Nearly sixty years after a Vietnamese Buddhist monk set himself on fire in Saigon, we have largely forgotten the reason. It was not the US invasion, but an oppressive Roman Catholic regime that precipitated what came to be called the Buddhist crisis.

It's time for the Catholic Church to acknowledge its active hand in that disaster and the war that followed.

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Most of what we hear about Vietnam in the West involves how awful it was for American soldiers. 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, and more than 100,000 American soldiers killed themselves when they returned. This is dwarfed by the millions of Vietnamese whose deaths attract little attention.  

Second-generation Vietnamese friends of mine often struggle to pinpoint the exact cause of the US invasion. They are not alone. At best, our understanding of the modern history of Vietnam is simplified to a four-point timeline: Chinese occupation, French occupation, US invasion, communism.

The time between the French occupation and the US invasion was occupied by the premiership of Ngô Đình Diệm, a time characterized by the public and secret projects of US intelligence and military agencies, in collusion with the Catholic Church, to control the country.

Passage to freedom

In 1954, the communist Viet Minh chased the French colonial forces out of Northern Vietnam. The removal of colonial occupiers in any country usually causes political instability and a power vacuum. Vietnam was no exception. 

That same year, the Geneva Conference was convened with all stakeholders to discuss the future of Vietnam. Diệm, representing South Vietnam, supported by the US and the Vatican, rejected a general election. Everything that happened during the following decades was fallout from that rejection of democracy.

A “Catholic coalition” in Washington DC (led by Archbishop of New York Cardinal Spellman, and including Joseph Kennedy) convinced CIA operatives (led by Edward Lansdale) to support Diệm (after a blatantly fraudulent referendum) as president of South Vietnam. Diệm, whose brother was an archbishop, had considered a life in the priesthood before politics. He was staunchly Catholic, and following the Catholic line at the time, virulently anti-communist. 

Everything that happened during the following decades was fallout from that rejection of democracy.

Diệm was part of a long and ongoing tradition of dictators who oppressed large sections of his own people but still managed to attract massive American support due to a pathological anti-communist stance. In the mid-1950s, roughly 10% of the population was Roman Catholic and around 80% was Buddhist.

In his 1988 book A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan describes the CIA launching “a black propaganda campaign” to spread panic among Northern Vietnamese Catholics. This propaganda included forged government information leaflets threatening all sorts of horrors at the hands of the communists. Priests colluded with the CIA agents as they instructed parishioners that “the Blessed Virgin had gone south” and to follow her. The broader effort to populate South Vietnam with radicalized Catholics to act as a power base for Diệm was called Operation Passage to Freedom.

Setting yourself on fire

Most of us will be familiar with the image of Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, lighting himself on fire in Saigon in 1963 while in a meditation pose. Less well-known is that he was protesting not the American invasion, as many seem to believe, but the oppressive Roman Catholic regime.

Quảng Đức was not an isolated actor. He had broad support in Saigon’s Buddhist community. Diệm had ensured that US aid, access to public services, and even food were available to Catholics only. Buddhists were ignored or actively oppressed. 

Diệm had made sure that US aid, access to public services, and even food were available to Catholics only. Buddhists were ignored or actively oppressed. 

In his book American Reckoning, Christian Appy describes a presidential order issued by Diệm in 1956 that allowed security forces to put anyone they didn’t like the look of into “a concentration camp.” Many Buddhists were arrested for no reason other than their religion. 500,000 people were sent to these camps and 80,000 were executed. 

This is the atmosphere in which Thích Quảng Đức felt so passionately about the rights of Buddhists that he set himself on fire. It was a period of Buddhist oppression that led to the downfall of the Diệm government and ran straight into the more overt Vietnam War. 

Credit: Malcolm Browne – Public domain

When the Americans realized they had lost control of Diệm, the CIA arranged a coup.  On 1 November 1963, CIA-supported operatives assassinated Diệm and his brother.

The perfect storm of anticommunism

Catholics in America were for years regarded by established Americans as de facto working-class laborers, arriving mainly from poor countries. The wealthy Protestants treated Catholics as under suspicion of dual loyalties (to the pope and the United States). The accusation of divided loyalties also formed a basis for global antisemitism.

In his book How The Irish Became White, Noel Ignatiev describes 19th-century Irish Catholic immigrants to the US, hoping to achieve social mobility, adopting the behaviors and attitudes of Protestant American elites.

By 1899, Pope Leo XIII in his Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae felt he had to directly attack “Americanism”. He was referring to the tendency of American Catholics to become more Protestant in the nascent pluralist superpower.

Much later, perhaps because of his abject failure to confront fascism in any meaningful way, Pope Pius XII declared holy war on communism. In 1949, he excommunicated all communists by decree. American Catholics finally found their American hearts.

This commitment led very quickly to an acceptance of Catholics into mainstream US society on their own terms rather than as ersatz Protestants. The new zeal was perhaps most exemplified by Senator Joseph McCarthy, an Irish-American Roman Catholic, whose rabid anticommunist senate hearings have become legendary.

Anticommunism was parsed by American Catholics as “anti-atheism” and by American elites as “pro-capitalism and therefore pro-freedom”. Catholics welcomed the opportunity to fully demonstrate their “Americanness” without compromising their “Catholicness”. When Catholic power in Vietnam was threatened, the American Catholics were ready.

Panicky meetings

In 1960, Irish-American John F. Kennedy was elected the first Roman Catholic president of the US. In 1961, Kennedy authorized “a program for covert actions” to be carried out by the CIA in Vietnam. This was nothing more than a rubberstamp of existing operations.

From 1962 to 1965, a series of panicky meetings about the future of the Catholic Church were held in the Vatican. These meetings, collectively known as the Second Vatican Council, were held because of the attenuation of Roman Catholic power globally. Some of the decisions of the council included a commitment to interfaith dialogue and recommending crowd-facing vernacular services.

In 1965, Pope Paul VI became the first pope to visit the United States. During this visit, he spoke strongly against military intervention in Vietnam at the United Nations. However, his words did not match his actions. Soon afterward, he was presented with a chance to get rid of the most hawkish Catholic cleric in America. When Cardinal Spellman offered to resign, the pope “asked him to carry on”. 

Mainstream Catholics started turning against the war along with everyone else after the Tet Offensive in 1968. As is a longstanding Roman Catholic tradition, this change of outlook happened years after it might have actually done some good.

After the war

The US were chased out of Vietnam in 1974. Most Vietnamese Americans are representative of those who (willingly or unwillingly) left Vietnam during this time.

A year later, over 3,000 children were secretly evacuated for ideological reasons from Vietnam. Operation Babylift, organized in cooperation with Catholic adoption organizations, would result in the deaths of many children who had been temporarily housed in Roman Catholic orphanages.

This was not their first rodeo. From 1960 to 1962, Operation Peter Pan removed thousands of children from Cuba to the United States. In both child-smuggling operations, the CIA had spread propaganda about the horrors awaiting these children under communist rule. 

Catholicism and modern Vietnam

Sixty years after the Geneva Conference, some of my Vietnamese-American friends had never even heard of Diệm. On visiting family in Vietnam, they were shocked to discover that it’s a perfectly normal, functional country. This was in direct opposition to everything they learned from their parents, their social network and their media choices. Even non-Vietnamese Americans are choosing to retire to Vietnam because of their “decent standard of living”.

In December 2007, thousands of Vietnamese Catholics marched in procession to the former apostolic nunciature in Hanoi aiming to return the property to the local church. The Buddhists also expressed a claim as the nunciature was built by the French on “one of the most important heritage sites of Vietnamese Buddhism”. 

The building was confiscated by the French authorities during their occupation of Vietnam and given to Vatican. It was the residence of the Vatican ambassador before the government took it back from the Catholic Church in 1959.

In early 2008, after mass protests, the government promised to regift the building to the Catholic Church. But in September 2008, the authorities changed their position and decided to demolish the building to create a public park.

As of April 2022, Vietnam and the Vatican are still in talks to install a permanent Vatican delegation in Vietnam.

Barry Purcell lives in Ireland and writes about religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and language for a variety of paper and online publications. He has been involved in campaigns to counteract the...

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