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  • Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America's Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia by Eugene Ford
  • David Chandler
Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America's Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia. By Eugene Ford (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2017) 375 pp. $40.00

The subtitle of this absorbing study promises more than the book delivers for two reasons: (1) because Ford limits his discussion of "America's secret strategy in Southeast Asia" to American interactions with Southeast Asian Buddhism, focusing on Thailand, and (2) because even though America's strategy in Southeast Asia to contain the Sino-Soviet bloc and to come out ahead in the Cold War was always in the open, many of its tactics, and the sources for its funding, were not.

This issue is important because the tactics that America used to influence Thai Buddhism in the Cold War were managed by the Asia Foundation (taf)—a seemingly independent NGO (nongovernmental organization) that had been secretly funded and overseen by the Central Intelligence Agency (cia) since its inception in the early 1950s. The cia/taf connection broke in 1967 when the Agency's cover was blown. taf soon withdrew from its involvement in Asian religious affairs. Although more about the cia connection would have been welcome in Cold War Monks, Ford sensibly sidesteps the issue because he does not see the taf/cia connection as intrinsically sinister. More to the point, Ford has other stories to tell that have greater historical value.

The Thai Buddhist monastic community or sangha is the collective protagonist of Cold War Monks. Ford's often enthralling narrative draws from interviews with major actors, monks or former monks, Thai language material, secondary literature, and U.S. government documents. As the Cold War gathered momentum in the 1950s, American policymakers decided that the international Buddhism among America's allies should at least become more attuned to U.S. national interests. taf was the instrument designated for the mission. The secrecy surrounding its funding and its unstated political agenda was essential because the United States could not be seen as supporting religious activities anywhere in the world. Through skilled and dedicated taf officials such as William Klausner (interviewed in depth for this book) and Leonard Overton, taf linked up with outward-looking members of the Thai, Lao, and Cambodian monastic communities. The abbots and monks within these communities perceived Buddhism as a multinational movement, Asian Communism as a threat, and the sangha as a positive social force that needed modernization.

taf specifically targeted a senior, forward-looking monk named Phra Phimolatham, the abbot of Wat Mahathat in Bangkok. Phimolatham, who was active in international Buddhist circles, had his origins in Thailand's impoverished, Lao-speaking northeast. He also enjoyed a substantial urban following. Eventually, his energy, internationalism, populist programs, and widespread popularity attracted the envy and anger of the hide-bound Thai Buddhist hierarchy whose senior members accused Phimlatham of Communist sympathies and homosexuality. In 1960, they forced him to relinquish his title and imprisoned him for four years. Subsequently, taf's work in Thailand lost much of its momentum. [End Page 527]

Notwithstanding these indignities, Phimolatham emerges as the hero of Ford's book.

Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the international response to the anti–Ngo Dinh Diem Buddhist movement in South Vietnam in 1963. These thoroughgoing pages are less compelling than the Thai-oriented chapters, partly because the Mahayana clergy in Vietnam were vastly different organizationally and ideologically from their Theravada counterparts in Thailand and largely because the volatile situation in Vietnam, described by many other authors, overwhelmed any efforts to resolve internal Buddhist crises.

The final chapters of Cold War Monks provide a sure-footed narrative history of the sangha's intersection with Thai politics between the late 1960s and the end of the Cold War twenty years later. Newcomers to the subject may well view these chapters as well documented and persuasive, but much of the political history has been ably handled by other scholars. The main strengths of Cold War Monks lie in its early chapters and in its examination of U.S./taf involvement with the Thai sangha. The opening chapters deftly set the stage, and the...


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pp. 527-528
Launched on MUSE
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