Nguyen Cao Ky, the flamboyant former air force general who ruled South Vietnam with an iron fist for two years during the Vietnam War, died Saturday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He was 80.
Ky, who split his time between Southern California and Vietnam, died at a hospital where he was being treated for a respiratory complication, said his nephew, Peter Phan.
One of his nation's most colorful leaders, Ky served as prime minister of U.S.-backed South Vietnam in the mid-1960s. He had been commander of South Vietnam's air force when he assumed the post in 1965, the same year U.S. involvement in the war escalated. In power during some of the war's most tumultuous times, he was a sometimes ruthless leader.
From 1967 to 1971, he was vice president under his frequent rival, Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu.
When Thieu's government in Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops in 1975, Ky fled by piloting a helicopter to a U.S. 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 to his homeland, praising the communists, his former enemies.
Born in Son Tay province west of Hanoi on Sept. 8, 1930, 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 one of the roughly 1 million who fled south after France's defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French withdrawal divided the country into the communist North and noncommunist South.
Ky rose steadily in South Vietnam's fledgling air force and was chosen as prime minister by a junta of generals even though he had no political experience.
He was able to end a disruptive cycle of coups and countercoups that followed the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, whose repressive regime was overthrown by military generals in 1963.
Saying he wanted to end corruption, 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; Ky attended the trial's opening session.
During a Buddhist-led uprising in Da Nang that same year, Ky moved troops in and suppressed the demonstrators. He then placed the country's leading Buddhist cleric and his most vocal critic, Thich Tri Quang, under house arrest.
In his memoir, Ky said he did not regret taking action in Da Nang despite efforts by Americans to use diplomacy. By crushing the revolt, he said, he helped prolong South Vietnam's stability for a few more years, something he considered his biggest achievement.
But when it came time for the country's presidential election in 1967, Ky yielded power to his longtime rival, Thieu, who at the time held the ceremonial post of chief of state. Ky served as Thieu's vice president until 1971, when he was briefly a rival candidate to Thieu's reelection as president.
He went on to watch Thieu preside over the fall of Saigon. Thieu was forced to step down as North Vietnamese troops closed in. He eventually left the country and died in Boston in 2001 at 78.
Ky, who was married three times, is survived by six children and grandchildren. One of his daughters, Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, is a prominent Vietnamese-American entertainer.
Services are pending.