Nguyen Van Thieu, 78; S. Vietnam's President

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam's wartime president who fled into exile just days before his country fell to Hanoi's Communist troops in 1975, died Saturday, having long believed he had been betrayed by his U.S. allies in the final months of the war. He was 78.

Thieu, who collapsed at home Thursday in the Boston suburb of Foxboro, left many questions unanswered.

Among them: Why did he abandon South Vietnam's highlands to Hanoi's invading troops in March 1975? That decision led to the fall of Saigon a month later.

Thieu played a pivotal role in virtually every major event in Vietnam for a decade, from the overthrow of the Ngo Dinh Diem government in 1963, to the 1973 Paris peace accords, which he bitterly opposed, to the final, chaotic days of Saigon. He had already fled when North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace on April 30 to end a war that cost the lives of 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans.

But his secrets go with him to the grave. He never wrote a memoir, granted few interviews and received few visitors. Neighbors saw him walking his dog around Neponset Reservoir, but they knew little about him.

"I don't go out much," he said in 1992. "I do not, how do you say, go on promenade."

Members of the Vietnamese community in Orange County had mixed feelings about his death. He was criticized for heading a corrupt and incompetent government.

"The feeling is another chapter of history is turned," said Tony Lam, a Westminster city councilman and the first Vietnamese American elected official in the nation.

Lam said he takes a "very moderate stance" when it comes to the controversies surrounding Thieu, whom he met in Vietnam three decades ago, when Lam worked for the U.S. Embassy. He remembers Thieu as a friendly man who motivated others to help people and someone who may have been the victim of circumstances beyond his control.

"He ran a tight ship during that time," Lam said. "I felt that he was led into a primrose path by U.S. policy."

"There's a lot of controversy about his tenure as the former president of Vietnam," said Mai Cong, chairwoman of the Vietnamese Community of Orange County Inc. "The man is dead. I don't want to say anything."

Thieu, in a rare interview, acknowledged the criticism from his former countrymen.

"I talk with them very frankly, sincerely," he told the Boston Globe in 1992. "You say that you blame me for the fall of South Vietnam, you criticize me, everything. I let you do that. I like to see you do better than I."

Nguyen Van Thieu (the name means he who ascends) was born April 5, 1923, the youngest of five children, in the dirt-poor town of Phan Rang in central Ninh Thuan province, then part of the French protectorate of Annam. His father was a relatively prosperous fisherman-farmer and small-land holder.

Ninh Thuan was occupied by the Japanese in 1942, but there was little resistance, and Thieu worked uneventfully alongside his father in the rice paddies for three years. When World War II ended, Thieu, like many young men his age, joined the anti-French nationalist movement, the Viet Minh (later known as the Viet Cong) and rose to the rank of district chief.

"By August of 1946, I knew that Viet Minh were Communists," Thieu once told Time magazine, explaining why he quit the movement after a year and moved secretly to Saigon to support the South Vietnamese government. "They shot people. They overthrew the village committee. They seized the land."

Thieu, with the help of his brother, Nguyen Van Hieu, a Paris-trained lawyer and top government official, attended the Merchant Marine Academy and the National Military Academy in Dalat. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1949, and as an infantry platoon commander in the campaign against the Viet Minh he became known as a good strategist and a capable, if not daring, leader. He rose quickly through the ranks.

In 1954, as a battalion commander with the rank of major, he led an attack on the Viet Minh, forcing the guerrillas to withdraw from his home village.

Thieu went on to become a division and corps commander and twice, in 1957 and 1960, was sent to the United States for military training. In November 1963, he directed an attack on the barracks of Diem's presidential guard, helping ensure the overthrow of the military regime and Diem's assassination.

As a reward, he was made secretary-general of the Military Revolutionary Council that held power in South Vietnam.

South Vietnam had 10 governments in the 19 months that followed. The United States, desperate for an anti-Communist leader to unify the segments of society, put its considerable influence behind Thieu, a Buddhist who had converted to Catholicism and a man who belonged to no military or political clique.

With U.S. backing, Thieu was elected president in October 1967. He promised democracy and social reform and to "open wide the door of peace and leave it open." He was reelected in 1971; both elections were widely seen as rigged in his favor.

Thieu's governments were rife with corruption, greed, incompetence and petty political jealousies, and Thieu himself was often overshadowed by his flamboyant vice president, Nguyen Cao Ky. But Washington stuck by Thieu as the best man to carry on the war, and Thieu proved to be an obedient and loyal ally.

He supported President Lyndon Johnson's decision in March 1968 to curtail the bombing of North Vietnam in order to start peace talks. But Thieu always believed--and was proved correct--that Hanoi's goal was victory, not a negotiated settlement.

Only under relentless pressure from Washington did Thieu agree to sign the Paris peace agreement in January 1973, which led to the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces but allowed Hanoi to keep its troops in place in the South. Thieu said that President Richard Nixon had promised that the United States would respond forcefully to any North Vietnamese attempts to grab the South's territory.

But a year later, President Gerald Ford did nothing when Hanoi launched a major attack on Binh Long province. To both Hanoi and Thieu, the signal was clear: The United States had had enough of the war.

"The Americans promised us--we trusted them," Thieu said later. "I won a solid pledge from our great ally, leader of the free world, that when and if North Vietnam renewed its aggression, the United States would actively and strongly intervene."

Early in 1975, North Vietnam launched an all-out assault on South Vietnam, sending entire divisions across the unmarked border. Town after town fell with barely a fight.

In Thieu's hometown, elite South Vietnamese marine and ranger units panicked and fled. Hanoi's troops bulldozed the Thieu family burial grounds, plowing its tombs into the earth. It was the ultimate insult in a society that equates ancestor worship with spiritual harmony.

Thieu consulted only two officers before ordering his troops to abandon the highlands, giving them six hours to begin the retreat--which turned into a mad stampede of terrified civilians and soldiers. South Vietnam's forces were never able to effectively regroup around Saigon.

Still, Thieu wouldn't resign, despite Washington's urging. He apparently didn't accept the reality of what was happening until his Saigon commander, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Van Toan, surveyed the pounding that South Vietnam's troops had taken east of the capital and told Thieu, "Monsieur le President, la guerre est fini."

On April 21, tears welling in his eyes, Thieu delivered an address in which he blamed the United States for failing to fulfill its promises and for abandoning an ally.

"I resign, but I do not desert," Thieu said.

Five days later, he was gone, headed for Taiwan in a U.S. C-118 transport plane, carrying 15 tons of luggage and--according to many reports, which Thieu always denied--$15 million in gold.

During more than 25 years in exile, he predicted that communism wouldn't last long in Vietnam and warned that the United States should not be "lured" into establishing diplomatic relations with Hanoi, which Washington did in 1995. The Vietnamese community in the United States paid Thieu little heed and heckled him at a rare speech he gave, in Orange County in the early 1990s.

"When democracy is recovered in Vietnam, I can say that my dream has come true," Thieu told the Boston Globe in 1992. "I can go back to my life. I would like to go back to my own province, my native province. That's the best place."

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Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Dennis McLellan contributed to this report.

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