A soldier who eventually became commander of the South Vietnam Air Force, Prime Minister and Vice President of the Republic of Vietnam. Nguyen Cao Ky early on had little political experience or ambition. After flight training by the French, he returned to Vietnam in 1954 and held a series of commands in the South Vietnam Air Force. Under the regime of Duong Van Minh, whose coup Ky had supported, he was made an air marshal/general.
(1965-1967) In 1965 Ky was appointed Prime Minister by a special joint meeting of military leaders following the voluntary resignation of civilian President Phan Khac Suu and Prime Minister Phan Huy Quat. South Vietnam's system of government shifted to that of a strong prime minister, with General Nguyen Van Thieu becoming a figurehead president. A capable leader, Ky united the military and ended the cycle of coups that plagued South Vietnam following the CIA led overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem.
Ky's primary agenda while in power was to eliminate the massive corruption that had existed at all levels of Vietnamese society, especially the government and the military. He sanctioned the execution of several high profile business leaders accused of graft. During his rule, he made many foreign state visits to bolster South Vietnam's legitimacy as a sovereign nation. Ky 's greatest struggle came in 1966, when a Buddhist Uprising and a military revolt in the government of Da Nang threatened to escalate into widespread chaos, when he dismissed Buddhist General Nguyen Chanh Thi.
The country's first, and debatably only, free Presidential election was held in 1967. The military government council, which Ky chaired, intended to only endorse one candidate for the presidency. Ky intended to run, but at the last minute changed his mind and backed Thieu, a move he now calls "the biggest mistake of my life." Thieu nominated Ky as his running mate and the two were elected with 38% of the vote. However, despite being a free election, the results were fixed - Ky had stated that if a civilian candidate wins, he would respond "militarily," because when living in a "democratic country you have the right to disagree with the views of others" (McWilliams and Piotrowski 212).
(1967-1971) He served as Vice President to President Nguyen Van Thieu, although behind the scenes there was a fierce rivalry that left Ky marginalized. Alienated from Thieu, Ky intended to oppose him in the 1971 elections, but was outmaneuvered and retired from politics.
In his book The Politics of Heroin in South East Asia, drug trade historian Alfred W. McCoy alleges that Ky was directly involved in the burgeoning opium and heroin trade operated in part by corrupt elements in the South Vietnamese administration, and that Ky was dismissed from his role in a CIA-sponsored Air America air lift program because he was using government aircraft to transport opium.
Ky 's withdrawal from the race left Thieu running unopposed. According to some sources, the "sham election" of 1971 was the main reason why many - including U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger - lost any remaining illusions that credible democratic institutions could be established in South Vietnam.
For three years, Ky retired from politics and lived on a farm commune in the countryside. He returned as a military commander in 1975 as the military forces of Communist North Vietnam closed in on the South. Many military leaders hoped he would be re-appointed as Prime Minister in this time of crisis, but President Thieu, still distrustful of Ky, refused. In his autobiographies, How We Lost the Vietnam War and Buddha's Child: My Fight to Save Vietnam, Ky recounted his last-minute attempts at bolstering the troops and establishing an effective defense. He had support from the French government, which was hoping to reenter Vietnam and supplant the US. Ultimately he was unsuccessful.
He made headlines in 2004 by being the first South Vietnamese leader to visit Vietnam since the war, a move that was seen as a shameful one by many Vietnamese-Americans. He returned there again in early 2005, this time accompanied by his current wife. They attended a formal reception given by Vietnam's leaders to representatives of overseas Vietnamese and announced his decision to move back to Vietnam to live permanently. Ky also declared he would try to help bring more investments to Vietnam.
Ky was well-known for his flamboyant and colorful personality and dress during his younger days. His trademark fashion accessory was a purple scarf (while he was in uniform in the 1960s and 70s) and he was rarely seen without a cigarette. A purported "ladies man," Ky was married three times and fathered at least six children.
Ky's daughter, Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, is a well-known personality in the overseas Vietnamese entertainment industry (usually in the role of MC for musical programs).