Duong Van Minh, former president of South Vietnam, is shown in Alhambra, Calif., in this May, 2001, file photo. Minh died at a hospital in Pasadena, Calif., Monday, Aug. 6, 2001. Minh was ousted in 1975 when North Vietnam invaded over South Vietnam. Photo by AP
Held presidency for two days before fall of Saigon
By Chelsea J. Carter/AP
Gen. Duong Van Big Minh, who led a 1963 coup to overthrow South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and later took control of the country days before it fell, was remembered on Aug. 7 as a good soldier who lacked the political skills to help his country.
Minh fell at his home on Aug. 5 and died the next night at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, his daughter Mai Duong said. He was 86.
Minh became South Vietnams president in April 1975 as the country crumbled under an onslaught from North Vietnams Communist forces. In a matter of days, Minhs short political reign ended as Communist troops overran Saigon and captured the countrys leaders. He was arrested and put in detention, but allowed to emigrate to France in 1983.
He was a good general and a good man. But I think history will view him as lacking political leadership skills. He did not know how to deal with politics, said Ngo Nyugen, an Orange County Superior Court judge who met Minh years ago as a student leader in Vietnam. Its too early to say things. People still have a lot of passion about many things connected with him.
The news of Minhs death drew mixed reactions in Little Saigon, Calif., the largest population of Vietnamese people outside Vietnam.
At the coffee shop, former South Vietnamese soldiers gathered to share news of the death. It spurred heated debates about Minhs legacy.
To some, he was a bad man. To some, he was a good man. You hear this a lot, said Ngo Hong, a former army colonel. People will make up their own minds.
Others say Minh was a scapegoat for those angered by the outcome of the end of the war.
We were losing the war. If he had not surrendered, it would have been a blood bath. So many more people would have died, said Tony Lam, a Westminster city councilman who fled Vietnam as it fell.
Minhs military career began in the 1940s when he was only one of 50 Vietnamese officers to be commissioned in the French colonial army.
After French colonial rule ended in 1954, Minh ascended through the ranks of the new South Vietnamese military, where he was known as Big Minh because fellow troops were dwarfed by his 6-foot frame, and to distinguish him from other officers with the same name.
Minh helped lead a U.S.-backed coup in 1963 that overthrew then-South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, who was killed along with his brother, police chief Ngo Dinh Nhu, while trying to escape.
Minh, the second-highest ranking general at the time, took power under a military junta. Two months later, Gen. Nguyen Khanh deposed the junta and took control of the country. Minh went into exile.
He resurfaced in 1971 and challenged President Nguyen Van Thieu, who was supported by the United States. Minh eventually withdrew from the race after alleging the election was rigged. Thieu ran unopposed.
Minh was widely regarded as the potential leader of a third force that could find an accommodation with the North to avoid an armed takeover, but the effort was stifled by Thieus government.
Minh himself kept a low political profile until 1975 when Hanois forces launched what would be the final offensive of their long struggle to take over the south. In the final days, as Thieu fled the country, he was named interim president on April 28, 1975, with a promise to seek a reconciliation with the northerners.
The attempt at settlement failed, and Saigon fell to the invaders on April 30. Shortly after 10 a.m. Minh went on radio and television to announce that South Vietnam was surrendering unconditionally.
Communist troops who burst into Independence Palace found Big Minh and his cabinet members sitting calmly around a big oval table.
We have been waiting for you so that we could turn over the government, Minh told the North Vietnamese.
FYou have nothing left to turn over, a Communist officer responded.
Born in the Mekong Delta province of My Tho, Minh attended a top French colonial school in Saigon, where King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia also studied.
Minh was placed in detention after the Communist takeover. He then emigrated to France, near Paris. He and his daughter lived in Pasadena the last few years. He also is survived by two sons, who live in Paris, and grandchildren.