I had never heard of Madame Nhu before I came across this book, and that’s too bad, because she’s a fascinating character, and from beginning to end, her circumstances gave her unique “front row seats” to the complicated story of Vietnamese history between the period of French colonialism and the 1975 fall to Communism.
Tran (Nhu) Thi Le Xuan, the titular “Madame Nhu” was born to parents with long, aristocratic pedigrees which extend back to the last Emperor of Vietnam, who lost his kingdom to the French in the mid-1800′s. When the French ruled Indochina, the Chuongs (her maiden name) collaborated, going so far as to convert to Catholicism, and prospered as part of the tiny native Vietnamese landowning Elite. Nhu was born at the tail end of this era, in 1924. When the Japanese drove the French out in World War II, the Chuongs collaborated with them. When the Japanese were in turn driven out, and the French (briefly) returned, fortune nevertheless shone on the Chuongs, as Thi Le Xuan’s husband Dinh Nhu built up his older brother’s (Diem Ngo’s) political career. Through complicated intrigues, Diem would become President of South Vietnam, and Dinh Nhu the leader of his political party and de facto Vice President (who in Vietnam has powers akin to the American Secretaries of State and the Treasury). Diem was a lifelong batchelor, so the very public Madame Nhu came to be regarded as Vietnam’s “First Lady” even though she was technically the Lady Vice President. (“Second Lady”?)
So yes, this is a mercenary, ambitious, Machiavellian family, exhibiting not much in the way of idealism or loyalty… even to each other. When Nhu was First Lady, and her parents the Vietnamese ambassadors to the US, they publicly denounced her just prior to the coup which saw her husband and brother-in-law assassinated.
Most readers won’t actually like any of the characters in this book, but that’s besides the point, isn’t it? The enjoyment I derived from this book came from (1) having a lot of my questions about the genesis of the Vietnam War answered, and (2) boggling at the amount and complexity of cloak-and-dagger intrigues it details. Seriously, some of this stuff is so bizarre, I would have thought it was bad James Bond fan fiction, if author Monique Demery wasn’t such a credible writer.
To give you a little taste of what I’m talking about: the 1963 coup which took down the Diem regime began as a fake coup, engineered by Diem himself, and brother/advisor Dinh Ngo. Diem had been unpopular since a 1962 crackdown on dissident Buddhist monks, which ended in several displays of public self-immoliation (always a sympathy-grabber.) The fake coup was supposed to be controllable, as it would be started and orchestrated by Diem operatives who wouldn’t let it get out of hand. The faux-coup would disrupt commerce and cause general disorder, which would turn public opinion against Diem’s opposition, and which would give Diem an excuse to institute martial law, and a purge of moderates. Great idea, no? The thing is, the CIA knew about the secretly fake coup, and turned one of Diem’s generals into a double agent. So the CIA operated a double-secret REAL coup within Diem’s fake coup. Diem and Dinh Nhu didn’t catch on until the supposedly-rebelling soldiers -whom Diem had secretly ordered to shut down traffic in Saigon- didn’t follow script and stand down to Diem’s police. After a lame attempt to flee, Diem and Dinh Nhu were hunted down and stabbed to death in the back of an armored troop carrier. When Madame Nhu heard the brothers had been assassinated, she didn’t accept the news as real for three months. She assumed (as, actually, my own wife probably would) that he had faked his death, and was probably waiting somewhere for her out of the country.
And that’s just one of two death-faking stories in this book… and only one of three false-flag attacks… and Diem was only in power for nine years! That’s a average of one false-flag event for every three years in power. I wonder if that’s a record. (I am so naïve.)
Oh, did I mention that Diem was put in power by the French, because they expected him to fail? They figured his political inexperience and corruption would mismanage South Vietnam so badly that the public would be clamoring for a (pseudo)return to French (neo)colonial rule.
Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. This was a family of tenacious survivors, and Madame Nhu was at least as streetwise as her husband and brother-in-law, and maybe considerably more. When a pirate problem on Vietnamese inland waterways became so bad it threatened the economy, Diem and Dinh Ngo were prepared to negotiate. It was Madame Nhu working behind the scenes who convinced them to confront and destroy the underworld pirate/gangsters, which turns out to have been the right decision.
She was tough (love that front cover pic), but also knew how to turn on the charm. Her flirtations with then-VP LBJ were “credited” (if one may use such a positive term) with bringing hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid into Vietnam. That’s just one of many instances in this book when the “Dragon Lady” used her sex appeal to political ends. Obviously, the appellation “Dragon Lady” -with all its racial and gender stereotypical undertones- is problematic, but I’ll leave those discussions for some other reviewer.
No doubt the CIA would have been happy to kill off Madame Nhu along with her husband, but she was fortuitously having a minor operation in the United States at the time (removal of a conjunctival cyst). This saved her life, and she lived as a recluse for the next fifty years, first in Paris, and in old age with one of her sons in a suburb of Rome. Throughout the book, as she is telling Madame Nhu’s life story, the author also tells the parallel story of how this book was researched, and how she came to know Madame Nhu personally. This is not a heavy-hitting scholarly work, but a very readable account of a minor historical figure who probably deserves more attention.
A few unexpected tidbits:
Vietnamese resistance to French recolonializing efforts after World War II were in part the result of Japanese propaganda during the war. Even though Imperial Japanese forces were cruel masters, their Asian solidarity propaganda found purchase among Vietnamese who suffered long under humiliating French colonial rule. For all their evils, the Imperial Japanese broke the myth of unchallengeable European commercial, military, and technological superiority.
One of Madame Nhu’s other brother-in-laws was a Catholic cardinal who “went rogue” and started ordaining bishops without Vatican approval. Eventually he was ousted from the church, when they uncovered a plot by him and some others to elect a second pope who would challenge the sitting pope.
The Vietnam War arguably started with American CIA orchestration of the 1963 coup. There is a long list of reasons why the US wanted to oust Diem and his brother- mostly they were too independent-minded to take uncritical instructions from the US, but also because the Kennedy administration felt that Diem’s regime didn’t project a favorable enough image of what a liberal democracy should be, in contrast to Ho Chi Minh’s regime up in the North. President Diem appeared a bit too opulent and corrupt, and as part of the miniscule Catholic minority, it looked bad when he cracked down on Buddhist monks. One has to wonder whether the crackdown, and subsequent coup, and subsequent Vietnam War would have happened at all, if Madame Nhu’s family had been Buddhist instead of Catholic.