From .............

Edited by Marvin E. Gettleman

Pub. by Fawcett -1965, Repub. by Times Mirror -1970


[Former correspondent for the West Point, Mississippi Daily Times-Leader and Nashville Tennessean before joining the staff of The New York Times in 1960. He became The Times' correspondent in South Vietnam in the fall of 1962, replacing Homer Bigart. The selection is from The New York Times (September 11, 1963).]

Buddhist Crisis in Vietnam

Page 262

The scene has changed sharply in South Vietnam since the conflict between the [American installed, Roman Catholic .... JP] Government and the Buddhists erupted four months ago.

Last May, when Buddhist protests were beginning, a Vietnamese professor told a foreigner:

Few Americans would now consider Vietnam calm.

Out of a seemingly orderly state a crisis exploded-first as a religious quarrel, then as a political dispute, then as a national emergency. Finally it grew into an international conflict reducing to hostility the Vietnamese Government's relations with its foremost ally, the United States.

Buddhist Crisis in Vietnam


In these four months unknown Buddhist priests rose to power and then went to jail. The President's brother and sister-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Ngo Dinh Nhu, long considered powers behind the scenes, came into full public view and accomplished what some observers consider a palace coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem. Finally, some United States civilian officials fear that the present government can no longer wage a successful war against the Communist guerrillas of the Vietcong.

[ Therefore American troops quickly became required to prop up the tottering, corrupt [ aren't they all ? ] Roman Catholic regime of Ngo Dinh Diem ..... JP ]

What caused the Buddhist crisis? How political was it? What were the issues? What went wrong? Through months of protests, statements, and demonstrations, two political aspects of the crisis have stood out.

That there was any trouble at all between Buddhists and the Roman Catholic leadership of Vietnam came as a surprise to most Americans stationed here.

Americans, preoccupied with the guerrilla war, their reason for being in Vietnam, had rarely seen evidence of Religious discrimination. Even politically alert foreigners had had little contact with the Buddhists. Yet, as most Americans knew, Vietnam is a predominantly Buddhist country.

The Asia Foundation, a nonprofit American group that has devoted considerable research to the country, estimates that ten or eleven million of South Vietnam's 14.5 million people consider themselves Buddhists. Of these, five or six million are practicing Buddhists. The rest, particularly the poor and the peasants, are closer to simple ancestor worshipers, but their sects profess Buddhism.

[Roman] Catholics number close to 10 per cent, including many who fled from North Vietnam in 1954, when the country was partitioned. Many of the most cultured and best-educated people here are [Roman] Catholics. They include the powerful and aristocratic Ngo family, which governs the country.



Though there had been no great religious outburst in Vietnam before May 8, many observers felt that beneath the surface there was considerable unrest and growing dissatisfaction. In recent years, some observers felt, the Government, which had made a popular start here, had become increasingly isolated from the people and increasingly repressive. Many observers believed that the changes coincided with the growing power of Mr. and Mrs. Ngo Dinh Nhu and that the President saw events more and more through their eyes.

High American officials had seen these same omens and had suggested that the Government become more responsive. Although there was little change, American aid continued. Some observers suspected that the aid was being used to make the Government's security and police network more powerful and less dependent on the backing of the people. These warnings were voiced by many visitors, including Western correspondents and a Senate committee headed by Mike Mansfield, Democrat [and Roman Catholic] of Montana, who cited his long friendship with President Ngo Dinh Diem.

As recently as last March a high State Department official on a visit said,

In this atmosphere the Buddhist question arose. It started with the Buddhists' wish to fly their patchwork flag in Hue on the Buddha's birthday, reckoned here as the 2,587th. The [Roman Catholic] Government, citing an old regulation, replied that only Government flags were permitted in public. Thousands of Buddhists demonstrated, and the Government broke up the demonstration by firing into the crowd and killing nine.

Why did the Buddhists suddenly demonstrate and choose the flag issue?

Most observers believe the Buddhist affair began as a religious protest with primarily religious objectives. Symbolically its birthplace was Hue, the central coastal city where religious feeling is particularly strong. .

Hue is the see of Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, a brother of the President. There [Roman] Catholicism has become closely identitied with the Government.

The city was also the imperial capital of the old state of Annam, a center of Buddhist learning and a symbol of a time when Buddhism was the favored religion of Vietnam.

Buddhist Crisis in Vietnam


In Hue religious feeling is strong on both sides. This is atypical in Vietnam. Where Buddhist leaders were often to find their Saigon followers sympathetic but cautious, Hue was to be a center of militant feeling. Buddhist leaders there often had to run hard to stay in front of the parade. Most observers believe that if the Government had moved quickly, acknowledging responsibility for the May 8 incident and paying reparations, the entire issue would have ended then and there. Had President Ngo Dinh Diem made a dramatic gesture at a pagoda, they say, or delivered a few warm and magnanimous words, he could have emerged stronger than ever.

One foreigner, recalling the episode, said he had suggested to high Saigon officials that reparations of 500,000 piasters (about $7,000), plus a quick public statement, would settle the affair. His friend, a high Vietnamese official, said quickly:

So in spite of eyewitness accounts and photographic evidence, the Government stuck resolutely to its story: nine died at the hands of the Vietcong.

When a delegation of Buddhist high priests visited the President at this time, he told them they were "fools" to ask for religious freedom since it was guaranteed in the Constitution.

At this point, the outlines of the Government's attitude began to take shape. The Buddhist protest was regarded as an affront to the Ngo family, and the kind of dramatic reply that Americans were urging on the Government was seen as a sign of weakness.

The Ngo Dinh Diem of earlier years, many observers believe, would have been able to move toward a quick settlement of the dispute. Throughout Vietnam he is known for toughness, courage, and strong anti-Communism. But the Ngo Dinh Diem of today is considered an isolated man, removed further and further from the population, hearing finely sifted reports about his people.

One officer who had been traveling through the country found himself being questioned by Ngo Dinh Diem about popular feeling. Again and again the President asked what the people were thinking. Several times the officer, sensing trouble, hedged. Finally Ngo Dinh Diem asked again:

"Well, Mr. President," the officer said, "the people are very unhappy."

At this point, according to the officer, Ngo Dinh Diem became enraged, charged out of his chair and said, "It is all Communist propaganda."



Ngo Dinh Diem does not see himself as the type of leader Americans envision. He sees himself representing God to the people and believes that it is the duty of the population to honor him.

In this situation, observers say, the President's hand was tied by his family. There were times, it is said. when he would have liked to see the entire issue settled.

But the Ngo Dinh Nhus opposed a conciliatory approach, as did Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc.

The President is not considered anti-Buddhist as such. Most observers agree that Buddhists were persecuted in some areas of the central coastal region and that in these areas the [Roman] Catholic Church and the Government had become entwined. Some sources believe that the Ngo family did not consider Buddhism a serious religion and that the Buddhists sensed this.

There is no doubt that Ngo Dinh Diem, an extremely suspicious man, trusted primarily [Roman] Catholics and in particular Catholics from the central region.

Once he told a high officer, forgetting that he was a Buddhist:

At vital centers of the Government, power was held by [Roman] Catholics - positions in the secret police and the command of troops in areas around Saigon. Thus, on purely religious grounds, the Buddhists could document their claims, although many of the claims were vague and some were exaggerated. Though the Buddhist movement was not always political, observers assert, it was, to the Government, political from the start. The Government's political flaws, and not its religious beliefs, would later haunt it.

By June the protest born in Hue began to spread to other cities in the central coastal region and to Saigon. Buddhist demonstrations continued. In Hue one student demonstration was stopped by Government forces throwing gas grenades. Sixty-seven persons went to the hospital with blister-gas burns. Slowly the protest began to take form. Priests became adept at calling correspondents, and mimeograph machines began to reproduce Western press coverage.

Priests also began to show increased organizational ability; warned in Saigon that they would not be able to assemble, they quietly hired four buses, filled them with monks, pulled the shades down, and drove around the city until precisely 2 P.M. Then all the buses arrived in front of the National Assembly. The priests filed out and began a sitdown hunger strike.

Buddhist Crisis in Vietnam


Early in June the Government began to worry about the implications of the Buddhist movement. People in Saigon and in other cities were becoming aware of a new force in Vietnam, a force standing up to the Government as no one had in years. It appeared that the Buddhists were becoming a spearhead for other dissident elements.

At this point, the United States Embassy here became concerned over the potential effect of the crisis on United States and world opinion, and on the anti-Communist war effort. The war was costing the United States $1.5 million a day. The embassy began to pressure Ngo Dinh Diem to settle the issue and to settle it quickly.

Then, on June 8, Mrs. Ngo Dinh Nhu's Women's Solidarity Movement issued a bitter statement implying that the Buddhists were infiltrated by Communists. Embassy officials were stunned. "If that statement is policy, it's a disaster," one official said. "Otherwise it's simply an aberration."

Americans then let the Government know that if the matter was not settled the United States might have to dissociate itself. Americans also suggested that silence from Mrs. Ngo Dinh Nhu might be welcome. Later she was to describe this suggestion as a State Department attempt to blackmail her into silence.

Then, on June 11, an aged Buddhist priest, Thich Quang Duc, sat down at a major intersection, poured gasoline on himself, took the cross-legged "Buddha" posture and struck a match. He burned to death without moving and without saying a word.

Thich Quang Duc became a hero to the Buddhists in Vietnam, and he dramatized their cause for the rest of the world. "When pictures of Quang Due burning himself to death went around the world," an American said, "if this [Roman Catholic] Government was not discriminating against Buddhists it might just as well have been."

Under considerable United States pressure, the [Roman Catholic] Government and the Buddhists negotiated a five-point settlement. On June 16 they signed a joint communique, a strange statement of the views of both sides. It gave in to the Buddhists on some points, but it did not admit Government responsibility for the Hue incident. Instead, it appointed an all-Government committee to investigate it. The joint communique pleased neither side, and it radically changed the complexion of the contesting forces.



Reliable palace sources say Mrs. Ngo Dinh Nhu was furious when she heard that her brother-in-law was about to sign the communique. "You are a coward," she is reported to have told him.

Witnesses recall that Ngo Dinh Diem answered: "You do not understand this affair. It has international implications. We must settle it."

At almost the same moment, in Xa Loi pagoda, a young priest was threatening: "If I tell some of the other Buddhists what has been signed they will be very angry."

In days, there were reports that the Government, and particularly the Ngo Dinh Nhus, had no intention of carrying out the accord. On June 26 Ngo Dinh Nhu issued a secret memorandum to his Cong Hoa (Republican) Youth, calling the Buddhists rebels and urging the Cong Hoa to tell the Government not to accept the joint communique. According to diplomats and other sources, reliable reports from the palace said the Government planned to wait until interest and attention had slackened and then seize some Buddhist leaders. Early in July Vice-President Nguyen Ngoc Tho, a Buddhist, announced that a preliminary investigation of the Hue incident showed that the Vietcong were responsible for the deaths.

To the Buddhists, this and continued attacks from a newspaper supporting Ngo Dinh Nhu had an ominous sound. They were partly responsible, observers say, for a major change in the Buddhist leadership. Up to then, the leaders had been conservative; though there were powerful young members, the older leadership had managed to control them.

Some observers believe that at this point the younger priests, realizing that they were probably in the movement too deep for an easy retreat, that they were marked men, took over. They represented a new force in Vietnamese politics, for by now they were deep in politics. These priests are in their thirties and early forties, men clearly affected by thirty years of political revolution and political war in Vietnam.

At first these new leaders, essentially political in their instincts, seemed to represent vague Buddhist political ideas: better education for their people, more recognition for their religion. Later, as the lines became more sharply drawn, they became increasingly open in their attacks on the Government and the leading family. Soon they were clearly trying to create an atmosphere in which the Government would fall. Most observers say they very nearly accomplished this.

Buddhist Crisis in Vietnam


Were they Communists? The Government has repeatedly charged that they were.

Some, like Tri Quang, had participated in the nationalist fight against French rule. These had had some contact with the Communists. But the analysis of high American political officers was that the movement was anti-Communist as well as anti-Government. Some leaders would probably have been more susceptible to a neutralist solution than to partition a few years ago, but the general feeling of observers now was that Buddhism had had a difficult time in North Vietnam and that Buddhists were no longer apathetic about Communism.

As a climax to the crisis drew near, the protest was a complicated force.

It was in small part Buddhist against [Roman] Catholic; it was in much larger part the protest of a large segment of the people who happened to be Buddhist against an authoritarian Government that happened to be [Roman] Catholic-dominated. It was also, in small part, have-nots protesting against haves; it was in much larger part twentieth-century Asians protesting against older Asians molded from a mandarin past.

Weeks passed, and the Buddhist protests seemed endless. Always formidable in the major cities and in the central coastal region, the dissension was seeping by August into the army and into the countryside. An American survey, carried out by Vietnamese, showed that the people in the countryside were aware of the crisis, were worried by it, were more sympathetic to the Buddhists than to the Government and had little confidence in the Government's ability to solve the dispute. Similarly the army showed growing unrest and a growing consciousness of religion, particularly among young officers.

Some officers had believed before that the way to get ahead was to be converted to [Roman] Catholicism, and the Buddhist crisis had underlined this feeling.

Though high American military officials said the crisis had not affected the war effort, .............

private Vietnamese readings were sharply different: that it was affecting morale and having an effect on individuals efficiency.

In the countryside, there was acute consciousness, even in smaller communities in the coastal region. By August the word had reached the Mekong delta, where the Vietcong were making a major propaganda effort. Voice of America broadcasts were carrying Western news reports on the events.

Now the Buddhists hoped to provoke the Government into rash acts. "We will throw the banana peels for them to slip on," one Buddhist leader said.



Now, too, the protest leaders were storing up human resources for demonstrations to impress the new United States Ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, when he arrived. The Government, while less repressive than it had been earlier, appeared to have lost its initiative.

Ngo Dinh Diem was caught between powerful and conflicting forces.

One was Mr. and Mrs. Ngo Dinh Nhu, who wanted to crush the movement and get the matter over with.

The other was the United States, urging as strongly as it could a conciliatory approach.

Yet the steps Americans were urging were alien to the Government, which felt that concessions now would be a sign of weakness. The result satisfied neither side. The Americans were able to urge Ngo Dinh Diem into a radio address, heralded in Washington by State Department spokesmen but ignored in Saigon. His brief, cold statement added little new to the situation.

The protests were clearly out of control, and there were reliable reports that at least two groups were moving toward a coup. A general fear of disintegration gripped the country.

Into the vacuum Ngo Dinh Nhu moved on Wednesday, August 21.

Just how much President Ngo Dinh Diem knew of the plans is a matter of controversy. On Tuesday night, Buddhists were alerted by friends that a raid was imminent. They tipped off reporters that the combat police were coming.

At the headquarters of the operation, a high official received a telephone call shortly before midnight. Then he put his head in his hands and said,

But for some reason, most of the priests decided to stay in their pagodas. Only Tri Quang, it appears. left. Why they remained is not certain-perhaps they thought the Americans could still protect them, and perhaps they thought Ngo Dinh Nhu would fall. Reporters were already in the area when the strike came about at 12:30. Due Nghiep managed to call one newspaper office. Usually Due Nghiep speaks English to reporters, but this time his voice was shrill and terrified, a reporter recalls, and he spoke in Vietnamese.

His message was repeated again and again like a phonograph record with the needle stuck:

It was, in a sense, the end of the the Buddhist affair and the beginning of an international crisis.


From .............

Edited by Marvin E. Gettleman

Pub. by Fawcett -1965, Repub. by Times Mirror -1970

[ Former managing editor of the Harvard Crimson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for international news reporting (1964), author of The Making of a Quagmire (New York, 1965), presently The New York Times correspondent in Warsaw, The selection is from The New York Times (November 6,1963). This dispatch appeared in the next Wednesday's Times.-ed. ]

Coup in South Vietnam

Page 271

Plot and counterplot in a complex pattern of intrigue culminated in the military coup d'etat in South Vietnam Friday.1

The vanity of an ambitious young general, Ton That Dinh, appears to have been a key factor to the train of events that led to the overthrow of the Ngo family regime and the deaths of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.

Buddhist dissatisfaction with the Ngos, which had long been simmering, erupted into demonstrations and violence during the summer and the climate was ripe for a coup. Generals who had been considering a coup at various times began to plan seriously. One of the fist allies they needed was Ton That Dinh.

Ton That Dinh, at thirty-eight years of age, had risen meteorically to the rank of brigadier general. He owes much of his success to the fact that the Ngo family trusted him as it trusted only one other general, Huynh Van Cao.

The family gave Ton That Dinh a command to the north of Saigon so that it could block any attempt to overthrow the Government from that direction. Defense to the south of Saigon was in the hands of Huynh Van Cao in the Mekong delta area. Thus, when other generals who were disaffected with the Ngo family persuaded Ton That Dinh to join the plot, the Ngo family's carefully planned system of self-protection was left with a big hole. The Ngos did not know the hole was there, so great was their faith in Ton That Dinh.

Ton That Dinh shows the marks of vanity and driving ambition. He likes to wear a tightly tailored paratrooper's uniform, a red beret at a jaunty angle, and dark glasses. Behind him there usually is a tall, silent Cambodian bodyguard. Newspaper photographers who take pictures of Ton That Dinh have always been warmly treated. The dissident generals played upon his vanity to bring about his defection.



What follows is a recapitulation, as complete as can be obtained today, of what actually went on at the secret meetings of the plotters and the secret meetings of Government officials from the beginning of the critical period.

The Buddhists' discontent with the Ngo family, which is Roman Catholic, became overt in the spring when the Government forbade the Buddhists to fly their religious banners along with the national flag.

The Buddhists drew up a list of demands to remedy what they considered the Government's repressions. The Government promised action, but there was none.........

Three generals began to plot in June, when the Buddhist crisis began to grow from a religious dispute into a full-scale political crisis.

One of the three was Duong Van Minh, known as Big Minh, who had a distinguished record as a combat leader, but who had been shunted aside because of Ngo Dinh Nhu's jealousies. The second was Tran Van Don, a suave, aristocratic graduate of St. Cyr, the French West Point. The third was Le Van Kim, virtually an unemployed general who was called by one military man the shrewdest of generals.

These men felt that the Government was provoking a major crisis and that its refusal to meet some of the Buddhist demands was arrogant and self-defeating. They brought in other key officers step by step. In all this early planning, Duong Van Minh's prestige gave the plot respectability.

The officers moved slowly and gained the consent of Gen. Nguyen Kanh of the II Corps, and Gen. Do Cao Tri of the I Corps. They had no set plan and too few troops. Their main problem would be to get troops into Saigon.

The Ngos, however, had prepared a military structure to guard against such threats. Great emphasis was placed on loyalty among the high officers, particularly those in and directly north and south of Saigon.

There were two reasons for this:

First, a disloyal commander could turn his troops around and head up the highway and storm the Presidential Palace.

Second, if other troops rebelled, then Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu could call in their loyal commanders. This had happened in the past. In 1960, when paratroopers had all but scored a coup d'etat, they began negotiating with Ngo Dinh Diem only to.........