The weeks before John F. Kennedy’s death in 1963 saw a significant political development in Southeast Asia. The event soon became overlooked due to the shocking assassination of the American president.
Two brothers ran the government of South Vietnam with what could be described as a double set of iron fists. President Ngo Dinh Diem, backed by his brother and chief adviser Ngo Dinh Nhu, was elected in 1955. The people tasked him with guiding the nation formerly known as French Indochina out of colonialism and into democracy. Unfortunately, the election process was riddled with corruption and it didn’t take long before the Diem government, despite backing from the United States, was under seige. The brothers responded by trying to stamp out the opposition by force. Karma caught up with them in the form of a military coup that ended with the deaths of both men under the orders of Duong Van Minh, who assumed the role of president and later became a major figure in the Vietnam War.
But adding to the drama of the brothers Diem and Nhu was the outrageous behavior of Diem’s sister-in-law. Tran Le Xuan, a.k.a. Madame Nhu, assumed the role of First Lady of South Vietnam by virtue of the fact that a) brother-in-law Diem was unmarried, b) she and her adviser husband took up residence in the Presidental palace, and c) she was an ambitious, power-crazed, raging bitch who didn’t care whom she offended along the way. That would include Buddhist monks, who frequently set themselves on fire in a gruesome public display of protest againt the government. Among the more ribald quotes attributed to Madame Nhu was, “Let them burn and we shall clap our hands.” The modern-day Marie Antionette went on to giddily describe the Buddhist protests as “barbeques” and suggested that the monks didn’t go far enough because they used imported gasoline.
The Madame’s imperious legend seemed to grow on a weekly basis during the early 1960s. She insulted neighboring countries, including China, as weak and impotent. She flaunted her influence and power by taunting the news media, and frequently won shouting matches against anyone who dared speak against her. Finally, she survived a bombing attempt by renegade Vietnamese Air Force pilots and reacted by cracking down harder on political foes, artfully twisting Lord Acton’s quote by boasting, “Power is wonderful. Total power is totally wonderful.”
The regime met its end on November 2, 1963. Madame Nhu and her daughter leveled a final volley at the United States, predicting that Americans would be ultimately regret their betrayal. After learning that her husband and brother-in-law were killed, Madame Nhu and her surviving family were given safe haven in Italy. But her remarkable story was far from over. The Madame’s shrill voice raged on in exile, and her influence is still seen in Vietnam today, from political rhetoric to women’s fashion.
Madame Nhu died in 2011. Tales of her outspoken life became a buried footnote in the wake of the JFK assassination and the entanglement of the Vietnam war. They have only resurfaced recently due to conspiracy theorist claims that place the former South Vietnam first lady in the middle of a plot to kill Kennedy in Dallas, just weeks after her own husband met his end in Saigon.
- Book review: Finding The Dragon Lady (macleans.ca)