Robert Topmiller, The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam, 1964-1966
We are not savages; we are people with an ancient culture, and we are sick in our bones of war. I do no believe there would be a bloodbath, but I wonder when you ask such a question how would you describe what your military forces are doing to my people now?
–Thich Nhat Hanh, 139
Scholar Topmiller examines how the Buddhists—internally divided, naive at times—threatened to exacerbate the already unstable South Vietnam regime, which led to U.S. firepower being brought in to take care of the Buddhist problem. Of course, the US didn’t want, nay, couldn’t ever contemplate a Third Force, which would not be under our control (Cabot Lodge comes out as the consummate colonial ugly American; he couldn’t imagine that the Buddhists wouldn’t be in love with the US for all we were supposedly doing for them).
And so the heart of the story:
The Vien Hoa Dao now represented the only obstacle to a renewed American commitment to SVN, since all that remained for the GVN and the United States to carry the fight to the enemy was the eradication of the Struggle Movement in I Corps and Saigon. Thus, Ky moved to suppress the Vien Hoa Dao and buttress his relationship with Washington as Buddhists exhibited unceasing strains of anti-Americanism in Hue and Saigon. 120
With the collapse of the dissidents in Danang and the suppression of the movement in other parts of the country, Hue remained he most important center of resistance. 129
They placed their family altars in the streets to block ARVN vehicles. 132
In the end, Buddhist sacrifices failed to defeat Ky. Thich Tri Quang called for a halt when he realized that Ky and Thieu meant to destroy the movement and that the US had no intention of stopping GVN repression… Sensing the failure of the Buddhist campaign, many Vietnamese resigned themselves to the prospect of endless warfare, since Buddhist self-sacrifice could not overcome GVN coercion and the American desire to halt the spread of Communism.136
Yet, after the establishment of the Third Force outside of SVN, Buddhist self-immolations, the placing of family altars in the streets, the burning of U.S. installations in Hue and efforts to resist GVN repression in Saigon, could there by any doubt that considerable non-Communist opposition to the US and the GVN existed in the country? 141
Secure in the knowledge that the US would support them as long as they prevented a resurgence of popular feeling against the war, Ky and Thieu crushed the Buddhist Struggle Movement with waves of repression. While American leaders rejoined that the GVN had removed the local impediments to a continued and expanded war, Buddhists suffered imprisonment without trial, persecution, and political annihilation for the remainder of the war as casualties increased and people endured unimaginable horrors at the hands of the NLF, PAVN, the GVN, and the United States. 147
There’s a fair amount of space devoted to the self-immolations, where the author gives a Buddhist rationale, as opposed to the common Western designation of it as “suicide.” They gave their lives for peace, to wake up people in Vietnam and beyond.
Topmiller is effusive about the Nhat Hanh school of Buddhism (“the heroes in this book are the South Vietnamese who risked everything for peace” x). Alas, the Buddhists weren’t politically savvy and had no power base from which to resist. Thus, Topmiller in his conclusion: “Thich Tri Quang and the radicals… saw the war as the greater hazard, since they believed that the American presence in SVN would eventually lead to a Communist victory, and the end of the [Unified Buddhist Church].”