And so departs a Prime Minister and Vice President of South Việt Nam...
It's ironic that someone so flamboyant and historic in real life got overshadowed by their daughter before death. You've never heard of Nguyễn Cao Kỳ Duyên, daughter of Nguyễn Cao Kỳ? Then you've probably never heard of Paris by Night, the Vietnamese language variety show she's been hosting since god knows when. It's very, very big in the "overseas" Vietnamese community. But unless you're a speaker or married to one, it's probably passed your notice. Never mind that - let's talk about the big man himself.
I could link to some obituary for Kỳ from the New York Times or The Guardian, but I think the current iteration of his Wikipedia article really gives a decent history of him - from air force pilot through to junta member and then to prime minister, to retirement and finally exodus. There's a lot of bad things to observe about him - first a coup supporter, then later a vote rigger, and always the sort of man South Vietnamese of the time described as a “hooligan” and a “cowboy leader”. Oh, and he publicly admitted he admired Hitler - in 1965! On the good side, he was very much an anti-Communist, so much so that he would threaten to shoot or bomb or airstrike those he thought in alliance with them. Hmm... that's not so good, actually.
I'm a bit at a loss to continue. Yes, Kỳ wasn't as corrupt or indolent like Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, or a mass murdering Stalinist fanatic like Lê Duẩn. But not being either of those men is a pretty low bar to cross. At this point, I find myself asking "Am I going to deliver another nasty Việt Nam war related obituary like I did for William Westmoreland in 2005?" I was pretty scathing at the time, I recall, and I don't really want to do it again. But perhaps it may be appropriate to quote the criteria I used to disparage General W:
Imagine you are an incompetent general in charge of a counter-insurgency war which kills or mutilates about a million people, and displaces a few million more. You survive until it is time to leave your job. Do you:
- Retreat into obscurity, with the option of a little reflection and soul searching on the side?
- Use your fame or notoriety to help the folks you hurt? (There are several possibilities here. Do you form your own charity, or jump on the board of another one? Do you specialize in areas such as land-mine clearing, or do you generalize by providing aid to the Vietnamese people as a whole? The permutations are endless.)
- Spend the next 30 years trying to repair your image?
Westmoreland falls neatly into category 3, which is why I bagged him. What about Kỳ? (Leaving aside the fact that his body count was several orders of magnitude less, and he almost certainly wasn't as incompetent.) For category three, you have two self-serving biographies that are "filled with unverifiable conversations and arguments that do not at all correspond with the historical record" (according to James McAllister). For category one, running a Californian liquor store counts (as he did after 1975). But then there's also category two, from Wikipedia again:
He made headlines in 2004 by being the first South Vietnamese leader to return to Vietnam after the communist reunification, a move that was seen as a shameful one by many who fled South Vietnam and their descendants. Kỳ had previously been critical of the communists while in exile and had been denied a visa on several occasions. Upon setting foot on communist territory, Kỳ defended his actions by saying that the Vietnam War was “instigated by foreigners, it was brothers killing each other under the arrangements by foreign countries”. He added that “In another 100 years, the Vietnamese will look back at the war and feel shameful. We should not dwell on it as it will not do any good for Vietnam’s future. My main concern at the moment is Vietnam’s position on the world map.” Kỳ said that only wanted to help build up Vietnam and promote national harmony, and assailed critics of his return, saying that “Those who bear grudges only care about themselves”.
Kỳ later moved back to Vietnam permanently and has campaigned for increased foreign investment. Kỳ was involved in organizing trips to Vietnam for potential U.S. investors.
Deciding to make peace with his opponents, nearly thirty years on - I find myself respecting the man. He lost the war, but never the less he decided to try and put it behind him. "Good on ya, Kỳ", I think, and I'll end it there on a positive note.
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