War of Words II: Archive analysis of the Vietnam War

Reporting from Saigon

Question the man in the street about what is going on in South Vietnam and he will doubtless tell you that a Catholic minority is carrying on a vicious campaign of persecution against an overwhelming Buddhist majority. We could hardly blame him. For "the American public," to quote Fr. Patrick O'Connor, NC correspondent in Saigon, has been "sold a bill of goods." The Buddhists of South Vietnam "sold it first to some of the foreign correspondents in Saigon."

Which correspondents Fr. O'Connor had in mind, we do not know. But having faithfully followed David Halberstam, of the New York Times, and Marguerite Higgins, of the New York Herald Tribune, these many weeks, we can make a shrewd guess. Where Mr. Halberstam has contented himself with a tireless, uncritical repetition of Buddhist charges from Saigon, Miss Higgins has ventured outside the limits of South Vietnam's capital in an effort to discover for herself just how much "70 to 80 per cent" of the population of South Vietnam is suffering at the hands of the country's "Catholic-dominated government."


It was not until August 2, almost three months after the eruption of the politico-religious crisis that has threatened to tear South Vietnam apart, that the Times correspondent got around to presenting the Vietnamese Catholic side of the story. Even then it was not handled in such a way as to convince. Catholics "feel," Times readers were told, that the problem in South Vietnam is not Diem's Catholicism but the dictatorial nature of his regime; they "feel" that the government has reacted as ruthlessly against Catholic opposition as against any other; they "feel" that observers have exaggerated the number of Catholics in the South Vietnamese government; they "feel" their religion has been maligned.

It strikes us that a reporter who had not allowed his prejudice to get in the way of his objectivity could certainly find means to test the truth of the Catholic viewpoint. What Catholics "feel" is beside the point.

By contrast. Miss Higgins has given her readers a good example of what we would call reporting in depth. She has attempted to find out just what Vietnam's Buddhists, apart from the group leading the campaign of protest in Saigon, really think of Ngo Dinh Diem's "Catholic-dominated government."

If we read Miss Higgins correctly, she has found no wave of protest against the Diem government on religious grounds. Indeed, in her efforts to get at the bottom of alleged Buddhist fears and resentments, she has been met more than once with blank stares of incomprehension. "What is there to protest?" one bonze asked in reply to her questioning. She recounts the story of a Catholic chief of province who not only allowed a group of Buddhists to conduct a hunger strike on the steps of his own City Hall (staged on orders from Saigon, which "we dare not disobey") but also provided them with medicine, medical at- tendants, water and blankets.

This review holds no brief for certain aspects of Ngo Dinh Diem's autocratic regime. Neither does NC correspondent Fr. O'Connor, as he never ceases to point out in his releases. It would be a tragedy, however, if a group of extremists were to be allowed so to misrepresent the authoritarian nature of the Diem regime as to upset the applecart in Saigon. The consequences could be catastrophic. Yet few correspondents, it seems to us, have done more than hint at the possible political motivation behind the anti-government campaign being waged under Buddhist leadership. Why so?

August 17, 1963

The Tangle in Vietnam

A little sentence buried deep in a news story by Tad Szulc, Washington correspondent of the New York Times, caught our eye the other day. "The tension convinced the Administration long ago," wrote Mr. Szulc, "that the underlying political problem of Vietnam transcended the dispute between the Roman Catholic Ngo family and the country's Buddhist majority." That said, may we now hope that henceforth the by now monotonous references to Ngo Dinh Diem's Catholicism will disappear from the nation's headlines?

That the Administration reached its conclusion "long ago," we are not so sure. Our impression is that up to September 8, the date of the Szulc story, the State Department had been fumbling around in the dark, uncertain where to turn in a tragic situation it did not fully comprehend. As we ventured in these pages just last week: "Washington's pipeline from Saigon has been no more trustworthy than many of the newspapers we have been reading." First, our policy was one of nonintervention in the "internal affairs of South Vietnam." Then, an apparently well-founded rumor had it that we were ready to topple the government. At least, we were prepared to encourage a military coup. The next miscalculation came in the shape of a nation-wide TV interview on September 2, in which President Kennedy conveyed an ultimatum to the President of South Vietnam. But Mr. Kennedy learned fast that oriental potentates, who set such a high premium on "face," do not back easily into corners. Mr. Diem won that round hands down.

Indeed, after observing signs of the bafflement of our own government these many weeks, we are inclined to view with some indulgence the incredible gullibility manifested by world opinion vis-à-vis South Vietnam's Buddhist affair. The Central Intelligence Agency is supposed to be au courant, especially in matters that concern an ally in the armed struggle against communism. World opinion, on the other hand, has had to rely on a press that is no better than its sources—in this case, for the most part, the very U. S. officials who have been responsible for the fiasco that has been passing for policy in South Vietnam.

How else explain the fact that two responsible correspondents could arrive at two diametrically opposed conclusions regarding South Vietnam's Buddhist crisis after viewing the same set of circumstances from the same vantage point in Saigon? We refer to the six- part series of articles by Marguerite Higgins, which appeared in the New York Herald Tribune from August 26 through September 1, and the daily dispatches of David Halberstam, of the New York Times. In our view, it has been the tendentious reporting exemplified by Mr. Halberstam's stories that put the situation in South Vietnam out of focus from the start. His tedious references to President Diem's religious affiliation and to the extent of Catholic influence in the national life of South Vietnam (for which, incidentally, no one need apologize) inevitably evoked in receptive minds an image of religious persecution exceeding the Albigensian Crusade in its brutality. True, Mr. Halberstam redeemed himself with a more balanced and thorough account on September 11. But the damage had already been done.

As late as September 4, for example, despite all the evidence of the political nature of Vietnam's crisis, the Christian Century still had the Catholics and the Buddhists fighting a "flaming" religious war. In a curious editorial entitled "Rome and Saigon," this Protestant weekly called for papal intervention for "political" as well as "humanitarian" reasons. Startling Church-State doctrine, coming from the Christian Century.

Miss Higgins, on the other hand, tagged South Vietnam's Buddhists at the outset for what they really were—a group of politically motivated agitators who hoped to enlist world sympathy by raising a phony issue of religious persecution. Deliberately goading the government, they courted arrest, says Miss Higgins, in the hope that "the Americans would be embarrassed into withdrawing their support of Mr. Diem or getting rid of him." How close they came to their objective only the State Department can tell.

Unfortunately, the Vietnamese government has played directly into the hands of its Buddhist opponents. Had it not reacted so violently to provocation, there would never have been a Buddhist crisis. Where last May they had no grievances worthy of attracting world-wide sympathy, today the Buddhists have been provided with those grievances.

Moreover, as a result of the harsh crackdown on the opposition, the government has almost totally alienated the more sophisticated town and city dwellers, among them the intelligentsia of South Vietnam. For these, the Buddhists' protests have provided an outlet for bottled-up resentment against housing shortages, the lack of freedom of expression, arbitrary arrests, detention without trial, etc.

By U. S. political standards, this Diem regime is certainly not ideal. Yet neither is it to be ranked among the vicious tyrannies of history. Where it has failed, it is capable of reform. Rather than urge the toppling of the regime, therefore, we would prefer to trust that there is still a reservoir of common sense in Saigon. For at this critical stage of the war against the Communist Vietcong there is no time to experiment with new and unknown quantities in government.

September 21, 1963

Torment for Everyone

One would need a long memory, indeed, to recall an issue so tormenting and so divisive as the question of the war in Vietnam. The casualties increase. More and more planes are shot out of the skies. Billions of dollars go up in flame and smoke. The pictures in the newspapers become more horrifying; on television we watch with anguish the stupid, cruel mistreatment of captured American airmen. Sickeningly aware of having been sucked gradually into the hell of war on the Asian mainland, we appreciate too well both the exultation and the threat of Russia and Red China. It is neither a clear nor a happy time in American history.

Not a few who have supported the Administration position on the war have done so with mounting uneasiness and downright worry. These people cannot be faulted in point of sincerity. They hate war as every sane and decent person hates war, but they believe that this war must be fought. They are desolated by the casualties and the lost planes and the tottering, vacant-eyed captive pilots; but they are convinced that if there must be war, it must be fought by and directed by soldiers. Such views are honest and earnest and thoughtful, and many who hold them suffer more and more pangs of doubt and misgiving. They are impressed by the sincerity and integrity of men who hold the opposite opinion. They are fully awake to the possibility that they could be wrong. They, too, passionately long for an honorable way out of the impasse.

These whom we describe, these decent men and women who both hate and support this war, are asking themselves questions. Among those questions—though there are many others—the following must be listed.

Has it ever happened, in a bitter, bloody conflict, that side A, over years, tirelessly explored every conceivable avenue toward a just and honorable peace, openly enlisting the aid of every agency and person who might find a way to peace; that on every occasion side B adamantly and contemptuously rejected every peaceful approach by anyone; and that then side A was ceaselessly abused by any number of spokesmen for not making peace?

Has it ever happened, in a bitter, bloody conflict, that side A consistently made prodigious, expensive and even self-lacerating efforts to spare the civilian population and to aid them when they were injured; that side B just as consistently and with complete deliberation terrorized and butchered innocent civilians; and that then side A was endlessly excoriated for its cruelty to the hapless by- standers in war?

Has it ever happened, in a bitter, bloody conflict, that so many individuals and agencies and parties and organizations and politicians and professors and collegians and clergymen and journalists have so loudly and eloquently denounced the situation without—as it seems—experiencing the slightest need of offering a constructive suggestion as to an honest way out of the situation?

No one pretends that these questions constitute anything like a complete appraisal of a hideously complex and agonizing problem. But when questions are asked about Vietnam, these three must be among them.

June 24, 1967

Civil Disobedience at Catonsville

The trial and conviction of the "Catonsville Nine" in a Baltimore courtroom brought to focus in the minds of countless Americans some basic issues on which men of good will and earnest conscience have disagreed and will continue to disagree.

There was no dispute, either before or during the trial, about the facts in this case as advanced by the prosecutor and admitted freely by the nine defendants. The dispute and the questioning during the trial turned on other, larger issues. What follows is an attempt to speak to those matters.

As background to what this Review has to say about the trial and conviction of the "Catonsville Nine," it may be helpful to note that the members of its editorial staff find themselves divided in their political and moral judgments on this nation's involvement in the Vietnam war. Some view this involvement as morally justified and necessary and as militarily and politically wise. Others have misgivings about certain moral issues posed by our involvement and favor new approaches, including an immediate cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam. Still others have even stronger misgivings about the moral issue and hold that every step should be taken, militarily, politically and diplomatically, to end our country's involvement forthwith.

The editorial staff of this magazine would agree, moreover, that a fresh look ought to be taken at the Selective Service Act, with due attention given to both the majority and the minority reports of last year's Presidential advisory committee on the act. As it is presently constituted, the law leads to injustices and inequities. It should be administered, for example, in such a manner as to eliminate the years of uncertainty during which a young man may be forced to wait without knowing whether he is to be tapped for military service or not. Some provision ought to be made, perhaps, for selective conscientious objection. Despite its admitted inadequacies, however, the present Selective Service Act is in itself a reasonable law, independently of any judgment on the morality or immorality of the Vietnam war.

During the trial, the "Catonsville Nine" persistently tried to make the Vietnam war and the Selective Service system the real defendants in the case. Following well established legal principles, the trial judge excluded most of the testimony the defendants wished to introduce and also instructed the jury that religious or conscientious motivation was not a defense to criminal indictments. What then was the issue? Most certainly the right of dissent in a democratic society and the legitimacy of the means chosen by the defendants in this instance to dramatize their dissent to a situation they conscientiously believed to be immoral and intolerable.

Of the defendants' right to dissent, there can be no question. Whatever one's views on the Vietnam war, all Americans, it might safely be said, would agree on certain propositions: 1) that every man has the right and the duty to act according to his conscience; 2) that it is of the essence of a democratic society that there be the widest possible allowance for the free profession of protest. A man may even resort to civil disobedience if he cannot in conscience carry out an affirmative command imposed by law or because he hopes, through his act of civil disobedience, to call attention to a broader moral issue. Such an appeal to conscience in our courts of law, though unusual, is not without precedent. The famous Peter Zenger case was argued in these terms. The victory of the defendant established for all time the right of freedom of the press in this country.

We submit, moreover, that outside the courts there is a generally satisfactory level of freedom of protest and dissent in this country—for example, through the electoral process—as well as an adequate opportunity to reach the minds and consciences of the community at large on public issues, including the Vietnam war. The individual, in short, has adequate opportunity to "confront" what he may deem to be the erroneous con- science of his society. But does he have the right to embark on a "collision" course? May he, with impunity, posit acts that involve a "collision" of consciences, in which the acts of civil disobedience not only "confront" the consciences of others but may also restrict or inhibit the personal exercise of freedom of conscience of the "confronted"?

This, it appears to us, is the heart of the issue here. For statements attributed to at least one of the "Catonsville Nine" establish beyond doubt that the intent of the defendants was to cripple the administration of the law of the land. It was a direct attempt by nine people to impose their conscience on a community that, at least all indications suggest, conscientiously sees the Selective Service Act as a valid, reasonable and necessary piece of legislation. It is a law that the state could conceivably call upon one day in order to protect the very defendants in this case. What is fundamentally at issue here is the possibility of a whole chain of actions that could end up by reducing this nation to anarchy.

We cannot, then, but concur with the judgment of the jury that tried the "Catonsville Nine." Whether we agree or disagree with the defendants on the Vietnam war, we find ourselves at odds with them on the moral and political appropriateness of the means they chose to register their dissent.

To say this, however, is not to say that we are without sympathy for the defendants. We cannot but admire their courage in following through on the dictates of their conscience. We recognize the profound measure of concern over the moral issues that have been raised by the Vietnam war and the sense of frustration that impels American citizens to such acts as those of the "Catonsville Nine."

For America there is an added sense of involvement in the events that culminated in the Baltimore trial, be- cause of the presence among the nine defendants of one who was a close associate of several of us in the past and who is a brother Jesuit. That we differ in judgment does not make us the less close in fraternal solidarity. Our prayers are with him that our consciences may enlighten each other and that he may soon be restored to freedom and the fullest exercise of his ministry.

October 26, 1968

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