KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia >> Nguyen Cao Ky, the flamboyant former air force general who ruled South Vietnam with an iron fist for two years during the Vietnam War, died Saturday. He was 80.
Ky died at a hospital in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he was being treated for a respiratory complication, his nephew in Southern California told The Associated Press.
"He was in good health, but in the last couple of weeks he had been weak," Peter Phan said. He said Ky split his time between his home in California and Vietnam.
One of Ky’s daughters, a prominent Vietnamese-American entertainer, told the AP in an email message that she was flying from Los Angeles to Malaysia to find out the exact cause of death.
One of his nation’s most colorful leaders, Ky served as prime minister of U.S.-backed South Vietnam in the mid- 1960s. He had been commander of South Vietnam’s air force when he assumed the post in 1965, the same year U.S. involvement in the war escalated.
He was known as a playboy partial to purple scarves, chic nightclubs and beautiful women. In power during some of the war’s most tumultuous times, he was a low-key but sometimes ruthless leader.
"It’s true that I did have absolute power when I was made premier," he said in a 1989 Associated Press interview. "You may recall there was no congressional body in South Vietnam at that time. For more than two years, my word was the absolute law."
From 1967 to 1971, he was vice president under his frequent rival, Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu.
When Thieu’s government in Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops in 1975, Ky fled by piloting a helicopter to a U.S. Navy ship. He and his family eventually settled in the United States, where he led a quiet life largely away from politics. He made headlines in 2004 when he made a controversial visit back to his homeland, praising the communists, his former enemies.
Born in Son Tay province west of Hanoi in 1930, Ky grew up under French colonialist rule and became involved as a youth in the national liberation movement led by Ho Chi Minh.
He left the movement, however, when he fell ill with malaria. He eventually enlisted in the army, where he trained as a pilot and rose through the ranks during the French fight against the insurgency. He was one of the roughly 1 million who fled south following France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French withdrawal divided the country into the communist North and noncommunist South.
Ky rose steadily in South Vietnam’s fledgling air force and was chosen as prime minister by a junta of generals even though he had no political experience.
He was able to end a disruptive cycle of coups and countercoups that followed the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, whose repressive regime was overthrown by military generals in 1963.
But Ky proved overly optimistic about the U.S. prospects for victory.
In a New York Times interview in 1966, Ky said U.S. air strikes would "very soon" force the North to request a cease fire and said of U.S. Senate war critics: "They know nothing about Vietnam. … They just represent the minority."
Saying he wanted to end corruption, Ky threatened to shoot merchants manipulating the country’s rice market. A businessman convicted of war profiteering was executed by a firing squad in March 1966; Ky attended the trial’s opening session.
During a Buddhist-led uprising in Da Nang that same year, Ky moved troops in and suppressed the demonstrators. He then placed the country’s leading Buddhist cleric and his most vocal critic, Thich Tri Quang, under house arrest.
In his memoir, Ky said he did not regret taking action in Da Nang despite efforts by Americans to use diplomacy. By crushing the revolt, he said, he helped prolong South Vietnam’s stability for a few more years, something he considered his biggest achievement.
"While I served as prime minister, I gave no American cause to suppose that I was their puppet," Ky wrote in his 2002 book "Buddha’s Child: My Fight to Save Vietnam."
But when it came time for the country’s presidential election in 1967, Ky yielded power to his longtime rival, Thieu, who at the time held the ceremonial post of chief of state. Ky served as Thieu’s vice president until 1971, when he was briefly a rival candidate to Thieu’s re-election as president.
He went on to watch Thieu preside over the fall of Saigon. Thieu was forced to step down as North Vietnamese troops closed in. He eventually left the country and died in Boston in 2001 at age 78.
"My biggest mistake was allowing the wrong man the opportunity to lead a guaranty of defeat," Ky said in his book. "For this I beg forgiveness of those who fled into exile, of those who remained, and from those then unborn."
Author Neil Sheehan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on Vietnam, "A Bright Shining Lie," told the AP in 1989 that Ky and Thieu were "corrupt Young Turks" who rose to power as U.S. involvement dramatically increased.
Ky flatly denied the characterization, saying, "If I had stolen millions of dollars I could live like a king in this country, but obviously I don’t live like a king. Believe me, I was a soldier fighting for freedom, not a politician interested in power and money."
Ky made headlines in 2004 when, after 29 years in exile, he made a homecoming trip to Vietnam, dropping his vitriolic anti-communist rhetoric and calling for peace and reconciliation.
His decision to return was angrily condemned by some Vietnamese immigrant activists, who said the visit bestowed legitimacy on a corrupt government.
"What I’m trying to do now is help my country. I only have a duty to my country," Ky told the AP when he visited Hanoi. "I have my record. No one can say I’m not patriotic."
Ky, who was married three times, is survived by six children and, according to his memoir, 14 grandchildren. He had five children by his first wife, a French woman. He and his second wife, a Vietnamese woman, had a daughter, Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, a prominent Vietnamese-American entertainer. He met his third wife while living temporarily in Bangkok.
Funeral plans were pending, according to family members.
Daisy Nguyen reported from Los Angeles.