Nguyen Cao Ky (1930-2011) was the commander of South Vietnam’s air force and later president and vice president of the republic.
Born to a Buddhist family in the northern province of Son Tay, Nguyen Cao Ky joined the pro-French Vietnamese National Army and became an infantry officer. He later trained as a pilot, served in France and northern Africa and married a French citizen.
During the mid-1950s, Ky was an air base commander in Saigon. He also received further military training in the United States. Ky was a divisive figure, loved and loathed by the South Vietnamese people. He was handsome and flamboyant, a notorious womaniser with several mistresses. He could also be eccentric and impulsive, once threatening to shoot or bomb his political opponents, another time professing his admiration for Adolf Hitler.
Whatever his other failings, Ky was a dedicated military officer who showed more application to fighting the communists than many of his colleagues. He also supported democratic reforms and political modernisation in South Vietnam. These qualities were recognised by the Americans, who gave Ky their measured support.
Ky served as Nguyen Van Thieu’s prime minister between June 1965 and October 1967. His impetuosity and rough handling of political opponents got the better of him, however, and he was relegated to the less important role of vice president. Thieu sidelined him further by sending Ky to the Paris peace talks as chief negotiator, then dropping him as vice president.
Ky retained his military commission and helped organise the defence of Saigon in March-April 1975. He fled on an American helicopter as North Vietnamese troops were entering the city.
Ky and his family relocated to the United States where, among other jobs, he ran a liquor store and a fishing boat. In 2004 he became one of the first South Vietnamese leaders to return to Vietnam, blaming the war on interfering foreigners.
Ky died in July 2011. His daughter, Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, is a popular TV personality in Vietnam.