Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu: Feared and outspoken politician who wielded immense power behind the scenes in South Vietnam

Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, described as "the dragon lady" or "the oriental Lucrezia Borgia", wielded a huge influence in the short history of South Vietnam. As the sister-in-law of Vietnam's bachelor President Ngo Dinh Diem, she was the glamorous yet sinister unofficial first lady, thriving on publicity and becoming a politically powerful and often critically outspoken figure during the early Vietnam War. Madame Nhu enjoyed the complete support of Diem, as well as the complete loathing of President John F Kennedy and the US government.

The trend-setting Nhu was often photographed with her beehive hair and glamorous clothes, including an ultra-tight version of the traditional silk tunic, the ao dai, which heightened her slender body. She and her husband Ngo Dinh Nhu sat in the National Assembly but real power came from access to Diem. According to the American journalist David Halberstam, had Diem been US president, Nhu would have controlled all the newspapers, headed the CIA, FBI and Congress, served as Attorney General and Secretary of State and written all reports seen by the president.

Tran Le Xuan ("beautiful spring") was born in Hanoi in 1924 into an aristocratic Buddhist family. Her father, Tran Van Chuong, was a lawyer who later became ambassador to Washington. Tran Le Xuan, though fluent in French, was a mediocre student. In 1943 she married Ngo Dinh Nhu, 14 years her senior. He came from an aristocratic Catholic family. She embraced her new family's faith and its anti-communist politics.

Three years later war broke out between the Viet Minh and the French: Nhu evaded capture but his wife, baby daughter and mother-in-law were arrested and held for four months until liberated by French forces. The Nhus then settled in Da Lat, where they ran a newspaper and worked to mobilise support for Diem, who had fled to the US. In 1955, thanks largely to the scheming of his brother and Madame Nhu, Diem, who had been appointed Prime Minister a year earlier, deposed the emperor and proclaimed a republic with himself as president.

The regime had the support of President Eisenhower, who gave millions of dollars. Madame Nhu publicly urged Diem to crush disloyal groups; this embarrassed Deim, and he exiled her to a convent in Hong Kong then, with Nhu's help, spent the next few years consolidating power. Although Nhu did not hold a formal position, he wielded immense power, heading the Special Forces and the Can Lao party, the regime's de facto secret police.

After her return, Madame Nhu set about enhancing her influence while maintaining the pretence that she was nothing more than the president's demure hostess for official functions. After winning a seat in the National Assembly in 1956, she pushed through measures that increased women's rights and orchestrated moves to ban contraceptives and abortion, outlaw polygamy, forbid divorce and close opium dens and brothels. Wrestling, cock-fighting and boxing followed on the forbidden list. In 1958, her Family Code bill became law. "Society," she declared, "cannot sacrifice morality and legality for a few wild couples."

Continued repression cemented Diem's hold on power but alienated the people, and by the late 1950s the country was at crisis point. The US urged reform and encouraged Diem to get rid of the Nhus; in November 1960 there was a coup attempt by South Vietnamese paratroopers with the same goal. One of their first demands was that Madame Nhu be removed. She insisted Diem fight on and the rebellion was quashed. Her influence increased:"Up until then, they had not taken me seriously. But then they began to notice me, and began to worry when I said things." Diem and the Nhus suspected US involvement and adopted a siege mentality, becoming increasingly less popular; the Nhus were blamed for everything that went wrong in Vietnam. In 1962 the leaders survived another attempt on their lives when two US-trained Vietnamese pilots bombed the palace.

But 1963 was the pivotal year. The rise in support for the Communists, and discontent among the south's Buddhist majority, pushed the regime to the brink. Diem sought compromise but was undermined by the Nhus. Thousands of Buddhists demonstrated and nine were shot; thousands more were interned. This culminated in the public self-immolations of several Buddhist monks. Madame Nhu referred to the suicides as "barbecues" and told reporters, "Let them burn and we shall clap our hands... one cannot be responsible for the madness of others." She offered to bring along some mustard the next time and accused the monks of lacking patriotism for setting themselves alight with imported petrol.

Madame Nhu's father declared that Diem's government had done more damage than even the Communists and resigned as ambassador to the US; her mother, South Vietnam's UN observer, also quit. In September 1963, Madame Nhu went on an American speaking tour, criticising Diem's critics as soft on communism and criticising the US for its reduction in aid. She was informed that during a coup Diem and Nhu had been executed. "The deaths were murders," she said, "either with the official or unofficial blessing of the American government." Her parents refused to receive her.

The new Vietnamese government refused her re-entry but allowed her children to join her in Paris. She moved then to Rome to be near her brother-in-law, Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, who had also found asylum. She led a reclusive life, although in a 1966 interview she declared that America preaches "the liberty of the jungle."

Martin Childs

Tran Le Xuan, politician: born Hanoi, Vietnam 15 April 1924; married 1943 Ngo Dinh Nhu (died 1963; two sons, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Rome 24 April 2011.