Nguyen Cao Ky, the former South Vietnamese military and political leader, died Saturday. The 80-year-old was no exemplar of democracy, but he was an important partner for the United States during the Vietnam War. As the United States assesses its foreign policy in the light of coups, democratic uprisings, and dictatorial allies, Ky’s story carries lessons still relevant today.
Ky was hardly unique. Chaotic countries often find themselves with a military leader after a coup; the military is simply the best organized among many competitors for power. Such was the case with Ky, who became the prime minister in 1965, then continued in government from 1967-1971 as the vice president under his sometimes-rival Nguyen Van Thieu.
As with most governments born in turmoil, the legitimacy of the Ky and Thieu governments was feeble. Rather than seeking affirmation from a popular vote, they cracked down on opposition, closing newspapers, threatening or imprisoning dissidents, going after religious practitioners, and declaring martial law.
America, waist-deep in war against communists, rightly saw that Ky and Thieu were no democrats. The alliance, already unpopular, was even more unpalatable. This was a small factor among many contributing to the United States’ desertion of South Vietnam.
Nevertheless, when the United States abandoned its allies and withdrew from Indochina, the consequences were worse than anything that happened under the rule of Ky or Thieu. North Vietnam invaded the South, killing 15,000 civilians in the process. As many as 250,000 “boat people” also died in an attempt to escape. An additional 165,000 perished in Vietnamese re-education camps alone under communist rule. The total casualties wrought by Hanoi were considerably higher.
In foreign policy, there are rarely decisions that are wholly morally good. There are simply too many malevolent actors. Dictators are ousted, often followed by even bloodier successors.
There’s a temptation to view pervasive corruption as a sign of a total failure in countries that we wish would wholeheartedly embrace liberal democracy. And there’s also a temptation to view any alternative as preferable to an undemocratic regime. This lesson is just as applicable in Afghanistan, where democracy is nascent and imperfect, as it is in Egypt, where a dictator with a soft spot for the United States is gone, and Islamic fundamentalists may soon dominate.
Different isn’t always better. When we assume that it is, we risk falling into the dangerous scenario described by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick in COMMENTARY in 1979: “The U.S. will have been led by its own misunderstanding of the situation to assist actively in deposing an erstwhile friend and ally and installing a government hostile to American interests and policies in the world.”
But we are not the only ones who lose. When we see the world in terms that are too simplistic, lacking all nuance, the innocents often bear the brunt of our faltering. The lesson of Ky is by no means that we should abandon our convictions and give up pursuit of the good; on the contrary, it is that we should stand by what we believe, even in an imperfect world.