- The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam, 1964-1966
Recent releases of source material around the world have enabled historians to make huge advances in understanding once-opaque aspects of the Vietnam War. Scholars can now write with considerable confidence, for example, about North Vietnamese, Chinese, or Soviet decision-making. Yet one dimension of the war—unquestionably one of the most important to any overall appraisal—has remained cloaked in mystery: the attitudes and opinions of ordinary Vietnamese in whose name leaders in Hanoi, Saigon, and Washington carried on the fight.
Robert J. Topmiller's study of a major Buddhist uprising against the South Vietnamese government in 1966 promises to address this problem by illuminating popular attitudes below the seventeenth parallel. Topmiller focuses tightly on a series of events that played out mainly in two South Vietnamese cities—Hue and Danang—over just a few weeks. But he offers bold conclusions. The protests, Topmiller argues, reflected the widespread popularity of distinctly Buddhist aspirations to establish democracy in South Vietnam and to end the war through a compromise settlement. Moreover, Topmiller contends, U.S. leaders erred badly by failing to see the uprising for what it was—a powerful sign that U.S. forces lacked sufficient support within South Vietnam and therefore should be withdrawn.
Although curiously brief, The Lotus Unleashed merits the attention of scholars of the Vietnam War. Most important, the book provides an unprecedentedly detailed account of a little-studied episode that caused profound doubt within the United States about the durability of the South Vietnamese government. The uprising, sparked by an abrupt consolidation of power by the military junta in Saigon, led parts of the South Vietnamese Army to defect to the Buddhist side and threatened the entire anti Communist war effort in South Vietnam's crucial northernmost provinces. The uprising even led to fighting between U.S. and South Vietnamese forces as U.S. Marines tried to keep peace between rebels and government troops. By the time the Saigon government suppressed the rebellion, 150 Vietnamese had been killed, and 150 Vietnamese and 23 Americans had been wounded. Topmiller convincingly argues that this depressing spectacle amounted to a "turning point" in the war because it dramatically widened the gap between the Johnson administration and antiwar critics (p. 115). The administration, deeply alarmed by the crisis, carefully weighed its options—including abandonment of the war—but ultimately recommitted itself to its partnership with the Saigon government. At the same time, many members of Congress and the American public, disgusted by incessant infighting in South Vietnam, firmly shifted into the antiwar camp.
The book also offers useful insights into South Vietnamese ideology and politics. Merely by highlighting urban settings, Topmiller makes clear that scholars must look beyond the peasantry—the overwhelming focus of nearly all inquiry into South Vietnamese [End Page 154] opinion—to grasp the full complexity of the subject. Topmiller also deserves credit for exploring Buddhist theology, a subject as unfamiliar to many scholars of the war as it was to U.S. officials who tried to make sense of Buddhist activism in the 1960s. To understand the 1966 uprising, Topmiller sensibly suggests, it is necessary to grasp the principles of non-violence, social harmony, and democracy espoused by the Buddhists. Perhaps most of all, Topmiller succeeds in showing that Buddhist leaders, while eager to topple the Saigon regime, opposed Communism as well. Champions of a third way, the Buddhists aimed to establish a coalition government representing all of South Vietnam's major political groupings. Topmiller's sensitivity to the coherence and distinctiveness of Buddhist thought helps to rebut old accusations by U.S. officials—revived by conservative scholars in recent years—that Buddhist activists were merely Communist agents.
Unfortunately, however, Topmiller falls short in substantiating his claim that Buddhist ideals "resonated deeply with the Vietnamese people" (p. ix). His problem seems to be the same one that has stymied previous efforts to plumb South Vietnamese public opinion—the lack of sources reflecting...