Nguyễn Văn Thiệu (Vietnamese pronunciation: [ŋʷjə̌ˀn van tʰjə̂ˀw] ( listen); April 5, 1923 – September 29, 2001) was a general in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) who went on to become the President of South Vietnam (1965–75), first as the head of a military junta and then after winning a fraudulent election. He established an authoritarian and corrupt rule over South Vietnam until he resigned and fled the nation a few days before the fall of Saigon and the ultimate communist victory.
Born in the southern coast town of Phan Rang, Thiệu initially joined the communist-dominated Việt Minh of Hồ Chí Minh but quit after a year and joined the Vietnamese National Army (VNA) of the French-backed State of Vietnam. He gradually rose up the ranks and in 1954 led a battalion in expelling the communists from his native village. Following the withdrawal of the French, the VNA became the ARVN and Thiệu was the head of the Vietnamese National Military Academy for four years before becoming a division commander and colonel. In November 1960, he helped put down a coup attempt against President Ngô Đình Diệm. During this time, he also converted to Roman Catholicism and joined the regime’s secret Cần Lao Party; Diệm gave preferential treatment to his co-religionists and Thiệu was accused of being one of many who converted for political advancement.
Despite this, Thiệu agreed to join the coup against Diệm in November 1963 in the midst of the Buddhist crisis, leading the siege on Gia Long Palace. Diệm was captured and executed and Thiệu made a general. Following Diệm’s demise, there was a series of short-lived juntas as coups occurred frequently. Thiệu gradually moved up the ranks of the junta by adopting a cautious approach while other officers around him defeated and sidelined one another. In 1965, stability came to South Vietnam when he became the figurehead head of state, while Air Marshal Nguyễn Cao Kỳ became prime minister, leading a junta that ended the cycle of coups with two years of continuity, although the men were rivals.
In 1967, a transition to elected government was scheduled; and, after a power struggle within the military, Thiệu ran for the presidency with Kỳ as his running mate—both men had wanted the top job. To allow the two to work together, their fellow officers had agreed to have a military body controlled by Kỳ shape policy behind the scenes. The election was rigged to ensure that Thiệu and Kỳ’s military ticket would win. Leadership tensions became evident and Thiệu prevailed, sidelining Kỳ supporters from key military and cabinet posts. Thiệu then passed legislation to restrict candidacy eligibility for the 1971 election, banning almost all would-be opponents, while the rest withdrew as it was obvious that the poll would be a sham; Thiệu went on to win more than 90% of the vote and the election uncontested, while Kỳ retired from politics.
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