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S. Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Chanh Thi

Gen. Nguyen Chanh Thi, known for having a hand in coups and counter-coups, was fired in 1966 by the South Vietnamese president.
Gen. Nguyen Chanh Thi, known for having a hand in coups and counter-coups, was fired in 1966 by the South Vietnamese president. (By Bob Burchette -- The Washington Post)

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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Nguyen Chanh Thi, 84, a South Vietnamese general whose dismissal in 1966 almost set off a civil war within the Vietnam War, died June 23 at the Hospice of Lancaster County in Lancaster, Pa., where he lived. He had heart ailments.

Gen. Thi, who oversaw the five northernmost provinces that made up the I Corps region of South Vietnam, had a reputation as an aggressive field commander and savvy political player who had a hand in the multiple coups and counter-coups of the mid-1960s.

President Nguyen Cao Ky, fearing him as a rival, mustered the support of most of the other South Vietnamese generals and fired Gen. Thi on March 10, 1966. Ky said that Gen. Thi was leaving the country for medical treatment of his nasal passages.

"The only sinus condition I have is from the stink of corruption," Gen. Thi reportedly responded.

Within days, the streets of South Vietnamese cities, from Hue down the coast to Saigon, were filled with protesters and rioters. Gen. Thi, one of the few Buddhists in a Catholic-dominated military elite, was a popular and powerful figure. Many people distrusted Ky because of government corruption and his unfulfilled promise to resign and allow a civilian government to be elected.

A general strike closed down 90 percent of Da Nang, The Washington Post reported at the time. Allowed to return to his headquarters a week after his dismissal, Gen. Thi told the large crowd gathered outside: "Think about our country, not about me." He later told Post correspondent Ward Just that he would accept "any position which is useful for the country," leaving the impression that he harbored ambitions for the presidency.

The U.S. government went along with Gen. Thi's ouster, regarding him as being a "virtual warlord" and soft on communism because he favored negotiation with North Vietnam.

"It is a mistake to attribute the present crisis in the I Corps area to General Thi," said a declassified CIA cable from that period. "Thi, in fact, is like a card player, placing his bets now on this leader, then on another; he plays his subordinates in the same manner. His only real objective is to continue the game."

The riots continued for two months, until Ky sent troops to Da Nang. Hundreds of deaths ended the uprising.

Gen. Thi, deported to the United States, lived in a small apartment on Connecticut Avenue at Dupont Circle. Outspoken and still supported by Buddhists, he tried to return to his homeland in February 1972, but South Vietnamese troops surrounded his plane on the tarmac and prevented him from stepping on Vietnamese soil. He never disembarked, and the plane eventually took off.

Gen. Thi was born in the old imperial capital city of Hue. He joined the army at 17, while the French ruled Indochina. During World War II, he was a Japanese prisoner of war for several months until he escaped during a bombing raid. After the war, he was captured and imprisoned by the Viet Minh for three months, according to family documents.

After his release, he rose steadily in the army, helping President Ngo Dinh Diem defeat the opium-selling Binh Xuyen gangsters in 1955. He was promoted to colonel and commander of a paratrooper brigade.


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