Vietnam Is the Place 8

The storm ended within an hour—miraculously for Diem and his family. An early riser, Diem had been perusing a biography of George Washington, a gift from an American visitor, when the first bomb fell into his wing of the palace. It failed to explode. He dashed to a fortified cellar, where he had survived the attempted coup in 1960, and there he was joined by his brother Thuc, as well as Nhu, with his wife and children, who had been in other parts of the building. Madame Nhu had fractured her arm tumbling downstairs, and she wept through the ordeal. Three guards and servants died, and thirty were injured. But the family emerged alive and Diem, in a brief radio announcement, attributed his escape to “divine protection.”
It had not been a plot, but an aborted aerial assassination. The two insurgent pilots, trained in France and the United States, were among South Vietnam’s finest. They had taken off that morning on a mission against the Vietcong in the Mekong delta but had turned back to stage their assault. One of them, who had bailed out over the Saigon River after his airplane had been nicked by flak, survived imprisonment and died in a raid on North Vietnam in 1965. The other, Lieutenant Ngu¬yen Van Cu, flew on to Cambodia, believing he had killed Diem. He explained his motives to me when he returned to Vietnam after Diem’s overthrow the next year. He had been denied promotion for six years, he said, because his father had belonged to a dissident political party. The war against the Vietcong, he complained, was not being prose¬cuted with sufficient vigor. And, in a reference to Nolting’s speech to the Rotary Club, he added: “I felt that the Americans had slammed the door on those of us who really wanted to fight against the Com¬munists.”
Diem’s extraordinary experience reconfirmed his conviction that his domestic adversaries were the real danger. He dug himself deeper into his family, whom he could trust. He also receded from running the country’s daily affairs, delegating more and more authority to his brother Nhu, who became the regime’s principal theoretician and manager. As one American diplomat then in Saigon quipped: “Until surgery invents a technique for operating on Siamese twins, they cannot be separated.”
I saw Nhu periodically in those days, and he appeared to me to be approaching madness. I could not substantiate the allegation of his critics that he smoked opium, though he often ranted and raved like a drug addict. He had graduated from the Ecole Nationale des Chartes, an elite French school for archivists, and he returned to Vietnam before the outbreak of World War II filled with assorted notions picked up in the Latin Quarter. Foremost among them was “personalism,” a philosophy conceived in France during the 1930s by Emmanuel Moun- ier and other Catholic progressives. Analogous to the ideas of thinkers like Karl Jaspers and Martin Buber, who had emphasized human dig¬nity as an alternative to modern materialism, it was never intended to be more than an abstraction. But it became Nhu’s response to both Communist autocracy and Western liberalism. As the Diem govern¬ment’s official ideology, however, the doctrine suffered from an over¬whelming flaw: it was incomprehensible, both to South Vietnam’s intelligentsia and its masses. Clearly, too, Nhu was striving to put a gloss of respectability on his various clandestine activities. Mounier’s heirs in Paris, who edited the left-wing Catholic review Esprit, de¬nounced Nhu as a fraud.
Nhu’s real talent was organizational. He had formed student move¬ments in his youth, and, under Diem, he created a web of covert political, security, labor and other groups, all in the tradition of the secret societies that had flourished in Asia for centuries. Emulating the Communists, he built a structure of five-man cells inside the South Vietnamese army and bureaucracy to spy on dissidents and to advance those loyal to the regime. But the system had no other purpose than to preserve Diem’s administration, a narrow objective that limited its ability to inspire popular support.
If Nhu’s intrigues blemished the Saigon government’s credibility, its reputation was tarnished even more egregiously by Madame Nhu, who soared into notoriety as her husband’s influence heightened. She promoted herself as the reincarnation of the legendary Trung sisters, who had led Vietnam’s struggle against China in the first century, and the statue that she had erected in their honor was plainly a mon¬ument to herself. Sexually suggestive in her decollete gowns, which shocked old-fashioned Vietnamese, she occupied a peculiar place as the only woman close to the misogynous Diem. She often infuriated him in private and embarrassed him publicly with her provocative remarks, but he tolerated her out of fidelity to the family. She became more and more outspoken as he sank into seclusion. Her power, however, signaled a regime in decay—just as, to cite contemporary Chinese parallels, the rise of Madame Chiang Kai-shek hastened her husband’s collapse, and the growing sway of Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, mirrored his decline. Ironically, Diem himself had written long before he took office that “the history of China bears witness to the grave crises brought on by the empresses and their relatives.” Now, in Madame Nhu, he had his empress.
She was born in 1924, the second of three children, and named Le Xuan, or Beautiful Spring. Her paternal grandfather had collaborated with the French, working his way up in the colonial administration and amassing a fortune in the process. Her father, Tran Van Chuong, studied law in Paris and returned to practice in Vietnam, where he wed an aristocratic lady related to the imperial family. They settled in Hanoi, where Madame Chuong became a glittering hostess, en¬tertaining the French and the Frenchified Vietnamese at her lavish villa. A renowned beauty, she reputedly had a series of lovers, among them the handsome Ngo Dinh Nhu, just back from France and em¬ployed at the National Library. Nhu was six years her junior, but fourteen years older than Le Xuan, her daughter, whom he married in 1943. Le Xuan had dropped out of the Lycée Albert Sarraut, the prestigious French high school in Hanoi, where she had been a me¬diocre student. Fluent in French, the language spoken at home, she never learned to write in her native tongue. In later years, she would draft her speeches in French and have them translated into Vietnamese.

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