The End of Diem 2

The Buddhists now mobilized with astounding spped and efficiency. They were not linked to the Communists, but they adopted Com¬munist techniques. They formed three-member cells, set up head¬quarters in temples and conducted crash courses in drafting tracts, slogans and other propaganda, which they ground out on mimeograph machines. They agitated among relatives in the army and the bureau¬cracy, and they coordinated rallies and hunger strikes with remarkable precision. Some who had studied abroad briefed foreign journalists, arranged interviews and distributed English-language copies of their manifestos. They put out daily news bulletins, even sending couriers to the U.S. Information Service office for daily American press ac¬counts of the crisis. Dr. Tran Kim Tuyen, the regime’s secret police chief, who by now was plotting against Diem, made a perceptive remark amid this ferment. “You know,” he said, as we sat among the tacky curios that cluttered his living room, “this is an underde¬veloped country economically, but a highly developed country polit¬ically.”
A force behind the aggressive Buddhist push was Tri Quang, a swarthy monk in his early forties. With his shaved head, saffron robe and elliptical speaking style, he exuded mysticism, but he was a shrewd and tireless political operator. During his youth the French had jailed him as a Communist—a gross distortion, since his views tended to be right wing. He had been introduced to dynamic Buddhism as a novice in Ceylon, and he returned to Vietnam to await the chance to act. It came in Hue in May 1963. He toured the city in a sound truck on the night of the demonstration and killings, stirring up the people against Diem. Then he embarked on a trip around South Vietnam to enlist support. He met covertly in Saigon with U.S. officials, cau¬tioning them: “The United States must either make Diem reform or get rid of him. If not, the situation will degenerate, and you worthy gentlemen will suffer most. You are responsible for the present trouble because you back Diem and his government of ignoramuses.”
Ambassador Nolting, on instructions from Washington, urged Diem to conciliate. But Diem, who seemed to have slid into a trance, refused to retreat even privately from his contention that the Vietcong had caused the Hue incident. On June 7, Madame Nhu contradicted him and further aggravated the crisis by publicly alleging that the Buddhists were also being manipulated by the Americans. Diem had known in advance that she intended to publish the charge, but he was too numb to stop her. He consulted Nhu, who endorsed his wife’s accusation—probably having helped her to draft it.
The United States now rebuked Diem more sharply than ever. Nolting, bewildered that his gentle approach had not yielded results, had left on vacation. His deputy, William Trueheart, temporarily re¬placing him, was made of sterner fiber despite his outwardly mild demeanor. He bluntly warned Diem that the regime might lose U.S. support if the repression of the Buddhists continued. Madame Nhu screamed “blackmail” in response to the threat. Diem, stalling for time, created a cosmetic committee to investigate the Buddhist com¬plaints.
The tough American initiative reflected shifts in the State Depart¬ment. Averell Harriman had recently become under secretary and Roger Hilsman head of the Far Eastern bureau, and both favored firmness toward Diem. In Saigon, Trueheart was delighted to scuttle Nolting’s appeasement policy, which in his estimation had encouraged Diem’s excesses—even though he and Nolting had been close personal friends since college. After Vietnam, they never again exchanged a word.
As Diem procrastinated, the Buddhists burst a bombshell. On the morning of June 11, a motorcade pulled up at a busy Saigon inter¬section and an elderly Buddhist monk climbed out of one of the cars. He sat down on the asphalt and crossed his legs as other monks and nuns encircled him. One of them doused him with gasoline while another ignited him with a lighter. He pressed his palms together in prayer as a sheet of flame the color of his orange robe enveloped him. Pedestrians, amazed by the awesome sight, prostrated themselves in reverence, and even a nearby policeman threw himself to the ground. Trucks and automobiles stopped, snarling traffic. By the time an am-bulance arrived, the old man had fallen over, still burning as the fire consumed his flesh. Only his heart remained intact.
A photograph of the grisly spectacle leaped off every front page in the world the next morning. Buddhist militants had tipped off Mal¬colm Browne, an Associated Press correspondent, who arrived with a camera. They also handed reporters copies of a biography of the suicide, Quang Duc, a sixty-six-year-old monk who had been in the Buddhist clergy since the age of fifteen. The document included his last words, a “respectful” plea to Diem to show “charity and com¬passion” to all religions. A Buddhist student who had driven Quang Due to the site later recalled the events preceding the self-immolation with disarming serenity. His act was not unique, he explained to me, since monks often burned a finger or toe as a gesture of protest. Two monks had volunteered, but Quang Due’s seniority prevailed. Had someone tried to stop Quang Duc? “It was his own choice,” the student replied.
Repeated American entreaties failed to shake Diem’s stubbornness, even after the immolation. The committee of inquiry reconfirmed his thesis that the Vietcong had caused the Hue incident—and more Buddhist monks went up in flames. Madame Nhu became increasingly shrill, which only exacerbated the crisis. The self-immolations were a “barbecue,” she said, and told one interviewer, “Let them burn, and we shall clap our hands.”

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