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Madame Nhu with Vice President Johnson and President Diem during a Saigon visit in 1961 (LBJ Library)During the brief history of a country called South Vietnam, a woman once known as “Beautiful Spring” connived and manipulated her way to the apex of power. In the process, she fueled religious hatreds, promulgated draconian morality edicts, fostered craven corruption and so alienated her countrymen and her country’s foreign allies that she will be forever reviled as the “Dragon Lady,” a name derived from the marvelously evil female character created in 1934 by Milt Caniff in his classic comic strip Terry and the Pirates. The young Tran Le Xuan, who became the uncompromising Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, was an integral player in a Byzantine drama that entrapped the United States and offered an ominous foretaste of the disastrous decade that was about to unfold.

As the sister-in-law of South Vietnam’s bachelor President Ngo Dinh Diem, Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu considered herself the nation’s first lady and was by far the country’s most famous and influential woman. No stranger to controversy, and thriving on publicity, Madame Nhu had the complete support of President Diem and, eventually, the complete loathing of President John F. Kennedy and the government of the United States. The rise and fall of Madame Nhu was illustrative of the quicksand upon which the U.S. policy of containment of communism in Southeast Asia was being built in the early 1960s.

Born in 1924, Tran Le Xuan came from one of the wealthiest and most aristocratic families in Vietnam, whose fortune was made serving the French colonial government. Beautiful Spring, attended to by 20 servants at her home in Hanoi where her father was a lawyer, was a mediocre student who became fluent in French but never learned to write Vietnamese and never finished high school. She had an unhappy childhood and felt unloved by her mother, against whom she rebelled. She was anxious to marry in order to escape her domestic circumstances.

Ngo Dinh Nhu spent his 20s in Paris studying library science and literature. The aristocratic Ngo clan had converted to Catholicism in the 17th century, and Nhu’s father served as counselor to the emperor of Vietnam. Back in Hanoi in the early 1940s, Nhu was an archivist at the Indo-China Library in Hanoi when he became an admirer of Beautiful Spring’s mother, who ran a local literary salon. While Nhu provided books and tutored her daughter in Latin, the 19-year-old Beautiful Spring devised a plan to get out of her oppressive home situation. Although 14 years younger than Nhu and not in love, she converted to Catholicism and married him in 1943.

Three years after her marriage, war broke out between the Communist Viet Minh and the French.

Nhu and his brothers were strongly anti-Communist. One brother, Diem, was arrested and briefly held prisoner by the Viet Minh; another was killed. Nhu managed to avoid capture but his wife was not so lucky. She and her infant daughter were taken by the Viet Minh in December 1946 and held in a remote village for four months. When French forces liberated the area, the family was reunited and settled in the Central Highlands resort town of Da Lat. There, the couple ran a newspaper and began to organize support for Diem, who was an anti-Communist nationalist leader then living in the United States.

In 1953 Nhu moved to Saigon where he organized demonstrations against the French and the Communists and also schemed to undermine popular support for Emperor Bao Dai in order to increase the appeal of the nationalist movement headed by Diem, then living in France and in contact with the large Parisian Vietnamese exile community. In March 1954, when a powerful Viet Minh force threatened the French army at Dien Bien Phu, Bao Dai—considered a puppet of the French by many Vietnamese—realized there was a possibility the French might soon be gone from Vietnam. Recognizing Diem’s popularity, in June 1954 Bao Dai appointed him prime minister of Vietnam.

The next year Nhu came up with a plan that would allow Diem to win the power struggle with Bao Dai: hold a referendum asking the people to choose between them. By this time, Nhu had control of the secret police, which could determine the outcome of the October 25, 1955, election. With an astounding 98.2 percent of the vote, Diem “won” the contest and proceeded to oust the emperor, proclaim a republic, name himself president and assume dictatorial powers. Because he was strongly anti-Communist, Diem readily won the support of the Eisenhower administration, which gave him hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. With Nhu at his side, Diem spent the next few years defeating his political opponents and consolidating his powers.

Nhu and Madame Nhu took up residence in the Presidential Palace and controlled access to Diem. Their power was immense. Journalist David Halberstam scaled that power in American terms: Had Diem been the president of the United States, Nhu would have controlled all the nation’s newspapers; headed the CIA, FBI and Congress; served as attorney general and secretary of state; and written all the reports seen by the president. Both Nhu and Madame Nhu were elected to the National Assembly in 1956; both rarely bothered to attend its sessions.

Madame Nhu served as her bachelor brother-in-law’s official first lady, complete with all the trappings and influence. In 1956 she began a campaign to make major changes in Vietnamese domestic relations. When her 1958 Family Code bill became law, it made polygamy, divorce and marital infidelity illegal. Women were given equal rights with men in a variety of areas. Several men in the Assembly disagreed with this legislation and during the often contentious deliberations, Madame Nhu ridiculed the Assembly majority leader, referring to him as “a pig.”

Government repression cemented the Diem regime’s hold on power, but eventually it served to alienate the Vietnamese from the government—alienation that was exploited by the Communist Viet Cong. By the close of the 1950s, spreading Viet Cong influence was driving the country to the point of political crisis.

President Diem’s propensity for one-man rule was tempered only by reliance on his family to govern Vietnam. His four brothers all had important roles in South Vietnamese affairs. Despite their strong influence, neither Nhu nor Madame Nhu held high official positions within the Diem government. Nhu’s official title was adviser to the president. Madame Nhu was head of the Women’s Solidarity Movement and in charge of women’s affairs generally. However, the couple’s power and influence grew, to the point where some observers claimed Nhu was more powerful even than Diem, because of Nhu’s strong influence over his brother’s thinking. Other observers felt it was Madame Nhu who had become the dominant member of the family. More and more she concerned herself with matters outside the domain of women’s affairs, and sought a position for herself of equality with the president.

Journalist and diplomat John Mecklin, who served in Vietnam with the U.S. Information Agency in 1961 and 1962, got to know Diem, Nhu and Madame Nhu personally. He found it conceivable that the entire family was clinically mad; indeed, some of their actions were so bizarre as to suggest a death wish. According to Mecklin, “the Nhus were the poison that ultimately destroyed the regime.” Madame Nhu was a “hair-triggered spitfire” willing to force a resolution to political issues but almost always in the most damaging directions. She was greatly stirred by the crisis affecting her country, but her reactions served to worsen it. She was striking in appearance but not beautiful, very energetic and had extravagant tastes. She was extroverted, had a good sense of humor and was a captivating conversationalist, capable of talking, Mecklin said “like a machine gun in either French or English.”

With resentment against the Diem government growing, but seeing no alternative, the White House urged Diem to pursue reform in order to broaden his base of support. In 1959 Ambassador Elbridge Durbrow tried to persuade Diem to jettison Nhu and bring new people into the government. In November 1960, South Vietnamese paratroopers had the same goal in mind when they attempted a coup. Among their first demands was that Madame Nhu be removed from the Presidential Palace. According to an article in Time magazine, she was flattered by the attention. In the first moments of the coup, Diem and most everyone inside the palace favored accepting the demands to form a new government. Alone, Madame Nhu rejected any notion of compromise, insisting on fighting to the end. Diem finally brought in loyal troops and forced an end to the rebellion. As a result of the nearly successful coup—to the great dismay of her enemies—Madame Nhu’s influence increased dramatically. She wryly summed it up herself: “Up until then, they had not taken me seriously. But then they began to notice me, and began to worry when I said things.”

During the coup attempt, Ambassador Durbrow offered Madame Nhu safe conduct to the U.S. Embassy. Although the Americans did not sponsor the coup, Durbrow’s offer convinced Madame Nhu of U.S. complicity. As Diem and the Nhus grew more paranoid, the regime adopted a siege mentality, and its popularity further plummeted. According to New York Times reporter Halberstam, “Everything that went wrong in Vietnam was blamed on the Nhus,” and Madame Nhu “became the target of even more intense hatred.”

Her 1958 Family Code law notwithstanding, Madame Nhu decided Vietnamese morals needed even further regulation. Her 1962 Law for the Protection of Morality sought to criminalize a wide range of activities, including birth control, beauty contests, gambling, dancing, boxing, cockfights and fighting by male Siamese fighting fish. Minors could not attend certain movies and plays; sorcerers and mediums were outlawed; prostitution was prohibited. This legislation fomented dislike of Madame Nhu in proportion to the popularity of the activities banned. According to Saigon-based Associated Press reporter Malcolm Browne, Madame Nhu also declared war on her own family. In 1962 she reportedly caused her sister to attempt suicide; in 1963 she disowned her parents.

Although she may have been flattered to be a focus of the 1960 coup attempt, Madame Nhu was furious when she and her husband became the targets of the next one. On February 27, 1962, two American-trained pilots in the Vietnamese Air Force took off in their AD-6 attack plane from Bien Hoa Air Base outside of Saigon. Lieutenant Nguyen Van Cu managed to bomb the Nhus’ wing of the Presidential Palace. Diem was walking down a hallway when the bombs struck, and was nearly bowled over by the blast. Nhu was unhurt, and Madame Nhu was slightly injured when she fell down a flight of stairs. An accomplice, Lieutenant Nguyen Phu Quoc, was shot down by anti-aircraft fire and taken prisoner.

Cu, who flew his plane on to Cambodia where he was granted political asylum, had bombed the palace with napalm and high explosives. He later said the hatred that inspired his attack was directed less at Diem personally than toward his family. Quoc was imprisoned until the next coup, and then released. Both airmen eventually returned to their duties as air force pilots.

Diem realized he needed American aid to maintain his position, but he and the Nhus wanted that aid to come with no strings attached. They were unhappy with the expanding American presence in their country—which Madame Nhu brazenly called “creeping Americanism”—and they were willing to take drastic steps to minimize it. For a time, Madame Nhu ordered the police to pick up all Vietnamese women found walking with Americans. According to reporter Halberstam, her political philosophy was simple: The Ngo family was always right; the family should never compromise, and it should ignore criticism. On the other hand, the Americans who were funding the Vietnamese government, training its police and military and beginning to die in combat in support of the regime, felt they had the right to advise the Diem regime and they expected that advice to be taken.

Thanks to American aid, the size of South Vietnam’s armed forces was growing rapidly. Yet at the same time, so too was the size and effectiveness of the Viet Cong. Twice, elements of the South Vietnamese armed forces had attacked Diem in the Presidential Palace. Doubtful about their loyalty, Diem began to deploy his troops more to minimize their ability to stage coups than to effectively fight the Communists. According to Halberstam, further straining the relationship with South Vietnamese senior army commanders was the behavior of Madame Nhu, who ordered them around the Presidential Palace like “house servants” and treated them generally like lackeys under her personal control.

While Diem and the Nhus were Catholic, most Vietnamese were Buddhists. As no opposition political parties were allowed in South Vietnam, Buddhism became a vehicle for expression of discontent. President Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc, was the Catholic archbishop of Hue, the center of Buddhism in Vietnam. In early 1963, there was a celebration in Hue to commemorate Thuc’s 25 years as bishop. Both Vietnamese and Roman Catholic flags were flown, an act that violated a law permitting only the Vietnamese flag to be flown in public. Shortly afterward, to celebrate Buddha’s 2,587th birthday, the Buddhists in Hue wanted to fly their flag. When the Diem government prohibited it, thousands of Buddhists demonstrated and nine were killed when government troops fired into the protestors. In the aftermath, American Ambassador William Trueheart urged Diem to make peace with the Buddhists by admitting fault, paying indemnity and publicly apologizing for the incident. Instead the government blamed the Buddhists’ death on the Viet Cong. When the Buddhists continued to take their protest to the streets, the government banned demonstrations. Thus began the destabilizing Buddhist crisis.

After Diem’s response to their grievances proved un­sat­isfactory, several Bud­dhist monks and nuns began a series of hunger strikes. Their protests in Hue turned violent and the government troops fought back. Anti-government demonstrations by the Buddhists spread rapidly throughout the country. On June 11, 1963, an old Buddhist monk squatted on a Saigon street near the Xa Loi pagoda. He had gasoline poured over his head, lit a match and set himself aflame. Thich Quang Duc was the first of seven Buddhists to protest the Diem regime with suicide by immolation.

American officials were stunned by the Buddhist suicides, and pressured Diem to make some sort of settlement. Showing she was made of sterner stuff, a swaggering Madame Nhu called for beating the monks “ten times over” and dismissed the suicides as a “monk barbecue show.” Not to be outdone, her husband further inflamed the situation by sneering, “If the Buddhists wish to have another barbecue I will be glad to supply the gasoline and a match.” Finally the Americans prevailed upon Diem to meet with Buddhist leaders, and he issued a mollifying communiqué. Upon learning of this, Madame Nhu accused Diem of cowardice and called him a “jellyfish” for even negotiating.

Despite Diem’s words, positions hardened. The Buddhist protests, originally religious, became overtly political, and support for them increased. Nhu claimed the Buddhists were rebels and their movement was Communist infiltrated. Diem and the Nhus wanted to crush the Buddhists but were restrained by the Americans, who professed their belief in religious freedom and urged the government to reform. The deepening crisis extended into the fall of 1963. The Nhus complained Diem was being too soft on the Buddhists, and rumors began to swirl that the military—and the Nhus—were planning coups to push Diem from power.

Nhu, who considered the Vietnamese Special Forces his private army, ordered hundreds of them to attack the Xa Loi pagoda with guns, tear gas and grenades on August 21, 1963. The Buddhists barricaded themselves inside, but after two hours of fighting, more than 100 monks were arrested and taken away. In an interview the day after the pagoda raid, reporter Halberstam described Madame Nhu as “in a state of euphoria, chattering like a schoolgirl after a prom.” She giddily told the reporter the government had crushed “the Communist-Buddhists” and referred to the event as “the happiest day of my life since we crushed the Binh Xuyen in 1955.”

It wasn’t a happy day for the Americans, who, having financed and trained the Vietnamese Special Forces, wanted them used for counterinsurgency instead of attacking pagodas. At this point, American officials began quietly discussing the possibility of a coup with dissident Vietnamese generals.

On September 10, Madame Nhu embarked on an extended trip to Europe and the United States to explain “the monstrous plot of the Communists to stifle Vietnam.” She also scoffed at reports the United States might reduce its aid to protest government repression. When the Kennedy administration did cut $3 million in funding for the Vietnamese Special Forces until they returned to combat, Madame Nhu denounced it as a “betrayal.” On September 22, while in Rome, she ridiculed junior officers of the American military mission in Vietnam, calling them “little soldiers of fortune.” When she arrived in New York on October 7, federal, state and city officials were conspicuously absent. On October 18, in Washington, D.C., Madame Nhu accused Kennedy administration officials of committing treason by reducing aid to South Vietnam.

Back in Saigon, South Vietnamese generals led by Duong Van Minh, who had been assured by U.S. officials that they would not interfere, launched the third military coup against the Diem government on November 1. This time it was a success and ended in the grisly murder of Diem and Nhu. Upon hearing the news, the citizens of Saigon exploded in jubilation. A few of them used a power winch from a ship in the harbor to pull down a statue of Madame Nhu. According to reporter Halberstam, had Madame Nhu been in Saigon at the time, the new junta would have had a terrible problem trying to keep howling mobs from lynching her.

Meanwhile, in Beverly Hills, a distraught Madame Nhu bitterly accused the U.S. government of inciting and backing the coup. When asked if she might seek political asylum in the United States, she replied, “Never! I cannot stay in a country with people who have stabbed my Government.” She flew to Rome with her children where she secluded herself in a convent. According to a report in The New York Times, she had left a trail of unpaid bills in the wake of her five-week long visit to the United States amounting to thousands of dollars.

The new leaders in Saigon moved swiftly to ensure Madame Nhu’s exile and expunge her noxious influence. On November 15, the new government revoked her diplomatic passport, and a month later it rescinded her unpopular morality and family laws.

Finding isolation not to her liking, within three weeks of the coup Madame Nhu had sold the exclusive movie, television and press rights to her memoirs to a French publishing house. She resumed her public attacks on the United States, calling Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge a “bewildered nanny” who wanted to become the “governor general” of South Vietnam. On January 13, 1964, she called for a United Nations investigation of the November coup and bizarrely expressed doubt that her husband and Diem were even dead. The following month, the Saigon government declared her an outlaw and issued an order for her arrest. In March, Madame Nhu issued a blistering 16,000-word statement attacking President Kennedy, who had himself been assassinated in November 1963, and accusing the United States of fascism and communism.

In June 1964, Madame Nhu applied for a visa to visit the United States. At the urging of Ambassador Lodge, her request was denied. In Rome she moved in with her brother-in-law, Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc. While claiming to detest the American press, she offered to receive journalists, only under certain conditions: If the newspaper wanted a photograph, she would pose for $1,000. For an interview plus photograph, the charge was $1,500. Interviews would not be granted without photographs.

As the United States slipped ever deeper into a dangerous war in Vietnam and a flurry of coups toppled successive South Vietnamese governments, the once fearsome and powerful Dragon Lady faded from view while her fortunes waned and her life deteriorated into tragic farce.

Although born into one of the most important families in all of Vietnam, by the 1970s Madame Nhu was living in a Rome villa described as “somewhat rundown.” Nonetheless, her home was repeatedly struck by robbers. In 1967 her daughter, Ngo Dinh Le Thuy, died of injuries sustained in an automobile accident. In July 1986, her brother Tran Van Khiem was charged with first-degree murder in the slayings of her elderly parents, who had been living near Washington, D.C.

According to news reports, in 1978 she claimed to be well into writing a history of South Vietnam “from an insider’s viewpoint.” No one alive had a better view than Madame Nhu of the rise and fall of the Diem regime and the beginning of America’s involvement in what became its longest and most controversial war. No Vietnamese woman was more powerful, controversial and despised.

At the time of this writing Madame Nhu was living in Rome and, unfortunately, her book has yet to be published.

This article was first published in the October 2009 issue of Vietnam.

Peter Brush, a librarian at Vanderbilt University, was in the Marine Corps artillery in Quang Tri Province in 1967-68 and writes widely about the Vietnam War. For further reading, see The Making of a Quagmire by David Halberstam, and John Mecklin’s Mission in Torment: An Intimate Account of the U.S. Role in Vietnam.