Catholic Expansionism in Southeast Asia in the 19th Century
The tenacious political activism of the Catholic Church during Diem's rule and the massive military defeat suffered by the U.S. can best be comprehended by studying the Catholic Church's actions prior to the conflict. They were both determined to defeat an aggressive brand of Asian communism, yet they had diametrically opposite reasons for intervening.
To the U.S., Vietnam became a military conflict, part of a policy focused on the two Euro-Asian centers of global communism: Peking with one thousand million Chinese only recently regimented into Marxism by Mao Tze Tung, and Moscow, the Mecca of Western Bolshevism.
To the Catholic Church, however, Vietnam was more than a mere stepping stone in America's fight against world communism. Vietnam had long been "hers, by right." Because of this, Vietnam had to be "rescued" from the impending ideological chaos and military anarchy which followed France's evacuation after World War It.
But even more important to her as a religious entity, was the rescue of Vietnam from Buddhism with which the Catholic Church had fought for hundreds of years. This motivation, although never mentioned in any circles during the Vietnamese conflict, nevertheless had become one of the major factors that influenced the general conduct of the Catholic Church in her relationship with Vietnam, before, during, and after President Diem's regime. The failure to recognize this factor became one of the major causes of the ultimate political and military disintegration of Vietnam and therefore of the final collapse of the U.S. military effort itself.
It might be asked how the Catholic Church could enlist the aid of Protestant U.S. and intervene with such active political pressure in Buddhist impregnated Vietnam where the racial, cultural, and religious background made her and the U.S. both alien powers. Her claims were based upon the proposition that she had a very "special" relationship with Vietnam. Strictly speaking, that was true.
Diem, as already seen, was from the typical Catholic Vietnamese culture, a by-product of this special relationship. Patrician by birth, Catholic by tradition, he belonged to a special elite which had greatly influenced the destiny of Vietnam for centuries. The riddle of his behavior could be explained by the fact that all his activities were motivated basically by his religious convictions.
He was a stubborn, dogmatic believer persuaded that he had a mission. This quality brought his ultimate ruination, and the U.S. into the Vietnamese War. He had convinced himself that the policy of repression which he so stubbornly pursued was his duty as a traditionally Vietnamese Catholic. Providence had positioned him to promote the interests of the Catholic Church, as his ancestors had done before him in the past.
What were the factors which helped to create such dedicated Catholic individuals in Vietnam? Historically the Catholic Church was the first "Christian" church to operate in the Indo-Chinese peninsula as far back as three hundred or so years ago. Vietnam was the spearhead of her penetration from the very beginning of the sixteenth century, when her stations were manned chiefly by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries.
Religious settlements were followed by commercial ones. In due course, other European nations such as England, the Netherlands and France started to compete for the attention of the native populations.
The most vigorous introducers of Western enlightenment, which in those days meant Christianity, were the Jesuits, then in the prime of their exploratory zeal. The Franciscans, Dominicans, and others, although prominent, never exerted the influence of the Jesuits who were determined to plant the spiritual and cultural power of the Church in Southeast Asia. Having arrived there about 1627, they spread their activities practically in all fields. They attempted with varied success to influence the cultural and political top echelons of society, unlike the other missionaries who contented themselves exclusively with making converts. Their efforts were helped by the printing of the first Bible in 1651, and the growing influence of several individuals, men of sophistication, who were welcomed in certain powerful circles.
The result was that in due course, owing to political intrigues and commercial rivalries, the European influence declined. The Catholic Church increased in reverse proportion however, and during the following century came to dominate the ruling elite, thanks chiefly to the liberality of certain native potentates, beginning with the Emperor GiaLong. In fact, it was mainly thanks to his protection that the Catholic Church was soon granted privileges of all kinds which she used vigorously to expand her influence.
Like in so many other instances however, the privileges very quickly gave way to abuse. In no time the Catholic communities came to exercise such a disproportionate religious and cultural domination, that reaction became inevitable throughout the land. The reaction turned into ostracism, and eventually into veritable persecution of anything European which, more often than not, meant anything Catholic.
The Catholic communities reacted in turn. From passive opposition they became actively belligerent. Ultimately revolts were organized practically all over Cochin-China. The disorders were inspired and very often directed by the Catholic missionaries, supported by French national and commercial interests. The continuous inroad of Roman Catholicism, the spearhead of the European culture and colonial incursion into the land, in the long run inspired the hostility of the Emperor Theiu Tri, who ruled between 1841 and 1847. By this time the French intrigues with the Catholic missionaries had become so intermingled that the two ultimately became almost identical. The Catholic missions were boycotted, restrictive legislation was enforced, and Catholic activities were banned everywhere.
The reaction in Europe was immediate cries of religious persecution. This was typical of the European Imperialism of the period. In 1843, 1845, and 1847, French war vessels stormed Vietnamese ports, with the pretext of requesting the release of the missionaries. As a reply the Vietnamese rulers intensified their objections to European ecclesiastical and commercial intervention in their country. This strong Vietnamese resistance gave France and Spain further pretext to intervene.
In 1858 a Franco-Spanish force invaded Darnang. Saigon was occupied in February 1859, followed by the adjacent three provinces. In June 1862, a treaty was imposed upon Vietnam. The treaty confirmed the French conquest and gave the provinces to France. One of its clauses provided the Catholic Church with total religious freedom.
Within a few years, France had occupied almost the whole country. Hanoi, in the North, was taken in 1873. In August 1873, the final "treaty" was signed. The Vietnamese independence had come to an end. The whole of Indo-China: Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, had become French colonies. The conquest had been pioneered and made possible chiefly by the activities of the Roman Catholic missionaries, and the Catholic Church which had first sent them there.
This was proved soon afterwards when Catholic missionaries were given special privileges throughout the new Vietnamese regions. The missionaries had not only supreme power in religious and cultural matters, but equally in social, economic and political ones. And since the power of the French military and civil authorities were always behind them, they never hesitated to use the French bayonets to impose the cross upon the reluctant natives.
Friars, Jesuits, priests, nuns, bishops and French military and civil governors set to work to implant Catholicism throughout Vietnam. The original native Catholics were regrouped into special villages. Intensive, mass conversion to Catholicism was undertaken everywhere. Whole villages were persuaded to "see the light" either because the conversion brought food and assistance of the missionaries, or because money, position or privileges in the educational or colonial echelons were beyond the reach of anyone who refused.
Such inducements, more often than not, became irresistible to those who were ambitious, restless or did not care for the traditions of their fathers. The temptation was great since only those converted were allowed to attend school, or had a chance to undertake higher education. Official positions in local and provincial administrations were given exclusively to Catholics, while the ownership of land was permitted only to those who accepted the Catholic faith. During recurrent famines, thousands of starving peasants were induced to receive baptism, either in family groups or even entire villages, prior to being given victuals from the Catholic missions.
The methodical Romanizing of Vietnam was promoted not only by the machinery of the Church, it was enforced by an increasingly repressive French colonial legislation inspired behind the scenes mostly by the missionaries themselves. As a result of such intensified religious colonial double pressure, in no time the French colonial administration had been transformed into a ruthless conversion tool of the Catholic Church, over the mounting protests of the liberal religious and political sections of metropolitan France. After more than half a century of this massive ecclesiastical and cultural colonization, the native and French Catholics practically monopolized the entire civil and military administration. From there sprang a Catholic elite stubbornly committed to the Catholicization of the whole country. This elite passed the torch of the Church from generation to generation down to President Diem and his brothers. Their actions were true to their ancient traditions.
It cost them their lives, the disestablishment of the whole of Vietnam, and finally the military intervention of the U.S., with all the horrors before and after her ultimate humiliation and defeat.