To the Vatican, Vietnam was another exercise for the planting of Catholic authoritarianism in an alien land against the wishes of the majority of the population. The Vatican is a master at using political and military opportunities to further its own religious policies, which ultimately means the expansion of the Catholic Church which it represents. To promote such policies, as a rule she will use individuals who are genuinely religious to further her religious and political operations.
The case of Diem is a classic example. The Vatican supported Diem, because he was a genuine Catholic, the U.S. supported him because he was a genuine anti-Communist. At this time, since the policy of the Catholic Church was totally anti-Communist, it followed that a genuine Catholic would follow his Church and be as genuinely anti-Communist as she was.
To the U.S. Secretary of State and to the Vatican, therefore, the religious genuineness and asceticism of Diem 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 CIA with intimate links to the Catholic lobby in Washington and certain cardinals in the U.S. and consequently in perfect accord with the Vatican, had decided to have a staunch Catholic in South Vietnam.
It must be remembered that this was the period when the Cold War was at its worst. 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 U.S. Asian policy. As we have just seen, the religious issue was eventually to stultify the whole grand American strategic pattern there.
Two Catholic presidents, Diem and Kennedy, had become the heads of two nations so intimately involved in a most controversial war. From the Vatican's point of view and the promotion of its plans in Asia were concerned, this had unlimited possibilities. 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 countries 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 U.S. 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. But it is often the case with Catholics in authority that whenever the circumstances permit and there is no restriction by either constitutional clauses or other checks, they tend to conduct 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 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 U.S., 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, it was the religious factor which obscured the political and military vision of President Diem, and led him to disaster. Only twenty years before, in Europe, another Catholic, Ante Pavelich, had created the Catholic state of Croatia in which the Catholic Church ruled supreme to the exclusion of any other religion. Like Diem, Pavelich had justified Catholic totalitarianism on the ground that a Catholic dictatorship was the best defense against communism.
Ante Pavelic, the inspirer, creator and leader of the independent Catholic state of Croatia. He employed terrorism, political extremism and religious fanaticism with such ruthlessness as to outsmart even his two main Fascist protectors, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. He was the brain behind the assassination of King Alexander and other political murders which preceded the disintegration of Yugoslavia and thus the erection of his super-Nazi, super-Catholic independent Ustashi Croatia. He enjoyed the protection of Pope Pius XII, who helped him via diplomatic and monetary means to achieve his ultimate objective. When Ustashi Croatia collapsed, Pavelich hid in the Vatican, then, disguised as a monk, fled to Argentina.
According to such a concept that entitled him to launch not only the persecution of anyone or of anything who was not Catholic, in his case the Orthodox Church, but also the extermination of more than 600,000 men, women and childrenone of the most horrific deeds of World War II.
In Asia, the situation being diverse and the political and military backgrounds being supervised by a mighty power, the U.S., such excesses were not permitted. Yet the preliminaries of religious persecution and concentration camps were indicative of what might have happened had not world opinion and the restrictive influence of the U.S. not intervened. The religious and political ambitions of the two Catholic dictators and their relationship with the Catholic Church, however, run parallel. Thus, whereas the political and military machinery controlled by 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 Pavelich had pursued three objectives simultaneously: (1) the annihilation of a political enemy, i.e. communism; (2) the justification for the annihilation of an enemy church, i.e. the Orthodox Church in the case of Pavelich and Buddhism in the case of Diem; (3) the installation of Catholic religious and political tyranny in each country.
Notwithstanding the different circumstances and geographical and cultural backgrounds, the pattern of 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 interest 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 not only the vast majority of South Vietnamese masses, but even more dangerous the greatest bulk of the South Vietnamese army, who on the whole had supported him politically. It was this, the potential and factual endangering of the anti-Communist front upon which Diem's policy had stood, that finally set into motion the U.S. military intervention, with all the disastrous results which were to follow.
Although Diem remained as the U.S. political protégé, by pursuing a policy inspired by his own personal religious zeal, and by disregarding certain diplomatic and political interests interconnected with the general military strategy of the U.S., he had endangered a whole policy in Southeast Asia. This became even more obvious, not only because of the exceptional restlessness which he provoked throughout the country, but above all, because his religious persecutions had seriously imperiled the effectiveness of the army.
It must be remembered that the vast majority of the South Vietnamese troops were made up of Buddhists. Many of these, upon seeing their religion persecuted, their monks arrested, their relatives in camps, had become despondent, and indeed, mutinous. There were increasing cases of absenteeism, desertions, and even rebellions. The overall result of this was not so much that the religious war was incapacitating the Diem's regime itself, but even worse, that the military calculations of the U.S. were being seriously imperiled. The whole issue, at this juncture, had become even more tragic, because in the meantime the U.S., had elected her first Catholic president, and even more so, because on the personal level, Kennedy himself, before reaching the White House, had been a consistent supporter of Catholic Diem. Indeed he had been one of the most influential members of the Catholic lobby which had steered the U.S. towards the Vietnam War.
As the domestic and military situation inside South Vietnam went from bad to worse, the manipulators of Southeast Asia made it clear to him with the full support of the military authorities on the spot that something drastic had to be done to prevent the total disintegration of the South Vietnamese army. The mounting tension with Soviet Russia and Red China made a move from Washington imperative and urgent, since further internal and military deterioration might provoke the whole of the anti-Communist front to collapse from inside. The pressure became irresistible and the first ominous steps were taken. Subsidies to the Vietnam Special Forces were suspended. Secret directives were given to various branches closely connected with the inner links between the U.S. and the Diem regime. Finally, on October 4th, 1963, John Richardson, the head of the CIA in Vietnam was abruptly dismissed and recalled to Washington. Certain individuals understood that they were given a free hand for a coup against Diem.
A coup was successfully engineered, President Diem and his brother, the hated head of the secret police had to run for their lives. They were discovered by rebel troops hiding in a small Catholic Church. Having been arrested, they were placed in a motor vehicle as state prisoners. Upon arrival at their destinationboth Diem and his brother had been shot to death. Their bodies were laid at St. Joseph's Hospital only a few hundred yards away from the Xa Pagoda, the center of the Buddhist resistance to the Diem denominational persecution.
Twenty days after the assassination of Diem, the first Catholic president of South Vietnam, the first Catholic president of the U.S., John F. Kennedy, was himself assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Why, and by whom has remained a secret ever since.
After the collapse of President Diem's dictatorship, the U.S. involvement in the war of Vietnam was to last another ten long years, from 1963 to 1973.
The mutilated bodies of President Diem and his brother Ngo after their assassination by Buddhist officers November 2, 1963.
Assassination of President Kennedy in Dalles, Texas, November 22, 1963.
On April, 1975, Saigon the capital of South Vietnam fell to the Communists. The following year on June 24, 1976, the first session of the Vietnamese National Assembly opened in Hanoi in the North. On July 2, 1976, North and South declared themselves reunited, thus ending 20 years of separation. Their new flag, a five pointed yellow star on a red background, became the symbol of the new nation, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It had cost the Vietnamese people hundreds of thousands of wounded and dead, the devastation of their country and immense human misery. It had cost the U.S. billions and billions of dollars, domestic and external bitterness, the participation of more than 5.5 million American men with the loss of more than 58,000 young American lives.
1. The person alleged to have killled him was one Major Nguyen Van Nhung, who was killed himself January 31, 1965.[Back]
2. The U.S. gave up direct involement in Vietnam in January, 1973. Then Congress, despite pledges of support, drastically cut military aid to South Vietnam - while the Soviet Union doubled its support. South Vietnam crumbled in April, 1975.[Back]
3. U.S. News and World Report, October 10, 1983.[Back]
Return to Contents