Nguyen died Jan. 11 at a San Jose hospital after struggling with diabetes-related health problems, said Chanh Nguyen Huu, who succeeded Nguyen as head of the Garden Grove, Calif.-based Government of Free Vietnam in Exile. He was 86.
In November 1960, Nguyen helped thwart a coup against the U.S.-backed president Ngo Dinh Diem when he mistook the rebels for Viet Cong soldiers and rushed to the president's defense.
"Because I thought it was a Viet Cong attack, I sent orders to the troops to help us," he said in a 1981 interview with WGBH in Boston. "At that time, I saw it was a coup managed by some of the paratroopers—not all of them, but some."
South Vietnamese generals overthrew Diem's regime three years later, starting a volatile period of political unrest.
Nguyen himself briefly took control of the government in a Jan. 30, 1964, coup, but left Vietnam the following year after being forced out of power by other generals amid growing tension with U.S. military officials. He lived and worked in France for several years before settling in California with his wife and four children in 1977.
"I left Saigon with some of my soil of ... Vietnam, you know, in my hand," he said in the 1981 interview. "I feel that I missed to bring peace to my people."
Nguyen was a leader in the Government of Free Vietnam in Exile, which was founded in 1995 and operates out of a storefront in Garden Grove, in the heart of the largest U.S. Vietnamese expatriate community, said Huu. In 2002, Nguyen organized an international convention in Anaheim, in suburban Orange County south of Los Angeles, and held elections for the party he founded.
He was elected head-of-state in 2005 for the exiled government and transferred his power to Huu in 2007 as his health began failing, Huu said.
The former general continued to fight Communism in Vietnam even from his adopted home in California and as recently as 2005 tried to contact his former soldiers in Vietnam, he said.
"A lot of people followed him, but it failed," he said.
Several hundred people attended a public memorial for Nguyen in Garden Grove on Jan. 19.
Nguyen was buried in San Jose, where his family resides, Huu said.