‘When we moved to California, I got a new Cadillac Seville,” Nguyen Cao Ky told me back in 1990. “One day I was driving around, dressed in some old shorts and a T-shirt, when a motorcycle policeman pulled me over because I needed a registration sticker. I looked suspicious and couldn’t even remember the name of the street I was living on.
“ ‘You working now?’ he asked.
“ ‘No,’ I replied.
“ ‘Well, you ever done any kind of work?’
“I told him I was once the prime minister of Vietnam.”
Simple. Direct. Self-effacing. They were qualities Ky often exhibited over the 36 years he lived in the United States as a refugee. Indeed, when Ky died on July 23 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, of respiratory complications, few Americans under the age of 40 even knew who he was. But back in June 1965, when the flamboyant 34-year-old fighter pilot and air vice marshal became the country’s youngest premier in history, Ky’s resilience and dynamism were the traits that most impressed the 75,000 newly arrived American troops.
I first met Nguyen Cao Ky in 1972, when I arrived in Saigon as a 24-year-old war correspondent for Time magazine. After Ky moved to the United States following South Vietnam’s collapse in 1975, we continued to meet for political discussions over café filtre at Vietnamese coffee houses in Orange County’s Little Saigon. The conversations always were about the future of Vietnam, the country Ky continued to love with the passion of a patriot.
Back in the early days of America’s involvement in Vietnam, the sleek, mustachioed Ky cut a dashing figure in black flying suits set off by lavender ascots. A Northerner trained by the French as a pilot, he packed a pearl-handled pistol, zipped around Saigon on a motor scooter, and recited love poems at dinner parties.
As the nation’s ace fighter pilot, Ky had continued to fly combat missions even after winning a second general’s star. Reports of his derring-do were rivaled only by those of his capacity for Scotch and attractive women, whose homes he liked to buzz in his A-1 Skyraider. Thus, when he ordered his entire squadron to treetop the neighborhood of Dang Tuyet Mai, a willowy Air Vietnam stewardess, friends knew he’d fallen hard.
Though a political novice, Ky was savvy enough to share power with his military superior, Maj. Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu. That didn’t satisfy U.S. diplomats, who predicted Ky wouldn’t last 100 days. If Ky had doubts about his abilities, he kept them to himself. “We’ve got to go fast, very fast,” he told Life magazine days after he was sworn in.
By the end of his first 10 days in office, Ky had declared a state of war, severed diplomatic relations with France (informed of the move, French president Charles de Gaulle haughtily inquired, “Qui est Ky?”), announced impending price controls on rice and other overpriced staples, and threatened profiteers with execution. Indolent Saigon bureaucrats were shocked when he cut their salaries in half. Soldiers were delighted when he announced that the money thus saved would go to their salaries. “In his supersonic first week,” Time magazine effused, “fighter pilot Ky (rhymes with whee!) got more done than any other Vietnamese leader has accomplished in the 20 months since Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated.”
For all his protestations of political naïveté, Ky deftly walked a tightrope between reliance on, and independence from, the Americans. “You can talk [Americans] into almost anything,” he confided to Life. “All you have to do is sit with them for half [an] hour over a bottle of whisky and be a nice guy.”
But by the end of 1966, relations between Ky and America had turned glacial. U.S. officials, embarrassed when he authorized the execution of several public employees and merchants found guilty of corruption, began to refer to him as “the Butcher.” U.S. military commander Gen. William Westmoreland found naïve Ky’s proposal to revitalize South Vietnam’s army by retiring all officers above the grade of colonel. The CIA despaired over Ky’s repeated calls to carry the war to the North. Lieut Col. John Paul Vann, a top U.S. adviser and the subject of journalist Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the war, A Bright Shining Lie (1989), wrote to a friend: “The little bastard, General Ky, made a speech today demanding that we invade the North and liberate North Vietnam—the goddamn little fool can’t even drive a mile outside Saigon without an armed convoy and he wants to liberate the North! How damned ridiculous can you get?”
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.