Former president of South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu, dead at 78
BOSTON (AP) – Former South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, who led his nation in the war that tore apart his homeland and bitterly divided the United States, then was forced to step down as North Vietnamese troops closed in, has died. He was 78.
Thieu collapsed Thursday at his home in suburban Foxboro and died late Saturday at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, hospital spokesman Jerry Berger and cousin Hoang Duc Nha said Sunday.
Thieu had been in a coma and was kept on a respirator until relatives could gather in Boston, Nha said.
Nha said the family had contacted many members of the Vietnamese expatriate community.
”Most of the expatriates now, with the more than 35 year of history, can see his role in a much clearer way, how he contributed to Vietnam,” he said.
Thieu assumed power as chief of state in 1965, the same year President Johnson ordered the first major escalation of the war, sending more than 100,000 U.S. troops to Vietnam. He presided over the U.S.-backed South Vietnam until the fall of its capital city, Saigon, in 1975, to Communist-led troops from North Vietnam.
He then largely disappeared from public view and lived quietly in exile, first in London, then in the Boston area, a symbol of the war in which nearly 60,000 American troops died.
After the ceremonial post of chief of state, Thieu was elected president in September 1967 after pulling off a stunning switch with his rival, Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky, who had previously wielded the most influence in the South Vietnamese military regime.
”I gave him that position and responsibility,” Ky said Sunday in Los Angeles. He said he spoke with Thieu’s wife and family by telephone on Saturday after receiving news of Thieu’s death.
The two had not seen each other since they fled South Vietnam in 1975, and Ky declined to comment further. ”I don’t think it is the right time to make a comment about someone who has just passed away,” he said.
In Washington, a White House spokesman said Sunday there was no immediate comment on Thieu’s death.
Thieu’s legacy as the man who presided over the fall of South Vietnam cannot be separated from decisions of the American government, said Chau Tran, former secretary general of South Vietnam’s House of Deputies.
”He was a very intelligent and nice person, but as a leader, his successes and failures were associated with the American leaders at the time,” Tran said Sunday. ”He must be remembered as kind person, a good family person, a good husband, a good father.”
Even with the assistance of 500,000 U.S. troops and massive amounts of military aid, Thieu was never able to turn the tide against the Communist North.
When North Vietnamese troops were closing in on the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, and the war was all but officially lost, Thieu still declared: ”We will fight to the last bullet, the last grain of rice.”
But he left power defeated, despised and bitterly denouncing the superpower nation that had befriended him for more than a decade. He claimed the United States broke a promise to continue providing military support after pulling out its combat troops in 1973, and that, he said, ”led the South Vietnamese people to death.”
When the end did come, his resignation was demanded by all sides to make way for peace talks with the North Vietnamese.
Thieu reluctantly stepped down on April 21, 1975, and left the country. South Vietnam was overrun shortly after his departure.
”The main thing that propped him up was the presence of American forces. He was not terribly effective. He was very difficult (for the U.S.) to deal with,” historian Stanley Karnow, author of ”Vietnam: A History” and a 13-part television history of Vietnam, said Sunday.
”People called him a puppet, but if he was a puppet he pulled his own strings,” Karnow said from his home near Washington.
Born in a southern coastal fishing village, Thieu became involved as a youth in the national liberation movement led by Ho Chi Minh, who went on to become president of North Vietnam.
Thieu grew disillusioned and eventually switched sides, and was one of the key participants in the overthrow of the Diem regime during the early 1960s.
He became chief of state in 1965, the same year President Johnson ordered the first major escalation of the war, sending more than 100,000 U.S. troops to Vietnam.
Thieu’s entry into office initially brought stability and unity to a country in political chaos. In the years that followed, he ruled with an iron hand, making decisions alone or with the advice of only one or two trusted aides and swiftly crushed any dissent.
In the years after the war, Thieu shunned almost all requests for interviews. He re-emerged nearly two decades later in 1992 to denounce rapprochement between the United States and the Communist government in Vietnam.
But a year later, his tone had changed. Thieu spoke of his willingness to take part in national reconciliation talks that would allow members of the Vietnamese exile community to go home. The Vietnamese showed no interest in having him act as a go-between.
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