Thieu Is Elected President of South Vietnam Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The successful 1967 elections gave South Vietnam a leader in President Nguyen Van Thieu, after three long years of political instability without elected leadership. The country’s former president, Ngo Dinh Diem, had been overthrown and murdered in a 1963 coup.

Summary of Event

When Vietnam gained independence from France in 1954, Cold War politics effected its division into a communist North Vietnam and noncommunist South Vietnam. In South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem Ngo Dinh Diem carried out a referendum in 1955 that established the Republic of Vietnam, which he led as its president until his overthrow and murder by a coup of disaffected generals acting with the acceptance of the United States on November 2, 1963. Against the hopes of U.S. officials for an effective new South Vietnamese government that could combat a growing communist armed insurrection Vietnam War (1959-1975);South Vietnamese government supported since late 1959 by North Vietnam and its global communist allies, South Vietnam quickly descended into political chaos, fueled by rivalries of its various generals. Presidency, South Vietnamese Presidential elections, South Vietnamese [kw]Thieu Is Elected President of South Vietnam (Sept. 3, 1967) [kw]President of South Vietnam, Thieu Is Elected (Sept. 3, 1967) [kw]South Vietnam, Thieu Is Elected President of (Sept. 3, 1967) Presidency, South Vietnamese Presidential elections, South Vietnamese [g]Southeast Asia;Sept. 3, 1967: Thieu Is Elected President of South Vietnam[09420] [g]Vietnam;Sept. 3, 1967: Thieu Is Elected President of South Vietnam[09420] [c]Vietnam War;Sept. 3, 1967: Thieu Is Elected President of South Vietnam[09420] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 3, 1967: Thieu Is Elected President of South Vietnam[09420] [c]Military history;Sept. 3, 1967: Thieu Is Elected President of South Vietnam[09420] Nguyen Van Thieu Nguyen Cao Ky Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;Vietnam War

By 1964, the administration of U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson decided that to forestall communist victory in South Vietnam, it was necessary to deploy U.S. ground troops; this was executed in March, 1965. At the same time, U.S. officials impressed on South Vietnamese leaders the need for a unified government that could effectively carry out the fight against communist aggression.

On June 19, South Vietnamese generals established the Military Revolutionary Council, with General Nguyen Van Thieu as ceremonial head of state and Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky as prime minister. At their meeting with Thieu in Honolulu in February, 1966, Johnson stressed the need for democratic elections in South Vietnam, to be held as soon as possible. In March, 1967, Thieu and Ky met Johnson again, this time on the island of Guam, but did so in the face of increasing numbers of U.S. combat troops in South Vietnam and a growing antiwar movement in the United States that doubted the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese military government. The South Vietnamese leaders proved receptive to Johnson’s proposals and agreed to hold elections for president and vice president in their country in the fall of 1967.

In preparation for the elections, scheduled for September 3, the generals met to determine their own candidates. Initially, Ky was ready to run by himself. However, his fellow generals, following the seniority principle, proposed the older Thieu as their candidate. At the spur of the moment, in what later he would call the biggest mistake of his life, Ky agreed to be Thieu’s running mate as vice president.

The communists officially declared their armed presence in South Vietnam to be under the command of a National Liberation Front known as the Viet Cong Viet Cong , which was represented by a Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG). They could not participate in elections within a government they opposed militarily, so they forbade from registering to vote those residents who lived in areas under their control, such as stretches of the Central Highlands and the Mekong Delta, which amounted to almost one-third of South Vietnam. Eventually, almost 6 million South Vietnamese registered to vote in the face of Viet Cong threats to harm those who voted; the South Vietnamese government and the U.S. military, though, had promised protection for the electorate and the election process.

To ensure victory for their ticket, the generals decided that a relative majority of votes was sufficient to elect a president and vice president, avoiding a potentially dangerous run-off against a candidate who rallied joint opposition against their choice. Eleven presidential candidates declared their participation in the elections. Some Buddhist candidates and other outspoken opponents of the generals were barred from running on the grounds that they did not share a constitutional view of South Vietnam’s political system.

U.S. troops, numbering almost half a million in South Vietnam in the fall of 1967, sought to negate communist threats against voting, and despite terror strikes by the communists that killed more than twenty South Vietnamese people, voter turnout on September 3 was an impressive 83 percent.

Even though voter registration cards were stamped by South Vietnamese officials once a person was ready to vote, and some South Vietnamese may have feared that the lack of a stamp on their registration cards could later be held against them as a sign of disloyalty to their nation, the twenty American and 120 other election observers from twenty-four different countries concluded that the elections were held free and fair. Voting took place in all but three villages that were firmly in communist hands. Sporadic demonstrations claiming an unfair election after results were announced had little effect on the overall estimation that it was a democratic process.

From left: ceremonial South Vietnamese head of state Nguyen Van Thieu, U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson, and South Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Cao Ky salute during their nations’ national anthems at Guam in March, 1967. In September, Thieu would become his country’s president and Ky would become vice president.

(National Archives)

When the ballots were counted on the evening of September 3, Thieu was declared president with a preliminary relative majority of 35 percent of all votes cast, a percentage that rose to 38 percent in the final count, exceeding the numbers of each of his ten opponents. The turnout was larger than for South Vietnam’s elections for local officials in the spring of 1966, which yielded 78 percent, and exceeded the turnout of the 1964 U.S. presidential election of 62 percent. Thieu and Ky’s 38 percent majority also was much more believable than former president Diem’s 98 percent in 1955.

On October 31, 1967, Thieu took office as president of the Republic of Vietnam. Ky was sworn in as vice president.

Significance

President Thieu’s 1967 election raised the hope for South Vietnam to mature into a free country able to withstand communism, but the subsequent withdrawal of U.S. support in the aftermath of the disillusioning communist Tet Offensive in 1968 combined with Thieu’s inability to adapt successfully to these challenges and create a government the people of South Vietnam could enthusiastically relate to and were willing to defend effectively doomed Thieu’s administration and led to the end of the Republic of Vietnam by 1975.

Initially, Americans were delighted by the high voter turnout in the 1967 elections, and many South Vietnamese hoped for the best. The Tet Offensive of January 31, 1968, however, put Thieu’s government to a severe test and immediately led to an American loss of faith in South Vietnam’s ability to survive against the communists. When Richard M. Nixon Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;Vietnam War was elected U.S. president in the fall of 1968, Thieu soon saw himself negotiating with his American allies about their strategy to extricate their troops from South Vietnam. Thieu lacked a clear vision of what to do without diminishing American support.

Additionally, Thieu’s increasingly authoritarian style of government and its perceived corruption and inefficiency severely alienated many South Vietnamese. Vice President Ky declined to run on Thieu’s ticket for reelection in 1971 or to oppose him. Indeed, because they perceived the futility of such an act under government corruption, no candidate opposed Thieu in 1971. He was reelected with a rather dubious 94 percent of the vote, with 87 percent registered South Vietnamese said to have been voting.

Finally, Thieu had no choice but to accept the Paris Peace Accords of January, 1973, which negotiated the exit of U.S. combat troops from South Vietnam and the repatriation of U.S. prisoners of war from North Vietnam in March. Subsequently, Thieu failed to capture world opinion in favor of his nation’s struggle against communist aggression. His government proved no match to the onslaught of North Vietnamese troops in January, 1975, and his military leadership proved disastrous. As Nixon had resigned by 1974 and Americans became absolutely opposed to re-entering the conflict in 1975, Thieu could not call on the United States for help. He thus resigned on April 21 and left Vietnam for Taiwan. On April 30, communist forces captured Saigon and won the Vietnam War. Thieu died in exile in the United States in 2001, a country to which many South Vietnamese had fled from the victorious communists. Presidency, South Vietnamese Presidential elections, South Vietnamese

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Colby, William. Lost Victory. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989. Colby believes that the election of Thieu was a step in the right direction and that the United States should not have lost faith in him and should have supported him against the communists even in 1975.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitzgerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. 1972. Reprint. New York: Back Bay, 2002. Written from an American antiwar perspective. Chapter 11, “Elections,” covers the event in detail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. 2d ed. New York: Viking Press, 1997. The standard work on the Vietnam War. Covers the election and places it in the context of the U.S. military’s involvement in Vietnam.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nguyen, Cao Ky. Buddha’s Child. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. Autobiography of former South Vietnamese vice president and cowinner of the 1967 elections. Covers the event from a personal perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thi, Lam Quang. The Twenty-Five Year Century: A South Vietnamese General Remembers the Indochina War to the Fall of Saigon. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2002. The event from a South Vietnamese military perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Marilyn B., and Robert Buzzanco, eds. A Companion to the Vietnam War. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. This 514-page collection covers events leading up to the war, the war itself, and the war’s aftermath. Provides more than a military history, however. Includes social, cultural, and political analyses as well.

Nationalist Vietnamese Fight French Control of Indochina

Vietnam Is Named a State

Operation Passage to Freedom Evacuates Refugees from North Vietnam

SEATO Is Founded

Kennedy Expands U.S. Involvement in Vietnam

Vietnamese Generals Overthrow Diem Regime

Tet Offensive Begins

United States Invades Cambodia

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