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.
Nguyen Van Thieu, president of South Vietnam from 1965–75, presided over two critical periods in the decline of South Vietnam, serving as president whilst the US withdrew from the country in 1973 and remaining in power until shortly before the final collapse of the country in April 1975.
Nguyen Van Thieu’s first major involvement in the country’s political fortunes came as a supporter of Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist movement, rising to the position of District commander. However, this dalliance with the VietMinh barely lasted a year, with an apparent realisation that the nationalist movement he had joined was, in fact, a front for communist insurgents.
After studying at various military academies, he fought with the French against the Vietminh until the end of the war in 1954. He was promoted to the rank of corps commander in the South Vietnamese Army, and spent time training in the USA. He was amongst the group of army officers who carried out the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, the South Vietnamese president, in 1963, and then maintained his position within the army leadership during a succession of coups 1964-5.
Born 26 March 1914, near Spartanburg, South Carolina, William Westmoreland went on to fight in most of America’s major areas of conflict during World War Two and the Cold War, and came to prominence during the Vietnam War. He served as Superintendent at West Point, and enjoyed the patronage of two US Presidents. However, by the end of 1968 his reputation was in tatters, and his stock had declined such that the aspiring nominee for the Republican party’s presidential candidate in 1980 refused to sit next to him on a flight for fear that he be tarnished by association with the disgraced former general.
As commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), Westmoreland strongly believed in the policy of attrition, refusing to accept that a small nation such as North Vietnam could absorb huge losses. This belief led him to misinterpret the critical lessons of the war, none more so than the unsuitability of conventional big unit tactics to the jungles of Vietnam. Whilst he rightly pointed to the horrendous casualty figures on the communist side, this ignored the growing casualty lists, and equipment losses on the US side.
The Tet Offensive of 1968 turned out to be the beginning of the end of his military career in Vietnam. After announcing the light at the end of the tunnel in a press conference at the end of 1967, his claims of impending success were shown to be hollow as the North Vietnamese launched their largest campaign of the conflict thus far. Even as Westmoreland emphasized the success of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and US forces in crushing the offensive, images of Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas in the grounds of the US embassy, and holding out in the South Vietnamese city of Hue only served to undermine his credibility still further.
The architect of the South Vietnamese state, and the United State’s principal ally in South East Asia, Ngo Dinh Diem ended his political career in ignominies fashion; shot in the back of an army van after being deposed by his own forces acting with the connivance of the country which had sustained him throughout his premiership since 1954.
Born 3 January 1901, Ngo Dinh Diem grew up in a rich, aristocratic Vietnamese family, and spent time working under Emperor Bao Dai. He went on to become a hardline regional governor, gaining a reputation for taking a tough anti-communist line, and for demonstrating an independent position between French colonialism and the VietMinh nationalists.
Diem and the US
During the First Indochina War he was captured and almost killed by the VietMinh. After escaping, he visited the United States, where he met politicians such as the (Roman Catholic) senator John F. Kennedy. After the French defeat, he returned to Vietnam and was put forward, in the face of French opposition, by the US delegation as a possible ruler of South Vietnam.
The key moment in his rise to the top of South Vietnamese politics was the 1955 referendum over who should rule the country: Bao Dai or himself. Relying heavily on CIA subversion, vote-rigging, and physical intimidation of potential Bao Dai voters, Diem achieved an overwhelming victory; claiming to have won 98.2% of the vote.
The single most influential figure in the Vietnamese nationalist movement, Ho Chi Minh was one of those rare figures in history who appear to transcend the movement which spawned them, and who come to personify a set of ideas and goals.
The youngest of three children, Ho was born Nguyen Sinh Cung on 19 May 1890 in a village in central Vietnam. Ho spent his formative political years in exile. Between 1911-41, he travelled through Europe, USA, China and the Soviet Union. Even though he was criticised by communists for being a nationalist, he helped found the French Communist Party, and spent time studying in Moscow.
In 1887, Vietnam had become part of the French Empire, along with Laos and Cambodia. Together, the French referred to this region as Indochina. During the Second World War, the country was occupied by the Japanese, who allowed the French to maintain control of their colony, thus inflicting what Ho later described as a double yoke of imperialism.
Ho returned to Vietnam in 1941, and helped establish the VietMinh, the Vietnamese communist party. As the effective leader of the revolt against the Japanese invaders, Ho declared Vietnamese independence in Saigon. Although this ceremony was witnessed by several agents of US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) sent to coordinate opposition to the Japanese, the French were quick to reclaim their former grip on their colonies in Indochina. Within a month of Ho’s proclamation, the French had initiated a military campaign against the VietMinh, with the primary intention of re-establishing their influence in the country.
Domestic protests against American participation in the Vietnam War have been credited with shortening the war by both anti-war protestors themselves, and by supporters of the war effort, who felt that fears of a domestic backlash forced both Presidents Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Nixon to limit US involvement in the conflict. However, this view of the anti-war movement’s influence and impact has arguably been significantly over-stated.
The ‘Madness of Vietnam’
Domestic opposition to the war was diverse in character, composition and strategy. Its roots lay in 1950s peace organisations such as the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), and the Students for a Democratic Society. However, before 1965, it made little impact on the public consciousness, with the overwhelming majority of the population supporting Johnson’s decision to enter the war in 1965. Perhaps understandably, this decision provided fuel to the anti-war movement, and campus-based protests such as the ‘Teach-Ins’ at Michigan State and Berkeley universities grew in number as the conflict continued. Protests even spread to US Army bases, such as Fort Hood, where three soldiers were imprisoned in 1966 for refusing to serve in Vietnam. In April 1967, the black civil rights leader Martin Luther King added his voice to the protests arguing that the ‘madness of Vietnam’ needed to cease, with an immediate, unilateral US withdrawal. Continue reading