Review: Finding the Dragon Lady

Finding the Dragon Lady, Monique Brinson Demery. New York: Public Affair, 2013.

Summary: A biography of Madame Nhu, part of the ruling family in Vietnam (1954-1963) based on the author’s personal interactions with Madame Nhu before her death, allowing her to obtain memoirs and a diary of her life.

She grew up in a distinguished Vietnamese family in Hanoi under the French, receiving the typical French education, with the expectation of being married off into another distinguished family. At nineteen Tran Le Xuan married Ngo Dinh Nhu, in the middle of World War 2 as the Vichy French enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the Japanese. At the end of the war, the French assumption that they could resume control of the colony was upset by nationalist forces under Ho Chi Min and the Viet Minh. Madame Nhu engages in a harrowing flight with her children, only reunited with her husband later. They take refuge in the mountain retreat of Dalat while war goes on between France and the Viet Minh. The French lose a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu, resulting in a division of the country into north and south with Madame Nhu’s brother-in-law Ngo Dinh Diem heading the government with her husband as his right hand man.

At first it seems the model family, buttressed by Diem’s austere integrity. Madame Nhu raises children and leads efforts to help women while the men run the country. Increasingly as dissatisfaction arises and Communist insurgency by the Viet Cong grows, Madame Nhu asserts herself increasingly at points where the two men waver, sometimes courageously against opposition. She becomes known as the Dragon Lady, not to be crossed. When Buddhists use self-immolation to protest government restrictions on their religious freedom, she tells those threatening to go ahead and she would bring the matches. Her efforts to strengthen the government lead to the disaffection of the people, and confounds the US Kennedy administration, now committed to the success of the Republic of South Vietnam. Increasingly the conviction is that the Diem government must go, and the Kennedys and ambassador Lodge conspire for a coup to bring down the government, succeeding at the end of October 1963 when Nhu and Diem both are killed. Madame Nhu, touring the US to drum up support for the government escapes death to live in exile for the rest of her life.

One may find much of this in any history. The unusual element of this book is Monique Brinson Demery’s narrative of her attempts, beginning in 2005, to connect with Madame Nhu to hear her side of the story. After numerous efforts received no response, she got a call one day laying down strict conditions. Then more calls in which Madame Nhu tested her to see if she could be trusted. There were invitations to meet. Madame Nhu never showed up. Meanwhile the author obtained a diary in Madame Nhu’s hand from a serviceman, filling in more of her personal narrative and leading to more questions. Madame Nhu dangled a manuscript of a memoir in front of her in exchange for more favors and more strict conditions. Finally she obtains it, a manuscript in very unfinished form that she must publish as is.

In 2011 Madame Nhu died. The author didn’t publish the manuscript but instead this book of her search for and interactions with Madame Nhu, interleaved with a biography of her life, informed by research and the new materials in Madame Nhu’s hand she received. What emerges is a portrait of a woman in an unhappy marriage longing for so much more who eventually finds it in the cause of the Diem government. We see a mother who loves her children, who acts with courage, but also with ruthlessness, and who pushes the boundaries of what women could do in her society. One also has the sense of a family increasingly isolated from the aspirations of the people, confounding American support, and yet also the first step into the developing American tragedy that was Vietnam. Like Iraq, they were eliminated with no replacement in sight, resulting in a series of weak governments, a growing American involvement propping up that government and the fall of the south to the Communists in 1975.

Demery offers a concise retelling of this tragic history through Madame Nhu’s eyes while remaining objective and able to see her faults, faults that contributed to her family’s downfall and the unraveling of the country. Even in her old age, in her interactions with Demery, we see a woman who uses manipulation to try to tell her story her way, against the grain of reality. She tells the story of a woman alone, fighting to the end to validate her life as meaningful.

Review: The Quiet American

the quiet american

The Quiet AmericanGraham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1955).

Summary: A novel set in French-occupied Vietnam paralleling the entangled lives of a British journalist and American agent with the entanglement of war in Vietnam.

Thomas Fowler, a British correspondent in French occupied Vietnam in the early 1950’s, arrives at home one night to find Phuong waiting outside. She reports that American  Alden Pyle has not returned home. She has been living with Pyle, supposedly with an American Economic Mission. Before living with Pyle, she had lived with Fowler. She stays the night, and they learn the next morning that Pyle is dead when they are summoned for questioning by the French Sureté.

Graham Greene then narrates the strange conflicted relationship of these two men who love one woman, and the equally entangled and conflicted relationships of all those who get involved in Vietnam. Fowler wants to believe that he is the uninvolved British journalist, whose country is not a party to the conflict. He has a wife at home from whom he is separated but who will not divorce him. Phuong meets his needs and prepares his opium pipes and she benefits materially from his attention but he can offer nothing more, although holding out the hope of a divorce. Pyle, who loves her at first sight, is unattached and due to come into money becomes a rival, candidly telling Fowler his intentions, and yet strangely taking to Fowler as his best friend, He saves Fowler’s life at one point when they are stranded in enemy territory, and steals Phuong.

Fowler gradually learns that Pyle isn’t all that he seems. He discovers that Pyle is doing something with plastics, that turn out to be plastic explosives, being used to undermine the regime in Saigon. He is actually a CIA agent. Fowler is curious, but remains detached until a bombing of a square intended to break up a parade that is cancelled kills and maims scores of innocents, an act with the fingerprints of Pyle all over it. He faces hard choices of what to do with his knowledge of this “quiet American,” his rival in love, yet one in some ways to whom he is beholden.

Fowler has tried to avoid entangling involvements. A conversation with a French pilot who napalmed villages describes the folly of such an attempt, in both love, and in the Vietnam conflict. When Fowler protests, “That’s why I won’t be involved.” the French pilot replies:

” ‘It’s not a matter of reason or justice. We all get involved in a moment of emotion and then we cannot get out. War and Love–they have always been compared.’ He looked sadly across the dormitory to where the métisse sprawled in her great temporary peace. He said, ‘I would not have it otherwise. There is a girl who was involved by her parents–what is her future when this port falls. France is only half her home…’ “

Greene’s tale was prescient, published in 1955, of the troubling future that would face, first the French, and then the Americans, already present, in Vietnam. Fowler discovered that he, too, was involved with Phuong, with Pyle, and that Vietnam was a far more complicated mistress than any understood. He evades his editors requests to return to London. Love and War has claimed him, as it would many others.

Sadly, this was an instance of prophecy ignored, and it could be argued that there have been others since. We are still in Iraq, and Afghanistan, unable to extricate ourselves from commitments made in “moments of emotion.”  The Quiet American is a cautionary tale as relevant in our times as it was in the mid-1950’s. Hopefully, we will not proceed as heedlessly now as we did then.

Review: Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

Lyndon Johnson and the American DreamDoris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published in 1976).

Summary: A biography of the 36th president exploring his ambitions, political skills, and vision, shaped by his family and upbringing, and marred by Vietnam, written from the unique perspective of a White House Fellowship and post-presidential interviews.

This month, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book, Leadership in Turbulent Timeswill hit the bookstores. The book explores lessons learned from her biographies of four presidents, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. The book that began her study of presidential leadership was her biography of Lyndon Johnson, first published in 1976. In a Goodreads interview about her new book, she describes how her personal encounter with Lyndon Johnson led to her career as a writer and historian:

“I became a historian first, and then a writer. In graduate school, I was working on my thesis on Supreme Court history when I was selected to join the White House Fellows, one of America’s most prestigious programs for leadership and public service. At the White House celebration of the newly chosen Fellows, President Johnson asked me to dance—not that peculiar, as there were only a few women in the program. He told me he wanted me to be assigned directly to him, but it was not to be that simple. 

For like many young people, I had been active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and had co-authored an article that called for the removal of LBJ, published in the New Republic several days after the White House dance. Despite this, LBJ said: “Bring her down here for a year, and if I can’t win her over, no one can.” I worked with LBJ in the White House and later assisted him in the writing of his memoirs. I will forever be grateful to him because there’s no question that my experience working for him shaped my desire to become a presidential historian.”

That experience of working personally for and with Johnson, both in the White House, and later, on his ranch, gave her unique access into Johnson’s self-conception of his life, his House and Senate experience, and his exercise of presidential leadership. Goodwin renders a story of a young man torn between the high hopes and expectations of his mother, and the much easier and more personable style of his father. He hated formal speaking but was the consummate student of people who knew how to make deals and get things done. From his cultivation of a relationship with a university president, a congressional aide who rapidly makes others beholden followers, several terms in the House, a failed, and then successful Senate bid and his rapid rise to Senate Majority Leader, we see someone who studied those around him, learned how to accrue power to himself by bestowing benefits to his followers, receiving their support, if not love, in return.

Presidential ambitions required a different set of skills that Kennedy had and Johnson lacked. Failing his bid in 1960 for the presidency, he accepts the role of Vice President, thinking he could use the methods that worked so well throughout his life, only to find, as have so many, that the office of Vice President has great status, and no power, or potential for such, unless the President dies. Thrust into the presidency by Kennedy’s death, he uses his Senate leader skills to continue and realize Kennedy’s vision, articulated by Johnson as the Great Society. In his first year, and the year after his landslide election, he enacts landmark Civil Rights legislation (as a President from the South) and social legislation including Medicare. Foreign affairs, never a strong suit, struck in the form of Vietnam, a war he could neither win nor walk away from. Goodwin explores why and describes his efforts to sustain his social programs while escalating the war, and the disastrous consequences to his social agenda, and to the economy until the epiphany of the Tet offensive and the McCarthy and Kennedy candidacies made it plain that he could not win in 1968.

Goodwin spent extensive time with Johnson in his last years, and narrates his inability to write his memoirs, his conversations about his presidency, and Vietnam, and his deep frustration from trying to bestow so much of benefit on the country, only to be reviled by the demonstrators and so many others (Goodwin among them). A combination of meticulous research and up close and personal contact helps us understand the tremendous force of personality that made Johnson great, and the flaws that cast a shadow on what, otherwise, might have been a great presidency. I tend to approach psychological portraits with some skepticism, but her accounts of Johnson in his own words, his actions and her rendering of his character has an internal consistency that offers deep insight into a man for whom I had little respect growing up. Now I find myself longing for the political mastery and vision he exhibited at his best leading the enactment of the Civil Rights legislation which was perhaps his proudest legacy.

Doris Kearns Goodwin has gone on to give us memorable portraits of Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and even the Brooklyn Dodgers of her youth. This was her debut effort and reveals the promise of all that would come from her pen over the last forty years. Perhaps the publication of Leadership in Turbulent Times might encourage some to go back and read the work that led to her distinguished career as a presidential scholar.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Vietnam

3rd_Marines_patrolling_near_Quang_Tri_River_in_Vietnam_1967

3rd Marines patrolling near Quang Tri River, Russell Jewett, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There was a cloud that hung over many of our lives growing up in the Youngstown of the 1960’s and 1970’s. No, it is not the clouds from the mills. It was the ongoing war in Vietnam (which was actually good for industry). Many of our young men would go there, some would die, and others would return, some wounded, and some bearing mental wounds they carry to this day.

While our involvement began in the Eisenhower era, and John Kennedy sent a growing number of “advisors,” it was during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson that I became aware of the war. I was in about fifth grade when I first started reading daily news stories in The Vindicator of “body counts” and plans to send more troops there. We were told with more troops and bombing, we were winning the war. We would see nightly news coverage of embedded journalists and footage of battle action in our living rooms.

For many, the turning point seemed to be the Tet offensive of 1968, a major reversal despite a half million troops and extensive bombing. We began to wonder if this was a different kind of war and if we were being told the truth. It helped bring Richard Nixon to office in 1968, on promises to get us out of the war with our dignity intact. Around this time, I was a paper boy. One of my customers was a returning veteran. He offered to tell me the real story of the war. I regret I never took him up on it.

In 1970, I was a high school sophomore at Chaney. Richard Nixon decided to extend bombing campaigns into Cambodia where enemy troops took refuge. To many college students facing the draft, this was a betrayal of the promise to end the war and demonstrations and riots broke out on many campuses. At nearby Kent State, May 4 was the terrible day when four students died and thirteen others were wounded by the Ohio National Guard troops. All of us at school the next day walked around stunned. Stunned shifted to scared when we heard some adults say, “they should have killed more.”

It made me wonder how they looked at me, with my longish hair. It told me how deeply we were divided, and I think this gave everyone pause as campuses suspended classes early. Somehow, we walked back from the abyss as a nation. In 1972, I registered for the draft, hoping I wouldn’t be called and that I would get a high lottery number. Mine was 12, but I dodged a bullet in more ways than one. Nixon was winding the war down and bringing troops home. The last men drafted were those a year older than I was.

The most difficult thing perhaps was that we lumped our soldiers in with our politicians who lied to us about the war, not explaining the kind of conflict we were in honestly. I know there are lots of arguments about whether we could have achieved victory in Vietnam. I don’t want to re-fight that war. Rather, I want to acknowledge that the men and women who served deserve all the honor as heroes they have only belatedly received. Many were just like me–hoping it wouldn’t come down to them–but doing what their country asked of them as their fathers did in World War II.

Vietnam was a lesson for us as a nation of how important it was that our leaders tell us the truth, particularly when making the case for sending our young men and women into harm’s way. While deceiving the nation cost Lyndon Johnson another presidential term, it cost thousands of young men their lives. It has marked our life as a nation ever since. It is always the case that when our leaders lie, it will be our people, and especially our working classes that will bear the brunt. To paraphrase an old protest song, “when will we ever learn?”