Saturday, January 22, 2011

A "Buddhist Barbecue": The Unraveling of a Dictatorship

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe the collapse of the Diem dictatorship in South Vietnam in 1963 and the American involvement in his overthrow.

The domino theory that dominated the thinking of the American government in the Cold War presumed that political ideas like communism spread like viruses. The American military sought to quarantine Vietnamese peasants from radical political thought. Using a plan drawn up by British military advisor Robert Thompson, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu for years had advocated the construction of so-called “strategic hamlets.” Under this plan, the American and South Vietnamese, beginning in 1962, sought to prevent Vietcong contact with peasants, a major source of support for the guerillas. Once placed inside these hamlets, the peasants living there could hold village elections giving at least the semblance of political empowerment to the countryside farmers. Inside the hamlets, the peasants would also enjoy access to schools and medicine.

Theoretically, the hamlets offered poor farmers a better life than they could enjoy under communist domination. Dependent on peasants for food and shelter, guerilla fighters for the communist National Liberation Front, called the Vietcong or the VC by the Americans, would be cut off from life support by the stockade fences surrounding the strategic hamlets. Roger Hilsman, a Kennedy advisor, urged the implementation of the program, which he hoped would reduce the Vietcong to “hungry, marauding bands of outlaws devoting all of their energies to remaining alive.”

The military tried to persuade poor farmers to voluntarily move into the villages and, if that failed, to force them at gunpoint. Soldiers posted at the hamlets monitored and inspected all entered the village compound. The South Vietnamese government later fraudulently proclaimed that more than 4 million people, about a third of the population, had been successfully relocated. In reality, only 10 percent of the hamlets provided any security from VC penetration. The hamlets failed in their most important objective: isolating peasants from contact with the Vietcong. Old men armed with swords and flintlock rifles often provided the so-called security. In most cases, the VC entered and exited hamlets at will and collected money, intelligence and food from the residents.

The South Vietnamese government forced the hamlet farmers to pay for construction of their new homes and for the fences surrounding the artificial villages even though the U.S. government already had paid for these materials. South Vietnamese officials also stole supplies such as American-provided food and seeds. Strict curfews hampered peasants’ attempts to farm. Meanwhile, those living in the hamlets faced arbitrary searches, detention and demands for bribes. The chief impact of the program was to inspire a backlash against the Diem government.

Meanwhile, a major defeat of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (or ARVN) by the Vietcong in the Battle of Ap Bac on January 2, 1963 alarmed Diem’s supporters in Washington. During the battle, South Vietnamese troops refused to follow orders to attack, even as the commander of an ARVN armored unit would not budge when told to rescue 11 Americans grounded after their helicopter crashed. ''These people (the Vietnamese) won't listen,” one American military advisor complained bitterly. “They make the same mistakes over and over again in the same way.''


No group felt more alienated under President Diem than South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority. In government appointments, Diem heavily favored fellow Catholics, and the president frequently directed his police to throw their weight around during the springtime buildup to the Buddha’s birthday, May 8. The waves of arrests would show “the VC that the Government was strong and make opponents of the Government afraid,” said a South Vietnamese Catholic priest. Leading up to May 8, 1963, secret police launched a crackdown in the old capital city of Hué against Buddhists who had begun speaking out against Diem’s policies.

Diem decided to mark the Buddha’s 2,527th birthday by harshly enforcing a law banning the display of any flags other than that of the Republic of South Vietnam. Recently, the central government had ordered the widespread display in Hué of Vatican flags in honor of Diem’s brother, Archbishop Ngo Dinh Tuc. The hypocrisy outraged the local population, and many flew Buddhist banners from their homes. Nine Buddhists celebrating the birthday died when fired upon by South Vietnamese troops. Ten thousand Buddhists marched two days later to protest the killings, and Diem responded in a typically hamfisted way, ordering the mass arrests of outspoken Buddhist monks and their backers. Labeling such monks as communists, Diem placed guards around the most important pagodas in the country.

The Buddhist clergy captured world attention on June 11, 1963. On that day, a monk named Thich Quang Duc exited a car and sat in the lotus pose at a busy Saigon intersection in front of the Cambodian embassy. Other monks chanted while two doused the 66-year-old with gasoline. Quang Duc lit a match and burned to death while a man with a microphone declared, “A Buddhist priest burns himself to death. A Buddhist priest becomes a martyr.” Only his heart remained unburned, and this became a sacred relic and symbol of the rightness of the Buddhist protests against Diem.

As the shocking images of this public suicide reached the United States, for the first time Americans realized how deep the opposition to Diem ran and how badly they had been misled by the Kennedy administration about Vietnamese support for American policies. No moment better captured the growing distance between Diem’s inner circle and the South Vietnamese population than the reaction of the president’s sister-in-law, Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, to the death of Quang Duc, widely considered a saintly hero. Nhu contemptuously said she would “clap hands at seeing another Buddhist barbecue show.” The monk’s death sparked a summer of demonstrations at public schools and colleges, and five more Buddhists set themselves ablaze by the end of October 1963.

President Kennedy realized the United States had become too close to Diem. He replaced the American ambassador to South Vietnam, Frederick Nolting, who had a close friendship with Diem, with Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican whose appointment would make American policy in Southeast Asia a bipartisan affair. Kennedy also sent Diem a clear message that he wanted Nhu removed from the government and his despised wife out of the public picture. The administration believed that it “was Ngo Dinh Nhu who had alienated the country and oppressed the Buddhists,” according to historian Marilyn B. Young. “If only Diem would only rid his top governing councils of Nhu and his wife, the country would rally to his support. Blaming Nhu exempted the rest of American policy from close examination, and Nhu was such a convincing villain.”

Nhu remained in the government, and in August, instead of building bridges to the Buddhists, Nhu dispatched a private military force disguised as regular ARVN units to arrest popular Buddhist clergy and attack pagodas. (Nhu hoped the public would blame the attacks on ARVN commanders, who he increasingly thought were disloyal to the regime.) Even Madame Nhu’s mother and father, the South Vietnamese United Nations observer and the ambassador to Washington respectively, resigned in protest against the Buddhist crackdown.

In August Kennedy ordered a reduction of American aid to Diem. By September, Nhu and his brother had completely outlived their usefulness to the administration. Nhu sent word to North Vietnam's communist leader Ho Chi Minh that the Diem government was interested in negotiating a possible ceasefire with Hanoi, directly contradicting the U.S. position. Lodge and other Kennedy officials signaled to top South Vietnamese generals that they would not object to a military overthrow of President Diem.


In September, Kennedy gave a television interview to CBS News in which he signaled his growing dissatisfaction with Diem. “In the final analysis, it’s their war,” he said. “They’re the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them as advisors but they have to win it.” By the fall of 1963, the most respected military officer in South Vietnam, General Duong Van Minh, had requested a meeting with Lou Conein, a CIA operative. Minh, whose troops were mostly Buddhist and hated Diem and the Nhus, told Conein that the war was being lost and would be hopeless unless there was a change in the South Vietnamese leadership.
Minh didn’t want or expect American help with a coup d’etat. He just wanted to make sure the United States wouldn’t interfere and attempt to prevent it.

Minh mentioned three possible courses of action: the assassination of both Diem and Nhu; the encirclement of Saigon by participating ARVN troops until Diem and his brother were forced to back down; or open civil war between ARVN units loyal to Diem and those opposed. Conein told Minh the U.S. government could not approve any specific plan, but that he would ask his superiors about the administration’s general attitude toward a military takeover.

Kennedy fretted that American involvement in the coup might wind up in another Bay of Pigs-style disaster. Ambassador Lodge advocated giving passive American approval to a coup. “Lodge felt that all the charges against the Ngo family were true, that Nhu could not be separated from Diem, that the war was being lost, that since there was going to be a coup anyway, the U.S. position should be to neither encourage it (except perhaps slightly, by not discouraging it) nor thwart it,” journalist David Halberstam later reported. Lodge reassured the administration, characterizing the plot as a “promising coup d'état.”

South Vietnamese officers formulated three different overthrow plots during October 1963. At the same time Nhu, picking up clues of the plotting, hatched his own complicated scheme in which the regime would schedule military exercises in early November. During the exercise, units personally loyal to the regime would arrest disloyal officers and make another ferocious crackdown on Buddhists and other potential traitors. Meanwhile, Diem and Nhu frittered away the little support they still had as November approached, turning from mass arrests of Buddhists to repression of protesting college and high school students. Vietnamese cells filled with political prisoners, and discontent boiled over.

Word reached Lodge and Kennedy officials in Washington that the coup would start on November 1. Shortly after 1 p.m. troops involved in the overthrow took over key control points in Saigon, such as the central police station and Saigon’s radio station where a rebel soldier proclaimed a revolution over the airwaves. Nhu at first thought the rebelling soldiers were loyal troops executing his counter-coup. When he finally figured out what was going on, he could count on the loyalty of only the palace guard.

Diem frantically called Lodge, who disingenuously told the American ally that he was unsure of the American government’s feelings about the coup. Seconds later, Lodge made the American viewpoint clear. “Now I am worried about your physical safety,” Lodge told Diem, never admitting he had been in contact with the plotters. “I have a report that those in charge of the current activity offer you and your brother safe conduct out of the country if you will resign . . . If I can do anything for your physical safety, please call me.”

Now aware that his American friends were complicit in the overthrow, Diem and Nhu fled to a Catholic Church where they were arrested and murdered on November 2 in the back of armored personnel carrier. After shooting both, soldiers vented their rage at Nhu, stabbing his body multiple times after his death. The new military junta wiped out most traces of the Diem government. “One day photographs and statues had been everywhere, but not just of Diem, but of his sister-in-law as well, a personality cult,” Halberstam said.

"The next day it was all gone, the statues smashed, the posters ripped through, his likeness left only on the one-piastre coin. In the streets, the population mobbed the generals and garlanded the troops with flowers . . . When Lodge himself walked through the streets, he was cheered like a presidential candidate. For the Americans it was a high moment, yet it would soon be followed by darkness; the reality of how bad the war was going would now come home as the death of Diem opened the floodgates of reporting and allowed officers to tell the truth."

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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