‘A Bag of Earth, A Promise To Keep’
He is 80 years old, his hair and wispy goatee are snow whitẹ But his eyes are still sharp, alert, inquisitive, and his manner is feistỵ
Gen. Nguyen Khanh was the man who overthrew the government of Gen. Duong “Big Minh” Van Minh in a coup on Jan. 20, 1964 in Saigon. The coup took place shortly after South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem was murdered. Saigon gained the reputation back then as the “double cross capital of the world.”
Khanh, who some critics labeled ruthless, shrewd, and unreliable, was head of state of South Vietnam until Feb. 25, 1965 when he was forced out of power and boarded a plane at Tan Son Nhat Airport.In an interview with Viet Weekly last Sunday at the Ramada Hotel in Garden Grove, Khanh looked back on his 40 years in exilẹ
”I remember that day clearly when I left Saigon,” said Khanh. “I left my country in honor that day, not like Thieu who fled later. My cabinet, my troops, the whole diplomatic corps were there at the airport to bid me farewell.”
Khanh paused and dramatically held up a clasped hand.
”I took with me in my hand on the departing plane a bag of sand, a bag of earth from the soil of a free South Vietnam. My Western hero had always been Gen. Douglas MacArthur who made the famous promise ‘I shall return’ after he lost a battle in the Philippines.”
Ađed Khanh: “I have a promise to keep — to return to a free and democratic Vietnam.” That day might be very soon.
Khanh, who is a close adviser to the Government of Free Vietnam organization, still travels widely all across the United States and Europẹ
He has an upcoming trip to New Zealand and Australia for the first timẹ
In the fall months, he plans a trip to Southeast Asia, or even Vietnam? Khanh smiled evasively and said, “We just say Southeast Asiạ”
Khanh has many things to say about Vietnam. He is critical of corruption in Hanoị “I know of at least 10 people there (Hanoi) who line their pockets with more than one billion ỤS. dollars.”
He estimated that “viet kieu,” or overseas Vietnamese, last year sent back to Vietnam somewhere in the equivalent of $4 billion.
But at the same time, he expressed his contempt for money in explaining his roots and influences in his life: “My real mother (not stepmother) was the strongest influence in my lifẹ She grew up in France, a free spirit, fiercely independent, she wanted to drive her own car ... she could not live the life of a traditional married woman in Vietnam.”
His parents divorced when he was a young boy at age 5 or 6. His grandfather and father were very wealthy, so Khanh and his brother did not lack for anything. “Money meant nothing to mẹ”
Khanh said his grandfather built more than Buđhist pagodas in and around the province of Travinh, his home town. Khanh took credit for protecting the life of Ngo Dinh Diem, who was Catholic, back in 1960.
Khanh, who maintains a number of friends who are Catholic priests, visited the Vatican in 1991. But Khanh felt slighted — being a former head of state — that Pope John Paul II did not grant him a private audiencẹ Khanh refused a general audience, so did not see the popẹ
Khanh did meet the Archbishop of Dalat while in Italỵ The archbishop recognized Khanh and asked him, “Do you still have that bag of earth from South Vietnam?”
Indeed he did, Khanh told the Archbishop. The archbishop asked Khanh what he thought of the new pope from Germanỵ Germanỷ So what?” shrugged Khanh. “The last pope was from Poland. The Vatican needs a strong leader. That’s it.”What did Khanh think of former Air Vice Marshall Nguyen Cao Ky, the flamboyant pilot — once Khanh’s protege — who replaced him as prime minister?
Khanh’s jaw tightened, and he drew himself foward in a godfatherly manner.
”Look. What happened, that was just business. Personal betrayal I can understand. But never betrayal of one’s people you serve, or your country,” Khanh said.Asked if he was worried about China and Vietnam, Khanh exclaimed, “Very much! China presents Vietnam with a very big problem. China is taking over Vietnam ... from Cholon, where there are rich Chinese, to Haiphong. They are everywhere now with their product. My wife is from the North, people there resent China more than the South feared the viet cong. The Chinese are invaders — like any other foreigners — to fight. We must stop the Chinesẹ You know the dikes built on the Red River? If they break, what happens? A flood!” But then paradoxically, Khanh admitted he had visited Beijing back in 1991 and the Communist government there had treated him deferentially, like a visiting head of statẹ
That, of course, was nearly 15 years agọ Times have changed. Khanh had talked with the ỤS. ambassador to Vietnam when he visited San Franciscọ The ambassador promised Khanh that the ỤS. would protect Vietnam from China, and Vietnam in turn would let the ỤS. use any of its ports for warships.
Khanh sat back in his chair, piqued, “China believes it is the center of the universẹ Look at its flag: one big star surrounded by satellite stars. Arrogant!”
As for Vietnam, Khanh believes big changes are coming soon. He cited technological advances that are opening up an oppressive regimẹ Hanoi must change, or like “old wine, be thrown out.”
hanh also is confident that within 10 or 15 years, his years of exile will be over.ª °Send your feedback of this article to comments@vietweeklỵcom.