Charles Lahiguera, American Vice Consul at Bien Hoa knew General Hieu when he held the position of III Corps Deputy Commander (1973-1975); in a telephone conversation in July 2003, he told me General Hieu was a graduate of Harvard. This was a revelation to me, but it could well be so, since we were not close and my brother was extremely discreet; I did not know a lot of things about him, until I started doing research on him lately. Is that possible that while attending the US Army Command and General Staff College, Major Hieu had the opportunity to attend Harvard (similar to the case of Colonel Nguyen Xuan Vinh who, while attending flying school in France, sneaked into Marseille University to work on his bachelor degree in mathematics)? An inquiry among family members came up negative. Finally I asked Richard Peters, American Consul General at Bien Hoa, who met almost daily, ate dinner and entertained with General Hieu in the early 1975, he confirmed that General Hieu never mentioned he had attended Harvard.
Had he ever attended or graduated Harvard is not really important. What is significant is that high ranking American military officers and diplomates, in their contacts with General Hieu, sensed that he possessed the levels of knowledge and sophistication of a Harvard graduate.
General Hieu felt at ease spending his leisure time with Richard Peters: playing chess, watching movie, exchanging books, discussing current issues, etc …
When General Hieu became Anti-corruption Special Assistant, American authorities took notice of him after he appeared on TV to denounce the abuse of Military Pension Fund. The American Embassy regularly sent an official to have a personal interview with General Hieu, and then Ambassador Bunker or Whitehouse would wire a report of the conversation to the State Department. Some of these telegrams are kept at the Ford Library, like the ones sent on 07/15/72, 08/17/72, 09/14/72, 09/20/72, 03/05/73. In these telegrams, the reporter oftentimes quoted directly General Hieu: General Hieu told, Hieu said, Hieu stated, according to General Hieu, Hieu commented, MG Nguyen Van Hieu informed, Hieu gave the following summary .... General Hieu seemed to be at ease in expressing his thoughts in various specialized topics: law, justice, politics, accounting, banking, business, philosophy, etc...
General Creighton Abrams was impressed by the quality of General Hieu's briefing:
General McAuliffe and General Milloy, US 1st Infantry Division Deputy Commander and Commander, dropped their jaws before General Hieu’s eloquence and listened attentively to General Hieu’s discourse about his wide experience in matters of the military situation and of the art of joint operations when they discussed about Dong Tien program between ARVN 5th Infantry Division and US Big Red, despite the fact General Hieu just arrived at the ARVN 5th Infantry Division a couple of weeks in August 1969.
Lieutenant Colonel Roy Couch, after his preliminary visit to the 5th Infantry Division’s headquarters at Phu Cuong in preparation of his taking the position of Deputy Advisor, wrote to his wife he had met a Vietnamese General who spoke English fluently .
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Lott, who replaced LTC Couch who died in a helicopter accident, wrote General Hieu, during their military inspection trips by car to the outposts, often initiated conversations covering wide-ranging subject matter: history of the area, political events in the U.S. with regard to the Vietnamese war, training and motivation of his young men, and possible futures of South Vietnam.
Major Edgar C. Doleman, a G3/5th ID Advisor, recalled General Hieu was extremely fluent in English and used to tell jokes when his C&C helicopter was under enemy fire, in order to alleviate the tension and fear among the other passengers.
A UPI reporter who frequently attended press conference at III Corps HQ considered General Hieu as the most able military briefer in English among the Vietnamese Generals. General Nguyen Cao Ky narrated in his book Buddha’s Child when, around 1965, the Young Turks Generals, Khanh, Thieu, Thi and Ky were summoned by American Ambassador Maxwell Taylor to be chastised for causing political turmoil in the Capital with numerous military putsch attempts and internal bickerings, none of them dared to open the mouth because they were only fluent in French, but not in English; they forced him to be their group's spokesperson, because he had a big mouth and was not ashamed of being ridiculed for a broken English.
General Lu Lan, wrote in a chapter entitled, What is Beautiful, page 116 in a book that collects testimonies of new Vietnamese immigrants, I remember in 1955 when I was Operations Officer of the 1st Field Division, I went to Phu Bai Airport to meet my first American advisor. To communicate we used sign language.
During that same period, 1957-59, Major Hieu, I Corps Deputy Chief of Operations , spoke fluent English; and Major Wagner, USMC, I Corps Advisor, characterized him to another American officer as, very bright.
The reason General Hieu was fluent in English was because he was born in Tientsin and grew up in Shanghai, in China, and studied with children of French, English and American businessmen and diplomats in international high schools and universities. As a matter of fact, he was more fluent in French and English prior to in Vietnamese. General Lu Lan recalled in his first encounter with Hieu at Cam Ly airport, when both, one from Hue, one from Hanoi, came to Dalat to enter the Military Academy of Inter-arms, Hieu spoke Vietnamese with a French accent.
Around 1953, Captain Hieu was assigned to the Join General Staff located on Tran Hung Dao avenue, Cho Quan. Since the heads of different offices were still French, French was used as vernacular at JGS. It might well be that Captain Hieu was the most fluent in English there at that time. It was not established if Captain Hieu’s fluency in English was put into use when the T.R.I.M. (Training Relations Instruction Mission) delegation headed by General J.W. O‘Daniel, came to the Joint General Staff around 1956, to discuss about the organizational structure of the Vietnamese Army. The Vietnamese side wanted light mobile units which countered more efficiently guerilla warfare; the American side imposed a model adopted by the American divisions under the pretext American advisors would perform with less efficiency in a organizational structure unfamiliar to them. It might quite well be that the Vietnamese side, in the sake of national sovereignty, compelled the American delegation to use French in the discussion, and inserted Captain Hieu in the meeting room to eavesdrop American officers’ conversation, unaware the Vietnamese side had someone fluent in English.
Early 1963, Major Hieu was selected to attend the US Army Command and General Staff College, in Kansas. The Evaluation Report’s English Proficiency reads: Major Hieu demonstrated an excellent command of written English and had an excellent command of the spoken language.
Besides English and French, General Hieu knew German, Chinese1 (Mandarin, Shanghainese, Cantonese2). Furthermore, Colonel John Hayes, 5th Infantry Division Senior Advisor, marveled in discovering General Hieu knew a montagnard dialect when he witnessed General Hieu interrogating a prisoner belonging to the Rhade tribe captured in one of the Kampuchean cross-border operation.
General Hieu inherited his polyglot genes from his father. Mr. Huong knew French, English, Chinese (Mandarin, Shanghainese3 and Cantonese), Japanese4, Spanish and Russian5.
1In the investigation of Colonel Tran Trong Nghia ’s corruption case, no doubt Chinese businessmen dropped their jaws when General Hieu, Special Investigator of Anti-corruption, started using Chinese in his interviews with them.
2While living in Shanghai, I saw my brother talking to one girlfriend in Cantonese.
3My nanny only spoke Shanghainese.
4My younger sister’s nanny was a Japanese.
5This year, my dad who is 102, although hard of hearing, still hold conversation in writing with a Russian nurse.
Nguyen Van Tin