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Just three weeks before his own assassination, President John F. Kennedy laid the responsibility for the murder of South Vietnam’s president at the feet of the notorious “Dragon Lady”.

At the height of her notoriety, the New York Times named the glamorous 39-year-old wife of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem’s brother and chief counselor Ngo Dinh Nhu “the most powerful” woman in Asia. Known in the media as the “Dragon Lady,” Madame Nhu made frequent public pronouncements that spawned great resentment in South Vietnam and revulsion around the world. When Buddhist monks publicly incinerated themselves in protest in June 1963, her response was unspeakably barbaric: “Let them burn….If the Buddhists wish to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline and a match.”

In the heat of the uprisings that summer, President John F. Kennedy assigned Henry Cabot Lodge as the new ambassador to South Vietnam with the understanding that Lodge would do everything possible to bring the Ngo brothers’ regime under control. With U.S. encouragement, by late October a coup was in the works. While Madame Nhu was touring the United States to garner support for Diem and her husband, the coup was launched in Saigon, and on November 1 Diem and Nhu were brutally assassinated.

Long fascinated by Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, Asian studies scholar Monique Brinson Demery tracked down the reclusive former “first lady” of South Vietnam in Paris in 2005. Her interviews were the first that Madame Nhu had given to any Westerner in nearly 20 years. In her book Finding the Dragon Lady, Demery offers fresh insight into the diabolic femme fatale and the assassination of her husband and Diem.

Madame Nhu talked to her husband Ngo Dinh Nhu, the brother of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem, for the last time on Oct. 27, 1963. They had spoken every few days while she was away, first in Europe and then in the United States. It had been a long trip. Madame Nhu and her daughter Le Thuy, 18, had left Saigon six weeks before, and now it was almost time to go home. They planned to fly from California to Vietnam with a stopover in Japan. Nhu was going to meet them in Tokyo to accompany them the rest of the way, and Madame Nhu was trying to finalize the itinerary over a tinny long-distance telephone call connecting her from San Francisco to Saigon.

There was a small cyst on her eyelid, she explained to Nhu. She wanted to get it taken care of, but she supposed it could wait a few more days until she got to Tokyo.“Would that be all right?”she asked him. If she did it in Japan, she reasoned,“it will be cheaper!” Madame Nhu was trying to lighten the mood. It could be hard to read a person over thousands of miles of transpacific cable, but Nhu’s voice sounded small and strange to her.

“I’m not coming to Japan anymore. I am staying in Saigon.”

Madame Nhu chose not to insist. She didn’t want to get into a disagreement over the phone, so she bit her tongue. “Fine.” She would get the surgery done before flying home. In Los Angeles, why not? Doctors there were used to working on beautiful, famous faces. She would stay 10 more days.

After Washington, D.C., Madame Nhu had made highly publicized stops at cities and colleges in North Carolina, Illinois, and Texas. She had taken part in U.S. Day on October 23 at Dallas Memorial Auditorium, where she had been called onto the stage and handed a bouquet of flowers. U.S. Day was a protest rally specifically organized to take place one day before the UN Day celebration of the U.S. membership in the United Nations at the same location. Banners reading “Get the U.S. out of the UN” and “Get the UN out of the U.S.” were unfurled. The anti–United Nations gathering brought together ultraconservatives who opposed the Kennedy administration in Washington—members of the John Birch Society, the Minutemen, and the National Indignation Convention. A man named Lee Harvey Oswald was there.

But for all Madame Nhu’s press attention and powerful new friends, things in Saigon had continued to worsen. Nhu had sounded so strange on the tele- phone with his wife because he knew by then that things were all but hopeless.

Nhu’s attack on the [Buddhist] pagodas in August [executed by Army of the Republic of Vietnam Special Forces and police, in which more than 1,400 Buddhists were arrested] had poisoned whatever goodwill remained in his relationship with the Americans. Before then, the general thinking in Washington was that the United States had simply been“insufficiently firm” in its dealings with Nhu and his brother President Diem. But after the August raids and Nhu’s flagrant disregard for the American directive to resolve tensions with the Buddhists, Washington’s policy changed radically. Diem and Nhu were incorrigible, and they would have to be replaced.

On August 24, a top-secret cable sent to U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in Saigon instructed him to confront Diem with uncomfortable and immediate demands: Give the Buddhists what they want, and get rid of Nhu. If Diem didn’t agree or act quickly,“We must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved.”Lodge was given the green light to pursue alternative leaders. Although American leaders in Washington would not manage the tricky details of a regime change, the cable assured Lodge that“we will back you to the hilt on actions you take to achieve our objectives.”

Of course, a U.S. ambassador couldn’t exactly solicit regime change. That was Fred Flott’s job. An American Foreign Service officer from the Midwest, Flott understood it was his task to do the dirty work the ambassador himself could not—to make contacts with opponents of the Diem regime and funnel American support to topple the government of a friendly nation.

The Ngo brothers might not have known the full extent of what was going on in the American Embassy in Saigon, but they had a pretty good idea. Someone loyal to the Ngos had installed small eavesdropping devices in the embassy offices that went undetected until the Ngo affair was well over. But even without the spying technology, the shift would have been obvious to Diem and Nhu. On Sept. 2, 1963, President John F. Kennedy said in a CBS National News interview with Walter Cronkite that the Ngo brothers’“government has gotten out of touch with the people” of South Vietnam. “Now all we can do is to make it very clear that we don’t think this is the way to win,” Kennedy continued, and he called for “changes in policy and personnel,” a statement widely interpreted as a threat to Diem to get rid of Nhu.

The brothers couldn’t vent their frustration with the Americans outright, so they seemed to take it out on the South Vietnamese people. Martial law had been lifted, but every day Nhu’s police arrested dozens of “dissidents.” People caught distributing antigovernment pamphlets or writing anti-Ngo graffiti were taken into custody; even schoolchildren were detained in holding cells.

The brothers in Saigon couldn’t have known that in Washington enthusiasm for the coup was waxing and waning. The White House itself was in disarray over all the conflicting advice it was receiving. CIA director John A. McCone consistently criticized the idea of a coup. To a meeting of the Special Group on Vietnam, McCone said that replacing Diem and Nhu with unknowns was “exceedingly dangerous” and would likely spell “absolute disaster” for the United States. He said privately to President Kennedy too that this coup “would be the first of others that would follow.” The Departments of State and Defense, on the other hand, were adamantly in favor of a coup. The United States was divided but had already passed the point of no return. Ambassador Lodge was firm in his belief:“We are on a course from which there is no turning back.”

President Kennedy wasn’t sure what to think. He dispatched a nine-day fact-finding mission headed by his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Maxwell Taylor, in October 1963. The cover for the trip was to check on the progress of the war against the Viet Cong, and the men kept with protocol by meeting with President Diem at the palace for more than two hours. Not appearing on the official schedule, however, was a game of tennis with Maj. Gen. Duong Van Minh.

General Minh was known as Big Minh for two reasons: to distinguish him from another general of the same name and because of his unusual size. Close to six feet tall and 200 pounds, Minh towered over his Vietnamese colleagues and literally looked down on the Ngo brothers, his bosses. A graduate of the École Militaire in Paris and a veteran of the First Indochina War who had fought alongside the French against the Viet Minh, he had backed Diem and fought against the sects and gangsters who threatened the early years of the Diem presidency. Now Minh was plotting against Diem and Nhu.

Despite Minh’s enormous frame, he played elegant tennis. The American officials, McNamara and Taylor, barely kept up in the crushing Saigon heat, but they managed to sweat out a good game of doubles on the grass courts of the Cercle Sportif. Then the group retired to a mahogany-paneled room in the club for a casual chat“about the game.”On hearing about the match and private conversation, Nhu and Diem could only infer that the men had talked intrigue too. In fact, they hadn’t. Minh was too scared of leaks that day. But Diem and Nhu were well aware of his links to plotters and the American Embassy and the CIA.

By the last day of October, Diem and Nhu were down to their last tactic to try to keep the regime afloat. It was trademark Nhu, a smoke-and-mirrors scheme: He and Diem would fake their own coup. It was risky, but it was their only hope. A false coup was supposed to scare the Americans into renewing support for the Diem regime. Carefully selected phony coup leaders would pretend to be“neutralists,” in the vein of the surprise 1960 neutralist coup in Lao that had severely damaged U.S. interests in Southeast Asia.

To a casual observer, Oct. 31, 1963, seemed like just another day in Saigon. That morning, President Diem chatted easily in his office with Ambassador Lodge and Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Felt. Felt was passing through Saigon on what looked like a routine inspection of American military assistance to South Vietnam, but in fact the South Vietnamese army generals plotting against Diem had orchestrated his presence, specifically timing Felt’s visit to keep Diem in the palace all morning. The South Vietnamese president warned his visitors that they might hear rumors of a coup and should pay no attention to them.At noon, shutters were lowered over storefronts. Motorbikes, pedicabs and taxis ferried people home, out of the midday heat for two hours of lunch and rest.

The palace was quiet too. The Nhus’ younger children had left for Dalat. They were on school vacation, and the boys had begged their father to let them go hunting. He let them go but made sure that 15 members of the presidential guard accompanied them. His youngest child, 4-year-old daughter Le Quyen, couldn’t hunt, but she would go to the mountains with her brothers and her nurse.

A little after 4 p.m., a crash of artillery fire broke out. The gunfire sounded as if it was near the presidential guard barracks. Shooting so close to the palace had definitely not been part of the plan. Until that moment, the brothers had appraised the slow buildup of troops and tanks inside Saigon’s city limits calmly. They had taken note of the developments in the city from the remove of their offices. Instead of raising warning flags, the movement of troops and armor had reassured Diem and Nhu. They believed their plan, code-named “Bravo Two,” was off to a good start. Just before the police headquarters fell into the generals’ hands, a frightened police official had telephoned Nhu to tell him that they were under attack.

“It’s all right,” Nhu said. “I know all about it.”

Nhu was unruffled because he still thought that, according to plan, his forces would quash the “insurrection,” leaving him and Diem to be hailed as heroes. In the ensuing confusion, Nhu also intended to conduct a very personalized bloodbath. Special Forces and Nhu’s hired gangsters would murder disloyal ARVN generals and senior officers. Troublesome Americans had been marked as well; reporter Stanley Karnow would learn that Ambassador Lodge and veteran CIA agent Lucien Conein were on the list of targets.

The countercoup supposedly now underway involved almost cartoonish levels of deception: It was to be a coup inside a coup.

But it soon became clear to the brothers that something had gone wrong. They gathered around the [radio] transmitter in the president’s office. It remained quiet. They called the surrounding provincial chiefs, all military men. They called corps commanders and division commanders too. No one stirred. By the time Nhu realized what was really happening, it was too late. There was no way out of the city and no one to trust. The traitors had encircled the palace, forming a tightening noose. Nhu grabbed the mouthpiece. “Take up your arms.” He barked the order out to the brothers’ last remaining hope, the boys of the Republican Youth and his wife’s paramilitary Women’s Corps.

Their silence was a death sentence.

Diem and Nhu’s plans had been hijacked. The man they had entrusted with carrying out the phony coup, General Ton That Dinh, had turned on them. The youngest general in the South Vietnamese army, Dinh had converted to Catholicism and joined Nhu’s obscure political party to ingratiate himself with the Ngo regime. Dinh’s tactics worked, to a point. President Diem treated him like an adopted son. But Dinh’s vanity made him easy prey for Diem’s opponents. The conspirators convinced General Dinh that he belonged in the president’s cabinet. When Diem refused him the position, Dinh’s damaged pride made him ripe for the picking.

Los Angeles was 15 hours behind Saigon, and the Republic of Vietnam’s first lady was recovering in her suite at the Beverly Wilshire. She’d had the cyst removed from her eye hours earlier.

Madame Nhu and Le Thuy were awakened in the night by a frantic telephone call from the attaché at the Vietnamese Embassy. In a panic, he described the unfolding crisis in Saigon. He said roadblocks were being thrown across avenues leading from the city to the airport. Insurgent marine troops wearing red kerchiefs were arriving by the truckload in the heart of the city.

Madame Nhu listened helplessly to the details of the crisis thousands of miles away. She wrote, “If only I had been there,” again and again in her memoir. She told herself that she would have prevented the regime from falling, as she had in 1955, 1960 and again in 1962. She believed this time her absence had fatally weakened the Ngo regime.

The worst part was that she could not get hold of the children. Trac was 15, Quynh 11 and little Le Quyen only 4. The story they would later tell their mother was harrowing. When the coup started, they were still in Dalat. Up there, surrounded by army men, they no longer knew whom to trust. The children fled into the woods behind the house and spent the night in the cold rain. They walked all the next day to a mountain village where they were able to beg a bit of rice and ground meat. Then they waited.

The Ngo brothers fled to Cholon, the Chinese part of Saigon. Some said they used a tunnel in the basement of the palace to make their daring escape. Others say a black Citroën pulled up in front of the palace gates, and the two brothers, both wearing dark gray suits, simply walked out and climbed in. Either way, they were fugitives. It would be hours before the coup forces realized they were fighting for an empty palace. By then the brothers were hiding in the house of a merchant named Ma Tuyen.

Before dawn on Nov. 1, 1963, the final siege on the palace began. Marching formations of ARVN rangers filed in behind a column of tanks. They pointed their barrels at the palace walls and began to fire. It didn’t take long before the assault at pointblank range carved a jagged hole. A white flag finally went up from the first-floor window on the southwest corner of the palace, signaling to the other soldiers and cowering civilians that it was over. It was time to loot the palace.

A rush of people charged across the grounds and up the stairs. The silk drapes hung in tatters, and the palace’s ornate mirrors and lamps, fixtures dating from the French colonial era, lay shattered on the floor. The rangers, army boys and journalists poked through the rubble. They found Nhu’s whiskey and, lying on his desk, the aptly titled book he had not gotten a chance to finish: Shoot to Kill, by Richard Miers, a memoir about his success fighting the Communists in Malaya.And while it turned out that Diem’s reading tastes ran to adventure tales about the American West, the first eager boys pawing at Madame Nhu’s silk negligees overlooked the brown-covered book in her drawers. Her diary was eventually found, discreetly slipped into a waistband, and kept for decades as an heirloom and souvenir.

The brothers knew they were finished, so they didn’t try to hide much longer. They moved from Ma Tuyen’s house to another location in Cholon, the yellow and white stucco St. Francis Xavier Church. Diem called the army headquarters and asked to be put in touch with the generals to arrange his surrender. Troops began pulling up shortly after. The officers walked up to the front of the church and saluted the man who had been their president for nine years. Then they led him and his brother out and shoved them into the back of a small, tarpaulin-sided truck. Later, no one can say when, the brothers were transferred to an armored personnel carrier. They would not come out of it alive.

Madame Nhu was stuck in the quiet luxury of the Beverly Wilshire, but she was desperate to get her children out of South Vietnam. She called Marguerite Higgins, a reporter she had met in Saigon and who had become a friend. A sobbing Madame Nhu asked, “Do you really believe they [Diem and Nhu] are dead? Are they going to kill my children too?” Higgins offered to help by calling on her connections at the State Department in Washington.

“Hurry,” Madame Nhu had implored. “Please hurry.”

Higgins called Roger Hilsman, President Kennedy’s close adviser and the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, at 2 in the morning.

“Congratulations, Roger,”she greeted him.“How does it feel to have blood on your hands?”

“Oh, come on now, Maggie,” Hilsman replied.“Revolutions are rough. People get hurt.” But Higgins’ voice on the phone in the middle of the night asking about the Ngo children must have been a startling reminder of the power of the press. Hilsman’s initial reaction quickly turned when he realized that the United States couldn’t stand by and let something bad happen to children, no matter who their parents were. Hilsman assured her that Kennedy would do anything he could to safeguard the children and promised to get them to a safe place. Within three days, the children were out of harm’s way in Rome.

For the Americans, things were off to a bad start. The official story, that the Ngo brothers had committed suicide, was blown when two leaked photographs showed Diem shot through the head and Nhu’s body filleted with a bayonet more than 20 times. One picture showed both bodies lying in a pool of blood on the floor of an APC, their hands tied behind their backs. The other picture showed Diem’s bloody corpse on a stretcher with a smiling soldier looking into the camera.

The Pentagon Papers, the U.S. government’s history of its political and military involvement in Vietnam, concluded about the 1963 coup,“As the nine-year rule of Diem came to a bloody end, our complicity in his overthrow heightened our responsibilities and our commitment in an essentially leaderless Vietnam.” The generals behind the coup began to make arrangements for a civilian government. General Big Minh became president, and after delaying for what was deemed an appropriate period, the U.S. government recognized the new government of South Vietnam on November 8.

Entire books have explored the extent to which the United States was directly responsible for the 1963 coup in South Vietnam and, by extension, the murder of the Ngo brothers. Few people have put it more succinctly than President Lyndon Johnson, when he grumbled during a Feb. 1, 1966, telephone conversation with Senator Eugene McCarthy: “We killed him [Diem]. We all got together and got a goddamn bunch of thugs and we went in and assassinated him. Now, we’ve really had no political stability since then.” Former CIA Director William Colby said,“The overthrow of Diem was the worst mistake we made.” If the United States had sustained support for Diem, and if he had not been killed, Colby believed, the Americans “could have avoided most of the rest of the war, which is a hell of a note.”

By all accounts, President Kennedy was profoundly disturbed by the Ngo brothers’ deaths. In the cabinet room of the White House, General Taylor recalled that“Kennedy leaped to his feet and rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face which I had never seen before.” CIA man Colby confirmed the reaction, saying the president had “blanched and walked out of the room to compose himself.” But others wondered how the president could possibly be surprised.

As Kennedy’s friend Red Faye would recall, the president didn’t just blame himself for the deaths of Diem and Nhu. He blamed Madame Nhu.“That goddamn bitch. She’s responsible for the death of that kind man [Diem].You know, it’s so totally unnecessary to have that kind man die because that bitch stuck her nose in and boiled up the whole situation down there.”

On the day after the coup, President Kennedy dictated a memo for his records. He called Diem’s and Nhu’s deaths“particularly abhorrent” and accepted responsibility for having “encouraged Lodge along a course to which he was in any case inclined.” His presidential thoughts on the Saigon assassinations were then interrupted by 3-year-old John Jr. and 6-yearold Caroline, who came squealing into the office for a moment with their daddy. Behind the crinkling of the tapes, you can hear little voices saying, “Hello,” into Kennedy’s Dictaphone. Just a moment later their father asked the children all about the changing of the seasons: Why are leaves green? How is snow on the ground? The exchange is all the more touching when you remember that these children would never see the change of seasons with their father again. Kennedy would be assassinated just three weeks later.


Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.