“In 1967,” Nhuan said, “the Central Vietnam Southern Lowland Region comprised five provinces: Bình-Định, Phú-Yên, Khánh-Hòa, Ninh-Thuận, Bình-Thuận, and one independent city, Cam-Ranh. That region was merged with mine to become the II-CTZ (Corps Tactical Zone). I was made Chief of Special Branch for those twelve Provinces and two cities. The territory was about half that of the whole South Vietnam. The coastal city of Nha Trang fell within my jurisdiction and the PIC in Nha Trang City doubled as the Special Branch office in Khánh Hòa Province.”
“At that time, the military wanted to control the National Police. II-Corps Commander General Vĩnh Lộc, whose main headquarters was in Pleiku, had the region’s Special Branch office moved from Ban Mê Thuột to Pleiku. After that, although my office was in Pleiku, I often visited Nha Trang, and, of course, the Nha Trang PIC.
“The first presidential election for the Second Republic of Vietnam occurred in early September 1967. There were eleven candidates in all. The armed forces candidates were Lieutenant General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu and Major General Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, as president and vice-president, respectively.
“During the campaign, I received a secret order from Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan (Chief of the Military Security Service and, concurrently, Director General of the National Police), to form a special plan to carry out an “internal and peaceful” overthrow of Thiệu to facilitate the election of Kỳ.
“The process began a few weeks before the election, when Major Cao Văn Khanh, Director of the National Police in II-CTZ, attended a secret meeting with General Loan in Cam-Ranh City. Afterwards Major Khanh told me that General Loan had said to him, “Back at the Special Branch office in Pleiku, you have chap named Nhuận. I want you to have him compose a concrete action plan for all the Region II National Police to execute.”
The plan was to have two parts. Outwardly, all campaign efforts would aim at making Thiệu and Kỳ win the election, which Nhuận and everyone else in the National Police believed would happen. At the same time, Loan’s subordinates in the MSS were to use their influence to persuade regular military officers across the country and, in particular, unit commanders stationed in Sài Gòn, to give prominence to Premier Nguyễn Cao Kỳ’s “talent and virtue.” Loan’s subordinates in the National Police, including the Special Branch, were to do likewise, through their influence within the civil segments of society: commerce, trade-unions, markets, transportation, and especially veterans.
Per Loan’s plan, on vote-counting night, all the ranking province and city Military Security Service and National Police chiefs nationwide were to convene a special gathering at their offices, in the presence of the military unit commanders and various civic organization leaders, and pass a resolution to trust Kỳ as President and approve of Thiệu as Vice-President.
As happened during the Diệm coup four years earlier, those pledges were to be wired to the members of the Armed Forces Council (Hội-Đồng Quân-Lực). The Armed Forces Council was, in fact, the supreme power in South Vietnam and, at the time, Kỳ, who as Prime Minister, had greater influence within it than Thiệu. The Council would then disseminate the resolution to support Kỳ to all the governmental and military establishments, and broadcast it nation-wide on all the military and civilian air-waves.
“Everything was to be prepared for a high tide of meetings on vote-counting night,” Nhuan recalled, “with the most powerful participants agreeing to back a Military and Civilian Council in Sài Gòn, at which time the general election result would be announced, compelling Thiệu to yield the presidency to Kỳ.
“Kỳ and Loan believed that this exchange of positions between the two individuals would be peaceful and successful. Although the US was not included in the scheme, they also believed that the Americans would not oppose it, because it merely involved the place arrangement among the two candidates.
“In short, Kỳ outwardly agreed to let Nguyễn Văn Thiệu register as president candidate, but inwardly he was determined to maneuver for that seat.”
To put the plan in action, Loan went to Nha-Trang and Cam-Ranh to meet his subordinates. Loan handed each MSS and NP chief $500,000 Vietnamese dollars (some more than that), which they were to use as operational funds – meaning bribes.
Nhuận did not know where the slush fund came from, though many have suspected it came from drug trafficking and other rackets.
In any event, Nhuận, the maverick, refused to go along with the plot. As he explained, “Every previous coup d’état (đảo-chánh) had been followed by a period of readjustment (chỉnh-lý) and power displays (biểu-dương lực-lượng), which led to an influx of US troops, demonstrations by students and Buddhists, and, ultimately, the Communists taking advantage and gaining ground. In other words, they were counter-productive.
“The military had abused the laws and regulations over the last four years, and the Vietnamese people had suffered enough,” Nhuan acknowledged. “But now that there was a Constitution, the election was supposed to create a legal government, restore stability, and bring about democracy. It was not designed to let powerful generals and colonels continue to compete for personal interests.
“If they wanted to fight for power among themselves, fine. But only constitutionally.”
By disobeying Kỳ and Loan, Nhuận was taking a calculated risk. The members of the Armed Forces Council were the nation’s true rulers, and they had decided that Thiệu should be president, not Kỳ. To act against them on Kỳ’s behalf would be a serious breach of political ethics. At the same time, Loan as head of the National Police, was his boss.
Ultimately, Nhuận felt he was obligated to serve the people, and had determined that Thieu was the lesser of the two evils. He approached his CIA advisor, US Air Force Colonel Brad C. Crane, and asked Crane to ask his superiors in Sài Gòn to send a representative to Pleiku to meet with him on an urgent matter. The CIA Station in Sài Gòn sent an officer who, at one time, had been Nhuận’ adviser in Ban Mê Thuột, but whose name Nhuan has forgotten. It was not Tom Burke.
Nhuận told the CIA officer that he had no personal or professional relationship with Thiệu, and thus no stake in his being elected president. But he objected on principle to the planned coup, even if it were to be bloodless. Nhuận emphasized that he was fully aware of the need for anti-communist leaders within the military and police forces, but he also understood the feelings and aspirations of the people apart from a few ambitious functionaries and officers in Sài Gòn.
“Almost no one knew about my act,” Nhuan said. “However, after I informed the CIA of Kỳ’s plot, the chief of Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Cao Văn Viên, was invited to dinner by Ambassador Bunker, Vice Ambassador William, and General Westminster. At this meeting, the Americans decided to back Thieu, based on the advice of the CIA station.
“After Thiệu was elected president, my boss, Major Cao Văn Khanh, was promoted and made deputy Director of the CIO, then promoted again and made Director General of the Customs. Khanh and I stayed in touch and one day I asked him why he ended up at Customs. He said it was better there, that he couldn’t get “anything” at the CIO, meaning personal interests.
“But what I did was for the True, the Good, the Beautiful,” Nhuan concluded. “After I gave my suggestion to the CIA about Thiệu deserving to be Number One, I was not rewarded, because I never told anyone about it. But I was free to denounce and continue to counter what was not good for South Vietnam.”
The election took place peacefully on September 3rd 1967. Neither the Military Security Service nor the National Police incited the military and the civilian circles to petition to reverse the order of the two candidates in the ticket. The joint candidates Thiệu and Kỳ won with 35% of the vote, but candidate Thiệu maintained his top position; Thieu became president with Kỳ as his vice-president.
But Kỳ was more powerful than Thiệu, and before the election, he forced Thiệu to sign a promise that if they won, Thiệu would allow him to nominate the premier and all the ministers, as well as the important military and police commanders. Kỳ had many supporters, including MACV Commander Westmoreland, and after the election, he remained President of the Armed Forces Council via a so-called “Military Commissar Association” (Quân Ủy Hội), which Thiệu had pledged to obey.”
Indeed, not until the CIA intervened on Thieu’s behalf would the actual transition of power from Kỳ to Thieu be effected.