Duong Van Minh; Last President of South Vietnam
By MYRNA OLIVER, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Gen. Duong Van "Big" Minh, the man recorded in history
as the South Vietnam president who surrendered
unconditionally to Communist forces on April 30, 1975,
has died in Pasadena. He was 86.
Minh, head of his small country for only 48 hours,
suffered a fall Sunday at his Pasadena home. He died
Monday night in Huntington Memorial Hospital.
The four-star general and former chief of staff of the
armed forces of the Republic of South Vietnam had also
served as chief of state for several months in 1964 after a
U.S.-backed military junta overthrew South Vietnamese
President Ngo Dinh Diem. Considered something of a
neutralist by the mid-1970s, Minh was elected as the third
president in eight days after President Nguyen Van Thieu
fled the country. The South Vietnam Senate and
Assembly voted unanimously for Minh in a last-gasp hope that he could negotiate a
political end to the war and forge a coalition government with the Communists.
Minh, nicknamed "Big" because at 6 feet tall and 200 pounds he dwarfed his Vietnamese
contemporaries, called for an immediate cease-fire and national reconciliation of all
Vietnamese in his inaugural speech. But reconciliation and coalition were by then
Nothing in his ever-so-brief tenure became him like the ending of it.
At 10:24 a.m. on April 30, 1975, just hours after the final evacuation of 900 Americans,
including U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin, and with the People's Liberation Armed
Forces approaching his presidential palace, Minh went on the radio to announce:
"The Republic of Vietnam policy is the policy of peace and reconciliation, aimed at
saving the blood of our people. We are here waiting for the Provisional Revolutionary
Government to hand over the authority in order to stop useless bloodshed."
Minh sat with his 30 top advisors in two rows of chairs on the palace steps, awaiting the
victors. When the first Communist tank crashed through the palace gates at 11:10 a.m.,
Minh said: "The revolution is here. You are here."
That afternoon, Minh went on the radio again to announce to the people: "I declare the
Saigon government is completely dissolved at all levels."
Unlike many influential South Vietnamese leaders, Minh had not made Southern
California his home since the fall of Saigon. Arrested after his official surrender, he was
permitted to return to his villa a few days later and lived in seclusion there for eight
years, continuing to grow exotic orchids and raise birds.
Diplomatic observers speculated that the Communist Vietnamese, with whom Minh was
known to be in contact before the fall of Saigon, might "rehabilitate" Minh and give him
a place in the new South Vietnamese government. But in 1983, Minh was allowed to
immigrate to France. He lived near Paris until a few years ago, when he settled in
Pasadena with his daughter, Mai Duong. He did not write his memoirs or discuss the
On Tuesday, Minh was little mourned by Southern California's large Vietnamese
community, which is concentrated in Orange County.
"He was seen as the officer responsible for Vietnam's fall," said Lan Quoc Nguyen, a
community activist and Westminster attorney. "Many people are still angry at him for
ordering the soldiers to put their weapons down."
Orange County Superior Court Judge Nho Trong Nguyen, who met Minh in the
mid-1950s, said, "He was a good man, a good general but not a politician. He was a
popular man, but he didn't have the good political leadership skills to deal with the
turmoil and intricacies of politics at the time."
Minh had a long-term, checkered reputation with the Americans who waged war in
Vietnam. The CIA befriended him enough to pay for his dental work and ease his way
during a period of exile in Thailand, yet U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker frequently
referred to him publicly with obscenities.
Born in the Mekong Delta province of My Tho, Minh was a Buddhist and attended a top
French colonial school in Saigon, where Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk was also
Minh built his career in the military when Vietnam was controlled by France. He earned
American notice in the mid-1950s, when he led troops in putting down an uprising by the
Binh Xuyen sect, which controlled crime in Saigon. Minh was then sent to study,
despite his poor English, at the U.S. command and general staff college at Ft.
Always well-liked by his own officers and Americans, Minh was tapped by the CIA to
help lead the ouster of Diem. Political opponents would later claim that Minh personally
ordered the execution of Diem, who was shot by Minh's bodyguard.
When he took power, Minh was an American favorite, playing tennis and sharing war
stories with Gen. Maxwell Taylor, then U.S. ambassador, and impressing Secretary of
Defense Robert S. McNamara.
But the dilatory Minh preferred playing mah-jongg and giving tea parties to fighting with
the Viet Cong or administering his troubled nation. He was easily ousted by Nguyen
Khanh and exiled to Thailand in 1964.
There Minh retained many American friends, particularly in the CIA, which picked up the
check for his new teeth. Minh returned the favors by writing a fairly hawkish article
about Vietnam for the respected Foreign Affairs quarterly in 1968, condemning the Viet
Cong and disparaging any possible coalition government with the Communists.
The article helped him get back into South Vietnam.
Minh began flirting with "third force" neutralism, which sought accommodation with
North Vietnam, when he aspired to run for president in 1971 against the U.S.-backed
President Nguyen Van Thieu. Saying the election was rigged, Minh withdrew and Thieu
was elected without opposition.
But from then on, Minh was considered the titular leader of the opposition third force.
The Hanoi regime carefully avoided either endorsing or condemning Minh, whose
brother, Duong Van Nhut, was a leading North Vietnamese army general.
In 1973, Minh used his standing to propose his own program for South Vietnam's
political future--something of a compromise between the proposals on the negotiating
table of Thieu and the Viet Cong, including moving the political talks from Paris to South
One major impetus for Minh's election as South Vietnam's final president was the tacit
understanding that the Provisional Revolutionary Government, Hanoi's political arm in
South Vietnam, accepted Minh as spokesman for the third force neutralists. His
all-around likability, after all, was partly based on his well-earned reputation for
indecisiveness, which led all groups to feel they could control him.
In addition to his daughter, Minh is survived by two sons who live in Paris, and several
Article du Monde le 10 août.
Le général Duong Van Minh
Ancien président du Vietnam du Sud
LE MONDE | 09.08.01 | 13h22
Ephémère président du Vietnam du Sud à deux reprises, le général Duong
Van Minh est mort, lundi 6 août, dans un hôpital de Pasadena, en
Californie, des suites d'une chute à son domicile californien. Il était âgé de
On l'appelait "Big" Minh, le "grand" Minh, parce qu'il était d'une taille
supérieure à la moyenne, et aussi pour le distinguer d'un autre officier, le
général Tran Van Minh, le "petit" Minh. "Poussé par les événements" -
formule de l'un de ses plus proches collaborateurs -, cet officier a joué un
rôle crucial à deux reprises : en 1963, dans le renversement du régime
Diem, et en 1975, lorsqu'il ordonna la reddition de Saïgon encerclée par les
Duong Van Minh était un vrai sudiste - il est né le 16 février 1916 à
My-Tho, dans le delta du Mékong -, avec son allure de brave homme, bon
vivant, nonchalant, peu démonstratif, mais sympathique et chaleureux.
Féru de musique classique, il se passionnait également pour la collection
d'orchidées que le roi de Thaïlande, pendant son long exil à Bangkok, de
1964 à 1968, l'avait aidé à constituer. En fin de journée, on le retrouvait
assez régulièrement sur l'un des courts de
tennis du Cercle sportif saïgonnais.
Ancien sous-officier des forces françaises, Duong Van
Minh fait une école d'officiers à proximité de Hanoï avant d'intégrer, à l'époque de Bao
Daï, la toute jeune armée de l'Etat du Vietnam. Promu commandant en 1952, il suit
les cours de l'Ecole de guerre de Paris. Après les accords de Genève, déjà général de
brigade, il est chargé de la lutte contre les Hoa-Hao et les Binh Xuyen, les sectes
armées qui contestent l'autorité du président Ngo Dinh Diem. En 1957, il devient le
premier général de division puis de corps d'armée sud-vietnamien avant de tomber en
disgrâce : le régime des frères Diem et Nhu se méfie de lui. A juste titre, puisqu'en
novembre 1963, en pleine crise bouddhiste, Duong Van Minh se retrouve à la tête du
groupe de généraux qui, avec la complicité des Américains, renverse les deux frères.
Alors que l'insurrection communiste bat déjà son plein, "Big" Minh se voit accoler
l'étiquette de "neutraliste" et, un coup d'Etat en cachant un autre, les Américains s'en
débarrassent au bout de trois mois avec la complicité d'un officier ambitieux, le
général Nguyen Khanh. "Big" Minh est exilé en Thaïlande, d'où il sera ramené, sous
pression américaine, en 1968 - après l'offensive du Têt - comme une sorte de carte de
rechange. On ne sait jamais.
Il ne se mêle guère, par tempérament, aux intrigues saïgonnaises, tout en constituant
le principal point de ralliement de l'opposition. Quand, en avril 1975, arrive la débâcle
et que le président Nguyen Van Thieu est contraint de se démettre et, dans la foulée,
de s'enfuir à Taïwan, "Big" Minh, qui prend la relève, se résout au bout de quelques
jours à ordonner la reddition de l'armée du Sud pour éviter que Saïgon ne s'embrase. Il
n'y a rien d'autre à faire. En 1983, les communistes le laissèrent rejoindre ses enfants
installés dans la banlieue parisienne. Il y vécut très modestement, sans jamais revenir
sur l'humiliation de 1975, avant de s'exiler, il y a quelques années, aux Etats-Unis.
ARTICLE PARU DANS L'EDITION DU 10.08.01