Western culture has for many decades harbored a unfair, ugly but persistent stereotype of the Evil Asian Woman, supposedly exemplified by a series of women in powerful positions: China’s Dowager Empress. Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Imelda Marcos. The target of the 1960s was Madame Nhu, the sister-in-law of Ngo Dinh Diem, the authoritarian ruler of Vietnam who was killed in an American-backed military coup in 1963.
Now largely forgotten, Madame Nhu seemed ubiquitous in the early ‘60s. Prone to unrestrained, colorful criticism of her enemies, she gained particular infamy for her description of protesting Buddhist monks’ self-immolations as “barbecues,” a cruel comment that cemented the Diem regime’s bad reputation with the U.S. government.
Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, the regime’s hatchet man (and Madame Nhu’s husband), were slaughtered in the ’63 coup, but Madame Nhu had the good luck to be out of the country at the time, and she survived in European exile until 2011. In 2005, Vietnam expert Monique Brinson Demery made her first effort to interview Madame Nhu. That ultimately led to a remarkable series of transatlantic telephone interviews that form the framework of Demery’s Finding the Dragon Lady, a fair-minded, often gripping biography.
Demery alternates between her encounters with Madame Nhu (always at a distance) and the story of her eventful life. Madame Nhu wanted Demery to facilitate the publication of her “memoirs”; they were too wacky to publish, but they provided Demery with much interesting detail. Demery also had access to a fascinating diary kept by Madame Nhu that was looted from the presidential palace after the coup.
Demery’s Madame Nhu is, indeed, vain, arrogant and imperceptive. She is also smart, courageous and determined, a Scarlett O’Hara of Saigon. She survived a miserable childhood in a mean, opportunistic family and captivity by the Viet Minh before becoming de facto first lady for the bachelor Diem. More than once, her genuine political skills saved the day for the Diem regime. It’s clear that much of her vilification by the Kennedy administration and American press corps had its origin in sexism and racism.
Madame Nhu was clueless about many things, but very right about others: The U.S. government was conspiring against Diem. Some American war correspondents were duped by the communists (one of their favorite “fixers” turned out to be a Viet Cong spy). Direct American military intervention in Vietnam was, as she predicted, a catastrophic failure. It’s time to give the Dragon Lady her due.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.