Reasonable people have different opinions about the date on which the Vietnam War began, at least from the American standpoint. My pick is October 24, 1961, exactly 50 years ago tomorrow. That’s the day on which President Kennedy wrote to South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem that “the United States is determined to help Vietnam preserve its independence ... to prevent a Communist takeover of Vietnam.” There were already a handful of American advisers there, but Kennedy ordered in troops – more than 16,000 of them – including helicopter units to ferry Vietnamese soldiers into battle, thus involving Americans themselves in the fighting.
Nearly 400 Americans died in Vietnam during the Kennedy years – more, for example, than during the first war against Iraq. What isn’t well understood is the central role that religion played in the Vietnam War, a war that ultimately cost 58,000 American lives and ten times that many Vietnamese lives.
Vietnam presents the classic colonial example of the flag following the cross. French Jesuits began proselytizing there in the 17th century, claiming 6,000 converts by 1630. One of these Jesuits developed the alphabet used in written Vietnamese today. By the late 18th century, French missionaries were deeply involved in Vietnamese politics, which often spilled over into bloodshed; naturally, they called in armed help from back home to shore up their party’s position. In 1833, an army commanded by a Catholic priest kicked off a revolt that took three years to suppress.
Just as naturally, the large majority of non-Catholic Vietnamese resented outside interference, and took occasional delight in murdering Catholic missionaries. The French government, anxious to throw its weight around under Emperor Napoleon III, began its campaign to bring all of Indochina under the colonial yoke in 1858; after 25 years of close cooperation with the Catholic minority, it finally succeeded. French rule was Catholic rule; for any young Vietnamese anxious for a government job, step number one was to convert to Catholicism.
The Japanese overran Vietnam with little difficulty in World War II; when they departed in 1945, the Viet Minh resistance group, led by Ho Chi Minh, declared independence and quickly established de facto control over the country. The Viet Minh was an umbrella organization that included both Communists (such as Ho) as well as decidedly non-Communist Catholics. Ho even named a Catholic bishop as one of his “supreme advisors.”
The Vatican, though, had for decades maintained an adamant stance against all cooperation with Godless communists. A Church that had vigorously supported the rise to power of Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco precisely because of their militant anticommunism was not about to play nicely with the likes of Ho Chi Minh. Moreover, the wounded pride of the French government after the ignominy of 1940 disinclined it to surrender an inch of former colonial territory. Once again, the Church worked hand in glove with the military to back up minority Catholic control over Vietnam, but this time the outcome was different, when the French suffered a decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
Results on the battlefield led to the political settlement of the 1954 Geneva Accords. The French agreed to withdraw completely, leaving the northern zone of the country under the temporary administrative control of the Viet Minh and the southern zone under the nominal control of the French puppet emperor, Bao Dai. Elections would then be held in 1956 for a unified national government. Simple enough – except for the fact that the Catholics, numbering less than 10% of the population, had not the remotest chance of maintaining a stranglehold on any government freely elected by the Vietnamese people.
New York’s Cardinal Spellman, at the time perhaps the most powerful Catholic in the world, immediately went on a rampage against the Geneva outcome. He warned the assembled thousands at that year’s American Legion convention:
If Geneva and what was agreed upon there means anything at all, it means that the trumpet which we heard over the fallen garrison at Dien Bien Phu last May sounded taps and not reveille. Taps for the buried hopes of freedom in Southeast Asia! Now the devilish techniques of brainwashing, forced confessions, and rigged trials have a new locale for their exercise. ... We shall risk bartering our liberties for lunacies, betraying the sacred trust of our forefathers, becoming serfs and slaves to the Red ruler’s godless goons.Working closely with a lobbying group that included a young Catholic Senator named John Kennedy, Spellman persuaded Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to secure the installation of one of his protégés, Ngo Dinh Diem, as the emperor’s prime minister. Diem had been a minor official under the French administration; his bigger claim to fame was that his older brother was the Bishop of Hue, who had studied with Spellman in Rome during the 1930s. Ho had offered Diem a position in his government, but was turned down; instead, Diem headed for New York, where he lived in a monastery while Spellman pulled strings on his behalf.
Upon his return to Vietnam, the largely unknown Diem quickly bit the hand that fed him, deposing Bao Dai and proclaiming a republic. Far more significant, though, was the massive Catholic and American propaganda blitz that led to the exodus of over half a million Catholics from the Viet Minh sector to the south.
From a Catholic standpoint, the partition of Vietnam was upside down. The French capital had been at Hanoi, in the north, so that’s where the Catholic minority was concentrated. There were very few Catholics in the southern sector handed to Diem. Thus there ensued a psychological warfare campaign to whip up enough hysteria to drive Catholics away from their ancestral homes so that Diem could have a bigger power base. Leaflets were dropped from planes, proclaiming that “Christ has gone to the South” and “The Virgin Mary has departed from the North.” Enormous posters sprang up in Hanoi and Haiphong showing evil communists closing a cathedral and forcing the congregation to pray to a picture of Ho Chi Minh; the caption read “Make your choice.” Rumors spread that America was planning to incinerate the north with atomic bombs. Along with the sticks came the carrots: Catholics would run the show in the south, just like in the good old days under French rule. Each Catholic who made the trek was given a cash grant greater than the average per capita income to help set up a new life in the south. More effective than the printed propaganda was the one-on-one persuasion of individual priests; in many cases, entire Catholic villages chose either to flee or to remain as a unit. The American Seventh Fleet deployed 41 vessels to assist in the evacuation.
Still, around half of the north’s Catholics decided not to follow Christ to the south. What happened to them? And how did Diem’s religious policy result in the American military campaign launched 50 years ago tomorrow? Tune in next week for another exciting episode.