- Nguyen Van Thieu
Nguyễn Văn Thiệu Born April 5, 1923
Phan Rang, Ninh Thuận Province, Annam, French Indochina (now Vietnam)
Died September 29, 2001(aged 78)
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Allegiance Vietnamese National Army, Army of the Republic of Vietnam Years of service 1949–1967 Rank Lieutenant General Commands held Vietnamese National Military Academy (1956–1960), 7th Division (1960–1961), 1st Division (1961–1962), 7th Division (1962–1964), IV Corps (1964–1965) Battles/wars 1960 South Vietnamese coup attempt, 1963 South Vietnamese coup Other work Chief of State (1965–1967), President (1967–1975)
Nguyễn Văn Thiệu (English: /nəˈɡuːjɨn væn ˈtjuː/, Vietnamese: [ŋʷjə̌ˀn van tʰjə̂ˀw] ( listen); April 5, 1923 – September 29, 2001) was president of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1975. He was a general in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), became head of a military junta, and then president after winning a fraudulent election. He established an authoritarian rule over South Vietnam until he resigned and left the nation a few days before the fall of Saigon and the ultimate communist victory.
Born in the southern coast town of Phan Rang, Thiệu was a descendent of the Tran Dinh dynasty of Annamese nobles. Thiệu initially joined the communist-dominated Việt Minh of Hồ Chí Minh but quit after a year and joined the Vietnamese National Army (VNA) of the French-backed State of Vietnam. He gradually rose up the ranks and in 1954 led a battalion in expelling the communists from his native village. Following the withdrawal of the French, the VNA became the ARVN and Thiệu was the head of the Vietnamese National Military Academy for four years before becoming a division commander and colonel. In November 1960, he helped put down a coup attempt against President Ngô Đình Diệm. During this time, he also converted to Roman Catholicism and joined the regime’s secret Cần Lao Party; Diệm gave preferential treatment to his co-religionists and Thiệu was accused of being one of many who converted for political advancement.
Despite this, Thiệu agreed to join the coup against Diệm in November 1963 in the midst of the Buddhist crisis, leading the siege on Gia Long Palace. Diệm was captured and executed and Thiệu made a general. Following Diệm’s demise, there was a series of short-lived juntas as coups occurred frequently. Thiệu gradually moved up the ranks of the junta by adopting a cautious approach while other officers around him defeated and sidelined one another. In 1965, stability came to South Vietnam when he became the figurehead head of state, while Air Marshall Nguyễn Cao Kỳ became prime minister, leading a junta that ended the cycle of coups with two years of continuity, although the men were rivals.
In 1967, a transition to elected government was scheduled; and, after a power struggle within the military, Thiệu ran for the presidency with Kỳ as his running mate—both men had wanted the top job. To allow the two to work together, their fellow officers had agreed to have a military body controlled by Kỳ shape policy behind the scenes. The election was rigged to ensure that Thiệu and Kỳ’s military ticket would win. Leadership tensions became evident and Thiệu prevailed, sidelining Kỳ supporters from key military and cabinet posts. Thiệu then passed legislation to restrict candidacy eligibility for the 1971 election, banning almost all would-be opponents, while the rest withdrew as it was obvious that the poll would be a sham; Thiệu went on to win more than 90 percent of the vote and the election uncontested, while Kỳ retired from politics.
During his rule, Thiệu gained a reputation for turning a blind eye to and indulging in corruption, and appointing loyal cronies rather than competent officers to lead ARVN units. In 1968, he was caught out by the Tết Offensive due to complacency, and during the 1971 Operation Lam Sơn 719 and the communists’ Easter Offensive, the I Corps in the north of the country was under the command of his confidant, Hoàng Xuân Lãm, whose incompetence led to heavy defeats until Thiệu finally replaced him with Ngô Quang Trưởng. After the signing of the Paris Peace Accords—which Thiệu opposed—and the American withdrawal, South Vietnam struggled to hold off the communists’ final push for victory. Thiệu gave contradictory orders to Trưởng to stand and fight or withdraw and consolidate, leading to mass panic and collapse in the north of the country. This allowed the communists to generate much momentum and they were close to Saigon within a month, prompting Thiệu to resign and leave the country aboard an American helicopter with millions of dollars in gold, just before the communists completed their victory. He eventually settled in Massachusetts and lived in seclusion until his death, avoiding angry refugee compatriots who blamed his administration for the nation’s demise.
Born in Phan Rang in Ninh Thuận Province on the south central coast of Vietnam, Thiệu was a son of a small but well-to-do landowner who earned his living by farming and fishing. Thiệu was the youngest of five children. According to some reports, Thiệu was born in November 1924, but adopted April 5, 1923, as his birthday on grounds that it was a more auspicious day. Thiệu’s elder brothers raised money so that he could attend the elite schools run by France, who were Vietnam’s colonial masters. Thiệu attended the French-run Roman Catholic Pellerin School in Huế, the imperial seat of the Nguyễn Dynasty and returned to his hometown after graduating.
During World War II, Imperial Japan invaded French Indochina and seized control. Ninh Thuận was taken over by the Japanese in 1942, but the reaction from the locals was muted, and Thiệu continued to work the ricelands alongside his father for another three years.
Việt Minh and Vietnamese National Army
When World War II ended, Thiệu joined the Việt Minh, led by Hồ Chí Minh, whose goal was to liberate Vietnam from French colonialism. With no rifles, Thiệu’s class of Việt Minh recruits trained in jungle clearings with bamboo. He rose to be district chief, but left the movement after just one year, following the return of the French to southern Vietnam in 1946 to contest Việt Minh control. Thiệu said, "By August of 1946, I knew that Viet Minh were Communists … They shot people. They overthrew the village committee. They seized the land." He defected and moved to Saigon and joined the forces of the French-backed State of Vietnam.
With the help of his brother, Nguyễn Văn Hiếu, a Parisian-trained lawyer who served in the upper echelons of the State of Vietnam government, Thiệu initially was enrolled in the Merchant Marine Academy. After a year, he was given his officer’s commission, but he rejected a position on a ship when he discovered that the French owners were going to pay him less than his French colleagues. This incident was said to have made him suspicious of foreigners. Thiệu later became known for his paranoia and distrust of his American allies when he rose to the top of politics.
Thiệu transferred to the National Military Academy in Đà Lạt. In 1949, upon graduation, he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant from the first officer candidates’ course of the Vietnam National Army, which had been created by former Emperor Bảo Đại who had agreed to be the Chief of State of the State of Vietnam to fight against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam of the Việt Minh. Thiệu started as the commander of an infantry platoon fighting against the Việt Minh. He quickly rose up the ranks, and was known as a good strategist, albeit cautious, with an aversion to attacking unless victory appeared almost assured. He was sent to France to train at the Infantry School at Coëtquidan, before returning home to attend the Staff College in Hanoi. Nevertheless, Thiệu was regarded as “very much a country boy, lacking the manners of more sophisticated urban dwellers who aspired to become officers”. By 1954, he was a major and led a battalion that attacked a Việt Minh unit, forcing the communists to withdraw from Phan Rang. At first the Việt Minh retreated into Thiệu’s old family home, confident that he would not attack his own house, but they were mistaken.
Army of the Republic of Vietnam
Thiệu was a lieutenant colonel when the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) was founded and officially gained full sovereignty after the withdrawal of French forces in 1955, following the 1954 Geneva Agreement. In 1956, he was appointed as head of the National Military Academy in Đà Lạt, and held the post for four years. There he formed ties with many of the younger officers and trainees and who went on to become his generals, colonels and majors when he ascended to the presidency a decade later. In 1957, and again in 1960, Thiệu was sent to the United States for military training. He studied at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and in weapons training at Fort Bliss in Texas, and at the Joint and Combined Planning School of the Pacific Command in Okinawa.
Role in stopping 1960 anti-Diệm coup
On November 11, 1960, Colonels Vương Văn Đông and Nguyễn Chánh Thi launched a coup attempt against President Ngô Đình Diệm, but after surrounding the palace, they stopped attacking and decided to negotiate a power-sharing agreement. Diệm then falsely promised reform, allowing him time for loyalists to come to the rescue. The rebels had also failed to seal the highways into the capital to block loyalist reinforcements.
Thiệu sent infantry from his 7th Division from Biên Hòa, a town just north of Saigon, to help rescue Diệm. As the false promises of reform were being aired, Trần Thiện Khiêm’s men approached the palace grounds. Some of the rebels switched sides as the power balance changed. After a brief but violent battle that killed around 400 people, the coup attempt was crushed. On October 21, 1961, Thiệu was transferred to command the 1st Division, based in Huế, the former imperial capital in central Vietnam. He remained in the post until December 8, 1962, when General Đỗ Cao Trí took over. Twelve days later, Thiệu was appointed commander of the 5th Division, which was based in Biên Hòa, the 7th having been moved to Mỹ Tho. Diệm did not trust Thiệu’s predecessor Nguyễn Duc Thang, but Thiệu’s appointment proved to be a mistake.
Coup against Diệm
Thiệu turned against Diệm late, and led his 5th Division in the revolt. The mainly Buddhist generals thought it appropriate that he attack the Catholic Diệm. Late on the night of November 1, as light drizzle fell, Thiệu’s tanks, artillery, and troops advanced towards the grounds of Gia Long Palace. A little before 22:00, infantry started the assault, covered by tank and artillery fire, which flattened the Presidential Guard barracks. Demolition units set charges to the palace, and rebel flamethrowers sprayed buildings, as the two sides exchanged gunfire. After a lull, shortly after 3:00, the shelling resumed, and just after 4:00, Thiệu ordered the start of the final stage of the siege. By 6:37, the palace fell. He was then made a general by the junta after they took power. Diệm had been promised exile by the generals, but after running away from the palace, was executed on the journey back to military headquarters after being captured. Dương Văn Minh, the junta and coup leader, was generally blamed for ordering Diệm’s killing, but there has been debate about the culpability.
When Thiệu rose to become president, Minh blamed him for the assassinations. In 1971, Minh claimed that Thiệu had caused the deaths by hesitating and delaying the attack on Gia Long Palace, implying that if Diệm was captured there, junior officers could not have killed him while in a small group. General Trần Văn Đôn, another plotter, was reported to have pressured Thiệu during the night of the siege, asking him on the phone “Why are you so slow in doing it? Do you need more troops? If you do, ask Đính to send more troops—and do it quickly because after taking the palace you will be made a general." Thiệu stridently denied responsibility and issued a statement that Minh did not dispute:"Duong Van Minh has to assume entire responsibility for the death of Ngo Dinh Diem."
Diệm remained a taboo subject until Thiệu became president. Thiệu’s regime first approved of public memorial services for Diệm upon the eighth anniversary of his death in 1971, and this was the third year that such services were permitted. Madame Thiệu, the First Lady, was seen weeping at a requiem mass for Diệm at the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica.
Thiệu was rewarded with membership in the 12-man Military Revolutionary Council led by General Minh, and served as the secretary general; the leading figures in the MRC were Generals Minh, Trần Văn Đôn, Lê Văn Kim and Tôn Thất Đính.
In August 1964, the junta head, General Nguyễn Khánh, decided to increase his authority by declaring a state of emergency, increasing police powers, banning protests, tightening censorship and allowing the police arbitrary search and imprisonment powers. He drafted a new constitution, which would have augmented his personal power. However, these moves only served to weaken Khánh as large demonstrations and riots broke out in the cities, with majority Buddhists prominent, calling for an end to the state of emergency and the abandonment of the new constitution, as well as a progression back to civilian rule.
Fearing that he could be toppled by the intensifying protests, Khánh made concessions, repealing the new constitution and police measures, and promising to reinstate civilian rule and remove Cần Lao Party—a secret Catholic organization used to infiltrate and spy on society to maintain Diệm’s regime—members from power. Many senior officers decried what they viewed as a handing of power to the Buddhist leaders, in particular the Catholics, such as Khiêm and Thiệu. They then tried to remove Khánh in favour of Minh, and recruited many officers into their plot. Khiêm and Thiệu sought out U.S. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor and sought a private endorsement for a coup, but Taylor did not want any more changes in leadership, fearing a corrosive effect on the already unstable government. This deterred Khiêm’s group from enacting their plans.
The division among the generals came to a head at a meeting of the MRC on August 26–27. Khánh claimed that the instability was due to troublemaking by members and supporters of the Catholic-aligned Nationalist Party of Greater Vietnam. Prominent officers associated with the Đại Việt included Thiệu and Khiêm. Khiêm blamed Khánh’s concessions to Buddhist activists as the reason for the trouble. Thiệu and another Catholic General, Nguyễn Hữu Có, called for the replacement of Khánh with Minh, but the latter refused. Feeling pressured by the strong condemnations of his colleagues, Khánh said that he would resign. However, after further deadlock, Khánh, Minh, and Khiêm were put together in a triumvirate to resolve the problem, but tensions remained as Khánh dominated the decision-making.
On September 15, 1964, Thiệu became the commander of IV Corps, which oversaw the Mekong Delta region of the country, and three divisions. This came after the Buddhists had lobbied Khánh to remove General Dương Văn Đức from command of IV Corps; Đức responded with a failed coup attempt along with Lâm Văn Phát on September 13. During the coup attempt, Khiêm and Thiệu’s lack of public action, combined with their criticism of Khánh was seen as tacit support of the rebels. U.S. Embassy logs during the coup claimed that the Thiệu and Khiêm “seem so passive that they appear to have been either tacitly supporting or associated with his move by Đức and Phát”. However, after the coup faltered, the pair “issued expressions of firm support for Khánh somewhat belatedly”.
Thiệu was part of a group of younger officers called the Young Turks—the most prominent apart from himself included commander of the Vietnam Air Force, Air Marshal Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, commander of I Corps General Nguyễn Chánh Thi and Admiral Chung Tấn Cang, the head of the Republic of Vietnam Navy. They and Khánh wanted to forcibly retire officers with more than 25 years of service, as they thought them to be lethargic, out of touch, and ineffective, but most importantly, as rivals for power. Specific targets of this proposed policy were Generals Minh, Trần Văn Đôn, Lê Văn Kim and Mai Hữu Xuân.
The signature of Chief of State Phan Khắc Sửu was required to pass the ruling, but he referred the matter to the High National Council (HNC), an appointed civilian advisory body, to get their opinion. The HNC turned down the request. This was speculated to be due to the fact that many of the HNC members were old, and did not appreciate the generals’ negativity towards seniors. On December 19, the generals dissolved the HNC and arrested some of the members as well as other civilian politicians. This prompted U.S. Ambassador Maxwell D. Taylor to angrily berate Thiệu, Thi, Kỳ and Cang in a private meeting and threaten to cut off aid if they did not reverse their decision. However, this galvanized the officers around Khánh for a time and they ignored Taylor’s threats without repercussions as the Americans were too intent on defeating the communists to cut funding.
Thiệu was again plotting the following month when the junta-appointed Prime Minister, Trần Văn Hương, introduced a series of war expansion measures, notably by widening the terms of conscription. This provoked widespread anti-Hương demonstrations and riots across the country, mainly from conscription-aged students and pro-negotiations Buddhists. Reliant on Buddhist support, Khánh did little to try to contain the protests, and then decided to have the armed forces take over the government, and he removed Hương on January 27.
Khánh’s action nullified a counter-plot involving Hương that had developed during the civil disorders that forced him from office. In an attempt to pre-empt his deposal, Hương had backed a plot led by some Đại Việt-oriented Catholic officers including Thiệu and Có. They planned to remove Khánh and bring Khiêm back from Washington. The U.S. Embassy in Saigon was privately supportive of the aim as Taylor and Khánh had become implacable enemies, but they did not fully back the move as they regarded it as poorly thought out and potentially a political embarrassment due to the need to use an American plane to transport some plotters between Saigon and Washington, and as a result, they promised asylum only for Hương if necessary.
The plotting continued over the next month with U.S. encouragement, especially when evidence emerged that Khánh wanted to make a deal with the communists. Taylor told the generals that the U.S. was “in no way propping up General Khanh or backing him in any fashion”. At this stage, Taylor and his staff in Saigon thought highly of Thiệu, Có and Cang as possible replacements for Khánh. Thiệu was quoted in a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report as being described by an unnamed American official as “intelligent, highly ambitious, and likely to remain a coup plotter with the aim of personal advancement”. Thiệu took a cautious approach, as did Có and Cang, and they were pre-empted by Colonel Phạm Ngọc Thảo, an undetected communist spy who launched a coup with Phát on a hardline Catholic platform without U.S. backing. With U.S. support against both Khánh and the plotters, Kỳ and Thi put down the coup attempt and then ousted Khánh. This left Kỳ, Thi and Thiệu as the three most prominent members in the new junta.
There were claims that Thiệu ordered the military to capture and extrajudicially kill Colonel Phạm Ngọc Thảo, who died in 1965 after a series of coup attempts between various ARVN officers. During this period, Thiệu gradually became more prominent as other generals fought and defeated one another in coups, which forced several into exile.
Figurehead chief of state
In mid 1965, Thiệu became the figurehead chief of state of a military junta, with Nguyễn Cao Kỳ as the prime minister. After a series of short-lived juntas, their pairing put an end to a series of leadership changes that had occurred since Diệm’s demise.
Kỳ and Thiệu’s military junta decided to inaugurate their rule by holding a “no breathing week”. They imposed censorship, closed many newspapers that published material deemed unacceptable, and suspended civil liberties. They then sidelined the civilian politicians to a “village of old trees” to “conduct seminars and draw up plans and programs in support of government policy”. They decided to ignore religious and other opposition groups “with the stipulation that troublemakers will be shot”.
Kỳ and Thiệu were more concerned with attacking the communists than their predecessors. The generals began to mobilize the populace into paramilitary organizations. After one month, Thích Trí Quang began to call for the removal of Thiệu because he was a member of Diệm’s Catholic Cần Lao Party, decrying his “fascistic tendencies”, and claiming that Cần Lao members were undermining Kỳ.
For Thích Trí Quang, Thiệu was a symbol of the Diệm era of Catholic domination, when advancement was based on religion. He had desired that General Thi, known for his pro-Buddhist position, would lead the country, and denounced Thiệu for his alleged past crimes against Buddhists.
In 1966, with Kỳ leading the way, Thi was sacked in a power struggle, provoking widespread civil unrest in his base in I Corps; Thích Trí Quang led Buddhist protests against Kỳ and Thiệu and many units in I Corps began disobeying orders, siding with Thi and the Buddhist movement. Eventually, Kỳ’s military forces forced the dissidents to back down and defeated those who did not. Thi was exiled and Thích Trí Quang put under house arrest, ending Buddhist opposition and any effective threat to Kỳ and Thiệu’s regime.
1967 presidential election
Under U.S. insistence for constitutional rule, elections for the presidency and legislature were scheduled.
On September 3, 1967, Thiệu ran successfully for the presidency with Kỳ as his running mate. Thiệu took 34% of the vote and held that position until April 21, 1975.
Thiệu promised democracy, social reform and vowed to “open wide the door of peace and leave it open”. However, the poll was the start of a power struggle with Kỳ, who had been the main leader of South Vietnam in the preceding two years. The military had decided that they would support one candidate, and after both men wanted the job, Kỳ would only back down after being promised real influence behind the scenes through a military committee that would control proceedings. However, Thiệu was intent on concentrating power into his own hands.
During the Lunar New Year of 1968, the communists launched a massive attack on the cities of Vietnam in an attempt to topple Thiệu and reunify the country under their rule. At the time of the attack on Saigon, Thiệu was out of town, having travelled to celebrate the new year at his wife’s family’s home at Mỹ Tho in the Mekong Delta. Kỳ, who was still in the capital, stepped into the spotlight and took command, organising the military forces in Saigon in the battle. The ARVN and the Americans repelled the communist onslaught. Kỳ’s overshadowing of his superior during South Vietnam’s deepest crisis further strained relations between the two men.
Although the communists were repelled and suffered heavy losses, South Vietnam suffered heavily as the conflict reached the cities for the first time in a substantial way. As ARVN troops were pulled back to defend the towns, the Việt Cộng gained in the countryside. The violence and destruction witnessed damaged public confidence in Thiệu, who apparently could not protect the citizens.
Thiệu’s regime estimated the civilian dead at 14,300 with 24,000 wounded. 630,000 new refugees had been generated, joining the nearly 800,000 others already displaced by the war. By the end of 1968, 8% of the populace was living in a refugee camp. More than 70,000 homes had been destroyed and the nation’s infrastructure was severely damaged. 1968 became the deadliest year of the war to date for South Vietnam, with 27,915 men killed.
In the wake of the offensive, however, Thiệu’s regime became more energetic. On February 1, Thiệu declared a state of martial law, and in June, the National Assembly approved his request for a general mobilization of the population and the induction of 200,000 draftees into the armed forces by the end of the year; the bill had been blocked before the Tết Offensive. This would increase South Vietnam’s military to more than 900,000 men. Mobilization and token anti-corruption campaigns were carried out. Three of the four ARVN corps commanders were replaced for poor performance during the offensive. Thiệu also established a National Recovery Committee to oversee food distribution, resettlement, and housing construction for the new refugees. Both the government perceived a new determination among the ordinary citizens, especially among previously apathetic urbanites who were angered by the communist attacks.
Thiệu used the period to consolidate his personal power. His only real political rival was Vice President Kỳ. In the aftermath of Tết, Kỳ supporters in the military and the administration were quickly removed from power, arrested, or exiled. A crack-down on the South Vietnamese press followed and there was a return of some of Diệm’s Cần Lao members to positions of power. Within six months, the populace began to call him “the little dictator”. Over the next few years, Kỳ became increasingly sidelined to the point of irrelevance.
Re-elected unopposed and stagnation
In 1971, Thiệu ran for re-election, but his reputation for corruption made his political opponents believe the poll would be rigged, and they declined to run. As the only candidate, Thiệu was thus easily re-elected, receiving 94% of the vote on an 87% turn-out, a figure that was widely thought to be fraudulent.
The signing of the Paris Peace Accords in March 1973 failed to end the fighting in South Vietnam, as both sides immediately violated the cease-fire and attempted to make territorial gains, resulting in large battles.
In late 1973, the communists issued Resolution 21, which called for “strategic raids” against South Vietnam to gain territory and to gauge the reaction of Thiệu and the American government. This started between March and November 1974, when the communists attacked Quang Duc Province and Bien Hoa. The U.S. failed to respond to the communist violations and the ARVN lost a lot of supplies in the fighting.
Thiệu expressed his stance on the ceasefire by publicly proclaiming the “Four Nos”: no negotiations with the communists; no communist political activities south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ); no coalition government; and no surrender of territory to the North Vietnamese or Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG), which went against the deal. Thiệu still believed the American promise to reintroduce air power against the communists if they made any serious violations of the agreement took place, and he and his government also assumed that U.S. aid would continue to be forthcoming at previous levels.
On July 1, 1973, however, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that all but prohibited any U.S. combat activities over or in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. On November 7, the legislative branch overrode Nixon’s veto of the War Powers Act. In 1973–74, U.S. funding was slashed to $965 million, a reduction of more than 50%. Despite the American president’s growing political difficulties and an increasingly hostile working relationship with the legislature over Vietnam, Thiệu, and most of the Saigon leadership, remained optimistic about ongoing aid. According to Vietnamese Air Force General Đổng Văn Khuyên, “Our leaders continued to believe in U.S. air intervention even after the U.S. Congress had expressly forbidden it … They deluded themselves.”
As North Vietnam needed to replenish its armed forces in 1974, Thiệu decided to go on the attack. He stretched his own forces thinly by launching offensives that regained most of the territory captured by PAVN forces during the 1973 campaign, and retook 15% of the total land area controlled by the communists at the time of the cease-fire. In April, Thiệu launched the Svay Rieng Campaign against communist strongholds in eastern Cambodia near Tây Ninh, in what was the last major ARVN offensive. While these operations were successful, the cost in terms of manpower and resources was high. By the end of the year the military was experiencing equipment shortages as a result of decreased American aid, while communist forces continued to gain strength.
By the end of October, the North Vietnamese had formulated their strategy for 1975 and 1976. In what became known as Resolution of 1975, the party leadership reported that the war had reached its “final stage”. The army was to consolidate its gains, eliminate South Vietnamese border outposts and secure its logistical corridor, and continue its force build-up in the south. During 1976, the final general offensive would begin. The communists decided to start by attacking Phước Long Province, around 140 km north of Saigon.
In the meantime, morale in and supplies for the ARVN continued to fade away. Desertion increased, and only 65% of registered personnel were present. Morale fell due to Thiệu’s continued policy of promoting officers on the grounds of loyalty and cronyism. Corruption and incompetence were endemic, with some officers “raising it almost to an art form.” Under heavy criticism, Thiệu had sacked the II and IV Corps commanders, Generals Nguyễn Văn Toàn and Nguyễn Văn Nghi, loyalists notorious for their corruption.
The aid cuts meant that an artillery piece could only fire four rounds a day, and each soldier had only 85 bullets per month. Because of lack of fuel and spare parts, air force transport operations shrank by up to 70%. Due to Thiệu’s insistence on not surrendering any territory, the army was spread very thinly, defending useless terrain along a 600 miles (966 km) frontier, while the strategic reserve was occupied in static defensive roles. The situation was exacerbated by the collapse of the economy and a massive influx of refugees into the cities. Worldwide rises in fuel process, due to the 1972 Arab oil embargo, and poor rice harvests throughout Asia, hit hard.
By the end of 1974, around 370,000 communist troops were in South Vietnam, augmented by ever increasing influxes of military hardware. In mid-December, the communists attacked Phuoc Long City, and quickly gained the upper hand, besieging the city.
On January 2, Thiệu held an emergency meeting with General Dư Quốc Đống, who was in charge of the Phuoc Long situation, and other senior military figures. Đống presented a plan for the relief of Phuoc Long, but it was rejected because a lack of reserve forces of sufficient size available, a lack of airlift capability, and the belief that the besieged defenders could not hold out long enough for reinforcements. Thiệu then decided to cede the entire province to the North Vietnamese, since it was considered to be less important than Tây Ninh, Pleiku, or Huế—economically, politically, and demographically.
On January 6, 1975, Phuoc Long City became the first provincial capital permanently seized by the communists. Less than a sixth of the ARVN forces survived. However, the more important result was that the Americans showed complete apathy to the communist violations of the ceasefire, severely denting South Vietnamese morale.
Lê Duẩn declared that “Never have we had military and political conditions so perfect or a strategic advantage so great as we have now.” The communists thus decided to initiate a full-scale offensive against the central highlands, which had been named Campaign 275.
Major General Phạm Văn Phú, the II Corps commander, was given adequate warnings of the impending attacks, but was not worried. He thought the true objective was Pleiku or Kontum and that Buôn Ma Thuột was a diversion. The town was therefore lightly defended and communists outnumbered defenders by more than 8:1. The battle for Buôn Ma Thuột began on March 10 and ended only eight days later. Reinforcements were flown in, but were dismantled and fled in chaos.
On March 18 the communists took complete control of Đắk Lắk Province. ARVN forces began to rapidly shift positions in an attempt to keep the North Vietnamese from quickly pushing eastward to the coastal lowlands along Route 21.
In the face of rapid communist advances, Thiệu had sent a delegation to Washington in early March to request an increase in aid. The U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin also traveled to Washington to present the case to President Gerald Ford. However, the U.S. Congress, increasingly reluctant to invest in what was seen as a lost cause, slashed a proposed $1.45 billion military aid package for 1975 to $700 million. The Ford administration, however, continued to encourage Thiệu to believe that money would eventually come.
During this time, Thiệu was feeling the increased pressure and became increasingly paranoid. According to one of his closest advisors Nguyen Tien Hung, he became "suspicious...secretive...and ever watchful for a coup d'etat against him." His increasing isolation had begun to deny him "the services of competent people, adequate staff work, consultation, and coordination". Thieu's military decisions were followed faithfully by his officers who generally agreed that he "made all the decisions as to how the war should be conducted."
Abandonment of the central highlands
By March 11, Thieu had concluded that there was no hope of receiving the $300 million supplemental aid package from the U.S. On that basis he called a meeting attended by Lieutenant General Dang Van Quang and General Vien. After reviewing the situation, Thieu pulled out a small-scale map of South Vietnam and discussed the possible redeployment of the armed forces to "hold and defend only those populous and flourishing areas which were really most important." Thieu then sketched on the map those areas which he considered most important, III and IV Corps. He also pointed out those areas that were currently under communist control which would have to be retaken. The key to the location of these operations were concentrations of natural resources such as rice, rubber and industries. The necessary territory included coastal areas where oil had been discovered on the continental shelf. These areas were to become, in Thieu's words: "Our untouchable heartland, the irreducible national stronghold." With respect to the I and II Corps Zones, he drew a series of phase lines on the map indicating that South Vietnamese forces should hold what they could, but that they could redeploy southward if needed. Thieu declared this new strategy as "Light at the top, heavy on the bottom."
The critical decision was made on March 14 when Thieu met Phu. Thieu had decided to abandon Pleiku and Kontum so that the II Corps forces could concentrate on retaking Ban Me Thuot, which he considered more important. Phu then decided that the only possible means of doing this was to retreat to the coast along Interprovincial Route 7B, a dilapidated, rough track with several downed bridges, before recuperating and counterattacking back into the highlands.
The large-scale retreat of hundreds of thousands of military personnel and civilians would be dangerous. However, it was poorly planned, many senior officers were not kept informed, and some units were left behind or retreated incoherently. This was exacerbated by a three-day delay when the convoy encountered a broken bridge and had to rebuild it. The communist forces caught up, surrounded the convoy, and attacked it.
Heavy losses were incurred against the numerically dominant communists, who shelled and rocketed the soldiers and peasants alike. More bridge delays played into communist hands, and by the time the convoy reached Tuy Hoa on March 27, it was estimated by the ARVN that only 20,000 of the 60,000 troops had survived, while only 25% of the estimated 180,000 civilians succeeded. Thieu's order to evacuate, which was too late, had resulted in chaos and a bloodbath that left more than 150,000 dead.
The planned operation to retake Ban Me Thuot never materialized simply because II Corps had been reduced to only 25% strength. Buoyed by their easy triumph the North Vietnamese overran the whole region.
Thieu’s multiple backflips and resultant collapse in I Corps
However, a worse collapse occurred in the northernmost I Corps, after a series of backflips by Thieu. It added to the fall of the highlands, which had already earned Thieu much criticism.
I Corps fielded three infantry divisions, the elite Airborne and Marine Divisions, four Ranger Groups and an armored brigade, under the command of Ngô Quang Trưởng, regarded as the nation's finest general. Until mid-March, the North Vietnamese had only tried to cut the highways, despite having five divisions and 27 further regiments. At a meeting on March 13, Truong and the new III Corps commander, Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Toan briefed Thieu. Thieu laid out his plan to consolidate a smaller proportion. As Truong understood it, he was free to redeploy his forces south to hold Da Nang, South Vietnam's second largest city, thereby abandoning Hue. Offshore oil deposits were thought to be nearby. Thieu also decided to remove the Airborne and Marines, leaving I Corps exposed.
Thieu called Truong to Saigon on March 19 to detail his withdrawal plan. The president then stunned Truong by announcing that he had misinterpreted his previous orders: The old imperial capital of Hue was not to be abandoned, despite losing two divisions.
In the meantime, the withdrawal preparations and the increasing North Vietnamese pressure caused civilians to flee, clogging the highway and hampering the withdrawal. Truong then requested permission for a withdrawal of his forces into the three enclaves as planned; Thieu's ordered him to "hold onto any territory he could with whatever forces he now had, including the Marine Division", implying that he could retreat if needed.
Truong returned to Da Nang to the start of a North Vietnamese offensive. President Thieu made a nationwide radio broadcast that afternoon proclaiming that Hue would be held "at all costs", contradicting the previous order. That evening Truong ordered a retreat to a new defense line at the My Chanh River to defend Hue, thereby ceding all of Quang Tri Province. He was confident that his forces could hold Hue, but was then astounded by a late afternoon message from Thieu that ordered "that because of inability to simultaneously defend all three enclaves, the I Corps commander was free...to redeploy his forces for the defense of Da Nang only." The people of Quang Tri and Hue began to leave their homes by the hundreds of thousands, joining an ever-growing exodus toward Da Nang.
Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese closed in on Da Nang amid the chaos caused by Thieu's confused leadership. Within a few days I Corps was beyond control. The South Vietnamese tried to evacuate from the other urban enclaves into Da Nang, but the 1st Division collapsed after its commander Brigadier General Nguyen Van Diem, angered by Thieu’s incoherent abandonment, told his men that "We've been betrayed...It is now sauve qui peu (every man for himself)...See you in Da Nang." The overland march, pummelled by communist artillery the entire way, degenerated into chaos as it moved toward Da Nang. The remainder of the force deserted or began looting. Only a minority survived and some disillusioned officers committed suicide.
As anarchy and looting enveloped Đà Nẵng, and a defense of the city becoming impossible, Truong requested permission to evacuate by sea, but Thieu, baffled, refused to make a decision. When his communications with Saigon were sundered by communist shelling, Truong ordered a naval withdrawal, as Thieu was not making a decision either way.
With no support or leadership from Thieu, the evacuation turned into a costly debacle, as the communists pounded the city with artillery, killing tens of thousands. Many drowned while jostling for room on the boats; with no logistical support, those vessels sent were far too few for the millions of would-be evacuees. Only around 16,000 soldiers were pulled out, and of the almost two million civilians that packed Da Nang, a little more than 50,000 were evacuated. As a result, 70,000 troops were taken prisoner, along with around 100 fighter jets. During the fall of Da Nang no pitched battles had been fought. In quick succession the few remaining cities along the coastline "fell like a row of porcelain vases sliding off a shelf" and half the country had fallen in two weeks. When his hometown of Phan Rang fell, retreating ARVN troops showed their disgust at Thieu by demolishing his family's ancestral shrines and graves.
Communists close in and Thiệu resigns
By this time, the North Vietnamese Politburo no longer felt it necessary to wait until 1976 for the final offensive, and they sought to secure victory within two months before the monsoon. On April 7, Lê Đức Thọ arrived at Dung’s headquarters near Loc Ninh to oversee the final battles. Dung prepared a three-pronged attack, which would seize the vital highway intersection at Xuan Loc, the capital of Long Khanh Province and “the gateway to Saigon”, before heading for Bien Hoa.
The week-long fighting that erupted on April 8 in and around Xuan Loc was the most significant engagement of the entire offensive. The South Vietnamese eventually committed 25,000 troops to the battle, almost one-third of the remainder of their forces. After conducting a valiant defense, the 18th Division was overwhelmed by the 6:1 numerical ratio, and the communists encircled Saigon.
On April 10 President Ford went to Congress to request a $722 million supplemental military aid package for South Vietnam plus $250 million in economic and refugee aid. Congress was not impressed, and on April 17 the discussion ended. There would be no more military funding for Thiệu.
On April 21, 1975, Thiệu, under intense political pressure, resigned as president after losing the confidence of his closest domestic allies. In his televised farewell speech during which he was close to tears, Thiệu admitted, for the first time, having ordered the evacuation of the Central Highlands and the north that had led to debacle. He then stated that it had been the inevitable course of action in the situation, but blamed the generals.
In a long, rambling and incoherent speech, Thiệu went on to excoriate the U.S., attacking “our great ally...the leader of the free world … The United States has not respected its promises” he declared “It is inhumane. It is not trustworthy. It is irresponsible.” He added, “The United States did not keep its word. Is an American’s word reliable these days?” … and, "The United States did not keep its promise to help us fight for freedom and it was in the same fight that the United States lost 50,000 of its young men." Thieu bemoaned the American funding cuts, which he equated to desertion, saying "You don't fight by miracles, you need high morale and bravery. But even if you are brave, you can't just stand there and bite the enemy. And we are fighting against Russia and China. We're having to bargain for aid from the United States like haggling for fish in the market and I am not going to continue this bargaining for a few million dollars when your [South Vietnamese soldiers] lives are at stake." He criticised the American policy, saying "You Americans with your 500,000 soldiers in Vietnam! You were not defeated...you ran away!" He lambasted US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for signing the Paris Accords, which the communists violated, and which he regarded as American abandonment, saying "I never thought that such a good Secretary of State would produce a treaty that would bring us to our death". Thieu also blamed the local media and foreign broadcasting organisations for lowering the morale of the military and the population by reporting the corruption and setbacks of his government.
Life in exile
In his farewell speech, Thieu said "I resign, but I do not desert", but he fled to Taiwan on a C-118 transport plane five days later. He left with 15 tons of luggage and US$15 million in gold.
He settled in London, United Kingdom. He obtained a visa there because his son was studying at Eton College. Thieu kept a low profile, and in 1990 even the Foreign Office claimed to have no information on his whereabouts.
In the early 1990s, Thieu took up residence in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Thieu lived reclusively in Massachusetts, and took his secrets with him in death. He never produced an autobiography, and rarely assented to interviews and shunned visitors. Neighbors had little contact or knowledge of him, aside from seeing him walking his dog. Thieu’s aversion to public appearances was attributed to a fear of hostility from South Vietnamese who believed that he failed them. Thieu acknowledged his compatriots’ low esteem of his administration in a 1992 interview, but said “You say that you blame me for the fall of South Vietnam, you criticize me, everything. I let you do that. I like to see you do better than I.” The Vietnamese American community heckled Thieu at a rare speech he delivered in Orange County, California—the area with the most Vietnamese in the country—in the early 1990s.
Thieu continually predicted the demise of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s grip on power and warned against the United States establishing diplomatic relations with the communist regime; however, Bill Clinton did so in 1995. Thieu said that when the communists were deposed and when “democracy is recovered” that he would return to homeland, but their hold on Vietnam remained unchallenged during his life. He offered to represent the refugee community in reconciliation talks with Hanoi to allow exiles to return home, but was ignored by the communist hierarchy.
He died in 2001 at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center after collapsing from a stroke at his Foxborough home and being put on a respirator. He was cremated and buried in Boston, Massachusetts.
In 1951, Thieu married Nguyễn Thị Mai Anh, the daughter of a wealthy herbal medicine practitioner from the Mekong Delta. She was a Roman Catholic, and Thiệu converted in 1958. Critics claimed that Thiệu did so in order to improve his prospects of rising up the military ranks, as Diệm was known to discriminate in favor of Catholics. The couple had two sons and one daughter.
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