Vietnam, anti-Communism; Continent: Asia

Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu by Monique Brinson Demery

  • I knew she wasn’t a Bond girl, but if you’d see the book cover, you’d understand the passing association
  • 258 pages (225 pages before the Acknowledgments begin)

When I was in high school in the 1980s, the Vietnam War never made the history curriculum. Unbelievable, isn’t it? The school board couldn’t risk letters to the local op-ed section by teaching anything someone living might still have an opinion about. Instead, Blockbuster University professors Oliver Stone and Michael Cimino got to teach us about the war many in my parents’ generation were still smarting from.

So, my apologies to Madame Nhu for not having any idea who she was prior to reading this book. She wasn’t a military figure, so most American authors have relatively little to say about her. Writers who have neglected her have missed out on an interesting story.

In 1924, Tran Le Xuan was born in Hanoi, the second daughter born to a family with imperial blood. Her parents might have ignored her, their middle child and a daughter to boot, more if she hadn’t been so impossibly headstrong. Although her parents had aligned themselves politically with the French, the nobleman she married and his brother had very different views. Madame Nhu had become the sister-in-law of Ngo Dihn Diem by marrying Ngo Dihn Nhu.

Where Does She Fit In to Mid-20th Century Vietnam?

Diem became dictator of South Vietnam and remained in power through much of the conflict in Vietnam. Ngo Dihn Nhu nominally served as his advisor, but as a practical matter was the real power in Saigon. Diem was an idealist who wanted a Vietnam with neither French, nor Japanese nor Communist rule: he found them all detestably non-Vietnamese. It was the last bit about staunchly rejecting the communism of the North Vietnamese leadership that made Diem at all worth propping up in the eyes of the Kennedy administration.

Diem was utterly out of touch with the common Vietnamese man he claimed to champion: he took up residence in the royal palace (renamed “Independence Palace”), had been well-educated and practiced Catholicism (a minority religion held over from the days of French imperialism). The Americans could work with an unpopular dictator in the interest of limiting communism worldwide, but the fact that Diem resisted American suggestions while spending their foreign aid packages didn’t sit well.

Author Demery gives us a Madame Nhu who was the practical adult in the palace. Her views were unpopular, and she often shot her mouth off to the detriment of her public image. As for managing her public image, she did take on the hostess duties attached to the position of First Lady with aplomb. She was a thorn in Kennedy’s side, but she successfully charmed his Vice President Lyndon Johnson when Johnson and his wife visited the royal palace. As for the other aspect of being First Lady, she wasn’t married to Diem, but she could goad him into taking her suggestions. She claimed to have kept him from political disaster on a few occasions.

Where Does She Fit into Mid-20th Century America?

As Vietnam entered the consciousness of the American public, Madame Nhu became nicknamed “The Dragon Lady,” a moniker attached to any Asian woman who didn’t fit the retiring stereotype (Chiang Kai Shek’s wife had been similarly branded twenty years earlier). She understood that the Ngo regime needed American support, but she refused to use her influence with Diem to suggest that he should always do whatever Washington told him. She detested Vietnamese communists – they had tried to kill her when her eldest daughter was an infant – but was no fan of Americans, either. She found the foreign press frustratingly unwilling to simply print whatever the palace said as truth: American reporters almost never did what they were told.

The American government ignored her when she traveled in the U.S., giving speeches at colleges and press clubs all over the country. She made television appearances on national news programs like “Meet the Press.” Madame Nhu was an attractive, stylish woman who commanded attention despite her diminutive form, so she was a popular speaker. Americans flocked to see her and to hear what she had to say, even as her husband and brother-in-law were losing power back in Saigon. She was still in the U.S. when the Nhu regime ultimately fell and both her husband and her brother-in-law were executed.

Author and Subject

Early in her book, author Demery makes an important disclosure about interviewing Madame Nhu: she grew to have a personal relationship with her. By the time Demery began research for this book, she had found Madame Nhu in a Parisian apartment complex, an octogenarian woman living a reclusive life. The older woman manipulates her with the promise of access and details, and then thrusts responsibility for publishing her meandering, incomprehensible memoirs on her. Demery can’t help liking her in spite of the ill treatment. Remarkably, I find Demery still comfortable with criticizing many of her subject’s decisions in a very evenhanded way.

Would I want to have known Madame Nhu? I suppose it would depend on whether or not my weak presidency was charged with containing Communism in Asia. She was plainly wearing the proverbial pants in the family, if you believe Madame Nhu’s disclosures to this book’s author. Even then, I’m not so sure I would care to know her: while she was a charismatic figure, she shot her mouth off to her own detriment on several occasions. For example, she referred to the self-immolation of the Buddhist monks protesting the Nhus as “monk barbecue.” My sense is that she had all the tools — power, access, charisma and education — but not the kind of judgment that precludes these outrageous public remarks.

Demery’s book covers many aspects of Madame Nhu’s life. Still, I’m not quite sure to do with the story I’ve read now. I still lack context for it, a failing of my own education about the Vietnam War and the events surrounding it rather than of the book’s author.

Image: Madame Nhu and Lyndon Johnson dine together. Wikimedia.org, public domain. 1961.

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