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Last year, after Diem was toppled from power and killed, the generals who succeeded him promptly fell to squabbling among themselves, while the Viet Cong look advantage of the contusion to make their biggest gains of the war. And barely 14 weeks after Coup No. 1, Diem's successor, General Duong Van ("Big") Minh, was himself thrown out in Coup No. 2.
The man who stepped in to succeed Big Minh, and who has since been in charge of the struggle to deny rice-rich South Viet Nam to the Communists, is possibly the world's most improbable-looking leader of a nation at war. Yet little Nguyen (rhymes with You Win) Khanh. who stands only 5 ft. 4½ in. and weighs 155 Ibs., has been deeply concerned with the cold war since he was a youth. Son of modestly well-to-do landed parents, Khanh was born in the hamlet of Caungan, 75 miles south of Saigon in the Mekong Delta, on Nov. 8, 1927. During World War II, when Indochina was ruled by the Vichy French and Japanese, and the tides of nationalism was running high, Khanh as a teen-ager joined Ho Chi Minh's guerrillas, which at the time billed themselves as nationalists. Armed, as he puts it, "with only a piece of bamboo," he and a dozen other youths began operating in the highlands, captured or stole 20 weapons. But then, Khanh says, the Viet Minh disarmed his group "because we were nationalists, not Communists.'' After this sobering experience, the young activist moved in the opposite direction, embarked in earnest on a military career at the French army academy at Dalat, where Paris trained Vietnamese officers to command France's native Indo-Chinese units.
He was commissioned a second lieu tenant of infantry in 1947, sent to metropolitan France for advanced training, and after his return given command of Viet Nam's first native airborne battalion in 1950. With the French engaged in their war against the Communist Viet Minh, Khanh led his paratroopers in a jump onto the Hoabinh battlefield of North Viet Nam, scene of a French defeat that was only slightly less disastrous than Dienbienphu, carried out a valiant rearguard action covering the French retreat. Khanh finished the war, in which he was wounded (he still likes to pull up his shirt to show his scars), as a lieutenant colonel in charge of a regimental combat team.
Pajama Party. After partition, Khanh was chosen by Diem as the first commander of South Viet Nam's fledgling air force, soloed after eleven hours' instruction (he still does some flying now and then). His first exposure to American military methods came in 1957, when he spent a study tour at the U.S. Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kans. Back home again, Khanh was promoted to brigadier general at 32, later named chief of staff of the Vietnamese Joint General Staff from which post he helped crush the abortive 1960 paratrooper revolt against Diem. Later Khanh, as commander of the II Corps area in central South Viet Nam, impressed American advisers with his inroads