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Separation of Church and State

February 03, 2022

A few of you may recall there was a religious hue and cry in some circles when Catholic John F. Kennedy ran for President.  The central issue was that there would be no separation of church and state given the proscribed Catholic religious duty to the Pope.  Nonetheless, Kennedy was elected and worked his way through several very difficult international conflicts. Vietnam fell in his lap thanks to foolish decisions by Truman and Eisenhower to let the French regain their former colony of Indochine following WWII. Once again, it did not sort out so well for the French.  Vietnam was then separated into North and South Vietnam with the provision that there would be a future referendum as to whether the two Vietnams should be reunited into one country. Many of the Vietnamese Catholics fled communist-dominated North Vietnam fearing that their religious freedom would cease.  The Buddhists in South Vietnam generally remained there and went on about their business though their lives took a turn for the worse when President Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, became firmly ensconced as the President.  Diem is shown below in a 1957 visit to Washington shaking hands with President Eisenhower and meeting Secretary of State John Foster Dulles who is next to him. 

Diem did everything possible to make the Government of South Vietnam a carefully controlled Catholic-oriented administration which included his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and influenced by his wife, Madame Nhu, a true dragon lady who applauded self-immolations by the monks and offered to furnish the gasoline.  Moreover, Diem’s elder brother was the Catholic Archbishop who introduced very restrictive measures on the Buddhist monks. The monks’ peaceful protests of flying Buddhist flags led to Government forces firing on them, killing nine protestors in one demonstration. Eventually, oppression of the Buddhists reached a level that an incredible demonstration was visually communicated to the world. On June 11, 1963, Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, believed that a personal sacrifice was required which led to his self-immolation as shown below. 

As internal South Vietnam matters worsened and the insurgency activities of the Viet Cong from the north ramped up, the U.S. and more particularly, President Kennedy, became quite unhappy with the Diem regime. Apart from burning monks, the Diem regime took no interest in the Communist activities in Laos that were funneling weapons to the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.   Accordingly, at the highest level, the U.S. agreed to support the Diem coup on October 29, 1963.  A CIA officer, Colonel Lucien Conein, took a bag of money to General Van Minh (a.k.a. Big Minh) of the South Vietnam Army with instructions to carry out a coup against the Diem regime. On November 3, 1963, Big Minh and his merry men assassinated Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu. Therein began the CIA concept of hiring mercenaries to do the dirty work of the U.S. in bad spots.  Almost five years later to the date, I found myself in an illegal war in Laos surrounded by no one in uniform as any U.S. military presence would have been in violation of the Geneva Agreement.  

It is widely recognized that JFK had come to the realization that South Vietnam was a lost cause, and we should have a graceful exit from the morass following his expected re-election given the charisma of Camelot. However, only nineteen days following the Diem execution, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas and Governor John Connally was seriously wounded. The image of the beginning of the Kennedy motorcade is shown below. When John Connally retired from public office, he went on the Board of Directors of Superior Oil where I was the chief financial officer.  No matter what anyone thinks about him, Connally was a “man of presence” from appearance to speech and demeaner. 

Several weeks ago, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was one of the world’s most influential Zen masters, teaching mindfulness, compassion, and nonviolence, died in his home in the Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam at the age of 95. His passing resulted in extensive news coverage ranging from The New York Times article by Seth Mydans to The Bangkok Post. He was a prolific author, poet, teacher, and peace activist which resulted in his banishment from Vietnam during the troubles. 

Thich Nhat Hanh traveled extensively and spoke of “engaged Buddhism,” the application of Buddhist principles to political and social reform.  He studied at Princeton Theological Seminary and later lectured at Cornell and Columbia. He influenced the American peace movement encouraging Dr. Martin Luther King to oppose the Vietnam War. He is shown below with Dr. King at a news conference in Chicago in 1966.  Dr. King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967, but the prize was not awarded to anyone that year.  Dr. King was a designated speaker at the 1968 Central Park peace gathering in New York.  However, Loretta Scott King had to stand in for him as he had been assassinated two weeks earlier. I participated in that Peace March while I was in New York on my Esso training program though I was deep in Laos some months later. 

The folks with whom I associated in Laos would not have cared about the Peace March bit as the only visible military in uniform were Vang Pao’s Hmong tribal forces on the front line. The Air America pilots had all been “sheep-dipped” by resigning any U.S. military connections and working for a “private” airline owned by the CIA. The CIA folks did not need to wear a uniform as everyone knew who they were. 

If you were in Saigon in early April 1975, as I happened to be, it was obvious that the war was over though U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin was in denial holding on to the last minute. The Thieu government fled Saigon on April 21, Big Minh took over on April 28 and ordered the South Vietnam Army to surrender their weapons and stand down which saved countless lives. Big Minh, shown below, left Vietnam to ultimately settle in Los Angeles. At six feet tall he fit right into the size mold in the U.S. though in Vietnam he was a virtual giant, hence his nickname. 

Thich Nhat Hanh was outside of South Vietnam when the final Paris Peace Accord was reached in 1973 and was not allowed to enter the country until 2005 when the Communist government permitted him to return.  His pacifist nature was evident in his teachings.  “We know very well that airplanes, guns, and bombs cannot remove wrong perception” he said.  “Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline and they rely only on the armed forces to remove terrorism.” Buddhist monks are shown below carrying the body of Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, whose teachings provided enlightenment to many people.  He lay in state in the temple in Hue, Vietnam for one week prior to his cremation. 

It is difficult to say we are in a better place today though the level of assassinations has been reduced. Nonetheless, Thich Nhat Hanh had a great impact on the thousands of people he reached through his teaching and meditation training in the western world. It is very difficult to envision how Buddhist practices could be anything but positive on any form of government.

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