by Luis Granados
Last week we saw how a massive Catholic propaganda campaign induced approximately half of northern Vietnam’s Catholics to flee to the south. What happened to those who stayed behind? Were they exterminated? Tortured? Imprisoned? Forced to worship Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh? Terrorized into abandoning their traditional modes of worship? Forced to pray and take their sacraments in secret?
The correct answer is, none of the above. They were left alone to pray, attend Mass, and receive sacraments in the same manner as any Catholic in Boston or Rome. One problem they did face was a shortage of priests, since so many clergy had obeyed the command from on high by heading south. So the North Vietnamese government reopened seminaries to train priests to satisfy the demand.
Ordinary Catholics didn’t suffer, but the same cannot be said for the Church as an institution. Under French rule, the Catholic Church had been by far the largest landowner in Vietnam. The Viet Minh ended that status pretty quickly, forcing priests to survive on contributions from their flocks. Catholic status had also been the key to bureaucratic advancement under the colonial regime; that pattern ended pretty quickly as well. While memories of the war for independence were fresh, Catholic status was undoubtedly a negative for those seeking positions in the new government – though not an insurmountable one – and the former deference to the views of the Church in carrying out the functions of government virtually disappeared. Thus, it was the prospective loss of money and political status that caused the hierarchy to trigger the exodus to the south.
Which was not a bad move, at least in the short run. Ngo Dinh Diem ran a South Vietnamese government of the Catholics, by the Catholics, for the Catholics. Before the division of the country by the Geneva Accord, the Viet Minh had redistributed Church-controlled land to the farmers who worked it. When Diem took power in the south, he not only restored the land to the Church, he charged the farmers back rent for the period when they controlled it. He filled the army officer corps almost exclusively with Catholics, especially those who had left the north. Those seeking advancement within the army saw the writing on the wall and converted to Catholicism – Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam’s future president, among them.
The 1954 Geneva Accords did not contemplate a permanent division of Vietnam, but simply temporary zones of control until a national election could be held. The Catholics who ran the South Vietnamese government knew they had zero chance of winning such an election, so none was ever held. Instead, they held an election only in the south, and falsified the results to produce an impressive 98.2% of the vote in favor of Diem. A miracle! Legislative elections were held in 1959, and Diem’s most prominent non-communist critic, Phan Quang Dan, won his district by a 6:1 margin. The South Vietnamese police solved that problem by slapping him in jail before he could take his seat.
The real power behind Diem was his older brother, the Catholic Bishop of Hue, who lived with Diem in the Presidential Palace in Saigon, hundreds of miles from his diocese. From there, he used the power of the government to acquire rubber plantations and urban real estate for the Catholic Church, while assigning soldiers to work on his timber and construction projects. Diem’s other brother ran the secret police, which was convenient because it facilitated his numbers and protection racket operations.
All this was cozy, but it created distress among South Vietnam’s much larger God expert contingent, the Buddhist monks. Peace-loving Buddhists had been active in the war against the French, even raising their own private armies to murder Europeans in the Mekong Delta. When American money installed a Catholic regime instead, they were deeply resentful, and launched a campaign of armed resistance. Diem persuaded his American backers that the Buddhists were communists, and received massive aid to help put them down. One useful technique was concentration camps, where thousands of Buddhists were penned up until they learned to obey their Catholic betters.
[Still, Buddhist resentment lingered; rather than co-opt them by bringing them into a big-tent government, Diem and his family used every means at their disposal to humiliate and belittle the Buddhist leadership. A boiling point was reached in May, 1963, when Catholics were allowed to fly the Vatican flag over public buildings in honor of Diem’s archbishop brother. A week later, Buddhists asked permission to fly a Buddhist flag on the Buddha’s birthday, but were turned down. An outraged Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc decided to protest this injustice by dousing himself with gasoline and burning himself to death as television cameras rolled. Rioting broke out, and Diem responded by sending in troops to smash pagodas, desecrate Duc’s remains, and throw some 1400 Buddhist monks behind bars.
Diem’s sister-in-law, the flamboyant Madame Nhu, laughed that “If the Buddhists want to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline.” In America, though, people weren’t laughing; people were starting to question why we were spending so much money and losing hundreds of lives to defend what appeared to be one of the most outrageously repressive regimes on the planet. Just as importantly, the largely Buddhist rank and file of the South Vietnamese army was beginning to question why they were risking their necks for the benefit of a tiny-minority Catholic dictatorship. Their Catholic officers, sensing the disaffection, placed themselves in front of the mob by leading a successful coup against Diem in November, with the on-again off-again acquiescence of the American embassy. The quotable Madame Nhu, whose husband was murdered along with Diem, asked: “With friends like the United States, who needs enemies?”
From the standpoint of Hanoi, the Catholic government was the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, basically doing everything it could to drive the population into the arms of the rebels the north was supporting. Even more importantly, when Moscow scanned the world scene, Vietnam jumped out as the ripest target for embarrassing Uncle Sam; sophisticated Russian arms began to pour in. Within a year, the north was on the verge of victory, and the leader of the free world had to decide whether to accept a defeat or to honor the commitment President Kennedy had made, exactly 50 years ago last Monday. Reasonable people disagree, pretty strenuously, about the wisdom of what followed: there certainly is a value to keeping a nation’s commitments, and there is at least some plausibility to the argument that South Vietnam might have survived had not American aid been cut off in 1974. The most avoidable mistake in Vietnam was made much earlier than 1974, though; earlier than the Tonkin Gulf resolution, and earlier than the Kennedy commitment of October 24, 1961. The avoidable mistake was listening to Cardinal Spellman and the Catholic lobby back in 1954, and aligning with a religious group outspokenly intent on maintaining its own privileged position, rather than with humanists trying to deal with problems without reference to the will of God. The same mistake we’ve been making in Afghanistan for the past ten years.