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Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, R.I.P.

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Madame Nhu, South Vietnam's unofficial "first lady" during the administration of Ngo Dinh Diem, passed into eternal life on Easter Sunday at age 87 -- just six days before the 36th anniversary of the fall of Saigon on April 30.

Tran LeXuan was born in the line of Vietnamese royalty, descended from the ninth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. Her life would prove to be tragic in many respects. Raised a Buddhist, she converted to Christianity upon her marriage and remained a devout Catholic for the rest of her life. Strikingly beautiful, glamorous and intelligent, she had a tempestuous personality and blunt manner of expression. She became bitterly estranged from her parents for political reasons during the Diem years. Her husband was murdered along with President Diem by American-backed assassins in 1963. After this stinging betrayal, she spent her remaining years in exile in Italy and France, living in seclusion. Her oldest daughter died in an automobile accident in 1967. In 1986 her deranged brother was charged with murdering her elderly parents, with whom she had partially reconciled.

Madame Nhu was permitted to influence public policy in the Diem administration. According to this interesting biography, her reforms were not always well received:

She played a leading role in the moral reform President Diem instituted in South Vietnam, closing down brothels, opium dens and gambling houses. She was at the front of imposing what was known as the "campaign for public morality" on South Vietnam, which included the abolition of divorce, contraceptives and abortion. Nightclubs and ball rooms were also often targets. Even beauty pageants were halted as Madame Nhu believed they simply contributed to the objectification of women. This campaign of decency, while admirable, was met with a great deal of hostility by those who did not share Madame Nhu's view of ethics.

Here's some rare video footage of Madame Nhu speaking to students at Fordham University during the war: "Catholicism, Family, Fordham".

More photos and video below the break.

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Comments (20)

I believe it's alleged that President Kennedy secretly authorized American support for the murder of Diem by disaffected officers. If it's true that the CIA was instructed to provide $42000 in bribes for the assassins to set up a military junta, it must be one of the most shameful episodes in modern American history. Even LBJ thought it was 'a mistake'.

Thank you for this, Jeff. I was moved by it, though I am largely ignorant of this time in history. It reminds me of how the U.S. treated the Philippines about 60 years earlier. My in-laws are from the Philippines and I have a little familiarity with their history.

I hope that I do not offend if I say that a) expressing a desire to clap one's hands at the self-immolation of Buddhist monks, even Buddhist monks one regards as one's enemies, is more than merely impolitic but is, actually, wrong, and b) the combination of public morality that I by and large agree with (though I really have no problem with ballrooms and question whether they should be "targets," whatever that means) and the secret police is troubling, to say the least.

Alex - I hadn't heard about the bribes, but it wouldn't surprise me at all. Did you listen to the LBJ recording? Brutal.

ES - You're quite welcome!

Lydia - I agree that expressing a desire to clap one's hands at the political suicides of Buddhist monks was wrong. She should simply have condemned the immolations and left it at that. I recall reading that she apologized some years later. However, it's hard not to be sympathetic. These suicides were malicious and diabolicial acts calculated to undermine a dangerously imperiled wartime government and, one can be sure, to humiliate her family, with the added bonus of providing rich material for communist propaganda. Her remarks showed that she wasn't going to be a hostage to their threats. As for the secret police headed by her husband, there were certainly abuses, but in comparison with Vietnam's neighbors (friends and foes) the regime was a bastion of tolerance. In principle, what is your objection to the secret police enforcing the law? We have one too: it's called the FBI.

expressing a desire to clap one's hands at the self-immolation of Buddhist monks, even Buddhist monks one regards as one's enemies, is more than merely impolitic but is, actually, wrong

Our sentimental age can never endure a Madame Nhu, so instead it ends up with the likes of Hillary Clinton. You can knit-pick over her mocking contempt for the (deranged) enemies of her country, Lydia, but just know that by doing so you are strengthening the hand of the revolutionaries and the hypocrites. I, myself, see nothing wrong with what she said. What's more, I would have liked to have seen a woman like that rule over half of Asia.

In principle, what is your objection to the secret police enforcing the law? We have one too: it's called the FBI.

A couple of things: First, I tend to think that most laws, including lots of vice laws (against brothels, for example), should be state and local laws, whereas usually the phrase "secret police" (as in your example of the FBI) is not a reference to a state or local entity. Second, the phrase "secret police" generally implies some lack or failure of due process in the treatment of people arrested. Also, the phrase "secret police" generally carries a connotation of an intersection of the political with the mere enforcement of laws--e.g., that people regarded as political threats or critics are going to be ferreted out and arrested, though perhaps on a thin pretext of their having broken some other law. Maybe that's not what the phrase is supposed to mean here, but it's the reason that I would not want to agree, and would not want to think, that America has what is generally called a "secret police." If we do have one, in these senses (e.g., when one hears evidence that some group has been subject to an IRS investigation for purposes of political harassment), that's a bad thing.

Lydia, the population of S. Vietnam in 1960 was about 14 million, which is smaller than Texas, California, Florida or New York today. Your state of Michigan has around 10 million: would you object to a Michigan state law against prostitution?

(Not that the Diem government was all that concerned about subsidiarity.)

Granted that "secret police" has extremely negative connotations, due primarily to the permanence of the Nazi SS in the popular imagination. To that extent it's an unfortunate term. But it's silly to transplant American ideals of "due process" and political freedom to wartime S. Vietnam. There were political laws on the books by necessity - and such laws are not by nature unjust - so there was of course an intersection of the political with law enforcement. The same has been true in the United States during wartime and even during the Cold War.

would you object to a Michigan state law against prostitution?

No, of course not. Administered in the ordinary way by regular police.

due primarily to the permanence of the Nazi SS in the popular imagination.

My popular imagination thinks of the KGB.

There were political laws on the books by necessity - and such laws are not by nature unjust - so there was of course an intersection of the political with law enforcement.

Not sure I agree with you about "political laws," but there certainly should _not_ be an intersection of the political with law enforcement in the senses I have brought up. And we were ostensibly talking about laws against prostitution and the like. When there is an intersection between the political and those kinds of laws, we have a word for it. The word is "corruption."

So, your main objection to S. Vietnam's "Family Code" and "Law for the Protection of Morality" is not subsidiarity, but that these were enforced by the national secret police and not the "regular" local police?

First, I don't know that to be case. Did you read somewhere that the secret police enforced these laws, or did you just assume as much from the fact that Ngo Dinh Nhu was head of the secret police? I honestly don't know what the structure of law enforcement was like in that country at the time. Maybe the local police were corrupt and national police had to pick up the slack - that's not uncommon in many countries, even today. Just look at Mexico.

In any case, considering the unbelievable pressures on the Diem government and the general lawlessness in the country at the time, I'm not sure why you think this is so important. Or maybe you don't and were just pointing out an obvious defect.

I think I was pointing out a rather unfortunate air or possibility in all of this of what I can only call something like a "Catholic police state." The very existence of a secret police--admitted, spoken of, a normal part of the country--combined with some sort of morality crackdown including the strange phrase about ballrooms as "targets"...To me all of this bears some rather unfortunate resemblances to the present situation in Saudi Arabia, where vice police wander the streets and are empowered to beat the tar out of or arrest unrelated men and women of any age whom they find alone together at a restaurant, etc.

I certainly want certain things to be outlawed--e.g., prostitution and abortion. But I'm not prepared to endorse or applaud anything like some sort of "pro-life, pro-morality, pro-family police state" in which the black marias come at night (or the gendarmes show up at a ballroom) and drag away people accused of "vice" who may never be heard of or seen again--this on the grounds that we "can't apply our American notions of due process." Speaking for myself, those aren't just quaint parochial ideas, and I hold no brief for the enforcement of the concrete policies I favor by means of a totalitarian state.

Nor, for that matter, do I want that sort of thing to happen to political dissidents. But I bring up the morality issue more particularly because it rather seems that we pro-life social conservatives are expected automatically to endorse this regime being described on the grounds of its pro-morality policies, and I wanted to distance myself a bit from that.

I think I was pointing out a rather unfortunate air or possibility in all of this of what I can only call something like a "Catholic police state." ... To me all of this bears some rather unfortunate resemblances to the present situation in Saudi Arabia...

Heh. They don't call us trads the "Catholic Taliban" for nothin'.

But seriously, if you're going to have laws, they need to be enforced somehow. When Diem assumed power S. Vietnam was run by pirates, bandits, sectarian militias, and nests of armed revolutionaries. The French had all but abandoned the region; there was no effective law enforcement. To the extent that Diem brought some order out of that chaotic night is just short of miraculous.

Either these laws were good ones worthy of enforcement or they were not. Like you, I would have preferred to leave the ballrooms alone (assuming that nothing but ballroom dancing went on in them) - but if it's a package deal I'll take the package. In fact there was never anything like a Mohammaden police state in S. Vietnam. On the contrary, these laws were not enforced vigorously enough to be effective, and the addiction of many S. Vietnamese to their vices helped pave the way for communist rule.

Prudentially, though, I think the Diem administration did put the cart before the horse on this one. The people weren't ready, and the effort backfired. It'd be like passing a law against contraception or divorce in any state of the U.S.: you'd have a full-scale revolt on your hands.

Well, I'll let that one go until and unless I know more specifically. We might not agree when everything was cashed out, though.

There was something else I ran into when doing a bit of googling. When the terrible killing of her parents by her brother (in America) took place, she issued a rare statement to the press (I think from Italy), to the following effect: "After all that America has done to my family, America has no right to judge me and mine." Now, the poor woman was grieving and in pain, but such a statement is just crazy. This was a criminal case. They decided her brother wasn't mentally fit to stand trial and deported him, and if we assume that the judgement was correct that he was unfit to stand trial, that's one thing. But nobody is above the law. No one is above being judged by the U.S. criminal justice system after strangling his elderly parents (!!) because the Kennedy administration had members of his sister's family assassinated! If it could be written off as just an isolated thing, okay. But from all the accounts of Madame Nhu one does get this very strong impression of nothing less than an aristocratic, even an imperial, approach to life and the world. What family does one belong to? Are you one of us? We are who we are. And therefore, the U.S. does not "have the right to judge" us.

That's all just very, very misguided and, therefore, rightly alien to Americans. This is a place where the American notion of equality before the law is right and the blood-line, aristocratic idea is wrong.

I think we can all agree that America is well within its rights to prosecute parent-stranglers.

But from all the accounts of Madame Nhu one does get this very strong impression of nothing less than an aristocratic, even an imperial, approach to life and the world. What family does one belong to? Are you one of us? We are who we are. And therefore, the U.S. does not "have the right to judge" us.

I don't disagree, Lydia. And I will say honestly that I think her personality was often insufferable, even to those who presumably shared her worldview. I couldn't have taken much of it myself. But the aristocratic "approach to life" is better than its flawed representatives, and I don't think impossible to reconcile with concepts like equality before the law.

My post does not canonize the woman. I see her as a tragic figure, both victim and provocateur, on the right side of things generally - and a reminder of what has been lost in the sweep of modernity, both good and bad.

Incidentally, Diem's role in ejecting Vietnam's ancient monarchy from the nation's political life is probably the "original sin" in the tragedy of Vietnam. Diem, a Catholic, viewed the Buddhist emperor Bao Dai as compromised and too "pro-French" (I know, it's complicated). The succeeding republics of South Vietnam following Diem's ouster were all Buddhist, while the Nguyen Dynasty's legitimate heirs are now Catholic and living in France!

I see her as a tragic figure, both victim and provocateur, on the right side of things generally - and a reminder of what has been lost in the sweep of modernity, both good and bad.

That seems fair. A great novelist could make a very great novel about such a person.

"The succeeding republics of South Vietnam following Diem's ouster were all Buddhist"

Actually, at least one of South Vietnam's subsequent leaders (its President for 10 years!) was Roman Catholic, and I'd be surprised if there weren't more:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nguy%E1%BB%85n_V%C4%83n_Thi%E1%BB%87u

~Bonifacius

My mistake, Bonifacius, and thanks much for the correction. There was certainly nothing Catholic about Thieu's administration, however.

Great post.

Let's not forget that the CIA has been indicted, so to speak, in that mess — John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Ngô Đình Diệm, and the Buddhist Crisis of 1963.

"These events occurred at a time when both Catholic presidents were making clear signals that it was time for the American presence to end. By the end of the year, both Catholic presidents had been assassinated within a few weeks of each other."

Alex,

I agree with your comments. My Vietnamese father, who formerly worked for the CIA, said that the Kennedy administration secretly initiated the murder of Ngo Dinh Diem. What a travesty. American policy meddling into South Vietnam, thus, resulting in the country's loss of democracy after the war.

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