Nguyen Huu Co

Nguyen Huu Co
Nguyễn Hữu Có
Born 1925
French Indochina (now Vietnam)
Allegiance Vietnamese National Army, Army of the Republic of Vietnam
Years of service ??–1967
Rank Lieutenant General
Battles/wars 1963 South Vietnamese coup
Other work Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister (1965–1967)

Lieutenant General Nguyễn Hữu Có served as an officer in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and was prominent in several coups and juntas in the 1960s.

In 1963, Co came to prominence for his role in the November coup that toppled and killed President Ngo Dinh Diem. Co’s superior, General Ton That Dinh, moved him into command of the 7th Division to lock loyalist forces out of Saigon. Co was promoted to brigadier general after the coup and as South Vietnam was inflicted with a cycle of coups over the next two years, he became more prominent as other generals defeated one another in power struggles. By 1965, Co was the Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister in a junta headed by Prime Minister and Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky and General Nguyen Van Thieu, the figurehead chief of state. Co came under increasing scrutiny for his exorbitant wealth and was widely seen as corrupt, while Ky viewed him as a political threat.

In 1967 Ky fired Co when both men were overseas on diplomatic visits. Ky then organized military forces to prevent Co from flying back, effectively sending him into exile. Over time, Thieu began to eclipse Ky in a power struggle, and allowed Co to return in 1970. Co then stayed out of public life, and worked in banking and business. In 1975, the communists overran the south, and after hesitating in planning his escape from South Vietnam, Co was captured by the communists, who imprisoned him in reeducation camps for 12 years. Co chose not to emigrate after being released and still lives in Vietnam.


Early career

Co was a field commander for the French-backed Vietnamese National Army that fought against Ho Chi Minh's Vietminh during the First Indochina War. He led a groupement mobile.[1]

Diem overthrow

He was a participant in the 1963 coup that deposed President Ngo Dinh Diem and ended in his assassination. Colonel Co was the deputy of General Ton That Dinh, who commanded the III Corps forces that oversaw the region surrounding the capital Saigon.[2] Dinh was entrusted to command III Corps because the Ngo family trusted him to defend them in the face of any coup attempts.[3] However, in late-1963, Dinh began to plot against Diem along with a group of generals.[4]

As part of the generals' plot, Dinh sent Colonel Co to My Tho to talk to the 7th Division commander, Colonel Bui Dinh Dam, and two regimental commanders, the armoured unit commander, both of the 7th Division, and the My Tho province chief.[4] At the time, the 7th Division was under the control of the IV Corps that was commanded by Diem loyalist General Huynh Van Cao.[4] This division was on the outskirts of Saigon and its stance would be critical in determining the success or failure of a coup. Exhorting the 7th Division officers to join the coup on the grounds that the Diem regime was unable to keep the military going forward, he stated that all the generals except Cao were in the plot, while Dinh was going to do so.[4] According to one account, Dinh had intended that loyalists would report Co's activities to Diem and Nhu so that it would give him an opportunity to orchestrate a stunt to ingratiate himself with the palace and make the coup easier to carry out.[5]

Nhu's agents heard of the conversation and reported to the palace. When the Ngo brothers confronted Dinh with the report of what had happened in My Tho, Dinh feigned astonishment at his deputy's behaviour. He began crying[4] and said "This is my fault, because you have suspected me. I have not really gone to work for the last 15 days but have stayed at home because I was sad. But I am not against you. I was sad because I thought I was discredited with you. So Nguyen Huu Co profited from my absence to make trouble."[4]

Dinh claimed to know nothing of Co's activities and raised his voice, vowing to have his deputy killed.[4][6] Nhu opposed this and stated that he wanted keep Co alive to catch the plotters, and tried to use Dinh to achieve this.[4]

Nhu ordered Dinh to plan a fake coup against the Ngo family. One of Nhu's objectives was to trick dissidents into joining the false uprising so that they could be identified and eliminated.[7]

Dinh was put in charge of the fake coup and was allowed the additional control of the 7th Division, giving his III Corps complete encirclement of Saigon. This would prevent Cao from storming the capital to save Diem as he had done during the 1960 coup attempt.[8][9][10]

Not trusting Co, Diem put the loyalist Catholic Colonel Lam Van Phat in command of the 7th Division on October 31.[4] According to tradition, Phat had to pay the corps commander a courtesy visit before assuming control of the division. Dinh refused to see Phat and told him to come back on Friday at 14:00, by which time the real coup had already been scheduled to start. In the meantime, Dinh had General Tran Van Don sign a counter-order transferring command of the 7th Division to Co.[4]

With a group of his personal rebel officers, Co flew by helicopter to My Tho, the division headquarters, to take command on the morning of the coup, November 1. Reaching the Mekong Delta town two hours before the scheduled start of the coup, he held a ceremony for the division's incumbent officers—who thought the change of command was a routine matter— in a local hall.[11] When the coup started, Co's men charged through the doors with automatic guns and arrested the officers, before taking command. He said "Please remain seated quietly. Anyone who rises will be instantly shot".[4][11]

Co then phoned Cao, further south in the Mekong Delta's largest town Can Tho, where the IV Corps was headquartered. The rebel colonel assured Cao that the divisional and corps transfer had taken place smoothly. Co, a central Vietnamese, was afraid that Cao, a Mekong Delta native would recognise his fake southern accent, and realise that he was impersonating Phat, another southerner. However, Cao did not notice the faked accent.[4]

When Cao was informed by his subordinates that there was a coup occurring in the capital, he believed in to be part of the false coup, as he had been told beforehand by Nhu; Cao was one of the regime's most loyal and favourites generals and he was going to help stage the second part of Nhu's plan. However, Cao did tell one regiments and a few tanks to ready themselves for the second part of the plot.[4]

Late during the night of the coup, Cao realised that it was a genuine coup.[4] He sent the 9th Division under Colonel Bui Dzinh to move north through My Tho towards Saigon to save Diem, but Co had already made plans to cut off any attempt by Cao to relieve Saigon.[12] When Cao radioed the 7th Division in My Tho, Co identified himself and taunted the corps commander, saying "Didn't you recognise my accent?".[4] Co told the general that he had ordered all the ferries to the Saigon side of the Mekong River, and told Cao not to attempt to cross unless he wanted to die.[4] Seeing that Diem was lost, Cao later expressed solidarity with the coup.[13] After the coup succeeded Co became a general in the ruling Military Revolutionary Council (MRC). Co said that Diem "made so many mistakes",[14] most notably his strong preferential treatment of Roman Catholics, usually from his native central Vietnam, at the expense of Buddhists. Diem also promoted military officers on loyalty, not merit.[14]


The MRC led by General Duong Van Minh was deposed in a January 1964 coup by General Nguyen Khanh, and he put several leading generals—Tran Van Don, Ton That Dinh and Mai Huu Xuan—in jail, but Co was not affected.[15]

South Vietnam had a series of short-lived juntas, including military-supervised civilian cabinets over the next 18 months.

In August 1964, Khanh tried to give himself more power, but this provoked strong protests and forced him to back down into a weaker position than before, and his rule became unstable as more concessions were demanded.[16] Khanh promised to dissolve the junta and create a National Assembly within a year.[17] The division among the generals came to a head at a meeting of the junta on August 26–27, as they blamed each other's polcies and machinations for the problems.[18][19] Thieu and Co called for the replacement of Khanh with Minh, but the latter refused.[18] Minh reportedly claimed that Khanh was the only one who would get funding from Washington, so they support him, prompting angry arguments as to whether Khanh was a puppet.[18] After more arguing between the senior officers, they agreed that Khanh, Minh, and Khiem would rule as a triumvirate for two months, until a new civilian government could be formed.[17] However, the triumvirate did little due to their disunity. Khanh dominated the decisionmaking and sidelined Khiem and Minh.[17]

In January 1965, the junta-appointed Prime Minister Tran Van Huong introduced a series of measures to expand the military and war effort, most notably by widening the terms of conscription. This provoked widespread anti-Huong demonstrations and riots, mainly from conscription-aged students and pro-negotiations Buddhists.[20] Reliant on Buddhist support,[20][21] Khanh then decided to have the armed forces take over, removing Huong on January 27, Khanh removed Huong in a bloodless putsch with the support of Thi and Ky. He promised to leave politics once the situation was stabilized and hand over power to a civilian body. It was believed that some of the officers supported Khanh's increased power so that it would give him an opportunity to fail and be removed permanently.[20][22]

Khanh's deposal of the prime minister nullified a counter-plot involving Huong that had developed during the civil disorders that forced him from office. In an attempt to pre-empt his deposal, Huong had backed a plot led by some Dai Viet-oriented Catholic officers reported to include Generals Co and Thieu. They planned to remove Khanh and bring Tran Thien Khiem back from Washington. The US Embassy in Saigon was privately supportive of the aim,[23] but was not ready to fully back the move as they regarded it as poorly thought out and potentially a political embarrassment due to the need to use an American plane to transport some plotters, including Khiem, between Saigon and Washington. As a result, they only promised asylum for Huong if necessary.[23]

By this time, the US relationship with Khanh had broken down,[24] and the US became more intent on a regime change as Khanh was reliant on Buddhist support, which they saw as an obstacle to an expansion of the war.[25] In the first week of February, Taylor told the leading officers that the US was "in no way propping up General Khanh or backing him in any fashion".[26]

At this stage, the US Embassy thought highly of three officers as possible replacements for Khanh: Thieu, Co the commander of II Corps and Admiral Chung Tan Cang the commander of the Republic of Vietnam Navy.[26] A US Defense Department report stated that Co was an "outstanding officer...friendly to Americans".[27] At the same time, the CIA knew that Co had become disillusioned with Khanh and had stopped attending junta meetings after Khanh accused him of "having been bought off by the Americans".[27]

However, the relatively cautious Thieu, Co and Cang's preparations were well behind that of Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao, a communist spy who was an endless creator of plots.[28] Co and the other American-preferred officers maintained a guarded approach, waiting to see what others would do, rather than boldly taking the initiative,[28] and Thao struck first. The Americans did not agree with Thao's ideology and with their support, Ky and Thi defeated the coup and then overthrew Khanh as well, becoming the most important officers in the resulting junta.[29][30][31][32]

In mid-1965 Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky became prime minister and General Nguyen Van Thieu as the figurehead president. They headed a 10-man junta of which Co was a part until elections were held in 1967. Co was the Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister.[1]

Co was generally regarded as being corrupt. As a general, he had a base pay of USD177 a month, but he managed to purchase three villas in Saigon and had property estimated at USD600,000 near Tan Son Nhut Air Base on the capital's outskirts.[1] Co's wealth was believed to have come from bribes from subordinate officers who wanted postings away from danger, usually desk jobs, as well as charging up to USD3,400 a head for draft evaders, depending on how rich they were.[1] Co was also accused of using his position as defense minister to pocket the rent collected from the American military for building US bases on land rented from the Saigon government.[33] Co's wife was known to be a gambling addict during his halcyon days and was reputed to have once lost USD8,500 in one outing.[1]

Co was seen as a political threat to Ky and a magnet for dissidents.[1] For his part, Co deemed Ky to be "immature".[14] In early 1967, Ky sent Co to Taiwan, ostensibly to represent the junta at a ceremony to opening direct air services from Taipei to Saigon. In the meantime, Ky made a state visit to Australia. With Co out of the country and unable to stage a coup, and Ky not within striking distance in case anyone wanted to capture him, news of Co's removal was broken in Saigon.[1]

Co expressed a desire to return to Saigon, but was threatened with arrest and trial, and soldiers were deployed to the airport.[1] Co spent three years in exile in Hong Kong.[14] When President Thieu sidelined Ky from real power, he allowed Co to return to South Vietnam in 1970. Co stayed away from politics and worked as a commercial banker and then a businessman.[14]

Imprisonment by the communists

In April 1975, the fall of Saigon occurred and the communists took control. Co made plans to leave but hesitated and was not evacuated by the US military. He considered leaving by boat, but deemed it too risky with 11 children.[14]

In June 1975, Co was told to report to a re-education camp along with the vast majority of public servants and military officers. They were told to bring clothes for one month, but were kept much longer, 12 years in the case of Co.[14] Co was initially held at Quang Trung Training Camp, about 15 km north of Ho Chi Minh City, which had been an ARVN training center for newly enlisted men. According to him, the conditions were good, although there were political propaganda lectures.[14]

In June 1976, he was suddenly moved by an airplane in the middle of the night to Yen Bay in the north of the country where he was forced to perform manual labor.[14] In 1978, he and some other ARVN generals were relocated to Ha Tay, in the Red River Delta east of the capital Hanoi, where he was imprisoned in an Interior Ministry facility, where he was asked to write what he knew about South Vietnam's. military strategies and government mechanisms.[14]

In 1979, Co was moved by himself to Nam Ha and then Thanh Lam, where he was made to undergo propaganda lessons and manual labor alongside a mixture of military and civilian personnel.[14] In he was returned to Ha Tay to be reunited with the other generals. In 1983 he was moved back to Nam Ha, where he stayed until his release in 1987, after 12 years in captivity.[14]

While he was imprisoned, his wife, who had previously always been a housewife, took her first job, in a knitting factory.[14] Co opted to remain in Vietnam under communist rule after being released.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "South Viet Nam: Low Ky Friday". Time. 1967-02-03. 
  2. ^ Halberstam, p. 181.
  3. ^ Blair (2001), p. 56.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Halberstam, David (1963-11-06). "Coup in Saigon: A Detailed Account". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-10-29. 
  5. ^ Jones, p. 399.
  6. ^ Moyar, p. 265.
  7. ^ Jones, pp. 398–399.
  8. ^ Karnow, pp. 307–322.
  9. ^ Gettleman 1966, pp. 280–282.
  10. ^ Hatcher, pp. 145–146.
  11. ^ a b Karnow, p. 321.
  12. ^ Moyar, p. 270.
  13. ^ Jones, p. 409.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Crossette, Barbara (1987-12-18). "HO CHI MINH CITY JOURNAL; 'Re-educated' 12 Years, An Ex-General Reflects". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-07-14. 
  15. ^ Shaplen, pp. 228–234.
  16. ^ Moyar (2004), pp. 760–764.
  17. ^ a b c Moyar (2004), p. 762.
  18. ^ a b c Moyar (2006), p. 318.
  19. ^ Kahin, pp. 229–230.
  20. ^ a b c Kahin, pp. 267–269.
  21. ^ Moyar (2004), pp. 774–775.
  22. ^ Moyar (2006), p. 775.
  23. ^ a b Kahin, p. 297.
  24. ^ Kahin, pp. 255–260.
  25. ^ Kahin, pp. 294–296.
  26. ^ a b Kahin, p. 298.
  27. ^ a b Kahin, p. 512.
  28. ^ a b Kahin, p. 299.
  29. ^ Kahin, pp. 298–302.
  30. ^ Shaplen, pp. 310–312.
  31. ^ Kahin, p. 303.
  32. ^ Langguth, pp. 346–347.
  33. ^ Karnow, p. 457.


  • Blair, Anne E. (2001). There to the Bitter End: Ted Serong in Vietnam. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1865084689. 
  • Gettleman, Marvin E. (1966). Vietnam: History, documents and opinions on a major world crisis. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books. 
  • Halberstam, David; Singal, Daniel J. (2008). The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-7425-6007-4. 
  • Hatcher, Patrick Lloyd (1990). The suicide of an elite: American internationalists and Vietnam. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804717362. 
  • Jones, Howard (2003). Death of a Generation: how the assassinations of Diem and JFK prolonged the Vietnam War. New York City, New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505286-2. 
  • Kahin, George McT. (1979). "Political Polarization in South Vietnam: U.S. Policy in the Post-Diem Period". Pacific Affairs (Vancouver, British Columbia) 52 (4): 647–673. 
  • Kahin, George McT. (1986). Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam. New York City, New York: Knopf. ISBN 039454367X. 
  • Karnow, Stanley (1997). Vietnam: A history. New York City, New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-670-84218-4. 
  • Langguth, A. J. (2000). Our Vietnam: the war, 1954–1975. New York City, New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-81202-9. 
  • Moyar, Mark (2006). Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965. New York City, New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521869110. 
  • Topmiller, Robert J. (2006). The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam, 1964–1966. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813191661. 
  • Tucker, Spencer C. (ed.) (2000). Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social and Military History. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-57607-040-9. 

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