April 27, 2011
Madame Nhu has died. The sister-in-law of former South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, Madame Nhu has been called many colorful and uncomplimentary epithets—"dragon lady," "an oriental Lucrezia Borgia"—because of the influence she wielded and the style with which she did it. (Somehow men being powerful or power-hungry is not so reprehensible.) Raised Buddhist, she converted to Catholicism when she married. Her exile was spent largely in Paris then Rome. She is survived by two sons and a daughter.
Madame Nhu was famous for her colorful sayings, such as "Total power is totally wonderful," and, of the self-immolating monk Quang Duc, "If the Buddhists wish to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline and a match."
Amy Davidson writes about her for the New Yorker and brings up the Afghanistan parallel. The Guardian's take includes this nugget: "She later accused monks of lacking patriotism for setting themselves alight with imported petrol."
The United States's support for South Vietnam is not our proudest moment, and it's one that still cannot be discussed with anything approaching equanimity, and the reason is obvious: We're now supporting another embattled and illegitimate government, this time in Afghanistan. The parallels, while often derided by the war's supporters, are obvious enough. The war in Afghanistan seems to be an unspoken secret in our society. Every day we kill civilians and send our soldiers into harm's way to support a corrupt government that wants us out of their country and to achieve other vague goals that no one can quite articulate. How far we've come since Madame Nhu's heyday!
(Photograph: John Loengard/Time & Life Pictures. Appeared in the Guardian.)