‘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?”