- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Nguyen Cao Ky died last week at 80, a forgotten purple footnote to the distant war in Vietnam that nearly everyone wants to forget. Those who do remember it usually remember it for the wrong reasons.

Ky was once big stuff, twice the prime minister of wartime South Vietnam and commander of the South Vietnamese Air Force. He relished his reputation as the playboy flyboy. He was fond of fast planes, high times and beautiful women, and when the war ended he commandeered a helicopter at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport to fly to an American ship in the South China Sea, fleeing like the U.S. ambassador. He was broke and settled in Southern California to open a liquor store.

The obituaries, mostly respectful, repeated the old stories. The playboy flyboy left a lot of color in his prop wash. He was given to wearing a black flight suit - with an identical suit made up for his stunning young wife - and they made a striking duo around town. He wore a purple scarf at his throat, and said that if Hollywood made a movie about him, Errol Flynn should get the leading role. Stanley Karnow, the eminent historian of all things Vietnamese, said Ky “looked like the saxophone player in a second-rate nightclub.” He wore a pencil-thin mustache and his dark, severe countenance was, as more than one woman in Saigon remarked, relieved “by bedroom eyes.”

He was popular with the war correspondents for his colorful quotes. Despairing of the rowdy anything-goes corruption and lack of effective leadership in Saigon, he once said Vietnam “needs five Hitlers to impose discipline.” He occasionally invited a few of us to his home near Tan Son Nhut where the after-dinner entertainment was repairing to the back porch to shoot wild pigs as an aide set them running from a pen at the back of the property.

He was pleased with his bad-boy reputation, exaggerated to his delight. He once complained that the pistol he wore at his side was usually described as pearl-handled. “Nobody would have pearl handles,” he told me one balmy night, with the thunder and flash of guns on the distant horizon punctuating the conversation. “The handles are only ivory.” I remarked that Gen. George S. Patton’s ivory-handled pistol was also described as “pearl-handled,” which Patton said made him sound like “a pimp in a New Orleans bordello.” Ky grinned, obviously pleased with the comparison.

But he turned out to be a serious politician. When the generals who ran Vietnam made him prime minister in 1965 everyone thought he would last the usual two or three months (or less). He survived two years and tried to govern with an unexpected hard hand. He ordered a businessman shot for manipulating the runaway black market. He met President Lyndon B. Johnson in Honolulu in 1966 to plead for a harder, more effective war strategy, arguing that the American strategy of limited defensive war enabled the enemy to resupply field armies at will. “Long before America decided to quit the war,” he said years later, “I realized this would be the inevitable result of the lack of commitment to victory.”

Ky mellowed in the shadow of his advancing years, and was moved to tears when he returned to his birthplace a decade ago as a guest of the Communist government. “The idea of America - its freedom, financial and educational opportunities, the lifestyle, wealth and beauty of the country and its people remains the envy of the civilized world,” he said on his return. “In Vietnam today even the sons and daughters of those who fought against American soldiers for two decades love everything American.

“I say today to the veterans of that lost war, Vietnamese and American, Australians and New Zealanders, Thais and South Koreans and all the others who supported our fight for freedom - we have no cause for shame. We were right.”

He took considerable pleasure in observing that Vietnam, like China, has abandoned Marxist dogma, and clings only to the fiction of a Marxist state. “Now everyone knows that Vietnamese communism is dead,” he said. “The business of Vietnam now is business.” He urged the young among the million or more Vietnamese who fled at the end of the war to return to help rebuild the country. “In another hundred years the Vietnamese will look back at the war and feel shameful. We should not dwell on it. Those who bear grudges only care about themselves.”

He was content to follow Douglas MacArthur into the past. “He said ‘old soldiers never die, they just fade way.’ That’s me, too.” He will be buried in Vietnam.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.