(February 16 1916 – August 6 2001), known popularly as “Big Minh”, was a Vietnamese general and politician. He led the South Vietnamese army under Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm. In 1963, he became leader of South Vietnam after a coup in which Diệm was assassinated. Dương’s rule lasted only three 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 1.83 m (6 ft) tall and weighing 90 kg (198 lb), he dwarfed all the other Vietnamese soldiers. It also serves to distinguish him from another military general of South Vietnam, Trần Văn Minh.
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.
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 gained him the respect of the United States, and Minh was 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 Ngô Đình Diệm from 1962 to 1963.
Ngô Đình Diệm was a very unpopular leader, and in 1963 the United States of America informed Minh that it would not object if Diệm were to be overthrown. Minh was the second highest ranking general at the time, and he led the coup to overthrow Diệm on November 1 of 1963.
The next day, Diệm and his brother Ngô Ðình Nhu were executed by Minh’s bodyguard commander, after surrendering (See the article Arrest and assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem). 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 U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 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 Việt Cộng or running the country. His military junta lasted only a couple of months before it was overthrown by General Nguyễn Khánh on January 30, 1964. Dương Văn 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 Việt Cộng and disparaging any possible coalition government with the Communists. This article helped end his exile and get him back into Vietnam with the support of the U.S. in 1968.
Once back in his home country, Minh opposed General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, who was still supported by the United States. Minh was going to run against Thiệu in the 1971 election but he withdrew because it became obvious to him (and most other observers) that the elections were rigged. Thiệu 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, Dương Văn Nhut, was a one-star 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 Thiệu and the Việt Cộng. Thiệu 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 Thiệu 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 Dương Văn Minh.
Minh 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 Phạm Xuân Thệ and said, “We have been waiting for you so that we could turn over the government.” Thệ 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 Communist troops, he was summoned to report back. After a few days he was permitted to return to his villa. He lived there for the next eight years in seclusion, where he continued to raise birds and grow exotic orchids.
Both supporters of the old South Vietnamese government and supporters of the current Vietnamese government have mixed feelings about Dương Văn Minh, in large part due to his surrender.