Tran Thien Khiem, 1925-2021

IIn the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War, an elated President George HW Bush told an audience of US lawmakers that “by God we have eliminated Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.”

Bush was right that the 1991 goal of reversing Saddam Hussein’s aggression against his neighbor was achieved with a speed, efficiency, and (comparatively) low cost that contradicted most predictions of prolonged failure. But the death last week of General Tran Thien Khiem, the last prime minister of an independent and non-Communist South Vietnam, reminds us of the persistence of the Vietnam syndrome.

At 95, Khiem was one of the last surviving members of the military hierarchy that ruled the Republic of Vietnam before it collapsed under the onslaught of the northern Communist People’s Republic. And its long life has been lived in the shadow of the chaotic history of modern Indochina. Born in Saigon in 1925 into a family of wealthy landowners and destined for the army, Khiem’s ​​military education was first delayed by the brutal Japanese occupation of the Indochinese colony in France. After studying at the National Military Academy, he was enlisted in the Vietnamese army in 1948 and fought alongside French forces in the post-war struggle to resist the Ho Chi Minh insurgent campaign to end to French domination and establish an independent and communist Vietnam.

Khiem was a major in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, in which Ho’s Vietnamese forces decisively defeated the French. After the Geneva Accords of 1955, in which Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel into a northern communist republic and a southern republic, Khiem emerged as a colonel in the new South Vietnamese army and, identified as a leader potential, studied at command and staff. College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Khiem’s ​​later notoriety owed more to his administrative skills and mastery of intrigue than to his military talent. Converted to Roman Catholicism in a largely Buddhist Vietnam, he was a trusted subordinate of the Catholic strongman of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, and when, in November 1960, he helped quell an attempted coup , he was rewarded with a promotion to the general rank and, two years later, appointment as chief of staff of the armed forces.

In the early 1960s, South Vietnam was harassed in the north by Ho’s guerrilla forces, aided by a network of supporters in the south, and growing social and political conflict between the southern Buddhist majority and the hierarchy. largely Catholic of the Diem regime. In due course Khiem came to recognize the need to overthrow Diem and was an active supporter of the November 1963 coup which, with the tacit blessing of the United States, deposed Diem and his relatives and colleagues and replaced them with a military junta.

Khiem’s ​​support for the coup was based in part on assurances that Ngo Dinh Diem, who was his godfather, would be sent into exile as the figurehead of Emperor Bao Dai in the 1950s. But of course, Diem and his brother-in-law Ngo Dinh Nhu were shot dead, which in turn persuaded Khiem in 1964-65 to support a series of subsequent coups intended to minimize political opposition, especially from Buddhist clergy. . , and, above all, to persuade the United States to intervene decisively in the growing conflict with North Vietnam.

America intervened, the Saigon leadership was pretty much stabilized under General Nguyen Van Thieu and his deputy, Air Force Chief Nguyen Cao Ky, and while Khiem was not in favor , his diplomatic skills and close ties to the Americans were put to good use as ambassador to Washington. . In 1969, Khiem returned to Saigon as Prime Minister of Thieu, where he controlled the police and civil service and regularly appointed members of his family to important positions.

In the 1970s, however, the United States was rapidly withdrawing from Vietnam, and when Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, Khiem managed to escape to America where he lived comfortably, first in the suburbs. Washington, then Orange County, California, where he kept his thoughts on Vietnam Syndrome to himself.

Philip Terzian is the author of Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.

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Keywords: Obituaries, Vietnam, Vietnam War

Original author: Philippe Terzian

Original location: Tran Thien Khiem, 1925-2021