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(February 16, 1916 – August 6, 2001), known popularly as Big Minh, was a Vietnamese general and politician. He led the South Vietnamese army under Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm. In 1963, he became leader of South Vietnam after a coup in which Diệm was assassinated. Dương’s rule lasted only three months, but he briefly led South Vietnam again in 1975 before surrendering the nation to Communist forces.

He got the nickname, “Big Minh”, because being 1.83 m (6 ft) tall and weighing 90 kg (198 lb), he dwarfed all the other Vietnamese soldiers. It also serves to distinguish him from another military general of South Vietnam, Trần Văn Minh.

Biography

Dương Văn Minh was born on February 16, 1916 in Mỹ Tho province in the Mekong Delta. He went to Saigonmarker where he attended a top Frenchmarker colonial school, where King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodiamarker had also studied.

He began his military career in the 1940s when he joined the French colonial army. He was one of only 50 Vietnamese officers to be commissioned.

In 1954, he joined the new South Vietnamese military. In 1956, he defeated the armed religious sect, Hoa Hao, that threatened the South Vietnamese regime, and the drug-dealing pirate organisation, Binh Xuyen. This gained him the respect of the United Statesmarker, and Minh was sent there to study, where he attended the U.S. Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworthmarker in Kansasmarker, despite his poor English.

He was a military adviser to President Ngô Đình Diệm from 1962 to 1963.

Overthrow of Diem

Ngô Đình Diệm was a very unpopular leader, and in 1963 the United States of Americamarker informed Minh that it would not object if Diệm were to be overthrown. Minh was the second highest ranking general at the time, and he led the coup to overthrow Diệm on November 1 of 1963.

The next day, Diệm and his brother Ngô Ðình Nhu were executed by Minh’s bodyguard Nguyen Van Nhung after surrendering. Minh took over the government under a military junta on November 6.

Minh is said to have preferred playing mah-jongg and giving tea parties to fighting the Việt Cộng or running the country. His military junta lasted only a couple of months before it was overthrown by General Nguyễn Khánh on January 30, 1964. Dương Văn Minh went into exile in Bangkokmarker, Thailandmarker. He still had many American friends, particularly in the CIA, who gave him support during this period, including paying for his dentist bills. In return, he wrote a hawkish article about Vietnam for the respected Foreign Affairs quarterly in 1968, condemning the Việt Cộng and disparaging any possible coalition government with the Communists. This article helped end his exile and get him back into Vietnam with the support of the U.S. in 1968.

Once back in his home country, Minh opposed General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, who was still supported by the United States. Minh was going to run against Thiệu in the 1971 election but he withdrew because it became obvious to him (and most other observers) that the elections were rigged. Thiệu was then the only candidate in this election. Minh kept a low profile after this.

Minh was regarded as a potential leader of a “third force” which could come to a compromise with the North to avoid an armed takeover. His brother, Dương Văn Nhut, was a one-star general in the North Vietnamese army. In 1973, Minh proposed his own political program for South Vietnam, which was a compromise between the proposals of Thiệu and the Việt Cộng. Thiệu and the United States however, were strongly opposed to any sort of compromise. He is known to have had contact with the North Vietnamese government, but it carefully avoided either endorsing or condemning Minh.

In late April 1975, when it was obvious South Vietnam was going to lose the war, President Thiệu fled to Taiwanmarker and handed over power to Vice-President Tran Van Huong. President Tran Van Huong prepared for peace talks with North Vietnam but when his meeting failed he handed over power to General Dương Văn Minh.

Minh became President a few days later on April 28, 1975, promising to seek reconciliation with the North. He was unsuccessful in his efforts at conciliation, largely because by this point the military situation of the South Vietnamese government, such as remained of it, was entirely untenable and the North felt no compulsion to negotiate with him. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. Minh announced that South Vietnam was surrendering unconditionally, when he went on national radio and television at 11 AM on April 30. He announced, “The Republic of Vietnam policy is the policy of peace and reconciliation, aimed at saving the blood of our people. We are here waiting for the Provisional Revolutionary Government to hand over the authority in order to stop useless bloodshed.”

When the Communist troops entered the Independence Palace in Saigonmarker, they found Minh and his Cabinet sitting around the big oval table in the Cabinet room. As they entered, Minh looked at Phạm Xuân Thệ and said, “We have been waiting for you so that we could turn over the government.” The ranking North Vietnamese officer, Bui Tin said “You have nothing left to turn over.”

Later in the afternoon he went on radio again and said, “I declare theSaigonmarker government is completely dissolved at all levels.”

After his official surrender to Communist troops, he was summoned to report back. After a few days he was permitted to return to his villa. He lived there for the next eight years in seclusion, where he continued to raise birds and grow exotic orchids.

Life in exile

Dương Văn Minh was allowed to emigrate to Francemarker in 1983 and settled near Parismarker. He has two sons living in France (Minh Duc Duong and Minh Tam Duong). In the last few years of his life, he lived in Pasadenamarker, Californiamarker, U.S.A.marker, with his daughter, Mai Duong. As he aged, he found he needed a wheelchair for mobility.

On 5 August 2001, Dương Văn Minh was at his home in Pasadena when he fell. He was taken to Huntington Memorial Hospitalmarker in Pasadena and he died the next night at the age of 85. He was buried in Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, Californiamarker.

Both supporters of the old South Vietnamese government and supporters of the current Vietnamese government have mixed feelings about Dương Văn Minh, in large part due to his surrender.

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