Escalation 6

The surprise move stunned the Americans, and the country itself also went into an uproar. Ky’s units landed in Danang at dawn on May 14, killing and wounding more than twenty dissident soldiers in a battle that raged throughout the day. General Ton That Dinh, whom Ky had assigned to Danang to supplant Thi as regional commander, fled to Hue in a helicopter lent him by the U.S. marines. Ky thereupon gave the job of eliminating his opponents to Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, a ruthless officer who would gain worldwide notoriety two years later, when he was photographed summarily executing a Viet- cong suspect. Now, deploying tanks and armored cars, Loan system-atically combed Danang street by street, slaying hundreds of rebel troops and more than a hundred civilians, most of whom had taken refuge in Buddhist temples. With South Vietnamese regulars fighting each other, the war against the Communists had become superfluous— and the internecine conflict nearly snared the Americans; the U.S. marine commander in Danang put six of his jets aloft to prevent Ky’s aircraft from rocketing the last resistants in the city.
A few weeks later, having crushed the Danang dissidents, Ky pre¬pared to assault Hue, still held by the insurgents. Having witnessed the final stage of the Danang resistance, I traveled to Hue aboard a local bus, negotiating my way past an army barricade erected along the coastal road to block rice, fuel and other supplies from reaching the city. Hue, an imitation of Beijing built by Vietnam’s ancient emperors in deference to their Chinese patrons, had been a placid, introspective, traditional town in contrast to raucous, crass, contem¬porary Saigon, a corrupt creation of Western imperialism. But now, beleaguered Hue was tense as it awaited attack. Squads of rebel soldiers straddled its intersections, and groups of youths roamed its streets, knives and grenades hanging from their belts. The American consulate bristled with barbed wire: a gang of young toughs had sacked the U.S. Information Service library a few days before in full view of the police. One American official speculated that the Buddhists and their supporters were targeting American installations in the hope of turning U.S. public opinion, weary of the Vietnamese political turmoil, against the Saigon regime. “They’re making a mistake,” he explained to me. “You don’t put that kind of pressure on Uncle Sam and get away with it.”
But nothing in Vietnam was that simple, as I discovered again during a visit to Tri Quang’s headquarters at the Dieude temple, an ornate structure located near the Perfume river, which meanders through Hue. The scene was an unabashed blend of the spiritual and the temporal. Amid the tinkle of bells and the fragrance of incense, Buddhist nuns wearing shapeless gray cassocks chanted prayers in reedy voices as old women with betel-stained teeth prayed at altars laden with offerings of fruits and flowers. In the courtyard behind, a tiny cottage overflowed with monks and students briskly typing tracts and cranking out manifestos on a vintage mimeograph. And there, in a back room, was Tri Quang, seated on the floor in ritual saffron robe, apparently issuing directives to his acolytes—as if, I noted at the time, Cardinal Spellman were managing the New York mayoralty campaign from an alcove in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I could appreciate the caustic comments of Tri Quang’s critics, who decried him for mixing piety and politics. Yet I could also imagine his appeal for the many Vietnamese who admired his bold challenge to the upstart Sai¬gon regime—just as, throughout history, Asians had rallied behind mystical iconoclasts.
1 had not seen Tri Quang since the Buddhist struggle against Diem three years earlier, and he still defied easy comprehension. Though his French was fluent, he spoke to me through a Vietnamese interpreter as a matter of principle, rambling on enigmatically. The primary aim of the Buddhists, he said, was to end “oppression” by installing a South Vietnamese government that would “satisfy the aspirations of the people.” What sort of government? With what kind of leadership? With what programs? His dark eyes narrowed and he brushed aside such mundane details. “I am merely a monk,” he replied. “Those are questions for politicians.”
It gradually occurred to me that my attempt to pin Tri Quang down to specifics was pointless. He was not, despite his organizational talent, an ordinary political promoter armed with a positive platform or coherent plan, striving to acquire power. Instead, he seemed to per¬sonify a form of fundamentalism in his passionate effort to preserve Vietnam’s venerable values, which both the Americans and the Com¬munists were contaminating with their modern ideas and practices. Implicitly, too, he was a xenophobe, as hostile to an alien imprint on Vietnam as had been mandarins who persecuted European mission¬aries and their Vietnamese Christian converts in centuries past. But his zeal could not stop the American and Communist machines that were, in different ways, tearing the country’s social tapestry to shreds. So his struggle was doomed from the scart—and, predictably, the Communists banished him to a monastery after they extended their authority over the whole of Vietnam in 1975.
By late May 1966, as the Buddhist movement appeared to be fal¬tering, its militants resorted to last-ditch gestures. They staged pa¬rades, hunger strikes and other demonstrations in Saigon, Danang and elsewhere, and their initially peaceful protests quickly degenerated into riots when government troops dispersed them with tear gas and bay¬onets. In Hue, the same youths who had gutted the U.S. Information Service library went on to burn the vacated American consulate. Over a period of three weeks, at least ten Buddhist monks and nuns set themselves ablaze across the country—more than had committed sui¬cide in the offensive against Diem in 1963. Tri Quang tried to calm the agitation, but the campaign he had inspired now eluded his control.

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