Nguyen Van Thieu, the son of a small landowner, was born in Vietnam on 5th April, 1923. He was educated at the National Military Academy in Hue. Originally a Buddhist, he converted to Roman Catholicism when he married a doctor's daughter.
After the Second World War he joined the armed forces and by 1963 he was chief of staff of the Armed Forces of South Vietnam.
President John F. Kennedy became convinced that President Ngo Dinh Diem would never be able to unite the South Vietnamese against communism. Several attempts had already been made to overthrow Diem but Kennedy had always instructed the CIA and the US military forces in Vietnam to protect him. In order to obtain a more popular leader of South Vietnam, Kennedy agreed that the role of the CIA should change. Lucien Conein, a CIA operative, provided a group of South Vietnamese generals with $40,000 to carry out the coup with the promise that US forces would make no attempt to protect Diem.
At the beginning of November, 1963, President Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown by a military coup. After the generals had promised Diem that he would be allowed to leave the country they changed their mind and killed him.
Nguyen Van Thieu was appointed chairman of a 10-member military directorate. He also became Minister of Defence and in 1967 was elected as President of South Vietnam.
Peace talks between representatives from United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front began in January, 1969. By 1972, Richard Nixon, like Lyndon B. Johnson before him, had been gradually convinced that a victory in Vietnam was unobtainable.
In October, 1972, the negotiators came close to agreeing to a formula to end the war. The plan was that US troops would withdraw from Vietnam in exchange for a cease-fire and the return of 566 American prisoners held in Hanoi. It was also agreed that the governments in North and South Vietnam would remain in power until new elections could be arranged to unite the whole country.
The main problem with this formula was that whereas the US troops would leave the country, the North Vietnamese troops could remain in their positions in the south. In an effort to put pressure on North Vietnam to withdraw its troops. President Richard Nixon ordered a new series of air-raids on Hanoi and Haiphong. It was the most intense bombing attack in world history. In eleven days, 100,000 bombs were dropped on the two cities.
The North Vietnamese refused to change the terms of the agreement and so in January, 1973, Nixon agreed to sign the peace plan that had been proposed in October. However, the bombing had proved to be popular with many of the American public as they had the impression that North Vietnam had been "bombed into submission."
The last US combat troops left in March, 1973. It was an uneasy peace and by 1974, serious fighting had broken out between the NLF and the AVRN. Although the US continued to supply the South Vietnamese government with military equipment, their army had great difficulty using it effectively.
Nguyen Van Thieu appealed to President Nixon for more financial aid. Nixon was sympathetic but the United States Congress was not and the move was blocked. At its peak US aid to South Vietnam had reached 30 billion dollars a year. By 1974 it had fallen to 1 billion. Starved of funds, Thieu had difficulty paying the wages of his large army and desertion became a major problem.
The spring of 1975 saw a series of NLF victories. After important areas such as Danang and Hue were lost in March, panic swept through the AVRN. Senior officers, fearing what would happen after the establishment of an NLF government, abandoned their men and went into hiding.
Nguyen Van Thieu announced in desperation that he had a signed letter from Richard Nixon promising military help if it appeared that the NLF were winning in South Vietnam. However, Nixon was no longer in a position to fulfil his promise as he had been forced to resign over Watergate. The new president, Gerald Ford, a strong supporter of US involvement in Vietnam, tried to raise support for the South Vietnamese government but the Senate was adamant that as far as it was concerned, the war was over.
On April 23, 1975, President Ford told the American people: "Today Americans can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished." Two days later. President Thieu, accusing the United States of betrayal, resigned and left the country. He was quickly followed by other South Vietnamese leaders and the remaining American advisers.
Nguyen Van Thieu lived in exile in Taiwan, England and the United States. Nguyen Van Thieu died in Boston on 29th September, 2001.