A Lifetime in the Eye of the Storm. Triumphant Odyssey: The Story of the Ngo Dinh Family. By André Nguyen Van Chau. (Salt Lake City, UT: American Book Classics, 2000. Pp. 328. $29.95 paper.)
Students of modern Asian history have been deluged in recent years by accounts of the American experience in Indochina, and most of those works written in English have predictably focused on the American perspective. André Nguyen Van Chau offers a "Vietnamese insight" in this tribute to the Ngo Dinh family's critical role in Vietnam's transition from colonial status to independence. A native of Hue with a doctorate from the Sorbonne, Van Chau spent over a decade as a professor in South Vietnam until 1975 when he joined the flood of exiles and began twenty-five years of service in the international effort to address refugee issues. By means of a fictionalized biography of a lesser known daughter, Ngo Dinh Thi Hiep, the author tantalizes the reader with the prospect of a new perspective.
The historical context of the book begins with the formative relationship of the nine children sired by Ngo Dinh Kha and emphasizes the family's staunch Roman Catholic heritage, their fervent support for Vietnam's emperor system, and their commitment to the uneven struggle for national self-determination, initially against the French colonial administrators who are depicted as universally conniving and evil. Hiep emerges as the strongest member of the family and favorite child, who takes her father's place after his death as the family's moral compass. At that point, the story begins to focus on Hiep's more famous brothersDiem, South Vietnam's first president, and Nhu, Commissioner of Police.
American complicity in the assassination of the Ngo brothers is almost universally acknowledged, but Van Chau's treatment is surprisingly forgiving. If Washington did not actually organize the coup and the brothers' assassinations, it certainly encouraged the coup plotters and endorsed the outcome. According to the author, the Kennedy administration wanted Diem removed from power because he failed to defeat the Viet Cong quickly enough.
Its shortcomings aside, this work of fiction is still a useful counterbalance to the American-centric works that constitute the majority of extant literature on the Vietnam War. The war might have turned out differently if Americans had possessed a better understanding of Vietnam's leadersespecially the Ngo brothersand its culture. Echoing the Napoleonic Age, Van Chau wrote that the "Vietnam War was worse than a crime. It was a mistake." Yet it was both. American ignorance, exacerbated by hubris, was aptly illustrated by Washington's stubborn insistence that it could succeed where France had failed. The author perceptively ascribes to Hiep the observation that Vietnam learned the hard way that small countries must be wary of being overly dependent on world powers or risk being abandoned. Perhaps the ultimate irony and tragedy for both Vietnam and America is that the Ngo family was not so much in the eye of the storm as it was in the path of the storm's full fury.
As historical fiction goes, this work serves a useful purpose in pointing out that the most traumatic event of recent American history should be studied from many perspectives. If nothing else, Van Chau suggests a corrective for American diplomats and political leaders who might substitute tact and knowledge for bluster and force to the mutual advantage of themselves as well as their allies.