The End of Diem

At Saint Francis Xavier, a French mission church in Saigon’s Chinese district of Cholon, the early morning Mass had just celebrated All Souls’ Day, the day of the dead. A few minutes later, the congregation gone, two men in dark gray suits walked quickly through the shaded courtyard and entered the church. South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu, haggard after a sleepless night, were fugitives in the capital they had once commanded.
A few hours earlier, rebel soldiers had crushed the last of their loyal guards. The remote church was their final haven. They prayed and took Communion, their ultimate sacrament. Soon their crumpled corpses would be sprawled ignominiously across the deck of an ar¬mored car that rumbled through the streets of Saigon as the people cheered their downfall.
Diem, though dedicated, was doomed by his inflexible pride and the unbridled ambitions of his family. Ruling like an ancient emperor, he could not deal effectively with either the mounting Communist threat to his regime or the opposition of South Vietnam’s turbulent factions alienated by his autocracy. His generals—some greedy for power, others antagonized by his style—turned against him. His end, after eight years in office, came amid a tangle of intrigue and violence as improbable as the most imaginative of melodramas.
His collapse would have been impossible without American com¬plicity. President Kennedy, frustrated by Diem’s inability to conciliate dissident groups in the face of the growing Communist challenge, conceded that the war could not be won under his aegis. Kennedy deferred to Henry Cabot Lodge, the U. S. ambassador in Saigon, who encouraged Diem’s senior officers to stage a coup d’etat. Once in motion, the plot spiraled out of control. Kennedy, shocked by Diem’s murder, would also be assassinated—three weeks later.
America’s responsibility for Diem’s death haunted U.S. leaders dur¬ing the years ahead, prompting them to assume a larger burden in Vietnam. Inefficient as Diem had been, his successors were worse. They squabbled among themselves, and the chronic turmoil in Saigon dashed America’s hopes for progress on the battlefield as the Com¬munists escalated their offensive. The U.S. commitment inexorably deepened. Diem’s demise, then, marked a fresh phase in the conflict.
The end to the Diem regime began with a religious controversy that seemed, at first, to be trivial. But it quickly crystallized the ac¬cumulated other grievances against the government and swelled into a political upheaval.
The Vietnamese are not passionately spiritual. Like the Chinese, whose beliefs they have borrowed, they venerate scholars rather than priests, seeking harmony in the present rather than salvation in a hereafter. Thus they put a premium on ethics rather than on faith, and they can blend elements of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, their three pillars of wisdom, with animism, superstition, various forms of magic, idolatry and, above all, ancestor worship. But the Mahayana school of Vietnamese Buddhism, gaudier than the Hinayana version found elsewhere in Southeast Asia, has tried more than the other creeds to adopt the trappings of a formal religion—partly in reaction to past repression and partly under the tutelage of modern reformers.
The ancient emperors of Vietnam recurrently persecuted Buddhists as a menace to their Confucian system of authority. The French, equally suspicious of potential threats to their power, limited the Buddhist clergy and curbed the construction of temples. Having os¬tensibly invaded Vietnam to spread Christianity, they favored Cath¬olics. The Catholic church became the largest landowner in the country. The French also imposed a “private” status on Buddhism, requiring its adherents to obtain official permission to conduct public activities. Diem never repealed that statute.
Diem counted on the thousands of Catholics who had fled south after the 1954 partition as his core constituency. He coddled them with key military and civilian posts, business deals and property privileges. He underwrote Madame Nhu’s puritanical campaigns as manifesta¬tions of Catholic morality, and he lobbied in Rome for his brother Thuc’s appointment as archbishop of Saigon. The Vatican, loath to endorse the Ngo oligarchy too openly, assigned Ngo Dinh Thuc to Hue. But he spent most of his time in the capital, managing the Church’s real estate—and helping Diem and Nhu to manage the coun try. As the senior member, Thuc was preeminent inside the family.
Though Buddhist activists resented Catholic supremacy, they mainly focused on improving their own organization in an endeavor to match the Church’s strength. They initiated recruitment drives, appealed for national cohesion and affiliated with international Bud¬dhist associations. Their antipathy toward Diem might have remained latent had he not committed a blunder which, given his own intran¬sigence, was probably inevitable.
On May 8, 1963, as Buddhists assembled in Hue to celebrate the 2527th birthday of the Buddha, the deputy province chief, a Catholic by the name of Major Dang Xi, enforced an old decree prohibiting them from flying their multicolored flag. A week earlier, however, he had encouraged Catholics there to display blue and white papal banners to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Thuc’s or¬dination. The discrimination dismayed the Buddhists. Several thou¬sand gathered peacefully in front of the city’s radio station to listen to loudspeakers broadcast a speech by Tri Quang, a Buddhist leader. The station director canceled the address, claiming that it had not been approved by the censor. He also telephoned Major Xi, who dispatched five armored cars to the scene. The commander ordered the crowd to disperse, then told his men to fire. The people stampeded. A woman and eight children died, either shot or trampled in the melee. Buddhist protests multiplied during the weeks that followed, and government troops aggravated the unrest by quelling them, sometimes brutally.
Diem’s regime blamed the whole incident on the Vietcong, but a distinguished physician who had examined the victims confirmed the Buddhist account of their deaths; the government suppressed his re¬port. Outraged, the Buddhists insisted among other demands that the officials responsible for the killings be punished. Diem ignored them.

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