Vietnam's Once-Fiery Ky Now Just a 'Papa San'

Things have been relatively quiet the past few years for Nguyen Cao Ky of Huntington Beach. No hooded witnesses have accused him of heading up organized crime in the Vietnamese community. No creditors have threatened to foreclose on his house. Columnist Jack Anderson hasn't renewed his charge that Ky, a former Vietnamese premier and air force general, arrived in the United States in 1975 with $10 million of booty.

And that's just fine with the 58-year-old Ky, who describes himself as an "old papa san" (he now has eight grandchildren) who decidedly prefers a low profile. This interview is the first he has given in more than four years--when he angrily denied the charges above. He is even trying to withdraw from his acknowledged place of leadership in the Vietnamese community.

"I'm very visible here," he said in the living room of his Huntington Beach home the other day, "very accessible to my people, and they still come to me for help. But now I tell them, 'I'm ready to retire. You young guys take over the responsibility.' But when someone comes asking for help, I can't say no."

He is also ready to acknowledge that he is a better pilot than businessman--although he's now learning a new trade. The famous liquor stores that figured so prominently in his financial problems a few years ago are now gone. Ky says he sold them and paid off his creditors three years ago. Soon afterward, he was invited to New Orleans to attend a convocation of American Vietnam veterans--something he does half a dozen times each year--and while he was there, he met with a group of Vietnamese fishermen, who were deeply resented by their American counterparts in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ky was able to help calm the situation, and his new friends persuaded him to become one of them--so he bought a fishing boat, all the while protesting, "I'm an aviator, not a fisherman." This venture, however, has not only fared better than the liquor stores, but has now grown in some unexpected directions. Ky organized the Vietnamese fishermen into a co-op, and earlier this year headed a group that took over a seafood factory that now processes and sells the catch of the fishermen under the label of Southern Gulf.

As a result, Ky now virtually commutes between New Orleans and his Huntington Beach home. He expects that to taper off soon and says he has no intention of moving, just of "retiring."

Ky looks almost exactly as he did in his Vietnam glory days except for some gray hair. He is diminutive, almost tiny, a rather startling anachronism for a man who cut such a wide swath in world affairs two decades ago. He smokes incessantly and speaks fluent English, but with a decided Asian accent and an occasional garbling of idiom.

His eyes are wary and contemplative, and he is thoughtful and deliberate in speech, also a decided contrast to the brash young man who pleaded with Lyndon B. Johnson to "let us invade the north." (In a recent New Yorker article, Neal Sheehan quoted the late American adviser John Paul Vann as saying of Ky: "The . . . little fool can't even drive a mile outside of Saigon without an armed convoy, and he wants to liberate the north! How damned ridiculous can you get?")

Ky doesn't remember it that way. "When I met President Johnson at Guam," he says, "I gave him a briefing. I'd resign as premier and head an invasion force of the north. It was our right to go north, and I proposed that only Vietnamese troops be used. If American forces were used to secure the south for us, all we needed to invade the north was supply and firepower support.

"I told him I knew the American people didn't have the patience for 10 years of war, so the U.S. should do like the Russians. Stay behind the scenes and give us what we need. Conventional warfare won't work here; it's too heavy and too slow. But he was listening to Rusk and McNamara then--not to me."

Ky insists that the collapse of South Vietnam within two years after American forces were withdrawn under the Paris Agreement of 1973 doesn't disprove his thesis. "I honestly admit it was our fault," he says, "but that only happened because of poor leadership." Ky had refused to run against Nguyen Van Thieu in the presidential election of 1971 "because the Americans were 100% in favor of Thieu; with him, they could do anything they wanted."

Thieu chose to cut Ky totally out of the power structure, and when a Newsweek reporter asked Ky in 1973 what would happen when the Americans withdrew, he said: "The Communists will come after us within two years, and if the leadership doesn't change before then, that final drive will be a debacle."

The prediction was right on target, and when Thieu fled before the Communists reached Saigon, Ky says he flew his helicopter to the presidential palace and offered his services to Thieu's successor. The offer was turned down, and a week later, Saigon fell.

Does Ky really think he could have turned the tide at that point?

"I don't know. I can't say. I was young and crazy then. But I do know the thing we needed most was leadership, and I could have regrouped the army and tried to stop the Communists. When you're fighting for your country, you have to try anything. But they never gave me that chance."

Instead, Ky, his second wife, Dang Tuyet Mai, and his six children were evacuated in those final frantic hours before the fall of Saigon, and the family took up residence a year later in Orange County. Ky, his wife, and his wife's mother live in an unpretentious but spacious middle-class tract home near Golden West College in Huntington Beach. Although the furnishings reflect the Vietnamese culture, there are no artifacts of Ky's life or of the long years of war. Ky shrugs. "I left Saigon with no money and what belongings I could carry in a small tennis bag."

Five of his six children (only the youngest is by his current wife) live in Orange County, and during our three-hour conversation, there was a constant stream of family coming in and out. Ky paid no attention to them, and they smiled briefly and disappeared upstairs.

Ky says that he was shocked when he reached this country to learn of the strength and support of the anti-war movement. "Even though America was our closest ally," he says, "we knew nothing about the American people, and I realize now that in the end, we didn't have their support. But we thought then that the American attitude was reflected by the President and the ambassador in Saigon. Knowing what I know now, if I were faced by the same situation, I would put much more emphasis on winning the support of the American public."

In light of those negative feelings, Ky says he has been surprised to find that "everywhere I go, the American people come to me and express sympathy. I've experienced no antagonism since I moved here."

He recognizes that he has it better than most of the more than 1 million Vietnamese refugees now in the United States, but he's optimistic about their future. "I know it has been difficult for many Vietnamese here," he says, "but we've been through too much to let that stop us. The Vietnamese will be absorbed. It's happening. For their own survival, they have to adjust and adapt, and they'll succeed. Maybe not this generation, but the next."

But Ky has chosen not to pursue American citizenship. "The first thing refugees do," he says, "is try to reach me. I get many letters from refugee camps in Asia addressed simply 'Premier Ky, USA.' They still look up to me. If I take American citizenship, they would think I was starting a new life and forgetting about Vietnam, and that would hurt them."

He refuses to admit that his chances of ever returning to his homeland are slim to non-existent. "The only circumstance under which I'd go back is whenever there is freedom and independence for the Vietnamese people. We know communism can't bring those things, but that doesn't mean it can't change quickly. Look what has happened to Russia in the last year. Right now, the people running Vietnam are backed to the wall for survival. They aren't blind or stupid; they know they have to face the realities. For me, the name of the system is not important if it brings freedom. When that happens, I will go back."

Meanwhile, he enjoys his family, attends veterans meetings, plies his fishing boat--and avoids movies about the Vietnam War. "I am the war," he says, "so why should I go see what Hollywood does. Ridiculous. War is ugly, but I can tell you a hundred beautiful stories about sacrifices that were made. Since I see what kind of life you have here, I appreciate even more the people who left this to die in Vietnam. That's why I attend all these veterans meetings. I want them to know how much the Vietnamese appreciate these sacrifices."

Ky has had plenty of time for introspection the past few years, and "I've grown to realize I'm not a bad guy. That means doing things primarily for your own interests. I never did that. But it is very difficult as premier to find out what people are really thinking--and that's why power corrupts. I had absolute power. There was nothing to control me and temptation was there and it was all so legal. And I was very young. I'm proud that in that situation, I was not corrupted."

He's also had enough time to learn not to meddle in American politics. Asked how he reacted to the flap over vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle's military record during the Vietnam War years, he smiled enigmatically and said: "I have no right to comment."

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