Secret Deal Between the Pope and the Communists of North Vietnam
While the doomed Diem-Kennedy plot unfolded like a classic Greek tragedy, a no less fascinating calamity had been shaping up within the secretive walls of the Vatican. Pope John XXIII, in standard Vatican duplicity, had secretly contacted Ho Chin Minh, Communist leader of North Vietnam. This step was taken without the least consultation with either the State Department, Cardinal Spellman, or indeed anybody else in Rome or Washington.
The Pope presented a simple proposition. The Vatican was willing to reach a kind of "modus vivendi" or practical compromise with the future Communist leader of a United Vietnam.
The implications of the Vatican move was, to say the least, portentous. Vatican recognition of a future United Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh, could only mean the acceptance of defeat in South Vietnam and its eventual absorption into a Communist North. In other words it would mean the recognition of a future United Republic of Vietnam ruled by the Communists.
Ho Chi Minh, although a Marxist, kept diverse Catholic advisors by his side, including a Catholic bishop. He accepted the proposal in principle and countered with tempting offers of his own: total religious freedom in the future United Vietnam, plus special treatment of the Catholic Church, including favorable educational facilities and frequent financial grants for buildings and the clergy. All this was carried out in the utmost secrecy, since at the same time the Vatican was loudly reiterating that the objective of the Vatican-U.S. joint operations in Vietnam was the reunification of the North with the South under Catholic Diem.
In contrast to his predecessor, Pope John XXIII was a genuine believer in the coexistence of the Church with communism, both global and regional. He had convinced himself that both North and South ultimately were bound to come together to form a United Vietnam. But under a kind of communism peculiarly indigenous to Indo-China.
He had equally convinced himself that the Catholic Church under Ho Chi Minh, would fare well, because of the traditional role which she had played in Indo-Chinese history and culture.
Such thinking resulted in three important moves:
These three were set in motion without breaking the Vatican's public opposition to a total takeover of Vietnam by the Communists.
The first result of such policies was seen at the Marian Congress held in Saigon in 1959 where the Pope consecrated the whole of Vietnam to the Virgin Mary. Although this seemed religious in nature it had evident political
implications. Many Catholics and non-Catholics took notice of this including Cardinal Spellman and his supporters. Their frown became shock, however, when in December of 1960 Pope John created an episcopal hierarchy, again for the whole of Vietnam.
Not content with this Pope John took an even more ominous step. He created an archdiocese of the Catholic Church in the capital of Communist North Vietnam itself.
These announcements astounded religious and political pundits everywhere, beginning in Vietnam, North and South, and in the U.S. However many interpreted the move in a favorable light. They saw it as the Pope preparing to set in motion the ecclesiastical machinery of the Church, while waiting for the inevitable take-over of a United Vietnam, under President Diem and his protector the U.S.
In the political circles of Washington these religious moves and comments were judged to be mere inspirational bravado, and dismissed as such. Their potential implications for the future were dismissed except by the few who recognized the Pope's gestures as a dangerous exercise of ecclesiastical brinkmanship. Though disguised under the mantle of piety, it was clear that the Church was no longer seriously interested in the U.S. military efforts to defend South Vietnam. In other words, the Vatican had given notice, even if tangentially, that from then onwards it was going to look exclusively after the interests of the Catholic Church.
Negotiating with the Communists of the North, the Vatican reached a secret agreement with Ho Chin Minh concerning the freedom of movement of all the Catholics of North Vietnam. These North Vietnamese Catholics formed the majority of all Catholics in the whole of Vietnam. By this agreement they were permitted "if they so desired", to emigrate to South Vietnam and to settle under the protection of President Diem and his Catholic administration.
To avoid giving the impression that the Vatican was conniving with the Communists, however, the exodus of the North Vietnamese Catholics had to appear to be a flight of religious people apprehensive of an irreligious regime run by atheists. The image had to be maintained to impress public opinion and even more to create a worldwide sympathy for the Catholic Church and for President Diem, her staunch defender against intolerant communism.
Ho Chi Minh was too astute a politician not to see in the request, beside a ruse advantageous to the Church, also a deal with long range political and military implications for the potential advancement of his own cause. He reasoned that a mass exodus from the North would greatly embarrass rather than help the Catholic regime of Diem by increasing the tension which already existed.
The competition for jobs and privileged positions amidst the already harassed Diem administration would be greatly increased by those coming from the North. Ho Chi Minh saw that this emigration could only increase the disruption in a government busy harassing its most troublesome majority, the Buddhists. His calculations proved correct. After a short honeymoon between the Catholics of the North and those in the South, thousands of the new arrivals asked for repatriation. They demanded help from the local authorities and then directly from the government of Diem. Even the Catholic Church, though willing to give out aid, was unable to cope with the problem which grew with each passing day.
The economic situation continued to worsen. The prospect for the new arrivals of any kind of employment diminished, the lack of money became acute, and starvation made its appearance.The emigrants began to agitate and create minor commotions which soon degenerated into riots, many of which were suppressed with the utmost severity. The slogan, "The Virgin Mary had gone South," which had encouraged the emigrants to follow her to the Catholic paradise of a Catholic administration had proved to be the siren's call to disaster, both for them and the stability of South Vietnamjust as Ho Chi Minh had envisaged.