Exile on Newberry Street
On the advice of an astrologer, Nguyen Van Thieu changed his birthday from a date in November 1924 to a more auspicious day, April 5, 1923. The spirits were not fooled. When he resigned as president of the Republic of Vietnam -- the country he had ruled for 10 years, until it blinked out of existence with the end of the Vietnam War on April 30, 1975 -- Thieu, in a tear-filled television broadcast, said: ''Over the past 10 years, all years, months, days and hours in my life have been bad, as my horoscope forecast. As regards my fate, I can enjoy no happiness.''
Thieu blamed the Americans for losing the war. Henry Kissinger had double-crossed him at the Paris peace negotiations. The Americans had ''led the South Vietnamese people to death,'' and now they were ''running away.'' Several days before the Communists moved into his old office at the presidential palace, Thieu flew to exile in Taiwan in a C.I.A. cargo plane. He later moved to the London suburb of Wimbledon, but by the early 1990's he was living in the United States, near his three children, first in the Boston suburb of Newton and then in tony Foxboro, Mass. There he suffered a stroke in his driveway. After two days in a coma, he was taken off life-support systems and died in a Boston hospital on Sept. 29.
Thieu in exile was a solitary, silent figure. A neighbor describes him walking up and down the street ''like a king,'' with his hands clasped behind his back and his dog, Buddy, heeling by his side. ''People who recognize him on the street in Boston talk as if they've seen a ghost,'' wrote a reporter in 1992. Thieu puttered in his garden and skied in Vermont and did calisthenics every morning, keeping in fighting trim in case his country needed his services again. It never did. Thieu was a compromised figure, tainted by defeat and scandal. The ''deep black'' plane that flew him out of Vietnam was rumored to have been full of gold. (It wasn't, but only because Thieu's government collapsed before he could remove the bullion from Vietnam's central bank.)
Born into a family of farmers and fishermen from Phan Rang, on Vietnam's central coast, Thieu fought for the Communist Viet Minh against the French but soon jumped to the other side. He also switched his religion, from Buddhism to Catholicism, adopting the faith of his wife, the daughter of a wealthy practitioner of traditional medicine, and that of his patron, Vietnam's first president, Ngo Dinh Diem. Thieu was one of the Young Turks (although a cagey one, hanging back until success was assured) who were responsible for the assassination of Diem in 1963. Thieu emerged in 1965 as head of the ruling military tribunal and then, after a couple of rigged elections, as president of South Vietnam. He ruled the Republic during its bloodiest years -- from the Marines hitting the beach at Da Nang Bay in 1965 through the removal of American ground forces in 1973 -- and proved himself a brilliant strategist, not on the battlefield, but in surviving palace intrigues and feuds.
The exiled president kept his silence until the early 1990's, when he gave some interviews, again criticizing the United States, this time for making its first hesitant moves toward normalizing relations with postwar Vietnam. He was heckled at a speech in Westminster, Calif., where protesters carried signs reading, ''Thieu = Noriega'' (referring to another general, Manuel Noriega, whose autocratic rule ended badly). Following his Westminster speech, nothing more was heard from Thieu, until 500 mourners gathered in a Boston church for his military funeral. His coffin was draped with the yellow flag of the Republic of Vietnam. Thieu ruled that country for half its star-crossed existence, but now both Thieu and his would-be nation are gone, and no matter how unfortunate their karma, the Vietnamese never speak ill of ghosts.