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‘Only Religions Count in Vietnam’: Thich Tri Quang and the Vietnam War

  • JAMES McALLISTER (a1)
Abstract
Abstract

Thich Tri Quang has long been one of the most controversial actors in the history of the Vietnam War. Scholars on the right have argued that Tri Quang was in all likelihood a communist agent operating at the behest of Hanoi. Scholars on the left have argued that Tri Quang was a peaceful religious leader devoted to democracy and a rapid end to the war. This article argues that neither of these interpretations is persuasive. As American officials rightly concluded throughout the war, there was no compelling evidence to suggest that Tri Quang was a communist agent or in any way sympathetic to the goals of Hanoi or the NLF. Drawing on the extensive archival evidence of Tri Quang's conversations with American officials, it is apparent that Tri Quang was in fact strongly anti-communist and quite receptive to the use of American military power against North Vietnam and China. The main factor that led to conflict between the Buddhist movement and the Johnson administration was Tri Quang's insistence that the military regimes that followed Ngo Dinh Diem were hostile to Buddhism and incapable of leading the struggle against Communism to a successful conclusion.

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1 Herring George, “‘Peoples Quite Apart’: Americans, South Vietnamese, and the War in Vietnam,” Diplomatic History, 14 (1990), p. 1.

2 I suspect that part of the reason why historians have not been more interested in Tri Quang and the Buddhists is that the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series contains only a few of the conversations between Tri Quang and the Saigon Embassy, and none of the CIA assessments of his goals and motivations. One would never suspect how much material there is in the American archives from the scant amount of attention paid to Tri Quang and the Buddhist movement in the FRUS series.

3 Moyar Mark, “Political Monks: The Militant Buddhist Movement During the Vietnam War,” Modern Asian Studies, 38 (2004), pp. 749784 (quote on p. 783).

4 Moyar, “Political Monks,” p. 756. Moyar also advances these arguments about Tri Quang in his recently published book Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 216–218. Despite my obvious differences with Moyar concerning Tri Quang, all students of the war will have to seriously grapple with his extensive research and revisionist assessment of many elements of the Vietnam War.

5 Marguerite Higgins was the most vigorous proponent of thesis that Quang was a communist agent. See Our Vietnam Nightmare (New York: Harper & Row, 1965). See also Critchfield Richard, The Long Crusade: Political Subversion in the Vietnam War (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968); and Shaplen Robert, The Lost Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1965). While Moyar does have some evidence from North Vietnamese histories of the war that suggests there was some communist infiltration of the Buddhist movement, there does not appear to be anything that directly or indirectly implicates Tri Quang as a communist agent. Such evidence would not have shocked American officials at the time who readily conceded that communists attempted to infiltrate and influence the movement. See Moyar, Triumph Forsaken, p. 217.

6 CIA Memorandum, “Tri Quang and the Buddhist Catholic Discord in South Vietnam, September 19, 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson Library (hereafter LBJL), National Security Files (hereafter NSF), Vietnam Country Files (hereafter VNCF), box 9, vol. 18; and Saigon Embassy to State Department, January 31, 1965, National Archives II (hereafter NA II), RG 59, Central Files, POL 13–6, box 2931.

7 Tri Quang's fate after the fall of Saigon is not totally clear, but what is known does not support Moyar's thesis. Moyar suggests that Tri Quang was rewarded for his subversion after the Northern victory: ‘When the Communists conquered South Vietnam in 1975, they gave Tri Quang a job in Hue and he voiced no objections to their regime, whereas they imprisoned many other monks who had a record of political activism’. There are several serious problems with accepting this assessment. First, Moyar's citation for this claim is to the Washington Post of November 2, 1983, but there are no articles concerning Tri Quang in the paper on that date. In all likelihood, Moyar meant to cite an opinion piece by H. Joachim Maitre, ‘When Washington Ditched Diem’, that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on that date. The idea that Tri Quang was rewarded by the communists for his role in the 1960's is not very persuasive since Maitre himself writes, ‘Tri Quang was allocated to the city of Hue's sanitation department’. A position in the sanitation department of Hue surely seems more like a punishment rather than a reward, especially given the very important role Moyar and Maitre believe that Tri Quang played in the communist victory. As Moyar notes in Triumph Forsaken, the North Vietnamese regime has rehabilitated other covert agents after the war, but the regime has never acknowledged that Tri Quang was an agent. Virtually all other news reports on Tri Quang's fate in communist Vietnam paint a very grim portrait. For example, in a 1979 story in the New York Times, James Sterba reported that one of Tri Quang's subordinates reported that he ‘was turned into a skeleton-like cripple during a year and a half of solitary confinement in Ho Chi Minh's Chi Hoa prison’. See James Sterba, “Ordeal of a Famed Buddhist in Ho Chi Minh City Related,” New York Times, July 14, 1979, A2. Finally, Robert Topmiller, a historian who made several trips to Vietnam to interview Buddhists in the 1990s, reports that even today Quang remains under house arrest in the An Quang pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. See Robert Topmiller, “Vietnamese Buddhism in the 1990's,” Quang Duc Homepage, www.quangduc.com/English/WorldBuddhism/27vietnam.html. The pattern of the evidence suggests a simpler conclusion: Thich Tri Quang was probably not a communist agent and Hanoi saw him as an independent figure who presented the same potential dangers to their rule as he did to the rulers of South Vietnam in the 1960s.

8 Topmiller Robert, The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam, 1964–1966 (Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 2002), p. viii.

9 For example, hardly any of the conversations between Tri Quang and the Saigon Embassy cited in this article appear in Topmiller's book. Topmiller does not appear to have done any research in the Central Files at NA II, where most of these conversations are filed. While Topmiller's interviews with academics and Buddhists are invaluable, it is unfortunate that many of the central arguments he advances are supported by oral history interviews rather than actual documents.

10 Saigon to State Department, April 6, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 2 VIET S, box 2925. The best short summary of Tri Quang's guiding principle can be found in an interview he gave to journalist Robert Shaplen in 1969. ‘Political parties as such mean nothing . . .. Only religions count in Vietnam, and President Nixon must adjust to that realization’. Shaplen Robert, The Road From War (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 271.

11 His letter can be found in Saigon to Secretary, September 2, 1963, John F. Kennedy Library (hereafter JFKL), National Security File (NSF), box 199, State cables 9/1/1963–9/10/1963. It is worth noting that Quang did not want to go to India for political refuge because of its ‘neutralist character’.

12 Saigon to Secretary, November 27, 1963, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 1, vol. 1; and Saigon to State Department, NA II, RG 59, POL 13–6, box 2931. Paul Kattenburg, the Director of the Vietnam Working Group (hereafter VWG) and who met with Quang shortly after the coup, said that he was particularly struck by Quang's emphasis on the United States using its power on the South Vietnamese government. Paul Kattenburg to Melvin Manfull, December 31, 1963, NA II, RG 59, VWG Subject Files, box 1, ORG 1.

13 Saigon to Secretary, November 11, 1963, JFKL, NSF, box 202, State Cables 11/6/1963–11/15/1963.

14 Saigon to Secretary, December 17, 1963, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 1, vol. 2.

15 See Kahin George McT., Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam (New York: Anchor Books, 1987), pp. 182202; and Topmiller, The Lotus Unleashed, pp. 15–16.

16 See Kaiser David, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 297298. American officials asked Khanh repeatedly to provide evidence for his claims about Minh, but they never received a single shred of evidence to support the claims.

17 Saigon to Secretary, January 17, 1964, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 1, vol. 2.

18 Hue to Saigon, February 19, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL VIET S, box 2924.

19 Saigon to Secretary, April 6, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 2 VIET S, box 2925.

20 Saigon to Secretary, “Recent Buddhist Developments,” March 26, 1964, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 3, vol. 6.

21 Saigon to Secretary, April 25, 1964, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 3, vol. 7.

22 Saigon to Secretary, May 7, 1964, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 4, vol. 8. The CIA also reported that allegations of Quang's neutralism and communism ‘continue to be unsubstantiated’. CIA Intelligence Memorandum, “An Assessment of the Religious Problem in South Vietnam,” LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 4, vol. 9.

23 Memorandum of a Meeting, May 11, 1964, Foreign Relations of the United States (hereafter FRUS), 1964–1968, vol. 1, p. 305.

24 Saigon to Secretary, May 25, 1964, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 5, vol. 10.

25 Saigon to State Department, June 1, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 6 VIET S, box 2929.

26 Saigon to State Department, June 11, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 2 VIET S, box 2926.

27 Saigon to State Department, August 10, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 27 VIET S, box 2945.

29 Tri Quang's opposition to Khanh can be followed in Saigon to Secretary, August 23, 1964, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 7, vol. 16; Saigon to Secretary, August 23, 1964, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 7, vol. 16; and the series of conversations included in Saigon to State Department, August 26, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 15 VIET S, box 2933.

30 Telecon with General Westmoreland, August 25, 1964, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 7, vol. 16.

31 CIA Intelligence Information Cable, “An Analysis of Thich Tri Quang's Possible Communist Affiliations, Personality, and Goals,” August 28, 1964, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 7, vol. 16; and CIA Memorandum, “Tri Quang and the Buddhist Catholic Discord in South Vietnam,” September 19, 1964, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 9, vol. 18.

32 “Analysis of Tri Quang,” August 28, 1964. The September 19 analysis from the CIA was less emphatic than the earlier one since it argued that Tri Quang ‘was probably not a communist’. While noting that the CIA rejected the assessment, Moyar writes, ‘Some high U.S. officials now were among those who believed Tri Quang to be a communist’. The September 19 report does says that there were some ‘well-informed U.S. observers inclined to this view’, but I have not found any evidence at all which identifies a specific ‘higher level official’ who shared this view. See Moyar, “Political Monks,” p. 760.

33 “Tri Quang and Buddhist Catholic Discord,” September 19, 1964.

34 Logevall Fredrik, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p. 240.

35 Saigon to State Department, September 2, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 2 VIET S, box 2926.

36 Saigon to State Department, September 9, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 15 VIET S, box 2933.

37 Saigon to State Department, September 16, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 2 VIET S, box 2926.

38 Saigon to State Department, September 9, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 15 VIET S, box 2933.

39 Saigon to State Department, September 16, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 2 VIET S, box 2926.

40 Saigon to State Department, September 28, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 15–7 VIET S, box 2937.

41 Both the speech and the letter can be found in Saigon to State Department, October 16, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL VIET S, box 2924.

42 Saigon to State Department, September 28, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 15–7 VIET S, box 2937.

43 Saigon to State Department, October 23, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 27 VIET S, box 2948.

44 Saigon to State Department, November 2, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 15 VIET S, box 293.

45 Saigon to State Department, November 5, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 2 VIET S, box 2926.

46 “Current Estimate of Political Situation in South Vietnam”, November 25, 1964, NA II, RG 59, VWG Subject Files, box 5, POL 1: Vietnam/Other Areas.

47 Saigon to State Department, November 2, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 15 VIET S, box 293.

48 Saigon to State Department, November 17, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 1 US VIET S, box 2878; and Saigon to State Department, November 27, 1964, NA II, RG 59, POL 15 VIET S, box 2933.

49 Saigon to Secretary, December 1, 1964, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 10, vol. 23. Moyar's account in Triumph Forsaken implies that Tri Quang was the main figure behind the early opposition to Huong, but this was not the view of the Saigon Embassy. See Moyar, Triumph Forsaken, p. 334.

50 Draft Memorandum of Conversation between Taylor and Ambassador Khiem, December 2, 1964, NA II, RG 59, VWG Subject Files, box 5, POL-1, Memoranda of Conversation.

51 Saigon to State Department, December 16, 1964, FRUS, 1964–68, vol. 1, pp. 1000–1009.

52 Tri Quang indicated to American officials that he would be interested in working against Khanh if Huong satisfied Buddhist demands. See Saigon to Secretary, December 24, 1964, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 11, vol. 24.

53 Saigon to State Department, January 5, 1965, NA II, RG 59, POL 2 VIET S, box 2927.

54 CIA Intelligence Information cable, January 10, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 12, vol. 26.

55 CIA, “SNIE 53–65: Short-Term Prospects in South Vietnam,” February 4, 1965, Estimative Products on Vietnam 1948–1975 (Washington, DC: GPO, 2005).

56 Moyar, “Political Monks,” p. 773.

57 Saigon to Secretary, January 31, 1965, NA II, RG 59, POL 13–6 VIET S, box 2931.

58 Ibid. Tri Quang himself acknowledged that the Viet Cong had probably infiltrated the lower levels of the organization, but he pointed out that they had infiltrated every other organization in the country as well. See Saigon to State Department, February 4, 1965, POL 2 VIET S, box 2927.

59 Corcoran to Higgins, February 18, 1965, NA II, RG 59, POL 13–6 VIET S, box 2931.

60 Saigon to Department of State, “Interview by Tri Quang in English-Language Dailies,” February 3, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 13, vol. 27. Of course, Tri Quang's words cannot be taken literally since the Buddhist movement did at times promote anti-American sentiments. What he probably meant to convey was that these expressions of sentiment were tactical rather than fundamental expressions of Buddhist views of America.

61 Saigon to State Department, February 4, 1965, NA II, RG 59, POL 2 VIET S, box 2927.

62 CIA Intelligence Cable, February 2, 1965, Declassified Documents Reference System, 1976070100060.

63 Saigon to State Department, March 4, 1965, NA II, RG 59, POL 27 VIET S, box 2953.

64 Saigon to Secretary, March 1, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 14, vol. 30.

65 Saigon to State Department, March 3, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 14, vol. 30.

66 Saigon to State Department, March 22, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 15, vol. 31.

67 Ibid. Noting Quang's call for airstrikes, Moyar argues in “Political Monks” that ‘there is direct evidence that the advice was a tool to maintain America's favour so that the militant Buddhists could continue their subversive activities’ (p. 779). Unfortunately, the direct evidence is simply a quote from British counterinsurgency specialist Robert Thompson: ‘Tri Quang told General Taylor that he favored American bombing of the north, and then went straight to the French to explain that he was only lulling Taylor's suspicions so as to have a free hand to press on with his undercover campaign for peace at any price—or rather at the communist price’. The origins of this quote are certainly obscure; Moyar cites Critchfield's The Long Charade, but it also appears in Higgins’ 1965 book, Our Vietnam Nightmare, pp. 285–286. Neither Higgins nor Critchfield provide any idea about where and when Thompson allegedly made this statement. The idea that Tri Quang would reveal such a view is dubious in itself, but the idea that he would choose to reveal it to ‘the French’ is hardly believable given his consistently extreme anti-French views. In short, it is hard to see how the Thompson quote can be seen as viewed as serious evidence concerning Tri Quang's motives.

68 State Department to Saigon, March 2, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 14, vol. 30.

70 Saigon to State Department, March 19, 1965, NA II, RG 59, POL 2 VIET S, box 2927.

71 Saigon to State Department, May 6, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 17, vol. 34.

72 Saigon to Secretary, April 7, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 16, vol. 32.

73 Saigon to Secretary, April 12, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 16, vol. 32.

74 CIA, “The Situation in South Vietnam,” April 7, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 16, vol. 32.

75 Memorandum for Director of Central Intelligence, “CIA Proposals for Limited Covert Civilian Political Action in Vietnam,” March 31, 1965, LBJL, McCone's 12 Points, box 194.

76 Tri Quang to Lodge, May 13, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 17, vol. 34.

77 Saigon to State Department, May 6, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 17, vol. 34.

78 Saigon to State Department, July 21, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 20, vol. 37.

79 Saigon to State Department, July 10, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 20, vol. 37.

80 Saigon to Secretary, June 12, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 18, vol. 35.

81 Saigon to Secretary, June 22, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 19, vol. 36.

82 Moyar, Triumph Forsaken, p. 218.

83 Carver to McNaughton, “Consequences of a Buddhist Political Victory in South Vietnam,” LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 63, 1 EE (4) Post-Tet Political Activity.

84 Memorandum by Lodge, “Recommendations Regarding Vietnam,” March 8, 1965, FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 2, pp. 415–420.

85 Lodge Weekly Telegram, March 23, 1966, FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 4, pp. 225–229.

86 Maxwell Taylor, “Comments on the Present Situation in South Vietnam,” April 8, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 29, vol. 50.

87 Lodge to Secretary, April 8, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 29, vol. 50.

88 Rusk to Lodge, April 6, 1965, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 46, NODIS, vol. 3.

89 Komer Memorandum to Bill Moyers, June 3, 1966, LBJL, Files of Robert Komer, box 4, Moyer/Christian Folder. As Komer noted with regret, Sulzberger probably received these views from Lodge and his Deputy Ambassador, William Porter.

90 Komer to Bill Moyers, June 2, 1966, LBJL, Files of Robert Komer, box 3, White House Chronological Folder March–December 1966. Emphasis in original.

91 Hughes to Rusk, March 19, 1966, “GVN Crisis Hardening But Compromise Seems Possible,” FRUS, 1964–1968, vol. 4, pp. 292–293.

92 Carver, “Consequences of a Buddhist Political Victory in South Vietnam; and CIA Intelligence Memorandum, “Thich Tri Quang and Buddhist Political Objectives in South Vietnam,” LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 30, vol. 51. The quotation is from the latter document. Carver is not listed as the author of the document, but there is little doubt that he was responsible for its main ideas.

93 Lodge to William Bundy, July 26, 1966, LBJL, NSF, VNCF, box 34, vol. 56.

94 Moyar, “Political Monks,” p. 784.

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