Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, South Vietnamese First Lady (1955–1963), died after a short illnesss he was , 87.
Trần Lệ Xuân popularly known as Madame Ngô Đình Nhu or simply Madame Nhu, was considered the First Lady of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963 died after a short illness she was , 87.. She was the wife of Ngô Đình Nhu, brother and chief adviser to President Ngô Đình Diệm. As Diệm was a lifelong bachelor, and because she and her family lived in the president’s Independence Palace, she was considered to be the First Lady.
(April 15, 1924 – April 24, 2011),
Trần Lệ Xuân was born into a wealthy aristocratic family in Hanoi, French Indochina, then part of the French colonial empire. Her given name means “Beautiful Spring”. Her paternal grandfather was close to the French colonial administration, while her father, Trần Văn Chương, studied law in France, before marrying into the ruling imperial dynasty. Her mother, Thân Thị Nam Trân, was a granddaughter of Emperor Đồng Khánh and a cousin of Emperor Bảo Đại. Madame Nhu’s mother was widely reputed to have had a series of lovers, among them her future son-in-law, Ngô Ðình Nhu.
A mediocre student, Madame Nhu dropped out of Lycée Albert Sarraut, a prestigious French school in Hanoi. She spoke French at home and could not write in Vietnamese; as an adult, she drafted her speeches in French and had them translated into Vietnamese. She gained a reputation in her youth as a tomboy who loved ballet and piano, once dancing solo at Hanoi’s National Theatre. She had an older sister and a younger brother, Trần Văn Khiêm, and was known for beating him up in their childhood.
When she became an adult, her mother introduced her to a series of eligible young men, but she insisted on Nhu. He was twice her age and referred to her as “little niece” in accordance with Vietnamese custom. In 1943, at the age of 18, she married Nhu and converted from Mahayana Buddhism to Roman Catholicism, her husband’s religion. After an uprising by the Viet Minh in August 1945, her brother-in-law, Ngô Ðình Khôi, the eldest of the Ngô brothers, was buried alive, and Nhu and another brother, Ngô Đình Cẩn, were forced to flee. Madame Nhu, her mother-in-law and her eldest daughter, at the time a baby, were captured. Thinking that her piano was a radio for communicating with French colonialists, the Viet Minh blew it up and then exiled her to a remote village for four months, where she was forced to live on two bowls of rice a day. The French dismissed Nhu from his post at the National Library due to Diệm’s nationalist activities, and he moved to Đà Lạt and lived comfortably, editing a newspaper, where his wife bore three more children.
Rise to power
Madame Nhu’s brother-in-law, Diệm, had been appointed Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam by her mother’s distant cousin, Emperor Bảo Đại, after the French had been defeated at the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ. At the start of 1955, French Indochina was dissolved, leaving Diệm in temporary control of the south.
A referendum was scheduled for October 23, 1955, to determine the future direction of the south. It was contested by Bảo Đại, the Emperor, advocating the restoration of the monarchy, while Diệm ran on a republican platform. The elections were held, with Nhu and the family’s Cần Lao Party, which supplied Diệm’s electoral base, organising and supervising the elections. Campaigning for Emperor Bảo Đại was prohibited, and the result was rigged, with Bảo Đại’s supporters attacked by Nhu’s workers. Diệm claimed 98.2% of the vote, including 605,025 votes in Saigon, where only 450,000 voters were registered. Diệm’s tally also exceeded the registration numbers in other districts.
After the election, the couple moved into the Presidential Palace. Madame Nhu was influential on government policy and, since her brother-in-law, Ngô Đình Diệm, was unmarried, she was regarded as the First Lady of South Vietnam. Madame Nhu attempted to combine Roman Catholicism with herself as a modern reincarnation of Vietnam’s fabled Trưng Sisters, who temporarily defeated the invading Hán Dynasty Chinese troops in AD 40. In 1962, she had a statue erected in Saigon to the memory of the Trưng Sisters, with the facial features modelled on herself, and also established the Women’s Solidarity Movement, a female paramilitary organization. The statue cost US$20,000, a substantial sum at the time, given that South Vietnam was a developing country, but Madame Nhu was undeterred by criticism about largesse. She intimidated the wives of ARVN officers and public servants into joining her organization.
Diệm often appointed relatives to high positions, so her father became the ambassador to the United States while her mother, a former beauty queen, was South Vietnam’s observer at the United Nations. Two of her uncles were cabinet ministers. Madame Nhu’s parents resigned their posts in 1963, in protest over the treatment of Buddhists under the regime of President Diệm.
Madame Nhu was chauffeured in a black Mercedes and wore a small diamond crucifix.
She also wore form-fitting apparel so tight that one French correspondent suggestively described her as, “molded into her … dress like a dagger in its sheath.” On formal occasions, she wore red satin pantaloons with three vertical pleats, which was the mark of the highest-ranking women of the imperial court in ancient Annam. When Diệm once criticized her apparel, she snapped: “It’s not your neck that sticks out, it’s mine. So, shut up.”
During her brother-in-law’s presidency, Madame Nhu pushed for the passing of ‘morality laws‘. These included such things as outlawing abortion, adultery, divorce, contraceptives, dance halls, beauty pageants, boxing matches, and animal fighting, and closed down the brothels and opium dens. Many people did not appreciate the imposition of Madame Nhu’s values on their lives. She was also widely mocked by the public who regarded her as hypocritical, with older Vietnamese believing her décolleté gowns to be sexually suggestive, in addition to widespread rumors of her own infidelity. in group sex acts that would be known as bukkake today.
Her family also received further scorn since her sister, Trần Lệ Chi, had a French lover, and critics alleged that Madame Nhu introduced the laws so that her sister’s husband could not get a divorce. Since he was extremely wealthy, the Ngô family would have lost highly valuable assets. In addition, her brother, Khiêm, used the government connections to bilk rich entrepreneurs.
Diệm had stated before becoming President, “The history of China bears witness to the grave crises brought on by the empresses and their relatives.” In Madame Nhu, Diệm had a first lady who was a part of the period of decay leading up to his downfall. She exerted influence with her fiery attitude, often abusing Diệm and Nhu, who bowed to her angry tirades. Madame Nhu was frequently mocked by the media for her ostentatious flaunting of power, and was sometimes called the “Dragon Lady,” as well as “Lucretia Borgia” and “Queen Bee.” She once said that “Power is wonderful. Total power is totally wonderful.” She told a group of American congressmen, “I’m not exactly afraid of death. I love power and in the next life I have a chance to be even more powerful than I am.”
She had a message to Diệm’s opponents, noting that “We will track down, neutralize and extirpate all these scabby sheep.”
The French journalist Francois Sully wrote that Madame Nhu was “conceited, and obsessed with a drive for power that far surpasses that of even her husband … It is no exaggeration to say that Madame Nhu is the most detested personality in South Vietnam.” Sully was promptly expelled by the Ngô family.
Madame Nhu also claimed that she and her husband were responsible for Diệm’s triumph over the Bình Xuyên in the Battle for Saigon in 1954.
Madame Nhu believed that it was the family’s destiny that they were to save South Vietnam. Following the collapse of the coup, Madame Nhu’s influence in the family began to rise.
As the Ngô’s influence grew, American distaste for them grew. Wesley Fishel, an academic from Michigan State University who led an advisory group that helped to train Vietnamese public servants and who had lobbied American politicians in the 1950s to support Diệm’s bid for power, resigned along with his staff. Fishel called Madame Nhu “Brilliant, vivacious, bitchy and brutal in her Borgia-like fashion,” claiming that she and her husband were the evil influences that were corrupting the regime.
Madame Nhu often exerted her influence through bouts of shouting. Sometimes when she disagreed with a proposal or decision that had been made inside the palace by some ministers or other senior public servants, she would verbally abuse them and intimidate them into adopting her preferred stance.
On February 27, 1962, two dissident Republic of Vietnam Air Force pilots, Nguyễn Văn Cử and Phạm Phú Quốc, bombed the Independence Palace, the official residence of the Ngô family, with the aim of assassinating them.
One bomb landed in a room where Diệm was reading, but failed to detonate. The family escaped to the cellar unhurt, except for Madame Nhu, who sustained an arm fracture while running for cover.
Diệm reacted to the bombing by cracking down on political dissidents and further tightening control of the press. Madame Nhu added, “[y]ou open a window to let in light and air, not bullets. We want freedom, but we don’t want to be exploited by it.”
In a radio interview in late-1962, she mockingly remarked that American journalists were “intoxicated with communism.”
In early 1963, Madame Nhu instructed her Women’s Solidarity Movement to oppose American attempts “to make lackeys of Vietnamese and to seduce Vietnamese women into decadent paths.”
As relations became strained, she also accused the Americans of supporting the 1960 coup through the Times of Vietnam.
Madame Nhu often caused controversy because of her strongly anti-Buddhist, pro-Catholic ideology. When she heard that Diệm was to sign a statement offering compensation to the families of Buddhist protesters shot dead by the police of his brother Ngô Đình Cẩn, she was reported to have thrown a bowl of soup at him.
On June 8, 1963, Madame Nhu released a statement through the Women’s Solidarity Movement accusing the Buddhists of neutralism, effectively accusing them of being communist collaborators. It then implored “bonzes of good faith” to stop helping the communists, otherwise Vietnamese Buddhism would be seen as a “small anti-nationalist branch of a dubious international association, exploited and controlled by communism and oriented to the sowing of the disorder of neutralism” and calling on Diem to “immediately expel all foreign agitators whether they wear monks’ robes or not.” She made another attack on the United States, calling on Diệm to “keep vigilance on all others, particularly those inclined to take Viet Nam for [a] satellite of [a] foreign power or organization.”
Madame Nhu publicly mocked Thích Quảng Đức, who performed a self-immolation on 11 June 1963, in a crowded Saigon street to protest against the shooting of Buddhists by Diệm’s regime. Nhu labelled it a “barbecue” and stated, “Let them burn and we shall clap our hands.” She further offered to provide more fuel and matches for the Buddhists. Historian Howard Jones said that these comments “all but put the finishing touch on the Diệm regime.” Her comments further stoked open infighting with her parents. Her father went on radio to condemn her comments. A Confucian, Chương said that the regime had alienated “the strongest moral forces,” implying that they had lost the mandate of heaven. She responded by calling him a “coward.” Her mother said that “There is an old proverb in my country which means ‘one should not make oneself or one’s family naked before the world’… I was sick… Now, nobody can stop her… She never listened to our advice.”
After these comments, the U.S. ambassador, Frederick Nolting, told Diệm that if he did not denounce his sister-in-law’s comment in public, the Americans would have to stop supporting him, but he refused to do so, and instead assailed the monks.
In an interview with David Halberstam, she said that it was “embarrassing to see people [Buddhist leaders] so uncultured claiming to be leaders.” The American embassy told Diệm that these comments violated an agreement between the Buddhists and his regime to avoid verbal exchanges, but Diệm refused to keep his family’s end of the bargain, saying that his sister-in-law was obliged to expose “extremists” to keep the public informed.
In July, the US government rejected a request from her to travel to America for a public speaking tour, fearing a public relations disaster. On August 3, she called the Buddhists “seditious elements who use the most odious Communist tactics to subvert the country.”
This occurred after special forces loyal to the Ngôs raided the Xá Lợi Pagoda in Saigon in August. The pagoda was vandalized, monks beaten, the cremated remains of Thích Quảng Đức, which included a heart which had not disintegrated, were confiscated. Simultaneous raids were carried out across the country, with the Từ Đàm Pagoda in Huế being looted, the statue of Gautama Buddha demolished, and the body of a deceased monk stolen. When the populace came to the defense of the monks, the resulting clashes saw 30 civilians killed and 200 wounded. Through her paramilitary organization, Madame Nhu claimed that the Buddhists were “controlled by communism” and that they were manipulated by the Americans, calling on Diệm to “expel all foreign agitators whether they wear monks’ robes or not”.
A few days after the raids, Madame Nhu described the deadly attacks on the Buddhists as “the happiest day in my life since we crushed the Bình Xuyên in 1955″, and assailed them as “communists.”
Madame Nhu was publicly disowned by her parents. Her father, Trần Văn Chương, the ambassador to the United States, resigned in protest, along with all but one of the staffers at the embassy. Chương charged Diệm with having “copied the tactics of totalitarian regimes”. His wife, who was South Vietnam’s observer at the United Nations, resigned and spoke of mass executions and a reign of terror under Diệm and Nhu. She predicted that if Diệm and Nhu and Madame Nhu did not leave Vietnam then they would inevitably be killed.
Madame Nhu believed that Buddhist leader Thích Trí Quang “spoke for many intellectuals who had repeatedly ridiculed her.”
Following the pagoda raids, Trí Quang was given asylum at the U.S. Embassy as Ngô Đình Nhu had made plans to assassinate him.
Madame Nhu gave a media interview in which she called on government troops to invade the American embassy and capture Thích Trí Quang and some other monks who were staying there, saying that the government must arrest “all key Buddhists.”
In a media interview, Nhu responded to his parents-in-law by vowing to kill Chương, and claiming that his wife would participate. He said “I will have his head cut off. I will hang him in the center of a square and let him dangle there. My wife will make the knot on the rope because she is proud of being a Vietnamese and she is a good patriot.”
When Acting U.S. ambassador William Trueheart warned that development aid might be withheld if the repression orchestrated by the Ngôs continued, Madame Nhu denounced it as “blackmail.” Nhu and Diệm, fearing a cut in aid, sent Madame Nhu to the United States on a speaking tour.
Madame Nhu departed South Vietnam on September 9 in an expedition that brought widespread international scorn to her family’s regime. She predicted “a triumphant lecture tour.”
Madame Nhu would leave on September 17 for the Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting in Yugoslavia, followed by a trip to Italy and possibly to the United States, where she had an invitation to speak before the Overseas Press Club of New York. 
Madame Nhu’s comments were such that US President John F. Kennedy became personally concerned. He asked his advisors to find means of having Diệm gag her. McGeorge Bundy thought her comments were so damaging that it would only be acceptable for Ngô Đình Diệm to remain in power if she were out of the picture. The National Security Council deemed her a threat to U.S. security, and told the then United States Ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. to seek her permanent removal from South Vietnam.
There was also speculation that she could turn up at the United Nations in New York and embarrass South Vietnam and the U.S. Bundy said in a meeting that “this was the first time the world had been faced with collective madness in a ruling family since the days of the czars” and her comments provoked much debate on how to get Diệm to silence her.
In Madame Nhu’s first destination, Belgrade, she said that “President Kennedy, is a politician, and when he hears a loud opinion speaking in a certain way, he tries to appease it somehow”, referring to the opposition to her family’s rule.
The issue resulted in an awkward confrontation when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Maxwell Taylor, traveled to Vietnam for a fact-finding mission about the progress of the war.
In a meeting with Diệm, McNamara bemoaned “the ill-advised and unfortunate declarations of Madame Nhu”, who had described U.S. military advisors as “acting like little soldiers of fortune”. McNamara said that such comments would damage bilateral military cooperation and deter American officers from helping the South Vietnamese forces. Lodge denounced the comments and said, “These men should be thanked, not insulted.” However, one of his aides lost his composure and asked if “there were not something the government could do to shut her up.” Diệm was stunned by the comments and retorted that “one cannot deny a lady the right to defend herself when she has been unjustly attacked,” saying that his sister-in-law was entitled to freedom of speech.
Madame Nhu arrived in the United States on October 7, and her arrival was greeted by the UN launching an inquiry into the Ngô family’s repression of the Buddhists. Kennedy had resisted the temptation to deny her an entry visa and his administration soon came under a flurry of verbal attacks.
Despite the United States Vice President Lyndon Johnson‘s advice for her to stop damaging relations with inflammatory remarks, Madame Nhu refused to back down, describing herself a “scapegoat” for American shortcomings and failures. She went on to accuse the administration of betraying her family, saying “I refuse to play the role of an accomplice in an awful murder … According to a few immature American junior officials—too imbued by a real but obsolete imperialist spirit, the Vietnamese regime is not puppet enough and must be liquidated.” She accused the Americans of undermining South Vietnam through “briberies, threats and other means,” to destroy her family because they “do not like” it. She further mocked Kennedy’s entourage, asking why “all the people around President Kennedy are pink?”
She denounced American liberals as “worse than communists” and Buddhists as “hooligans in robes”. Her father did not share the same beliefs and followed her around the country rebutting her comments, denouncing the “injustice and oppression” and stating that his daughter had “become unwittingly the greatest asset to the communists.” Madame Nhu also defiantly predicted that Buddhism would become extinct in Vietnam.
In the wake of the tumultuous events, Madame Nhu appeared on NBC-TV‘s Meet the Press on October 13, 1963, defending her actions and those of the South Vietnamese government. “I don’t know why you Americans dislike us,” she said. “Is it because the world is under a spell called liberalism? Your own public, here in America, is not as anti-Communistic as ours is in Vietnam. Americans talk about my husband and I leaving our native land permanently. Why should we do this? Where would we go? To say that 70 percent of my country’s population is Buddhistic is absolutely true. My father, who was our ambassador to the United States until two months ago, has been against me since my childhood.”
On November 2, 1963, Diệm and Nhu, were assassinated in a coup d’état led by General Dương Văn Minh with the understanding that the United States would not intervene. At the time of the assassinations, Madame Nhu was in Beverly Hills, California, traveling with her 18-year-old daughter, Ngô Đình Lệ Thủy. Two sons and a baby daughter were still trapped in Vietnam at the family retreat in Đà Lạt and she feared that they could meet the same fate as their father. The children were not harmed by the generals and were flown out of the country into exile in Rome, where they were placed in the custody of Thục. Madame Nhu later flew to Rome to join them.
In response to the killings of Diệm and Nhu, she immediately accused the United States, saying “Whoever has the Americans as allies does not need enemies”, and that “No coup can erupt without American incitement and backing”. She went on to predict a bleak future for Vietnam and said that, by being involved in the coup, the troubles of the United States in Vietnam were just beginning. She called the deaths an “indelible stigma” against the Americans and said “My family has been treacherously killed with either official or unofficial blessing of the American government, I can predict to you now that the story is only at its beginning.” She invoked biblical analogies, saying “Judas has sold the Christ for thirty pieces of silver. The Ngô brothers have been sold for a few dollars.” When asked if she wanted asylum in the United States, she said, “I cannot stay in a country whose government stabbed me in the back. I believe all the devils in hell are against us.”
In the aftermath of the coup, the statues of the Trưng Sisters that Madame Nhu had erected with her own facial features were demolished by jubilant anti-Diệm rioters. The Times of Vietnam office was also burned down, and the newspaper was never published again.
Life in exile
The military government of Vietnam under General Dương Văn Minh confiscated all of the property in Saigon that belonged to Madame Nhu and her family, and she was not allowed to return to South Vietnam. She went to Rome briefly before moving permanently to France with her children. Her daughter, Lệ Thủy, died in 1967, at age 22, in an automobile accident in Longjumeau, France.
On November 2, 1986, Madame Nhu charged the United States for hounding her family during the arrest of her younger brother, Trần Văn Khiêm, who was charged in the strangling deaths of their parents, Trần Văn Chương and Nam Tran Chuong in their Washington, D.C., home.
In the 1990s, the former first lady of South Vietnam was reportedly living on the French Riviera and charging the press for interviews. She has been listed in biographical publications as recently as 2001.
In 2002, Madame Nhu gave an interview to the journalist Truong Phu Thu of Dân Chúa Mỹ Châu, a magazine published for the Vietnamese Catholic community. It was published in October 2004. The article stated that she was living in Paris and that she was working on her memoirs.
In her last years, she lived with her eldest son Ngô Đình Trác and youngest daughter Ngô Đình Lệ Quyên in Rome (her other son lives in Belgium) and was working on a book of memoirs to be published after her death Her memoirs would be written in French and would be translated into Vietnamese and Italian. In early April 2011, she was taken to a hospital in Rome where she died three weeks later on Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011. News of her death was announced by her family and publicized by Truong Phu Thu, who had interviewed her in 2002. She is survived by two sons and a daughter.
Influence on Vietnamese fashion
In the early 1960s, Madame Nhu popularized a tight-fitting version of the traditional áo dài (long dress) that was considered controversial in its day, due to its tight fit and low-cut neckline. According to Boi Tran Huynh, a scholar of Vietnamese visual arts, “To foreigners, this collar made sense, given the tropical conditions, but conservatives saw it as too suggestive for Vietnamese women.”
Historian A. J. Langguth wrote that Madame Nhu had “delicate features, a flirtatious manner and a tiny but voluptuous figure”.
- “Whoever has the Americans as allies does not need enemies.” (following the assassination of her husband and her brother-in-law)
« Whoever has the Americans as ally does not need an enemy. I did not believe them. But if the news is true, if really my family has been treacherously killed with either official or unofficial blessings of the American government, I can predict to you all that the story in Vietnam is only at its beginning. »
- “If one has no courage to denounce, if one bows to madness and stupidity, how can one ever hope to cope with the other wrongs of humanity exploited in the same fashion by Communists?” (referring to the practice of self-immolation of Buddhist monks)
- “I may shock some by saying “I would beat such provocateurs ten times more if they wore monks’ robes,” and “I would clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show, for one can not be responsible for the madness of others.”” (referring to the practice of self-immolation of Buddhist monks)
« Explaining her macabre comment about “these Buddhist barbecues” after the suicides by fire began, she said that her daughter had overheard a U.S. soldier use the phrase at a Saigon hot-dog stand. “It sounded like a perfectly harmless Americanism,” said Mme. Nhu.» Time Magazine Oct.18,1963 “In the Lions’ Cage” P.2 http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,873743,00.html
She said that the media, including The New York Times, were under a “mad spell” cast by the Buddhists and needed electroshock therapy to rehabilitate them.