NGUYEN PHU LAM,Nguyen Van Thieu's bodyguard
Q. We're going to end with the communist victory on April 30th. Would we begin to account for that with the Paris Agreement? If you are going to explain what happened where would you begin?
A. I would say so. Because it's a sellout of South Vietnam. Thieu knew it.
Q. But did you know that he was secretly talking to Le Duc Tho before he arrived in October -- Kissinger?
Of course, we knew it.
Q. Did you have any idea what he would be bringing you in October of '72, any idea of what the substance of his agreement with Le Duc Tho would be?
I'm not at the conference table, but --
Q. By the time Kissinger arrived, the North Vietnamese had already told their cadres what was in the agreement and CIA had picked that up, so you must have picked that up too.
That's why Thieu had reluctantly, many times, refused to sign that agreement. It's unfortunate that he has been treated by the American administration -- I have read quite a few of those letters from the Administration, saying this and that, and one of the letters which shocked me was from the President. I cannot remember the exact word, but like, "we will have to resort to stronger measures if you don't come to the terms of the agreement."
Now, for Thieu, the terms of the agreement -- Thieu's philosophy is this, you never sit down and talk with the communists, because the minute you sit down you lose, because they come to the table from a strong position. They never come to the table with a weak position.
Q. In '72 they were in a weak position. They had just been beaten in Easter offensive, pushed back --
So Thieu refused and refused to even sit down and talk with them. But with the pressure from the Americans, with those memorandums, Thieu has nothing but to sign it. Try to get those tapes from our tv broadcasting with Thieu talking to the people of South Vietnam. He knew it. We have to sign the agreement because of this and that. He knew the minute he signed it would be a loss for South Vietnam. Because his philosophy is this -- he can not explain to the Americans that when you sign something with the North Vietnamese communists, we can not trust their words.
Q. What about the American guarantees?
The guarantee is never kept.
Q. Did he distrust the guarantees from the beginning?
Oh, sure, from the beginning. With Thieu he's got for nos, no surrender, no bargaining, --with the communists you have to say no, never say yes with them. He's got a hard time to explain to Kissinger to explain to those scholars in America because they see Vietnam from another angle. We see Vietnam from our experience in '45 and '54, from those exterminations of people. We see the communists from that angle.
Q. What about the '72 Christmas bombing? Wasn't that an indication that the United States would retaliate massively -- the Christmas bombing of Hanoi. Did that give him faith?
That's why in those memorandums from Nixon to Thieu say, if ever the North Vietnam army invades South Vietnam again, we will send you more aid and our troops and everything to push them back to the north. That's the only reason, I think, that Thieu signed that agreement, is that the guarantee is there from the Americans.
Q. Hoang Duc Nha seems to have less faith than Thieu did in the agreement.
Yes. I was told by the last Vietnamese American Association director -- "can you believe it Lam -- he told Ambassador Bunker, I'm Vietnamese, I was American educated, so I know America as you do, but you are not Vietnamese educated so you know nothing about Vietnam, so don't tell me what to do in our country."
Q. Nha had been right however on these things. He was a bright guy.
Yes, very bright.
Q. I'm still wondering why he was pushed out.
Well, he was too young for the political scene in South Vietnam at that time.
Q. What about Kim and Cao Van Vien in 1972? What did they think of the Paris Agreement? Did Vien think the army could survive it?
I don't know. I know President Thieu more than anybody else, about his thinking, his philosophy, and he had really reluctantly signed that agreement.
Q. Some people said that they feared that if he didn't sign that the same thing would happen to him that happened to Diem.
Exactly. That's what I sensed from reading the memorandum from Nixon. It's a threat, a personal threat to Thieu from Alexander Haig.
Q. How would they have done it?
I don't go as far as saying they would have assassinated him.
Q. But President Thieu was very popular in late '72. There was no fear of a coup or unrest in South Vietnam at that time --
But tell me this, Thieu refused to sign the agreement, what if the United States withdrew all the aid from South Vietnam.
Q. The agreement was that once we withdrew our troops then Congress would give all the aid you needed, if you signed. But if you didn't sign, then we would withdraw troops and not give the aid.
Right. In addition to that Thieu would feel that they wouldn't guarantee his safety. A coup would come along with the withdrawing of aid if you don't withdraw yourself from the political scene of South Vietnam.
Q. He signed in January 1974, by the foreign minister.
From my personal feelings, Kissinger and Le Duc Tho agreed on something and then Kissinger brought that agreed thing to South Vietnam to impose on Thieu. It's not fair at all. Because the United States has been sponsoring, I would say, South Vietnam to stand up against the international communism and then when it comes to solve a certain problem they go along with North Vietnam. You stabbed behind our back. You talk about something which we don't know and then you bring it back and impose it on us. Then you tell us with all your aid and money and everything, if we don't sign this, we're dead. It's not fair.
Q. It's signed. There's the enhanced program, the enhanced plus programs to give the Vietnamese supplies. Wasn't there a period in 1973 of optimism, that perhaps Thieu's fears had been wrong, that everything would be okay. The South Vietnamese area of control actually expanded in 1973, so you must have felt good then.
With the American guarantee the political and military situation at that time. Then what about after the signatures of the four parties concerned, what about the Americans withholding their promise?
Q. Did you foresee that coming?
No, because Thieu trusted the Americans guarantee that the North Vietnamese wouldn't invade South Vietnam.
Q. Thieu came to San Clemente in Spring of 1973. Did you come with him?
I stayed in Washington.
Q. Did you come back to Saigon with him when he returned to Saigon?
Q. Did he say anything about the meeting with Nixon? Did he feel good about it?
Yes, very good, but with all those verbal promises and those written promises. And Nguyen Van Thieu was the only guy after '75, May '75 to parade in front of the White House, his wife and four kids, to parade against the Administration for letting down the South Vietnamese people. Then after that he met with the Press to show them this is the memorandum from President Nixon to our President promising that if North Vietnam invaded the South, the United States would come to the assistance of South Vietnam. That promise was never kept. After that Hung's gang, the Republicans and Schlesinger aides took him away to West Virginia to hide from CIA because at that time now, it's a kind of chaotic situation in America.
Q. When Watergate started, were you aware of how important this was in America, that Nixon was being forced out of office?
Yes. It's a loss for us, a big loss, because all those verbal and written -- with Nixon we wouldn't lose Vietnam that fast if we have to lose it. With Nixon we would have kept, because Nixon is a tough guy against the communists.
Q. In 1974 something happens that Frank Snepp uses against President Thieu -- Ton Le Chan is abandoned. President announces that it has been overrun. Black Virgin Mountain in Tay Ninh is overrun in '74. Some people said President Thieu was willing to make it look like the North Vietnamese were making advances. He was willing to abandon certain places. He said he would never give up ground to the communists. But Ton Le Chan is abandoned in 1974.
You know what happened after '73? The Americans are not there. The striking force of the American army was not there any more. Remaining are those advisory teams around the country and they were not allowed to participate in the active operations of the South Vietnamese army. So we are denied air support from the Seventh Fleet, denied artillery support from the Seventh Fleet. We are denied fire support from all the American forces. We were fighting a war with the American Seventh Fleet and the American Seventh Air Force and so on. Now we are facing a stronger and stronger North Vietnamese army with a weaker South Vietnamese army, from a military logistics point of view.
And then at that time you have to take into consideration the pressure from the political parties in America, the Senate, Congress and the anti-war groups. All those things come to a set point to kill South Vietnam. A lot of pressure at that time. We don't want our sons and kids to die in Vietnam any more. We don't want any more American money in Vietnam. And so on. A lot of pressure.
America has signed the agreement, so it is like Pontius Pilate telling Jesus -- it's not my sin any more, I wash my hands. I'm off the hook.
Q. Wasn't Graham Martin still telling you that everything was all right?
I don't know. Oh, yes, yes. And Thieu definitely believed in that. Thieu believed that if anything happened to South Vietnam the United States would still be there, which has never been done. And that's why Thieu has loudly condemned the United States. That's why they didn't allow Thieu to go to America from '75 to -- I don't know what year.
Q. Tell me about Ted Serong the Australian general who apparently had the idea of "light at the top, heavy at the bottom", abandoning MR1 and MR2, concentrating in MR3 and MR4.
I don't know about him. Thieu's strategy of withdrawing from MR1 and MR2 --
Q. Wait, before we get to that, let's start at Phuoc Luong, the attack on Song Be, Phuoc Binh and the loss of Phuoc Luong, January 5th-6th, '75. When that happened, the first time a province had been lost to the communists since 1968, what did you think?
I was very depressed. All of us were discouraged because we knew --
Q. Was it an emergency?
Emergency, yes. And then where's logistics, where's supply? It's not there any more. All the fire power and air cover and artillery support, all those things are withdrawn. We are fighting a war by ourselves with nothing else, without any other support from the United States. Then at that time China and Russia were still heavily supporting the North Vietnamese army.
Q. Then spring of '75, the congressional delegation comes to visit.
Oh, that's the end of the world. Those groups are the last shot for us.
Q. Did you meet them?
No, I didn't talk to them. But I knew their purposes when they came to Vietnam. Then General Ngo Quang Truong after many nights talking to him in Virginia, told me that they approached him and tell him that they want him to replace Thieu. And Truong told me that they told him that -- Bella Abzug, I hate her. She's the most outspoken lady in that group. "You got to replace Thieu."
Q. Where did they see Truong. I thought only McCloskey and Bartlett flew up to MR1.
No, the whole gang I think. "You have to replace Thieu, take over the position of the commander in chief and chief of state."
He said, "Well my stars were pinned on my shoulder by Thieu and I can not betray my commander in chief. That's what I was telling the army." Then they say the ship is sinking. Truong says, "I would sink with the ship."
Q. Did they approach anyone else?
No, just Truong.
Q. Why, just Truong. Didn't anybody approach Duong Van Minh at the time?
I don't know, but probably they have. But they also have their own information about different personalities in Vietnam at that time. Minh doesn't have political support from the people, and Nguyen Cao Ky is not that well defined in the political circle.
Q. So they thought the problem was just Thieu and if Thieu was gone?
Yes, somehow, some way they say Thieu is the knot of the problem.
Q. Wasn't Thieu's intelligence good enough? Shouldn't Truong have reported that?
He should have reported that. I don't know.
Q. Wasn't Thieu's intelligence good enough for him to know that was being said?
I don't know.
I was so innocent that in April 25 I flew out with Madam Thieu and told my wife and my family, yeah, I'd come back. I didn't think we would lose. The 21st of April, we were convinced in our will of fighting the communists.
Q. How much of a surprise was Ban Me Thuot. Was it a surprise it fell so fast or that they hit Ban Me Thuot? Because there were two sets of intelligence, one saying they would strike at Kontum, Pleiku, and the second set off a captured or dead soldier gave plans for Ban Me Thuot. But Thomas Polgar, the CIA station chief in Saigon, told me that Vietnam at that time was like a big ripe sausage and somebody could eat it at any point, so they decided to hit at Ban Me Thuot. Were you surprised?
Well, very surprised.
Q. Did you fly up to Cam Ranh Bay on the fourteenth?
No, that morning Thieu called up General Cao Van Vin and General Pham Van Phu and Tran Khiem and I think the commander of the Rangers, to go to Cam Ranh. They flew there and Thieu told them to withdraw from Pleiku and Da Nang.
Q. What did you hear about what happened at Cam Ranh? Who told you about it?
What I'm telling you is what I have heard from -- because Thieu never confided anything to anybody.
Q. Pham Vinh, Phu's son, says he knows exactly what happened and he'll tell me the truth.
The reason Thieu flew to Cam Ranh is just a detour, to be alone with his staff and to issue the order to withdraw Pleiku and Kontum without the Americans knowing it.
Q. Specifically what was the order?
To withdraw from Pleiku and Kontum.
Q. Was there a timetable?
I can't remember. Phu, the commander of the MR2 --the details of what's going on I don't know.
Q. Vien told me they asked him can he do it and he told them yes. They said, because if you can't, we'll replace you with somebody who can. So he said yes, he could do it. Now, Phu's son told me that wasn't true at all.
The second point, did they give him a timetable, and the basic assumption eventually was that he had time to do it. He would make adequate preparation. Then if you believe that he made the mistake, he flew back and within the next day left the command at Pleiku to General Dat and flew down to Nha Trang with his staff and everything fell apart.
Right. I didn't know what was happening with the orders from President Thieu and General Vien, but what I knew was this: The commanders of the different units must keep this as a secret. Could tell wife, but nobody else should know that we have to withdraw from Kontum and Pleiku. In other words, the troops from Kontum and Pleiku, all those regular troops and special forces and regular army and regional army troops, their families shouldn't know about it. The dilemma of that philosophy is this. How can you withdraw from your post without letting your wife know it? How can I as a soldier withdraw from my sentry post without letting my wife know where I'm going next morning?
Q. Well, the question is, would you withdraw from your post and leave your wife and family?
Right, that's what it is. And I think all those big shots there haven't foreseen that scenario, because our regional soldiers, wherever they go, their children and wife go with them. I've been witnessing those fighters in South Vietnam, in those provinces, they go in the trench, the wife is cooking in the trench, the husband is fighting like hell. And then the husband is so tired he rests and the wife took up the position of the fighter. So how can you tell an army to withdraw without telling the relatives? That's the weak point of Thieu. He shouldn't have done that. It's the biggest mistake he has ever made in his life as a military commander.
Plus I think that the death of South Vietnam, he hasn't considered the human factor in his plan of operation.
Q. What about General Phu flying down to Nha Trang to organize it from there?
He should have, because if we withdrew we knew that Kontum and Pleiku would fall into the hands of the communists. Why did Thieu withdraw his troops? Because it's like a child in the house. Mom asks you to do your homework, you do something else to make mom have pity on you and say okay you don't have to do your homework. You can watch tv. Thieu did that at that time purposely because the Americans have withdrawn all the aid to South Vietnam. Thieu wanted this. If we do this then the Americans would feel we were going to lose South Vietnam and we have to put some more aid in there. And then Thieu has again underestimated the American reaction, which was, "Okay, you can die, we have signed the agreement, it's your job now to protect yourself."
So Thieu has too much trust in the American administration. And by doing that he thinks that he can some way, somehow, hurt the American feeling about losing South Vietnam.
Q. How about MR1? How did that all come apart?
It is the same. He ordered that the Marines should withdraw from MR1 without taking their relatives. It's impossible.
Q. When Da Nang fell, did you know what was happening when Truong had to swim out to a boat? Did you know that it was all in a panic up in Da Nang?
Oh yes. That's why they picked up Truong when he reached Saigon. Because he left the post.
(((END OF SIDE A. BEGIN SIDE B.)))
. . . because he was there to survey the situation. He came back with Ambassador Martin. Did you talk to him at all?
A. No, I never talked to those dignitaries.
Q. What were you starting to think when MR1 fell, then Cam Ranh, Nha Trang, Thuy Hoa. What were you thinking personally?
I still have a strong feeling about us standing up against the communists. We can regroup in the fourth military region in the south and with Saigon well protected we can do something about it, but the North Vietnamese at that time was stronger than ours, with all the firepower, with all the gas to run the tanks. We can not possibly resist.
Q. Were you living out at Tan Son Nhut?
No, in the Presidential Palace.
Q. You were there when the plane attacked on April 5th?
I was the only guy who was wounded. I came too early to the office, __ to watch the girls we used to watch from the window at the top of the palace and watch her walk in. We'd say, one, two, three -- she walks with a ???? -- she's so pretty, you know. She was in the telex room down in the basement.
Q. So what time was this that you went to your office on that day?
About eight o'clock. I used to come early because I liked to sip my coffee in the palace. I was a fervent officer, working fervently. I liked to go to the office early and then we heard a round of airplane shoot like that. I said, "What the hell is that?" We never heard that loud and airplane fly over the palace. I said to my friends sitting around me, "Be careful." The minute I said "Be careful", a round of automatic rifle from the airplane went through our windows where I was sitting. Not one round hit the office, just the walls and the windows. The next round were the bombs, bang, bang and then all the smoke came up, the big glass panels of the different rooms, the yellow room, the red room, the blue rooms, like in the White House, were burning. It was a shambles,broken into small pieces, the glass was. So I ran to the other side.
Q. What was burning?
The curtains were burning and the pressure of the bombs made the glass fall in small pieces.
We were in the right wing of the palace. So I ran to the left wing to see if the president's family were all right. On my way to the left wing I was sliding on the broken pieces of glass in the hall, so I fell down and my bones protuded from my arm. Everybody was so worried about the president and his wife that they left me lie back in the hall.
Q. Were you afraid it was a coup attempt?
Yeah, really. Anything. We didn't think that was from the communists at all.
Q. How many runs did they make?
Two runs. And you know at that time Thieu was sitting right there. We have a helipad on the top floor -- on the fourth floor the helipad is here and Thieu was sitting right in here looking out at the helipad sipping hot coffee at that time.
Q. His whole family was there?
Yes, in the bedroom one floor down. The first round of bomb hit the helipad and went through the floor of the fourth floor without exploding. If that bomb had exploded Thieu would have been killed.
Q. Lt. Col. Vinh told me he knew that pilot. He said if that guy had wanted to kill the President he would have.
No, he really tried. It hit right there. It was lucky. After the first bomb the aides pulled him to the elevator and took him down to the basement where we took him to where we have a small radio station. We took his wife out of the palace and he remained in the palace for the whole period.
Q. What about his son?
In London, I think.
Q. Thieu was a strong believer in astrology. Wasn't he having a building built and this astrologer told him it was at the wrong angle so he had it torn down and built at a different angle? That's what Polgar was telling me. Did you ever hear him consult with this guy?
No. Thieu's wife's influence on him is great. So as far as home, houses, it's his wife's duty, as for most Vietnamese. If I were to marry someone, the home affairs is for my wife's hands. So Thieu leaves that into his wife's hands, home affairs, the way the houses be built, the way the fish pond should be built. She's a believer in those fortune tellers.
Q. What was Thieu saying when you took him down to the basement. Was he speculating on what was going on? Did he think it was a coup?
He thought it was a coup. But he has recuperated all his strength and cool attitude to tell everybody, the South Vietnamese people, that everything is okay.
Q. But things keep going badly. Then the North Vietnamese arrive a Xuan Loc and Le Minh Dao is there and I think a battalion of airborne. Truong is sent out there too, I think. Then on Saturday the 19th, Martin meets with Thieu. What transpired there?
I don't know. We as subordinates, as surrounding staff of the President, never knew of the contents of those meetings.
Q. Who translated?
Thieu carried on with Martin in English. Unless it was a State Dinner or visit or something. Then we came into it.
Q. Did you get a chance to meet with any staff members on the 20th, Sunday? He resigns on the 21st. Was there talk during Xuan Loc of Thieu resigning?
No, nobody knew about it.
Q. He never speculated that perhaps he should resign?
Well, Thieu is a very stubborn guy. Since you are so sincere in writing something which should be a good reference for following generations, I will tell you this: When we talk about a problem we should talk about the person who is creating that problem. Now Thieu is such that he's a very stubborn and arrogant kind of personality. He doesn't trust anybody. He learned it from Tao Tao?? the Chinese own philosophy, which is that never trust anybody but yourself.
He doesn't trust anybody, even Nha, even me. I'll tell you an anecdote of his personality. Every year we have the annual speech of the national assembly and Thieu has to go there to deliver a speech and the speech is written by himself. That's why all his speeches are very boring. Well, it's lengthy, the phrases and sentences are so lengthy.
He wrote it. He threw it out to our office which is next to where he used to sit and write his speeches. We typed it and we brought it in and looked at it again and made a few corrections and then we typed it in. The final proofreading he would do himself, because he believed that if my officer or my staff should change any word in a paragraph, that would change the whole meaning. So he checked every word, every phrase, every comma, stops and periods -- anything.
Now the chief aide-de-camp had to carry that speech in a folder to the podium of the National Assembly the morning of the new year. The aide-de-camp brought that speech and put it on the podium. Thieu came to the podium -- instead of reading that speech put there by the aide-de-camp, he took another speech from his pocket and read it. The aide-de-camp can not have his hands on his speech until he comes into the office at say, 7 o'clock. He's got to deliver the speech at ten o'clock. Now the aide-de-camp can pick up the speech only at eight o'clock, let's say. From eight to ten, Thieu says he could have changed a few items. He might be an underground agent or something.
You never trust anybody, you see. That's why he carried on the whole job of leading the country without trusting anybody.
Q. Was he comfortable with the generals or was he afraid always of a coup?
He doesn't trust any general at all. The good ones he sent to the very disputed areas and those generals around, the general staff and that, he uses old ones and --
Q. Why was General Toan made MR3 commander after being relieved in MR2?
Probably he is a friend. I don't know.
Q. Did you have faith in Toan?
No. Professionally, I don't have any respect of him as a general.
Q. The Americans had faith in him as a general.
I don't, personally, because I have a lot of friends from the military academy in Da Lat and those young officers -- and once "We don't think Toan is up to the technique of fighting the communists because he's an old timer from the French army.
Q. Well, Thieu was an old timer too.
Yes, but politically is very different.
Q. You were aware of Thieu's plan to take gold out of the bank of Saigon?
No, it wasn't Thieu's gold. It was the cabinet of South Vietnam.
Q. But wasn't the effort begun under Thieu to take it to the United States?
Well, they were talking about it, but the official meeting of the cabinet, they talked about withdrawing of South Vietnamese. It was taking place after Thieu resigned and the whole cabinet convened a meeting of the cabinet with first Hung and Prime minister Gun chairing the meeting. The cabinet, especially the Finance Minister, the Planning Minister, were talking about taking that gold out of Vietnam. They were meeting with the American counterparts before convening that official meeting to get a final decision on doing that. Air America with the American Embassy arranging everything is ready to send the tanks to xxxx(indecipherable) where the National Bank is, to escort the gold to Tan Son Nhut Air Base and from there Air America to wherever. It was agreed with the Americans, but President Hung say -- well the last word President at that time he took over, he said, "What belongs to the country should stay in the country." That's it.
Q. When did you first learn President Thieu was resigning?
On the 21st I was still at home because I was wounded. So to my surprise.
Q. You were surprised when he went on television?
Well, when he came to the television, I can not remember exactly what was happening, but --
Q. Well did you think it was a good sign or a bad sign?
Q. For the country.
I think it's a bad sign for the country, because I personally -- setting aside those corruption things and those rumors, think Thieu is a tough guy against the communists, compared to Duong Van Minh, compared to Ky, for example. Of course Mr. Ky's a nationalist, but not tough enough against the communists, tough enough against different parties. But I think it's a loss for South Vietnam. I really do believe in Mr. Thieu. Although I don't agree with him on certain personal points, but all in all I certainly was very ashamed of what was happening. If somebody else was in Thieu's place he would do the same, because we were denied those aids and assistance from the American government, and what can we do?
Q. Now you left the country with Mrs. Thieu, you said. When?
He left the 24th, resigned the 21st. You are still at home wounded, you said. The 21st was a Monday. The bombing was on the fifth.
On the -- I can't remember the exact date.
Q. How were you contacted and told you would escort the president's wife out of the country?
She called me -- the aides called me. I'm something they have to rely on when difficulties come about, because I'm not the relative, I didn't know them before, but the reason I came to the palace was they look at my resume with bi-lingual Vietnamese officer with French indicated and American indicated, and they need somebody. When difficult times come by we have to use him. I think they resort to me at difficult times.
They called me up and say you have to take care of Mrs. Thieu which I did and took her out of the country. We went on Air France, regular flight, first class. No problem. At that time I had a multiple visa to any country in the world.
Q. Where did you go to?
Bangkok, then Taiwan.
Q. Before Thieu left the country, did he seek a diplomatic appointment any where? Did he seek to save face in any way?
Now, don't ever mention about my name with this story. Don't let anybody hear this, the Vietnamese counterparts, because --well, when you take your personal feelings and your personal inputs, when you speak about your personal relation with certain people in a book, it's no good. It serves no purpose at all.
But since you are asking and I'm telling you -- to save face, in order for him to flee the country he came to President Hung at that time and asked him to assign him as a roving ambassador, which President Hung agreed to sign. By being a roving ambassador, then you have a salary, you have a diplomatic title, and you have a post and diplomatic recognition from the receiving country. So that time even Thieu didn't think that we would lose the country. Even himself. So that's why he assigned me and my brother as his aide-de-camps and staff as a roving ambassador.
Q. What happened to the appointment?
It never came about because on the 13th we lose the country.
Q. So it was agreed that he would become a roving ambassador.
Then after the 13th and South Vietnam doesn't exist anymore.
Q. The rumors are that Mr. Thieu and his family came out like the Shah of Iran with all the country's gold, which Polgar told me was a lie. He told me Quang came out with nothing, Toan came out with nothing. He said he visited Thieu in London and Thieu lived very modestly.
Of course he cannot be compared to the Shah, but compared to the average Vietnamese he was quite well off.
Q. Some Vietnamese told me two things: First of all, that he insisted the Americans give him a second airplane to take out his new Mercedes Benz, someone else told me. Of course that's not true but people told me that. An air hostess told me that.
Then another guy told me that President Thieu brought out all his gold months earlier. The question is -- well, you didn't leave with two bags of gold under your arm, or anything like that?
A. NO, well, of course I was carrying two suitcases full of pocket money, and watches, gifts and things like that. For her. If I'd had one briefcase of that dollar I'd be well off now, man.
Q. But two suitcases, gold or currency?
One is gold, the other is green dollars. Myself. At that time my friends told me, hey, why didn't you fly away at Bangkok? You had the multiple visa entry and exit, and everything.
Q. So you flew first class, with the bags?
I set them like this. I was so innocent, so loyal, honest.
Q. How many people in your party?
I and her.
Q. What is Mrs Thieu like? Did you carry on conversations with her?
Oh, yes. She trusted me like her brother.
Q. Was she emotionally distraught?
I don't think so. She's so glad she was out safely, and she was glad because she had told me quite a few times that she doesn't want her husband to be president any more and she wanted to be somewhere well off with their money.
Q. What prevented somebody from killing and robbing you?
I don't know.
Q. Where did you stay in Bangkok?
At the biggest hotel in town.
Q. Did they let you bring a weapon on the plane?
No, not at all.
Q. So you were unarmed, carrying all that money.
Probably they didn't know what I had. And probably because I was lucky also.
Q. Were you aware of anyone else bringing out money for the Thieus?
Q. Do you think every time someone came out the children brought out money?
Well, of course they have many ways to do anything they want to, but as far as I'm concerned that's the only time I carried something so heavy.
Q. Then you flew to Taiwan, were you there when he arrived?
Q. A seventeen hour flight -- you must have arrived late in the evening of the 25th.
Probably or the 26th, I can't remember. He came there first and we joined him, I and Madam Thieu, a day after.
Q. What did he say?
So happy. They are so happy to get out of Vietnam, and friendly, and no problem at all. And that's the happiest ending of his life, of a president from Vietnam, because now people are telling that Thieu is coming back. I'm telling myself, no, I don't believe it. Too much now, I don't tell to anybody. That's it for Thieu. He can not dream of a better ending than that.
What does he want now? He's well off now. He has everything he wants and a happy ending in England.
Q. How close did you stay in touch with the news from Vietnam? Hung resigned, Van Ming becomes president. Were you aware when that took place on the 28th?
Oh yes. In Bangkok when we heard it from the radio I say that's the end.
Q. Did you expect the Americans to fly in from Thailand or from the Seventh Fleet?
No. I say that's it. We were sold out for good.
Q. On the 30th you were in Taiwan. Where did you hear that Minh had ordered a surrender?
I heard it from Bangkok. I was in Bangkok.
Q. Oh, you were in Bangkok even on the 30th. Okay. When did you leave there?
I can't remember.
Q. What did you think when you heard the news?
Very depressed because personally I still have all my relatives in Vietnam, even my wife and my child, parents and brothers, and everybody. In fact, before leaving the country my parents had a family meeting telling me that "Lam, you have been serving the president for the last eight years. Now if you let him down -- you were serving him when he was up there, now if he needs you you have to do it again. So do it and we'll take care of everything." That's it for me.
Q. What happens to you then?
I said good-bye to the president.
Q. Where did you go, you had no money.
Right. Nothing at all.
Q. Where did you go?
To America. I went to the American embassy and then they asked me do I want to go to America. Yes, of course. And I went back to Thieu and say --
((END OF SIDE B, TAPE 1))
((BEGIN SIDE A, TAPE 2))
Q. .. Oh, you did.
The original plan was that Thuyet President Thieu and another colonel would fly with Thieu to Taiwan only. And a doctor, Dr. Minh. Only those very close aides. Colonel Thieu is like a valet of Ky and Thuyet and Dr. Minh and of course I was prepared already for public relations. So that's it.
Now the reason they took Vien is that he is a tough guy. If he ever knew that Thieu flies away without him knowing it, he would shoot down the plane. Vien is that kind of guy. He's very honest, very loyal, but don't do anything off the top of his head.
Because Thuyet told the president to not trust Vien, so Madam Thieu at that time trusted Thuyet more than Vien. Now don't say this because I would be in trouble. Since you are sincere in knowing what's what, I'm telling you everything. But don't let anybody else.
Q. Who killed General Phu?
I don't know. Phu is in MR2. Who killed him? When was it?
Q. He was in a hospital in Saigon. Somebody told me that one of President Thieu's bodyguards murdered him.
No, I don't think so.
Q. And that the guy who would know about it was Nguyen Vau Tri. Was he a bodyguard?
No, not at all.
At the boxing school. No, we never knew him before we came to this country.
Q. This guy's got to be lying. You think General Phu committed suicide?
No, I don't think so. Well, another weak point of his is that he has never assassinated anybody. If he has done it, he would have --
Q. I mean you think Phu committed suicide?
Probably. I don't know about the truth of his death, but I certainly believed that Thieu didn't do it, because he is a strong believer in the Christian philosophy. Thieu receives communion every day.
Q. Someone told me Thieu was very popular in the countryside. Americans never realized that. In the countryside Thieu felt more at home with than in the city.
I think so. In fact, intellectuals in Vietnam are always against Thieu, that's the problem. They say he's just a general, he doesn't have a diploma, how can he run the country? But I think the people in the countryside were with him.
Q. Tell me about your last meeting with him.
I was with him for six months in Taiwan, only me and him.
Q. In what quarters? his brother's?
We were in the Peru??? area where the Americans are.
Q. You lived well, or modestly?
Q. So when he said he was going to England, where was that?
Well, during the whole period we stayed there he really wanted me to be with him. When I talked about salary, he said, "Well, moneywise, the home affairs minister, which is the wife, she told me, "If we eat porridge, you eat porridge; if we eat rice, you eat rice." That doesn't make sense to me. Give me a figure, four hundred bucks? If I went to London and then need some money, she say, "We feed you, we lodge you." What about pocket money? We never say that. So I want to evade that.
Q. How did he see his future? Was he optimistic?
Q. Teaching in a university?
Getting a chair there, getting a position, writing his autobiography.
Q. Did he ever foresee coming to America?
No, he doesn't like America at all.
No. He's a very smart guy. He trusted the British people.
Q. People have told me that to understand the Vietnamese army you have to understand the Vietnamese generals' wives. To understand why General Phu was appointed MR2 commander you have to understand General Vien's wife and General Phu's wife who were good friends. And General Toan, of course, didn't have a wife and that's why General Toan was relieved of command in MR2.
I wouldn't say so.
Q. You don't believe the rumors of the generals leaving with money? You don't believe General Quang left with money, General Toan, who some of the intellectuals called the "Cinnamon General". He used his soldiers to harvest cinnamon?
Oh, yes. I personally don't have any respect, professionally, for General Toan. I don't know why. The way he talked to us, I don't trust him.
Q. He was half Montagnard, wasn't he?
Probably, from the north.
Q. Did you ever meet his translator, Peter Kama? He told me Toan had the best way of getting people to talk in villages. He would always go in and shooth the first one in the head and the second one he would ask "Where's the arms?" and they'd tell him. And they had to talk him out of this. Can't operate this way. But he was extremely effective. He would always shoot prisoners also.
What about General Quang who had such a bad reputation?
Well, I am very fond of him too. He's very intellectual, despite the fact he looks very like Louis XIVth or something, but he's a very intellectual kind of general. His past is blackened with a lot of corruption accusations of his wife when he was in MR4 commander, but when he came to the palace he didn't have a chance to do anything because he was under Thieu's jurisdiction. How can he swim in a pool and Kim and Thieu were? The terrain, the compass, of Thieu and Kim where Saigon was, Kim and Thieu and Kim's wife and Thieu's wife are the two, if there were any corruption at all, are the two who would have run those things. How can Quan and his wife run his own channel of trafficking of black marketeering?
So during his time with President Thieu as the military advisor, I don't think Quan could do anything to amass money.
Q. Was corruption a major problem? The Americans always like to say the Vietnamese lose because their leadership was corrupt.
Well, of course.
Q. Did it cripple the war effort?
That was the people of South Vietnam and opponents of the regime have been saying about President Diem, about President Thieu. And the psychology of the mass is always against the ruling party. Any book we learn about politics, the mass is always against the ruling party. And then in a chaotic country like South Vietnam with thirty years of war, anything can happen.
Now, of course there were corruptions. I can name those people with a lot of corruption. I can name those ladies. I can do that. Of course we had that. But the main thing leading toward the losing of South Vietnam is not corruption. I don't think so. It's the withdrawal of the American commitment, that's all.
Corruption we can see in America too, you know, at the Senate level, those scams, the fifty thousand dollars you can buy a senator -- it happens everywhere. General Weyand -- fastest rising stars in the world -- or Haig -- how can you rise from a two-star to a four-star as fast as Haig? It happens any where. So we don't have to take that into consideration.
Q. Do you still dream about Vietnam?
Oh, yes. Why not? It's an unreachable dream, but I still dream. That's what keeps me afloat.
Q. The little Vietnamese soldier captured at Ban Me Thuot -- I asked if he dreamed and he didn't speak English so he looked to my translator, "If I didn't dream about Vietnam, I'd die." In the end he didn't say anything, because that's all he had really.
Well, realistically I don't think we can do anything to recapture that beautiful country from the communists without aid from the international political scene. But if we are talking about dreams, then, yes, I dream of going back.
Q. Do you ever wake up some morning and think it's all been just a bad dream?
Q. Life is pretty spectacular to realize you grew up as a child in Saigon, and you're a man in San Jose, California. When you are in high school and somebody asks you what you plan to be, who would dream of that? Your world's really turned upside down, or sideways.
Q. What was your rank?
Captain, in the army.
Q. What about General Hung who committed suicide too. Do you believe that?
Q. What was General Loan doing?
The military intelligence chief?
But I'll tell you this. Talking about generals. I don't agree with General Vien's handling of his job at all.
Q. General Vien told me --"you know why I was chief of the Joint General Staff". And I said "Why?" He said, whispering, "Because President Thieu knew that I was against a coup. And he knew as long as I was chairman of the joint general staff there wouldn't be a coup."
Well, okay, at least as far as I'm concerned, since I was in the military academy, and Vien hasn't done anything at all, hasn't done any active operation against the communists at all. What he did, during the weekend days he'd go to the Faculty??? of Letters to get his B.S. in literature, can you believe that? A four star general does that. Now he went to the pagoda to learn meditation.
Q. Vu Van Loc told me that Vien told him he didn't want to be chairman of the JGS. And that Thieu wouldn't let him resign.
So during his term on the general staff he got a B.S. in literature, he's got his meditation diploma in the pagoda and from meditation, "Sons, you don't have to kill your countryman." The North Vietnamese by air photos taken show that Vietnamese troop convoys are heading southward, okay. Our intelligence army officers flew in fresh every morning and said, "General, these are the photos we just took last night. What will you do about it?" "Okay, let me meditate and ask the president and my adviser. My adviser will communicate with the American embassy." And then Hung, "No, don't bomb them."
I tell you the truth, because my friend in my same promotion was his aide-de-camp, Major Tam. Every Monday morning the whole general staff officers, G-4, G-2, G-3, G-6, G-5, everybody is meeting to get the directives from the general staff. Then comes to the air photos, he'd say no, let's communicate that to the American embassy. Why didn't he say to the Air Force, "Hey, go bomb them, no matter what happens." That's what he should do.
Q. How many orders did he give? The Americans are under the illusion that President Thieu gave all the orders.
Of course, because Vien is so always dissatisfied. I don't respect him at all. During his term as chief of general staff, I haven't seen during my ten years in the army, me personally I haven't seen General Vien do anything with regard to operational activities against the communists at all. Why didn't he tell General Truong, hey, I got this intelligence report back that the North Vietnamese army is concentrating on this and that. Why didn't you carry out this and that." He never did that.
President Thieu is the commander in chief, I'm not the commander in chief. He's always took that negative position working with Thieu. General Truong is a good commander. I like him. I respect him a lot. Genaral Dao, all those young generals -- not Vien though.
Q. General Hung?
Oh, yes, of course.
Q. What's a CBU bomb? Or CPU?
It's a gas which suffocates you.
Q. So South Vietnam had four of them?
I don't know.
Q. Is there a poison gas?
Oh, yes. Poisonous gas.
Q. Now they had three . . they dropped one. But they had the authorization by the Americans to drop them. And then they had two more --
Q. Had they ever been used before?
I don't know.
Q. They suffocate you. It's not like tear gas or something like that?
Q. Did you know the South Vietnamese air force had them?
No, I don't have any information on those things.
Now, before we end this, one more thing I add. Friends of mine were in the Marine Corps. They were fighting the 1972 battle in Quang Tri and Dong Ha and they were chasing the North Vietnamese army like we chased those hordes of ducks across the river. Then suddenly at the Dong Ha River a message from the Presidential Palace, "Hold right there, don't go further north." All the commanders -- my friend, Lt. Col. Phan was surprised. We were winning. And it's the order of the president. Later on their commanders say it is from the Americans. We fight a containing war, not a winning one. So that's the theme of South Vietnam with American aid.
Then I have read that book from the ex-ambassador from Japan, insisting that the Americans should not win that war, should not get more involved in that because we don't have to win the war, this is between the two Vietnamese brothers.
All those things, I think, were adopted by President Carter and all the people --
They have completely forgotten about the ideal of anti-communism. We were the front line country. They have completely forgotten about that.
If we were to take care of ourselves, become brothers, then why do you interfere with our talking to the PRG, Provisional Government? We were trying to do that and then the CIA came into the meeting and spoiled everything.
Q. General Ky said that in 1968, Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger contacted President Thieu and told him not to --
Exactly. We were trying to do that and CIA knew it.
I don't know the details. But our people were trying to get a kind of reconciliation, get a solution to South Vietnam, without the North Vietnamese communists. Okay, let's sit down and tackle the problem of South Vietnam among ourselves. And the CIA came in and spoiled everything. "Stop that. We don't want that. We don't want you to talk with them. It's got to go through us."
Q. How about President Nixon or Kissinger. Did you ever hear that either of them --
I don't know exactly who.
Q. Ky said it was Nixon who stopped it.
No, -- oh, yeah, probably. I'm not sure.
Q. Ky said that during the Presidential election Nixon contacted Thieu secretly and told him not to negotiate with the NLF.
Q. Tell me about your education. Did you go to college at all?
I tried to, yes, for six months. After that I had to survive and keep working.
Q. How about before 1975?
I was in the Lackland Air Force Base where they train the Military ESL, so we were trained by them for six months to be an ESL instructor.
((End of interview.)))