Politics, Programs, and Protests: Catholic Relief Services in Vietnam, 1954-1975
Kauffman, Christopher J., The Catholic Historical Review
It is now thirty years since Americans finally departed from Saigon in 1975.That this longest war in U.S.history still electrifies the political climate was abundantly evident in the last presidential election. John Kerry opened his campaign with a dramatic rendering of his heroic feats as a swift-boat commander in Vietnam to which members of his crew gave testimony. Anti-Kerry political ads followed, sponsored by the putative Swift-Boat Veterans for Truth, who sought to portray him as utterly unworthy of his wartime honors. Another pro-Republican group depicted Kerry as a national anti-war activist who debased the coinage of traditional patriotism, and thereby disqualified himself from leading the nation in the war in Iraq as well as in the struggle against terrorism. Anti-Bush ads then challenged the integrity of the President's record as a reserve Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War.
Within the preceding context, it is clear that any contemporary historian engaged in writing about Vietnam must be aware that the very process itself entails a political act. The war there has affected the deep stories of all those who were, and are, either defenders or opponents of America's involvement in that military action. There is also the inevitable distortion of memory and of bias among those who viewed the war from such varying perspectives as that of the church, of the larger society, as well as of the academy. Yawning generation gaps were current during the "war and still affect our perspectives today. Any historian examining so divisive a conflict must struggle to achieve the necessary scholarly detachment, even when he or she has access to what seem to be voluminous records. In writing about Catholic Relief Services I have the luxury of rich documentation that reveals both sides in a war that polarized the nation. Nevertheless, there is always a danger of interpretive prejudices unwittingly creeping into any narrative of conflict.
Introduction: The Context
In 1943, during Franklin D. Roosevelt's post-World War II planning to incorporate religious voluntary agencies into relief and recovery efforts, Catholic War Relief Services-NCWC was established by the Catholic bishops' National Catholic Welfare Conference. After 1955 it was renamed Catholic Relief Services-NCWC. As a participant in the National War Fund, CRS was allotted 2.4 million dollars for immediate projects to respond to the needs of Polish refugees in Mexico, Palestine, and other Catholic refugees and prisoners of war. Of course, CRS could not use the funds for ecclesiastical purposes or any kind of religious activity, but all funds were to go for health and general-welfare projects. CRS was almost entirely dependent upon U.S. aid; it also received the funds collected in every diocese on Laetare Sunday that originated in a 1941 collection for overseas aid. Over the years Church World Service (which included the major Protestant denominations and the Orthodox Church) and the United Jewish Appeal collected funds on that same weekend, marking it a special time for reflection on the needs of the human family. Eileen Egan, author of a history of CRS, captured the significance of the appeals by the principal faiths: "By their efficacy in mobilizing their communities to make sacrifices for suffering in far corners of the globe, the faith-related volunteer agencies earned the respect of the U.S. government, of foreign governments . . . and of intergovernmental agencies. ... In the post-war decades, over threefourths of all voluntary aid from the American people was donated by the three great faith-related agencies."1 Of course, this voluntary aid could be used for religious activities.
In postwar Europe CRS had the advantage of funneling its U.S. aid for the social welfare and medical needs of people through the Church's extensive networks of institutions, i.e., hospitals, orphanages, and other charities. It was the only agency overseas recognized by many countries, making it the largest relief service. Among the twenty private overseas relief agencies, CRS was the recipient of over half of "the relief supplies from the State Department's International Cooperation Agency."2 This became the Agency for International Development (AID) in 1962. From its origins in 1943 to the tragic tsunami disaster of 2004 CRS has been engaged in emergency aid and the plight of refugees in light of the gospel call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless.
The structure of CRS included an executive director, two assistant directors, and a director of each principal region, such as the Far East that encompassed Vietnam. Bishop Edward Swanstrom, who secured his M.A. degree in social work from Fordham University, was executive director during 1955-1975, and James Norris,with offices in Geneva, was the assistant executive director for personnel and general policy. Swanstrom made an intervention at the second Vatican Council urging the Church to initiate a concerted mission effort to expand the concern for the needs of impoverished peoples of the world and to promote many social-justice programs to meet these needs.1 James Norris was the only lay person to speak at the second Vatican Council. His proposal, in collaboration with Barbara Ward, was to establish, what was later entitled the Pontifical Commission of Peace and Justice. As a result of this establishment, many Peace and Justice Commissions were organized on diocesan levels.4
This paper is focused primarily on two directors of CRS in South Vietnam: Monsignor Joseph Harnett and Father Robert Charlebois. Because Harnett became director of the Far East region of CRS in 1959 that required travel throughout the region, program directors were in charge of the Saigon office, but accountable to Harnett. I also consider the role of the program director Lawson B. Mooney, because it was he who introduced the program that was severely criticized by Catholic anti-war activists during a few months after Charlebois became director accountable only to Bishop Swanstrom.
Harnett was the most political of the three directors. He was an active member of the Friends of Vietnam, whose sole aim was to win support for Ngo Dinh Diem as the President of South Vietnam, which he later renamed the Republic of Vietnam.5 Harnett and Diem shared a common Catholic worldview, an impassioned anticommunism, and a sense of the mutuality of interests in benefits of social-welfare programs provided by CRS. Harnett tolerated the dictatorial character of the Diem regime because he believed the alternative was the advance of the Communist insurgents. He and Diem had little sympathy for the Buddhist political-religious position or its practical agenda; both men simply regarded any dissent as communist-inspired.
Representative of a younger generation, Robert Charlebois was thirty-six years old when he took over the Saigon office in 1967. With prior experience in Ecuador, and freed from an aggressive anticommunism so ingrained in Harnett's sensibility, Charlebois's religious worldview also departed from Harnett's pre-Vatican Council II religiosity. Unlike Harnett, Charlebois was a professionally trained social worker. Both relied upon serving the local Church, but in a post-Diem political world, Charlebois did not occupy a place of privilege. Indeed, he had to negotiate with Vietnamese and the U.S. military officials as well as the AID administrators in Saigon for logistical support for CRS programs, many of which went through church personnel and institutions. The intensification of the war meant that CRS became more and more dependent on the military, and when a program actually benefited local militias it was singled out by Catholic peace activists as reeking of the alleged immorality of the U.S. war machine. From Charlebois's perspective, preoccupied as he was with providing aid to the needy during the complexities of wartime, the religious and political language of the protesters appeared to be self-serving and remote from the altruistic concerns of Christ for the poor. Though he was an opponent of the anti-war movement, Charlebois did not harbor pro-war sentiments. His position was thoroughly tactical; he was engaged in the art of the possible, which required compromises, expediencies, and a strict sense of the requirements of his position-with low tolerance for any staff member who criticized the war effort or CRS's dependency on the military. He fired some members for their inability to place service to the poor and the needy above their own personal concerns about the war itself.6
Harnett, CRS, and Diem
Monsignor Harnett became the first director of CRS in Vietnam in 1954, shortly after the fall of French power in Indochina. A priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Harnett received a Doctorate in Theology in 1937 at the Lateran University in Rome. After teaching for ten years, he joined the staff of CRS. Fluent in Italian and French, he was assigned to Trieste, the Italian city on the Adriatic that had become a haven for the deluge of refugees from Croatia and other nations threatened by the advance of Communism. Within three years, from 1947 to 1950, the city had more than doubled its population due to the influx of refugees.7 Harnett responded to the crisis with a clear sense of the mission of CRS and strong commitment to the dominant dimension of American foreign policy: containment of communist aggression.
After seven years' experience on the western edge of the Iron Curtain, Harnett opened the first office in Saigon, also a city overflowing with refugees fleeing from the Communist North. Despite massive U.S. aid to France between 1950 and 1954, Ho Chi Minh's Vietminh army achieved a final victory over the French forces at Dienbienphu in April, 1954. Subsequently, the Geneva Accords declared a formal end of hostilities and designated the 17th parallel as the temporary partition line between North and South-to be deleted upon the election of a national government planned for 1956. The accords provided a three-hundredday window, intended to allow people to establish new residences south and north of the 17th parallel.8
In a relatively short time, 800,000 refugees poured into the south, eighty percent of whom were Catholic. Prior to the signing of the accords, the Eisenhower administration had successfully urged the French to have the titular Emperor Bao Dai appoint Ngo Dinh Diem Premier in Saigon. Since there were many Vietminh in the South, a 1956 election would have predictably placed Ho Chi Minh as head of the national government. John Foster Dulles, U.S. Secretary of State, had urged the French and Diem to oppose any national elections. Within a month Diem had formed his own cabinet; on October 23,1955, through a referendum, Diem defeated Bao Dai and became chief of state. Three days later he proclaimed the establishment of the Republic of Vietnam with himself as president. In effect, he put an end to the prospect of national elections in 1956.9
Several factors contributed to the choice of Diem as premier. Lt. Colonel Edward Lansdale, sent by Alien Dulles of the CIA to promote American anti-Hanoi interests, was the CIA agent who led "a very successful American psychological warfare operation, [with] propaganda slogans and leaflets [which] appealed to the devout Catholics [to seek religious freedom in the south] with such themes as 'Christ has gone to the South' and 'the Virgin Mary has escaped from the North.' It was reported that. . . whole bishoprics . . . packed up lock, stock, and barrel, from the bishop to almost the last village priest and faithful. . . . One bishop had raised a Catholic militia who marched under the yellow and white flag of the Vatican City State."10 In this context, the United States believed that Diem would be perceived as a viable leader of anticommunism.
Born into a wealthy family that had been Catholic for three centuries, and living in the vicinity of the imperial city of Hue, Diem was an ultraorthodox Catholic who had originally favored an independent Vietnam, though serving as Minister of the Interior under Bao Dai in the early 1930's. He became an ardent foe of Ho's Communist leadership, and in 1950, after alienating the French and the Communists, Diem went into exile in the United States, accompanied by his brother, Diem Dinh Thuc, bishop of the Vinh Long. His departure from Vietnam came shortly after the beginning of the Korean Conflict earlier that year. Over the next few years Diem, while at Maryknoll seminaries in New York and New Jersey, met Cardinal Francis Spellman. He also satisfied his political aspirations in meetings with diplomats, politicians, and members of the Eisenhower administration. Portrayed by his American supporters as a powerful leader in a pluralist society, Diem returned to Saigon as premier. Lansdale and the American Friends of Vietnam depicted Diem as representing a third force between the French and the Communists. This support allowed him to consolidate his power and to strengthen the Catholic basis of his regime. The American Friends of Vietnam, dedicated to supporting Diem and helping him consolidate his power, included its liberal publicist Joseph Buttinger, politicians such as Senator John F. Kennedy, whom Diem met while in the United States, diplomats like Angier Biddle Duke, and other prominent men from academic and professional areas.11
Joseph Harnett was an active member of the Friends and became a trusted associate of President Diem. Over the years he had very many meetings with him, had written speeches for him, and had celebrated Mass in Diem's private chapel. Soon after Harnett had arrived in Saigon he reported to Bishop Swanstrom about Diem's "personal visit to me in order to request me not to spend any funds for supplies unless it is absolutely necessary. He requested all funds be used to build up the . . . economic possibilities of the refugees in their communities through cooperative arrangements. ... I know the president will be very grateful when I get the chance to tell him we have already deposited $150,000 to my account for this purpose." Funds and supplies to support resettlement were at the top of the list of priorities. Harnett also reaffirmed support for cooperatives, but rather than limit aid to the government, he also helped "refugees under their priest leaders to form capital for their cooperatives."12 Many of these priests would later work for Caritas, the Catholic charities of South Vietnam.
In that same letter to Swanstrom Harnett quoted his own response to a cable from the NCWC requesting a short statement on the refugee crisis:
Only an inspiration of the highest order would have produced the most spectacular declaration in human history that free men will not accept slavery. But of all the nations that have fallen one by one before the foe of human spirit, that inspiration was found strongest in the hearts of the little Catholic people [sic] of North Vietnam. They rose to challenge . . . cast aside, their traditional love of their villages, their attachment to property and home, and to a land sanctified by their martyrs. This took courage, indeed. But it took courage founded in their deep Catholic Faith in God. These people refused to stand by passively while the false gods of materialistic Communism were erected in their midst. . . . These are not only refugees, they are torchbearers of freedom whose light shows clearly the evil way of the powers of darkness and illuminates the path of courageous faith which free men everywhere must follow to avoid disaster."
Cardinal Francis Spellman, one of the most impassioned anticommuniste in the American hierarchy, was drawn to what he perceived as Diem's valiant struggle against Communism, no doubt convinced that his Catholicism animated his anticommunism. Spellman visited Vietnam January 5-7,1955;Harnett reported that nearly "10,000 refugees came to meet him at the airport. The cardinal won their hearts immediately by insisting on walking around among them giving them his blessing and smiling very benevolently on them." He celebrated two Masses with the refugees and dignitaries of church and state. Harnett wrote, "The people here, both Catholics, Buddhists, and those of no religion at all have become very devoted to him and certainly regard him as one of Vietnam's most devoted friends."14
As mentioned earlier, Diem had met Spellman during his time at Maryknoll in the early 1950's. During this visit Diem presented Spellman with the Great Cross of the Order of Vietnam. After a lengthy peroration, Diem concluded, "May this ribbon symbolize the close ties which bind our people to you and always remind you of the faithful affection which we deeply feel towards you."15 This was the first of Spellman's many visits to Vietnam over the years until his death on December 2, 1966.
As the prominent member of the bishops' Board of Directors of CRS, which was located in the Archdiocese of New York, Spellman presented to Harnett a $25,000 gift to CRS in Vietnam and was committed to send another $75,000 within a month. Upon his return to New York, Spellman, who was a member of the Friends of Vietnam, received several letters of support for Diem composed by Joseph Buttinger of the Friends. He enthusiastically told Diem of these letters, indicating his personal and political support of his administration of South Vietnam.16 These letters were indicative of the Friends' strong efforts to counter rising charges that Diem was not an effective proponent of American policies in Southeast Asia. Through such vigorous interventions on his behalf Diem received continuous American aid that allowed him to consolidate his power.
Joseph Harnett and Dr. Thomas A. Dooley presented pro-Diem papers at a 1955 symposium. Both praised the Catholic character of the refugees from the north. Harnett referred to them as "animated by a love of God and a love of country." According to the historian James T. Fisher, Dooley agreed with Harnett: the refugees were "as Christian pilgrims seeking religious freedom and assimilation within the new nation." Fisher concludes: "Harnett and Dooley, to be sure, were deeply attracted to Diem's ardent brand of Catholicism."17
Symbolic of his dependence on the U.S., Diem made a state visit to the United States in 1957. After a brief tour that included five cities, he stopped at Washington, D.C., in order to meet with President Eisenhower and members of his administration for talks on common foreignpolicy interests. Conscious of the anti-Catholic animus propagated by the secular liberal Paul Blanshard in his book, American Freedom and Catholic Power,w the Friends of Vietnam wished to downplay the Catholic image of Diem, because they sought to maintain support among progressive figures unsympathetic to Catholicism.19 Nevertheless, during his visit to New York, Diem attended Sunday Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral with Cardinal Spellman as celebrant. In his sermon, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Flannelly praised Diem as a "God-fearing, anticommunist and courageous statesman."20 Both Commonweal and America magazines were supportive of Diem at this time. The former stated, "The president of Vietnam continues to hang on with admirable tenacity"; the editors of America referred to Diem as "a vibrant symbol of the great good our foreign aid programs . . . have accomplished in the Communist-menaced postwar world." However, America also pointed out that Diem had been criticized "for methods some might deem totalitarian."21
Diem had constructed a Catholic oligarchy dominated by his close relatives; his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and his wife were the regime's famous '"eminences grises," and his brother, Ngo Dinh Can, was sort of a feudal war lord who controlled the area around Hue. Can was the militant dictatorial type who employed "totalitarian" methods of terror to solidify his power. Another brother, Bishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, dominated the Church until the Vatican assigned him to be archbishop of Hue, free from the center of power in Saigon. Catholics were appointed to the chief political and military positions and held economic privileges. With only fifteen percent of the country Catholic, the government was held together by a loyal army and a political party composed of those completely loyal to Diem and later by senior army officers. The party appointed all government officials and the army implemented a series of oppressive laws that resulted in over 150,000 political prisoners by the late 1950's. Though Diem had promised to promote land reform and local democracy in the rural villages, he never followed through because of his pursuit of Communist insurgents in the countryside. This was a self-fulfilling prophecy as his anti-reform policies alienated rural peasants, who were drawn to sympathize with the insurgents.22
U.S. aid in food commodities, medicines, and other material to Vietnam was so great that it ranked third among all nations receiving aid; CRS distributed more than fifty percent of that aid. CARE was the second largest relief agency, followed by other religious humanitarian agencies such as Church World Service and the Mennonite Central Committee. Harnett said that of the 300 resettlement villages established by early 1957, "about 267 villages eventually became known as Catholic villages, about 32 as Buddhist villages, and 3 as Protestant villages."23 Together the villages provided an institutional social infrastructure-hospitals, orphanages, and schools, and a variety of self-help programs. Harnett's association with Diem allowed CRS to become the virtual department of social and economic services in the Republic of Vietnam.
However, as Scott Eric Flipse points out, there was a period in 1957-58 when Harnett openly criticized Diem for various measures such as controlling Catholic schools and dropping the exemption of seminarians from military conscription, imprisoning priests critical of the government, and revoking the visa of a priest member of the Catholic News Service.24 Flipse remarks, "Harnett worried that Diem was growing paranoid about security and was unwilling to take advice from anyone outside his immediate family."25 In May, 1957, he told Swanstrom of his general disillusionment with Diem's political posture toward him: "the old close relationship and mutual understanding is practically gone."26 It was not until March, 1958, that the President indicated to Harnett a positive change in his attitude toward him and the role of CRS.27
In December, 1959, Harnett informed Swanstrom of the "decided improvement in relationships between the government and the Church in Vietnam . . . over the course of the last year or so. The President has established more cordial relationships than in the past with several of the bishops and has seemed to realize that the Catholics in the country are one of his strongest sources of support against the Communists." He then reported on Diem's recent display of his Catholic piety. "As you know the President is a very devout man and a fine Catholic."Through Diem's initiative, seven Marian Shrines were dedicated in December, 1959. Statues were donated by Diem, and the night before the dedication of the first shrine on December 8 Diem "spent the night in prayer in the Sanctuary, before attending the Mass at 5 a.m."28
Harnett corresponded with leading figures of the Friends of Vietnam. Writing in 1959 to Professor Wesley R.Fishel,Dean of International Programs at Michigan State University, Harnett stated that he had placed a piece entitled "TERROR IN VIETNAM" [his capitalization] in the National Catholic News Service "as you requested." This was a tactic characteristic of the Friends to plant stories in newspapers and journals to bolster the need for military aid for Diem's struggle against the common enemy. He also noted Diem's concern with the increasing number of the Communist insurgents in the towns and villages. In the face of criticisms from others, Diem defended his family, his reactionary strongman brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, and the ever controversial Madame Nhu. He also cited the progress of the insurgents and other setbacks.29 In response to the news that Harnett's long-time associate Joseph Buttinger was in opposition to Diem, Harnett warned General John W. Daniel, chairman of the Friends, that they "should not be misled by partisan [i.e., Buttinger's] political attitudes. This is not meant to condone any political injustices [by the Diem Government]. It is meant to throw light on the fact that complete human welfare of any state far outweighs some of the political variables." To substantiate his position, which tacitly condoned that the noble end justified the immoral means, Harnett referred to his various political and military contacts.
I talk to many Ministers of the Government and to their staff people, as well as the President. I have had the chance to speak with General Hawkins [U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of South Vietnam] and to several ambassadors to Vietnam. There is absolutely no doubt that the US is committed to the defense of this country from any advance of Communism.30
He was also convinced that Diem's dictatorial regulations were necessary to promote and defend the government. Diem considered CRS and other voluntary agencies to be symbolic of America's commitment to his government. As mentioned earlier, Harnett and Diem perceived Communism as diabolical and considered any form of political dissent as, at the least Communist-inspired if not Communist to the core.
Such absolutist judgments ultimately led to Diem's fall. His refusal to negotiate over the Buddhists' demands for political change resulted in his political paralysis. In November of 1963, six months after the first Buddhist demonstration in Hue, Diem and his brother Nhu were seized at the Cathedral in the early morning of All Souls' Day and were handed over to assassins. U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, who had attempted to convince Diem to negotiate with the Buddhists, kept the White House informed of the impending coup. Kennedy approved the coup, but when he heard of the assassination he was livid, never having intended that Diem would meet a violent end. The Buddhists were alienated by the dominance of Catholics in major government and military posts. Incidents of self-immolation by Buddhist monks had no effect upon Diem, but they had enormous effect upon the American press. Journalists exposed Diem's immoral crushing of the protestors, his intransigence, and his political myopia; their front-page articles in leading U.S. newspapers would ultimately lead to the U.S. abandonment of the regime.31
The response of the Catholic periodicals was mixed. Disillusioned with Diem's crushing the Buddhists, a Commonweal editorial stated: "The war in Vietnam must be won but it remains to be seen whether that goal can be achieved by means that are just."32 America's editorial came closer to the opinions held by Harnett. Diem had been "tactless and ruthless" in his anti-Buddhist campaign, but "the whole of Vietnam would be ruled by Communist Hanoi today had it not been for Ngo Dinh Diem."33
In a twelve-page letter to Edward Swanstrom, Harnett described and interpreted the fall of Diem:
It probably started originally with the antipathy of American newspapermen for a Catholic and [the] loose talk they engendered concerning the substituting of government. . . . The political arrest [of Buddhist and student demonstrators] caused alienation among the educated elites of South Vietnam. The hard-headedness of the president and his brother, their refusal to accept counsel and such things added to the problem. Diem justified everything-all government measures-in the name of the war against the Communists. Other people didn't accept this, especially foreign newsmen whose freedom of handling news was restricted. The liberals around the world, and particularly American liberals-socialists and the like-added fuel to the fire and definitely put pressure on the US government through their appeals to public opinions."
Harnett wrote to Swanstrom of Diem's support of democratic principles, and referred to their implementation on the local level, while Diem was not convinced that democracy could be legislated. Rather, it had to be "built by the people. There is no doubt that Diem made a great many mistakes, that he infringed upon the civil liberties of the country but he also did this in the name of a war against a vicious enemy identified in his own single-mindedness as Communism and its proponents in this part of the world.""
As mentioned previously, Kennedy was deeply disappointed with the assassination of Diem and Nhu. Maxwell Taylor described the situation, "Kennedy leaped to his feet and rushed from the room with the look of shock upon his face that I have never seen before. Later he dictated a memo for his records that referred to Diem's assassination as 'particularly abhorrent' and blamed himself for approving the Aug. 24th cable that had encouraged Lodge to support the coup."36
According to McGeorge Bundy the White House was committed to "the withdrawal of US military personnel" from South Vietnam. The assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, severely jolted the nation. It also left the plan for a staged withdrawal incomplete.37 President Lyndon B.Johnson, on the other hand, was determined to win the war in Vietnam, and in 1964 he had the military initiate covert action against North Vietnam in order to engender retaliation against South Vietnam and thereby justify the deployment of an American "defensive force." When news that 40,000 North Vietnamese fighting forces crossed into the South, Johnson sent a thousand more advisors. In August of 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin incident (which it is now known was provoked by U.S. forces), in which a group of U.S. ships was attacked by North Vietnamese forces, led Congress almost immediately to pass resolutions authorizing a massive response.38
The fall of Diem disrupted the role of CRS in Vietnam. The surfacing of Diem's political papers led to the public disclosure that Harnett had willingly engaged in a money-laundering scheme by which Diem received funds to pursue family and political-security interests. Harnett considered this a temporary setback in contrast to the loss of political privileges.39 However, his political appraisal of the immediate post-Diem period indicates that the military junta was "anxious to have the full cooperation of the Catholics of Vietnam, and . . . obtain their cooperation in their national unity Drive."40 Because CRS no longer occupied the privileged position it held during the Diem administration, it had "to reorganize the Food Program within the institutions of the country." Harnett wrote to Bishop Swanstrom that in the Saigon vicinity "we have been feeding 30,000 school children . . . and continuing efforts of the Family Feeding Program." Military transport maintained its commitment to "move our foods by air at the present time." Harnett informed Swanstrom that programs were "limited to the distribution of food stuffs. It is a far cry from the old program . . . when our office was, for all practical purposes, at the heart of all social assistance in this country."41
The Church's charities program, Caritas Vietnam, that Harnett and the bishops developed, was also disrupted in the immediate post-Diem period. Harnett felt trapped in this situation;"I have a feeling that we have been operating almost as though we were an instrument of the U.S. government policy rather than a Catholic Welfare Organization with its own aspirations and objectives." He intended, therefore, to "create Diocesan Committees of Catholic Charities,"42 through which the staff of CRS would have a sense of the religious dimensions of their mission brought home to them in very effective and meaningful ways. Without a vital network of Caritas, the religious identity of CRS would dissolve.
Similarly, the Vietnamese Catholic Church itself was in a state of demoralization. In a May, 1964, letter addressed jointly to Monsignor Harnett, and two program directors in Saigon since 1959, Bishop Swanstrom reported on a news story in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post"based upon the suppressed report made by the Public Safety Division of AID in Saigon." According to the story, the CRS leaders in Saigon had tolerated the "voluntary sale of our commodities to bishops and priests (out of all proportion) that end up on the black market." Though he did not place the blame directly on the three priests, Swanstrom did direct them to be certain that there are no "abuses on the part of bishops, priests, institutions, lay people, government officials or anyone else as far as our program is concerned."43
Lawson Mooney and Robert Charlebois and the Americanization of the War
In 1965 Lawson B. Mooney, who was director of Senegal, was appointed program director in Saigon. Caritas Vietnam was reorganized under his administration and opened an office in each of thirteen dioceses with a director and four assistants. It worked alongside CRS staff members during emergency assistance situations. During 1966-67 CRS recruited eighty students who were sent to study social work in Saigon and upon graduation were hired by Caritas with their salaries paid by the Commission of Refugees. In 1966 Caritas established six dispensaries providing free medical treatment to the needy. Though Harnett greeted the restoration of a vital Catholic identity with enthusiasm, CRS became thoroughly immersed in various programs associated with the massive war efforts of the Johnson administration.44
The central theme of Lyndon Johnson's agenda in 1965 was "the Great Society." It was intended to initiate urban revitalization programs in housing, education, jobs, and the retraining of workers for new sectors of the market-all programs that represented giant strides beyond John E Kennedy's war on poverty. On the foreign policy front, the Johnson Administration was to fight the advance of Communism in Southeast Asia by winning the war in Vietnam. In tandem with the continuous intensification of the battle against the enemy, Johnson was committed to generate a "social revolution" in Vietnam, based upon the development of democracy in villages and rural areas. He spoke of defeating "disease, hunger, and despair," and his wish was "to leave the footprints of America [in Vietnam]. I -want them to say,'This is what America left: schools, hospitals, and dams.'"45
The key to Johnson's social revolution was the enlargement of the role of voluntary agencies, the largest of which was Catholic Relief Services. This decision necessitated the expansion of the role of the CRS director who would be accountable to Harnett, and who would coordinate social programs with the South Vietnamese government and with Caritas Vietnam. CRS and the other agencies were dependent upon AID for assistance from its foundation in 1962; the AID manual stated that the voluntary agencies are "of significant value in mobilizing resources to achieve foreign policy objectives."46
The social revolution was gradually subsumed in the pacification program. Since it was necessary to compete with the Vietcong in winning the political war, pacification projects were crucial. In March of 1967 U.S. pacification programs were established under the aegis of the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support with the acronym CORDS. In the two years leading up to CORDS, the U.S. Military Assistance Command had formed a civil-action corps that distributed food and supplies to villages near areas of military combat. This civil-action program appears to have been perceived as an effective propaganda device to win the villagers to the American cause in opposition to the enemy's strategies. CRS worked closely with the civil-action teams. Lawson Mooney dedicated several pages of his first annual report, "An Analysis of the Civilian Assistance Program of Catholic Relief Services in Vietnam," to the issue of cooperation with civil-action teams. Not only did the commander of the American civil-action program provide a large warehouse at a major airport for CRS materials, but "we recently invited CARE to share" this space."From the . . . war civic action advisory headquarters ... we have had regular contact with a captain . . . who picks up supplies and reaches some 125 thousand people, some fifth of all popular forces' dependents, including widows and orphans."47
Mooney reported on several other civil-action teams representing New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, and Korea among the "friendly forces," as well as several sectors of the Army of the Vietnam Republic (ARVN). In a four-month period, July 1 to December 2,1965, the US and ARVN distribution of food, clothing, and medicines came to nearly 24 million pounds while the total for the other nations came to 1,000,500 pounds. Mooney concluded this portion of his report: "Finally, in order to establish and sustain the closest possible relations between the military forces and the Voluntary Agencies, CRS has initiated an informal monthly meeting with representatives present from all the groups involved. . . . These sessions are lively and doing a great deal to promote an understanding by and between all the parties involved in civic actions and relief assistance."48
The reference to aid to the dependents of the "military forces" may have in fact included aid to the forces themselves, but that was not explicitly stated until the publication of the Vietnam report in the 1966-67 "Report to the Board of Trustees of Catholic Relief Services-U.S.C.C." (The National Conference of Catholic Bishops-United States Catholic Conference [N.C.C.B.-U.S.C.C.] was constituted in 1966 as the successor body to the N.C.W.C.) "The program to assist popular Forces [local militia] and their dependents began in late 1966 and continued throughout the year."49 As will be explored later, this program became controversial because it entailed direct aid to local units of the military, aid that was diverted from explicitly social programs for refugees and others affected by the war. The severe dislocation of nearly 800,000 people as a result of the advance of the Vietcong and the U.S. bombing raids of 1965 required a massive effort by CRS and other voluntary organizations, particularly for establishing resettlement villages and distributing tons of food commodities, clothing, and medical supplies. In 1969 there were fifty foreign relief societies stationed in Vietnam. It was said that a frequent message from AID was "... Voluntary Agency people can do a lot to help us show the refugees that the U.S. wants to help them . . . and they should be on our side."50 The number of refugees mounted to nearly three million during the war, and this pattern of aid and its implicit message continued throughout the years of the war. In 1966-67, CRS distributed an estimated ninety-five percent of all U.S.donated food to the poor and needy of Vietnam; 146 million pounds of food and 2 million pounds of clothing. Besides such basics, CRS helped such social institutions as schools, orphanages, hospitals, day care centers, and leprosaria.51
Lawson Mooney included political as well as religious news in his letters to Swanstrom, particularly reports on Buddhist demonstrations and Buddhist-Catholic tensions, and the administration of Nguyen Van Thieu, a Catholic, and Nguyen Cao Ky and their relations with the U.S. Military Command and with American bureaucrats stationed in Vietnam. Throughout the first six months of 1967, Mooney encountered a political problem -with the Vietnamese director of the Office of Refugees, who would not sign an AID agreement with CRS, necessary to release funds affecting several programs some of which were Caritas's projects. Apparently frustrated with this lingering impasse, Swanstrom felt it necessary to assign Mooney to the CRS office in Kenya, and to appoint Father Robert Charlebois as director of the Saigon office because Joseph Harnett was assigned to direct the Rome office. A priest of the Diocese of Gary and a graduate of the School of Social Service of the Catholic University of America in 1962, Charlebois had been recruited by Swanstrom and was assigned to Ecuador, where there were problems between CRS and local Church officials.
Robert Charlebois and the Anti-War and Anti-CRS Protests
After arriving in Saigon, he did not resolve the problem with the director of the Office of Refugees, but, with the permission of Swanstrom and in consultation with AID Saigon, Charlebois decided to work with the director of the Office of Social Welfare instead. It appears Charlebois the priest had an advantage over the layman Lawson Mooney to reconcile CRS and church officials." But his major crisis originated in the United States with the Catholic press -which had been informed by Catholic peace activists about CRS's program of free food to the militia in violation of its mission and as indicative of its complicity with the U.S. Armed Forces, presumably waging "an immoral war" in Vietnam.
In an article in the August 23, 1967, issue of the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) Michael Novak criticized CRS's militia program, and provided statistics on the tonnage of food and clothing distributed to the Popular Forces in many centers throughout South Vietnam. Novak stated that General William Westmoreland himself, as commander of Military Assistance Command USA, had led CRS to get involved in the program because militia wages were so low that the free food would compensate the soldiers for not receiving adequate pay, and more importantly, it would strengthen their morale. Novak spoke with a number of voluntary organizations during his visit to Vietnam, and they considered CRS "to be a willing instrument of United States military policy. . . . [That] 'they are the most hawkish of the voluntary agencies' is a common assertion."53
Novak was then an anti-war activist who held liberal views on the Second Vatican Council and embraced the renewal of the liturgy, ecclesiology, and theology. He was a founding member of the ecumenical group, Clergy Concerned about Vietnam (later Clergy and Laity); other founders were the liberal Protestant Robert McAffee Brown, Richard Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, and Daniel Berrigan, SJ. The historian Patrick Allitt describes Novak's essay in Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience: "[He] hacked away at the tradition of Catholic anticommunism, portrayed the United States as an international outlaw for refusing to abide by the Geneva Accords of 1954 [stipulating national elections in 1956] and treated its role in Vietnam as an example of imperialist persecution, which no American could support in good conscience if he or she thought about it 'in light of either the message of the prophets or the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth.'"51 Fifteen years later Novak moved toward the right and became a leading figure at the American Enterprise Institute. He is now a neo-conservative advocate of President Bush's pre-emptive policy of invasion of Iraq.
In response to Novak's charges, CRS stressed its continuous support of the program for the militia "regardless of journalistic criticism." In a Catholic News press release Charlebois continued by explaining the crucial role of the Popular Forces, who were protectors of the hamlets. Indeed, they are analogous to "the Minute Men of the American Revolution." He concluded with a statement of the realities of the wartime situation: the "needs of the poor of Vietnam cannot be met by any agency without the cooperation of the US and Vietnamese government and military."'55
A week after Novak's severe criticism of CRS's militia program, NCR published an editorial,"Memo to CRS, Get Out of the War," which reads as an indictment of CRS for dodging the fundamental issue of its militia program; it is simply a contradiction of CRS's stated mission, viz., to pursue its programs of charity, social justice, and economic development free of the contaminations of military and politics.56
James Forrest, president of the Catholic Peace Fellowship and committed to pacifism, issued a press release quoting Novak's article, and asked for a full evaluation of all the policies of CRS. He also called upon Catholics to withhold donations to CRS and instead to send gifts to the Vatican relief agency, Caritas Internationalis (CI), a secretariat in Rome that funneled funds to its member organizations.57 It is likely that Forrest intended CI to bypass CRS, its largest member organization, by sending donations instead to Caritas Vietnam. Commonweal supported the directions of the Catholic Peace Fellowship. (Ironically, this Vatican agency does not implement its own program but relies principally on CRS to carry out its projects.) Commonweal editors forcefully stated that when the CRS entered into "liaison with the armed agents of a nation [then] it becomes a perversion of Christian charitable purpose."58 America magazine defended CRS from attack by the "leading lights of the 'peace at any price' movement. . . . What bothers these delicate consciences is the fact that CRS openly admits to distributing its charity to members of South Vietnam's militia and families. . . . CRS . . . makes no apologies for its policies in South Vietnam and intends to make none. Rightly so, in our opinion. Because the militia were formed to defend their hamlets against Vietcong terrorism, that is reason enough for U.S. Catholics to add a few ounces of food a month to an already meager ration."59 Ave Maria, published by the Congregation of Holy Cross at Notre Dame, Indiana, joined Commonweal in its opposition to the militia program and called for donations to the Vatican agency rather than to CRS.'60 Regarding the entanglement between CRS and the military beyond the militia program America cited Robert Charlebois's comment in an interview with the New York Times reporter in Saigon: "The men in the popular forces are as needy as anyone else. They're willing to sacrifice their time to guard hamlets when they could be working in the fields."61
On January 30,1968, the militia was stretched way beyond its capacity as 67,000 Vietcong forces (then referred to as the People's Revolutionary Army) attacked thirty-six provincial capitals and five major cities, including Saigon. This massive surprise attack not only stunned the U.S. and Vietnamese forces but it also shocked millions of Americans who viewed, live, on television what came to be known as the "Tet offensive." Though the Vietcong suffered severe losses and General Westmoreland could legitimately claim a military victory, the cost in lives and injuries was great. The political consequences were profound. With only a small margin of victory over the peace candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire Primary, Lyndon B. Johnson chose not to seek re-election.62 The anti-war movement gained greater momentum in 1968 with the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy.
On the second day of the offensive Charlebois exclaimed in a handwritten note to Swanstrom, "Last night we lived through hell! Even twelve hours later it all seems as if it were a nightmare-and that in truth, it couldn't be real. And yet, your shoulders and nerves are constant reminders to you that you were in the middle of the attack. The helplessness of being neither VC. nor American military left you with the shattering frustration of hanging onto God."63 The CRS staff survived the attack since many members were on vacation for the Tet holidays. With 55,000 refugees in Saigon alone, CRS could only set up emergency clinics and provide what little food was on hand because many of their warehouses were destroyed. On March 2, Charlebois wrote to Swanstrom about "the emergency funds deposited in the Saigon account that allowed him and the staff in the provinces to purchase varieties of food for distribution ."The director of AID Saigon gave CRS "carte blanche for drawing food due to present situation." Charlebois reported that the "Popular Forces really proved their metal [sic] in the recent Tet offensive and are now in a position to demand from the GVN [Government of Vietnam] justice [in terms of higher wages] for their military endeavors." He noted that he had been doing some "behind the scenes . . . lobbying" for a pay increase,"and if God continues to be good, a just solution will be forthcoming."64 Had his lobbying efforts succeeded, then the militia would have the income ostensibly obviating the need for CRS's food program.
He announced that CRS "has become increasingly involved with the war widows and orphans program that was sponsored by the wife of General Vinh, (the GVN's equivalent to Westmorland) who has become a good friend. CRS is the only agency involved and, my opinion is that this is the area where we can do the greatest good. . . and are rightly in the area of social welfare"65-a status the program for the Popular Forces never achieved. CRS terminated that program in 1968, thereby dispelling the crisis of legitimacy brought into question by such newspapers as the New York Times and the Washington Post.
However, even after the war had ended, the National Catholic Reporter once again published an article critical of the food for militia program, but this December 17, 1976, article went further and also charged CRS with complicity in the work of military intelligence units and the CIA. The NCR assigned Richard Rashke, its Washington correspondent, "to search for an answer to the question . . . Was CRS really apolitical in Vietnam?"66 Rashke's article cited Novak's critique of the CRS's hawkish character and its commitment to abetting the military pursuit of victory in Vietnam. Rashke adds a new dimension to the identity of the Popular forces, whom the U.S. Marines "nicknamed the Ruff Puffs. . . . They were trained for the most part by Colonel Nguyen Be in the multipurpose CIA Dung Tai training camp. Be, a converted Vietminh nationalist and a Catholic, was a friend of Charlebois. . . . The Ruff Puffs were an essential part of the 'pacification' program aimed at 'winning the hearts and minds of the people.' They patrolled the countryside, manned outposts and checkpoints, and set ambushes for the Viet Cong and Viet Cong sympathizers."67 According to a former CRS employee, the agency did not "scuttle the program [for the popular forces]; it merely changed its accounting procedures. . . . Instead of earmarking the food for the Ruff Puffs . . . CRS assigned it to the Vietnamese and U.S. military officers who in turn gave it to the Popular Forces and their families."68 Charlebois and his successor, John McVeigh, denied any involvement in this program after CRS terminated it in 1968, but Charlebois never commented on Colonel Be's CIA camp for training the Ruff Puffs for"anti-Vietcong ambushes."69
Rashke's article included other charges of CRS 's complicity in intelligence and military programs but they fall outside the scope of this article. Charlebois's general response to his dependence on the U.S. and the Vietnamese armies is "Our responsibility, given to us by the Catholics of the U.S., is to feed the hungry and give aid to the poor and needy. It was impossible for us to be Christ in Vietnam without the logistical support which was, in fact, controlled by two governments."70
On December 24, 1976, the NCR published an article that originated in the National Catholic News Service (NC) and was, in effect, Charlebois's reply to Richard Rashke's charges.The article". . . consisted in half truths," and Rashke's principal sources were discredited CRS former staffers, who "were the most political of our employees," whom he had to fire because of their sympathies. "The fact that they had to be fired shows they couldn't cope -with the gospel's mandate [i.e.,feed the poor]. Their own emotional needs were greater than the mandate." These critics "were pseudo-Christians, people who believe it's better to let people die than to work with existing realities. . . . There are hundreds of thousands of people alive today because of our efforts."72
Rashke's article generated pieces in the Washington Post and the New York Times, both of which are dated January 14, three days before the publication of the NCR's article. Kenneth Briggs of the Times interviewed Robert Charlebois, who said, "When we found ourselves in the reality of the situation we made the best of what we could." The "reality" included relying upon various sources of support, such as Air America operated by the CIA.72 In a Washington Post article, "Priest Denies Mishandling Viet Aid," Charlebois mentioned that the antiwar activists in the U.S. "made no difference. ... We never asked any questions regarding what side of the political question they were on. It was purely need."73
In response to the Rashke and Charlebois conflict several letters to the editor of the NCR were close to being evenly divided in support of either Rashke or Charlebois. Kenneth Joyce, who worked with Charlebois in Cambodia, 1973-1975,