Being a ruler of a Third World country usually means making enemies. Diem was no exception. He was a bold decision-maker, initiating vast programs for the betterment of his country. Often, he alienated those who supported a different plan or who saw his reforms as a threat to their interests in preserving the status quo.
Like all leaders, Diem made some poor decisions. He replaced the old custom of village self-government with a centralized system of appointed leaders, thereby undermining the local initiative on which democracy depends. He alienated many important civilian and military leaders in the aftermath of an attempted coup against him in 1960. He started to rely too heavily for his rule on members of his own family. As his strong political base began to erode, he became more authoritarian.
Diem jealously guarded his independence, often rejecting or ignoring the advice of his American advisers. After all, he was a proud Vietnamese nationalist who would not take orders from Americans any more than he had from the French. "America has a magnificent economy and many good points," he once told a reporter. "But does your strength at home automatically mean that the United States is entitled to dictate everything here in Vietnam, which is undergoing a type of war that your country has never experienced?"
Diem assumed that despite his occasional difference of opinion with American policymakers, the United States was an ally he could depend on in the end. He also assumed that the United States saw no alternative to his leadership. He was wrong on both counts.
As Kennedy and his advisers grew increasingly unhappy with their strong-willed ally, they began to lose sight of the fact that the issue was not whether South Vietnam would develop a perfect constitutional democracy but whether it would have a government capable of resisting an expansion of Communist control that would destroy all democracy. While assassinations, abductions, and terrorist and guerrilla raids proliferated , our officials acted as if the real problem were gerrymandered electoral districts and stuffed ballot boxes.
The crisis that convinced the Kennedy administration to abandon Diem began in May 1963. After Catholics flew dozens of Vatican flags during public celebrations in Danang, Diem, himself a Catholic, enacted a law to prevent the subordination of the national flag to religious ones. It prohibited any group from flying its flag in public demonstrations; the display of within a house of flags within a house of worship was not affected. Buddha's birthday fell two days later, with major celebrations scheduled across the country. Diem was aware that many Buddhists would fly their banner without knowing about the new law, so he suspended enforcement of it.
Word of Diem's action arrived too late in Hue, and what became known as the "Buddhist crisis" resulted. Local police took down several Buddhist flags that were flying above the South Vietnamese banner. Thich Tri Quang, a Buddhist priest who practiced his politics more devoutly than his religion and who was eager to find fault with the Catholic President, delivered a bristling antigovernment tirade in his pagoda during religious ceremonies.
Hue's Buddhists were primed for dissent. Mayor Ngo Dinh Thuc, who was one of Diem's brothers, was a notorious religious bigot. Tri Quang took a recording of his anti-Diem speech to a radio station and demanded that it be broadcast. Outside the station, a bomb exploded in the crowd of protesters who had followed him, killing eight people. Buddhist leaders accused government soldiers of detonating an American-made concussion grenade. Diem denied the charge, and a United Nations commission eventually determined that the blast resulted not from a grenade but from plastic explosives, a favorite weapon of the National Liberation Front. But the Buddhists escalated their political attacks and demanded that Diem personally accept responsibility for the tragedy.
Then, on June 11, a Buddhist monk doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in protest against Diem's government. The next day, the grisly picture of the scene — the monk with his hands clasped in prayer as the flames consumed him — ran on the front page of almost every American newspaper.
The monk's self-immolation was a carefully contrived ritual staged for the American news media. Buddhist leaders had tipped off the press beforehand and afterward quickly distributed mimeographed copies of antigovernment letters copies of antigovernment letters purportedly written by the monk. None of that was reported. The picture stood alone and seared a single word into the minds of many Americans: repression.
Here a small group of influential American reporters in Saigon, all of whom opposed Diem, had a decisive impact on events. Some of them worked for the United States' most influential newspapers. They accepted almost any anti-Diem accusation as gospel, and met frequently to compare stories with one another so that their line would be consistent. Tri Quang rightly considered them allies, so much so that he distributed copies of their stories as propaganda to win converts. That the South Vietnamese President was a devout Catholic made him an ideal candidate to be painted as a repressor of Buddhists. During the crisis, the reporters obligingly portrayed Diem as an enemy of all the people and a holdover from the French colonialist who practiced ruthless repression against nationalist and Buddhist South Vietnamese.They wrote that 70 percent of the South Vietnamese were Buddhist. The true figure was at most 30 percent.
Facts, however, were not important to these correspondents. Undercutting Diem, perhaps even destroying him, was all that mattered. This was one of the few times during the Vietnam War when the United States government and the American press would find themselves working toward the same goal.
The issue of religious repression was a complete fabrication. Diem appointed his top officials without regard to their faith. Of his eighteen cabinet ministers, five were Catholic, five Confucianist, and eight Buddhist, including the vice president and the foreign minister. Of his thirty-eight provincial governors, twelve were Catholic and twenty-six were either Confucianist or Buddhist. Of his nineteen top generals, three were Catholic and sixteen were Taoist, Confucianist, or Buddhist. He permitted Buddhists to exempt themselves from mandatory military service on religious grounds, while Catholics and others were required to serve. No Buddhist was ever arrested for practicing his religion, and not a single piece of credible evidence has ever been produced to show that Diem repressed Buddhists on the basis of religion.
Politics, not religion, was on the minds of those behind the crisis. A few ambitious Vietnamese had shaved their heads, donned Buddhist monk's clothing, and contrived the crisis to advance their own political agenda. Their leader was Tri Quang, and they operated out of the Xa Loi pagoda in Saigon. It was hardly a place of reverence. Mimeograph copiers churned out propaganda sheets. Organizers barked out instructions on where to hold the day's demonstrations. Messengers hurried about with newly painted banners. Journalists and photographers milled around hoping to get the inside word on the location of the next burning. Anyone who glanced in the door could see that the Xa Loi pagoda was not a house of worship but the political headquarters of a movement intent on bringing down Diem's government.
During a United Nations investigation of the charges against Diem, two young Buddhists who had been prevented from burning themselves to death testified about how Tri Quang's General Buddhist Association had recruited them. Both were told horror stories about how Diem's government was burning pagodas and beating, torturing, and disemboweling Buddhists. One said a recruiter told him that "the Buddhist Association worked for the Communists" and that ten volunteers were needed for death by fire. After he volunteered, he was told that the "suicide-promotion group would make all the arrangements." This included providing him with a gasoline-soaked robe, driving him to a location that would maximize publicity, and writing letters of protest for him that would be handed out to the waiting press.
The other, who came from a remote province, said he was horrified when a recruiter told him Diem had burned Saigon's pagodas. He volunteered to die when he was informed that by doing so he might be reincarnated as a Buddha. He was brought to the capital and given a carefully prescribed route, designed to avoid the city's thoroughly intact pagodas, to reach the location for his suicide. When he changed course because a street was blocked off, he came upon a pagoda where Buddhists were peacefully worshiping. He then voluntarily surrendered to a policeman.
Just as he sought to deceive the world, Tri Quang deceived his victims in order to achieve his political ends. After Diem had yielded to all reasonable demands, Tri Quang injected unreasonable ones to keep the crisis alive. He was interested not in compromise but in conflict. As one monk at Xa Loi asked a reporter, "How many suicides will it take to get rid of Diem?"
Tri Quang made no secret of his real goals. He had been arrested twice by the French for working with the Viet Minh. He admitted that after 1945 he had served with Buddhist groups that were nothing more than Communist front organizations to help Ho's army. He was a disciple of Thich Tri Do, the leader of the Communist-dominated Buddhist church in North Vietnam, and had once said that Buddhism was entirely compatible with communism. On one occasion, a reporter asked Tri Quang whether it was ethical to induce young monks to commit suicide in so painful a manner just to be able to fly the Buddhist flag a notch or two higher. Tri Quang shrugged his shoulders and said with perfect candor that "in a revolution many things must be done."
Storms of outrage broke out in the United States and Europe when the Buddhist suicides began. Sensationalized news media reports made matters even worse. The suicides were political ploys by a few fanatic extremists, but the media said they represented the mainstream opinion of South Vietnamese Buddhists. The press played up the Buddhists as oppressed holy people, and the world blamed their political target, Diem.
Most critics attributed the suicides to Diem's repression. Nobody seemed to notice when the number of suicides increased after he was overthrown. The radical Buddhists had sought to get rid of Diem not because of religious repression but because he blocked the road to a revolutionary overthrow of South Vietnam's non-Communist government.
News-media reports of Buddhist repression had the desired effect: They turned American public opinion against Diem. One of the three reasons Secretary of State Dean Rusk listened when the Kennedy administration first considered abandoning Diem in August 1963 was the pressure of American public opinion.
The Buddhist crisis escalated dramatically on August 21 when Diem sent units of his special forces to raid the pagodas at the center of the Buddhist rebellion. Diem had not singled out the Buddhists; he would have cracked down on any group that openly sought to overturn the government. His forces did not rampage through holy places. No one was killed. They seized only pagodas, like Xa Loi, that were political command posts. Diem's raids affected just twelve of South Vietnam's 4776 pagodas. His troops seized spears, daggers, guns, and plastic molds for making bombs, together with His troops seized spears, daggers, guns, and plastic molds for making bombs, together with documents linking the radical Buddhists to the National Liberation Front.
Kennedy's advisers now lost all perspective. They accused Diem of outright repression. Even recently, a top official from that era displayed his lack of understanding by characterizing the crisis as one in which "a Frenchified Catholic Vietnamese President began to beat up the pagodas and kill Buddhist priests and Buddhist nuns." This view was typical and totally at odds with the facts. Kennedy's anti-Diem advisers had refused to believe the balanced reports on the crisis sent previously by Ambassador Frederick Nolting and instead came to rely on the news accounts of stridently anti-Diem reporters. Roger Hilsman, the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, summed up the Kennedy administration's attitude when he commented, "After the closing of the pagodas on August 21, the facts became irrelevant."
And the rest is history.