By Donna St. George
Friday, January 2, 2009 11:07 AM
It started as an ordinary day in Saigon. Cao Van Vien was working as a commander of the airborne brigade, South Vietnam's most elite combat unit, when he was called to military headquarters. This was not unusual for a high-ranking officer, and Vien did not give it much thought.
Vien was 41 at the time, a well-regarded colonel who had trained in the United States and whose great hope for South Vietnam was a professionalized military that would stand apart from the turbulence of politics. He was a handsome man, forthright but tactful. His great passion was joining his paratroopers as they rushed out the jump ramps of planes.
But at headquarters on Nov. 1, 1963, Vien soon discovered that leaders of a coup were lying in wait. He was led to a room, where he was confronted about his views while an aide to one of the plotters held a carbine to his back. Vien refused to support the overthrow.
He passed many hours certain he would be killed.
By the next day, President Ngo Dinh Diem had been assassinated. The coup had succeeded, and its leaders were installed in the government. But in the surprising way that even the bleakest hours can draw to an end, Vien's life was spared without explanation, which he later attributed to his friendship with one of the men involved in the coup.
Vien was briefly detained and stripped of his command, but he soon returned to the airborne brigade and to a military career that took him to its highest ranks, as commander of the South Vietnamese armed forces during the final decade of the Vietnam War. Historians say the four-star general was a reliable, apolitical military leader during a volatile period in South Vietnam. Vien, 87, died of sudden cardiac arrest last January in an Annandale nursing home, not far from the Falls Church community that had become his adopted home.
The 1963 coup that had left his country in chaos left him with a deeper sense of his own beliefs. "He understood that if death comes, it comes, but he would not do something he did not believe in to save himself," said his daughter, Lan Cao, a professor at the College of William and Mary's law school. "There is a self-awareness that only comes when you face a moment like that. I think that was a big revelation for him."
His sense of reflectiveness was clear at his home in Cholon, near Saigon, where Vien lived with his wife and three children. Other senior military leaders resided at a compound in Saigon, but Vien favored his longtime neighborhood, a hodgepodge of shacks and villas not far from the din of the area's bustling markets. His house, on a street with big tamarind trees, was made of stone and concrete, and had open, interior gardens with lush foliage. Here, Vien, a Buddhist, passed quiet hours the way he might have passed his life, if it were not for the moment and place of his birth. He lived in a time of war and became defined by it.
But many evenings, he retreated into an upstairs room that he had built for himself, tiny and austere, over the garage. He meditated. He did yoga. He did not speak but walked back and forth in loose cotton pants and a tunic, barefoot on the cool granite floor. His polished military boots were stowed in a corner.
He told his daughter, who was allowed in the room and who would sit and watch with wonder, that life was like a sculpture -- that what was important was to brush away all the excess clay to get down to what was meaningful, what was essential. "In his life, what he wanted to do was to remove the excess to get to the core," she said.
Cao recalled that her father always had birds flying in and out of their house, and on the birthday of the Buddha, he would buy 100 birds from the pet store and release them one by one from brown paper bags, setting each on his daughter's head as a blessing before it was liberated. "It was a way to create good karma," she said.
This was his home life across many years of war -- a strikingly calm contrast to so much of what he did.
In March 1964, Vien and his troops were out on a raid near the Cambodian border, set on attacking a major Viet Cong base. In Kien Phong province, as they crossed open mud flats on a hot, clear morning, they were surrounded on three sides by enemy forces. They had no place to take cover.
Casualties mounted quickly. Though he was shot in the upper arm and shoulder, Vien moved decisively, rallied his men and "salvaged a victory from a threatened defeat," according to a U.S. citation. The battle would be remembered for Vien's courage and skill by both American and Vietnamese military leaders, who felt that a lack of combat leadership was a major shortcoming in South Vietnamese armed forces.
Vien was decorated with a South Vietnamese award for valor and honored with a U.S. Silver Star. He later received a Legion of Merit for leading more than 50 assaults that helped repulse the incursion of enemy troops. "Unlike some other officers, his road to the top was based on professional competence, courage on the battlefield and the high regard of his fellow soldiers," said historian Lewis Sorley, who wrote "A Better War" about the later years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
As Vien was promoted, he worked closely with top U.S. military leaders in Saigon. In his memoir, "A Soldier Reports," Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam,wrote that he conferred and traveled with Vien often. "Never have I known a more admirable man: honest, loyal, reserved, scholarly, diplomatic," he wrote.
Westmoreland noted in his memoir that he persuaded Vien to give up skydiving after strong winds blew Vien off course one day, and he landed in downtown Saigon. "I chided him that he was too important to his country to engage in that kind of daredeviltry," Westmoreland wrote, "but he said it was good for the morale of the airborne troops."
Vien by then had become chairman of the Joint General Staff in South Vietnam. He was deeply involved in defending Saigon when the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong struck during the Tet Offensive in 1968.
Vien would later conclude that although he and others in South Vietnam had done what they could for their country, "it still proved inadequate for this most difficult episode of our nation's history."
At least three times after 1970, Vien tried to resign from his post. His rheumatoid arthritis had worsened, and it was no secret that while President Nguyen Van Thieu valued Vien's service, he also chose to deal directly with the officers below him. Vien's critics have said Vien should have been more forceful in shaping the direction of the war.
Each of Vien's requests to resign was turned down -- until April of 1975, just before the fall of Saigon. Vien told then-President Tran Van Huong he could not serve under the man soon to be his successor, Gen. Duong Van Minh, who had been central in the coup of 1963 and whose aide had pointed a gun at Vien.
Two days before Saigon fell, the four-star general left his country and, through the sponsorship of U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John Fritz Freund, a close friend, settled with his family in Falls Church.
There, Vien wrote about what had transpired in Vietnam for the U.S. Army as part of a series of war monographs, and he returned to the Buddhist practices that had always helped him focus on the present as it was, rather than all he wished for or had lost in the country he left behind. He liked to say what was important was not happiness, so fleeting, but serenity.
He spoke often of the lotus flower, which opens completely to the sky with the most beautiful blossom, even though its roots are mired in mud.
Donna St. George is a reporter for The Post's Metro staff.