The Magazine

Death of a Patriot

Nguyen Cao Ky, 1930-2011

Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By DAVID DEVOSS
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In 1971, Ky briefly talked about challenging Thieu for the presidency. Initially, his candidacy gained momentum, but he eventually dropped out of the race, suspecting that Thieu had rigged the election. Though he continued to receive his air marshal’s salary, Ky left Saigon to start the biggest, most modern 2,000-acre farm in Vietnam. He was there, reading American farm magazines and learning to grow corn and soybeans, when the North Vietnamese launched their final drive to victory in March 1975. 

Following North Vietnam’s invasion, Ky returned to Saigon and saw Thieu resign the presidency and flee to Taiwan. With no official standing, Ky tried to rally the South with rhetoric. But his plan to assume control fizzled, and on April 29, the day prior to Saigon’s official collapse, Ky and 15 fellow air force officers helicoptered to the U.S.S. Midway.

If Ky came away from Vietnam with huge amounts of cash, he never exhibited any evidence of it. Settling first in suburban Washington, D.C., he took a $70,000 advance to write his memoirs, Twenty Years and Twenty Days (1976), and began giving speeches. When his fees plummeted along with America’s interest in Vietnam, he moved his family to Huntington Beach, California. After considering a car wash, Ky borrowed $200,000 to buy a liquor store. When New Times magazine caught up with him in 1977, his wife Mai was learning the liquor business while her husband suffered bouts of depression. “How can I end up in Orange County selling liquor to Americans?” he asked. “If you must know, I view my life as a tragedy.”

Life wasn’t nearly as bad as Ky made it seem. Huntington Beach had a large population of expatriate Vietnamese. Hispanics in the neighborhood called him “El Presidente.” Vietnam veterans often stopped by for beer. One day a local SWAT team arrived wearing the helmets they’d worn in Vietnam. On several occasions buses full of German tourists pulled up in front of the store. “I went outside and everybody took pictures,” Ky later confided when I interviewed him for the Los Angeles Times. “They told me I was one of the stops on their Disneyland tour.”

Ky inevitably became an unelected spokesman for exiled Vietnamese, not all of whom liked what he had to say. In 2002, Ky, then an active 73, told me prior to a golf tournament that he planned to return home the following year to see if his former adversaries would allow him to help rebuild Vietnam. “If this next generation wants a prosperous Vietnam it will need outside help, especially from young overseas Vietnamese,” he said. “For the past 30 years, our people have acquired a lot of knowledge in the outside world. The only way to make Vietnam a dragon is to combine this knowledge. The return of my generation and, more important, the return of young overseas Vietnamese will signal a new chapter.” 

Ky’s comments, appearing in a story I wrote for Asia, Inc. magazine, sparked a firestorm of protest from California Vietnamese. Vilified in the vernacular press, Ky received several death threats and postponed his journey until 2004. “I tell people to forget the war and think about reconciliation,” Ky said to me the last time we met. “The only thing most Vietnamese Americans want is a prosperous, democratic Vietnam.” 

Ky’s former wife and daughter, both of whom operate businesses in the southern part of their now-unified nation, will honor his request to be buried in Vietnam.

David DeVoss is the editor and senior correspondent for the East-West News Service in Los Angeles.

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