Cao Van Vien; South Vietnam 4-Star General

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cao Van Vien, 87, the four-star general who commanded the South Vietnamese army during its final faltering years and who defended Saigon during the crucial 1968 Tet Offensive, died Jan. 22 of sudden cardiac arrest at Sleepy Hollow Manor, an assisted living facility in Annandale. He was a Falls Church resident.

Gen. Vien, South Vietnam's only four-star general, was made chief of staff of the Vietnamese Joint General Staff in 1964 and commanded the country's armed forces for the next decade. He fled in 1975 as Viet Cong forces overran Saigon.

In a 1982 Washington Post article, Robert Komer, the former chief adviser on pacification of the Vietnamese countryside, remembered Gen. Vien as "absolutely a key figure" during the years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. "He was energetic, hardworking, very low-profile and self-effacing."

After the ceremony in Alexandria in which he became a U.S. citizen in 1982, Gen. Vien politely refused to be interviewed. "No comment," he said. "I still have many enemies."

Gen. Vien was born in 1921 in Vientiane, Laos, to Vietnamese parents. At age 16, he heard rumors of a gold rush in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, so he left Laos to become a prospector. Later, he became a believer in Ho Chi Minh's vision of a Vietnam liberated from colonial rule.

He quickly became disillusioned, concluding that for the Viet Minh, communism trumped nationalism. He was captured by the French, then eventually made his way to Saigon, where he enrolled at the University of Saigon.

"He loved French literature, loved Baudelaire," recalled his daughter, Lan Cao, a law professor at the College of William and Mary. He received an undergraduate degree in French literature from the University of Saigon.

He was made a second lieutenant at Vietnam's Cap Saint Jacques Military School in 1949 and became a logistics officer in 1954 and then a battalion commander. He attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in 1956-57 and completed airborne training in 1960.

While serving as commanding officer of the Airborne Brigade, considered the most elite combat unit of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, he was wounded in 1964 in combat operations in Kien Phong province.

His Silver Star citation described Gen. Vien, then a colonel, leading his unit in an assault, despite "the confusion and inferno of enemy fire" coming from both flanks. "He was painfully wounded in the upper arm and shoulder, yet he continued to exercise command vigorously and effectively until the enemy had been routed," the citation recounted.

He received a battlefield promotion to major general and was decorated with the highest Vietnamese award for valor. The Silver Star citation also noted Vietnamese media accounts declaring that "this is the first time that a senior Vietnamese commander has been wounded in action with his troops in the field in many years."

He was named South Vietnam's defense minister in 1967, at a time when U.S. elected officials were pressing for an escalation of bombing strikes in North Vietnam. Bombing, Gen. Vien insisted, would not itself stop infiltration into the south.

In his comments to reporters, he became the first high official to publicly admit that the United States was bombing targets in Cambodia.

On three occasions, beginning in 1970, he asked to be relieved of his duties as chief of the Joint General Staff and to return to command of his airborne brigade. President Nguyen Van Thieu refused each time.

In conversations with his daughter, Gen. Vien speculated that Thieu valued his apolitical stance. He had refused to participate in the 1963 coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem; presumably, he would refuse to participate in any effort to remove Thieu.

After the fall of Saigon, Gen. Vien briefly settled with his family in New Jersey, where members of the ethnic Chinese community helped his wife, Tao Thi Tran, open a dry-cleaning establishment. She was the daughter of what had been one of the largest landowning families in the Mekong Delta, but the Viet Cong executed her father and expropriated the family's holdings.

Gen. Vien and his wife eventually settled in Falls Church, where she ran an export-import business and he became one of several Vietnamese generals paid as much as $1,500 a month to record their war recollections for the U.S. Army's official historian. His monograph was called "The Final Collapse."

He considered becoming a teacher of French literature, but chronic pain from arthritis made it difficult to work. For a time he raised bees and allowed himself to be stung as a way to relieve the pain. The experimental remedy worked, but only briefly, his daughter said.

She recalled that, despite the frustrations her father often experienced working with the U.S. military during the war, he loved America. "He loved Elvis Presley, Coca-Cola, American jukeboxes. He loved the free spirit of America," she said.

Gen. Vien's wife died in 1991. A son, Cao Anh Tuan, died in 1996, and another son, Cao Anh Dzung, has been missing for many years.

Survivors, in addition to his daughter, of Williamsburg, include five grandchildren.

"When I look back at his life, the thing that touched me the most was that he was never afraid of death," Cao recalled. In 1963, she said, he came within seconds of being executed during the political maneuvering that followed the assassination of Diem. A mentor saved him.

"He was a Buddhist, caught in the circumstances of war," Cao said. "Although he loved the army, he would have preferred to be a monk. He was always meditating."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company