Following the 1954 Geneva Conference, Ngo Dinh Diem – a Vietnamese Roman Catholic and passionate anti-Communist, assumed leadership in Saigon after the 1955 referendum. As a member of Vietnamese Catholic minority, Diem relied deeply on the loyalty and support of his co-religionists. He not only began to fill almost all important civilian and military positions with Catholics but also implemented many biased policies toward Catholics in the professions, business, education and more. However, in a country where Buddhists made up more than 70 percent of its population, Diem‘s religious favoritism and discrimination caused an increasingly deep resentment.
Hue Vesak Shootings
In April 1963, the government ordered provincial officials to enforce a ban on displaying religious flags. The order arrived just prior to Vesak (Buddha’s Birthday) – a major Buddhist festival. Its application caused waves of indignation among Buddhists, as a week earlier Papal flags had been displayed in a government-sponsored celebration of Ngo Dinh Thuc, the Archbishop of Hue.
On May 8, the Buddhists flew their flags despite of the order and even held up a demonstration protesting against the ban. Realizing the demonstration as a challenge to government authority, local officials attempted to dismiss the crowd. When initial efforts produced little results, the police was ordered to fire on the protesters. Nine persons were killed and fourteen were wounded. However, Diem’s government refused to acknowledge responsibility and even made up a story that the victims had been hit by a grenade blast thrown by a Viet Cong agent.
Escalation of Tension
On the following day more than 10,000 people marched in protest against the killings. On May 10, the Buddhists passed their manifesto to the government demanding freedom to fly their flag and practice their beliefs, legal equality with the Catholics, and indemnification for the victims of the Vesak incident as well as punishment for its perpetrators. Many publicized meetings and protests continued throughout May, but Diem still hesitated to settle the issues.
On June 3, the situation became even worse when South Vietnamese police poured chemicals on the heads of praying Buddhist protesters in Hue, resulting in 67 people being hospitalized. On June 11, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burned himself to death at a major Saigon intersection in protest of the government’s persecution of the Buddhists. The photo of Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation captured by Malcolm Browne caused world-wide indignation and fueled anti-government protests in South Vietnam.
To ease the situation, a few efforts were made by the government. On June 5, a meeting was held between Vice President Tho and the Buddhists. After 10 days, on June 16, a joint communiqué was released outlining the elements of the settlement, but refusing to accept any responsibility for the May 8 incident. Nonetheless, public lack of faith on the government’s part in the agreement discredited its conciliatory attempts. In August, the tense political atmosphere in Saigon suggested that a serious showdown was on the way.
The Pagodas Raids
On August 21, Ngo Dinh Nhu shattered the remaining hope of a conciliation between the government and Buddhists by staging an assault on Buddhist pagodas. ARVN special forces and the combat police invaded various pagodas in Saigon, Hue and major South Vietnam cities and arrested over 1,400 Buddhist monks. In the raid on Xa Loi Pagoda, the largest pagoda in Saigon, around 30 monks were wounded, and several were reported “missing”.
South Vietnamese reaction to the attack was dramatic. Vo Van Mau, the Foreign Minister, shaved his head like a Buddhist monk in protest. On August 23, students at the University of Saigon held up mass demonstrations on behalf of the Buddhists. In return, South Vietnamese government reacted to the demonstrations with massive arrests.
In the United States, right after the government found out that Nhu was behind the raids, Kennedy administration immediately sent the Cable 243 to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to instruct him a new US policy in South Vietnam. The message emphasized that the US would not continue to support Diem unless Nhu was removed from the scenes, and if Diem remained obdurate then Lodge could tell South Vietnamese military leaders that the U.S would give them its direct support in the interim period during the government’s breakdown. The message effectively provoked a military coup which led to the fall of Diem’s regime and his assassination in November 1963.