Lt. Colonel Tran Ngoc Châu served Vietnam as a soldier, civil administrator, and politician. His aptitude for counter-insurgency and political views made him a famous figure in both Vietnam and the United States.
Youth and Early Career FactsTran Ngoc Châu was born a Confucian-Buddhist in the imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue, in 1923. His father, Tran Dau Te, and grandfather, Tran Tram, were important government officials and instilled in Châu a sense of national pride integral to his future actions. He studied at a Buddhist monastery for seven years and a French secondary school but remained dedicated to Vietnamese independence.
Tran Ngoc Châu left the Việt Minh after witnessing horrific abuse and corruption.
Châu joined the Vietnamese nationalist organization, the Việt Minh, in 1944 and quickly became a platoon leader where he witnessed brutality on both sides. His compatriot Ho Ba invited him to join the Communist Party of Vietnam after being promoted to battalion political officer. The corruption he witnessed in four years of fighting turned him away from the party.
In 1949, he left the Việt Minh and did not return to the military until he began training in Dalat under Emperor Bảo Đại in 1950. He became a Lieutenant and taught at the academy. Châu served for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the southern government, after independence from the French in 1954. He returned to Dalat to teach and become Commandant of Cadets in 1955.
Biography of the Diem Regime
President Ngô Đình Diệm appointed Lt. Colonel Tran Ngoc Châu to inspect the Civil Guard and Self-Defense Corps after meeting in 1959. He suggested changes after discovering the Guard lacked training, funds, and effectiveness. Diệm agreed with Chau in his efforts to reinforce the nationalist feeling by being more inclusive of the local, rural peasants. Châu quotes in his interview on WGBH’s series, Vietnam: A Television History, “President Diem idea and many Vietnamese believe that that that image of Vietnamese leadership in the mind of the people were essential for the effort of the war against the Communist…”
Diệm then sent Châu to Malaysia to learn about pacification. He returned in 1962 to discuss his findings with Diệm’s brother, Ngô Đình Nhu, to no successful end. Diệm then sent Châu to govern as mayor in Đà Nẵng during the Buddhist crisis of 1963. Châu tried to calm the rising tensions between the Diệm regime and the Buddhists of Đà Nẵng but he was unsuccessful. Diệm and his brother were killed on November 2, 1963, but Châu refused to join the coup.
Politics, Imprisonment, and Escape
Lt. Colonel Tran Ngoc Châu immigrated to the United States after being released from prison.
Lt. Colonel Tran Ngoc Châu retired from the ARVN and was elected senator of the new National Assembly in 1966. He frequented with opposition groups to the new president, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, a friend from his military days. Châu openly criticized Thiệu for not attempting to negotiate peace. Both his dissension and his brother’s Communist associations led to his arrest and imprisonment for treason in 1970. He remained in prison for several years. Then was put on house arrest in Saigon until April 1975. Once Saigon fell to the Communists, he was rearrested and forced into a re-education camp.
Finally, in 1978, Châu was released unexpectedly from prison under the condition he would inform on friends and acquaintances. Châu and his family escaped to the United States in 1979 through friends. They eventually settled in California. Châu has spoken openly of all he experienced, giving interviews, and published a memoir in 2013.
Châu, T. N., & Fermoyle, K. (2012). Vietnam labyrinth: Allies, enemies, and why the U.S. lost the war. Lubbock: Texas Tech University.
Châu, T. N., & Sturdevant, T. (2001). My War Story: From Ho Chi Minh to Ngô Đình Diệm. Neese & O'Donnell.
Colby, W., & Forbath, P. (1978). Honorable Men. My Life in the CIA. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Fermoyle, K. (2009). “Hawks, Doves and the Dragon" in Pond.
Grant, Z. (1991). Facing the Phoenix: The CIA and the political defeat of the United States in Vietnam. New York: Norton.
Tucker, S. C., editor, (2000). The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War. A political, social, & military history Oxford University.
Warner, D. (1964) The Last Confucian. Vietnam, Southeast Asia, and the West. New York: reprint Penguin.
- Phan Thi Dac (1966) p. 66. Traditionally Vietnam was a land of three religions (Tam Giáo): Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist.
- Fermoyle (2009), pp. 422- 423
- Châu with Fermoyle (2012), pp. 4–5, 7, 8-9
- Chau with Sturdevant (2001) pp. 180-182
- Grant (1991), pp. 70-71
- Châu with Fermoyle (2012) at pp. 98–100
- Grant (1991), pp. 69–76
- Châu with Fermoyle (2012), at pp. 114, 112-113, 116-117, 118, 130-131, 131-133
- Tucker (2000), pp. 59–60
- Châu with Fermoyle (2012), pp. 158–159
- Interview with Tran Ngoc Chau. (n.d.).
- Warner (1964), pp. 225–234
- Colby (1978), p. 215
- Châu with Fermoyle (2012), pp. 263, 310
- Dinh, T. V., Grady, D. M., & Chau, T. N. (1970). The Statement of Tran Ngoc Chau. The Antioch Review, 30(3/4), 299. doi:10.2307/4637317
- Châu with Fermoyle (2012), pp. 362-363
- Grant (1991), pp. 342–346, 358–359
- Châu with Fermoyle (2012), pp. 378-379
- Châu with Fermoyle (2012), pp. 180–194
- Châu with Fermoyle (2012)