Escalation 7

1 witnessed the first in this series of self-immolations on the morning of May 29 at the Dieude temple in Hue, where I had met with Tri Quang a couple of days before. A Buddhist nun in her midfifties, Thanh Quang, had entered the temple compound at dawn, accom¬panied by a few friends. She assumed the lotus position as one friend doused her with gasoline. Then she lighted a match, immediately exploding into flame as another friend fed peppermint oil to the fire to suppress the stench of scorched flesh. By the time I arrived, her burning body was still erect, the hands clasped in prayer. The religious rite was fast becoming a political episode. As crowds of spectators knelt before her, appealing to Buddha to ease her suffering, reporters from the local radio station passed among them, recording their cries for later broadcast. Soon Tri Quang appeared to distribute to the foreign correspondents present copies of a letter that the nun had addressed to President Johnson, condemning America’s “irresponsi¬ble” support for the Saigon regime. Tri Quang blamed Johnson for her death and indicted him for having “masterminded the repression of the Vietnamese people. ” As more Buddhist suicides occurred, John¬son issued a statement calling them “tragic and unnecessary” and urged the South Vietnamese people to uphold the government—a clear signal that the United States would not abandon Ky and his entourage.
The insurgent officers in central Vietnam began to dissociate them¬selves from the Buddhist militants and make deals with Ky’s inter¬mediaries. Hue’s defenses crumbled without them, and Ky’s troops marched into the city in early June, subduing the handful of civilian dissidents who attempted to resist. The government soldiers embarked on an American-style public relations drive, giving band concerts and handing out candy to children, and they treated the vanquished op¬position discreetly. General Thi was exiled to the United States with a generous allowance, and several Buddhist monks were allowed to remain, untouched, in their temples. But Colonel Loan, whom Ky had assigned to clean up Hue after his successful crackdown in Danang, displayed little mercy toward the regime’s hard-core adversaries. He jailed hundreds of students and other rebels, many of whom were to languish in prison for years without trial. He also arrested Tri Quang, who had gone on a hunger strike, and transferred him to detention in a Saigon hospital.
The Buddhist movement never recovered from the defeat. Its crisis was only a squall amid the bigger storms that buffeted Vietnam, but it confirmed and clarified the future. The turmoil had been too close for the regime’s comfort, dramatizing as it did the danger of faction¬alism when the enemy forces were expanding. The Americans, no longer willing to tolerate such political turbulence, tightened their hold on the Saigon government—expecting in return that the regime would permit them to wage the war as they saw fit. South Vietnam’s de¬pendence on the United States increased, and American officials ceased to make excuses for the shortcomings of their proteges. The new reality was expressed in an old epigram: “They may be sons of bitches, but they’re our sons of bitches.”
But Lyndon Johnson also wanted to preserve the image of legitimate South Vietnamese authority—largely to assuage public opinion in America, which had been horrified by the spectacle of Buddhist monks and nuns burning themselves alive. Johnson reckoned that a consti¬tution followed by elections would solve the problem. Meeting with Ky in Guam in March 1967, he characteristically cast his request as a personal favor. “My birthday is in late August,” he said. “The greatest birthday present you could give me is a national election.”
Delegates to a constituent assembly in Saigon had earlier drafted a new constitution along American lines, assisted by John Roche, a scholarly White House aide; it provided for a bicameral legislature and a powerful president. Elections were now scheduled for the beginning of September, and Johnson, eager to publicize South Vietnam’s ded¬ication to “democracy,” enlisted twenty-two U.S. congressmen, gov¬ernors, business executives and other dignitaries to serve as informal observers. Brought to Vietnam and toured around, they saw what their official guides wanted them to see—and their confusion was reflected in the malapropism of one of them, a Texas clergyman who kept referring to the country as “South Vietcong.”
Though not flagrantly fraudulent, as elections in Ngo Dinh Diem’s time had been, the contest could hardly be labeled fair—the word used by American officials to describe it. Civilian candidates were screened to disqualify anyone alleged to be holding “pro-Communist” or “neutralist” views—a sanction that eliminated one mild politician who advocated a cease-fire—and they could campaign only by trav¬eling together to certain areas in an airplane lent to them by the Saigon generals. Still, more than 80 percent of South Vietnam’s registered voters turned out, though they went to the polls under subtle pressure. Their identity cards were punched as they cast ballots, so that those who abstained might later be arraigned for having obeyed the Viet- cong’s appeal to boycott the election.
Nevertheless, the election produced surprises. Propelled by his am¬bitious wife, General Nguyen Van Thieu, the figurehead chief of state, had challenged Ky for the presidency. His move alarmed American officials in Saigon, who feared that a feud between the two officers might split the South Vietnamese army. They tried to induce Thieu to withdraw, but he refused. Eventually, his fellow generals arranged a compromise: they agreed to sponsor Thieu as president on condition that Ky, who would run for vice-president, be named chairman of a secret military council empowered to shape government policy from behind the scenes. Thieu agreed; later, he would shrewdly outwit his colleagues and concentrate authority in his own hands. But he per¬formed miserably in the 1967 elections, his slate mustering only 35 percent of the votes—most of them in outlying districts where local commanders managed the contests. Ky candidly explained in his mem¬oirs that he would have won 60 or 70 percent of the vote by rigging the election had he been chosen to head the ticket: “I was the very person who organized and controlled the election. There was no reason for me to cheat in favor of Thieu and get the blame, when I had given up my own chance for the presidency.”

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