Madame Nhu, Dragon Lady of South Vietnam
©2008 Peter Brush
Note: An edited version of this article appeared in Vietnam magazine, Vol. 22, No. 3, October, 2009, pp. 32-37.
Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu was the most famous and influential
woman in the brief history of
Vietnam. As the sister-in-law of Vietnam’s bachelor
President Ngo Dinh Diem, she considered herself the nation’s First Lady. No
stranger to controversy, and thriving on publicity, Madame Nhu had the complete
support of President Diem along with the complete loathing of President John
Kennedy and the government of the United States, both at the same
time. This is the story of the rise and fall of Madame Nhu, known as the Dragon
Lady of South Vietnam.
Madame Nhu was born in1924 into one of the wealthiest and
most aristocratic families in Vietnam.
Her maiden name was Tran Le Xuan (“Beautiful Spring”). Her father was a lawyer,
and the Tran family made its fortune serving the French colonial government. At
her home in Hanoi
she was attended by 20 servants. She was a mediocre student who never finished
high school. She became fluent in French but never learned to write Vietnamese.
Beautiful Spring felt unloved by her mother, against whom she rebelled. She had
an unhappy childhood and was anxious to marry in order to escape her domestic circumstances.
At the same time Beautiful Spring was eager to marry, Ngo
Dinh Nhu was employed as an archivist at the Indo-China Library in Hanoi. Nhu also came from
an aristocratic family. The Ngo clan had converted to Catholicism in the
seventeenth century. Nhu’s father served as counselor to the emperor of Vietnam. Nhu
spent his twenties studying literature and librarianship in Paris. In Hanoi, in the early 1940s, he was an admirer
of Beautiful Spring’s mother, who operated a local literary salon. While Nhu
provided books and tutored her in Latin, Beautiful Spring developed a plan to
get out of her oppressive home situation. Although fourteen years younger and
not in love, she married Nhu and converted to Catholicism in 1943. Three years
later war began between the Viet Minh and the French. 
Nhu and his brothers were strongly anti-Communist. One
brother, Diem, was arrested and briefly held prisoner by the Viet Minh; another
was killed. Nhu managed to avoided capture. Not so lucky, Madame Nhu and her
infant daughter were taken by the Communists in December 1946 and held in a
remote village for four months. She was reunited with Nhu when French forces
liberated the area. The Nhus settled in the resort town of Da Lat in the Central Highlands. They ran a
newspaper and worked to organize support for Diem, who
was living in the United
Nhu moved to Saigon in 1953
where he organized demonstrations against the French and the Communists. Nhu
also worked to undermine popular support for Emperor Bao Dai in order to
increase the appeal of the nationalist movement headed by Diem, now living in France and in
contact with the large Parisian Vietnamese exile community. In March 1954, word
reached Saigon that the French army at Dien Bien Phu
was threatened by a powerful Viet Minh force. Bao Dai, considered a puppet of
the French by many Vietnamese, realized there was a possibility the French
might soon depart Vietnam.
Recognizing Diem’s popularity, in June 1954 he appointed him prime minister of Vietnam. The
following year Nhu came up with a plan to allow Diem to win the power struggle
with Bao Dai: hold a referendum asking the people to choose between them. Nhu
controlled the secret police, who determined the outcome of the election. Diem
won the October 25 election with a whopping 98.2 per cent of the vote. He
ousted the emperor, proclaimed a republic, named himself President, and assumed
dictatorial powers. Because he was
strongly anti-Communist, Diem secured the support of the Eisenhower
administration, which gave him hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. Diem,
with Nhu’s help, spent the next few years defeating his political opponents and
consolidating his powers.
Nhu and Madame Nhu lived in the Presidential Palace and
controlled access to Diem. Their power was immense. According to journalist
David Halberstam, had Diem been the President of the US, Nhu would have
controlled all the nation’s newspapers; headed the CIA, FBI, and Congress;
served as Attorney General and Secretary of State; and written all the reports
seen by the President.
Both were elected to the National Assembly in 1956; both rarely bothered to
attend its sessions.
Madame Nhu served as her bachelor brother-in-law’s official
First Lady. She insisted the Vietnamese press refer to her as Madame Ngo,
although the proper usage was Madame Nhu.
In 1956 she began a campaign to make major changes in Vietnamese domestic
relations. In 1958 her Family Code bill became law. It made illegal polygamy,
divorce, and marital infidelity (including being seen in public with a member
of another sex). Women were given equal rights with men in a variety of areas.
Numerous male members of the Assembly disagreed with this legislation and its
passage was contentious – during the deliberations, according to some reports, Madame
Nhu called the Assembly majority leader “a pig.”
Although continued government repression cemented Diem’s
hold on power, in the long term it served to alienate the Vietnamese from the
government. This alienation was exploited by the Communist Viet Cong (VC). By
the late 1950s increased VC influence brought the country to the point of
President Diem’s propensity for one-man rule was tempered
only by reliance on his family to govern Vietnam. His four brothers all had
important roles in South Vietnamese affairs. Despite their strong influence,
neither Nhu nor Madame Nhu held high positions within the Diem government.
Nhu’s official title was Advisor to the President. Madame Nhu was head of the
Women’s Solidarity Movement and in charge of women’s affairs generally. Over
time the power and influence of the Nhu’s increased, to the point where some
observers claimed Nhu was more powerful even than Diem, due to Nhu’s strong
influence over his brother’s thinking. Other observers felt it was Madame Nhu
who had become the dominant member of the family. She increasingly concerned
herself with matters outside the domain of women’s affairs, and sought a
position for herself of equality with the President.
John Mecklin served in Vietnam with the U.S. Information
Agency. He knew Diem, Nhu, and Madame Nhu personally. He found it conceivable
the entire family was clinically mad; indeed, some of their actions were so
bizarre as to suggest a death wish. According to Mecklin, “the Nhus were the
poison that ultimately destroyed the regime.” Madame Nhu was a “hair-triggered
spitfire” willing to force a resolution to political issues but almost always
in the most damaging directions. She was greatly stirred by the crisis
affecting her country, but her reactions served to worsen it. She was striking
in appearance but not beautiful, very energetic, and had extravagant tastes.
She was extroverted, had a good sense of humor, and was a captivating
conversationalist, capable of talking “like a machine gun in either French or
As the influence of the Nhus increased, so too did
resentment against the government. Seeing no alternative to Diem, the White
House urged reform in order to broaden his base of support. In 1959 Ambassador
Elbridge Durbrow tried to persuade Diem to get rid of Nhu and bring new people
into the government.
In November 1960 there was a coup attempt by South Vietnamese paratroopers with
the same goal. One of their first demands was that Madame Nhu be removed from
the Presidential palace. According to an article in Time magazine, she was flattered by the attention.
In the first moments of the coup the paratroopers accomplished their goals –
Diem and most everyone inside the palace favored accepting the demands to form
a new government. Alone, Madame Nhu rejected any notion of compromise,
insisting instead on fighting to the end. Diem finally brought in loyal troops
and forced an end to the rebellion. To the dismay of her enemies, her influence
increased dramatically. As she described it, “Up until then, they had not taken
me seriously. But then they began to notice me, and began to worry when I said
During the coup Ambassador Durbrow offered Madame Nhu safe
conduct to the US
embassy. Although the Americans did not sponsor the coup, Durbrow’s offer
convinced Madame of US complicity. As Diem and the Nhus became more suspicious,
the regime adopted a siege mentality and became increasingly less popular.
According to New York Times reporter
Halberstam, “Everything that went wrong in Vietnam was blamed on the Nhus,”
while Madame Nhu “became the target of even more intense hatred.”
According to historian Joseph Buttinger, “Nhu and his wife became the two most
hated people in South
Her 1958 Family Code law notwithstanding, Madame Nhu decided
Vietnamese morals needed further regulation. Her 1962 Law for the Protection of
Morality sought to make illegal a wide range of activities, including birth
control, beauty contests, gambling, dancing, boxing, cockfights, and fighting
by male Siamese fighting fish. Minors could not attend unsuitable movies and
plays; sorcerers and mediums were outlawed; prostitution was prohibited.
This legislation increased dislike of Madame Nhu in proportion to the
popularity of the activities banned. According to Associated Press reporter
Malcolm Browne, who was stationed in Saigon, Madame
Nhu also declared war on her own family. In 1962 she caused her sister to
attempt suicide; in 1963 she disowned her parents.
Although she may have been flattered to be a focus of the
1960 coup attempt, Madame Nhu was likely furious when she and her husband
became the targets of the next one. On February 27 1962, two Vietnamese Air
Force pilots, trained in the U.S.,
took off in their American-built AD-6 attack aircraft from the Bien Hoa
Airbase, a few miles from Saigon. Lt. Nguyen
Van Cu successfully bombed the wing of the presidential palace inhabited by Nhu
and Madame Nhu. An accomplice, Lt. Nguyen Phu Quoc, was shot down when
antiaircraft fire struck his plane. Quoc was taken prisoner. Diem was walking
down a hallway when the bombs struck, and was nearly bowled over by the blast. Nhu
was unhurt, and Madame Nhu was slightly injured when she fell down a flight of
Cu, who bombed with napalm and high explosives, later said
the attack was inspired by hatred of the Diem regime, hatred directed less at
Diem personally than toward his family. Cu flew his plane to Cambodia, where
he was granted political asylum. Quoc was imprisoned until the next coup, and then
released. Both eventually returned to their duties as air force pilots.
was a US
client state. Diem realized he needed American aid to maintain his position. He
and the Nhus wanted that aid to come with no strings attached. They disliked
the increasing American presence in their country. Madame Nhu referred to this
as “creeping Americanism” and was willing to take drastic steps to minimize it.
For example, for a time she ordered the police to pick up all Vietnamese women
found walking with Americans.
The Americans were funding the Vietnamese government and training its police
and military forces. American soldiers were dying in combat in support of the
regime. They felt this gave them the right to advise the Diem regime and
expected that advice be taken. According to reporter Halberstam, Madame Nhu’s
political philosophy was simple: The Ngo family was always right; the family
should never compromise; and it should ignore criticism.
supported South Vietnam
in order to prevent its fall to communism. Thanks to this aid the size of its
armed forces was growing. Yet at the same time so too was the size and
effectiveness of the Viet Cong.
Twice elements of the South Vietnamese armed forces had attacked Diem in the
presidential palace. He was fearful of their loyalty, deploying them more to
minimize their ability to stage coups than to effectively fight the Viet Cong.
The relationship with senior army commanders was further strained by Madame
Nhu, who ordered them around the presidential palace like “house servants” and
treated them generally like lackeys under her personal control.
Diem and the Nhus were Catholic.
Most Vietnamese were Buddhists. No political opposition parties were allowed in
As opposition to the government increased, more Vietnamese became attracted to
Buddhism. Ngo Dinh Thuc, brother of President Diem, was the Catholic Archbishop
of Hue, the center of Buddhism in Vietnam. In
early 1963 there was a celebration in Hue
to commemorate Thuc’s twenty-five years as bishop. Both Vietnamese and Roman
Catholic flags were flown, which violated a law which permitted only the
Vietnamese flag be flown in public. This event was followed by Buddha’s 2,587th
birthday, and the Buddhists in Hue
wanted to fly their flag. When the Diem government prohibited this, thousands
of Buddhists demonstrated in protest. Nine were killed when government troops
fired into the demonstrators. U.
S. Ambassador William Trueheart urged Diem
to make peace with the Buddhists by admitting fault, paying indemnity, and
issuing a public apology for the incident. Instead the government blamed the
Buddhists’ death on the Viet Cong. When the Buddhists continued to demonstrate,
the government banned demonstrations. The Buddhist crisis had begun, and
When the government response to their grievances proved unsatisfactory,
Buddhist monks and nuns began a series of hunger strikes. Rioting in Hue turned violent and
government troops fought back. Anti-government demonstrations by the Buddhists
spread throughout the country. In Saigon, on
June 11 1963, an old Buddhist monk squatted on the street near the Xa Loi
pagoda. Gasoline was poured over his head. The monk lit a match and set himself
aflame. Thich Quang Duc was the first of seven Buddhists to protest the Diem
regime with suicide by immolation.
was stunned by the Buddhist suicides, and urged Diem to make some sort of
settlement. Showing she was made of sterner stuff, Madame Nhu called for
beating the monks “ten times over” and referred to the suicides as a “monk
Not to be outdone, Nhu commented “If the Buddhists wish to have another
barbecue I will be glad to supply the gasoline and a match.”
Pressured by the Americans, Diem finally met with Buddhist leaders. A communiqué
was issued and signed by Diem. When Madame Nhu learned of this she accused Diem
of cowardice and called him a jellyfish for even negotiating.
Positions hardened. The Buddhist protests, originally
religious, became overtly political. Their support increased. Nhu claimed the
Buddhists were rebels and their movement was communist infiltrated. Diem and
the Nhus wanted to crush the Buddhists but were restrained by the Americans,
who professed a belief in religious freedom and urged the government to reform.
The crisis extended into the fall, and worsened. The Nhus complained Diem was
too soft on the Buddhists. There were rumors both the military and Nhu were
planning anti-Diem coups.
Nhu considered the Vietnamese Special Forces his private
army. On August 21 1963, he ordered hundreds of them to attack the Xa Loi
pagoda with guns, tear gas, and grenades. The Buddhists barricaded themselves
inside. After two hours of fighting over 100 monks were arrested and taken
away. Madame Nhu grated an interview the day after the pagoda raid. She “was in
a state of euphoria, chattering like a schoolgirl after a prom.” She told the
reporter the government had crushed “the Communist-Buddhists” and referred to
the event as “the happiest day of my life since we crushed the Binh Xugen in
It wasn’t a happy day for the Americans, who, having
financed and trained the Vietnamese Special Forces, wanted them used for
counterinsurgency instead of attacking pagodas. American officials began
discussing the possibility of a coup with dissident Vietnamese generals.
On September 10, Madame Nhu embarked on an extended trip to
Europe and the US to explain
“the monstrous plot of the Communists to stifle Vietnam.” She also scoffed at
reports the US
might reduce its aid to protest government repression.
When the US
did cut $3 million in funding for the Vietnamese Special Forces until they
returned to combat, Madame Nhu called it a “betrayal.”
On September 22, while in Rome, she ridiculed
junior officers of the US
military mission in Vietnam,
calling them “little soldiers of fortune.”
On October 7 she arrived in New York.
Official welcomers – federal, state, and city – were conspicuously absent. On
October 18, in Washington DC,
Madame Nhu accused Kennedy administration officials of committing treason by
reducing aid to South Vietnam.
On November 1, in Saigon, Vietnamese generals
launched the third military coup against the government, resulting in the
deaths of Diem and Nhu. Upon hearing the news the citizens of Saigon
exploded in jubilation. A few of them used a power winch from a ship in the
harbor to pull down a statue of Madame Nhu.
According to David Halberstam, had Madame Nhu been in Saigon,
the new junta would have had a terrible problem trying to keep howling mobs
from lynching her.
In Beverly Hills, Madame Nhu
bitterly accused the US
government of inciting and backing the coup. When asked if she might seek
political asylum in the US,
Madame Nhu replied, “Never! I cannot stay in a country with people who have
stabbed my Government.” 
She flew to Rome
with her children. Upon arrival she secluded herself in a convent. She left a
trail of unpaid bills amounting to thousands of dollars in the wake of her
five-week long visit to the United
In Saigon, on November 15,
the new government revoked Madame Nhu’s diplomatic passport. On December 18 it
rescinded Madame Nhu’s unpopular morality and family laws.
Apparently not finding seclusion to her liking, Madame Nhu
quickly sold the exclusive screen, television, and press rights to her memoirs
to a French publishing house.
She continued her attacks on the United States,
calling Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge a “bewildered nanny” who wanted to become
the “governor general” of South
On January 13, she called for a United Nations investigation of the November
coup and bizarrely expressed doubt her husband and Diem were even dead.
The following month the Saigon government
declared her an outlaw and issued an order for her arrest.
In March Madame Nhu issued a 16,000 word statement in which she attacked
President Kennedy and accused the US of fascism and communism.
In June 1964, Madame Nhu applied for a visa to visit the US. At the
urging of Ambassador Lodge, the State Department denied her request. In Rome she moved in with
her brother-in-law, Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc. While detesting the American
press, she offered to receive journalists under certain conditions: If the
newspaper wanted a photograph, she would pose for $1,000. For an interview plus
photograph, the charge was $1,500. Interviews would not be granted without
The war in Vietnam
dragged on, and finally ended. The press and public lost
interest in Madame Nhu. Her fortunes continued to deteriorate. Her
daughter, Ngo Dinh Le Thuy, died in
1967 of injuries in suffered in an automobile
accident. Twenty years later her brother was charged with first-degree murder
in the slayings of her elderly parents.
Although born into one of the most important families in all of Vietnam, by the 1970s she was living in a villa
in Rome, a
place described as “somewhat rundown.” Her home was repeatedly struck by
She spent her time gardening and writing. In 1978 she was well into a history
of South Vietnam
“from an insider’s viewpoint.” No one alive had a better view of the rise and
fall of the Diem regime and America’s
involvement in what became its longest and most controversial war than Madame
Nhu. No Vietnamese woman was more powerful, controversial, and disliked.
Unfortunately, the book has never been published.
At the time of this writing Madame Nhu was living in Rome.
details on Madame Nhu’s early life, see “The Queen Bee,” Time, August 9, 1963, p. 22. “Ngo Dinh Nhu, Madame (Tran Le Xuan)”
by Arthur T. Frame in Encyclopedia of the
Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History, Spencer C. Tucker,
ed. NY: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 293.Edward
Miller, “Vision, Power, and Agency: The Ascent of Ngo Dinh Diem, 1945-54.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol.
35, No. 3, October 2004, p. 448.
David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire (NY: Random House,
1964), p. 57.
Robert Scigliano, South Vietnam: Nation Under
Stress (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1963),
Scigliano, pp. 59-60.
John Mecklin, Mission in Torment: An Intimate Account of the U.S. Role in Vietnam (Garden City, NY:
Doubleday, 1965), p. 37, 43, 48.
Robert Shaplen, “The Cult of Diem,” New York Times, May 14, 1972, p. SM 16.
“The Queen Bee,” Time, August 9,
Halberstam, pp. 48-49.
Joseph Buttinger, Vietnam: A Political History (NY: Frederick A.
Praeger, 1968), p. 447.
Malcolm W. Browne, The New Face of War: A Report on a Communist
Guerrilla Campaign (London: Cassell, 1965), p. 170. New York Times, February 4, 1962, p. 3.
New York Times, February 28, 1962, p.
1, and New York Times, March 1, 1962,
Halberstam, pp. 65-66.
Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., The Army and Vietnam
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 58-59, 61-63.
New York Times, August
25, 1963, p. E1.
Washington Post, September 10,
1963, p. A9.
New York Times, October 23, 1963, p.
Washington Post, September 23,
1963, p. A28.
New York Times, October 19, 1963, p.
Seth Jacobs, America’s Miracle Man in
Vietnam (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), p. 2.
New York Times, November 2, 1963, p.
New York Times, November 16, 1963, p.
Washington Post, November 29, 1963,
Washington Post, November 16, 1963, p. A9, New York Times, December 19, 1963, p. 9.
New York Times, December 16, 1963, p.
New York Times, January 14, 1964, p.
New York Times, February 26, 1964, p.
Washington Post, November 30, 1965,
Washington Post, April 24, 1987, p.
Washington Post, October 19, 1987, p. A1; New York Times, November 2, 1986, p. 23;
“Dragon Lady,” Newsweek, June 5,
1978, p. 16.