The Vietnamese Diaspora

By Jenkins, Philip | The Christian Century, January 23, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Vietnamese Diaspora


Jenkins, Philip, The Christian Century


Historians argue at length about when the Vietnam War began--or the U.S. role in it--but an excellent claim can be made for 1963. In that year, global media were transfixed by the horrible image of a Buddhist monk burning himself alive in protest against the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of South Vietnam, who later that same year was assassinated. This crisis, just 50 years ago, set the stage for direct U.S. military intervention.

Of the making of books about Vietnam there is no end, and the response of religious communities in the United States to the war has been amply documented. What gets lost in popular memory is how religious battles within Vietnam itself shaped political attitudes and arguably doomed the anticommunist cause.

Such amnesia is scarcely surprising. In the 1960s, few people paid attention to religion as a political factor. But without understanding the role of religion, and particularly of Catholic Christianity, we miss much of the story of those dreadful years. In its origins, the Vietnam War resembled the later civil-religious strife in Lebanon.

Although Southeast Asia is traditionally Buddhist, a potent Catholic presence dates back at least to the Jesuit missions of the 16th century. Through much of the 19th century, Buddhists and Catholics fought and intrigued against each other, provoking bloody wars and persecutions.

Catholicism grew in numbers and influence with the establishment of the French empire in Indochina. The faith appealed particularly to those who were influential and Westernized. The Catholic presence received a massive setback with the establishment of communist rule in the north of Vietnam after 1954, setting off the first of successive exiles. Buttressed by these new arrivals, the anticommunist regime in the south became aggressively Catholic. Ngo Dinh Diem's ultraconservative brother was the Archbishop of Hue.

Although Christians made up just 15 percent of the population, the regime gave Catholicism something like established status, dedicating the country to the Virgin Mary in 1959. The government exempted Catholic villages from official burdens, directed external aid toward Catholics and placed heavy restrictions on Buddhist activities. Rowdy Catholic militias demolished Buddhist temples. When Buddhist protests erupted, government forces responded ferociously. When Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in 1963, it was not a generic protest against dictatorship or human rights abuses but a specific call to end religious persecution.

When communist agents called on Buddhist peasants to rise against Catholic landlords and the regime in South Vietnam, they were preaching to those already half converted.

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