Madame Nhu (Tran Le Xuan) was arguably the most controversial figure of South Vietnam’s brief history. An advocate of women’s rights, but an opponent of abortion and contraception, hailed as the saviour of South East Asia in the 1950s by the US media, then lambasted for her callous insensitivity towards the regime’s opponents, she was a deeply complicated character who appeared to intoxicate as much as revile even her political enemies.
Born Tran Le Xuan into a wealthy (Buddhist) Vietnamese family, she married Ngo Dinh Nhu at the age of 18, and quickly abandoned her Buddhism for her husband’s Roman Catholic faith. An early victim of the First Indochina War, Madam Nhu was taken prisoner by the VietMinh for four months along with her daughter and mother-in-law. (Pictured, Madame Nhu with Lyndon B Johnson, 1961. At the time Johnson was vice president).
After her brother-in-law, Ngo Dinh Diem, assumed control of South Vietnam in 1955, she became the most powerful female in South East Asia. Whilst her only position was as a member of the South Vietnamese National Assembly, her husband’s control of the secret police, and her unofficial role as the hermit-like Diem’s “first lady” guaranteed her both headlines and influence.