Dương Văn Minh (1916-2001), known popularly as "Big Minh," led the South Vietnamese army under Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1963, he became leader of South Vietnam after a coup in which Diem was murdered. Duong's rule lasted only two months, but he briefly led South Vietnam again in 1975 before surrendering the nation to Communist forces.
He got the nickname “Big Minh” because being 6 feet tall and weighing 200 pounds, he dwarfed all the other Vietnamese soldiers. It is also to distinguish him from another ruler of South Vietnam, Tran Van Minh.
Duong Van Minh was born on February 16, 1916 in My Tho province in the Mekong Delta. He was a Buddhist. He went to Saigon where he attended a top French colonial school, where King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia had also studied.
He began his military career in the 1940s when he joined the French colonial army. He was one of only 50 Vietnamese officers to be commissioned. Most of the Vietnamese resented the French presence, and eventually fought back against them, defeating them at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. (see Indochina War)
In 1954 he joined the new South Vietnamese military. In 1956 he defeated the armed religious sect, Hoa Hao, that threatened the South Vietnamese regime, and the drug-dealing pirate organisation Binh Xuyen . This got him the respect of the United States, and Minh was then sent there to study, where he attended the U.S. command and general staff college at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, despite his poor English.
He was a military adviser to president Ngo Dinh Diem from 1962 to 1963.
Ngo Dinh Diem was a very unpopular leader, and so in 1963 the United States of America informed Minh that the USA wouldn’t mind if Diem was overthrown. Minh was the second highest ranking general at the time, and he led the coup to overthrow Diem at the end of 1963.
On November 1, 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were shot by Minh’s bodyguard while trying to escape. Minh took over the government under a military junta on November 6. He was a favourite of the Americans at the time, playing tennis and sharing war stories with the US Ambassador, General Maxwell Taylor, and impressing Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara.
Minh is said to have preferred playing mah-jongg and giving tea parties to fighting the Viet Cong or running the country. His military junta lasted only a couple of months before it was overthrown by General Nguyen Khanh on January 30, 1964. Duong Van Minh went into exile in Bangkok, Thailand. He still had many American friends, particularly in the CIA, who gave him support during this period, including paying for his dentist bills. In return he wrote a hawkish article about Vietnam for the respected Foreign Affairs quarterly in 1968, condemning the Viet Cong and disparaging any possible coalition government with the Communists. This helped him get back into Vietnam.
The United States brought him back from exile in 1968. He opposed general Nguyen Van Thieu who was still supported by the United States. Minh was going to run against Thieu in the 1971 election but he withdrew because it became obvious to him (and most other observers) that the elections were rigged. Thieu was then the only candidate in this election. Minh kept a low profile after this.
Minh was regarded as a potential leader of a “third force” which could come to a compromise with the North to avoid an armed takeover. His brother, Duong Van Nhut, was a leading general in the North Vietnamese army. In 1973, Minh proposed his own political program for South Vietnam, which was a compromise between the proposals of Thieu and the Viet Cong. Thieu and the United States, however were strongly opposed to any sort of compromise. He is known to have had contact with the North Vietnamese government, but it carefully avoided either endorsing or condemning Minh.
In late April 1975, when it was obvious South Vietnam was going to lose the war, President Thieu fled to Taiwan and handed over power to Vice-President Tran Van Huong. President Tran Van Huong prepared for peace talks with North Vietnam but when his meeting failed he handed over power to General Duong Van Minh.
Minh then became President a few days later on April 28, 1975, promising to seek reconciliation with the North. He was unsuccessful in his efforts at conciliation, largely because by this point the military situation of the South Vietnamese government, such as remained of it, was entirely untenable and the North felt no compulsion to negotiate with him. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. Minh announced that South Vietnam was surrendering unconditionally, when he went on national radio and television at 11 AM on April 30. He announced “The Republic of Vietnam policy is the policy of peace and reconciliation, aimed at saving the blood of our people. We are here waiting for the Provisional Revolutionary Government to hand over the authority in order to stop useless bloodshed.”
When the Communist troops entered the Independence Palace in Saigon, they found Minh and his Cabinet sitting around the big oval table in the Cabinet room. As they entered, Minh looked at the Communist commanding officer and said, “We have been waiting for you so that we could turn over the government.” The Communist officer, Colonel Bui Tin, replied “You have nothing left to turn over.”
Later in the afternoon he went on radio again and said, “I declare the
Saigon government is completely dissolved at all levels.”
After his official surrender to Colonel Bui Tin he was arrested. After a few days he was permitted to return to his villa. He lived there for the next 8 years in seclusion, where he continued to raise birds and grow exotic orchids. He was allowed to emigrate to France in 1983, where he lived near Paris. He has two sons living in France (Minh Duc Duong and Minh Tam Duong). In the last few years of his life he lived in Pasadena, California, USA with his daughter Mai Duong. In his latter years, he was confined to a wheelchair.
On August 5, 2001, Duong Van Minh was at home in Pasadena when he fell. He was taken to Huntington Memorial hospital in Pasadena where he died the next night. He was 86 years old.
Both supporters of the old South Vietnamese government and supporters of the current Vietnamese government have mixed feelings about Duong Van Minh, in large part due to his surrender.
- “We have been waiting for you so that we could turn over the government.”
Notable ARVN Generals