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Flamboyant Military and Political Leader of the Republic of Vietnam, Nguyen Cao Ky, Dies

Nguyen Cao Ky, 80, the former prime minister of South Vietnam (1965- 67) and vice president (1967-71) who fled to the United States in April 1975 when Communist troops captured Saigon, died on July 16 while being treated for a respiratory infection in a hospital in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Known for being a snappy dresser, with his trademark dapper moustache and purple neck scarf, Ky reentered the spotlight in 2004, when he went to Vietnam at the invitation of his former foes, becoming the highest-ranking former South Vietnamese official to do so. Ky was condemned by many as a traitor for his apparent support of the Communist government. Ky said in an interview with the BBC: “In another 100 years, the Vietnamese will look back at the war and feel shameful. We should not dwell on it as it will not do any good for Vietnam’s future.”

Ky began his military service in 1949 when he was inspired by Ho Chi Minh and joined the Communist resistance movement while Vietnam was still under French rule. He was trained as a pilot, and after the French were defeated, he joined the South Vietnamese air force. He became its commander in 1964 and employed tactics to successfully support or thwart several coups, all the while developing a reputation for his impetuous strategies and lifestyle. In November 1963, Ky participated in the coup that deposed and killed President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Ky was appointed prime minister in 1965, when General Nguyen Van Thieu became South Vietnam’s president, and worked to eliminate government and military corruption. In 1967 he opted not to run for president, but rather backed Thieu, a decision he later called “the biggest mistake of my life.” He served as vice president until 1971, when he retired from politics.

Ky returned to military command in 1975, as the North Vietnamese forces invaded. As Saigon fell, Ky piloted a helicopter to a U.S. carrier in the South China Sea. He lived in Virginia before moving to California, where he ran a liquor store and wrote two autobiographies. At the time of his death, Ky had residences in California and Vietnam.

Hanoi Celebrates General Giap’s 100th Birthday

Vo Nguyen Giap, the former general credited with being the great military leader of modern Vietnam, celebrated his 100th birthday on Aug. 25. He received guests, presents and flowers at his hospital room in Hanoi, where he has been living for the past two years. “Though he was shoved out of the inner circle of political power decades ago,” the Associated Press reported,“the slight white-haired military strategist remains a national treasure.” An exhibition in Hanoi, marking his birthday, displayed photographs of Giap visiting troops during the 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu, where he “cemented his reputation as a brilliant military strategist willing to endure huge losses to clinch a victory,” said the Associated Press—a reputation that was also controversial in military doctrine.

Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Closes Its Doors

In August the Walter Reed Army Medical Center ended its service within the doors of its historic red brick, pillared property located six miles from the White House. Its operations have been moved to a new location in Bethesda, Md., and to a new facility in Fort Belvoir, Va. It will be consolidated with three military hospitals, including Bethesda Naval Hospital, to be called The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The consolidation follows a Defense Department plan to create joint facilities for Army, Navy and Air Force personnel.

Walter Reed has been the U.S. Army’s hospital since its founding in 1909, when it had an 80-bed capacity. Over a century, it had grown to a sprawling 5,500-room complex on 113 acres. In 2007, the facility was the subject of intense scrutiny after an investigation by the Washington Post revealed a medical bureaucracy that left hundreds of wounded Iraqi vets wading through mountains of paperwork as they tried to obtain medical care. The Post also reported on the poor condition of rooms used by some veterans receiving treatment at the hospital, calling them“a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients.” The fast-moving scandal led to the firing of the hospital director, congressional hearings and an extensive analysis of the veterans’ healthcare system.

Some recent patients who have undergone rehabilitation from injuries suffered during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have defended the hospital and staff.“I was pissed because they made it sound like the majority of people weren’t getting good care,”Staff Sgt. John Kriesel told ABC News. Kriesel, who lost both his legs in an improvised explosive device blast in Iraq, said, “Those doctors, those nurses, they chose to go to Walter Reed to help warriors come back and heal and lead normal lives.”

In 2005, before the scandal, a government commission had ordered the hospital’s closure as a cost-reduction measure.

As for the 102-year-old hospital, the State Department and the District of Columbia took over the historic campus in September.

“The closure marks an emotional end for patients, families and staff, many of whom lost loved ones, and some of whom found love within Walter Reed’s white walls,”ABC News reported. “During the Vietnam War, some nurses were said to have married their patients. And many children of heroes were born there.”


Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.