Slaying the Dragon Lady

| April 20, 2014 | 0 Comments
Tran Le Xuan, better known as Madame Nhu, earned her “Dragon Lady” title when she suggested other Buddhists join Thich Quang Dur, who publicly set himself on fire in protest against the policies of her husband’s government.

Tran Le Xuan, better known as Madame Nhu, earned her “Dragon Lady” title when she suggested other Buddhists join Thich Quang Dur, who publicly set himself on fire in protest against the policies of her husband’s government.

The “Dragon Lady” was the name of a sexy Asian “villainess” in Terry and the Pirates, a popular newspaper comic strip of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s, however, people in the U.S. often applied the decidedly unflattering nickname to Tran Le Xuan, better known as Madame Nhu. She was a 98-pound Vietnamese woman of distinguished family with remote connections to Bao Dai, the last emperor. She was also the wife of Ngo Dinh Nhu. That made her the sister-in-law of Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of anti-communist South Vietnam. As Diem was a lifelong bachelor, Madame Nhu served as her country’s de facto first lady. That’s where the trouble began, for she was no Jacqueline Kennedy.
Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu by Monique Brinson Demery (Publishers Group Canada, $30) is a spirited retelling of Madame Nhu’s reign as probably one of the world’s worst goodwill ambassadors (or one of the best ill-will ones). It’s also a search for a kind of hidden treasure. Ms Demery is a youngish Harvard-educated American of French ancestry whose academic specialty is Vietnam. She knew that following a coup d’état in 1963, Madame Nhu had fled to exile in Europe, where she lived in fear of communists, Americans, the New York Times and who knows who else. In 2005, Ms Demery, by telephone from Chicago, managed to track her down in Paris, where the quarry secluded herself when not equally secluded in Rome.

Tran Le Xuan, aka Madame Nhu

Tran Le Xuan, aka Madame Nhu

Once the Dragon Lady was satisfied that neither her caller nor anyone in the caller’s family was a spy or a cop, she set out the rules: In the future, Madame Nhu herself would initiate all the calls — at unannounced times. “I learned that it was better to let Madame Nhu talk,” the author writes. “She would stay on the phone longer, and it would inevitably lead her back to the past. From there, I could tease out little vignettes from her childhood and ask her what she remembered about the different eras of her life.” It was quite a story.
Le Xuan was born in the north in 1924, when the French regime in Indochina had almost 30 more years to live. She spoke proper French and in later life couldn’t understand the Vietnamese dialect spoken by people in central Vietnam. When the students at Madame Parmentier’s ballet school in Hanoi mounted a production of Snow White, the young Le Xuan (the name means “beautiful spring”) knew that the title role “would go to one of the fair-skinned French girls [and that] she might as well steal the show with a magnificent, if cruel, performance” as the wicked witch. Talk about being typecast.
She was 15 when she met Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was twice her age. Three years later, in 1943, once she had converted to Catholicism from Buddhism, they were married. At the time, her husband, who came from a family of big landowners, was affiliated with the Japanese invaders in an administrative capacity. Demery suggests that Madame Nhu aided her husband’s political career through her (the phrase sounds much better in French) coucheries utilitaires. The Second World War was followed immediately by what she considered une guerre bizardouille: the curious armed conflict by which the Viet Mihn under Ho Chi Minh drove out the French. It was a bloody affair that segued into civil war, from which the Nhu clan’s fierce anti-communism derives. At one point, communists blew up Madame Nhu’s grand piano with explosives, believing it was a radio used to communicate with the enemy. Other than that, there was no low comedy, but only tragedy. One of her brothers-in-law was murdered — some say by being buried alive — and she was taken prisoner. She endured privation with the steadfastness of Scarlett O’Hara.
When the country was partitioned into communist North Vietnam and U.S.-backed South Vietnam, Diem became, by degrees, the president of the latter. His ascent had American support, but was over the objections of the now-deposed French. They hated him for such policies as “renaming streets after Vietnamese patriots, nationalizing French industries and making the remaining French in Vietnam feel as unwelcome as possible,” Ms Demery writes. Diem’s brother, who was commonly held to be the brains of the family, served as his chief political adviser, and his brother’s wife, the Madame, became drunk with luxury and power.
Everyone knew her tastes and methods, and nobody doubted her tenacity. She swanned round the palace in Saigon. She built an estate up in the mountains at Dalat that had 50 gardeners. She elected herself to the National Assembly, had her father made finance minister and appointed other close relatives to high diplomatic posts. Diem set up what he named the Service for Political and Social Research, or secret police, whereas his sister-in-law founded a small private all-female army to do her own dirty work. She called its members “my little darlings.” One western observer (male) remarked that her dresses were like the sheaths that conceal knives. Among her fashion accessories was a crucifix made of diamonds.
Madame, having worked hard to improve her English, paid flirtatious visits to the United States, but it was clear that she was no diplomatist. When John F. Kennedy sent his vice-president, Lyndon Johnson, and a party of others to Saigon, she shocked Lady Bird Johnson and the president’s sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, by giving them a tour of her bedroom. It was entirely carpeted in the skins of tigers — with heads attached and paws and claws intact.
Gradually, she and her family lost much of their influence, especially by ruthlessly persecuting the Buddhist majority. Diem’s other problems were infiltration by northern insurgents and growing disloyalty in his own armed forces. In November 1960, there was a coup attempt that, while not actually proposed by officials in Washington, wasn’t opposed by them, either. Then, in February 1962, two disaffected South Vietnamese fighter jet pilots attacked the palace. One bomb fell in the room occupied by Diem, but failed to detonate. Another one, intended for the Madame, destroyed her private living quarters, but miraculously, left her only with some burns.
The Dragon Lady’s media image reached its nadir in June 1963 when a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Dur publicly set himself on fire in protest against government policies. Madame Nhu trumpeted the incident as “a barbecue” and offered to supply gasoline and matches so other Buddhists could follow suit. Later, she extended the offer to David Halberstam of the New York Times, the author of The Best and the Brightest, and even offered her assistance. When the western media threw up their hands, she feigned an apology by saying that she thought barbecuing a person was an English idiom that she was using properly. JFK and his advisers felt they had to get rid of the Nhus.
On Nov. 2, 1963, while Madame Nhu was busy shooting off her mouth in California, Diem and his brother were killed in a coup that, as she said, correctly for once, took place “with either official or unofficial blessing of the American government.” Hearing the news, President Kennedy reacted in a coy and disingenuous manner, saying privately that the brothers must have been murdered as two such “good Catholic boys” would never have committed suicide. When Kennedy was himself killed only 20 days later, the Vietnam problem passed to Lyndon Johnson — the same Lyndon Johnson who once sighed that Diem was “the only boy we got out there” and publicly called him “the Winston Churchill of Asia.”
Diplomat_4-20-2014_0062When Monique Demery and Madame Nhu finally met face to face, in Paris, Madame picked the spot: a quiet Catholic church where no one would overhear them. She opened the meeting by saying: “You are an angel. You have been sent to help me finish [my] memoirs. Then everything will be revealed.” She died in 2011, age 86. The following year, Ms Demery somehow came into possession, through a mysterious third party, of the Madame’s diary. The first entry was dated 1959. The final one was written in June 1963, when the monk immolated himself and the outside world at large began to turn on her.
Pakistan has received $40 billion in U.S. foreign aid in the years since the country’s founding in 1947. The figure hints at the complex and (both sides agree) dysfunctional relationship between the two nations: the subject of a pair of new books.
The first is No Exit from Pakistan (Cambridge University Press, US$27.99 paper) by Daniel S. Markey, the senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations. The other is Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (Publishers Group Canada, $32) by Husain Haqqani, who was Islamabad’s ambassador to Washington from 2008 to 2011. The books tell essentially the same tale. Namely, of how for three decades the country has been ruled by the military (for more on this, also see The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan by Aqil Shah, Harvard University Press, US$35) that has been given fortunes to fight communists and, more recently, terrorists, but has used the funds to redouble its defences against India. The results have turned supposed allies into bitter and mutually uncomprehending antagonists, as in such matters as America’s use of drones and Pakistan’s harbouring (or some equivalent word — take your pick) of Osama bin Laden. Of the two books, Mr. Haqqani’s is the controversial one. He is a Pakistani liberal, a rare bird indeed, whose diplomatic career ended when he was accused of writing a memo seeking U.S. help in keeping the military in check. The scandal, inevitably called Memogate, led the Pakistani supreme court and others to denounce him as a traitor. He now lives in exile in Boston.

Roger Babson was the inventor of the employee suggestion box and the modern paper-towel dispenser.

Roger Babson was the inventor of the employee suggestion box and the modern paper-towel dispenser.

There’s far more to be said about Walter Friedman’s fine book Fortune Tellers: The Story of America’s First Economic Forecasters (Princeton University Press, US$29.95) than there is space in which to say it. Prof. Friedman, a historian at the Harvard Business School, writes smoothly and wisely about some of the U.S. economic forecasters who suddenly started appearing in the first years of the 20th Century. They include respectable figures such as John Moody (1868–1958), founder of the bond-rating service that still bears his name, and the serious economic theorist Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950), who once served briefly as Austria’s finance minister, but fled to the U.S., where he pooh-poohed the whole idea of self-proclaimed economic soothsayers even while being one in his own way.
In the 19th Century, the word forecast was almost always applied to the weather rather than to wealth. Its application to finance and especially the stock markets came with the recession of 1907 and was reinforced by the depression of 1921 and the Great Depression that succeeded the market crash of 1929. These were events that nearly all of the by then numerous, successful and even famous forecasters either failed to foresee or even recognize or at least didn’t fully understand. Prof. Friedman’s book is rich in these influential cranks, which is what they were, even by the loose standards of their day.
My favourite among these (I’ve written about him previously and gleefully) is Roger W. Babson (1867–1947), a bear during the 1920s boom. He did in fact predict, sort of, the cataclysmic events of October 1929, if not their effect. He incited disagreement from Irving Fisher (1867–1947), perhaps the shrewdest of the lot, who nevertheless said, to his everlasting embarrassment: “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Fisher had been wrong before, at the time of the 1907 tumble, so wrong that he contemplated suicide, but instead embraced the Catholic Church because “she gives me certainty.” Like Mr. Babson, Mr. Fisher was a dietary faddist (and the inventor of what we would call the Rolodex), but he was scarcely Mr. Babson’s equal as an eccentric. The statistical newsletters that made Mr. Babson rich were based on a system of mathematical divination that he claimed derived from the thoughts of Sir Isaac Newton. He was trained as a civil engineer, but had worked wiring doorbells before getting a bank job in Boston. He was the inventor of the employee suggestion box and the modern paper-towel dispenser. He forced his employees to keep windows wide open throughout the New England winters, so his secretaries had to wear hats and coats indoors and type wearing mittens, using little hammers to strike the keys. He believed in world government and once established a foundation for the study of gravity (Newton once again). Its goal, he explained, was to find ways of promoting human flight without recourse to airplanes, balloons or rockets: arms only, please. In all, he wrote 50 books, one of which he literally carved in stone.

Diplomat_4-20-2014_0064AND THEN, VERY BRIEFLY
We often hear the phrase “the Great Game” (Rudyard Kipling coined it) referring to the espionage war between Britain and Russia during the late 19th Century in oil-rich parts of Central Asia. Hugh Ford’s book America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East (Publishers Group Canada, $34.50) tells how, starting in the late 1940s, the brand new CIA, then a more liberal and noble-minded institution than now, struggled to win over Iran and the Arab countries. Two key players were Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit Roosevelt, and Kermit’s cousin, Archie Roosevelt.
“Treaty port” is another recurring phrase in writings about Asia. It usually refers to the system that the West forced on China after the Opium Wars, allowing the creation, for trade purposes, of foreign quarters in certain sites on the China coast and along the Yangtze River, free from Chinese law. We read much less about the somewhat similar, but less coercive and less one-sided arrangement that the Japanese permitted in Yokohama and Kōbe. To the Japanese, the setting up of “foreign concessions” presented an opportunity to study western methods. Peter Ennals of Mount Allison University analyses the matter in Opening a Window to the West: The Foreign Concession at Kōbe, Japan, 1868─1899 (University of Toronto Press, $32.95 paper).
His name is fading now, but Chester Ronning (1894–1984) was indeed an extraordinary Canadian, an all-round public man. The mere title of his 1974 book, A Memoir of China in Revolution: From the Boxer Rebellion to the People’s Republic, gives hint of his breadth as well as his longevity. He was an Albertan who went to China in 1922 to teach and never lost touch with the country. In later life, he was Canada’s ambassador to Norway and high commissioner to India. Lester Pearson dispatched him to Hanoi in 1965-66 to try to help dampen the worsening Vietnam War. In The Remarkable Chester Ronning, Proud Son of China (University of Alberta Press, $34.95 paper), Brian L. Evans, a professor of Chinese history of the same university and a former member of the Canadian embassy in Beijing, has produced a balanced, discerning and engaging biography.

George Fetherling’s most recent book is The Writing Life: Journals 1975─2005 (McGill-Queen’s University Press).

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George Fetherling is a novelist, poet and cultural commentator

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