Former Vietnamese foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach, 75, who served as foreign minister of Vietnam from 1980 to 1991, died at a hospital here April 10. He had a heart ailment.
Thach will be remembered as Hanoi's most able diplomat during a watershed time when the communist country was struggling out of international isolation. As foreign minister, the urbane Thach, a fluent speaker of French and English, helped show the world a more liberal side to Vietnam's dour communists.
His task was to help Hanoi make new friends, especially with the two archenemies of Beijing and Washington, to bring an end to U.S. sanctions and help resolve the lingering Cambodia conflict, where Vietnamese forces struggled from 1978 to 1989.
Increasingly out of step with Hanoi's collective-style leadership, Thach became a scapegoat blamed for failing to warn fellow leaders of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and to prepare Vietnam for an abrupt cut in Soviet aid.
A failure to normalize relations with the United States and possible Chinese demands for his removal as a precondition for renewed relations added to his political demise. By mid-1991 his star had dimmed and he gave up his position as foreign minister and his seat on the powerful Politburo.
Thach was born to a poor peasant family in the northern province of Nam Dinh. In 1937, at the age of 14, he joined the resistance to the French colonial administration. In 1941 he was arrested and imprisoned for a year in the infamous Hoa Loa' or furnace, which became better known as the Hanoi Hilton, where U.S. pilots were imprisoned during the Vietnam War.
Thach recalled Hoa Loa as a school for young revolutionaries who learned the tricks of the trade from old hands. Prisoners went naked because it was so hot in the furnace', Thach said. It was so crowded that they slept in shifts.
After World War II and into the 1946-54 Indochinese War, Thach rose through the guerrilla Viet Minh to the rank of colonel and began to earn diplomatic credentials.
In 1954, after working as an aide to General Vo Nguyen Giap in the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, Thach was appointed head of the secretariat at the Foreign Ministry before becoming North Vietnam's consul-general to India in 1956. He returned home in 1960 as deputy foreign minister, a post he held until becoming foreign minister of a reunified Vietnam in 1980.
He played an important role at the 1973 Paris Peace Accords that resulted in the U.S. troop withdrawal from Vietnam. In 1976, the communist party selected him for membership to the central committee. He became an alternate member of the Politburo in 1982 before becoming a full member of the elite body four years later. His rise peaked in 1987, when he also took on the portfolio of vice chairman of the council of ministers, equivalent to deputy prime minister.