Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Friends like these . . .

Today marked the death of someone for whom your first reaction on hearing of their demise is not pity, or regret, but surprise that they had lived so long. Madame Ngô Đình Nhu, born Trần Lệ Xuân, outlived by a long span the South Vietnamese Republic which, before her husband's assassination, she both lorded over and was a symbol of. She was a singularly unlikeable person. From the Guardian obituary:

"She accumulated vast wealth and power, but was reviled for her puritanical social campaigns and her callous dismissal of Buddhist monks who burned themselves to death to protest against the brutal rule of Diem and her husband Ngo Dinh Nhu. "I would clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show, for one cannot be responsible for the madness of others," she wrote in a letter to the New York Times. The world was stunned by photographs of monks sitting shrouded in flames; Madame Nhu simply offered to bring along some mustard for the next self-immolation. She later accused monks of lacking patriotism for setting themselves alight with imported petrol."

With the exception of the Chiang Kai Shek-era KMT, it is hard to find an example of such a dubious ally for the US to embrace, yet both the Eisenhower and the Kennedy administration committed themselves to the continued rule of Diem and his consort. Diem, who rose to power following an absurdly rigged referendum on the establishment of a republic, was initially widely praised for his stand against the communism that had seized power in the north of the country. LBJ even called him "the Churchill of Asia".

In truth, however, the corrupt and venal nature of Diem and his family shocked even the people of Vietnam, who, having lived under the rule of the colonial French and the puppet-emperor Bao Dai, were no strangers to corruption. Far from being able to show results in his battle with the Viet Cong, Diem steadily lost control of country to the insurgents. Insurgents who, according to the reports of US Army observer (and compulsive philanderer) John Paul Vann, were largely being armed by desertions and the capturing of weapons from government troops.

In the end, due both to the continued reversals suffered by Diem's forces on the battlefield, and to the increasing unpopularity of Diem and his wife both in Vietnam and in the US, the Kennedy administration turned against Diem, and connived with the South Vietnamese military to remove him from power. The reign of Diem ended in early November, 1963, with his assassination at the hands of his own people, just days before Lee Harvey Oswald's bullets did the same to the Kennedy administration. Having so utterly broken the always-fragile South Vietnam, it was never possible to put it back together again. 50,000 dead US soldiers and more than a million dead Vietnamese were the eventual result of this rupture.

The comparison with today's situation in Afghanistan is obvious. Kabul's Karzai regime is corrupt, and kept in power by NATO bombs and stuffed ballots. Less obvious, perhaps, is the way in which there seem even fewer alternatives to Karzai than there were to Diem, and the result of trying to impose regime change is as likely to result in disaster. The true lesson of Diem and his wife is that, once you become committed to a side of a conflict, trying to exchange that party for someone conforming more closely to your own publicly-professed ideals is likely to merely exchange a corrupt client for an ineffectual puppet. The best that can be hoped is that, once some level of stability is acheived, as it was following the KMT withdrawal to Taiwan, and now appears to be being acheived in Iraq, that reforms may be engendered from within with the help of gentle pressure from without.

Either that, or leave them to their well-deserved fate.

[Picture: Madame Nhu speaks to then-US Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, 12th of May, 1961. Via Wikicommons]

Hat-tip to my good friend The Writing Baron for sharing Madame Nhu's obituary


KingTubby said...

A pretty neat corrollary here FOARP, and I would also leave them to their well deserved fate, especially after the recent so-called jail break. Afgans are unreconstructed tribalists: forget about the installation of the institutions of the nation state. How can western countries including Oz be so bloody stupid, as to waste troops and Aid $ on these rednecks of Central Asia.

Re: the Nhu's. They decamped with the mandatory suitcases of portable wealth, and if I recall, her husband opened a resturaunt in Miami and was subsequently busted for drug distribution.

Look, Ive read A Bright Shining Star a couple of times and there was no mention of excessive out of marriage sack activity. And if there was, it would have not raised a ripple. Vietnam reporters and photojournalists like Tim Page (who now rather sensibly lives in my hometown) and Neil Davis used Vietnam like a big adventure playground.

And while we are discussing criminal scumbags, lets include Kissinger, who still distributes his bon nots at cocktail parties while perving at the artificial cleavage of his hostess of the moment.



Anonymous said...

Apologies. Factoid correction. It was the dashing Thieu's who decamped with the portable wealth.

Speaking of long surviving vermin, Soong May-ling hung on till 2003 before she croaked.

Gilman Grundy said...

@KT - Yo, we must have read different books because my copy of Bright Shining Lie, as well as the film, makes it pretty clear that Vann was cheating on his missus for years, Vietnam just made it extra convenient for him. Sheehan even says that the guy was at it with 2-3 different girls a day whilst he was in Saigon, he even got married to two of them.

From a review of the book:

"With thoroughness but restraint, Sheehan shows that Vann's professional integrity coexisted with a web of deceptions in his private life. One reason that Vann could speak more frankly than other officers was that he knew his record was hopelessly compromised. Back in the States he had faced a court-martial for statutory rape and had avoided ruin only by diligently training himself to beat a lie detector. In Vietnam, Vann hypocritically warned his friend Daniel Ellsberg against losing the respect of the Vietnamese by sleeping with their women. At the same time, Vann himself was keeping two Vietnamese women and sleeping with many others. On his desk he displayed photos of a family he saw as little as possible."

Yeah, probably the only difference between Vann as described by Sheehan and the rest of them is that Vann was like that in his normal life, and took it to a higher level than the rest.

My take on Afghanistan is that it'll be worth the extra investment going forward (but not the total investment to date) if we can pull off the 2015 exit in Afghanistan the same way we look to be pulling off the Iraq exit.

Kissinger? Never known what to think. On the one hand, that's one big brain the guy's got. On the other, some scum moves got pulled on his watch. And no, I'm not going to decide this based just on the Allende/escalation stuff.

Loving the avatar pic by the way.

Gilman Grundy said...

Oh, and Soong May-ling . . . well, the best thing she ever did for Taiwan was leaving it. Way back in in '01-'02 you'd still see stories in the TW papers about how she was living it up on the bullion she took with her to New York. At least Taiwan got most of it back - as well as all the stuff she took from the palace collection - after the old bat copped it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks FOARP. The avator goes to my relatively Sino free blog, which has attracted exactly one comment to date. Feel free.

Been gearing up for my big review of sino-blogs, but have a mental block for some unexplainable reason. Got to admit I still miss ChinaDivide and Kai Pan. KT

justrecently said...

test... Feel free to remove this comment again, FOARP, if it really gets posted. I made two tries yesterday, but neither of them appeared in the thread.

justrecently said...

I'm not sure that it would be fair to lump Ngô Đình Nhu and Chiang Kai-shek together, FOARP. A contemporary, Gustav Amann, who was very critical of Chiang acknowledged all the same that his lifestyle was indeed puritanical.

But obviously, Chiang wasn't the ally of choice, as every history book will testify. The KMT itself was more of a quagmire of corruption, than a political party. Some of those habits seem to continue to exist to this day.

Gilman Grundy said...

@JR - Their not in the spam filter - it's probably blogspot acting up again.

I'm on record as saying that I think that the KMT has become a relatively respectable modern political party, but yeah, early KMT were scum.