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Former South Vietnamese President Dies

Sunday, 30 September 2001 12:00 AM

Thieu collapsed Thursday at his home in suburban Foxboro, Mass., and died late Saturday at Beth Israel Deaconess Medial Center in Boston. Hospital spokesman Jerry Berger said Thieu died at about 10:30 p.m. Saturday.

No cause of death was announced. Thieu ruled his country for 10 years until shortly before troops from Communist North Vietnam overran Saigon in 1975.

As president of South Vietnam Thieu was hailed by his defenders as one of the best politicians in the world but vilified by a varied array of opponents as a ruthless dictator or a puppet of American imperialism.

He saw his country fall apart in the spring of 1975 and disappeared from public view, living first in exile in London, then in Boston.

The praise came from former President Richard M. Nixon, who relied heavily on Thieu to carry out his program of "Vietnamization" of the Indochina War and enable him to withdraw American GIs from Vietnam.

Buddhist leaders and other domestic opponents of his regime called him a dictator who kept thousands of political prisoners, some of them in the infamous "tiger cages" of the Con Son penal island colony.

To the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, Thieu was never anything but a puppet of the Americans even after the GIs left in January, 1973. A staunch anti-Communist all his life, Thieu once said, "To save the country is supreme law."

Yet, to the puzzlement of most foreign observers, Thieu started the disintegration of South Vietnam by ordering unilateral withdrawals from the Central Highlands and the northern provinces in the last days of his stormy presidency.

Thieu closeted himself inside the creamy-white presidential palace as North Vietnamese troops, in a series of lightning attacks, overran city after city, coming to the very gates of Saigon.

Surviving numerous calls for his resignation and an occasional coup attempt, even while his troops were suffering defeat after defeat, Thieu held on to the presidency from 1967 for almost two full terms, longer than any other recent Vietnamese president.

During his tenure, Thieu first saw the U.S. involvement in the Indochina quagmire grow to the point where more than one-half million American soldiers fought on his soil.

Then he watched President Nixon withdraw most of the troops while Henry Kissinger negotiated an in-place cease-fire that his representatives reluctantly signed in Paris on Jan. 27, 1973. Thieu himself had provided many of the obstacles during Kissinger's five years of negotiations.

The Paris peace agreement, however, failed to end the war as political talks between the Thieu government on the Viet Cong on the future of South Vietnam stalled almost immediately.

Thieu would not or could not come to serious negotiations with the Communists while his American-supplied army held the other side to a stalemate for more than two years. Finally, a weary American Congress slowed U.S. military aid to a trickle.

Thieu always called for a military, not a political solution, vowing to the last to destroy the Communists. But he lacked charisma and could never overcome his people's suspicions of him rally their support around him, an important psychological factor in the ultimate turn of events in the Communist war.

The social system in South Vietnam also deteriorated after the withdrawal of American and allied troops. Rampant corruption contributed to the downfall of his administration.

At 52, his hair graying but his face still impassive, Thieu wavered and ordered the unilateral withdrawals from the north which sparked the demoralization of his army and panic among civilians.

Some ragged troopers, forced to retreat and abandon the land, ended up calling Thieu, whose favorite symbols had been democracy, peace and freedom, "the seller of the nation."

Thieu was born in the small coastal village of Ninh Chu on April 5, 1923, the son of a farmer and fisherman. He had just finished high school when World War II began and the Japanese came.

"Everyone at the time believed that the Japanese had given us our liberty" from the French, he liked to recall. His first contact with the United States was an accidental bombing of Ninh Chu by American planes aiming for Japanese coastal installations.

When the French came back in 1945, Thieu joined the Viet Minh, the forerunner of the Viet Cong. He was a district chief but his awakening came quickly.

"By August, 1946, I knew the Viet Minh were Communists," Thieu said later. "They shot people. They overthrew the village committee. They seized the land."

Thieu went off to Saigon and joined the merchant marine as an officer. About that time, the French opened their first officers class for the newly created Vietnamese army. Thieu enlisted and graduated at 26 with a second lieutenant's commission and a command of an infantry platoon in the Mekong Delta.

In 1956 and 1960, he was sent to the United States for specialized military training, then served four years as commandant of the National Military Academy at Dalat.

He converted to Roman Catholicism when he married the former Nguyen Thi Mai Anh but became a devout follower of his new religion. His wife bore him two children, a boy, Nguyen Quang Loc, and a girl, Nguyen Thi Tuan Anh, who married the son of the director of Air Vietnam, the country's civilian airline.

Thieu used the ranks of the military to rise to the presidency, skillfully outmaneuvering all other politicians. His artful ability to switch sides at the last moment won him admiration and fear among army colleagues.

As an army colonel, Thieu emerged as a leader in the junta that took over the government after the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. Thieu himself claimed much credit for his part in the revolution, saying his tanks surrounded the palace to knock out Diem's last defense.

It was later charged, however, that Thieu actually was reluctant to carry out the coup leaders' orders because of his close ties with Diem. He was also blamed for letting Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu escape from the palace.

In December, 1962, less than a year before his ouster, Diem had assigned Thieu to command the 5th, or anti-coup, division strategically positioned just north of Saigon.

Between 1963 to 1965, Thieu won promotion to general but played a behind-the-scenes role as secretary general of the junta, allowing flamboyant Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao then prime minister to reap most of the publicity.

But in 1967, when the military junta met to pick a standard bearer for president, Thieu successfully imposed himself as the only candidate and won election to a four-year term.

He relegated his arch-rival Ky, who had enjoyed most popular and military support to become president, to be his vice president.

When his first term expired in 1971, Thieu rammed through congress a new election law that eliminated Ky from the presidential race. The only remaining opponent, popular Gen. Duong Van (Big) Minh, withdrew in protest.

Thieu then ran an embarrassed election machine as the only candidate and claimed he collected 94 per cent of votes in his re-election by acclamation.

Thieu worked hard during most of his presidency trying to choke off all internal opposition from the strongly organized Buddhists, who accused him of corruption and inability.

The Catholics, once his strongest supporters, also turned against him because of growing poverty and Thieu's immobility in fighting corruption.

He repeatedly pleaded for unity among South Vietnam's political and religious factions, but he ran a repressive government, saying a nation at war could not permit dissent American style.

He frequently seized entire editions of newspapers critical of his regime. Many political opponents, particularly legislators and students, were jailed.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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Thieu collapsed Thursday at his home in suburban Foxboro, Mass., and died late Saturday at Beth Israel Deaconess Medial Center in Boston. Hospital spokesman Jerry Berger said Thieu died at about 10:30 p.m. Saturday. No cause of death was announced. Thieu ruled his country...
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Sunday, 30 September 2001 12:00 AM
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