Politics, Programs, and Protests: Catholic Relief Services in Vietnam, 1954-1975

Article excerpt

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. …

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