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