I work in my home."

Further Reading

Ward S. Just, To What End: Report from Vietnam (1968), offers an excellent treatment of the years of Thieu's rise to leadership. A good general overview is provided by Dennis J. Duncanson, Government and Revolution in Vietnam (1968); and Joseph Buttinger, Vietnam: A Political History (1968), places recent Vietnamese political events in a larger historical perspective. American policy in Vietnam is described in George McTurran Kahin and John W. Lewis, The United States in Vietnam (1967; rev. ed. 1969). Interview with Time magazine is from Nov. 26, 1990 issue. □