Nguyễn Văn Thiệu
Nguyễn Văn Thiệu (Vietnamese: [ŋʷǐənˀ vān
tʰîəwˀ] ( listen); 5 April 1923 – 29 September 2001)
was the president of
South Vietnam from 1965 to 1975. He was a
general in the
Army of the Republic of Vietnam
Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), became head of
a military junta, and then president after winning a scheduled
election. He established rule over
South Vietnam until he resigned and
left the nation a few days before the fall of
Saigon and the ultimate
North Vietnamese victory.
2 Early years
Việt Minh and Vietnamese National Army
4 Army of the Republic of Vietnam
5 Role in stopping 1960 anti-Diệm coup
6 Coup against Diệm
7 Junta member
Figurehead chief of state
9 1967 presidential election
10 Tet Offensive
11 Re-elected unopposed and stagnation
12.1 Abandonment of the Central Highlands
12.2 Thiệu's collapse
12.3 Communists close in and Thiệu resigns
13 Life in exile
15 Personal life
18 External links
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Nguyễn Văn Thiệu
Nguyễn Văn Thiệu was born on 5 April 1923 in Phan Rang in the
South Central Coast
South Central Coast region of Vietnam. Thiệu was a descendent of the
Tran Dinh dynasty of Annamese nobles. He
initially[when?] 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 was thought to give preferential treatment to
his co-religionists and Thiệu was accused of being one of many who
converted for political advancement, although he claimed to have
converted because his wife was a Roman Catholic.
Despite this, Thiệu agreed to join the coup against Ngô Đình
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 death, there were several
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
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 opposition
claims that the election was rigged, though an article in Time
magazine from 1967 quotes South Vietnamese citizens saying that they
thought the election was more fair than any under Diệm. 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 won more than 90
percent of the vote and the election was uncontested, while Kỳ
retired from politics.
During his rule, Thiệu was accused of turning a blind eye to and
indulging in corruption, and appointing loyalists rather than
competent officers to lead ARVN units. In 1968, he was caught out
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 resisted the communists for
another two years until the communists’ final push for victory,
which saw the South openly invaded by the entire North Vietnamese
Army. Thiệu gave contradictory orders to Trưởng to stand and
fight or withdraw and consolidate, leading to mass panic and collapse
in the south of the country. This allowed the communists to generate
much momentum and within a month they were close to Saigon, prompting
Thiệu to resign and leave the country aboard an American helicopter,
just before the communists completed their conquest. He eventually
settled near Boston, Massachusetts, USA, preferring not to talk to the
media, until his death in 2001.
Born in Phan Rang on the south central coast of Vietnam, Thiệu was a
son of a small, well-off 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 5
April 1923, as his birthday on grounds that it was a more auspicious
day. His elder brothers raised money so that he could attend the
elite schools run by France, who were Vietnam’s colonial rulers.
Although not yet a Catholic (he would convert later in life after
getting married), Thiệu attended Pellerin, a French-run Catholic
school in Huế, the imperial seat of the Nguyễn dynasty. He
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 gain independence for
France. 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 Việt
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 Paris-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
State of Vietnam to fight against the
Democratic Republic of Vietnam
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) 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
Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth,
Kansas, and in weapons training at Fort Bliss, Texas, as well as at
the Joint and Combined Planning School of the Pacific Command in
Role in stopping 1960 anti-Diệm coup
Main article: 1960 South Vietnamese coup attempt
On 11 November 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 falsely promised reform,
allowing time for loyalists to come to the rescue. The rebels had also
failed to seal the highways into the capital to block loyalist
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 21 October
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 8 December 1962, when General
Đỗ Cao Trí
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 Đức Thắng, but Thiệu’s appointment proved to be a
Coup against Diệm
Thiệu and U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson
1963 South Vietnamese coup
1963 South Vietnamese coup and Arrest and assassination
of Ngô Đình Diệm
Thiệu turned against Diệm late, and led his 5th Division in the
revolt. 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 5:00, 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 having been captured. Dương Văn Minh, the junta and coup
leader, was generally blamed for having ordered Diệm’s
assassination, but there has been debate about the
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: “
Dương Văn Minh has
to assume entire responsibility for the death of Ngô Đình
Diệm remained a taboo subject until Thiệu became president. His
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
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
Lê Văn Kim and Tôn Thất Đính.
Main article: September
1964 South Vietnamese coup
1964 South Vietnamese coup attempt
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 served only 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 the
Cần Lao, a Catholic political apparatus covertly used to maintain
the Diệm regime in power by seeking out dissenters, etc. Many
senior officers, in particular the Catholics, such as Khiêm and
Thiệu, decried what they viewed as a handing of power to the
Buddhist leaders, 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 following through on
The division among the generals came to a head at a meeting of the MRC
on 26/27 August. Khánh claimed 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 15 September 1964, Thiệu became the commander of IV Corps, which
Mekong Delta region of the country, and three
divisions. This came after the Buddhists had lobbied Khánh to
Dương Văn Đức from command of IV Corps;
Đức had responded with a failed coup attempt, along with Lâm Văn
Phát, on 13 September. During the coup attempt, Khiêm and
Thiệu's torpor, combined with their criticism of Khánh was seen as
tacit support of the rebels. U.S. Embassy logs during the coup
claimed that 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
Main article: December 1964 South Vietnamese coup
Thiệu was part of a group of younger officers called the Young
Turks—the most prominent apart from himself included commander of
the Republic of
Vietnam Air Force, Air Marshal Nguyễn Cao Kỳ,
commander of I Corps General
Nguyễn Chánh Thi
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 19 December, 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
Main article: 1965 South Vietnamese coup
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 27 January.
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, who 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
Washington, and as a result, they promised asylum only for Hương if
necessary. The plot 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
highly of Thiệu, Có and Cang as possible replacements for
Khánh. Thiệu was quoted in a
Central Intelligence Agency
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
double agent, 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. Other sources blame Kỳ.
During this period, Thiệu became more prominent as other generals
fought and defeated one another in coups, which forced several into
Figurehead chief of state
In mid-1965, Thiệu became the figurehead chief of state of a
military junta, with 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 the assassination of Diệm.
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 apparatus, decrying his "fascistic
tendencies", and claiming that Cần Lao members were undermining
Kỳ. For 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 alleged past crimes
In 1966, with Kỳ leading the way, Thi was sacked in a power
struggle, provoking widespread civil unrest in his base in I Corps;
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 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 on constitutional rule, elections for the
presidency and legislature were scheduled.
On 3 September 1967, Thiệu ran successfully for the presidency with
Kỳ as his running mate. Thiệu took 34% of the vote and held the
position until 21 April 1975. He 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 only backed down after being promised
real influence behind the scenes through a military committee that
would control proceedings. Thiệu was intent on concentrating power
in his own hands.
Main article: Tet Offensive
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 couldn't 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 1 February, Thiệu declared 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. The government perceived a
new determination among the ordinary citizens, especially among
previously apathetic urbanites who were angered by the communist
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
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 widely held to be fraudulent. The signing
Paris Peace Accords
Paris Peace Accords in January 1973 failed to end the fighting
in South Vietnam, as
North Vietnam immediately violated the cease-fire
and attempted to make territorial gains, resulting in large
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 Biên Hòa. The U.S. failed to respond to
the communist violations and the ARVN lost a lot of supplies in the
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 believed the American promise to
reintroduce air power against the communists if they made any serious
violations of the agreement, and he and his government also
assumed that U.S. aid would continue to be forthcoming at previous
On 1 July 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 7 November, 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
Nixon'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 ... [T]hey
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
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
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 religion, loyalty and cronyism.
Corruption and incompetence were endemic, with some officers "raising
it almost to an art form". Under heavy criticism, Thiệu
reluctantly sacked General Nguyễn Văn Toàn, a loyalist notorious
The aid cuts meant that an artillery piece could only fire four rounds
a day, and each soldier had only 85 bullets per month. Due to
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 mile (966km) 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 price due to the
1972 Arab oil embargo, and poor rice harvests throughout Asia, hit
Main article: Ho Chi Minh Campaign
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 Phước Long,
and quickly gained the upper hand, besieging the city.
On 2 January 1975, Thiệu held an emergency meeting with General Dư
Quốc Đống, who was in charge of the Phước Long situation, and
other senior military figures. Đống presented a plan for the relief
of Phước 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 decided to cede
the entire province to the North Vietnamese, since it was considered
to be less important than Tây Ninh, Pleiku, or
economically, politically, and demographically.
On 6 January 1975, Phước Long City became the first provincial
capital permanently seized by the communists. Less than a sixth of the
ARVN forces survived.
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. General Văn Tiến
Dũng planned to take Buôn Ma Thuột, using 75,000–80,000 men
to surround the city before capturing it.
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 Kon Tum
Buôn Ma Thuột
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
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
Nguyễn Tiến Hưng, he became "suspicious ... secretive ... and
ever watchful for a coup d'état 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
President Thiệu's briefing map
By 11 March, Thiệu 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 Generals Quang and Viên.
After reviewing the situation, Thiệu 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".
Thiệu sketched on the map those areas which he considered most
important, all of the III and IV Corps Tactical Zones. 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 Thiệu'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. Thiệu
declared this new strategy as "Light at the top, heavy on the
The critical decision was made on 14 March when Thiệu met with Phu.
Thiệu had decided to abandon
Kon Tum so that the II Corps
forces could concentrate on retaking Buôn Ma Thuột, 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
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 Hòa 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
had escaped. Thiệu'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
Buôn Ma Thuột
Buôn Ma Thuột never
materialized because II Corps had been reduced to only 25%
strength. Buoyed by their easy triumph the North Vietnamese
overran the whole region.
However, a worse collapse occurred in the northernmost I Corps, after
a series of U-turns by Thiệu. It added to the fall of the highlands,
which had already earned Thiệu 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 13 March,
Trưởng and the new III Corps commander,
Lieutenant General Nguyễn
Văn Toàn briefed Thiệu. Thiệu laid out his plan to
consolidate a smaller proportion. As Trưởng understood it, he was
free to redeploy his forces south to hold Đà Nẵng, South
Vietnam's second largest city, thereby abandoning Huế. Offshore oil
deposits were thought to be nearby. Thiệu also decided to
remove the Airborne and Marines, leaving I Corps exposed.
Thiệu called Trưởng to
Saigon on March 19 to detail his
withdrawal plan. The president then stunned Trưởng by
announcing that he had misinterpreted his previous orders: The
old imperial capital of
Huế 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. Trưởng
requested permission for a withdrawal of his forces into the three
enclaves as planned; Thiệu 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 and when needed.
Trưởng returned to Đà Nẵng to the start of a North Vietnamese
offensive. Thiệu made a nationwide radio broadcast that
afternoon proclaiming that
Huế would be held "at all costs",
contradicting the previous order. That evening Trưởng ordered a
retreat to a new defense line at the My Chanh River to defend
Huế, thereby ceding all of Quảng Trị Province. He was
confident that his forces could hold Huế, but was then astounded by
a late afternoon message from Thiệu 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 Đà
Nẵng only." The people of Quảng Trị and Huế
began to leave their homes by the hundreds of thousands, joining an
ever-growing exodus toward Đà Nẵng.
Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese closed in on Đà Nẵng amid the
chaos caused by Thiệu’s confused leadership. Within a
few days I Corps was beyond control. The South Vietnamese tried
to evacuate from the other urban enclaves into Đà Nẵng, but the
1st Division collapsed after its commander, Brigadier General Nguyễn
Văn Diệm, angered by Thiệu's abandonment, told his men that
"We've been betrayed ... [i]t is now "sauve qui peu" ["every man for
himself"] ... See you in Đà Nẵng." The overland
march, pummelled by communist artillery the entire way,
degenerated into chaos as it moved toward Đà Nẵng. 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, Trưởng requested permission to evacuate
by sea, but Thiệu, baffled, refused to make a decision.
When his communications with
Saigon were sundered by communist
shelling, Trưởng ordered a naval withdrawal, as Thiệu was not
making a decision either way.
With no support or leadership from Đà Nẵng, 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 Đà Nẵng, 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 Đà
Nẵng, 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 Thiệu 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 season
began. On 7 April 1975,
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 Xuân Lộc, the capital of Long Khánh
Province and "the gateway to Saigon", before heading for Biên
The week-long fighting that erupted on 8 April in and around Xuân
Lộc was the most significant engagement of the entire
offensive. The South Vietnamese eventually committed 25,000
troops to the battle, almost one-third of their remaining forces.
After conducting a valiant defense, the 18th Division was overwhelmed
by a 6:1 numerical ratio, and the communists encircled
On 10 April, U.S. President
Gerald Ford went to Congress to request a
US$722 million supplemental military aid package for South Vietnam
plus $250 million in economic and refugee aid but Congress was not
impressed. On 17 April the discussion ended—there would be
no further military funding for Thiệu.
On 21 April 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, he 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 considering the situation, but still blamed the
In a 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."
Thiệu 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 and
civilians] 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 Peace Accords, which the communists violated, and which he
regarded as an American abandonment, stating "I never thought that
such a good Secretary of State would produce a treaty that would bring
us to our death". Thiệu also blamed the local media and foreign
broadcasting organisations for lowering the morale of the military and
the population by reporting on the corruption and setbacks of his
government. Immediately following the speech, Vice President Trần
Văn Hương took the presidency, but the tide could not be
stopped, and the communists overran
Saigon on 30 April 1975, ending
Life in exile
In his farewell speech, Thiệu said, "I resign, but I do not
desert", but he fled to
Taiwan on a
C-118 transport plane five days
later. According to Morley Safer, the CIA was involved in the
flight of Thieu, his aides, and a "planeload of suitcases containing
heavy metal", though it was revealed in 2015 by Tuổi Trẻ, a
Vietnamese news source, that the "heavy metal", which was 16 tons of
gold, was left behind and given to the Soviet Union from 1979
He settled in London, having obtained a visa there as his son was
studying at Eton College. Thiệu kept a low profile, and in 1990
even the Foreign Office claimed to have no information on his
whereabouts. In the early 1990s, Thiệu took up residence in
Foxborough, Massachusetts, where he lived reclusively. He never
produced an autobiography, rarely assented to interviews and shunned
visitors. Neighbors had little contact with him or knowledge of him,
aside from seeing him walking his dog. He did, however, appear in
the 1980 documentary television mini-series Vietnam: The Ten Thousand
Day War, discussing his time as president of South Vietnam.
Thiệu's aversion to public appearances was attributed to a fear of
hostility from South Vietnamese who believed that he failed them.
He 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
[sic] like to see you do better than I." Thiệu 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. (Relations between the U.S. and the
communist regime in Hanoi were formally established in 1995.)
Thiệu said that when the communists were deposed and when "democracy
is recovered" that he would return to his homeland, but their hold on
Vietnam remained unchallenged during his lifetime. He futilely
offered to represent the refugee community in reconciliation talks
with Hanoi to allow exiles to return home.
Thieu was criticized by many opponents and historians, and appreciated
by others. The U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Ellsworth Bunker,
told former Secretary of Defense
Melvin Laird about Thieu: "He is an
individual of very considerable intellectual capacity. He made the
decision in the beginning to follow the constitutional road, not to
rule with a clique of generals, which many of them expected he would
do. He has been acting more and more like a politician, getting out
into the country, following up on pacification, talking to people,
seeing what they want." The military historian Lewis Sorley
suggests that South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu “was
arguably a more honest and decent man than Lyndon Johnson, and –
given the differences in their respective circumstances – quite
likely a more effective president of his country.”
He died in 2001, aged 78, at
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in
Boston, after having collapsed from a stroke at his Foxborough home
and having been put on a respirator. He was cremated and
interred in Boston.
In 1951, Thiệu 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 he
did so 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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Ngô Đình Diệm
Ngô Đình Diệm and Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, and it remains
a powerful trope in Churchstate relations and an important ..."
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Ngo Dinh Diem
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"Nguyen Van Thieu, 78; S. Vietnam's President", Los Angeles Times, 1
"Nguyen Van Thieu Is Dead at 76; Last President of South Vietnam", New
York Times, 1 October 2001
"Nguyen Van Thieu",
The Independent (UK), 2 October 2001
"1975: Vietnam's President Thieu resigns" BBC
Phan Khắc Sửu
President of South Vietnam
Trần Văn Hương
Huế Phật Đản (Vesak) shootings
Hue chemical attacks
Self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức
Double Seven Day scuffle
Xá Lợi Pagoda raids
1963 South Vietnamese coup
1963 South Vietnamese coup (reaction)
Arrest and assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem
Bui Van Luong
Thích Quảng Đức
W. Averell Harriman
Thich Thien Hoa
John F. Kennedy
Thich Tinh Khiet
Victor H. Krulak
Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.
Ngô Đình Cẩn
Ngô Đình Diệm
Ngô Đình Nhu
Ngô Đình Thục
Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ
Nguyễn Đình Thuận
Thích Trí Quang
Maxwell D. Taylor
Trần Văn Chương
Vũ Văn Mẫu
Đỗ Cao Trí
Dương Văn Minh
Huỳnh Văn Cao
Lê Quang Tung
Lê Văn Kim
Nguyễn Hữu Có
Nguyễn Văn Nhung
Nguyễn Văn Thiệu
Phạm Ngọc Thảo
Tôn Thất Đính
Trần Kim Tuyến
Trần Thiện Khiêm
Trần Văn Đôn
Military of South Vietnam
Civilian Irregular Defense Group program
Combined Action Program
Tan Son Nhut
Cao Văn Viên
Chung Tấn Cang
Đỗ Cao Trí
Dương Văn Minh
Hoàng Xuân Lãm
Huỳnh Văn Cao
Lâm Văn Phát
Lê Minh Đảo
Lê Nguyên Khang
Lê Văn Hưng
Lê Văn Kim
Mai Hữu Xuân
Nguyễn Cao Kỳ
Nguyễn Chánh Thi
Nguyễn Hữu Có
Nguyễn Văn Thiệu
Nguyễn Viết Thanh
Ngô Quang Trưởng
Phạm Ngọc Thảo
Phạm Văn Phú
Tôn Thất Đính
Trần Thiện Khiêm
Trần Văn Đôn
Lê Nguyên Vỹ
Nguyễn Khoa Nam
Trần Văn Hai
Ranks and insignia
South Vietnamese military ranks and insignia
Heads of state of
Vietnam since 1945
Democratic Republic of Vietnam
Democratic Republic of Vietnam (1945–76)
Hồ Chí Minh
Huỳnh Thúc Kháng1
Tôn Đức Thắng
State of Vietnam
State of Vietnam (1949–55)
Ngô Đình Diệm1
Ngô Đình Diệm
Dương Văn Minh2
Provisional Leadership Committee3
Dương Văn Minh2
Phan Khắc Sửu2
Nguyễn Văn Thiệu2
Trần Văn Hương
Dương Văn Minh
South Vietnam (1969–76)
Nguyễn Hữu Thọ
Socialist Republic of
Tôn Đức Thắng
Tôn Đức Thắng (1976–1980)
Nguyễn Hữu Thọ
Nguyễn Hữu Thọ (1980–1981)1
Council of State (1981–1987) (Chairman: Trường Chinh)3
Council of State (1987–1992) (Chairman: Võ Chí Công)3
Lê Đức Anh
Lê Đức Anh (1992–1997)
Trần Đức Lương
Trần Đức Lương (1997–2006)
Nguyễn Minh Triết
Nguyễn Minh Triết (2006–2011)
Trương Tấn Sang(2011–2016)
Trần Đại Quang
Trần Đại Quang (2016–present)
ISNI: 0000 0001 1452 054X