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Memories of S. Vietnam's unlikely leader, Nguyen Cao Ky, dead at 80

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Nguyen Cao Ky in Da Nang in 1967. / Life

By Donald Kirk

PANAMA CITY, Florida — Here in the Florida panhandle, looking over the Gulf of Mexico, ruminating on old times covering the Vietnam War with Don Tate, another correspondent from those days, we shared a few laughs over one of the war’s more colorful figures.

Could any of the cast of characters we encountered then have been a more unlikely leader of the country into which American leaders were pouring blood and treasure than Nguyen Cao Ky, the flyboy from Hanoi who was actually the prime minister of South Vietnam for two years in the mid-1960s?

“I liked him,” said Tate, who was covering Vietnam for the Scripps-Howard newspapers while I was with the old Washington (DC) Star. “I liked those purple scarves. He always seemed like he wanted to win the war.”

It was easy to make light of Ky for what he was, the pampered puppet of the American war machine, the opportunist who rose to power after the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem when, really, there was no one else around. Still, when he died a few days ago at the age of 80, it was hard to find anything really bad to say about a man whose name conjured so many memories of chance meetings with an amiable person who was more a symbol of his times than an important actor.

“I only really saw him once,” said Tate. “He was watching a doubles [tennis] match at the Cercle Sportif [in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City]. I was playing with another American against two of Vietnam’s best players. He was there with other Cercle members judging whether we should be accepted as members. They were acting like they didn’t know a war was going on.”

Somehow that was Ky as I remembered him too. I first saw him in September 1965 at a fetid refugee camp on the outskirts of Saigon. He looked trim in his black flyboy outfit, smart scarf, thin trimmed black mustache, as he promised aid and comfort to thousands trying to eke out an existences after the loss of their homes in villages turned into battlegrounds, caught in the crossfire, wiped out in bombing or forcibly moved to make way for “free fire zones”.

If Ky at 34 was abstractly aware of the suffering of millions of his countrymen, as leader of the Saigon elite he hardly seemed one of the people he was making a show of leading. Rather, he preferred to distance himself from cruel realities, raking in the perks due one in his position while scheming against a long list of rivals, notably an American favorite named Nguyen Van Thieu.

Ky as a leader wasn’t so much a “dictator”, though he did order the execution of one Chinese businessman accused of corruption, as an embarrassment. The Americans had a problem trying to present him as a democratic leader of a free world nation.

His great pronouncement, as prime minister and a former pilot, born in Hanoi, trained to fight the Viet Minh during the French colonial era, one of millions who fled south after the defeat of the French in 1954, was the South Vietnamese should invade the North, wipe out the forces of Ho Chi Minh and unite the country.

Ky’s American sponsors found the rambling of this playboy/flyboy more than a little embarrassing. After putting up with him for a couple of years as prime minister, the Americans in 1967, in a great if useless exercise in face-saving, got him to run as vice president on a ticket led by Thieu, a more convincing figure though doomed not by his own incompetence or corruption but simply by the impossibility of holding on after the U.S. withdrew its last troops six years later.

Life for Ky, after his fling as prime minister, was mostly downhill. Nonetheless, he had fun. I ran into him again at the opening of some kind of art exhibition in central Saigon. I’m not sure of the year, much less the date, but the big question then was when the U.S. would begin withdrawing its forces, swollen to more than 500,000 troops in 1968, the year of the Tet, May and September offensives.

Lyndon Johnson, the hapless American president, had already said he would not seek a second term, and he had announced a bomb halt. Spokespeople in Washington and Saigon were supposed to make a simultaneous announcement on troop withdrawals.

I asked Ky what they were going to say. The U.S., he told me with a sly smile, would begin pulling out troops. My story made a banner headline across the top of the Star, an afternoon paper, upstaging the announcement that was expected in a few hours.

Ky was around until the end of the war, getting out by helicopter after the North Vietnamese swarmed over Saigon at the end of April 1975, but loved to talk. I interviewed him again after he wrote a book, Twenty Years and Twenty Days, published a year later in 1976.

Then with the Chicago Tribune, I met him in Tribune Tower in Chicago. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote, just that he was the same slyly smiling figure whom I had seen now and then in the old days. Basically, he believed the Americans had gone back on their one-time South Vietnamese ally, and he yearned for a return to the good old days when nationalists would take over from communists.

I read about Ky from time to time after that — about how he was running a liquor store in California, organizing Vietnamese refugees, maybe exploiting them, all that.

He was a forgotten figure, as far as I was concerned, one of a long line of former U.S. friends who’d lost their jobs and come to live off American largesse.

That was until April 30, 2005, when I encountered him one last time. There he was, in a fancy nightclub called Maxim’s, still going strong next to the Majestic Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City where I’d lived for two years and written a book, Wider War: The Struggle for Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. I couldn’t believe this one-time anti-communist had not only made his peace with the enemy but returned with his beautiful wife and was living it up as in the old days.

Along with other former Vietnam War correspondents, I had to go over to his table, shake hands and ask him what and how he was doing. I can’t recall the exact quote but the gist was simply, times have changed, now we are at peace. He had returned, he said, on business, to make deals with his former enemies.

“How did he behave,” Tate, the author of Bravo Burning, about American troops fighting and dying in Dak To, asked me here in Panama City. “Was he having a good time as always?” I had to say he was.

“He was one of these guys you remember,” said Tate. “He sticks.” True.

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