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Original research on the Vietnam era,
This review is from: Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu (Hardcover)
I had thought everything that could be written on the Vietnam War had been written. The existence of this book proves me wrong. While it is not a landmark work like Karnow's Vietnam or Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, it is nonetheless original, interesting, and worth reading for those interested in Vietnam.
I was curious if this book would get me to sympathize with Madame Nhu. The answer is not really. As a girl and a middle child at that, Madame Nhu did not receive the best child care, despite being born into an upper class family. Her parents dumped her on the grandparents, the grandparents pawned her off on the servants, and the servants dumped little Madame Nhu on the gardeners who were convicts forced to do yard work on the family estate. It's worth pausing and imagining leaving your children with people forced to do community service projects on the highway. When she was a toddler, she nearly died from an infection that was a direct result of neglect. So Madame Nhu had a rough childhood. But most people with bad formative years don't encourage monks to self-immolate themselves or watch happily while those same monks clubbed in the head by soldiers.
Madame Nhu married well (by well I mean prestige and connections; personally her husband was cold towards her and fooled around). Her husband began as a librarian, but went on to found the Personalist Labor Party. This party would be the base of support for his brother Diem, who would go on to become Prime Minister and later President. Among her husbands other siblings was the first Vietnamese Archbishop and a provincial chief.
The author's thesis is that Madame Nhu, the Dragon Lady, was more than a beautiful and cruel cartoon character. Demery lays out important instances where she helped prop up the regime. Early on she organizes protests against a pro-French general threatening Diem's power. Later on she advises her husband and Diem on how to deal with rebellious paratroopers. While it may be that Madame Nhu had a sharper political mind than she's been given credit for, this does not charge the fact that she caused more harm than good. She was the one who introduced the enormously unpopular morality laws banning contraception, prostitution, and divorce. Most importantly, Madame Nhu is the one who made the infamous remark, "If the Buddhists wish to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline and the match." The public relations disaster that was Madame Nhu was one of the deciding factors that convinced the Kennedy administration to approve and encourage a coup against Diem.
I'm glad the author took the time to seek Madame Nhu out (after the coup she almost never granted interviews and her exact location was unknown). Through patience Demery not only interviewed Nhu, but obtained her unpublished memoirs and a volume of her diary. Madame Nhu was a pivotal figure in the Second Indochina war, although I think the author exaggerates her importance a bit. My main criticism of the book has to do with the fashion commentary. Frequently the author reports on what Madame Nhu is wearing. If Madame Nhu was important, these details trivialize her in my opinion. If I'm reading a book on Mao, I don't expect or want to know what he wore to a meeting with Khrushchev ("Chairman Mao, who are you wearing to the party congress?").
This is a fresh, original work that I would recommend to those interested in the Vietnam War. Hopefully, the author will write more on the region in the future.