South Vietnam, Nguyen Cao Ky and the War
re: #174 gwangung
This is a side jaunt, but you might be interested in this article:
There is indeed a tendency to make the Vietnamese a side character in any story (and that includes documentaries like Burns’) about Vietnam.
A lot of people seem to want the South Vietnamese in particular erased from history. I met an alleged expert on the war, a prissy doctoral student from New Mexico, who did not know what “Republic of Vietnam” meant. He thought the South Vietnamese, of whom he had heard a little, were locals we hired to help out our forces, and that the communists were just “Vietnam.”
A speech professor at North Texas would tell his students that “the US invaded Vietnam to overthrow its communist government and wound up being driven out.”
In fact, the Republic of Vietnam, South Vietnam, was the center of the war, geographically as well as politically.
Conversely, I have always thought that South Vietnam should have been able to defend itself without American troops. It was both more populous and wealthier than the north. That it could not is the central fact of the war, the elephant in the living room that one administration and military command after another chose to ignore.
Sometimes the RVN leadership seemed to be on the right track, as when the flamboyant Nguyen Cao Ky was prime minister of the junta in 1965-67.
Ky was a controversial figure. His style and sometimes unfortunate rhetoric did not sit well with American media, or other establishment figures like Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. He was also a Buddhist and a native of Tonkin (ie the north, Hanoi specifically) and was therefore opposed by the still-powerful Catholic factions within the RVN establishment and military.
Progress was slow, not helped by General Westmoreland’s bungling strategy, and Ky was finally forced to cut a deal with this opponents. He agreed to serve as rival Nguyen Van Thieu’s vice president after the farcical 1967 elections. In return, Ky would make military decisions while Thieu would run the civil administration. He was soon double crossed and sidelined, while Thieu went on an orgy of cronyism and graft that continued right up to the collapse in 1975.
Several real disasters, like the incursion into Laos in 1971, and the rout at Quang Tri in 1972, were directly attributable to incompetent cronies Thieu had placed in prestigious (and therefore lucrative) commands. Many years later, Ky was the first former official of the Saigon government to return to Vietnam and take an active role in the new regime. He died in 2011 in Malaysia where he had gone for medical treatment.
I highly recommend his books, How We Lost the Vietnam War and Buddha’s Child: My Fight to Save Vietnam. Both of these are self serving, to be sure, and contain alleged inaccuracies but they do illuminate some almost forgotten but vitally important aspects of the war.
Among other things, Ky alleges that the U.S. supported whichever group was in power, no matter how corrupt, partly because many American officials were racist and just did not think Vietnamese could do any better.
This rings true to me. American racism in Vietnam was another elephant in the living room that I will have to address some time, but it is hard for me to write about the war at all and I hope you will forgive me if I put that one off to another time.