I had never heard of Madame Nhu, before I came across this book, and that's too bad, because she's a fascinating character, and from beginning to end, her circumstances gave her unique "front row seats" to the complicated story of Vietnamese history between the period of French colonialism and the 1975 fall to Communism.
Tran (Nhu) Thi Le Xuan, the titular "Madame Nhu" was born to parents with long, aristocratic pedigrees which extend back to the last Emperor of Vietnam, who lost his kingdom to the French in the mid-1800's. When the French ruled Indochina, the Chuongs (her maiden name) collaborated, going so far as to convert to Catholicism, and prospered as part of the miniscule native Vietnamese landowning Elite. Nhu was born at the tail end of this era, in 1924. When the Japanese drove the French out in World War II, the Chuongs collaborated with them. When the Japanese were in turn driven out, and the French (briefly) returned, fortune nevertheless shone on the Chuongs, as Thi Le Xuan's husband Dinh Nhu built up his older brother's (Diem Ngo's) political career. Through complicated intrigues, Diem would become President of South Vietnam, and Dinh Nhu the leader of his political party and de facto Vice President.
So yes- this is a mercenary, ambitious, Machiavellian family, exhibiting not much in the way of idealism or loyalty... even to each other: when Nhu is First Lady, and her parents are the Vietnamese ambassadors to the US, they publicly denounce her just prior to the coup which sees her husband and brother-in-law assassinated. Most readers won't actually like any of the characters in this book, but that's besides the point, isn't it?
The enjoyment I derived from this book came from (1) having a lot of my questions about the genesis of the Vietnam War answered, and (2) boggling at the amount and complexity of cloak-and-dagger intrigues it details. Seriously, some of this stuff is so bizarre, I would have thought it was bad James Bond fan fiction, if author Monique Demery wasn't such a credible writer.
To give you a little taste of what I'm talking about: the 1963 coup which took down the DIem regime began as a fake coup, engineered by Diem himself (and brother/advisor Dinh Ngo). Diem had been unpopular since a 1962 crackdown on dissident Buddhist monks, which ended in several displays of public self-immoliation (always a sympathy-grabber). The fake coup was supposed to be controllable, as it would be started and orchestrated by Diem operatives who wouldn't let it get out of hand. The faux-coup would disrupt commerce and cause general disorder, which would turn public opinion against Diem's opposition, and which would give Diem an excuse to institute martial law, and a purge of moderates. Great idea, no? The thing is, the CIA knew about the secret fake coup, and turned one of Diem's generals into a double agent. So the CIA operated a double-secret REAL coup within Diem's fake coup. Diem and Dinh Nhu didn't catch on until the supposedly-rebelling soldiers whom they had ordered to shut down traffic in Saigon didn't stand down to Diem's police. When Madame Nhu heard Diem and Dihn Ngo had been assassinated, she didn't accept the news as real for three months! She assumed (as, actually, my own wife probably would) that he had faked his death, and was probably waiting somewhere for her out of the country.
And that's just one of two death-faking stories in this book... and only one of three false-flag attacks... and Diem was only in power for nine years! That's a average of one false-flag event for every three years in power. I wonder if that's a record. (I am so naïve.)
Oh, did I mention that Diem was put in power by the French, because they expected him to fail? They figured his political inexperience and corruption would mismanage South Vietnam so badly that the public would be clamoring for a (pseudo)return to French (neo)colonial rule.
Of course, it didn't quite work out that way. This was one family of survivors, and Madame Nhu is as heavy a hitter as her husband and brother-in-law. When a pirate problem on Vietnamese inland waterways became so bad it threatened the economy, Diem and Dinh Ngo were prepared to negotiate. It was Madame Nhu working behind the scenes who convinced them to confront and destroy the underworld pirate/gangsters, which turns out to have been the right decision.
She was tough, but also knew how to turn on the charm. Her flirtations with LBJ were "credited" (if one may use such a positive term) with bringing hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid into Vietnam. That's just one of many instances in this book when the "Dragon Lady" used her sex appeal to political ends. Obviously, the appellation "Dragon Lady" -with all its racial and gender stereotypical undertones- is problematic, but I'll leave those discussions for some other reviewer.
A few unexpected tidbits:
Vietnamese resistance to French recolonializing efforts after World War II were in part the result of Japanese propaganda during the war. Even though Imperial Japanese forces were cruel masters, their Asian solidarity propaganda found purchase among Vietnamese who suffered long under humiliating French colonial rule. For all their evils, the Imperial Japanese broke the myth of unchallengeable European commercial, military, and technological superiority.
The Vietnam War arguably started with American CIA orchestration of the 1963 coup. There is a long list of reasons why the US wanted to oust Diem and his brother- mostly they were too independent-minded to take uncritical instructions from the US, but also because the Kennedy administration felt that Diem's regime didn't project a favorable enough image of what a liberal democracy should be, in contrast to Ho Chi Minh's regime up in the North. President Diem appeared a bit too opulent and corrupt, and as part of the miniscule Catholic minority, it looked bad when he cracked down on Buddhist monks. One has to wonder whether the crackdown, and subsequent coup, and subsequent Vietnam War would have happened at all, if Madame Nhu's family had been Buddhist instead of Catholic.