MADAME NHU AND THE STRUGGLE FOR VIETNAM FREEDOM

One of the most recognized figures in the history of the Republic of Vietnam (Viet Nam Cong Hoa) was Tran Le Xuan, better known as Madame Nhu, the wife of Ngo Dinh Nhu, the brother of the first Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and the unofficial “First Lady” of South Vietnam. Aside from her husband, Madame Nhu herself had quite an illustrious ancestry. Her mother was Than Trong Nam Tran who was a daughter of Princess Nhu Phien who was the youngest daughter of H.I.M. Dong Khanh, the ninth Emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty.

She married Ngo Dinh Nhu and converted to Christianity, becoming a Catholic and a very public face for the young South Vietnamese government. Her husband, Ngo Dinh Nhu ran the Can Lao political movement in support of the personalist regime of Diem. Madame Nhu was, in every respect, a fiery and committed woman, which both her friends and her many enemies could agree on. She played a leading role in the moral reform President Diem instituted in South Vietnam, closing down brothels, opium dens and gambling houses. She was at the front of imposing what was known as the “campaign for public morality” on South Vietnam, which included the abolition of divorce, contraceptives and abortion. Nightclubs and ball rooms were also often targets. Even beauty pageants were halted as Madame Nhu believed they simply contributed to the objectification of women. This campaign of decency, while admirable, was met with a great deal of hostility by those who did not share Madame Nhu’s view of ethics.

“The Dragon Lady” as she came to be called, was also a passionate anti-communist and was determined that women should play a leading role in defending their country from Communist infiltration. She formed a corps of women warriors and there is a famous photograph of her at their training ground, firing a .38 pistol for the first time. That event sums up a great deal of her character. Having never used a firearm before she was startled by the noise of the first shot. Laughing it off, she vowed that she would not flinch again and fired the remaining five rounds as though she were an expert. She also fostered a renewal of commemorations for the Trung Sisters, the heroic co-Queens of early Viet Nam who fought against Chinese occupation.

Madame Nhu was, like the rest of the Diem clan and most Vietnamese of her background, extremely devoted to her family. In her eyes, her husband was the heart of the Diem regime and could do no wrong. Commenting on the American effort to remove Ngo Dinh Nhu, she said that Diem refused because he knew that, as she said, “my husband could do without him, but he, he could not do without my husband”. She was also patriotic.

After being removed from power, Diem was assassinated along with his brother Nhu. Madame Nhu was, at that time, on a tour of the United States giving speeches in support of Vietnam’s war against Communism. When hearing of the event and the rumored involvement of the United States she said, “Whoever has the Americans as allies does not need enemies”. She went on to predict a dark future for her country, which was sadly to prove all too acurate. With Diem gone, the U.S. was firmly in control of the Vietnam conflict and Madame Nhu retired from public life to Italy.

Comment: The struggle for Vietnam freedom continues both outside and inside Vietnam. Madame Nhu was a patriotic leader of South Vietnam and should be more widely recognized as such.

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