Nguyen Khanh

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Nguyễn Khánh (born November 8, 1927) is a former general in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam who variously served as chief of state and Prime minister of South Vietnam while at the head of a military junta from January 1964 until February 1965. He was involved in or against many coup attempts, failed and successful, from 1960 until his defeat and exile from South Vietnam in 1965.

The son of a wealthy Mekong Delta landlord, Khánh joined Hồ Chí Minh’s communist-dominated Việt Minh in 1945 after finishing his schooling, as the nationalist fervour for independence from France swept across Vietnam. He left the Việt Minh after a year, claiming that he had not previously known about their communist ideology. It was the first of many notable changes of allegiance during his military career, and critics claimed that Khánh switched to the French-backed State of Vietnam and Vietnamese National Army because he was a careerist. In any case, he trained as an officer and commanded paratroopers against the Việt Minh in the First Indochina War. After the partition, and the formation of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), Khánh became the first commander of the Vietnam Air Force after a crash course in flying. By the age of 33 he was already a general and the Chief of Staff of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. In November 1960, he helped President Ngô Đình Diệm defeat a coup attempt by paratroopers, but he was accused of waiting until Diệm gained the upper hand before backing him. In 1963, after Diệm was captured and executed after a successful coup, Khánh was posted to the far north of the country as the ruling generals deemed him to be untrustworthy.

The ambitious Khánh responded by launching a successful coup in January 1964, with the help of General Trần Thiện Khiêm against General Dương Văn Minh’s junta. Although he kept the popular Minh on as a figurehead head of state, Khánh maintained controlled the junta and named himself Prime Minister. He also staged a show trial against some of Minh’s close colleagues, having falsely accused them of supporting neutralism in order to justify his coup. However, he was unable to produce evidence of this and later disbarred them from command on grounds of "lax morality". During his time as leader, Khánh faced many challenges to his power and this led to a series of factional changes to maintain himself in power. After initially appearing to be allied to several Roman Catholic pro-Diệm generals, Khánh was faced by mass demonstrations by the Buddhist majority, and then tried to win them over by removing some generals associated with Diệm. This led to some Catholic generals, such as Nguyễn Văn Thiệu and his coup partner Khiêm becoming hostile to him. Khánh eventually had Minh and Khiêm sent overseas, along with Khiêm’s ally, Phạm Ngọc Thảo, an undetected communist agent bent of maximizing infighting. Despite this, the Catholic Generals Lâm Văn Phát and Dương Văn Đức, who had been demoted due to Buddhist pressure launched a coup attempt in September 1964. Khánh was eventually saved by the pro-Buddhist General Nguyễn Chánh Thi, and the Vietnam Air Force Chief Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, increasing their influence over him.

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