Nguyen Khanh, General Who Led Coup, Dies at 86
By MARC SANTORA
Published: January 27, 2013
Nguyen Khanh, a South Vietnamese general who briefly seized control of the government before being deposed and sent into exile, died on Jan. 11 in San Jose, Calif. He was 86.
Government of Free Vietnam in Exile, via Associated Press
The cause was health problems related to diabetes, according to a statement from Chanh Nguyen Huu, who succeeded General Khanh as head of a self-described South Vietnamese government in exile in California.
General Khanh’s rise to power in the 1960s, and his ultimate defeat, came during a period of deep political turmoil in South Vietnam, marked by several coup attempts in which he played a role.
In November 1960, already a major general, he helped thwart an attempt to depose the country’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, who had the strong backing of the United States at the time.
But President Diem’s rule came to an end three years later, in 1963, when he was overthrown by a military junta led by South Vietnamese generals.
Although General Khanh had played a role in deposing President Diem, he was not selected to be on the 12-man Military Revolutionary Council that took control of the government.
General Khanh, one of many Vietnamese officers who picked up a love of poker from the French, bided his time before playing his hand.
On Jan. 30, 1964, he seized control of South Vietnam’s government without a shot being fired, throwing his old poker buddy Gen. Ton That Dinh in jail along with several other leaders of the military junta.
“The bloodless coup d’état executed by the short, partly bald general apparently took Saigon by surprise,” The New York Times reported at the time.
General Khanh had “a deserved reputation as a brilliant and driving field commander, but also as a ‘lone wolf,’ ” The Times wrote, adding, “He has no truly intimate associates among the other generals.”
General Khanh was born on Nov. 8, 1927, in Tra Vinh, a small South Vietnamese border town.
He joined the French colonial army in 1954, the year France pulled out of what was then known as Indochina. He would go on to serve loyally under President Diem.
Like other senior Vietnamese officers, General Khanh had received military education in both France and the United States and won distinction as both a fighter pilot and a battlefield commander.
But he had a stormy tenure as premier and leader of the South Vietnamese military after he seized power. His rule lasted only one year: in February 1965 he was deposed by a junta of four junior officers.
Although he was hastily given the title of ambassador at large, General Khanh would never again play a significant role in his country’s future.
He left Vietnam with his wife and four children, first settling in France and then moving to the United States.
He eventually settled in Northern California with his family, but throughout his life he tried to keep some connection with his homeland.
In 1995 he established the Government of Free Vietnam in Exile, which had its headquarters in a small storefront in Garden Grove, Calif.