The tragedy of the war of South Vietnam, with all its immense complications for the USA, Asia and the rest of the world, at first would seem to have nothing whatever to do with the Catholic Church.
This is incorrect. Since the Vietnamese tragedy had its origin in the religious and ideological influence exercised by the Catholic Church in the affairs of that country from its very beginning.
We are not here dealing with the rights or wrongs of the Vietnamese war. But only with the paramount role which religion, with particular reference to the Catholic Church, has played in its inception. The Vietnamese tragedy was precipitated by a zealous Catholic trio formed by a Catholic President, a Catholic Head of the Secret Police, and a Catholic Archbishop. All were determined to impose the religious and political writ of the Church upon a non-Christian culture.
How did it happen, particularly in view of the fact that South Vietnam was an Asian Buddhist land?
Here is a bird's-eye view of the events which immediately preceded the outbreak of the Vietnamese-USA war.
One day in early June, 1963, a 73 year old Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc stopped in a busy street in Saigon, the Capital City of South Vietnam, and, after having been soaked with gasoline by a fellow monk, sat down cross-legged; thereupon, having calmly struck a match, he burned himself to death.
Prior to this, however, he had written a message to President Diem: "Enforce a policy of religious equality," the message read.
President Diem, a zealous Catholic, gave a prompt response. He clamped martial law upon the city, sealed most of the pagodas, ordered his secret police force to arrest Buddhist leaders, and mobilized his troops to truncheon any Buddhist monk or any Buddhist crowds who dared to protest at his increasing discrimination against their religion.
The self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc was the culmination of an increasingly virulent discriminatory campaign against Buddhism by a Roman Catholic Premier, President Ngo Dinh Diem, of South Vietnam. President Diem by this time had ruled the country for about nine years, helped by his two brothers, Ngo Dinh Nhu, head of the secret police, and Ngo Dinh Thuc, Archbishop of Hue. The trio had been inching for years toward veritable religious persecution of the vast majority of the country's population of 15 million, only 1,500,000 of whom were Catholics.
The spark to the Buddhist revolt was set only a few days before in Hue, the ancient Vietnamese capital, now the See of the Archbishop, who reigned, ruled and dominated Catholics and non-Catholics alike in his role of a spiritual guide to his two brothers, the president and the head of the secret police. At a celebration to honour the Archbishop, the Catholic contingent at Hue flew the flag of the Vatican, without any Buddhist objection. When, three days later, the whole country celebrated the 2,507th birthday of Buddha and the Buddhists unfurled their religious flag, the Archbishop, via the authorities, forbade them to do so. This, it must be remembered, in a country eighty per cent of whose population are practicing Buddhists.
The Buddhists staged a peaceful demonstration march against the edict. As a reply, the government sent troops and armoured cars and fired at the demonstrators, killing nine Buddhists.
The Hue massacre caused demonstrations all over South Vietnam. Buddhist delegations in Saigon demanded the removal of restrictions on their religion and the discriminatory laws imposed against them. The government arrested many of the demonstrators.
In Hue, meanwhile, when another demonstration of Buddhists paraded the city, troops dispersed them, using tear gas bombs. Result: sixty-seven people were taken to hospital with chemical burns.
The USA protested. President Diem seemed to take note, but discriminations against the Buddhists continued unabated. Arrests of Buddhist monks multiplied. Pagodas were declared out of bounds, closed and at times even attacked. Catholic soldiers fought with Buddhist soldiers within the national army, engaged upon a life or death war against the communist regime of the North. The war, supported by American arms and by 16,000 American
President Ngo Dinh Diem, of South Vietnam.
President Diem was a fanatical Catholic who ruled South Vietnam with an iron fist.
He transformed the Presidency into a virtual Catholic Dictatorship, which he used to crush his religious and political opponents with the utmost ruthlessness.
He persecuted non-Catholics, and particularly the Buddhists. By his discriminatory methods he caused the disruption of the Army and Government. This eventually was to lead to the USA's military intervention in South Vietnam.
He ruled with the spiritual and political terrorization of his two equally fanatical Catholic brothers, the Chief of the Secret Police and the Archbishop of Hue.
President Diem had originally been "planted" into the Presidency by Cardinal Spellman and Pope Pius XII.
Buddhist monks committed suicide by fire, burning themselves alive in protest against his religious persecutions.
He, with one of his brothers, was murdered immediately after hearing mass on Nov. 2, 1963. (3 weeks before Kennedy's death)!!
"advisors," was jeopardized by the rapidly deteriorating religious strife. President Kennedy, a Catholic, put pressure upon the Catholic trio in Vietnam. But, since this seemed to have no effect, he finally suspended, among other heavy USA subsidies, part of the American Central Intelligence Agency's two million dollars monthly payment to the South Vietnam "special forces" and stopped the funds which financed the super-Catholic head of the secret police.
Although protests from all over the world went on, the Catholic trio continued in their set policy: Catholicization of South Vietnam. Hasty promotions of Catholics in the government and in the army were increased, and this to such an extent that many Buddhist officers became converted to Catholicism solely with a view to swift promotion.
President Kennedy changed ambassadors in an effort to persuade the three brothers to alter their policy. In July, 1963, he sent President Diem a personal message of confidence via Ambassador Nolting. Kennedy's efforts once more were of no avail. On the contrary, the head of the secret police, with the excuse that Red elements had been found amongst the Buddhists, turned the harsh discriminatory campaign against the Buddhists into actual religious persecution.
Buddhist monks, Buddhist nuns and Buddhist leaders were arrested by the thousand. Pagodas were closed or besieged. Buddhists were tortured by the police. One day another Buddhist monk burned himself alive in public, to draw the attention of the world to the Catholic persecution. President Diem, undeterred, continued in his policy. The secret police packed the jails with more monks. The third monk committed suicide by fire, and then another. Within a brief period, seven of them had burned themselves alive in public. Vietnam was put under martial law. Troops now occupied many pagodas and drove out all monks offering resistance. More Buddhist monks and Buddhist nuns were arrested and taken away in lorries, including a large number of wounded. Many were killed.
Ten thousand Buddhists took part in a hunger strike in blockaded Saigon, while a giant gong tolled from the tower of the main Xa Loi Pagoda in protest against the persecutions. At Hue, in the North, monks and nuns put up a tremendous struggle at the main pagoda of Tu Dam, which was virtually demolished, while eleven Buddhist students burned themselves inside it.
The USA applied even stronger pressure and threatened to cut off all aid to President Diem. Again, all to no avail. South Vietnam's Ambassador in Washington, a Buddhist, resigned in protest. President Diem's brother and sister-in-law, Mrs. Nhu, advocated even harsher treatment of the Buddhists. Mrs. Nhu scoffed openly at the Buddhist monks who had committed suicide by setting themselves alight, declaring that they had used "imported gasoline" to "barbecue" themselves.
By this time the Buddhist leader, Thich Tri Quang, had to seek asylum in the American Embassy, to escape with his life. The American government had grown openly impatient. The USA State Department issued an official declaration deploring the repressive actions the South Vietnamese government had taken against the Buddhists. "On the basis of information from Saigon it appears that the government of the Republic of Vietnam has instituted serious repressive measures against the Vietnamese Buddhist leaders," it said. "The action represents direct violation by the Vietnamese government of assurances that it was pursuing a policy of reconciliation with the Buddhists. The USA deplores repressive actions of this nature."
Vietnam was split. The army became openly restive and put up passive resistance, not against the communists, but against their own government. Result: the war against the communist North was being rapidly lost, since the population at large, upon whose support the struggle ultimately rested, refused to cooperate.
At long last the USA, realizing how its strategy in that part of Asia was in serious danger of collapsing, took action. The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in cooperation with Vietnamese Buddhist elements successfully engineered a "coup." President Diem and his brother, the head of the secret police, had to run for their lives, but were soon discovered by rebel troops hiding in a small Catholic Church in Cholon. Both men were killed and their bodies laid in St. Joseph's Hospital a few hundred yards away from the Xa Loi Pagoda, the religious centre of the Buddhist resistance to their authoritarianism. 
So ended one of the most Catholic regimes of recent times. What the world at large, which had followed the religious strife with horrified fascination, did not know was the pressure of conflicting policies within the Catholic circles themselvesin Washington, South Vietnam and the Vatican. Kennedy, the first Catholic President of the USA, when inheriting the American policy in South Vietnam, inherited also Catholic President Diem. In different circumstances, the sharing of common religious beliefs might have helped in the conduct of a common policy, since the political interests of the two counties ran parallel. With Catholic Diem pursuing such anachronistic religious persecutions, however, Catholic Kennedy felt increasingly ill at ease, since he was too astute a politician to compromise his political career or to sacrifice the interests of the USA for the sake of a fellow Catholic who, after all, was incurring the opprobrium of the vast majority of Americans, most of whom still looked upon Kennedy's Catholicism with suspicion. Hence the Kennedy Administration's blessing upon the final overthrow of the Diem regime.
The disastrous policy of the South Vietnamese Catholic government was the dire result of the campaign initiated by the political grand strategy of two men: John Foster Dulles for the USA and Pope Pius XII for the Vatican. The Diem dynasty was put into power by them both when the cold war was at its zenith: that is, after the French were soundly defeated in the Indo-China war and the USA stepped in to fill the vacuum in what eventually became known as South Vietnam.
From the beginning the USA decided to back a government headed by an individual who would give a guarantee not to show any quarter to the communists, either at home or abroad. The person chosen: Diem. Diem was a man with a strong inclination to mysticism, a practicing and quietly fanatical Catholic. In his early youth he had wanted to become a Catholic priest, but ironically enough, was dissuaded from so doing by his brother, the future Archbishop of Hue, who told him that the vocation of a Catholic priest would be too soft for him. That the advice was not a jest was subsequently proven by the fact that when Diem, during the French crisis, was forced to go into exile to the USA, and to Belgium, he always chose to stay in Catholic monasteries, leading the austere life of their inmates.
To Dulles and to Pius XII, this religious asceticism was the surest guarantee that Diem would execute their joint policy with the utmost fidelity. And in this they were right, as subsequent events demonstrated. People who knew better, however, were not of the same opinion about Diem's suitability. The American Embassy, for instance, advised against him from the very beginning. The Embassy's warning was completely ignored by Washington, and, although the State Department itself was against the choice, the Special Operations Branch of the Pentagon insisted on Diem. It had its way. What was the explanation? A certain clique at the Pentagon, inspired by another in the Central Intelligence Agency with intimate links to the Catholic lobby in Washington and certain Cardinals in the USA, and consequently in perfect accord with the Vatican, had decided to have a staunch Catholic in South Vietnam.
It must be remembered that the period was when the Cold war was at its worst, when its arch-exponents, the Dulles brothersone at the State Department and the other at the CIAand Pius XII at the Vatican, were conducting a joint diplomatic, political and ideological grand strategy embracing both the West and the Far East, of which Vietnam was an integral part.
The choice proved a disaster for South Vietnam and for the USA's Asian policy, since, as we have just seen, the religious issue was eventually to stultify the whole grand American strategic pattern there.
But it is often the case with Catholics in authority that whenever the circumstances permit, and their power is no longer restricted by either constitutional clauses or other checks, they tend to conduct a policy more and more consonant with the spirit of their religion. The result being that, by combining the interests of their country with those of their church, more often than not they create unnecessary social and political disturbances which ultimately are bound to generate opposition in both religious and political fields.
When this state of affairs is nearing a crisis owing to the resistance of the non-Catholic opposition, then the Catholics exerting political or military power will not hesitate to use that power against those who oppose them. At this stage, the interests of their church will, as a rule, oust those of their country.
This formula proved to be correct in the case of South Vietnam. President Diem, having provoked such a crisis, disregarded the interests of the country, no less than those of its protectors, the USA, to pursue what he considered were the interests of his church.
Whereas political and military factors of no mean import played a leading part in the ultimate tragedy, the religious factor, in fact, which by obscuring the political and military vision of President Diem, led him to disaster. President Diem, in spite of, or because of, his religious asceticism, was in his political conduct greatly influenced by his brother, the head of the secret police, who did not hesitate to unleash a veritable religious persecution of monks, nuns and Buddhist leaders, as already seen.
An even more potent religious factor behind them was the fanaticism of the third brother, the Archbishop of Hue. The Archbishop was the "spiritual guide" of both the head of the police and the president. It is no coincidence that the open flaring up of the religious war began in his See, in Hue. The Archbishop was the driving power behind the systematically mounting religious discrimination against the Buddhists. Supporting the Archbishop was Pope Pius XII.
The similarity between the fanatical Catholic President of South Vietnam and the Archbishop of Hue, and Croatian Dictator Ante Pavelic and the Archbishop of Zagreb, could not be more striking. Thus, whereas the political and military machinery controlled by the South Vietnamese and Croatian dictators was put at the disposal of the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church put her spiritual and ecclesiastical machinery at the disposal of the two dictators, who made everyone and everything subordinate to her religious and political totalitarianism.
Both Diem and Pavelic, aided by their respective Archbishops, pursued three objectives simultaneously:
(a) the annihilation of a political enemy, i.e. Communism;
(b) as justification for the annihilation of an enemy Church, i.e. the Orthodox Church in the case of Pavelic and Buddhism in the case of Diem;
(c) the installation of Catholic religious and political tyranny in each country.
Notwithstanding the different circumstances, and geographical and cultural backgrounds characteristic of Croatia and South Vietnam, the pattern and ultimate goal pursued by the two Regimes was exactly the same: anything and anyone not conforming or submitting to Catholicism was to be ruthlessly destroyed via arrest, persecution, concentration camps and executions.
With the result that, by relegating the interests of their country to the background, so as to further the interests of their religion, both dictators finally brought their lands into the abyss.
In the case of President Diem, when he put Catholicism first, he alienated the vast majority of the South Vietnamese masses and of the South Vietnamese army who, it must be remembered, were Buddhists and on the whole supported him politically. This brought the collapse of the anti-Communist front upon which Diem's policy stood. The chaos which ensued in its turn set in motion USA military intervention. The South Vietnamese and Croatian Catholic dictatorships, therefore, are the most striking examples of how the spirit of Catholicism can stultify the most diverse political systems and cultures with the bacillae of intolerance.
It cannot be otherwise. Since her claims to uniqueness and hence to religious supremacy will be identified with those who are ready to accept them as basic truths upon which the fabric of society must rest.
An Eskimo and a Central African or, in our case, a Croat and a South Vietnamese, therefore, notwithstanding all their racial and cultural differences, by the very fact that they are members of the same anti-libertarian Church, will automatically scorn democracy and abhor freedom.
The import of this is portentous. The implication being that the Catholic Church is potentially capable of carrying out the ghastly experiments of both Croatia and South Vietnam in other countries, independently of their political systems.
Which means that, given the favourable circumstances, she would not hesitate to repeat them anywhere in the world, wherever there are Catholics. And, since there are Catholics in practically every country, the risk of another Croatian or South Vietnamese "experiment" in the near or distant future, becomes not a theoretical speculation.
But a possibility.
In the case of Vietnam, the role played by the Catholic Church has been paramount. Not only during the conflict, but also during the agonizing period of its termination. It was then that the Vatican struck a deal with the Communists of the North, while the USA went on fighting. The Pope externalized the secret Vatican-North Vietnam deal by consecrating the WHOLE of Vietnamthat is the North and the South to the Virgin Mary. This was years before the war had even ended. Details of the secretive Vatican-Communist operations can be assessed in the work of the present author Vietnam, Why Did We Go?
The consecration of the United Communist Vietnam was done by good Pope John XXIII, and seconded by Pope Paul VI. A religious move, which had indicated on which side the Vatican had sided, when the USA had began to lose the war.
1. Vietnam, Why Did We Go?, Published by the Reformation Online.[Back]
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