Vietnam Is the Place 9

When the French dismissed Nhu, penalizing him for Diem’s na¬tionalist activities, he took his bride to Dalat, where they lived com¬fortably during France’s war against the Vietminh. He edited a newspaper and dabbled in politics while she gave birth to four children. In 1955, after Diem ousted Bao Dai in the rigged referendum, the Nhus moved into the presidential palace in Saigon, and Madame Nhu quickly adopted an imperious manner as South Vietnam’s First Lady. She also began to display the spunkiness that later became her hall¬mark, annoying Diem to such an extent that he nearly took the advice of General J. Lawton Collins, then U.S. ambassador, who bluntly told him that she was a “troublemaker” and should be sent away. But Diem would not act without consulting Thuc, his older brother and head of the clan. Thuc, though a Catholic clergyman, offered Con- fucian counsel. The family must be kept intact.
Recalling Collins’s attempt to oust her, Madame Nhu fiercely re¬proached the United States during the years that followed, alleging on more than one occasion that Americans were plotting with Viet-namese dissidents to topple Diem. She also became South Vietnam’s most dynamic prude. She promoted an edict abolishing divorce and making adultery a crime, and, in the name of protecting Vietnam’s “traditional virtue,” she banned abortions, contraceptives, beauty con¬tests and boxing matches. She closed Saigon’s nightclubs and ball¬rooms, asserting that “dancing with death is enough,” but she allowed cafes to remain open—on condition that bar girls, most of them pros-titutes, wear white tunics that made them look like dental assistants. The permissive Vietnamese scorned her sanctimonious decrees, es¬pecially since her own siblings were scarcely models of rectitude. She had confected the stringent divorce law to prevent her sister, Le Chi, who had a French lover, from breaking with her husband, which would have deprived the family of his enormous wealth. Her playboy brother, Khiem, meanwhile used his lofty connections to bilk rich entrepreneurs. He later fled to France and, in July 1987, was arrested and afterward tried on charges of murdering—presumably in a dispute about money—his parents in Washington, where they had resided for years. Ruling him incompetent, the judge committed him to an insane asylum until his mental condition could be determined. By then Ma¬dame Nhu, whose daughter had died in an automobile crash years before, was languishing in poverty in Rome, a forgotten figure. Her brother, she contended, was the victim of a CIA conspiracy.
Though I cannot pretend to have been prescient, I sensed the rot then eroding the Diem regime during a conversation with Nhu in his den one day in early 1963. I had asked him to comment on the charge, swirling through Saigon, that he and his wife were corrupt. It was an outrageous question, but the kind that had to be posed. To my sur¬prise, he replied softly and persuasively.
“It’s not true. We have nothing. You can examine our bank ac¬counts. We are poor.”
“But people think you’re dishonest,” I pressed.
“I don’t care what people think,” he said.
Approaching the Vietnam challenge like industrial managers, in 1962 Washington strategists reckoned that larger investments of men, money and materiel would logically yield larger results. Indeed, they euphorically began to plan a phased withdrawal of U.S. personnel and a reduction of American subsidies. According to their timetable, the number of advisers would decline from twelve thousand in 1964 to a spare training mission of only fifteen hundred four years later, and aid would drop proportionately. The word “victory” now popped up in many utterances made by prominent American military and civilian officials. “There is a new feeling of confidence that victory is possible, ” said McNamara, and Admiral Felt predicted “victory in three years.” But President Kennedy was prudent: “We don’t see the end of the tunnel, but I must say I don’t think it is darker than it was a year ago, and in some ways [it is] lighter.”
Actually, a thousand U.S. advisers went home in December 1963, but their departure from Vietnam was essentially a bureaucratic ac¬counting exercise. A year later, contrary to Washington’s plan, the American contingent in Vietnam had swelled to twenty-three thou¬sand, and further deployments were in the offing.
Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader, clearly saw the danger ahead and its causes. A liberal Catholic who had initially sponsored Diem, he was a lean, leathery, laconic politician from Montana with the acuity and courage to change his mind. So when Kennedy sent him to Vietnam in late 1962 to survey the scene, he returned with brutally frank conclusions. The United States had spent $2 billion in seven years, yet “substantially the same difficulties remain if, indeed, they have not been compounded.” The fault lay not only in the Viet- cong threat, but also in the shortcomings of U.S. policy—and with the Diem regime, for its failure to share political power. Mansfield recommended a careful reassessment of American interests in South¬east Asia to avoid deeper U.S. involvement in Vietnam, where the “primary responsibility” rested with the South Vietnamese them¬selves. And he warned: “It is their country, their future that is at stake, not ours. To ignore that reality will not only be immensely costly in terms of American lives and resources, but it may also draw us inex¬orably into some variation of the unenviable position in Vietnam that was formerly occupied by the French. . . . The great increase in American military commitment this year has tended to point us in that general direction.”
Shortly afterward, at a party aboard his yacht, Kennedy rebutted Mansfield’s gloomy report. “You asked me to go out there,” answered Mansfield, to which Kennedy replied frostily: “Well, I’ll read it again. ” Later, Kennedy confided to Kenneth O’Donnell, an assistant: “I got angry with Mike for disagreeing with our policy so completely, and I got angry with myself because I found myself agreeing with him.”
Kennedy, according to O’Donnell, also intimated that he would have the Americans withdraw from Vietnam after his reelection in 1964, even at the risk of being “damned everywhere as a Communist appeaser.” But whatever he may have said privately, Kennedy’s ac¬tions and statements at the time were tough. In 1963, for example, he responded to a flare-up in Laos by sending three thousand troops into northeastern Thailand near the Laotian border. He could not see “the burden being lightened” in Southeast Asia during the coming year, he declared. Nor would he retreat from South Vietnam, even though a series of internal convulsions there in 1963 were to implicate him in one of the strangest episodes in the annals of American foreign policy and practice.

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