Vietnam in the American Mind from the Colonial Era through the 1950s
The first Americans arriving in an official capacity in Saigon in 1955 waded into a complex legacy of colonialism, war, and sex. Long before the first ground forces settled into their barracks in Saigon, Americans already perceived Vietnam and its people through a colonial lens. After more than sixty years of rule under the French beginning in 1887, a world war under the Japanese Empire, and the return of French colonizers in 1945, Vietnam found itself again in a state of transition. When the French returned with financial backing from the United States earmarked to fend off global decolonization, they sparked anticolonial sentiment among nationalists tired of outside interference. In the years leading up to and immediately following the defeat of the French colonial forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States helped forge an infrastructure in South Vietnam in the name of communist containment. At the beginning of the decade, Mao Zedong led Chinese communists to victory over the Guomindang Nationalist Party and proved their willingness to fight in Korea.1 Vietnam seemed a likely place for the next move in the developing Cold War. Americans supported the French to avoid direct conflict with the popular communist-supported Vietnamese government. Once the French left Vietnam, the United States shifted its support to South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. There would be no Normandy or Inchon invasion in Southeast Asia, only a slow buildup of American advisors, intelligence, and money.2
Following Dien Bien Phu and the agreement for a territorial division along the seventeenth parallel, Vietnam underwent major political restructuring. In 1955 Diem, the prime minister to emperor and chief of state Bao Dai, became the first president of South Vietnam.3 Diem merged his family’s political connections with support from the growing population of South Vietnamese Catholics, as well as the associates he had met while traveling in political exile in the United States since 1950. American observers feared that communist forces might manipulate social relations, requiring changes to their interactions with civilians. Reflecting on the how the Chinese and North Vietnamese might win the battle without even restarting the war, the journalist Henry Lieberman pinpointed vice as a critical weakness. He wrote, “In Saigon, where gambling, prostitution, and opium dens flourish, Vietminh agents are collecting Vietnamese intellectuals and leading them into the Vietminh regroupment areas to show them how austerely Communists live in waging revolution.”4 In addition to his keen political maneuvering, which helped him obtain his position as president, Diem gained American support for his efforts to consolidate power and forge an independent South Vietnam. With US backing, he ignored the caveat of the First Indochina War’s Geneva Accords settlement, which directed South Vietnam to hold a reunification vote with the North in 1956. The Diem family feared a communist victory, the loss of South Vietnam, and political instability.5 With no peaceful solution within reach, reunification took nearly two decades and an extraordinarily bloody war with considerable international involvement that lasted long past the coup and assassination of Diem in 1963.
The rise of Diem and the behavior of the increasing numbers of American advisors help illustrate how stereotypes of exotic, sexualized Vietnamese woman carried over from the colonial era to the American experience. The legacy of colonial prostitution and French military brothels during the First Indochina War (1946–1954) embedded the stereotype into Western memory. This manufactured use of Vietnamese women as tools for sexual relief contributed to a belief in Vietamese and Asian American society that Western men viewed Vietnamese as less than human.6 The morality policies of the postwar Vietnamese-led government represented a direct reaction to colonial views regarding sexuality between cultures. The laws laid out by Diem formed the apex of US–South Vietnamese disagreements over social and sexual policies.
The US military tolerated prostitution districts and brothels as safe spaces for American troops to find sex when deployed, but their efforts at regulation failed to protect women who worked in the industries.7 Scholars conducting contemporary research on the persistence of prostitution in places with a significant population of American forces are uncovering the voices of sex workers to help illustrate the disparity of the relationships.8 Saundra Pollock Sturdevant and Brenda Stoltzfus argue that the “myth that they earn a lot of money” drove many women into the sex workforce, but only those in the top clubs earned enough to afford the “alcohol or other drugs [they needed] in order to accommodate numerous customers.”9 The women and girls who took on these jobs to survive were often vulnerable to disease, abuse, addiction, unplanned pregnancy, and persistent poverty.
In post–World War II Asia, the mounting presence of American bases resulted in an increase in sexual entertainment. Prostitution districts in South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan all catered to the demands of foreign soldiers. Discussing the “trade in female flesh,” the historian Bruce Cummings called it “the most common form of Korean-American interaction.”10 Katharine H. S. Moon’s work illustrates how at the same time American advisors started arriving in Vietnam in the mid-1950s, the Korean government eagerly offered sex as a form of recreation to US troops.11 She observes that popular unregulated wartime brothels turned into a formalized system following the 1954 US–Republic of Korea Mutual Defense Treaty, when girls and women fled from poverty-stricken areas to be closer to the bases during the occupation.12 The Vietnamese leadership pressed Americans in a different direction. Rather than supporting regulation, Diem promoted the criminalization of sex work, creating a stark difference from earlier US experiences. His interest in banning prostitution fell in line with both his Catholic values and a global discourse that pushed against colonial sexual exploitation.13 From the colonial era through the 1950s, the struggle over who would control society in Indochina set the stage for clashes throughout the American War era.
The culture of sexuality in colonial Indochina, the role of brothels during the First Indochina War, and the establishment of postcolonial morality laws under Diem and his family framed the way Americans viewed Vietnam prior to military escalation. The persistence of colonial imagery for Western observers in the postcolonial era presented a nexus of gender, culture, and foreign relations issues that influenced American advisors’ ideas regarding politics and social relations in Southeast Asia. The power struggle of colonization resulted in the perceived need for colonizers to simultaneously uplift and repress colonial women, and through them colonial society. Americans adopted a European colonial perception of Southeast Asian women as exotic or erotic, but also viewed them as a potential threat that needed to be controlled. Early US advisors believed that Vietnamese people could not be trusted to control their own fate without outside influence. Framing the American War through a colonial lens shows us that the decades-long struggle for foreign control over Vietnamese citizens and their bodies exposes the roots of the power struggles that defined the US-RVN relationship throughout the war.
Indochina through a Colonial Lens
Through the prewar era of French colonial control over Indochina, the United States increased financial support but remained physically distant. Americans thus learned about Vietnam and its people through the imagination and representations of the French and their views of their colonial subjects. US occupations in the Philippines, Japan, and Korea further influenced perceptions of life in Asia. These images skewed American interpretations toward a view of Vietnam as weak and disorganized politically but culturally exotic and erotically exciting. Because of its political interest in western European nations like France retaining control over Southeast Asia, the United States publicly threw its support behind colonization at events such as the 1931 Exposition Coloniale. As the colonial grasp on Indochina weakened, US interests only grew. Even when Vietnam won its decolonization struggle against France in 1954, the portrayals and memories of imperialism left the distorted idea of Asian weakness in the American mind, reinforcing the view that the region needed Western control to survive ideological threats from communism.
Images and stories shared by the French bolstered portrayals of Vietnamese peoples as exotic and feminized, and guided the interactions of Americans with local populations ranging from programs for civilian aid to sexual encounters with local peoples. Years of viewing French representations of Indochina before and during the world wars, as well as in the early years of France’s post–World War II empire, helped shape Americans’ opinions about Southeast Asian peoples. Inherited perceptions informed the way US advisors viewed Vietnamese sexuality and their complex involvement with morality policies during the Vietnam War. Cultural observers generally saw civilians as exotic “others” and women especially as sexual. Colonial tourism supported the notion of Vietnam as feminized and an object to conquer. The distorted impressions of a weak, colonized Vietnamese culture further reinforced the attitudes of incoming American advisors who sought to turn the newly decolonized state into a capitalist democracy. Deep-seated Western beliefs concerning racial superiority and gender also nurtured stereotypes reflecting the colonial memory of “Oriental” sexuality.
The relationship between colonial portrayals of sexuality and American consumption of sexual services abroad suggests why US–South Vietnamese politics over sexual encounters differed so drastically from previous US experiences. The acceptance, or even promotion, of sexual encounters with locals in earlier wars and colonial holdings helped structure American expectations regarding appropriate GI-civilian relations during the Vietnam War. Military and colonial leadership promoted and regulated different forms of legalized prostitution in areas including Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Japan, and Korea. Laura Briggs’s work on Puerto Rico contradicts historians who argue that the American military did not participate in regulating prostitution in the United States with evidence on colonial prostitution policies in Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Santo Domingo, the Panama Canal Zone, Hawaii, and the Philippines, as well as on some mainland bases in Texas, Arizona, and Florida.14 Local populations did not always embrace these policies, with notable resistance in the Panama Canal Zone, but their efforts prove that the Americans had decades of experience with organized military-colonial prostitution prior to their arrival in Vietnam.15
Paul Kramer’s work on prostitution during the Philippine-American War highlights the conflict between the desire of the United States to be a “moral empire” and its reality as a “military-hygienic empire.”16 Under the direction of Major Owen Sweet, he argues, the Americans chose to pursue a path that accepted regulation and thus accepted colonial policies. Regulation policies in the colonies mirrored efforts by other powers, including the British Contagious Diseases Acts, and, in the Philippines, carried on the efforts of the Spanish. Practices included registration, invasive vaginal exams, and arrests of prostitutes without any medical or legal action against the men who hired them.17 The legalization and registration of sex workers failed to reduce disease levels among troops.18 This approach also raised concerns within the United States over the repercussions of promoting the use of colonial women for sexual recreation at a time when women’s movements had succeeded in banning prostitution throughout most of the United States.
In 1901, Major General Arthur MacArthur, US military governor of the Philippines (and father of the future general Douglas MacArthur), responded with what the New York Times called a “tart reply” to criticisms from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union about solider behavior in the Philippines.19 While blatantly denying that the army encouraged vice on the one hand, he also hinted as to its inevitability on the other. “I am convinced that the City of Manila,” he wrote,
He recommended that the critics be transported to the war zone to learn a bit more about conditions there before passing judgment.20 Following the war, as the Philippines became a colonial holding, the prostitution industry only grew more pervasive. Even after the Philippines gained independence, the American bases there kept the industry active, with more than fifteen thousand women still working as “hospitality women,” or prostitutes, in the main base towns in the early 1990s.21 Over nine thousand of the women had legally registered to work under this title, despite the government ban on prostitution. The doublespeak surrounding prostitution persists right along with the industry.
Vietnam’s experience as a colony mirrored the experience in the Philippines. With the establishment of French Indochina in 1887, colonizers maintained de facto control in their protectorates in the central and northern territories of Annam and Tonkin while ruling a formal colony in southernmost Cochinchina.22 Ethnographic studies conducted by colonizers during the early colonial period indicate an interest in the private lives and sexual behavior of Vietnamese peoples. With control over the entire area, French officials used their position of authority to enter local communities and describe what they saw as very foreign behaviors and used their global influence to shape lasting stereotypes about the people who lived in those communities.
Dr. Jacob Sutor, a French army surgeon who wrote under the pseudonym Dr. Jacobus, kept a journal containing his observations of the sexual practices of colonial peoples in the 1890s. Scholars categorize the work as both anthropology and pornography, as the lengthy study attracted both libertine and scholarly readers.23 In observing and examining Vietnamese peoples in their homes, he dehumanized colonial populations by portraying their actions as more animalistic than human. Sutor described silent sexual experiences in vivid, degrading, and questionable detail.24 In writing about a wife who literally dropped everything, in this case her child, to pleasure her diseased husband, Sutor presented Vietnamese sexual behavior as entirely without intimacy, lacking even the most basic privacy, as his subjects seemed to ignore the presence of both children and anthropologists.25 The mention of the husband’s illness suggests a lack of venereal disease education or medical care and points to another element of the woman’s story. Outside the home, she worked as a prostitute for the French military at a nearby compound, which provided a necessary monetary benefit. Sutor’s access to the woman through the military prostitution ring indicates her status in society and may explain her lack of concern about Sutor’s presence, since her brothel work was likely not performed in private rooms.
Unlike Americans, who confronted a Vietnamese government that banned prostitution, the French openly established numerous Bordels Militaires de Campagne (BMC), or military brothels positioned around battle sites and military bases. At BMCs, servicemen could purchase sex in a relatively secure location close to the front.26 Thus, his subjects’ socioeconomic status and life near camps unfairly influenced Sutor’s representations of Vietnamese people as downtrodden and immodest. Sutor described the woman’s existence as bleak, and depicted her family “huddling … on a dirty mat,” seeking to “use each other for futile protection against the decadence and deterioration which four thousand years of impotence has confirmed as their destiny.”27 The author further emphasizes his colonial perception of racial superiority over the Vietnamese by describing the society as “basic” and referring to those with darker skin as “developing.”28 Sutor’s racist approach to the people he studied allowed him to frame his depictions of Vietnamese sexuality in a way that rationalized colonialism.
Writing seventy years later in 1966, the American journalist Leland Gardner included Sutor’s descriptions in his exposé on the sex industry in wartime Saigon, arguing that Sutor painted a realistic picture of events since he meant the entries primarily for personal use.29 Gardner’s use of Sutor’s journals illustrates the persistence of stereotypes into the 1960s. Their inclusion as part of an American depiction of Vietnamese wartime prostitution in particular indicated the lasting effects of French colonial views regarding both indigenous and intercultural sexuality in the colonies. The accounts described the French as observers, participants, and proliferators of the sex-for-hire industry that Americans still associated with Vietnam.
The increase in French colonial expectations for, and participation in, sexual encounters with Vietnamese women resulted in the formal regulation of such encounters. Without a clear plan, but viewing sexual interactions as a popular and legitimate form of recreation, local officials looked to other colonies for a framework.30 For Frenchmen who chose not to, or could not afford to, take a concubine, prostitution provided another means for intimacy. As Ann Stoler argues, racist concerns over interracial children also helped shape the decision to promote brothels. Colonial administrators viewed purchasing sex as the “politically safe” option for colonizers, since they believed that non-committed relationships would result in fewer interracial children or marriages.31 The desire for exclusively European marriages overtook concubinage in French culture, driving up prostitution as a short-term solution. Some reports from the late nineteenth century, however, labeled prostitution a prominent “social evil,” triggering the development of regulations.32
Despite mounting concerns over public image, venereal disease, and mixed-race births, French officials agreed that having colonizers bring their wives would be more disruptive than managing prostitution and less financially risky. Instead, colonizers could lead an alternate life, with an alternate partner to fulfill their needs and share their lives in the colony at a lower cost.33 Relationships between colonizer and colonized faced challenges, however, because of cultural differences and legal structures, a trope picked up in the literature of Harry Hervey and Graham Greene.34 Accounts of Western men abandoning their Asian lovers overshadow the memory of successful long-term marriages. Regardless of circumstances, colonizer-civilian and later service member–civilian relationships rarely fared well.
The turn-of-the-century brothel industry strained under the burden of persistent subjugation. Despite halfhearted attempts to control the growth of the industry, by the 1920s and 1930s French officials had become uncomfortable with the scope of the sex trade in Indochina and its implications for politics. Prostitution was not the only social blight creating discord and troubling colonizers. Depression, suicide, alcoholism, and narcotics addiction also rose among the Vietnamese urban middle class in what Neil Jamieson dubbed “the darkening of the 1930s.”35 The decade also marked a significant shift in the Vietnamese response to the French, and tensions within the colony boiled over. While the French promoted the splendor of Indochina back home in the metropole, they faced violent protests from student-led resistance fighters in Saigon.36
Ultimately, the responsibility fell on the colonizers to keep free of all the threats, real or imagined, that they perceived in Indochina. The historian Eric Jennings argues, “When it was not the climate or the ‘exotic other’ that threatened to harm the fragile health of the colonizers, it was the behavior and lifestyles of the colonial people themselves.”37 French colonizers saw no way to outlaw prostitution, however. A 1934 medical bulletin joked: “Are the colonial troops chaste? It may be a good title for a novel, but this question is too ridiculous to even think about it seriously.”38 Knowing any efforts to ban the practice would prove fruitless, they chose instead to focus on developing regulations.
As early as 1888, only one year into France’s colonial venture in Indochina, the Hanoi Municipal Council had attempted to regulate prostitution with license requirements and medical dispensaries for treating venereal disease.39 The number of brothels in Hanoi expanded from sixteen to twenty between 1896 and 1930.40 The prostitution industry in the South, however, soon dwarfed these numbers when the focus of French control over Indochina moved to the southern territory after France’s return at the end of World War II.41 Tracing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases provided a bridge between the government and sex workers. After an initial visit to the Service Régional d’Hygiène, a dossier was opened on each patient tracking offenses, health, and fingerprint records.42 The historian Isabelle Tracol-Huynh argues that the absence of European women and limited access to European prostitutes, Western bans on prostitution, and changes to age limitations increased the demand for Asian prostitutes.43 Despite prostitution’s being legal, the fact that government and medical facilities were keeping records bred fear.
Throughout the interwar period, French officials wrote and instituted prostitution and sanitation regulations rooted in the nineteenth-century policies.44 Administrators enforced curfews to limit disease, which raged through the cities.45 They rejected pushes for the effective, but impractical, alternative of chastity and marriage.46 By the end of the decade, they instituted a system of expensive licenses and taxes for brothel workers.47 While the administrators designed the fee structure to deter and monitor participation, it instead drove many to transition into clandestine work.
Registered sex workers gained slightly more job stability under the regulated system.48 Colonial officials referred to the women as con gai, the Vietnamese word for young girl but used in this context to mean everything from concubines to prostitutes or even wives. In the northern provinces, hundreds of women registered. Unifying the industry under colonial control created pathways for expanding treatment by allowing dispensaries to legally treat women for venereal diseases.49 According to a January 1932 report, administrators wanted to regulate prostitution to offer more protections for workers as well as their patrons. This included barring the employment of underage women in les maisons de tolérance, or brothels, and requiring madams to arrange for medical care for those under their charge.50 With the industry ingrained in society, officials focused on controlling the narrative rather than pursuing fruitless attempts to eradicate prostitution.
The rise in colonial prostitution, along with the related increase in births of mixed-race children, left colonizers obliged to take care in how they represented their practices to the rest of the world. Colonizers viewed colonial subjects as “other” and feared the repercussions of interracial relationships more than disease.51 Thus they viewed relations with prostitutes in the colonies as more acceptable than engagement in long-term relationships, which were more likely to result in marriage and the birth of mixed-race children guaranteed citizenship in the metropole.52 By 1931, the concern over métis, or mixed-blood, children became a focus for French feminists examining life in the colonies. This again would become an issue in the early 1970s in the United States as the numbers of children of mixed American and Vietnamese parentage skyrocketed. Under the French, as Ann Stoler has documented, métis children became a domestic project for European women looking to offer what they saw as a better life. Mixed children were granted French citizenship through their fathers, with opportunities for what the French perceived as civilizing Westernization. By educating the children in French ways, organizers thought they could keep them out of morally dangerous situations. The gendered education programs taught girls to “avert sexual promiscuity,” while the boys’ lessons cultivated “political precocity” to avoid their becoming “militant men.”53 Christina Firpo convincingly adds that these concerns had existed since the turn of the century, and that managing the social barriers confronting those of mixed race in the colonies often fell on women and on children, not the men who fathered them.54
French colonizers reinforced their belief in racial superiority through representations of colonials as less civilized peoples, passing those views on to observers in the West, including the United States.55 These visual and written cultural representations perpetuated notions of gender binaries and created stereotypes of hyper-sexualized Asian females. To combat the economic hardship of the global depression during the interwar period, officials recognized the need to promote their most promising colony at the world’s fairs and exhibitions that were popular at the time.56 The United States supported French views at the 1931 Exposition Coloniale in Vincennes through its promotion of and participation in the fair. These exhibitions piqued the interest of Americans, who were drawn to the glamour of old-world Europe and the excitement of the colonies.57 President Herbert Hoover even sent a delegation to host booths that painted the United States as a colonial power of a different sort. The exhibits included a replica of George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, complete with a woman promoted as the president’s great-granddaughter as hostess and guide to the past. The United States having limited colonial holdings of its own, most Americans viewed the institution of imperialism itself as something exotic.58 The display of American colonial architecture clearly had little to do with European imperialism, but it showed how the Americans hoped to maintain a positive relationship with France through a symbolic embrace of colonialism.59
As diplomats and colonial overseers sought to rationalize the alliance between the United States and its imperial allies, a St. Louis–born expatriate, Josephine Baker, did more than most to sell the sexual appeal of the colonies to the American public. In the 1920s, Baker moved to Paris to avoid racial discrimination in the United States. As a dancer, she found success by breaking barriers in Parisian nightclubs. For visiting Americans, her performances quickly became iconic representations of something at once foreign but still familiar and thus safe.60 Baker’s burlesque made her a popular figure in US newspapers, and wearing her trademark skirt of bananas, she drew in crowds of tourists.61 At the 1931 exposition, Baker’s association with colonial imagery reached its height. In March the New York Times happily reported that pageant organizers had crowned Baker “Queen of the Colonies.”62 In a setting of colonial pavilions and human zoos filled with colonial women who had traveled from around the world, the judges named a woman from St. Louis as their queen of the exotic. To them, with her dark skin and short hair, Baker looked the part of the colonial but carried herself with French refinement. Associating Baker with the colonies meant associating sex with the colonies as well, from the African continent all the way to Indochina. Through their eager participation in the exhibition and excitement over Baker’s win, the Americans demonstrated that they were open to a French view of colonized peoples.63
American impressions from the fairs added to a growing body of cultural artifacts reflecting Indochinese life with exotic portrayals of women at their core. One of the first American cultural productions about Vietnam, Harry Hervey’s 1925 novel Congaï: Mistress of Indochine, presented Asian women in sexualized roles to express how encounters bridged the “other” and the familiar. Hervey traveled to the region to write a book that would capture life in the colony for US audiences. In the novel, a French priest sees a Vietnamese woman from his boat and asks his traveling companion about the local women. The companion describes them as “beautiful savages.”64 Quickly the priest retorts that the man will soon no longer view them as savages since many have become the wives of Western men. He also argues that the women are far more complex than on first impression, adding depth to the two-dimensional depictions of colonial women found in other sources. As Pico Iyer richly describes in the preface to the 2014 reproduction of the novel, the protagonist, Thi-Linh, “is never just a silly girl—or a calculating minx—but a confounding mixture of the two.”65 The two male characters debate the paradox of colonial subjects as wives. The French government does not “entirely approve” of Frenchmen living with concubines, the priest states, but also does not stop them. The line between “savages” and equals easily blurs in the mind of Hervey when characters face decisions regarding sex. Summarizing the problem of such relations with local women, the second man suggests: “Make soldiers of the men; marry the women. Long live France, the protectress!”66 Representations like this show how masculinity and sexuality represent an undeniable element in the international discourse surrounding Vietnam in the colonial era, and one that American literature reflected as early as 1925. The imaginings of Hervey and others present the image of a sexualized but not fully comprehensible Asian woman which served as the preeminent representation available to Americans.67
Scholars of Vietnamese culture and society paint a far more nuanced image of Vietnamese women. Rather than depicting them as mere objects, historians have shown that women held considerable power in their home life and promoted revolutionary and feminist ideals in the face of foreign occupation or oppression, but these facts were all but lost on Western men.68 While not exclusive to Indochina, the perception of exotic sexuality among colonial women attracted foreigners. Cultural depictions fulfilled fantasies and gave rise to assumptions about the Vietnamese female within the French and American imagination. The intersections of French expectations regarding threats to colonial power, beliefs about masculinity and sexuality, and the problem of disease management came to a head during the French Indochina War.
After the final battle for Vietnamese independence from the French at Dien Bien Phu in spring 1954, the words of French soldier Paul Manzer reflect the complexity of the French relationship with Vietnamese prostitutes when he noted that they “had a more than respectable role during the battle.”69 He recalled them acting not only as sex workers and lovers but also in tactical roles as nurses or companions to keep up the spirits of the troops. Manzer’s comments corroborate military records emphasizing the significant part played by prostitution in the decline of French control over Indochina. Just as gender and sexuality influenced how France presented its colony to the world, they also shaped the way the French conducted the First Indochina War. After Vietnam spent World War II under the control of the Japanese Empire, French attempts at regaining control fueled Vietnamese nationalism. Throughout the conflict, military brothels, or BMCs, proliferated, again bringing women into close proximity with Western men. During this decade of transition, the proliferation of brothels during the First Indochina War introduced yet another problematic element in the social, racial, and territorial power struggle.
Allowing the sex industry to thrive while making it discreet became a government priority in post–World War II Vietnam. Colonial leaders passed laws banning taxi drivers from taking men to brothels or from carrying men and prostitutes together.70 In 1946 the superior commander of French troops in the Far East, chief of state Major Jacques de Guillebon, wrote to the senior commander of the French troops in the Far East. General Philippe LeClerc, suggesting an approved solution to the problem of clandestine prostitution and the spread of venereal disease.71 Guillebon argued that morale could be kept high and disease rates low by monitoring red-light districts in cities and establishing BMCs for units in the field. He pinpointed clandestine prostitution as the main cause of disease and disruption but felt it should not be too difficult to solve in the same way the French had done in Africa.72
The French military leadership decided that practical considerations of location, ease of transportation, and shift schedules would determine how and by whom the brothels should be established, but suggested that organizing the BMCs at the battalion level would provide enough locations to satisfy the soldiers.73 Guillebon was not worried about staffing, informing LeClerc “prospecting for girls is, in general, in the Asian world, a simple affair.”74 He believed that with compensation, delicacy, and the involvement of local authorities, including police as well as brothel owners and madams, enlisting women to work in the BMCs would not prove difficult. Officials in Saigon controlled around 200 to 250 of the total of 400 women licensed to work in the BMCs of Indochina in 1947.75 By 1954, Hanoi controlled about 110 women.76 For the women, poverty unsurprisingly proved the most significant factor in choosing to work as a prostitute.77 Guillebon insisted that prior to hiring, each woman must undergo a physical exam to prove she was in “perfect health.”78 Beyond a standard vaginal exam, he recommended then sophisticated laboratory testing to ensure the utmost in health. Still, Guillebon recognized the impossibility of eliminating all disease and required that red-light districts and brothels be equipped with military police guards and prophylactic stations, as well as with medicine and supplies. During the war, medical commandants sent confidential reports to battalion leaders concerning exams and blood tests performed on women working in traveling BMCs when they passed through cities like Saigon.79
As the war progressed, the popularity of BMCs necessitated the examination of employees twice a week.80 The decision to use a Vietnamese doctor, initially Dang Ngoc Trong in 1946, to direct the anti–venereal disease clinic in Saigon illustrates the desire of the colonizers to make the BMC process work with Indochinese interests while helping their own morale program function as seamlessly as possible.81 For Indochinese prostitutes who worked outside the BMC system, the military could not intervene directly and thus relied on local interlocutors to track repeat offenders and inform them of venereal disease outbreaks outside the camps.82 With local support, the French kept a vigilant eye on the industry and its repercussions on society.
During the First Indochina War, Vietnamese city officials endorsed a study by the medical doctor Dang Van Chin warning that the prostitution industry disrupted public health, the economy, and domestic conduct.83 The study aimed to raise concern among authorities and curb problems. Despite the prevalence of regulated BMCs, clandestine prostitution persisted across the country. Civilian brothels remained the predominant means for women selling their bodies to find steady work, and the government allowed them to remain open despite public distrust. During the war with the French, prostitution among Vietnamese women, especially for use by French military forces, increased. Only after the war ended did the postcolonial regime in the newly established RVN embrace morality-based laws.
In many ways, the proposals made by Chin, in 1952 coincided with the goals of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955 when he expressed interest in establishing stricter moral codes. Chin’s study pressed for increased protection of, and respect for, the dignity of Vietnamese women. To achieve this, he suggested better regulation of the sex trade and education for social and medical staff working in the World Health Organization.84 His report spans the time from the perceived roots of prostitution and the first major shifts in colonial prostitution laws in the 1930s to accounts of health issues and potential solutions in the postcolonial age. Chin’s work served as both a chronicle of perceived exploitation and a warning that the industry might destroy Vietnamese culture. He offered five reasons why women in Indochina might turn to prostitution: economics, family matters, and social, political, or pathological causes.85 He argued that the heart of the problem was that much of the population felt sex work had a place in society.86
Efforts by French colonial forces and advisors to choose and maintain “clean” women for BMCs and brothels failed to eliminate venereal disease on any meaningful level.87 In 1952 clandestine prostitutes accounted for 699 of the 1,686 women treated or hospitalized.88 While the exact numbers are impossible to collect, far more women likely went without treatment, as Hanoi alone had 150 licensed and over 3,000 unlicensed prostitutes in 1930.89 The number of treatment appointments more than doubled in 1952, indicating an epidemic of repeat infection.90 Working throughout the war to provide the most efficient care possible, the French constantly reevaluated methods to treat disease. Health administrators and military leaders exchanged hundreds of pages of memos detailing soldiers treated, diagnoses, and the newest methods to prevent illnesses.91 In addition to disease rates, they also kept exceptional records on women working in BMCs, as well as the medical attention given to troops after visiting either licensed or unlicensed, clandestine prostitutes. They even monitored the race and location of the soldiers to build a broader picture of who used the services most often.92
Poor sex education and limited use of prophylactics perpetuated the problem of disease. Many women feared falling ill since they would lose their income, but few understood what caused the illness.93 The fantasy of the exotic woman did not include providing adequate sex education. That failure, however, led outsiders to view Vietnamese women as always harboring potentially dangerous secrets, adding to the hyper-sexualized narrative about them.94 To combat this problem, the US military later incorporated venereal disease education into its training to make soldiers aware that relations with local women came with no shortage of risk to their mission and to the women they loved back home.95
Sex workers were not the only ones who suffered from the effects of venereal disease. Hostesses, taxi dancers, and bar singers all reported high levels of infection, likely due to their regular contact and relationships with foreign men. Chin estimated that there were 5,029 sex workers operating in Saigon-Cholon in 1952, more than half of whom were not licensed.96 When the Diem administration made prostitution illegal, the end of licensing created even more problems for those trying to narrow down the estimated number of women performing sex work. Difficulty in tracking sexual exchange, the volume of activity, and postcolonial taboos concerning government-endorsed sex work all contributed to the problematic nature of regulating the prostitution industry during the Vietnam War.
The establishment and conflicted acceptance of military brothels by the French in Indochina is mirrored by the US-designed brothels in occupied Japan, Korea, and elsewhere in Asia during the 1940s and 1950s.97 The combination of colonial activity, fantasies about Asian women, and military forces allowed Americans in the 1960s to view the establishments as acceptable, even necessary. The legacy of the French in Vietnam forged American ideas about the country and its people. For the Americans, the official promotion of sexual encounters in Vietnam conversely created connotations associating Westerners with exploitation and colonialism, which ensnared them in a network of foreign relations problems compounded by war, culture, gender, and racial ideologies. While the stories of love, sex, and war from the French and American war eras appear to begin in the same way with eradication, their scope and outcomes differed significantly.
Early Eradication Efforts
In the wake of Vietnamese decolonization, many in Washington recognized the need to establish new allies in Southeast Asia. The Americans, however, lacked any substantive understanding of Vietnamese traditions and culture apart from what they learned from the colonialists and political exiles.98 Working with Diem, the United States sent academics and advisors to establish a civilian infrastructure through mutually beneficial nation-building programs.99 Diem needed allies and money, and the Americans wanted to maintain a foothold in Vietnam to stall communist expansion in the region. The politically contrasting nationalist ideologies of Diem’s counterparts in the North, in addition to Diem’s anticommunist attitudes and American support, stalled all efforts at reunification. Their alliance with Diem centered on precarious political and strategic goals on the surface, but the realities of collaboration placed Americans in close contact with local civilians. In some ways, proximity bred unity, but in others, cultural misunderstandings reflected broader weaknesses in the alliance.
Diem’s power in Vietnam derived largely from the stance he took against social and political corruption in 1955. Standing up to the notorious Binh Xuyen crime syndicate gave him the confidence to push aside the nominal emperor Bao Dai, who lived in Paris at the time, and take control over the South.100 Historians once viewed Diem’s grasp on power as tenuous at best, but scholars like Edward Miller have affirmed that the leader’s achievements resulted from a more calculated plan of action than previously understood. Rather, they grew out of considerable agency from within his administration. Through his efforts, Diem also helped guide the United States in its early decision making as the Americans increased their numbers in Vietnam.101 The Ngo family’s focus on corruption drew civilian life onto center stage. Stories of sex and intimacy captured the imagination of onlookers and raised the concern of advisors. The impact of the West’s presence in Saigon shaped the relationship with Diem’s administration for the subsequent decade and had a far greater influence on foreign relations and the war than has been previously acknowledged by scholars.
For the United States, many questions persisted over whether South Vietnam should keep Diem in power. What he may have lacked in holding on to the confidence of the Vietnamese people, however, he made up for in his willingness to keep Americans close. In 1954 Kenneth T. Young, the acting director of the Office of Philippine and Southeast Asian Affairs, stressed to General J. Lawton Collins, then serving as US special representative to Vietnam, that keeping Diem in power and making it look like a Vietnamese idea was the best plan they could forge moving forward. Retaining Diem as a mouthpiece and letting the Vietnamese phase in what they hoped would be more apt leadership on their own time seemed the only stable solution.102 This transition happened much more slowly than Americans anticipated, and Diem held power for close to a decade. Diem pushed his ideals onto the United States, creating struggles in the ability of the two sides to work together through their differing perspectives on the purpose and goals of nation-building projects in Vietnam.103 As the president focused on restructuring the South politically, his nominal first lady and sister-in-law, Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, turned her attention to constructing a new society.
During Diem’s administration, he passed two long-lived and influential pieces of social legislation, the Family Laws and the Laws for the Protection of Morality. The policies altered societal behavior by focusing on the rights of women in society and perceived moral norms. With pressure from Madame Nhu, Diem enacted the morality-based laws in part to protect South Vietnam from negative external social influences. Diem feared the changes brought by Western cultural influences, particularly those from France.104 The Laws for the Protection of Morality banned practices from polygamy, abortion, and divorce to gambling and prostitution. Some southerners resisted, ignored, and resented the policies, especially those that impacted their source of income. Because of a lack of both public support and police enforcement, the administration’s attempts to restrict illicit social behaviors struggled to gain traction.
The laws reflected the Ngo family’s Catholic faith in many ways. As Peter Hansen has proved, though not entirely reliant on Diem, Catholics wielded considerable agency in South Vietnam. With 61.6 percent of Vietnamese Catholics living in the ecclesiastical provinces of Saigon and Hue, it benefited Diem to keep that population happy.105 Contemporary observers noted that Diem’s “religious zeal” impacted his political career through the policies he pursued and the people he surrounded himself with.106 Americans found themselves fascinated by Diem’s shared faith with President John F. Kennedy, which offered a link with the South Vietnamese leader, and plenty of fuel for conspiracy theories.107 While loyal to Diem into the early 1960s, Vietnamese Catholic leaders started to distance themselves from the South Vietnamese government later in the decade, according to Heather Stur. In aligning themselves with liberation theology, Catholics found themselves agreeing more with student protesters than with the leadership in Saigon.108
When the young Tran Le Xuan converted to Catholicism and married the far older Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem’s brother, in 1943, it was not clear that the family would reach the heights it achieved in only a few short years, but Madame Nhu presented as a natural leader. The Kennedy administration observed and recognized the power she wielded within the government.109 What the United States did not anticipate, however, was how severely her social policies would influence the family’s interactions with civilians and their approach to the Vietnam War years later. Over time, Diem and his family lost their ability to maintain control over their support base, including Catholics, who found themselves divided by differences between their northern and southern heritages, and dissatisfied with the government’s efforts.110 This problem grew worse as the morality laws that Diem and Nhu instituted alienated much of the urbanizing southern population in and around Saigon.
Nhu’s behavior captured the imagination, and scorn, of many. Her arrival on the political scene as the de facto first lady of Vietnam placed her in marked contrast to her counterpart in the United States. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy believed women should stay out of the political realm, but Nhu worked her way into the political world with little fear.111 Always pushed aside in her youth as the middle of three children, and the second daughter at that, the so-called Dragon Lady boldly participated in decision making in her adult years. Through marriage and a strong will, she created a voice for herself within the Diem administration.
Following the 1963 coup against her husband and brother-in-law, Nhu had little choice but to remove herself from public life. The laws she had encouraged over the previous half decade bred frustration out of their contradictory nature. Her first well-publicized effort, known as the 1959 Code of the Family, brought about new opportunities for women while at the same time trapping them in bad marriages.112 Her second major program, the 1962 Laws for the Protection of Morality, set out to restructure women’s role in society yet again, while turning already struggling bar girls and dancers into criminals.113 These originally civilian-based restrictions grew to have far greater consequences on South Vietnam’s political relationship with the United States than either government ever imagined.
Nhu challenged the Western perception that Vietnamese women were weak. Her actions as an outspoken female figure who forged policy within an administration known for paternalistic views on gender fed American suspicions about the potential threats presented by Asian women. She dressed in feminine clothing but had photos taken of her wielding guns, nurturing stereotypes that depicted Asian women as covertly dangerous. Nhu inspired more than just journalists with her persona. In a 1986 collection of his poetry, the African American poet Yusef Komunyakaa included “Le Xuan, Beautiful Spring,” referring to Nhu’s given name.114 The poem describes the contrast between Nhu’s role as a leader, her association with violence, and the sexualization of her body by observers.115 As the Diem administration worked to establish its authority, Nhu contributed a major element of the conversation. The scholar Laurence Goldstein has written that she “aroused suspicion everywhere” with her tendency to elicit controversy through offensive behavior targeting her opponents, notably in comments calling the self-immolation of Buddhist protesters “monk barbeques.”116 Goldstein offers a rather mild assessment of the overheated attention Nhu received from outsiders.
Diem and Nhu’s pro-Catholic and pro-morality agenda instantly sparked tension. Nhu used her position to promote causes that she felt could empower women by regulating vice, a move that proved unpopular since it added a layer of red tape to what foreigners viewed as entertainment, and what some Vietnamese saw as the only way to provide for their families. The popularity of prostitution immediately led to efforts to subvert the Diem family laws. The laws created a stark contrast from the French era. They banned prostitution but not interracial dating, though encounters rarely fell cleanly within the parameters of one or the other. Soldiers who funded apartments or showered girlfriends with expensive gifts blurred the distinction. In addition, foreigners’ respect for Vietnamese social and moral policies was limited at best. The morality rules, and methods for circumventing them, became the core of the American GI’s relationship with civilian women, and a root cause of tension between the governments of South Vietnam and the United States.
Nhu’s anti-vice regulations challenged the shift in societal norms taking place globally and were particularly at odds with the behavior of the growing number of Americans living and working in South Vietnam. In addition to the vices of prostitution and gambling, the laws also banned pornographic movies, beauty contests, sentimental songs, and even dancing.117 The ban on dancing was the most notorious of these regulations and was often mocked in the media. Nhu’s always colorful comments did little to calm the public’s, and the US military’s, concerns: she told the press that “dancing with death is sufficient” to occupy the minds of soldiers.118 To her, ordinary social activities seemed indecent, violating not only what she saw as traditional Vietnamese values but also her religious principles as a Catholic. The combination of these sensibilities left the first lady opposed to social behaviors she thought might lead to immoral conduct.
As Monique Demery has argued, unlike her husband and his brother, Nhu possessed a certain flair, a sense of theater, and a stomach for the fight that they did not.119 A 1963 political cartoon by Bill Mauldin depicts Nhu as a black widow spider precariously positioned in a web, with each of her eight legs holding onto a different line, controlling the “reins of government” in Vietnam.120 The image illustrates not only the vile and dangerous character that Westerners perceived her to embody but also her ability to manipulate multiple branches of the RVN government run by her brother-in-law. The ubiquitous photos of Nhu holding or firing handguns likewise presented an image of strength, which she projected onto the administration.121
Applying these personality traits to her political actions, Nhu stood steadfast against resistance to the value-driven laws she promoted. She pressured the administration to keep proposing them until they received enough votes to pass, regardless of their lack of popularity among the civilian population or the administration’s American counterpart. In particular, the regulations attracted the attention of the American press, which ran stories focused on the ban on dancing or Nhu’s appearance, which presented a lighter side to the escalating Vietnamese hostilities and the political corruption and nepotism surrounding the Diem regime.
Despite the popular mockery of Nhu’s policies, she found notable support from segments of the Vietnamese population. In part Nhu’s social influence came from her work with local women’s organizations, such as the Vietnamese Women’s Solidarity Movement, which gained a new voice alongside the influential first lady. Her association with these organizations and the passage of the 1959 Code of the Family provided women with pathways, however inconsistent in execution, to legally achieving equal rights with men at work or in the home.122 Nhu feared that the prospect of making fast money by associating with foreign men tempted struggling women into immoral choices. As head of the Vietnamese Women’s Solidarity Movement, Nhu warned members, “We cannot accept swells (rich people) humiliating our common prestige by seducing Vietnamese women into the path of decadence.”123 In this sense she was right. After a long war with the French that opened legal avenues into prostitution, the resulting sociopolitical turmoil in Vietnam drove young women into the cities to support their families financially. Westerners often provided a means to this end. They represented potential consumers of both legal and illicit goods and services. Yet few American advisors saw their interactions with civilians, especially young women, as having any possible impact on their work to reorganize South Vietnam into an independent democratic state.
Nhu considered the Americans a far greater threat than they considered themselves. She felt that by overturning social norms, they challenged those in power, namely, her family. She feared that when those who had once been rich and powerful had less opportunity than prostitutes and black market dealers, the corruption challenged her family’s ability to control society. In addition to these practical considerations, illicit relationships with Western men also challenged her strict Vietnamese and Catholic moral values. If women were to obtain any leverage in the new South Vietnam, she felt, it would be through involvement in politics and the promotion of women’s issues like the right to own property and control finances.
Nhu took her own role in the government very seriously. To promulgate an image of herself as powerful, she publicly referred to herself alongside prominent Vietnamese women from the past, including the warrior Trung sisters. In March 1962, at a ceremony in honor of the sisters, she spoke as the head and founder of the Vietnamese Women’s Solidarity Movement, addressing her remarks not only to the women present but also to government ministers and diplomatic guests. In the speech, she frankly criticized the American impact on Vietnamese society. More damning in the eyes of William Trueheart, an official at the US embassy, was her decision to challenge the Americans so publicly.124 Nhu wielded her influence over Diem to apply pressure on behalf of policies that promoted her interests and secured her place in Saigon. Her policies left a legacy and, until her husband’s and brother-in-law’s assassinations, kept her relevant to both the RVN and the Americans.125
The first prominent legislation Nhu worked to pass, the 1959 Code of the Family, legally restructured the traditional regulation of the Vietnamese household in an attempt to provide women with greater agency within marriage and more mobility within society. In her preamble to the code, Nhu reminded readers that according to the 1956 Constitution of the Republic of Vietnam, “all citizens, without distinction as to sex, are born with equal rights and duties and shall conduct themselves in their relations with each other in a spirit of love and cooperation,” and further, that the RVN “recognizes the family as the foundation of society.”126 Prior to the code’s being issued, she added, three separate pieces of colonial era legislation legally regulated family life.127 To revise and correct the sometimes contradictory marriage and kinship laws in association with the new constitution, Nhu had orchestrated the unified family-based code. It included four major components that either secured or restructured family life. These social policies eventually shaped the way Americans interacted with civilian women by abolishing polygamy, doing away with arranged marriage, eliminating divorce, and empowering women with new legal rights regarding property ownership.
The first chapter of the law was related to marriage as an institution. It abolished polygamy and eliminated the practice of arranging marriages, allowing individuals to choose a spouse on the basis of their own desires.128 The ban on polygamy failed to produce a strictly monogamous culture, as financial need proved a more powerful determinant regarding social behavior than Nhu’s morality laws. The law also did away with the legal right of families to dictate marriage, although new regulations could not eliminate cultural kinship practices.129 While official polygamy rates went down, the policy did not prevent married women from engaging with foreign soldiers and advisors by working as bar girls to supplement their family income while their husbands were away in military service. By the mid-1960s, most of the women working in bars identified themselves as married or involved in committed relationships outside work.130
The abolition of polygamy and arranged marriages left unwed women free to leave their families and move into the cities on their own, a marked change in social norms. Women who worked as bar girls supported this component of the law and the freedom it offered. In a 1967 study, only 16 percent of Vietnamese women said they would marry the person their parents selected for them.131 While a majority, 61 percent, felt that women should marry, 46 percent said that a woman should not marry a man she did not love.132 The liberalization of women’s marriage rights proved a double-edged sword for South Vietnam, legalizing a popular modern approach to relationships while contributing to the boom in unmarried women in the cities.
The second chapter of the code detailed the marriage property system, setting in place a practice similar to a prenuptial agreement that outlined each spouse’s legal rights regarding property.133 With the restructuring of property ownership within marriage, the law viewed women as the economic equals of men. While this law offered great potential for women, it failed to change immediately their stake in society, which was largely determined in the 1960s through the RVN’s alliance with Americans. United States service members often stereotyped Vietnamese citizens as inferior to themselves, with women’s role in society viewed as even lower than that of the men. Some Vietnamese women even failed to see themselves as equal to the men in their lives, many reporting in 1967 that they viewed men as having more professional abilities than themselves, likely a result of unequal education. Standing out among these data are the views of bar girls, who saw more potential for women to take up education and professional jobs if they so desired. All bar girls surveyed thought women should attend school, and most thought they should also attend university when possible. When asked which careers were most desirable for women, they named pharmacist and small business owner as their top choices.134
Nhu insisted on a stipulation in the code that labeled divorce an unethical practice, which actually worked against the interests of families. The third chapter, on legal separation, lays out rare specific instances in which the government could approve such a step. According to the first article, forbidding divorce, the code notes that the government put the law in place to “encourage the unity and cohesion of the family.”135 Nhu’s Catholicism likely influenced this portion of the law, but it also reflected her desire to maintain power, as it would keep her own marriage intact, whereas under the previous laws she feared that her husband might seek a divorce.136 These rules on marriage factored into the behavior of Vietnamese civilians during the war. As we have seen, women often remained married when their husbands were off fighting, even if they took jobs working as prostitutes.
As first lady, Nhu held far more power than her Western counterparts, and she struggled to keep her personal life together to maintain both her financial security and her political power.137 Her influence swayed the election in 1959 of a candidate she favored.138 In 1960 she demanded meetings with Edward Lansdale, a deputy to the US secretary of defense, to discuss her concerns over the United States’ role in Vietnam and its unwillingness to play by the Ngo family’s rules and even to defend her to the press.139 Through her keen ability to keep a finger on the pulse of the regime, not to mention her power to demand audiences with foreign diplomats, she ensured her value but gained a reputation as corrupt. Her actions grated against Vietnamese groups like the Can Lao opposition party, as well as American critics who distrusted a woman in power.140
Nhu likely took into consideration the experiences of her family members while shaping the laws. Notably, the final portion of the Code of the Family promoted the welfare of women in society by making “violation[s] of marriage obligations” illegal.141 The articles of the law emphasized that either spouse could be held accountable for adultery. Punishments ranged from three months to two years in prison, fines ranging from 1,000 to 100,000 piasters, or a combination of the two.142 Repeat offenders could even face “local banishment.” In one of her most telling additions to the law, Article 71 declares that “publications in the press concerning adultery cases are strictly forbidden.” By making the discussion of adultery illegal in the press, Nhu ensured that cases such as that of her sister, who flaunted an affair, could not be widely publicized and used as a political weapon against the family. The law even allowed spouses to determine if their partners had engaged in “too free” relations with a member of the opposite sex, giving them the right to prevent future interactions or demand that a fine be levied.143
In conjunction with the fourth and final chapter on marriage obligations, the code “strictly prohibited” concubinage.144 Like the first three chapters of the law, this legislation worked to discourage immoral behavior either within or outside marriage in the form of extramarital sexual relations, divorce and remarriage, or premarital sex. It was this portion of the law that strained the US-RVN relationship during escalation, as few advisors or GIs sought to marry local women during their tour in Vietnam. Responding to the desires of its allies, South Vietnam later created a new category of laws that allowed for cohabitation between American GIs and Vietnamese women as a work-around for the anti-concubine legislation.145 The remainder of the code referred to rights regarding children and adoption, a topic complicated by the soaring numbers of interracial orphans during the Vietnam War. The code ends with the general provision, Article 135, that “all provisions contrary to this law are abrogated.”146 In this way Nhu ensured that the contradictory laws governing family life during the colonial era would no longer dictate social relations in South Vietnam.
Nhu, no stranger to bad press, received considerable criticism for her role in guiding the policy. Her intention to work with and for Vietnamese women conflicted with the growing number of women who were turning to work as dancers, bar girls, or prostitutes. Her policies resulted in the prosecution of many struggling women who engaged in clandestine acts to survive. Western newspapers criticized the harsh restrictions as “puritanical.”147 The press lambasted Nhu for everything from her influence over Diem to the hypocrisy many associated with her personal interest in Western style and fashion.148 As with many female public figures, sexist journalists and critics regularly commented on Nhu’s appearance and used her choice of clothing as a weapon against her in the press. One reporter wrote about her “discreet but eye-pleasing low neckline.”149 Preying on her interest in fashion, reporters attacked her lavish spending and the stark contrast between her clothing and her conservative social policies.
Following the Code of the Family, the later Laws for the Protection of Morality used vague language to ban what the US Department of the Army translated as “voluptuous activities” in Nhu’s continued effort to enforce morality restrictions on southern social relations.150 The laws needed support in the National Assembly and from Diem, however, to take hold. The drafts spent months moving back and forth between offices, beginning in December 1961, until their final passage in May 1962. According to contemporary reports, South Vietnamese politicians feared that the redundant and difficult-to-enforce laws would alienate significant portions of the population rather than bring the nation together in a united fight against pro-communist forces.151 At the same time, Americans in both the army and the press corps framed the bans on everything from sex work to dancing, abortion, and divorce as attacks on progressive civilian culture, and Nhu as the “Dragon Lady” leading the vanguard.
The anti-dance, prostitution, and contraception sections of the laws spurred considerable animosity and amusement among American observers. The army speculated that the executive decrees sought to stabilize the nation “as a means of controlling the people and resources and preserving order in the state.”152 The Detroit News took a more personal approach, calling Nhu an “unusual woman politician” who disliked it when the foreign press referred to her as a “tigress.”153 Her comments at press conferences regarding the legislation did little to ease the external pressure on her behavior. When she was confronted about the potentially harmful effects the restrictions would have on “dance-hall girls,” the New York Times interpreted her response as “Hunger would oblige them to mend their ways and perhaps take up nursing or teaching.”154 In the face of criticism, Nhu doubled down, insisting that “the problem is not so much how to find work for the taxi dancers, but how to starve them.” She viewed their decision to enter illicit industries as the result of laziness rather than systemic poverty and lack of educational opportunities. She reportedly told listeners, “Only starvation can steer them into jobs that require hard work. We need nurses badly, for we now have more than 1,000 casualties weekly. We build many schools, but there is a great shortage of teachers.” She insisted that dancing in public promoted promiscuity, which she assured her listeners was something “Asian people are not used to.”155 She even hoped the laws might rub off on Saigon’s allies and encourage American diplomats and soldiers to lead more austere lives. Continued resistance from both South Vietnamese and Americans, however, made enforcement increasingly difficult.
Nhu’s outspoken opposition to immorality, and her position within the Diem government enabling her to press for action, frustrated the Americans. In archives, her bleak relationship with the American press constitutes the bulk of the records kept on Nhu by Western advisors, including the Michigan State University Vietnam Advisory Group, which worked closely with Diem. The US media distrusted her influence over him, claiming she “condemned ‘pseudo-liberalism’ and ‘certain elements in the West’ ” while working to undermine her brother-in-law and, through him, Vietnamese sovereignty.156 In relation to her morality programs, Nhu pointed directly to Americans as the cause of social decline in the country. Dancing had a place in private life, she assured her audience, but did not belong in public, given the negative influence of foreigners.157 Nhu’s favored laws and her public persona challenged the growing American presence as a threat to Vietnam’s social and moral integrity. As the war progressed, concerns grew more rampant, and more real, but the Ngo family fell from power before the largest influx of Americans took place.
Prior to the coup that removed him from power, Diem invited hundreds of US advisors to aid in the development of a modernized police and administrative infrastructure for the new Republic of Vietnam. The advisors, primarily from Michigan State University, recognized and developed plans to manage the threats to the young government posed by vice and corruption, taking South Vietnam into a new era. Over time, however, the impact of rising numbers of Americans in South Vietnam compounded social problems and strained foreign relations in ways their program could not account for.
The increased demand for prostitution from foreign visitors in the 1950s brought the issue of intercultural sexual intimacy back into the mainstream in Vietnam. During the height of the colonial period, as shown in Vu Trong Phung’s histories of prostitution in Hanoi in the 1930s, administrators across Indochina struggled over how to control such an unwieldy industry, in which medical checks did not work and demand never seemed to wane.158 Colonial bureaucrats, subsequent Vietnamese leaders, and American advisors portrayed the sex industry as a social evil but recognized the potential to profit off its popularity.
Historically, the Orientalist perceptions of an eroticized East created expectations among Western men about the sexual prowess and sensual nature of the women they might encounter in Vietnam.159 Like the trend that continued long after, the conflict between threats to the social and moral health of the Vietnamese people on the one hand and the desire of foreigners to indulge their fantasies of Eastern sensuality on the other gave rise to a dialog over how to handle the issue. In the West, women gradually fought for and earned new rights during the third-wave feminist and civil rights movements, but this change came much more slowly to a Vietnam disrupted by war. Many women did take up arms and fought for Vietnam on battlefields and across diplomatic tables, but rarely did their actions shape American ideas of Asian women more broadly. Instead, sexist and racist presumptions from the French colonial era had a far greater impact. Financial necessity and limited opportunity led many young women and girls to work in bars and brothels, providing fuel for Western fantasies. As the Diem administration dug in its heels and sought to forge a new Vietnam in the South, its association with the West and its treatment of sexuality stirred up significant animosity.
By the time the Vietnam War escalated in 1965, decades of colonial governance and Western influence had crafted a difficult social situation on the ground in Vietnam. An industrialized and regulated brothel culture during the First Indochina War contributed to Vietnamese perceptions of Western men and the suspicion of moral weakness in those who worked with them. The Code of the Family and the Laws for the Protection of Morality enacted under the Diem administration shaped social relations and made most of the relationships engaged in during wartime, like prostitution and forms of cohabitation, illegal. In the wake of the 1954 division of Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel, the increased numbers of US advisors who arrived at the invitation of Diem aided in the establishment of the new government and its law enforcement. Scholars and diplomats joined the young government in establishing the infrastructure designed in part to uphold laws that later frustrated foreign soldiers.
Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy dedicated American support to keeping communism out of the region. This was their main priority in Vietnam during the First Indochina War and the early postcolonial era. By 1963, the US government no longer trusted Diem to safeguard its interests and did nothing to prevent the military coup in November of that year which resulted in his assassination. Despite the restructuring of the government, new national and city officials continued to uphold the morality laws, keeping prostitution illegal during the Vietnam War. When the war escalated, the strict social laws and policing efforts partially designed by Americans worked against the belief of the US military that seeking sex for the sake of morale was a natural part of warfare.
The steep increase in prostitution in Vietnamese cities occurred as a result of the increase in the number of American clients. The demand interacted with factors including inflation, poverty, urban overcrowding, and a lack of opportunity. Like the French before them, American servicemen proved eager buyers of sex services. The contradiction between Western notions of Southeast Asians as an erotically desirable and sensual people on the one hand and, on the other, the Foreign Service’s collaboration with a socially conservative young government in order to uphold US political and security interests in the region left Americans subject to laws they had helped implement. The diverging views on social relations, rooted in colonial cultural representations, created significant obstacles for US-RVN foreign relations from the days of escalation to long after the war ended.