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Dr. Trần Kim Tuyến was the chief of intelligence of South Vietnam under its first President Ngo Dinh Diem from 1955 to 1963. As a Roman Catholic, he was trusted by the Ngo family, and was part of its inner circle. He eventually became disillusioned and plotted against the regime. When the regime fell, the military junta that replaced it jailed him, and after South Vietnam fell in 1975, he fled the country to avoid being captured by the communist victors.

Early years

A northerner, Tuyen studied at the French-founded University in Hanoi, obtaining degrees in law and medicine. As a student, he had demonstrated against the French colonial administration’s control over Vietnam’s Catholic clergy, landing him in trouble with the police. However, his religious convictions led him to spurn the Ho Chi Minh-led Vietminh which was strongly atheist. Although he was ambitious, Tuyen was aware of his provincial accent and his manner of stumbling over long words. He was a very short man, even by Vietnamese standards, with a bashful smile. In 1946, Tuyen came to know the Ngo family by chance while he was still a student. His future boss Ngo Dinh Nhu wanted to travel from Hanoi to a Catholic area near the border with Laos and needed a guide. A priest asked Tuyen to lead the way on a bicycle while Nhu followed in a cyclo to evade French and Vietminh attention. Tuyen hailed from the Catholic village of Phat Diem, Ninh Binh Province in Northern Vietnam. He had been responsible for persuading a substantial number of Catholics to leave their homes in the north to move south. As a result, he had tried to persuade Diem to maintain some contact with members of the communist regime in Hanoi in the hope of persuading them to defect.

Rise to power

In mid-1954 after the Geneva Conference, Tuyen had been working as a military surgeon in an outlying province, travelling to Hanoi only during the weekends. He was visiting his girlfriend Jackie, a midwife, when his sister’s husband interrupted and told Tuyen that he could travel to Saigon immediately on the plane of Prime Minister Diem of the then State of Vietnam which preceded the Republic of Vietnam. Tuyen decided to make use of the opportunity and left with only one change of trousers and the clothes on his back. Jackie accepted his indirect marriage proposal when he asked her if she would join him in the south. Tuyen agreed to Diem’s offer that he work for his younger brother Nhu’s operations. Tuyen lived in the Presidential Palace as Diem sought to create order, sleeping on the floor. He was unemployed for two months before being assigned to the Ministry of Information, essentially a propaganda unit.


Tuyen’s first campaign was to disperse the approximately 800,000 northern Vietnamese who had migrated south during the free travel period Operation Passage to Freedom before the partition of Vietnam. Most were Catholics who had moved after a campaign to build Diem’s powerbase on the slogan that “The Virgin Mary has gone south”. Believing they had made a great sacrifice to move, they insisted on settling in Saigonmarker with its urban amenities. Tuyen was an admirer of communist propaganda techniques, and decided to emulate them. He sent some elderly people to a Saigon refugee camp and ordered the police to stage a noisy and concocted arrest scene. His staff made photographs of the incident and distributed pamphlets claiming that communists had infiltrated the camps. This scare campaign prompted the refugees to disperse in fear of being arrested for being a communist. He then targeted a clandestine anti-Diem nationalist intellectuals’ newspaper by printing counterfeit copies of the magazine with communist propaganda content substituted into the contents, circulating it and proceeding to have it banned for being communist.

Nhu took Tuyen under his wing and asked Tuyen to draft the rules for Can Lao, a Catholic political party founded by Nhu which was used to covertly establish a network of controls and informants across the country. In the Spring of 1956, Tuyen was appointed by Nhu to be his go-between with CIA agents. The US ambassador Frederick Reinhardt arranged for Tuyen to work with CIA agents like Philip Potter and William Colby, who later became the Director of the Agency under President Richard Nixon. An agency named the Social and Political Services was formed; Nhu and Tuyen used it to send men into North Vietnam in order to engage in sabotage and propaganda. Almost all were either imprisoned or killed. His methods led him to be referred to as "Vietnam’s Goebbels" by CIA agents.

He had a unit of 500 men, and was used by Nhu as a fixer, to arrange secret meetings with dissidents.In 1960, he was a key figure in persuading undecided ARVN divisions to support Diem against the 1960 South Vietnamese coup attempt.

In 1962, Nhu appointed Tuyen and Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao, an undiscovered communist agent, to oversee the Strategic Hamlet Program, which attempted to isolate the Vietcong by barricading villagers inside fortified compounds, leaving the communists out. Tuyen led the way in marketing the concept to the populace.


As time passed, Tuyen had begun to show dissent about the increasing interference of Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu into politics. Eventually, Nhu took offense and began to ignore Tuyen. In early 1963, Tuyen was ordered to go home and rest by Diem, who felt that he had been too lenient in his meetings with disillusioned military officers and politicians. He was not called back to work, effectively sacked. He responded by dispatching his old staff back to the jobs they previously held before they joined his department, leaving it in a state of collapse. In May, when the Buddhist crisis erupted after Diem’s forces had banned Buddhists from flying the Buddhist flag to commemorate Vesak, and fired on them, Diem recalled Tuyen in an attempt to resolve the crisis.

Tuyen eventually began to plot against the Diem regime. He began meeting with Colonel Do Mau, the chief of military security and a number of colonels in key military positions leading the marine and paratroop divisions around Saigon. He also used his contacts among the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects in plotting the coup. With growing displeasure among the populace against the Diem regime during the Buddhist crisis of 1963, Tuyen forecast July 15 as a date for a coup, but was unable to recruit the generals required since he was too closely associated with Nhu to gain their trust. After that Tuyen was exiled. In the end, Tuyen's old group ended up being led by Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao, a communist spy who was deliberately fomenting discord among the army. Thao's group did not perpetrate the coup , which was executed successfully by another group led by Generals Duong Van Minh and Tran Van Don resulting in the death of Diem and his brother Nhu. Ten years later, Colby, now head of the CIA, re-hatched Tuyen's original plan for the coup d'état, implemented it in Chile and overthrew Salvador Allende.

Aware that Tuyen might be involved in plotting against Diem, he was sent to Cairomarker, since Egyptmarker was at the time leading a campaign of African countries against South Vietnam at the United Nations. It was an effective exile for Tuyen, with rumours that Madam Nhu’s brother was planning to assassinate him. Upon arriving in Cairo, Egypt had extended diplomatic relations to North Vietnam. He eventually flew to Hong Kongmarker, where British intelligence provided him with protection.

After Diem was overthrown in a November 1963 coup, Tuyen decided to return to Vietnam. His wife was pregnant and he reasoned that since he had no enemies in the military junta and he had worked well with them in the past, he would be safe. He was arrested and tried by the military junta for corruption and abuse of power and sentenced to five years in prison. Tuyen believed that he was jailed because the generals were afraid that he would claim that they were corrupt and had grovelled before Nhu.

When the term ended, he remained under house arrest after the brother of President Nguyen Van Thieu intervened. His wife was allowed to teach in a high school and Tuyen was allowed to write political columns under an assumed name. In April 1975, as South Vietnam collapsed amid a communist onslaught, British intelligence arranged for Tuyen’s wife and their three youngest children to leave South Vietnam for Cambridgemarker, where their eldest son was studying. Tuyen was reluctant to leave, but did on April 29, 1975, a day before the Fall of Saigon on one of the last helicopters out of the besieged city with the help of Pham Xuan An , a Time magazine correspondent and communist spy .


  1. Langguth, pp. 87.
  2. Shaplen, p. 158.
  3. Langguth, pp. 87–88, 91.
  4. Langguth, p. 91.
  5. Langguth, p. 92.
  6. Langguth, p. 98.
  7. Langguth, p. 105.
  8. Langguth, pp. 168–170.
  9. Langguth, pp. 210–213.
  10. Shaplen, pp. 197–198.
  11. Karnow
  12. Shaplen, p. 205.
  13. Langguth, p. 221.
  14. Langguth, pp. 260–261.
  15. Langguth, pp. 660–661.
  16. Butler (1986)
  17. Berman (2007)
  18. Butler (1990)


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