Thieu / Ky - 1965-1975
The army took over direct administration of the government in 1965, ending a period of revolving-door regimes in Saigon that had brought political chaos to the country. And it was the army that in 1967 voluntarily gave up total power in favor of an elected, constitutional republic, an act almost unprecedented in modern history. By their votes at the polls the people of South Vietnam have endorsed this military administration. Much of this acceptance of military administration by the country's majority seems to stem from the fact that the army has built a tradition of civic responsibility, a reputation for bringing relative stability out of chaos in order to permit the government to govern.
Nguyen Cao Ky and. Nguyen Van Thieu, both served in the French armed forces. One American official later said that President Nguyen Van Thieu and Vice-President Nguyen Cao Ky were "the bottom of the barrel, absolutely the bottom of the barrel." On 1 November 1963, President Diem was overthrown and assassinated. There followed a period of political instability which featured many coups and countercoups with military and political factions vying for political power with each other and within their own organizations. The effectiveness of the government deteriorated; governmental institutions founded under Diem began to disappear. The impact of this instability was felt at every echelon of political authority in the south. The Viet Cong's position throughout the country grew stronger as that of the government declined. It was not until mid 1965 that any sort of stability was injected into the Saigon political scene, this occurring when General Nguyen Van Thieu was proclaimed chief of state and Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky was installed as premier.
In an announcement on 12 June 1965, Chief of State Suu stated that these three elements of civilian authority had handed back to the armed forces all power and authority in Vietnam. Thus the mediating generals set to the task of pounding out a new government and a new statement of national policy. The shaking and sifting that ensued brought forth the emergency of new leading figures, Major General Nguyen Van Thieu, a former Deputy Prime Minister, and Brigadier General Nguyen Cao Ky, Chief of the Air Force.
The military, on 19 June 1965, promulgated a new goverment charter, the Provisional Convention, and stressed that authority was only temporarily vested in the armed forces pending promulgation of a permanent constitution. The Provisional Convention created as the highest authority an Armed Forces Congress, which was not to take over the running of the country, but was to create-the Armed Forces Directory (AFD). Having done this, the Armed Forces Congress disbanded. The AFD, or Directorate, was the real seat of power having as its membership ten-senior generals with Thieu as the Chairman, and nine other "commissioners."
Thieu's position as chairman corresponded to that of Chief of State while the other key post, Executive Commissioner (Ky), corresponded to the civilian position of Premier. Ky, acting as a kind of appointed prime minister, or premier, was to run the day-to-day Saigon administration and to work closely with Thieu on broad matters of national policy. Both kept their military ranks and were to share power equally with the other Directory members.
The work of pounding out a new governmental machine was accomplished by Ky, and after the new regime's first 100 days in power drew to a close, there was an ambitious program to be accomplished which included enhancing the new GVN image both at home and internationally, stabilizing itself, attacking economic problems, routing out corruption, addressing refugee problems, increasing pacification, and, of primary importance, prosecuting the war against the VC. These ambitions, together with some evidence to indicate progress in all areas, saw 1965 close with Ky's position relatively stabilized to the degree that he was able to announce preliminary plans for an ultimate return to civilian government.
The beginning of 1966 found the Directorate, in power for just over six months, on fairly stable ground in comparison with previous governments aince Diem's fall. The relationship between MACV and Ky's government was generally excellent, which together with the close cooperation of the apolitical Lieutenant General ao Van Vin (Chief, Joint General Staff), led to an increasingly successful prosecution of the war. Still there were many tensions threatening the thin fabric of the Directorate's rule, Among these were an increasing regional rift, traditional suspicion of military juntas, a fragile relationship among the Directorate's officers, religious fractionalism dating from the Diem regime, and a condition of deteriorating economics.
With these things under a loosely controlled boil, the Directorate was firmly opposed to an overly ambitious plunge into democratic procedures which might throw RVN back into political turmoil and seriously impede the recent success of the war effort. Consequently, the Directorate recommended as a first step the appointment of a "Democracy Building Council" whose duties would consist of drafting a constitution and establishing statutes concerning political parties, elections, and press regulation. This plan was presented to the Second Armed Forces Congress convened in Saigon 14-15 January. In a climaxing "State of the Nation" speech Ky outlined the goals for the GVN during 1966, which were to win the war, pacify and reconstruct the rural areas, stabilize the economy, and build democracy.
Despite administrative, social and economic reforms initiated by Prime Minister Ky's government, Buddhist opposition in early 1966 entered its most violent period since November 1963. The announced objective of the Buddhists was the resignation of the military regime of Prime Minister Ky and its replacement by a government headed by civilians. The Buddhist leaders charged the government with using delaying tactics and extended their demonstrations to Saigon, where the placards and chants of some participants took on Communist, neutralist and anti-American tones. Confronted with the continuing serious threat to governmental authority throughout the northern provinces and with virtual anarchy in Hue, the Prime Minister sent some 1,500 paratroopers and marines to the area between June 15 and 17 and declared martial law in the city.
By mid-summer 1966 the moderates appeared to be gaiuing predominant influeuce. In marked coutrast to their previous anti-government campaigns, the Buddhists this time lacked effective military support. Furthermore, factionalism and apparent disagreements among groups as to methods and objectives tended to detract from their influence on the public.
While preoccupied with the Buddhist problem, the government, on June 18, initiated a series of drastic reforms designed to alleviate the effects of inflation and ameliorate economic distress. The steadily depreciating piaster was devalued from an official rate of 35 to US$l to 80 to US$1. The black-market rate was 180 to US$1. A special provision fixed the effective commercial exchange rate at 118 for US$l, replacing several varying rates used for different purposes. Civil servants, teachers and military personnel received graduated pay raises ranging from 20 to 30 percent. A new tax, amountiug to about 49 percent of dollar value, was placed on imports. As an iucentive to clear imports promptly through congested port areas, and to discourage price manipulations by withholding imports from markets, a special warehouse storage penalty tax was imposed. It was not generally expected that these measures, although regarded by many as steps in the right direction, would help the country's economic ills. Therefore, regardless of the outcome of elections and the transfer of power to civil authorities, economic distress appeared likely to persist as an unsettliug iufluence on government.
After more than three years of political turmoil and instability, 1967 opened with a note of optimism. The Thieu-Ky government had been able to hold the reins of power for more than 18 months, a feat of some magnitude considering that all the old problems were still in existence, except that unity within the RVNAF was much greater. One debilitating problem, that of revolving-door government in Saigon, ended with the election of Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu as President in September 1967.
Starting in September 1966, a political process had started. A Constituent Assembly was elected to draft a constitution. In the following months elections were held for village and hamlet officials where security permitted. A Constitution was drafted and adopted, and a republican form of government, headed by a president and vice president, was voted into office in an election judged by foreign observers to meet western standards of fairness. It was somewhat blemished by the exclusion of some political factions, but a broad spectrum of political opinion was represented, and there was no suspicious unanimity.
Despite communist intimidation, 81 percent of the population voted, out of 5.3 million registered. The promised Constituent Assembly elections were held. On 3 September 1967, a well-inspected presidential election was held. The Thieu-Ky ticket won with 34.8 percent of the votes. Typical of an underdeveloped country, there were ten civilian candidates. While a so-called "peace' candidate ran well in the 1967 presidential elections, he lost to the military slate of Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Thieu and Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky.
Registration had increased 11 percent since the vote of the previous year. Fifty-seven percent of the population of the country of voting age took part. The Viet Cong called for a general strike threatened to punish those who voted, and fired on the polling places. Despite everything, the voter turnout was heavier than in many American elections. In Saigon, indeed, the victorious Thieu-Ky ticket ran behind an opposition slate. Finally, a National Assembly was elected and promptly began to display an indepcr:dencc that showed signs of developing into too much of a good thing.
By the beginning of June 1971, there were three announced candidates for President: Nguyen Van Thieu, the incumbent seeking a second term; Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, the flamboyant Air Marshal and major rival of President Thieu; and General Duong Van Minh, known as "Big Minh" and one of the leaders in the coup that overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, running as a peace candidate. On 5 August 1971 the South Vietnamese Supreme Court rejected Ky's application for candidacy. Throughout June and July, General Minh had threatened to withdraw from the race should the Vice President be disqualified, and he lived up to his word. On 20 August 1971, General Minh withdrew from the contest. The election for the Lower House of the South Vietnam National Assembly occurred without incident on 29 August 1971. Slightly more than 78 percent of the eligible voters turned out to select 159 deputies from among some 1,242 candidates in an election that, "with certain glaring exceptions," was judged fair and correct. Candidates opposing President Thieu and his policies scored impressive gains, but the President still commanded a majority in the new body.
President Thieu proceeded with preparations for the presidential election on 03 October 1971, apparently reconciled to the fact that his would be the only name on the ballot. The election would, in fact, be a referendum indicating by the size of the vote the support for the President. Meantime, anti-Thieu and anti-US demonstrations occurred sporadically in South Vietnam. There were also reports of statements by Nguyen Cao Ky promising to stage a military coup if President Thieu went ahead with the election, but the Vice President never publicly voiced such a threat.
Despite enemy shelling of a dozen cities and hamlets, including Saigon and four provincial capitals, approximately 87 percent of the eligible seven million voters in South Vietnam went to the polls. This figure represented a slight increase over the 83 percent participation in the presidential election in 1967. Nguyen Van Thieu received 94 percent of the ballots cast with only 6 percent left blank or mutilated.
From the broadest perspective, Hanoi's appeal to nationalism proved more powerful than Saigon's and Washington's appeals to anti-communism. Nguyen Van Thieu could never really broaden his popular base. The 1971 presidential election proved farcical; the top ranks of the regime remained little more than a generals' clique. Consequently, Thieu had to make loyalty, rather than professional competence, his main criteria for flag officer appointments.
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