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Speech by Gen Nguyen Cao Ky, 13 Jun


Subject: Speech by Gen Nguyen Cao Ky, 13 Jun


Former Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky gave the following speech at our college last Thursday. While a bit long, it seems worthy of our attention for its message, so thought I would share it with you. The message of reconciliation at the end is not an easy message for some elements to accept. Gen Ky's new book BUDDHA'S CHILD is a super read.


Regards, John



Students, faculty, administrators and staff, I thank you for this opportunity to share a few thoughts. I am particularly indebted to President Martha Kanter and to Dean John Swensson for your kind invitation to speak today.

Twenty-seven years ago last April, after 20 years of heroic resistance, South Vietnam fell to the enemy. Much has happened since. Many of you were not yet born-but those who still recall that dark day, those to whom over the years time has added lines to your faces and gray to your heads, who served through those difficult times with honor-you have not lost the dedication to liberty inspired by your high ideals. You have matured, and the sacrifices and passions of your youth have given way to the rewards and responsibilities that accompany your positions of esteem in American society. As for me, as you can see, I am no longer wearing my purple scarf, my flight suit, my six-shooter. I have put them all away at the bottom of my trunk, memorabilia of a time past.
If the war has faded into history, democracy's defeat in Vietnam has left deep marks in the consciousness of both nations. The questions asked since 1975 have yet to bring satisfactory answers. How could an alliance of the 25 million people and armed forces of South Vietnam with the colossal American political, economic and military apparatus, along with the forces of other allied nations, have been defeated by the small, impoverished people and army of North Vietnam?

Today I will offer my own answers to those questions.

American history books postulate that the war was lost because it lacked legitimacy, because of corruption in the government and armed forces of South Vietnam, because of the cowardliness of South Vietnamese troops, because America abandoned South Vietnam, and so forth. None of these, however, is accepted as definitive.

I say to you now: We lost the war for two reasons: Because of the ill-conceived, unequal, and often condescending relationship between the United States and South Vietnam.

And because our overall strategy was defensive war, a strategy that by itself would have led to failure and eventual defeat.
And how did this happen, exactly? As someone born and raised during that war, one who participated in and led it, who has witnessed and shared in the sufferings of his country and of his people, I will attempt to present as objectively as I can the facts and observations that lead me to such a bold statement. Tonight, as difficult as it may be to face them, you will hear facts that you have not heard before, and I trust you will share my conclusions.

After the 1954 Geneva international conference, Vietnam was divided into two parts. On paper, North and South Vietnam were twin countries born at the same moment. Compared to the sophisticated North, however, the government of South Vietnam was a very young and innocent sibling. To explain: Many years prior to the partition, through participation in a series of international conferences, and by pursuing a guerrilla war against a European power, the Hanoi leadership had demonstrated that they were a formidable political reality.  


Through leadership of the fight against French colonialism, Ho Chi Minh had made a name for himself in the international political arena. The Hanoi government took power with a record of resistance against the colonialists and of struggle for national independence.

Claiming to be the liberators of the people, the North Vietnamese enjoyed from the beginning the admiration and sympathy of the majority of the Third World's non-aligned nations, which suffers from "oppressed peoples' complex" and are naturally against such mighty and wealthy countries as France and the United States.  

Furthermore, the North Vietnamese had the full support of the two communist superpowers-the Soviet Union and Communist China-and this gave them absolute confidence in their final victory.     
I would like to dwell a little on that support. We all know that without the massive assistance of the communist superpowers, North Vietnam could not have prolonged its war of invasion for so many years. But the Soviet Union and Communist China were very quiet about their aid. Indeed, during the entire war, no Soviet or Chinese official made any statement that sounded like instructions or smacked of interference in the internal affairs of North Vietnam. Quite the contrary.  North Vietnamese leaders were always pushed into the international limelight, presented as nationalists, as patriots, as fighters in a noble cause, seeking to overthrow colonialists and imperialists, and to liberate the oppressed people of Vietnam. 

When they were later revealed as Marxist-Leninists, the Hanoi regime lost some sympathy around the world, but continued to benefit from lingering admiration. If they no longer had a just cause-the expulsion of a colonial power-they maintained the appearance of legitimacy because they had no significant political opposition. They had none, because they had taken great pains to eliminate it.

In the South, however, things were very different. South Vietnam had to be built from scratch and, from the very beginning, depended far too much on the Western superpowers. As in the case of a person on public welfare, this dependency, which became greater with each day, was quite difficult to shake.   

 During the Fifties, political and military activities in Vietnam were heavily influenced by the French, who as recent colonial masters, made all-important decisions. The French installed as the first head of state Bao Dai, last emperor of the Nguyen dynasty that ruled  Vietnam when it was under French domination. All the men selected to assist Bao Dai had a past that was closely linked with the French colonial era. They had no support among those they governed.

Only with the advent of Mr. Ngo Dinh Diem did South Vietnam have a worthy regime and a dignified leadership. It is regrettable that within a few short years, as power corrupts, the South Vietnamese regime deteriorated into a family dictatorship. But it was no match for the dictatorship of the communist party in the North. At a time when the French influence was fading and when the American presence was directly affecting even day-to-day decisions in South Vietnam, a stubborn radical nationalist like Mr. Diem was bound to be overthrown.

The relationship between the US and South Vietnam never appeared to be a partnership between equals. Instead, our struggle for freedom and independence became "Mr. Johnson's War."

From its inception, South Vietnam was only considered to be an outpost in the war against communism. Our fight for freedom was a noble undertaking, but we committed a major political blunder because we did not give top priority to explaining to the American and Vietnamese people that this was not a civil war between the government and rebels in South Vietnam, but a blatant invasion of the country of South Vietnam by another country, a country called North Vietnam.  

By the mid-sixties, the United States had poured more than half a million troops into South Vietnam.  Tens of billions of dollars had been spent for military expenditures and economic assistance, and even larger sums were earmarked. The American presence was felt in every field activity, at every level of government. Even the top leaders of South Vietnam, including the President, were each assigned a special advisor. The American presence and influence were strikingly blatant. So much so that the Vietnamese man in the street referred to the US Ambassador as the Governor General, as the French had called their top colonial official.


The influence of the American media and politicians was even more devastating. Always emphasizing the role of the Americans in Vietnam, they transformed the Vietnam war into a conflict between the United States and North Vietnam, relegating the people, the government and the armed forces of South Vietnam to a subordinate role. This situation was further misrepresented by the propaganda machine of international communists. The government of South Vietnam thus became, in the eyes of the peoples of Vietnam and of the world, a puppet regime serving the interests of American imperialists. 

Consequently, although our cause was just, we never acquired the appearance of legitimacy necessary to win the hearts and minds of the people, an essential ingredient of victory.  

We all know that in war the political and military factors have to complement each other.  This was particularly true in Vietnam. We were not only politically at a disadvantage, but we also committed a basic blunder in military strategy when we chose to fight a limited and defensive war.  

The might of the US Air Force and US Navy was not used in lightning attacks to  force the enemy to his knees, as it was in Afghanistan and in the Gulf War. America did not unleash its vaunted Strategic Air Force or its massive Seventh Fleet to destroy enemy bases, to interdict their lines of supply on land and sea, to blockade enemy ports.

By fighting a limited, defensive war, America permitted the enemy to endlessly re-supply their field armies. American politicians were afraid that the Chinese might intervene and create another Korean war.  The US was and is the world's leading naval power, but, fearing to offend the Soviets, failed to blockade Haiphong.  A river of munitions flowed through that port to be used against South Vietnam and its allies.

Long before America decided to quit the war, I realized that this would be the inevitable result of America's lack of commitment to victory. I offered to lead a South Vietnamese attack on North Vietnam, which was defended by a single division of regular troops. All I required from the US was air support, and that US troops already in my country would defend population centers. My purpose was not to conquer, but to force Hanoi to withdraw its divisions from the South in order to defend the North, and thus to bring about genuine peace negotiations.

You and I may not be brilliant strategists, but we should all know that the best defense is a good offense. Moreover, even our defense was passive. So-called "Search and Destroy" operations were kept within our borders. Enemy territory was always a safe rear base. The enemy also used neighboring Laos and Cambodia to establish lines of communication, supply bases, recuperation centers for their troops. The enemy general staff had adopted a plan of action calling on them to always take the initiative. When their troops are strong, they would attack, but when they were tired and weak they would withdraw to their rear bases to rest, recuperate and regroup.
On our side, because the American people had waited too long without seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, they became impatient. They demanded glorious military victories, an impossible achievement in view of our totally defensive posture. Troop morale plunged because they were asked to fight with their hands tied behind their backs. In spite of the fact that they were beaten back and suffered great losses, the Tet offensive of 1968 was a major enemy victory.  Even though they lost on the battlefield, they accomplished an essential strategic objective by breaking the resolve of the U.S. government and American people, and giving maximum impetus to the anti-war movements.

The White House and the Pentagon directly conducted the war from thousands of miles away, issuing contradicting policies with ever- changing directives that created confusion in commanders at the front. The B-52 carpet bombings ordered by President Nixon toward the end came too late and were too short-lived. They served only to pressure the Communists to come to the Paris peace talks so that America could prepare for an honorable withdrawal from Vietnam.   After Watergate, America was a ship without a rudder. Vietnam was left to its own devices, drifting along towards its fate. The disintegration of April 1975 was an unavoidable conclusion. Our only regret and sorrow was that that ending was shameful and tragic. 



Among the reasons apologies have advanced to explain the defeat was the corruption and the fighting capability of the troops in South Vietnam. Of course there was corruption in Vietnam. But please name one country, including the most democratic and the most advanced societies, where there is no corruption to take its toll. I recognize, however, that due to the war and poverty, the degree of corruption in South Vietnam was somewhat above the international average.  But allow me to open a parenthesis here and report that, since taking over the control of all Vietnam, the Communists have shown themselves quite adept at the game of corruption. 

Concerning the will to fight of the South Vietnamese troops, if you take my military career as typical for most of the fighting men of South Vietnam, you will find that my achievements will compare favorably to those of any other military man in any other country.   I must say that the majority of my comrades-in-arms have the same spirit and the same fighting capability as I do. Look at the number of our soldiers killed in action. Consider the privations and the sacrifices of these South Vietnamese fighting men during 25 years of war, and you will have to recognize that they were our best and brightest. It's too bad that they were not used and supported adequately, and that they were shamelessly abandoned.

Some liberal intellectuals used to criticize the South Vietnamese regime as a military dictatorship. The century just past is one in which sheer force always ruled. Every economic or doctrinal difference had to be resolved by force. Military strength is necessary to protect sovereignty, the freedom and independence of a country. With the exception of those advanced countries that had a long democratic tradition and were lucky to live in peace and prosperity, all the poor, backward, war-torn countries of the Third World lived under the direct influence of the army.     

South Vietnam was no exception. To insist that Vietnam fight a war while at the same time building democracy was impractical. Building democracy in the West, in England and then in the United States, took centuries of struggle. We Vietnamese could only begin to build democracy after achieving peace and independence. And even then, democracy could not be achieved overnight, but must be built in stages and in harmony with the cultural, social and economic traditions of each people. To accuse South Vietnam of not establishing a democratic regime and to use that as an excuse for abandoning South Vietnam was a blatant betrayal of a trusting ally that had put all his faith in the word of America.

In 1968, when the communist forces chose the Lunar New Year, known as Tet, to launch a coordinated attack against major South Vietnamese cities, beleaguered and outnumbered South Vietnamese defenders called upon neighboring US forces for fire support, for air support, for troop support. We Vietnamese were met with cryptic explanations that no aircraft or artillery were available, or that the unit had to wait for instructions from high headquarters. I could look out of my house at this time and see rows of US fighter-bombers parked in revetments. Why did our allies not come to our aid immediately? There can be only one explanation, and that is that someone, high in the US Government, anticipated this attack, and wanted it to succeed to the degree where South Vietnam would have to cede territory to the NLF, which, as history has shown, was merely an arm of the North Vietnamese invasion force.

Nevertheless, during the Paris Peace Talks US Ambassador Averill Harriman insisted that the NLF be seated at the negotiating table as an equal to South Vietnam and North Vietnam. He refused to listen to my government's pleas.

The idea of America - its freedom, its financial and educational opportunities, the lifestyle, wealth and beauty of the country and its people, remains the envy of the civilized world. In Vietnam today the sons and daughters of those who fought against American soldiers for two decades love everything American. Over the last few years, tens of thousands of American veterans have visited Vietnam and encountered a populace that welcomes and admires them.


When President Bill Clinton visited Vietnam two years ago, Vietnamese from Hanoi in the north to Saigon in the south turned out in droves, eager for even a glimpse of him. Because whatever Vietnam's leadership may have said in the past, the great masses of Vietnamese people, now numbering 83 million, are for America. The US represents a better life, opportunity, hope - everything that American and South Vietnamese soldiers fought to bring to our country so many years ago. The tremendous outpouring of affection for Mr. Clinton, no less than for all Americans, is proof that those who fought for freedom and democracy were on the right side.
Therefore I say today that the veterans of that lost war, Vietnamese and Americans, Australians and New Zealanders, Thais and South Koreans and all the others who supported our fight for freedom - we have no cause for shame. Thirty years of misrule prove conclusively that we who opposed the Communist regime were right!

So, let us each now put aside our feelings of guilt, the so-called "Vietnam War Syndrome," and be proud of ourselves and our efforts.
The world has changed a lot in the last dozen years. The formerly Communist nations of Eastern Europe have renounced Marxist dogma and adopted free market principles in their national economies.  And the communist cadres who ran Vietnam for decades now sleep with their ancestors.  Ho Chi Minh is gone. Pham Van Dong is gone. Truong Chinh, Le Duan, Vo Chi Cong - all dead. 
And so are the American leaders who fought them: Mr. Richard Nixon and Mr. Lyndon Johnson - both gone.   Of the leaders of the South, Ngo Dinh Diem is gone. Nguyen Van Thieu passed from this world. Duong Van Minh is gone.

Only I remain. I am the last.

And I say that it is now time for the so-called anti-Communist Vietnamese, my generation, to let go of our pain and anger, to allow the younger generation, our sons and daughters, to have their chance to bring Vietnam together. It is time for my generation to stop preaching hate and bitterness.

Like most of the old Anti-Communists, I am a fighter. I fought hard, and I take pride in what I was able to accomplish during the war.

I still mourn my brave comrades who died fighting for freedom. And so I understand how my brothers and sisters suffered under Communism. I know that they endured the agonies of the so-called re-education camps, that they lost loved ones, lost their personal liberty, lost their homes and property.  It was unjust. It was humiliating. It was painful.

But our time has passed. We are now too old; the future of Vietnam no longer depends on us. It is only right that the new generation find their path to the future without having to carry the heavy burdens created by their parents. So it is time for my generation to stop preaching hate and bitterness. What is the point in arguing now about who was right and who was wrong?

So I say today, let us older people put aside our own feelings of pain and anger. If we cannot forgive, then let us forget.  Let us allow the new generation to find its own way, because Vietnam will realize its potential only through unity.

Vietnam now approaches a crossroads. China seems to want to turn my country into an economic colony, a source of raw materials, a market for its manufactured goods. Should Vietnam turn toward China, source of much of its cultural heritage, or, by establishing an enduring partnership with America based on a new paradigm of mutual respect and shared interests, remain independent?

What most ordinary Vietnamese want is very clear from the friendly reception given to visiting Americans.

Now everyone knows that Vietnamese Communism is dead. The business of Vietnam is now business. My countrymen want to emulate South Korea and Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. They want to turn Vietnam into the fifth Small Dragon.

This is not an easy task. Vietnam remains a largely agrarian nation that still needs to develop a modern infrastructure. The problem of corruption remains, though it appears that at long last the Hanoi government realizes what must be done to clean its house and reduces corruption to internationally accepted norms. I am confident that the transformation of Vietnam's economy and institutions have already begun.


Vietnam's economic rebirth has already begun to encourage many exiles to return. There are more than three million of us, two-thirds in North America, and compared to the average Vietnamese we are better educated and have superior skills.

While some worry that the younger generation, those born in exile or who left Vietnam as small children, may not want to give up comparatively easy lives in the US, Canada, France and Australia, I believe that many will want to help develop the land of their fathers. I have crisscrossed America for years, meeting and spending time with this younger generation, telling them that they are important to the future of Vietnam, that the country needs their brains and their hard work. And I am happy to report that among those with whom I have spoken, many young Vietnamese, motivated by patriotism no less than personal ambition, will return to their homeland when they see ways to employ their skills.

Americans who come to Vietnam to pursue business opportunities will find a much different situation than the soldiers who came during the war. They will not be big brothers come to help fight. They will be partners, contractors. Helping to bridge the inevitable misunderstandings between East and West will be the generation of Vietnamese born or educated in America.  In ten or fifteen years, most successful Vietnamese enterprises will be run by those who have learned American techniques and American thinking. 

I am optimistic about the next generation of Vietnamese leaders. Now that the trade agreement is ratified, there has been a sharp increase in contacts between the two countries.  As Communist Party officials see more of America and meet more Americans,  I am confident that they will see the wisdom of moving Vietnam toward the West. I believe that they will soon change the economic rules that have limited Vietnam for decades.

Because political systems are built on a foundation of economic rules, changes in political rule will follow as state ownership gives way to private capitalism. The effects will ripple through every corner of society, including the courts and the legislature. Already, bright technocrats and entrepreneurs have begun to make the day-to-day decisions of government and business. Once Vietnam embraces capitalism, democracy and the rule of law will follow.
Communism in Vietnam lasted less than 50 years. When you consider that Vietnamese culture is thousands of years old, that half-century is really not much more than a temporary pause, the blink of an eye. If I am no longer a young man, my health is good and I expect to live many more years. And so I believe that with the help of America, I will live to see Vietnam reinvent itself.  I invite you to all to find ways to make that possible.

In conclusion, allow me to say that I am very happy to be here meeting with you. I was born and grew up during war. I have fought alongside American fighting men and women, and together with them I have shed blood, sweat and tears. I have been privileged to share many joys and sorrows with the remarkable men who were the leaders of your country. During my 27 years living in exile, I have worked years of 14-hour days in a liquor store, and I have been a fisherman who spent weeks at a time on the open sea to catch fish and shrimp. I have watched my children grow up and start their own families, and I have experienced enough ups and downs to last a lifetime.

My biggest consolation is that in what were at first alien surroundings, and under any circumstance, I have always been welcomed by Americans. You have accepted me and given me and my family 27 peaceful years in the wealthiest and most beautiful country in the world. Although I am determined to someday return to my homeland, and when my time comes, to return to the soil where my ancestors sleep, I accept America as my second home. I thank each of you for the abundance of kindness and courtesy that you and your countryman have extended.

And, on behalf of all Vietnamese, I thank the 58,000 Americans who so many years ago made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of my country's liberty. I am equally grateful to the millions of others who risked life and limb for my country, who put aside careers and personal aspirations to come to the aid of desperate people that they did not even know. Thank you for your courage, your compassion, your many painful sacrifices.


I am 72 years old now, an old soldier, and as Douglas MacArthur, one of your most celebrated generals, has said, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away." In his fading years, this old soldier still yearns for Vietnam, the land of his ancestors. I offer the remaining years of my life to the service of my motherland and to my people without any ambition and without asking for anything in return. I am appealing to you and especially to my American comrades-in-arms, to try and build this bridge of friendship between our two countries. This love and hate affair has to end. Hate needs to be replaced with a new deep sympathy between our two people.
Thank you for your kind attention, and I will now take a few questions.