- Nguyen Cao Ky, Ex-General Who Ruled South Vietnam, Dies at 80
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Nguyen Cao Ky, the former air force general who ruled South Vietnam with an iron fist for two years during the Vietnam War, died Saturday. He was 80.
Mr. Ky died at a hospital in Kuala Lumpur, where he was being treated for a respiratory complication, his nephew in Southern California told The Associated Press.
“He was in good health, but in the last couple of weeks he had been weak,” the nephew, Peter Phan, said. He said Mr. Ky split his time between his home in California and Vietnam.
One of his nation’s most colorful leaders, Mr. Ky served as prime minister of South Vietnam, which was backed by the United States, in the mid-1960s. He had been commander of South Vietnam’s air force when he assumed the post in 1965, the same year American involvement in the war escalated.
He was known as a playboy partial to purple scarves, upscale nightclubs and beautiful women. In power during some of the war’s most tumultuous times, he was a low-key but sometimes ruthless leader.
“It’s true that I did have absolute power when I was made premier,” he said in a 1989 interview with The Associated Press. “You may recall there was no congressional body in South Vietnam at that time. For more than two years, my word was the absolute law.”
From 1967 to 1971, he was vice president under his frequent rival, Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu.
When General Thieu’s government in Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops in 1975, Mr. Ky fled by piloting a helicopter to a United States Navy ship. He and his family eventually settled in the United States, where he led a quiet life largely away from politics. He made headlines in 2004 when he made a controversial visit back to his homeland, praising the Communists, his former enemies.
Born in Son Tay Province west of Hanoi in 1930, Mr. Ky grew up under French colonialist rule and became involved as a youth in the national liberation movement led by Ho Chi Minh.
He left the movement, however, when he fell ill with malaria. He eventually enlisted in the army, where he trained as a pilot and rose through the ranks during the French fight against the insurgency. He was among the one million who fled the south after France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French withdrawal divided the country into the Communist North and non-Communist South.
Mr. Ky rose steadily in South Vietnam’s fledgling air force and was chosen as prime minister by a junta even though he had no political experience.
He was able to end a disruptive cycle of coups and countercoups that had followed the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, whose repressive regime was overthrown by military generals in 1963.
But Mr. Ky proved overly optimistic about the American prospects for victory.
In an interview with The New York Times in 1966, Mr. Ky said American airstrikes would “very soon” force the North to request a cease-fire, and said of war critics in the Unites States Senate: “They know nothing about Vietnam. ... They just represent the minority.”
Saying he wanted to end corruption, Mr. Ky threatened to shoot merchants manipulating the country’s rice market. A businessman convicted of war profiteering was executed by a firing squad in March 1966; Mr. Ky attended the trial’s opening session.
But when it came time for the country’s presidential election in 1967, Mr. Ky yielded power to his longtime rival, General Thieu, who at the time held the ceremonial post of chief of state. Mr. Ky served as General Thieu’s vice president until 1971, when he was briefly a rival candidate to General Thieu’s re-election.
He went on to watch General Thieu preside over the fall of Saigon. General Thieu was forced to step down as North Vietnamese troops closed in. He eventually left the country and died in Boston in 2001 at age 78.
The journalist and author Neil Sheehan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on Vietnam, “A Bright Shining Lie,” told The A.P. in 1989 that Mr. Ky and General Thieu were “corrupt Young Turks” who rose to power as American involvement dramatically increased.
Mr. Ky flatly denied the characterization, saying, “If I had stolen millions of dollars I could live like a king in this country, but obviously I don’t live like a king. Believe me, I was a soldier fighting for freedom, not a politician interested in power and money.”
Mr. Ky made headlines in 2004 when, after 29 years in exile, he made a homecoming trip to Vietnam, dropping his vitriolic anti-Communist rhetoric and calling for peace and reconciliation.
Mr. Ky, who was married three times, is survived by six children and, according to his memoir, 14 grandchildren. He had five children by his first wife, a French woman. He and his second wife, a Vietnamese woman, had a daughter, Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, a prominent Vietnamese-American entertainer. He met his third wife while living temporarily in Bangkok.