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A Journey From Glory to the Grave : Prominent Vietnamese Family's Saga Began in Palace, May End in Court in the Wake of a Double Death

November 05, 1987|SAUNDRA SAPERSTEIN and ELSA WALSH | The Washington Post

Chuong and his wife were deeply concerned about growing reports that their dream of a free South Vietnam was disappearing under the oppressive hand of Diem and their daughter, who were cracking down on their opponents and restricting individual freedoms.

Seven years after arriving in Washington, Tran Van Chuong and his wife secretly began to implore the two in 1962 to make a "sincere total change" of what they called "this bad regime."

"He spoke with his daughter several times, but to no effect," said Chuong's brother, Tran Van Do, who resigned as foreign minister in 1955. ". . . He said: 'Let them stew in their own juice.' "

Going Public

In August, 1963, the family rift exploded on the front page of newspapers around the world.

Chuong and his wife, in protest of the Catholic Diem's brutal clashes with Buddhists, resigned. Madame Nhu, in a countercharge, claimed that her parents were fired for conspiring to overthrow the Diem regime. She publicly called her father a coward.

"It had tremendous political overtones," said Malcolm Browne, then an Associated Press correspondent based in Vietnam. "It was one of those stupendous family quarrels."

Chuong began traveling the United States, lecturing as a one-man truth squad against the Diem regime. When Madame Nhu visited the United States several months later, he refused to see her in what were several well-publicized rebuffs.

Along with the huge political chasm dividing the members, there were several intrafamily feuds, one of which centered on Khiem's sister Lechi.

Many in Vietnam believed that legislation banning divorce, introduced by Madame Nhu, was aimed directly at Lechi, who wanted to obtain a Vietnamese divorce and marry a Frenchman, according to Karnow. When Lechi refused to be deterred, the Frenchman was arrested and expelled. Lechi then slit her wrists and drove to the palace complex. She says she never intended to commit suicide; it was an attempt, she says, to impress her sister with her plight.

Appealing for Pity

"My wife thought Madame Nhu might have some pity," said Etienne Oggeri, the Frenchman who married Lechi and now lives with her in North Carolina.

Lechi was hospitalized. What happened next is a matter of dispute among the family and is the key, Khiem says, to the current family schism.

"It shows why she hates me and Madame Nhu," Khiem said.

Etienne Oggeri says that he was wrongly arrested and expelled and that his wife was virtually imprisoned in the hospital before being smuggled out of the hospital by Madame Chuong, who flew in from Washington. Oggeri says it was a conspiracy by Khiem, who wanted to control Lechi Oggeri's fortune.

Khiem tells a different story, saying that Lechi's behavior was scandalizing the family. He said he was only trying only to help when he visited her at the hospital and told her he had arranged for their mother to bring her back to Washington. He said he also told her her lover could not return to Vietnam because he had violated the law.

One year later, on Nov. 2, 1963, while Madame Nhu was traveling in the United States, her husband Nhu and President Diem were assassinated. Nhu left the United States to live in exile in Rome.

Khiem played only a minor role on the public stage occupied by the rest of the Tran Van Chuong family. The men of the family were leaders, and Khiem, the only son, was groomed in schools in Algiers and France to carry on the legacy. But until his arrest, history had allotted him a role he never would have chosen: the part of the prodigal son.

"My brother was not satisfied," said Tran Van Do, Chuong's brother, who now lives in Paris. Chuong, he said, was upset with his son's apparent lack of success, his failure to get a regular job, his two divorces. "In a Vietnamese family, in an honorable family, we don't like that."

That early disappointment is evident in a series of letters seized by police shortly after Khiem's arrest. According to law enforcement sources who have read them, Chuong repeatedly pleaded with his heir in the early 1950s to give up his bohemian life style and concentrate on his legal studies. Khiem, then in his late 20s, had moved to Algiers from Paris to live in a beachside villa with his new German wife. His legal studies were relegated to a correspondence course with his Paris university.

"I had such a life then. Le tout Paris . . .," he said wistfully from St. Elizabeths.

'An Important Man'

Khiem was briefly a palace spokesman in 1954, at Madame Nhu's request. Then he worked as a lawyer and served in quasi-government positions for the next several years. He said he was appointed to the national legislature and assumed a position on the board of directors of the strategic hamlet program, a plan to isolate peasants from the communist Viet Cong.

In telephone conversations and letters, Khiem repeatedly described these roles as pivotal. "I was an important man," he said.

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