- The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam, 1964–1966
Perhaps the most glaring gap in the voluminous literature on the Vietnam War is the lack of attention to the Vietnamese side of events, without which a full understanding of the course and outcome of the conflict is impossible. South Vietnamese politics and society have received particularly short shrift from scholars of the war. In recent years, some historians, assisted by the release of archival materials in Vietnam, have begun to fill in the void on this critical aspect of the story. Robert Topmiller's study of Buddhist peace efforts and their challenge to the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam (GVN) is a useful contribution to this scholarly endeavor. Topmiller is a veteran of the conflict, having served in Vietnam shortly after the events he describes. He focuses, in [End Page 147] particular, on the Buddhist-led rebellion of 1966, which represented "the most serious non-Communist threat to the GVN in its short but tumultuous history" (p. ix).
Topmiller skips quickly over the better-known Buddhist crisis of 1963, which he sees as qualitatively different from the struggle of 1964–1966. He argues that the former was primarily a response to the pro-Catholic bias of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, whereas the latter was a more wide-ranging and visceral reaction to the increasingly destructive conflict engulfing Vietnam. The escalation of the war clashed with the Buddhist tenets of compassion and nonviolence, and the growing American presence in the country seemed to threaten Vietnamese sovereignty and independence. Consequently, militant Buddhists felt compelled to try to stop the killing and free the country from what they viewed as neocolonial control. These concerns culminated in a Buddhist-led rebellion in the spring of 1966 involving radical monks, students, and even some soldiers from the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) who demanded the creation of an elected civilian government that would end the war by negotiating with the National Liberation Front (NLF).
In the end, the rebellion failed. Topmiller attributes its defeat to a number of factors. First, the Buddhist radicals never enjoyed overwhelming popular support, even among their co-religionists. Many moderates continued to back the Saigon government and to oppose a neutralist solution. The political activism of the militants also alienated those who disapproved of such worldly engagement. Second, the rebels could not stand up to the power of the state. Backed by the Americans and the South Vietnamese officer corps, Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky moved to crush the insurrection by sending ARVN troops into the rebels' northern strongholds of Danang and Hue. Thus, the Buddhist radicals faced several insoluble dilemmas: Their determination to challenge the Saigon regime lost them support among those who abhorred such political radicalism; and their commitment to non-violence left them vulnerable to a government prepared to use force against them.
Topmiller's book offers some valuable insights. Drawing on numerous interviews with Vietnamese involved in these events, he is able to shed new light on the hitherto rather murky motivations of the Buddhists. He clearly sympathizes with their goals, which he views as a legitimate expression of non-Communist frustration with the war. Not all commentators have been so sympathetic, however. Most recently, Mark Moyar, in Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), reiterated the charge that the NLF infiltrated the Buddhist movement and that Thich Tri Quang, the militant leader, was a Communist agent. Topmiller, who argues that little evidence exists to support these claims, offers a portrait of the movement that seems closer to the mark. Indeed, he contends that many Buddhists, whether radicals or moderates, viewed Communism with contempt. That same sentiment characterized their feelings about the United States, and Topmiller does a good job of highlighting the troubled relationship between the Buddhists and the Americans. Their differences, he explains, stemmed from conflicting goals and outlooks. Buddhism rejected the bipolar view of the world that underlay U.S. conceptions...