Last night I finished reading Monique Brinson Demery‘s fascinating biography of South Vietnam’s Madame Nhu. Known in the US as “the Dragon Lady,” Nhu was a pivotal figure in the early days of South Vietnam. She served as first lady in the Diem administration, although her influence went far beyond that of other first ladies of her day. She helped prevent early coups and spoke out against the US’s growing influence in the country. For her efforts, journalist David Halberstam called her a “beautiful but diabolic sex dictatress.” When President Kennedy authorized the overthrow of the Diem government, he said that Madame Nhu had forced his hand. She was just too dangerous to US interests in the region.
While history has largely condemned Madame Nhu as a villain in the story of the United States’ early involvement in Vietnam, Demery paints a more complex portrait of the Dragon Lady. Through interviews and archival evidence, the reader comes to know a woman who was determined to protect her country and family, even though some of her actions resulted in the contrary.
I got to meet Demery at her book release event in Chicago last month. I was struck by Demery’s age — she was born in 1976 — and the fact that she was one of the first people to really delve into Madame Nhu’s life. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the coup that killed Madame Nhu’s husband and brother, and it seems that it has taken that much distance to fully comprehend the first lady’s role in Vietnamese history.
As a young woman like myself, Demery has benefited from a generation of writing about the Vietnam War and advances in gender equality that situate Madame Nhu’s actions in the larger story of war in Vietnam. We can finally look past the derisive name-calling of the 60s, where journalists and presidents alike belittled Madame Nhu for being both strong and beautiful. With the benefit of hindsight, we can also see how Kennedy’s ordering of that 1963 coup helped usher in the Vietnam-US war.
Some stories can only be told in the moment. Others take decades or even centuries to reveal. The Vietnam War’s long shadows in the US demand our attention. I’m glad that writers like Demery and Nick Turse are digging deeper into the past to help illuminate our understanding of the war and its consequences.