Nguyễn Văn Thiệu died on the 29th of September 2001 at the age of 78; he was the president of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1975. Born in Phan Rang on the 5th of April 1923, Thiệu was a descendent of the Tran Dinh dynasty of Annamese nobles.
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.
During his rule, Thiệu was accused of turning a blind eye to and indulging in corruption, and appointing loyalists rather than competent officers to lead ARVN units.
In 1968, he was caught out by the Tết Offensive due to complacency, and during the 1971 Operation Lam Sơn 719 and the communists’ Easter Offensive, the I Corps in the north of the country was under the command of his confidant, Hoàng Xuân Lãm, whose incompetence led to heavy defeats until Thiệu finally replaced him with Ngô Quang Trưởng.
After the signing of the Paris Peace Accords—which Thiệu opposed—and the American withdrawal, South Vietnam resisted the communists for another two years until the communists’ final push for victory, which saw the South openly invaded by the entire North Vietnamese Army.
Thiệu gave contradictory orders to Trưởng to stand and fight or withdraw and consolidate, leading to mass panic and collapse in the north of the country.
This allowed the communists to generate much momentum and within a month they were close to Saigon, prompting Thiệu to resign and leave the country aboard an American helicopter, just before the communists completed their conquest.
Thieu’s government survived only two more years. With the North Vietnamese Army encircling Saigon, Thieu officially resigned on April 21, 1975, and fled South Vietnam five days later.
He turned the government over to Vice President Tran Van Huong, but Huong resigned seven days later, turning the office over to Duong Van Minh, who was considered acceptable to the North Vietnamese. Minh officially surrendered as North Vietnamese tanks rammed through the gates of the presidential palace on April 30, 1975.
In a November 1990 interview with TIME magazine, Thieu stated he was keeping in contact with expatriates, and was organizing groups to support change in Vietnam.
He said he no longer wanted a leadership position there (“I am old, too old to take power again”), but wanted to lend his experience to those pushing for reforms. He said he hoped to return again someday to his homeland.