NEWS ANALYSIS, OCTOBER 13, 2001.

 

FORMER PRESIDENT NGUYEN VAN THIEU DIED

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On September 28, 2001, former President Nguyen Van Thieu of the collapsed Republic of Vietnam passed away at a Boston hospital after a stroke at his home. He is 78 years old and is survived by his wife and four children. His presidency of two terms lasted from September 1967 to April 21, 1975 when he resigned and handed the power to Vice President Tran Van Huong. On April 24, he left Vietnam for Taipei. Saigon was overrun by Communist forces 6 days later, on April 30. He then moved to London to live there for a few years, and spent the last years of his life in Boston, Massachusetts.

Thieu was born in 1923 in Phan Rang, Central Vietnam, to a middle class farmer's family. At 22 years old, like most young men of his age, he joined the Resistance fighting against the French colonial army. But also like many men of his age, Thieu quit the Viet Minh after being aware of the fact that Ho Chi Minh and his underlings were nothing but disguised Communists.

In 1949, he graduated second-lieutenant from the first officer candidates' course of the Vietnam National Army which had been created by the Bao Dai government. The State of Vietnam under former emperor of Vietnam, King Bao Dai, won recognition from France as an independent nation in March 8, 1948 but the French still held decisive authority over military and diplomatic affairs.

Thieu was an Army lieutenant-colonel when the Republic of Vietnam was founded and it recovered full sovereignty after the withdrawal of French forces in 1955 following the 1954 Geneva Agreement. Consecutively, Thieu was appointed commanders of the Vietnam Military Academy, the 1st Infantry Division, the 5th Infantry Division, and after participation in the Nov. 1, 1963 coup overthrowing the late President Diem, he was promoted to brigadier general. In the next two years, he was appointed commander of the Army Corps IV, Chief of the General Staff, and in May 1965, he was promoted to lieutenant-general and appointed Minister of Defense. On June 19, 1965 he was voted by the military leaders to head the Military Revolutionary Council, and became Chairman of the National Leadership Committee, or chief of state.

During his 10 years being the head of the republic, he was a target for criticism and denigrating rumors and reports by his nationalist opponents. His way of leading the regime also drove many Vietnam nationalist politicians and statesmen to his opposition.

His enemies, including the Vietnam Communists, many Western personages in the press corps and the intelligentsia who were against the US government policies, often pointed at him and made him a laughingstock for vilifying the Republic of Vietnam and the United States.

According to his enemies, he was corrupted, an American puppet, an inept leader and a dictator. His supporters think otherwise. So far, classified documents related to his presidency have not been released, and he hasn't written his memoirs. That may hinder honest historians from recording full and accurate account of his life as a president. Many Vietnamese who want to be more impartial think that he should be seen under more objective light.

Saying that Thieu was a dictator is not correct. In the 10 years in power, Thieu had been exerting different schemes to consolidate his ruling power. If he were a dictator, he wouldn't have to rely only on his tricks and political games to strengthen his position.

He was not behind any political assassination or plots to get rid of any of his opponents as some other pro-American leaders in the Third World were doing. Sometimes he ordered a number of arrests and detention of political opponents, but those dissidents were seldom given a long sentences.

Many Vietnamese say that if Thieu were a dictator, the RVN would still exist today.

He founded the Democratic Party as a political base to support him. Many armed forces officers and civil servants were told to join it. However, South Vietnam under his rule was not a one-party regime. The opposition, including parties with strong influence like the VNQDD, the Dai Viet, the political arms of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Church and the Cao Dai Church, were represented by large numbers of representatives and senators who often voiced their constituents' protest on the National Congress floor.

Under Thieu's ruling, South Vietnam enjoyed freedoms that had never existed in Vietnam. Freedom of the press, like other freedoms, was somewhat restricted because of the war, but it was still at an extent much larger than in many developing nations which were living in peace.

Such freedom was remarkable as South Vietnam was fighting against the front of propaganda strongly supported and skillfully conducted by the international Communist bloc. It was incredible that while soldiers were fighting Communists, some pro-Communist journalists, intellects and students in Saigon were legally allowed to publicly express their anti-war and anti-American opinions without facing troubles from the police.

Thieu's corruption if any, did not amount to any notorious record as that of some of his subordinates and far smaller than that of the Communist leaders today. After 1975, many North Vietnamese officials admitted that Thieu's private life as they could guess from evidence he left in the Palace, was far less luxurious and extravagant than that of the North Vietnam party and government top leaders.

Some foreign reporters cling to the story saying that when leaving the country, Thieu brought with him all 17 tons of gold reserve from the National Bank. Fifteen years later, a Communist colonel who fled Vietnam for France denied the allegation. North Vietnam Colonel Bui Tin, who accepted SVN last President Duong Van Minh's surrender on April 30, 1975 asserted that the gold reserve was intact after the Communists seized Saigon. According to Bui Tin, the Communist Party central leaders spent all of the gold reserve, lavishing it within a few years for both the party and personal purposes.

Bui Tin's account corroborates similar assertion by Nguyen Tien Hung, former ranking member of Thieu's staff, in his book The Palace File, written with co-author Jerrold L. Schecter and published in 1987. The book confirmed that in the last days of April 30, the Saigon government did have a plan to move the gold reserve out of the country, to Geneva or New York.

The American Embassy in Saigon agreed to help, but Thieu resigned before a decision was to be made, and his successor Tran Van Huong failed to make up his mind. Le Van Hao, a deputy Prime Minister, who had planned to stay if the Communists were to take over the country, managed to persuade President Huong not to give an approval to the plan. And the Communist leaders took hold of the gold in no time after Saigon surrendered.

There were reports saying that Thieu fled Vietnam on April 24. 1975 with "two huge suitcases stuffed with gold" (Gabriel Kolko, The Guardian, Oct 2, 2001). The two suitcases could carry, let's say, 50 kilograms of gold, or about 1,760 ounces. Gold price in April 1975 was nearly US$200/oz. Thus the gold in the two suitcases could be sold for about $353,000. If Thieu had been corrupted as much as reported by some in the Western media, he would have brought with him ten of millions of dollars not just $353,000.

Moreover, Thieu was not so stupid as to bring along the two suitcases of gold, bulky and heavy, while he could always convert his gold into light weight stacks of US dollars. During the last weeks of Saigon, anyone could sell gold for dollars at any time without prior notice, easy and almost in unlimited quantity.

His leadership in fighting the war and reconstructing the country have been severely criticized. Many Vietnamese say Thieu had no great capability to be a chief of state, and anyone among the prominent generals and statesmen could replace Thieu and do the job better than he. Many others disagree, saying that in such situation facing him, with so many American mistakes in war policy and strategic errors, especially their high-handed attitude, no one - even Alexander the Great or Napoleon I - could do differently in his role.

His greatest mistake, according to many Vietnamese, was relying too much on his supporters that he bought their fidelity by appointing them to lucrative jobs, especially district and province chiefs. That has boosted the corruption to a level out of his control.

According to sources from his close aides , he trusted no one even the first lady, in matters regarding personnel management and other secret issues. His wife has been appraised by most Vietnamese as an honest and pretty first lady of Vietnam, who kept herself out of her husband's way doing his job. In this aspect she was only second to the late Empress Nam Phuong, the beautiful wife of the late Emperor Bao Dai.

In relations with Washington, he was not so submissive as his enemies claim. Stanley Karnow, the author of "Vietnam: A History" says that Thieu "was very difficult to deal with. People called him a puppet, but if he was a puppet he pulled his own strings."

Thieu was not the best leader, but not the worst. He might have done nothing big to the country, but he did nothing the most damaging to Vietnam in comparison with Vietnam Communist leaders.

Funeral ceremony for Nguyen Van Thieu was held in a church in Boston, Massachusetts on Saturday, October 5, 2001. A crowd of about 500 including dozens of former RVN generals, high ranking government officials attended the RVN traditional military ceremony before his final trip to a local crematory.

His famous saying in the early 1970's that most South Vietnamese have never forgotten is, "Don't listen to what the Communists say, but look into what they are doing."

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