Chapter 20

The Two Catholic Presidents and a Revolutionary Pope

The role played by Cardinal Spellman in the consolidation of the Vatican-U.S. partnership should not be underestimated. Without his acting as the privileged ambassador of the Dulles brothers to the Pope, and visa-versa, the special relationship of the U.S. with the Vatican would never have developed. Thanks to Spellman, Dulles was able to forge a semi-secretive link with the Vatican and bypass the official vigilance of the State Department including his statutory reporting to the President and his advisors.

General Eisenhower, essentially a military man, credited any alliance not backed by the big battalions as unimportant. Thus he had convinced himself that the role of a church in the anti-Communist campaign was minimal, whether represented by the Vatican or not. The Dulles brothers did nothing to discourage this belief since it gave them a free hand to pursue their own ideological crusades and strategic schemes which they had already set in motion.

Spellman, the man with one foot on Capitol Hill and another in St. Peter's at Rome, and with a finger in most of the problems relating to the Dulles brothers and the Pope, became indispensable to both in operating the Vatican-U.S. Alliance.

Besides his value in promoting Catholic interests in the domestic fields, he was a kind of genius in his own right in most other areas such as high finance. Besides making his own archdiocese the richest in the U.S., he helped to solve certain financial problems for the Vatican itself.[1] But Spellman was at his best in political, national, and international matters. There his diplomatic intrigues became proverbial.

Endowed with the personal protection of the Pope and that of the Secretary of State, his power of persuasion on behalf of their joint policies became almost irresistible in the most influential circles of the U.S. These included diplomatic, financial, and political ones as well as the mass media. Because of this broad influence, Spellman acted very much like an American Pope. Indeed his archdiocese was nicknamed the little Vatican of New York.

To add weight to his sponsorship of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, Spellman eventually was nominated Vicar of the American Armed Forces, and became a frequent visitor—carried in U.S. military jets—to the Vietnamese battle fields. When not inspecting the American soldiers, whom he called the Soldiers of Christ, he moved in the political milieu in his role of an American ecclesiastic, diplomat, and official ambassador.

Spellman, as mentioned elsewhere, had been one of the earliest sponsors of the then unknown Vietnamese leader, Diem. From the very beginning when Diem went to seek American sponsorship in the U.S., Spellman persuaded many influential politicians, including Senator Kennedy the future President, to support Diem in preference to other candidates. He praised Diem for his honesty, integrity, religiosity, and above all for his dedication to anti-communism. It was this last quality which endeared Spellman's protégé to the State Department, which finally decided to opt for him.

When Pope Pius XII died in 1958, Cardinal Spellman's operations multiplied as did his lobbying on Capitol Hill. There rumors were heard about him becoming the first American Pope. Spellman never scotched the rumors, since he secretly entertained a long standing ambition to the papacy.[2] Indeed he confidently expected that the cardinals at the forthcoming Conclave would select him as the successor of Pius XII in recognition of his effective diplomatic anti-Communist efforts, which he had so successfully conducted on behalf of the deceased Pope and the State Department.

Spellman was a firm believer in the prophecies of St. Malachy, the 12th century Irish prophet, and had taken such prophecies about the papacy with the utmost seriousness. St. Malachy had characterized each Pope, from his days onwards, with a Latin tag indicating the basic characteristics of each pontificate. He had distinguished the successor to Pius XII as "Pastor et Nauta", Shepherd and Navigator.

During the Conclave of 1958, Spellman's papal ambitions became the talk of Rome, encapsulated in a current joke. Spellman, so the joke went, had hired a boat, filled it with sheep and sailed up and down the river Tiber in the belief that he was helping the fulfillment of the prophecy.

The result of the election was anything but what Cardinal Spellman had expected. Cardinal Roncalli, the Patriarch of Venice became the new Pope John XXIII (1958-63).The contrast between Pope Pius XII and Pope John XXIII could not have been more striking.[3] The partnership between Washington and the Vatican collapsed almost overnight. Cardinal Spellman was banished almost at once from the papal antechamber. No longer was he the welcome and frequent messenger from the two most ferocious

Pope John XXIII (1958-63), who reversed the anti-Communist policies of his predecessor, Pope Pius XII. He commenced dialogue with the Communists of Europe and signaled Soviet Russia that the Vatican would be ready to cooperate with her. He fathered the Vatican II Council and ecumenism. Although he did not disapprove of the Vietnam War, he scolded President Diem for persecuting the Buddhists because it threatened his new ecumenical policy of tolerance and cooperation with other religions. While not disavowing the U.S.-Vietnamese involvement, he secretly cooperated with the Communists in preparing a future united Marxist Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh.

anti-Communist Dulles brothers. His sudden banishment from the Vatican was such a personal blow to his inner pride that he never recovered from it for the rest of his life.

The State Department was no less shocked and worried at what might follow. The Vatican under Pope John had completely reversed its former policy. The U.S.-Vatican anti-Communist strategy had crashed in a matter of days. The result of such unexpected disaster was unpredictable and was bound to force the U.S. to reshape its own anti-Communist grand strategy from top to bottom.

While the U.S. was considering how to do so, two events of major importance had taken place in Vietnam and in the U.S. itself. In Vietnam Diem, thanks to his protectors, had become president and had begun to consolidate his regime with an able mixture of religious motivation and acts of political ruthlessness. In the U.S., Kennedy, Diem's former sponsor, had entered the White House as the first Catholic President in American history.

The hopes of Cardinal Spellman were partially and briefly revived.. His dream that a Catholic President would help to consolidate the Catholic presidency of Vietnam soon came to nothing. While Kennedy played a waiting game about what to do with his Catholic presidential counterpart in Vietnam, the latter had started to irk American public opinion with his repressive anti-Buddhist operations.

Kennedy, while succumbing to the Catholic lobby of the U.S. and to the arguments of Spellman, resisted their pressure to put all the weight of America behind the Catholic regime of Diem. The latter had not only alienated public opinion in Vietnam and created enmity with the Buddhist population, he had alienated also public opinion in America to a degree seldom experienced even there. The Buddhist monks' suicide by fire, had been too macabre and horrifying not to adversely influence U.S. public opinion against Catholic Diem.

Kennedy was too astute a politician to risk compromising his future career to support the religious idiosyncrasies of a fellow Catholic president and the silence of the Vatican. Ruthless politician that he was, he put his political career at home first, and the equivocal policies of his church, embodied by Diem, second. Kennedy's attitude chagrined Spellman, even though Kennedy, as a palliative to the cardinal, ordered 16,000 American troops into Vietnam; the first fateful step by the U.S. into the Vietnamese military bog. The expedition assuaged the most vocal sections of the Catholic lobby in the U.S., who saw it as a move in the right direction. By now however, the politics of the old U.S.-Vatican partnership had already radically changed.

Pope John XXIII had promptly begun to steer the church towards a "modus vivendi" with communism, with the ultimate objective of doing the same with Soviet Russia itself. His motto, contrary to that of Pius XII and the Dulles brothers, became no more a struggle against communism, but cooperation; not war, but understanding. While such papal policy was being put into effect, Diem continued to intensify his repression against the Buddhists of Vietnam with increasingly horrendous results.

Pope John while never openly condemning such persecutions, privately warned Diem to use prudence and moderation. Not only were the persecutions tarnishing the image of the Catholic Church in the world at large, and specifically in the U.S., but Pope John himself genuinely believed in conciliation with non-Christian religious and revolutionary ideologies. The results of such papal credence fathered a hybrid called ecumenism, an ecclesiastical creature which, more than anything else, characterized his pontificate, the original inspirer of the Second Vatican Council, from which it emerged.

The harassed Buddhists, encouraged by Pope John's ecumenism, appealed to him to intervene with Diem. A Buddhist delegation went directly to the Vatican and was received in audience by the Pope. John gave them words of reassurance and told them that he would do his best to persuade Diem to relent and to be fair to their religion. The Buddhist delegation went back to Vietnam, but the persecution, instead of abating, increased violence. Buddhists were arrested, beaten and imprisoned. The world at large was shaken. So was American public opinion. So was President Kennedy, who threatened to cut off all aid to Vietnam and to President Diem. But again to no avail.

It might be of interest at this stage, although we have already dealt with it in earlier chapters, to describe in some detail the sequence of events which pushed the main protagonists towards the edge of the precipice. It will be seen how the religious zeal and the dogmatic stubbornness of the two brothers, Diem and the chief of police, prompted them to disregard American and world opinion, the warning of Kennedy, and the mounting opposition of the Buddhists. This sense of a mission on behalf of Catholicism inspired them to dismiss the ominous warning of the impending collapse, which was to end with their assassination.

Meanwhile President Kennedy pressed Pope John through Cardinal Spellman to try to restrain Diem. There was no apparent result. To show that he meant business, Kennedy took a drastic step and changed the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. Then in July, 1963, he sent Diem a personal message via ambassador Nolting in a desperate effort to persuade Diem and his Catholic brothers, the chief of police, the archbishop to alter their policies of repression.

Kennedy's efforts were again of no avail. On the contrary, it seemed that instead the head of the secret police, with the excuse that Red elements had been found among the Buddhists had turned the harsh discriminatory campaign into religious persecution. Buddhist monks, Buddhist nuns, and Buddhist leaders were arrested by the thousands. Pagodas were closed and besieged. Buddhists were tortured by the police. One day another monk burned himself alive in public, to draw the attention of the world to the Catholic persecution. President Diem, undeterred, continued his policy. The secret police packed the jails with more monks. A third monk committed suicide by fire, and then another. Within a brief period, seven had burned themselves alive in public. Vietnam was put under martial law. Troops now occupied many pagodas and drove out all monks offering resistance. More Buddhist monks and nuns were arrested and taken away in lorries, including a large number of wounded. Many were killed. Nhu's special forces, whenever the opportunity arose, went on storming pagodas and monasteries with submachine guns and grenades to enforce martial law.

Ten thousand Buddhists took part in a hunger strike in blockaded Saigon, while a giant gong tolled from the tower of the main Xa Loi Pagoda in protest against the persecutions. At Hue, in the North, monks and nuns put up a tremendous struggle at the main pagoda of Tu Dam, which was virtually demolished, while eleven Buddhist students burned themselves inside it.

The Diem government, instead of trying to appease its restless opponents with a policy of compromise, refused to see the portents. It went on with suicidal assurance and self righteousness. It appealed to both teachers and students, not with concessions, but with invitations to remain calm and clear-sighted, so that they might be enabled "to see the truth" concerning "this Buddhist affair." President Diem added insult to injury by stating that the solution had to be his solution. "I confirm," he said at the time, "that the policy of the government . . . is irreversible."[4]

But, while President Diem's attitude to the rapidly deteriorating situation was inflexible, the reaction of his closest associates was of such blind placidity as to border on the incredible. This, perhaps, can best be summarized by a remark of the vice-president in answer to a reporter who raised the issue of the self-immolation of Buddhist monks and to the efforts of a young girl student who tried to chop off her arm at the Xa Loi Pagoda at 10 p.m. on August 12, l963. "I am very saddened," replied the vice-president, "to see that the cases of self-immolation and self destruction only waste manpower."[5]

Vice-President Tho went even further. "Such acts," he declared, "are not very necessary at the present time."[6] Thereupon he added what must be the greatest understatement of the century: "They may make the public believe," he said, "that the Buddhists are putting pressure on the government." [7] Soon the U.S. applied even stronger pressure and threatened to cut off all aid to President Diem. Again, to no avail. South Vietnam's ambassador in Washington, a Buddhist, resigned in protest. President Diem's brother and his sister-in-law, Mrs. Nhu, scoffed openly at the Buddhist monks who had committed suicide, declaring that they had used "imported gasoline" to "barbecue" themselves.

By this time the Buddhist leader, Thrich Tri Quang, had to seek asylum in the American embassy to escape with his life.[8] The American government grew openly impatient. The American State Department issued an official declaration deploring the repressive actions which the South Vietnamese government had taken against the Buddhists. "On the basis of information from Saigon it appears that the government of the Republic of Vietnam has instituted serious repressive measures against the Vietnamese Buddhist leaders," it said. "The action represents direct violation by the Vietnamese government of assurances that it was pursuing a policy of reconciliation with the Buddhists. The U.S. deplores repressive actions of this nature." [9]

Vietnam was split. The army became openly restive and put up passive resistance, not against the Communists, but against their own government. Result: The war against the Communist North was rapidly being lost, since the population at large, upon whose support the struggle ultimately rested, refused to cooperate.

At long last the U.S., realizing that its strategy in that part of Asia was in serious danger, took action. The American Central Intelligence Agency, in cooperation with Vietnamese Buddhist elements, successfully engineered a coup. The extreme right-wing Catholics in the U.S. were no longer at the center of things as they had been under the Eisenhower administration although ironically they were now under an administration run by the first American Catholic President. Yet they were still on good terms with certain top elements of the CIA. Getting wind of what was afoot, they made a last desperate effort to mobilize the American public opinion in Diem's favor. They sponsored a campaign to counter the one waged by the State Department and the others who had decided Diem's fate. Madame Nhu, the wife of the head of the secret police, was invited to come over and "explain" the true situation to the Americans.

Madame Nhu came and her first call was upon the principle sponsor of the Diem regime, Cardinal Spellman. The vast Catholic machinery went in to action to make the campaign a success. Catholic papers, individuals, organizations and all the vast tangible and intangible ramifications of Catholic pressure upon the mass media of the U.S. were set in motion.

While the hidden Catholic promotional forces worked behind the scenes, influential Catholics came to the fore to sponsor, support, and promote Madame Nhu's advocacy of the Diem regime. Clare Booth Luce, the converted Catholic who, it had been said when she was ambassador to Rome, was more Catholic even than the Pope himself, acted as press agent, campaign manager and general sponsor of Madame Nhu.

The reception that President Diem's sister-in-law received demonstrated how Catholics in the U.S., far from condemning the religious persecutions, tacitly approved of or openly supported them. On the other hand the American Protestant and liberal segments told Madame Nhu in no uncertain terms that the persecutions carried on by her husband and brother-in-law were abhorred by the American people. During a visit to Columbia University, for instance,

Madame Nhu, wife of the head of the secret police, disdained the suicides by fire as using "imported gasoline" to "barbecue" themselves. She fiercely promoted the Catholicization of South Vietnam even after it became evident that the backing of the U.S. was in jeopardy. She then made a promotional tour of the U.S. to "explain" the true situation to the Americans. Her first call was upon Cardinal Spellman, the principal sponsor of the Diem regime. The vast Catholic machinery in the U.S. went into action to make her campaign a success. Catholic papers joined influential individuals and organizations who came to the fore to sponsor, support and promote Madame Nhu's advocacy of the Diem regime. After the assassination of President Diem and her husband, Ngo Dinh Nhu, she retired to Rome in 1964.

Madame Nhu was greeted by the students with catcalls and boos. At Fordham University, however, she had an "enthusiastic" reception from 5,000 Catholic students at the Jesuit school. The striking difference in her reception by two diverse sections of American youth was significant, particularly in view if the fact that the 5,000 students with their Jesuit teachers claimed to believe in religious liberty. The Jesuit reception was even more startling because the Vatican, since the accession of Pope John XXIII, far from encouraged the Diems in their religious fervor had, as we have already mentioned, cold shouldered them. [10] On more than one occasion the Vatican had even asked the archbishop to stop offering "spiritual guidance" to the president and to the head of the secret police. These reproofs the archbishop completely ignored stubbornly refusing to believe that the ideological climate was no longer promoted by John Foster Dulles and Pope Pius Xll.

But while it was true that Pius XII's policy had been greatly modified, it was no less true that Pope John and President Kennedy had to tread very cautiously in the situation. Although each for his own particular reasons wished to tone down the super-Catholicity of the Diem dynasty, neither could do so in too obvious a manner. This was owing mainly to the Asian-American-Vatican policy spun jointly by the previous American administration, via Cardinal Spellman and Pope Pius XII. The open reversal of the Dulles-Pius grand strategy could trigger suspicions of pro-communism and of appeasement towards aggressive communism in Asia—something which had to be avoided, particularly if accusations of such a nature were made by the powerful Asian lobby in Washington or the American lobby at the Vatican, not to mention South Vietnam itself.

One major event outside South Vietnam helped to precipitate matters. Pope John died. A few days before the downfall of President Diem, the seventh Buddhist monk was self-immolated only a hundred yards from the Roman Catholic cathedral of Saigon with a United Nations fact finding mission nearby.

President Dim and the head of the secret police, by now totally blinded by their religious blinkers, isolated themselves from all and sundry in South Vietnam, as they had already done from all outside it.

Diem, now more that ever, lacked any capacity for compromise. Like his brothers, he had no compassion. His ambassador in Washington, before resigning from his office in protest against the persecution of Buddhists, summed up Diem and his brothers: "They are very much like medieval inquisitors," he said, "who were so convinced of their righteousness that they would burn people for their own sake, and for the sake of mankind, to save them from error and sin." [11]

That is precisely what made Catholic President Diem think and act as he did. "We must continue to search for the Kingdom of God and Justice," he wrote, years before he became president, from a seminary in which he was then living (ironically in the U.S.), "All else will come of itself." [12]

It came. But with the help of the U.S.

Kennedy and his military advisors had become increasingly anxious about the military effect which Diem's fanatical antagonism against the Buddhists might have in the general conduct of the U.S. and South Vietnamese operations. Unless stopped at once, Diem was becoming a most serious obstacle for the efficient prosecution of the war against the Communist North. His anti-Buddhist campaign, when added to the mass antagonism which the Northern Catholics had caused following their flight from the North, was beginning to impede U.S. plans.

After prolonged and painful assessment, Kennedy and his closest associates finally reached the conclusion that the only way to get rid of the Diem regime was to get rid of President Diem himself. There have been contradictory reports of how the ultimate decision was reached and by whom. Although books, and newspapers have described the step by step evolution, in the end it turned out to be a planned cold blooded assassination of Diem. [13]

Meanwhile Diem and his brothers, as confident in the righteousness of their actions as ever, continued to act as if nothing had happened, notwithstanding the ominous behavior of certain American officials. On the afternoon of November 1, 1963, President Diem had tea with Admiral Harry Felt, Commander-in-Chief of the American forces in the Pacific, and with Henry Cabot Lodge, the American ambassador, who hours before had cabled Washington that President Diem's last hours had arrived. Soon afterwards the plotters set their plans in motion. At dawn the next day their troops invaded the presidential palace.

The president and his brother, head of the dreaded secret police, had gone. A few hours later, however, they attended mass at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Saigon and devoutly took Holy Communion. Upon being discovered there they were promptly apprehended and shot. It was the 2nd of November, the Feast of All Souls. Their bodies were laid in St. Joseph's Hospital, only a few hundred yards from the Ax Loa Pagoda, where Buddhist resistance had first lit the spark of revolt which was ultimately to put a tragic end to President Diem's Catholic authoritarianism. Thus died two most devout sons of Holy Mother Church.

And with them died the political regime they had attempted to impose for her sake upon an unwilling non-Catholic—even non-Christian—nation. [14]


1. For more details see author's THE VATICAN BILLIONS, Chick Publications, 1983.[Back]

2. See also author's THE VATICAN MOSCOW WASHINGTON ALLIANCE, Chick Publications, 1983.[Back]


4. President Diem in an interview given to Marguerite Highness, correspondent of The New York Herald Tribune, August 14, 1963. See also "The Buddhist Question"—Basic Documents, Volume 11, from August 22, 1963, to September 2, 1963.[Back]

5. Vice-President Nguyen Ngoc Tho, at a press conference at Dien Hong Hall, August 13, 1963. See official documentation of the South Vietnam Government, "The Buddhist Question," "The Position of the Government of the Republic of Vietnam." Basic documents, Volume 1, from May 6, 1963, to August 21, 1962, p. 34.[Back]

6. Op Cit. p. 35.[Back]

7. Ibid.[Back]

8. September 2, 1963.[Back]

9. August 21, 1963, The New York Times. September 22, 1963, The Times, London.[Back]

10. Although Archbishop Thuc was at the time in Rome at the Second Vatican Council. In 1964 he received another snub from Pope Paul VI, who refused him a papal audience. Archbishop Thuc, thereupon, went to see Cardinal Spellman, by way of consolidation.[Back]

11. Tran Van Chuong, South Vietnam's Ambassador to Washington and father of Madame Nhu. See also The Last Confucian, by Dennis Warner.[Back]

12. See The Last Confucian, by Dennis Warner.[Back]

13. For details of the decision see special report of the U.S. News & World Report, October 10, 1983. Also Time, November 14, 1983.[Back]

14. Following Diem's downfall, Catholic fortunes suffered accordingly. But later on the Catholics regrouped themselves, sponsored by their American colleagues and by the Vatican. As the war assumed wider proportions and the U.S. sent hundreds of thousands of troops, the Vatican and the U.S. reorganized South Vietnam's Catholicism as a political weapon.
Here is the sequence of the process:
February 27, 1965, Pope Paul appeals for peace in South Vietnam.
The same day he sends a letter to all the Catholic bishops of South Vietnam.
Mid-April Catholics begin demonstrations against the Buddhist Premier because he has neutralist tendencies.
May 2, Henry Cabot Lodge has a secret visit with Pope Paul at the Vatican.
May 10, a Catholic Party is officially formed in South Vietnam. The following month, South Vietnamese Bishops appeal to all Catholics for obedience.
Following the appeal, there are massive Catholic demonstrations against the Buddhist Premier. These grow into riots until they force the Buddhist Premier to resign (June 18, 1965).
The subsequent exertions of the Catholics, the Vatican, and the United States have been dealt with in another book by the author.

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