I remember meeting General Thieu on November 5, 1963, just after the putsch in which Ngo Dinh Diem had been killed and in which Thieu had played an important if secondary part, since he commanded the division supposed to protect the northern approach to Saigon—a division on whose loyalty Diem had counted. By rallying to the conspiracy against Diem he changed the balance of forces and earned his rank as a general. But he seemed a lightweight compared to the leaders of the operation: the jovial “Big Minh,” the amiable Tran Van Don, the noisy Ton That Dinh, or the subtle Le Van Kim. At the time one hardly noticed the smooth round face of this adolescent-seeming man; and he had little to say.
But the local American experts on “strong men” kept an eye on him, not because of his talent or courage, but because this former officer in the French army was perhaps the only South Vietnamese military leader who had a clear political view. Thieu had belonged to the Dai Viet (“Greater Vietnam”), a nationalistic and violently anticommunist organization formerly supported by the Japanese. Certainly this recommended him to the American specialists in “counter-insurgency.” But when those of us who were in Saigon tried to assess the putschists grouped around Big Minh, who reminded us of General Naguib, no one would have predicted that the Nasser of the operation would turn out to be the silent Thieu with his bland regard.
For the next eighteen months Thieu remained quiet while consolidating his alliances within the army. When his friend Phan Huy Quat, another member of the Dai Viet, came to power, he was appointed Minister of Defense and vice president of the Council of Ministers. From then on Thieu gained more power and no one was able to dislodge him, neither the eccentric Nguyen Cao Ky nor the ingenious Saigon politicians. On November 5, 1967, exactly four years after our meeting, he was installed as the elected South Vietnamese chief of state. However, his power was based not so much on his legal status as on the sinuous virtuosity with which he was able to manipulate, divide, and control the army. And in South Vietnam what counts is control of the army.
If Thieu has any sincere opinion on any question it is his belief in anticommunism. “There is one way,” he said recently, “to have peace: exterminate the Communists.” Compared to him, Diem in retrospect seems a sly progressive. Did he not try to negotiate with the NLF and Hanoi? But even more perhaps than the “reds,” Thieu hates the “neutralists,” the “third force,” because such people remain a standing proof that one can be a patriot without claiming that it is necessary to exterminate one half of the Vietnamese population. And proof also that one can be noncommunist without being in the pay of the Americans.
But is Thieu merely a puppet? One must avoid oversimplification of a situation in which nothing is simple …