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The Feud That Sank Saigon

Nguyen Van Thieu, left, and Nguyen Cao Ky, center, after a successful battle in 1966. Credit Co Rentmeester/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images
Nguyen Van Thieu, left, and Nguyen Cao Ky, center, after a successful battle in 1966. Credit Co Rentmeester/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

Buddhists against Catholics. Northerners against southerners. Civilians against the military. Capital against periphery. Ethnic Vietnamese against ethnic minorities. In 1967, anti-Communist South Vietnam was a caldron of overlapping rivalries, precipitating and reinforcing the political chaos consuming the country after President Ngo Dinh Diem’s 1963 assassination during a military coup.

But in the realm of high politics, it was the showdown between two rival generals, Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu, that loomed largest for most political observers. Both men were young and ambitious, and both were shrewd navigators of the internecine schemes and coups plaguing South Vietnam’s ruling military. And after years of jousting and coalition building, they were headed for a confrontation in South Vietnam’s 1967 presidential election. At stake was the political legitimacy of the South Vietnamese state itself, critical to turning the tide in the protracted struggle against the Communists.

Just 37 years old in 1967, Nguyen Cao Ky held the titular post of prime minister. One of the first officers to join the French-sponsored Vietnam National Air Force, he rose rapidly through the ranks fighting alongside the French against Ho Chi Minh during the First Indochina War (1946-1954). By 1964, Ky commanded the South Vietnamese Air Force, a role that afforded him kingmaker status over the many coup attempts that followed.

Seven years older than his rival, Nguyen Van Thieu had also gained his reputation in the early 1950s, contesting the Communist-dominated Viet Minh in Vietnam’s Red River Delta. And as commander of the strategically vital Fifth Division stationed in Saigon’s environs, he too was a decisive player in prospective coup proceedings, holding out until the plot against Ngo Dinh Diem seemed certain before leading the charge on the presidential palace. His star diminished after a falling-out with Nguyen Khanh, the latest in a procession of generals claiming the throne, and Thieu grew resentful when Khanh lavished Ky with patronage and promotions. But he staged a recovery after Khanh and a host of senior generals were purged in the spring of 1965, securing the chairmanship of the new military-led National Leadership Council in June.

Apart from similar career trajectories, the two men could scarcely have shared less in common. Brash, flamboyant and impulsive, Ky cut a swashbuckling figure, adorned with a trademark purple scarf and aviator glasses, and accompanied by his second wife, a flight attendant with a penchant for glitz and cosmetic surgery. Known as a daring if not reckless commander, he indulged passions for gambling and cockfighting.

Thieu, on the other hand, was cautious and withdrawn; styling himself a prudent family man with modest tastes, he avoided the limelight, preferring to calculate his maneuvers from behind the scenes.

But the rivalry went far beyond such surface-level dimensions. No mere clash of personalities, the Thieu-Ky feud encapsulated — and in turn exacerbated — South Vietnam’s profound social fissures, even as the country descended deeper into war.

Ky’s gregarious personality won him a devoted following among younger military officers, especially among his fellow northerners — mostly Catholic, vehement anti-Communists who headed south after Vietnam’s 1954 partition. But his impetuousness, arriviste arrogance and embrace of American largess made Ky the consummate carpetbagger in the eyes of conservatives and southerners. Alarmed by northerners’ political clout and the lucrative corruption enabled by American economic and military intervention, landowning Francophile elders recoiled from the squalid new society emerging as an outgrowth of the new stage of the war.

In this context, Thieu, an avatar of responsible judgment and sober respectability, was the perfect foil to counter Ky’s unsavory symbolism. Still, the Buddhist majority and Catholic minority alike were wary of Thieu’s recent Catholic conversion, and his small-town, Central Vietnamese origins precluded a broad geographical appeal. Aloof and austere, Thieu also lacked Ky’s charisma, and his supporters were often repelled more by Ky’s abrasiveness than enticed by true esteem for Thieu.

The feud pervaded South Vietnamese politics by the mid-1960s, with military and civilian bureaucracies internally divided, and officers and civil servants under pressure to proclaim an allegiance. The ambassador to the United States was known to be a Ky man, as were the defense minister, the head of the national police and the Saigon District military governor, among many others. Not to be outdone, Thieu’s coterie boasted two of the country’s four regional commanders and the army chief of staff.

Behind the scenes, partisans from both factions busied themselves with intrigue, hedging and horse-trading, jostling for position in an environment where allegations and back-stabbing ran rampant. The former Mekong Delta commander (a Thieu protégé) was, for instance — depending on whom one asked — either a notorious heroin-trafficking racketeer or an honest man unjustly smeared by his patron’s unscrupulous rivals.

By 1967, a critical year in South Vietnamese politics, the showdown was approaching its crisis. The past 12 months had seen both renewed military infighting between northerners and southerners, and the second Buddhist uprising in three years, requiring weeks of street-by-street fighting in Central Vietnam to restore state control. Facing demands for reform both at home and from Washington, the military finally relented, consenting to a new constitution, presidential elections and the restoration of the National Assembly.

Meant to legitimize rather than supplant military rule — which the White House saw as “essential to United States’ interests” — the 1967 election nonetheless roused Saigon’s long-suppressed cynical civilian opposition. True, “nobody believed the election would be carried out honestly,” a journalist recalled. But while the victors were certain before the voting began, the 1967 reforms revived hopes of a more responsive and accountable military regime, receptive to civilian input and bound by the rule of law.

Instead, this cautious optimism was overshadowed by frenzied talk of the imminent Thieu-Ky confrontation. In Saigon’s raucous but at times relatively free press, the election’s loftier goals gave way to political gossip. Meanwhile, Ky seized the initiative months before campaigning officially commenced, through what the Central Intelligence Agency described as putting “into conspicuous action his belief in using government resources” to promote his bid. This took the form of threats, censorship, targeted harassment and the transfer of his rivals’ supporters to Communist-controlled areas. For good measure, Ky also showered ethnic and religious kingpins with patronage, as quid pro quo for bringing bodies to the polls on his behalf.

These surreptitious stratagems cast further doubt on the stability and legitimacy that the contest had been meant to bestow. Enraged by his nemesis’ duplicity, Thieu lashed out during a heated exchange with the American ambassador, Ellsworth Bunker; warning of an inevitable coup were the public to lose faith in the process, he issued an implied but unmistakable threat to take matters into his own hands, setting off alarms at the State Department. American disarray was amplified at South Vietnamese military headquarters, with the Thieu-Ky clash grinding army affairs to a standstill.

Finally, with the deadline to file candidacies approaching, the South Vietnamese military’s top brass confronted the impasse, ordering a secret meeting to clear the air. The conference carried on for several days, complete with denunciations, recriminations and tears. When the dust settled, Thieu had emerged victorious, startling observers by taking the top spot on an all-military presidential slate. Ky was humbled with relegation to the vice presidency. Though details of the encounter remain murky, an eyewitness reported that the decisive moment came when a Ky loyalist defected, admitting disenchantment with the campaign’s underhanded excesses.

Shorn of its intended civilian fig leaf, the resulting all-military ticket was characterized by the White House as “a disaster” for public relations. Having dashed already low expectations for the election, the generals saw to the inevitable administration of their victory, albeit mustering just 35 percent of the vote — a sharp rebuke, considering their bureaucratic machinations and electoral fraud against a deliberately divided civilian field.

Unexpectedly supplanted, Ky still maintained the support of top military officials and esteem among the army rank and file. Though Thieu assumed the presidency in October 1967, his position was by no means secure. Haunted by the specter of another coup, Ky’s primary means of recourse, Thieu worked to neutralize his rival by securing American backing. Acting the part of responsible statesman and committing to uphold the new constitution, he endeared himself to a White House fearful that further Saigon intrigue would dissolve wavering public support for the war. Meanwhile, Thieu assembled a bloc of supporters in the new Assembly, appealing to common interests or appetites for bribery as required. Then, capitalizing on the Communist Tet offensive in February 1968, Thieu pounced on the pretext by replacing Ky’s cronies in the military, and at the airport, customs bureau and shipyards — choke points in both camps’ competing gold- and narcotics-smuggling rings.

A knockout blow came from a spectacular mishap: In June, an American helicopter gunship patrolling Saigon’s Chinatown fired an errant rocket, incinerating Ky’s brother-in-law, the Saigon and Cholon District police chiefs and four other high-ranking police officials — all vital cogs in Ky’s political and underworld networks. The attack intensified a backlash against wanton American firepower and enshrined Thieu as America’s man in the eyes of conspiracy-minded Vietnamese.

His overt and covert powers both constrained, Ky resorted to the role of political gadfly, charging Thieu with weak leadership and indifference to corruption and social decay. “Nine out of ten of the leaders on our side are corrupt,” he complained to the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. “We need a revolution,” he said. “We need new laws giving power to the poor.”

“This is what Ho Chi Minh says,” Fallaci countered.

These demagogic stabs were rich coming from Ky, himself no stranger to political spoils. Still, unlike so many of his contemporaries, who squirreled funds to splash on European villas and shopping excursions, Ky conspired primarily to advance political rather than private ends. Settling in California after the fall of Saigon, he lived modestly on the proceeds of a family-run liquor store (he died in 2011).

In any event, Ky’s provocations compounded Thieu’s instinctive paranoia. Increasingly isolated in the palace and surrounded with ambitious and unscrupulous young advisers, the president began falling prey to his darker suspicions. In October 1968, a Catholic newspaper published a purported fortuneteller’s prophesy, which warned that a coup was destined by the end of the month. Spooked by visions of Ky-Catholic collaboration, Thieu placed the army on high alert for the third time in as many months, arrested leading Catholic publishers and clergy, and threatened to shutter newspapers should they dare to disclose his reaction.

Having carried out coups firsthand during the tumultuous post-Diem interregnum, Thieu’s sensitivity was perhaps to be expected. But a far more calamitous overreaction during the second presidential election, in 1971, effectively ended South Vietnam’s constitutional experiment, leaving Thieu, and South Vietnamese democracy, irreparably disgraced.

Ascendant over the military but vexed with lingering fear of his now much-diminished rival, Thieu exploited control of the Supreme Court and the Assembly to impose electoral legislation all but precluding Ky’s participation. For good measure, his office mailed vote-rigging instructions to each provincial military commander, prompting an official to lament that Thieu had “put in writing what should have been done orally.” When his subterfuge inevitably surfaced, both Ky and Duong Van Minh, a former general, withdrew their candidacies in protest.

Undeterred, Thieu horrified Vietnamese and American observers by proceeding to run unopposed, reframing the now-uncontested election as a referendum on his rule. After winning re-election, he used the 1972 Communist Easter offensive as a pretext to impose harsh restrictions on independent media and political parties.

The 1971 election, South Vietnam’s ambassador in Washington recalled, marked the moment when “the search for a vivifying national purpose was finally discarded in favor of the chimerical strength of an autocrat.” It dealt a devastating blow to South Vietnam’s once booming anti-Communist civil society, with the measured enthusiasm of 1967 giving way to cynicism and despair.

Beyond its immediate repercussions, the 1971 debacle reflected South Vietnam’s failure to transcend the politics of clientelism and competing big personalities. The 1967 reforms in particular had been intended by proponents to provide a new model of governance, in which authority derived not from force but legitimacy in the eyes of constituents, and where rival parties resolved debates peacefully rather than imbued them in the fates of symbolic strongmen.

Instead, rather than restrain the generals by binding them to the rule of law, the 1967 and 1971 elections were subsumed by the Thieu-Ky feud, no small factor in the junta’s fatal failure to earn popular political legitimacy. Although dismissed in most English-language accounts of the war as the mere machinations of a puppet regime, anti-Communist South Vietnam’s domestic travails illuminate the state’s political collapse from within, apparent and irreversible years before the guns of war fell silent.

Sean Fear is a postdoctoral fellow at the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth.

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