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Nguyen Van Thieu [1923-2001]

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. 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.

Representing somewhat of a counter to Ky was the 42-year-old Directory chairman and president, General Thieu. A native of the South but a Roman Catholic, Thieu had served with French military forces until 1954 and then joined the new South Vietnamese Army. After attending the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he commanded a division near Saigon that supported the revolt against Diem and a subsequent coup d'etat early in 1964. He was later chief of staff of the army, then a corps commander, and, at the time of the June coup, minister of defense. Among his peers, Thieu was best known for his political shrewdness and patience. Known as the Old Fox, he possessed what the Vietnamese called khon or khon vat, the ability to listen without committing oneself, a special kind of intelligence or cunning that emphasized calculated self-interest. As president, Thieu quietly watched over the interests of the other army generals, as well as his own, and also served as a bridge between the officers in the field and the administrators in Saigon.

The eight-year rule of Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu began in September 1967 when he and Nguyen Cao Ky won election on a joint presidential ticket. During the campaign, Agency access to Ky's and Washington's anxiety to preserve at least the appearance of an honest electoral process had combined to turn the Station into a political consultant, trying to enhance the attractiveness of the Thieu-Ky ticket even as it struggled to limit procedural abuses. After the election in September, Thieu began a thorough purge of his new Vice President's mostly Northern supporters in the government and the military, and the CIA Station found itself in a scramble to develop new access to the Southerners around Thieu.

The January 1968 Tet offensive, whose scope and precise timing the Communists managed to conceal from US and South Vietnamese intelligence, plunged the Saigon government and its adherents into a political malaise that threatened their will to continue. The growing American perception of Thieu as indispensable to political stability in South Vietnam gradually reduced the pressure on the Vietnamese for progress toward authentic democracy. As early as 1970, the American focus shifted to the need to ensure a Thieu victory in the 1971 elections while avoiding the appearance of an electoral process manipulated in his favor.

On 21 April 1975, President Thieu finally bowed to increasing pressure and resigned. He was succeeded by Vice President Tran Van Huong, who initially assumed a militant policy of continued resistance. However, only seven days after he had assumed office Huong turned over the presidency to former General Duong Van "Big" Minh, who immediately began implementing plans for negotiations with the North Vietnamese. The Communists added a new prerequisite for negotiations by demanding the eliminations of the South Vietnamese machinery of war in addition to the previous demands for the expulsion of "all U.S. agents and of the Thieu clique" by 26 April 1975.

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