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Religion in The Vietnam War

Le Phat Dan

On 8 May 1963, Vietnamese Buddhists honored the birthday of the Supreme Buddha. As they did each spring on the day known as Le Phat Dan, Buddhist communities in Vietnam paid tribute to the founder of their faith with festivals, parades, and ceremonies conducted in villages and cities throughout the country. It was the spiritual leader's 2,527th birthday, and it was a day that held special significance for the vast majority of the population.

But in South Vietnam, the tone of the sacred holiday reflected far more than devotion to Buddhist philosophy or reverence for the divine prophet. Since the rise to power of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955, Buddhist organizations had used the event to protest the regime's oppressive policies and its religious intolerance. This year was no different; in Saigon's city center, monks paraded, waving brightly colored Buddhist prayer flags—a bold demonstration, for these men, of both religious pride and political defiance.

The Power of the Minority

President Diem, an elite Vietnamese Catholic, was a widely unpopular ruler, despised for his ruthless policies and his religious bigotry. In a country dominated by small farmers, peasants, and Buddhists (roughly 85% of the population), Diem unapologetically favored the Catholic minority and the landlord class.71 He granted public services, land grants, and tax exemptions to these groups, and freed all Catholics from corvée work—unpaid, state-enforced labor. His government forbade non-Catholics from carrying weapons; officers in Diem's Army of the Republic of Vietnam were pressured to convert to Catholicism lest they lose their ranking or be denied firearms. And in villages throughout the countryside, the military forcefully—and often violently—converted non-Catholic civilians.

But Vietnamese citizens could do little to challenge his regime. The South Vietnamese government—a political system supported and in many ways created by the United States—was democratic in name, but not in practice. With each year, Diem stiffened punishment for dissent, and imposed bans on all forms of expression perceived as subversive, rebellious, or incendiary, including the display of any flag other than the national flag of South Vietnam.

Symbols of Opposition

President Diem selectively enforced this ban, not surprisingly in favor of his supporters; on 6 May 1963, Catholics had been granted permission to drape the flag of the Vatican throughout the city during a birthday celebration for Diem's brother. But two days later, when thousands of protesters waved Buddhist flags in public, government troops fired into the demonstration, killing at least nine people.

Diem refused to accept responsibility for the bloodshed, and instead blamed the incident on the Viet Cong (VC) who he claimed had incited the protest and therefore was to blame for the government's actions. But few believed his claims. In the days following the melee, some 10,000 Buddhists marched in to protest the killings. Demonstration leaders were swiftly arrested and President Diem ordered his armies to scour the countryside in order to apprehend anyone disloyal to the government. The sweeps carried out in the following weeks were brutally violent and conducted in such a way, as one Catholic priest in the South explained later, "to show the V.C. that the Government was strong and to make the opponents of the Government afraid."72

A Bodhisattva

The eleventh of June in 1963 was a clear day in South Vietnam, but tension continued to grip the capital city of Saigon. Thich Quang Duc, a 66-year-old Buddhist monk, arrived at a busy intersection in the city center. There the man knelt slowly to the ground and placed himself in the lotus position. He sat still and silent as two assistants slowly doused his body with gasoline. As a gathering of monks chanted, Quang Duc calmly and deliberately lit a match and waited, motionless, as the flames engulfed him. "Before closing my eyes to Buddha," the monk had written in anticipation of his death, "I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem, asking him to be kind and tolerant toward his people and to enforce a policy of religious equality."73 The monks who retrieved Quang Duc's body discovered that only his heart remained intact. His followers believed that this proved the Buddhist priest had been a bodhisattva, or an "enlightened one," and preserved the heart to be honored as the relic of an esteemed martyr.

But little changed in Saigon. The government dismissed the monk's protest. Madame Nhu, the wife of Diem's brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and the First Lady of the South Vietnamese government, mocked the event, calling it "a barbeque."74 And President Diem, more reviled than ever in his own country, broadened his counter-resistance campaigns. Still, Quang Duc's act of protest became one of the most significant events in the war, a major turning point that strengthened and further motivated rebellious factions in South Vietnam.

The American Response

The practice of self-immolation by Vietnamese monks was not new; for centuries, Buddhist monks had participated in these acts of suicide, often performed in political protest. But in the United States, such self-sacrifice was unimaginable. The American press published graphic images of Thich Quang Duc's charred body enveloped in flames, and Americans were horrified. But many also responded with great sympathy for the martyred monk. For those on both sides of the political debate over American involvement in Vietnam, Quang Duc's protest illustrated the deep divisions within South Vietnam. It marked the moment when much of the nation began to raise questions about American support for the South Vietnamese government, a regime revealed to be corrupt and despotic.

Martyrdom or Insanity?

Though many Americans eulogized the Vietnamese monk for his righteous sacrifice, most did not award the same compassion to anti-war martyrs closer to home. For instance, when Norman Morrison, a Maryland Quaker, lit himself on fire outside the office of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, his act was perceived not as a venerable protest, but as the work of a "demented" man.75 While that may have been possible, Morrison's friends and family described him as a very sane man, committed to his religious beliefs, particularly pacifism. The 31-year-old father was a leader in the Stony Run Friends Meeting, a Quaker organization based in Baltimore that vigorously opposed war. The group revered human life but did not specifically condemn suicide. According to his wife, Morrison was deeply disturbed by "great loss of life and human suffering caused by the war in Viet Nam. He was protesting our Government's deep military involvement in this war."76

Exactly one week later, Roger LaPorte, a 22-year-old student at Manhattan's Hunter College, doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire outside the United Nations headquarters. LaPorte, a Roman Catholic dedicated to the doctrine of pacifism, chose suicide by way of self-immolation to protest American involvement in Vietnam. He was a student of a seminary in Vermont who volunteered with the radical pacifist Catholic Worker Movement. Friends and family members regarded him as a devout, normal young man who smoked and dated now and again. The Catholic Church, the American press, and the public denounced LaPorte's violent demonstration as shameful.

While the Vietnamese eulogized Morrison and LaPorte, Americans withheld sympathy. "What perhaps was most pathetic about the Morrison and LaPorte suicides was the futility of such attempts at martyrdom," Time magazine remarked in the days following LaPorte's death; "within the ample means and methods of U.S. democracy, a human voice means more than a human torch." Reflecting the culturally specific understandings of martyrdom in the United States, the writer concluded his comments with a quote from a psychoanalyst: "The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one."77

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