Nguyen Van Thieu, 78, the soldier and politician who as president of South Vietnam led that nation for nearly a decade in a long, bloody and losing war that all but destroyed his country and deeply scarred our own, died Sept. 22 at a hospital in Boston. The cause of death was not disclosed.

President Thieu, who fled South Vietnam after resigning the presidency in 1975, lived in Taiwan and England before settling in suburban Boston in the early 1980s. He lived in Foxboro, Mass.

As an Army officer (he reached the rank of lieutenant general), he had participated in a series of military coups in South Vietnam, becoming chief of state in 1965, the same year President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a major U.S. escalation in the war, sending more than 100,000 troops to South Vietnam to fight communist Viet Cong guerrillas and forces from communist North Vietnamese that were infiltrating the South.

It seemed that war in Vietnam was unending. Long a French colony, it was occupied by the Japanese during World War II, then reoccupied by the French until they were forced to leave in 1954. At that time, Vietnam was "temporarily" divided into a communist north and a non-communist south. But communist forces continued to struggle for a unification that was promised in the 1954 Geneva agreements.

Gen. Thieu, who in his youth flirted with communist groups, became a militant anti-communist. As a soldier and a politician, he remained a forceful advocate of taking the fight to the enemy and an opponent of negotiation.

Taking power after a series of military coups and abortive civilian administrations, Gen. Thieu initially seemed a great success. He was a figure admired for his record as a shrewd, cautious and wholly reliable combat officer with a flair for tactics and strategy. A convert to Catholicism from the Buddhist faith, he also seemingly managed to defuse the Catholic-Buddhist rivalry that was crippling the South's battle with communists.

But the stability he instituted that many admired was brought about with an iron hand, with no toleration of political dissent from any direction. And financial and military corruption simply slowed for a time but gradually increased.

The United States wanted more than stability. This country had sunk large amounts of military and humanitarian aide and a half-million troops into the war, a war that would eventually cost nearly 60,000 American lives. Americans of all political stripes wanted to find an exit from the quagmire. By 1968, the nation, especially its youth, was in turmoil, and an embattled president announced that negotiations would begin in Paris with the North Vietnamese to end the war.

Gen. Thieu dragged his feet over the negotiations, maintaining that the North Vietnamese could not be trusted. It was to take more than four years for negotiations to bear fruit, while under the Nixon administration's "Vietnamization" program, the Army of South Vietnam gradually took over the combat role in the war.

One of the great political weaknesses Gen. Thieu had in this country and elsewhere in the free world was that he became widely regarded as a dictatorial figure of questionable competence. His 1967 "election" was highlighted by such features as armed soldiers showing voters how to mark their ballots and armed soldiers and police surrounding the South Vietnamese legislature as it certified the election results.

Press reports from Saigon carried unending stories of massive corruption high in the South Vietnamese government and military, of torture of political opponents of the government, and of the inability of most South Vietnamese units to fight with anything like the skill and dedication of their opponents.

Added to these problems was Gen. Thieu's strategy of conducting an "economic blockade" of his own countryside to subdue irregular forces. The result was a massive disruption of food production, with the rural people suffering while the urban population starved.

The presidential military strategy also failed. As the communist forces picked up support in the countryside and the North, he pulled back his forces to consolidate them for a great battle. But when the battle was joined, his army either surrendered or ran.

In 1975, with the North Vietnamese Army closing on Saigon and the war obviously lost, Gen. Thieu announced in ringing tones, "We will fight to the last bullet, the last grain of rice."

He was finally convinced that perhaps if he resigned the presidency and left the country, negotiations might salvage something for South Vietnam. He resigned on April 21, 1975, in an action that salvaged little or nothing for the people of South Vietnam.

After leaving the country, Gen. Thieu attacked the United States over what he called promises of military support, if needed, after U.S. troops left South Vietnam in 1973. He said that as a result of failing in their promises, Americans had "led the South Vietnamese people to death."

In exile, he avoided the limelight and seldom gave interviews. In 1992, however, he denounced the increasing diplomatic relations between the United States and the unified communist state of Vietnam. But in 1993, he changed his mind, saying he would be willing to take part in reconciliation talks that might result in exiled Vietnamese returning to their homeland.

Gen. Thieu was born a Buddhist in a village near the capital of Nihn Thuan province in the central lowlands of Annam. He was the youngest of five children, and his father was a small landowner and fisherman. After attending Catholic schools in Hue, he worked during World War II in the family rice fields, an occupation he came to despise.

After the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, he joined the liberation forces led by Ho Chi Minh -- the future legendary communist leader of North Vietnam. The future South Vietnamese general drilled in the jungle with bamboo poles before breaking with the communists over their politics.

In 1949, he was a member of the first graduating class of the Vietnamese National Military Academy at Dalat, a school founded by the French. He later graduated from both the U.S. Army Command and Staff College and the Joint and Combined Planning School of the U.S. Pacific Command in Okinawa. He also received advanced weapons training at Fort Bliss in Texas.

He was widely admired as a combat leader before taking part in the 1963 coup that overthrew the Diem regime and the 1964 coup, led by Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky. Before becoming chief of state, Gen. Thieu served as deputy premier, national defense minister and briefly as head of a military triumvirate that led the government.

In 1951, he married Nguyen Thi Mai Anh, a Roman Catholic. He converted to his wife's religion in 1958.

With President Lyndon B. Johnson at his side, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu speaks at Hickham Air Force Base, Honolulu, in July 1968.