By Ken Leslie for the Saker Blog
The Poglavnik of the East
“I know no way of judging the future but the past.”
Patrick Henry, 1765
“This time, it’s different”
Any gambler bleeding thousands of dollars at a table in Las Vegas
These days we all seem preoccupied with daily events which are taking a turn for the worse. No, not everything is “bad” but only those who are sound asleep do not hear the cold winds of war rattling the windows. My previous essay “Two clicks to midnight” has caused quite a stir with over 20000 views and hundreds of comments. I put it to you that this is not the result of my brilliant writing and analytical skills (I mean this) but the ability to express something that many people keep hidden inside—questions about the true nature of the system in which we live, their inchoate fears and half-buried memories. I believe in the cathartic power of the truth (the way I see it) and it appears that so do many others. This in itself is encouraging because it means that under layers of lies, anxieties, complexes and dogmas, there lies a good human heart capable of love and redemption. Given the current state of the world, this is the only way I know of fighting for a more hopeful tomorrow—warts and all.
Our gracious host has achieved fame (he might disagree!) through a knowledgeable and timely analysis of the Western military-political nexus that is using all its power to destroy Russia and China. His prescient and nuanced assessments of the situation in the “East” have made many of us loyal visitors and contributors to this blog. Now, I can’t hope to offer anything like the military analysis a la Saker of Andrey Martyanov. And that is just as well because they are doing an excellent job. What I can do well is to observe certain historical patterns and try to interpret them in the modern setting. As knowers say, history does not repeat itself but it rhymes. It is these “rhymes” or similarities between historical events that tell us all we need to know about the limited cognitive grasp of the human beings as well as partial predictability of human behaviour. Of course, the complexity of the systems in question precludes any confident claims but nevertheless—past is all we have and we’d better learn how to use its lessons pronto.
Of course, there is danger of overestimating the importance of past events but it is equally dangerous to ignore them. In applied probability, these two types of bias are called “Hot Hand” and “Gambler’s fallacy” and they hamper any analysis of complex events. Yet, as noted by Patrick Henry above, all we have is the past and we’d better study it carefully—if judiciously. And then, there are the emotions—yearning for justice in the face of a blatant injustice and anger at the abandon with which criminal elites hiding behind the holiest of principles have destroyed innocent human lives. After decades if not centuries of demonisation of Russia in all its forms, the time has come to fight back—to turn the light of history on its enemies. As some of you might have noticed, I have focussed almost exclusively on Roman Catholicism at the risk of alienating some readers. This does not mean that evil is the exclusive province of the Vatican but that a large proportion of recent historical tragedies are closely linked with if not caused by it. Given the nature of these tragedies, I intend to explore the nefarious role of this “Official” Christianity in some detail.
In the infernal Encyclopaedia of human beastliness that is kept bound and chained to the gates of Hell there are few events as heart breaking and anger provoking as the War in Vietnam, one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts in modern history. “Conflict” is not the right term here. Rather, the Wars in Vietnam which started in 1945 and ended in 1975 represent an archetype of naked criminal aggression and genocide waged by all weapons in the arsenal of the Western “democracy” against an old and proud people which only wanted to see the backs of foreign invaders. 19th Century was very unkind to the peoples of East Asia in that it brought with it an unstoppable surge of Western imperialism greedy for raw materials and cheap labour. The British, the Dutch and finally the French swooped on the rich rubber and timber-growing fields of Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam respectively, crushing any resistance with the aid of modern weapons and advanced political warfare techniques. Although each of these examples deserves in-depth treatment, I wish to devote and dedicate this essay to Vietnam, whose suffering brings tears to any feeling person’s eyes even today 45 years after colonel Ted Serong clambered up the rickety ladder on the roof of the Saigon embassy leaving the long-suffering country in utter ignominy. If you are wondering who this is, you’ll need to wait for part II.
You may ask—why now? There are several reasons. First, historical amnesia is very dangerous and as stated by President Putin, deliberate attempts by those who fought on the side of evil to embellish their role and soothe their ravaged consciences can only bring us closer to another global tragedy. Change is inevitable and needed but not at the expense of the rehabilitation of the worst human instincts and thirst for iniquity. Second, even in the bloody milieu of European colonial conquest, Vietnam stands out as a symbol of martyrdom—in the Christian sense, despite or because most crimes against the Vietnamese people were committed in the name of a Church which calls itself the only true Christian faith. Third, obsessed by Eurocentrism, we tend to forget that lives and struggles of other peoples are equally as important. Finally, the topic I shall focus on is highly relevant in the modern era of limited and “targeted” military and paramilitary operations underpinned by a vast human and electronic intelligence apparatus and the largest military in the world. There are a lot of parallels between what happened in South Vietnam from 1967 to 1973 and more recent US-sponsored or executed crimes in different parts of the world.
Although I’d love to expound, this is not the place to retell the story of the tragedy of Vietnam which began with a mid-19th Century scouting expedition by several French Jesuits on behalf of French capital. Their demise at the hands of Vietnamese patriots served as a pretext for what Wikipedia describes as follows: “Vietnam’s sovereignty was gradually eroded by France, which was aided by the Spanish and large Catholic militias in a series of military conquests between 1859 and 1885.” Although the Vietnamese fought bravely against the legions of newly-converted “rice Christians”, they could not withstand the onslaught of one of the premiere imperial powers of the day. After a couple of decades of resolute resistance, the kingdom of Vietnam became another French colony to be exploited and visited by adventurers.
In their obsession with the hard-nosed “it’s all about the money” agenda, many seem to ignore the fact that the conquest of a people requires the destruction and erasure of their spiritual and cultural identity. While money is of paramount importance, it is useless if the people resisting are aware of their history and culture. This allows them to draw from deep wells of history and replenish their strength. Very often, they come out victorious in the end. The strategists of the global spiritual conquest in the Vatican have been well aware of the power of religion as a weapon to be wielded against indigenous cultures. The psychology of religious conversion is a fascinating psychological topic which deserves a separate article. Once a person converts (for personal gain or under duress), he or she becomes isolated from or ostracised by their family and wider community. Exposed to the opprobrium and shame, the new convert turns to his new family—priests and laymen who are masters at leveraging the sense of guilt and anger. This is combined with the “carrot”—the convert is told that they are special because they belong to the “true” faith. They are initiated within the new ingroup and are soon ready to turn their anger against their former friends and kin.
In Vietnam, this spiritual war (which for me is the most pernicious and least explored form of aggression) resulted in the formation of a class of Vietnamese Catholic converts who struggled to reconcile their origins with a foreign religion and culture to which they were now irrevocably bound. These people became members of a nascent Vietnamese middle class whose ambition to better themselves involved supporting the French occupation and generally renouncing their Buddhist heritage. They often received a French education and tried to emulate French culture and mores. The ones who excelled were employed as low-level bureaucrats or officers. This soon brought them into conflict with those Vietnamese who saw French presence and religious encroachment for what it really was—a brazen attempt to behead the Vietnamese civilisation (which owes a lot to China) and replace it with a docile population of useful “supplétifs”, that is, deracinated aboriginals who are given just enough incentives to keep them in check. The hatred of their community would do the rest.
The ignominious defeat of the French state in 1940 was momentous for France’s colonies which soon had to decide between Petain’s Vichy and De Gaulle’s Cross of Lorraine. That same year, the seemingly unstoppable Japanese Imperial Army occupied the French Indo-China and hammered out a pragmatic agreement with the Vichy colonial government which allowed the latter to continue governing the colony with the Japanese taking on a largely overseeing role. Needless to say, the fruits of the colonial plunder started travelling due East resulting in deadly famines and the birth of a movement of Vietnamese patriots who were guided by (but never subservient to) the precepts of Marxism-Leninism. This cell of exceptional individuals who devoted their lives to the struggle for freedom having spent (cumulatively) over 300 years in French prisons were led by the most exceptional of their number—one Nguyễn Sinh Cung better known as Ho Chi Minh. A tireless revolutionary, socialist, humanist and fighter against oppression, Ho had led an incredible life of adventure, adversity and reincarnation. After being largely side-lined for most of his political life, Ho grabbed the moment in 1944, when he and his comrades organised and led the indigenous guerrilla resistance to Japanese occupation. The name of the movement for the liberation of Vietnam became world-famous as the Viet Minh.
Following the war, Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of Vietnam in August 1945. He was keen to enlist the help of the United States whose anticolonialism under Roosevelt offered hope to many liberation movements. However, with the death of FDR, the US foreign policy doctrine experienced a U turn. Instead of continuing their assistance to Ho provided by the OSS in the fight against the Japanese, the newly-hatched American Empire decided to defend the colonial status quo on the pretext of fighting communism. Although exhausted and shamed by its wartime record, France reneged on any promises made by the pre-war Blum government and decided to restore its colonial empire in the hope that the false grandeur of pith helmets and white dress shoes would constitute a sufficient recompense for being a willing partner of Hitler’s own empire just a year earlier (resistance excepted).
To cut a long story short, after eight years of bloody struggle, the Vietminh succeeded in liberating their country following a brilliant victory at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. This gave rise to an international conference at which the USSR and China convinced Ho to agree to a temporary partition and a unification following a “free and fair” election in 1956. There was some anger at the time at the role Ho’s two mentors played but their reticence was understandable given the current political and economic situation as well as the hawkishness of the US foreign policy apparatus. Nevertheless, this was the crucial point in the evolution of Vietnamese Golgotha because the names of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap became household names overnight—the great heroes of the liberation struggle—so much so that even the Americans knew that were an election to take place, the Viet Minh would take the vast majority of votes. This was absolutely unacceptable to warmongering criminals the Dulles brothers and their minions. A free Vietnam friendly to China and the USSR was a nightmare which called for a nightmarish solution. The first task for the dark cabal was to find somebody who could rival Ho as a figure of national prominence and significance. This was impossible in principle because most prominent Vietnamese politicians (including the emperor Bao Dai) were in France’s employ and the people of Vietnam at that point would rather eat raw nettles than countenance another French puppet ruling over them. However, everything was not lost.
In one of many Roman Catholic seminaries in the United States, an austere, celibate Vietnamese man, short in stature but full of noblesse oblige was waiting to be interviewed by one of the leading RC politicians of the era, Senator Michael Mansfield. Diem had left Vietnam in 1950 ostensibly to take part in a Vatican celebration but in reality, to lobby for the RC takeover of Vietnam under his family. Diem’s reputation as a nationalist who equally opposed the French and the Vietminh was played up for the media. What was kept in the background was that Diem was a scion of the most powerful RC family in Vietnam as well as the fact that he had collaborated with the Japanese during the war. One of his brothers, Bishop Ngô Đình Thục was one of the most senior RC clerics in Vietnam and the co-ordinator of the takeover of this largely Buddhist country. Having been vetted by “Hitler’s Pope” Pius XII, Diem immediately acquired access to various offices discretely tucked away inside the massive brownstone buildings of Georgetown in which the fate of Vietnam was being decided at that very moment. Having received the necessary instructions from his Padron in Rome, the ultra-powerful Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman put into motion a process that would result in one of the greatest instances of unprovoked carnage in history.
Diem’s religious zealotry and hatred of Buddhism made him an immediate hit with the Roman Catholic elites in the USA who yearned to redeem the catastrophic “loss of China” to the Communists. Immediately, a “Vietnamese Lobby” was formed consisting of some of the most prominent and influential Roman Catholic personalities on the US scene including Cardinal Spellman, Joseph and John Kennedy, judge William O. Douglass, senator Mike Mansfield and many others. Needless to say, Diem was favoured by the Dulles brothers who would play a crucial role in the formation of his semi-secret system of oppression. Under their tutelage and boosted by American money, the hitherto unknown Catholic zealot would turn Vietnam into a bulwark of anti-Communism modelled on fascist Catholic satrapies such as Spain, Croatia and Slovakia. It did not matter that Diem was almost completely unknown to the people or that up to 90% of Vietnamese population was Buddhist. These inconvenient facts would be overcome by enthusiastic CIA engineers of chaos whose task was to ensure Diem’s rule at all costs.
What happened after this is generally well known. With the help of the CIA man Edward Lansdale, Diem crushed his opponents and became president of Vietnam after a 98.2% victory in a sham election. Soon after, he instituted a reign of terror primarily targeted against Buddhists, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects as well as members of the Viet Minh who had remained in South Vietnam after the partition. On the instigation of his American bosses, he reneged on the promise of reunification and in order to strengthen his shaky hold on power organised a massive transfer of Roman Catholics from North to South Vietnam. Despite the North’s leniency towards their religion, many fell for the expensive and effective propaganda campaign funded by various US Catholic Charities and the CIA. “Virgin has gone to the South” was a potent call for hundreds of thousands of Catholic believers to leave their ancestral homes and start afresh in the newly born Civitas Dei.
This unprecedented demographic shift had a twofold effect: it strengthened Diem’s popular base with Northern Catholics being vastly over-represented in his oppressive apparatus including military, intelligence, police as well as countless Catholic militias strewn around South Vietnam (e.g. Father Nguyen Lạc Hoa’s “Sea Swallows). On the other hand, the population movement increased the political homogeneity of the North making its preparations for a war of liberation easier. Here is a quote from a research essay by Peter Hansen: “Jean Lacouture, for example, suggested that Ngô Đinh Diệm deliberately created a “ring of steel” by strategically placing settlements of loyalist Bắc Di Cư around Sài Gòn to protect himself both from communists and from potential enemies within the RVN: ‘As a result, surrounded by fortifications turning them into strategic hamlets, some villages filled with refugees formed a sort of a belt surrounding Saigon; it was as though the beleaguered [Ngô Đinh Diệm] regime wanted to fortify its capital with an iron guard composed of those people most hostile to communism and most violently attached to militant Catholicism.’”
By 1955 everything was in place. The influx of American military and academic advisers, law-enforcement officials and economic experts gave Diem an ostensibly modern system of state repression together with his own FBI, special units, a plethora of secret services and even his own political party (Can Lao, a child of his brother Nhu’s political ambitions) which underpinned the regime’s security through the infiltration by its members into all important institutions. Diem’s secret police was headed by Dr Tran Kim Tuyen, a Catholic who excelled at cruelty and pro-regime zeal. The signal was given for an all-out campaign of anti-Buddhist and anti-left terror. Tens of thousands of innocent Buddhists were imprisoned in animal-like cages or killed by Diem’s assassination squads (akin to the Nazi Einsatzgruppen).
Like in Croatia, whole villages converted to Catholicism in order to avoid imprisonment, torture and death. Hundreds of thousands were relocated into American-funded Potemkin villages called Agrovilles which were supposed to disrupt the traditional patterns of village life deemed unfriendly to the ways of the Catholic puppet Poglavnik. The terror reached its peak in 1958 and 1959. Hitherto dormant on the orders of the Hanoi government, the surviving remnants of the Vietminh started to organise and offer minimal resistance to the crazed crusader. The signal from the North to transition to armed struggle was issued with great reluctance—only after the vast majority of old and experienced cadres was eliminated by Diem’s death squads and there was a serious risk of a rebellion against the Socialist Lao Dong party by the disgruntled activists in the south.
Despite his best (worst) efforts, Diem could never overcome the ultimate barrier which separated him from the people of Vietnam—his religion. He always viewed his role as that of a Roman Catholic autocrat who holds the power of life and death over his flock. Like most religious transplants, he did not appreciate the deep animistic, Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist roots of the ancient Vietnamese civilisation. He did try to emulate these superficially for the sake of appearance but ultimately failed. He even emulated Pavelic and his successors by trying to create a congregation of “loyal” Buddhists who would support his anti-Buddhist crusade. Nevertheless, for a short time, Diem was lionised by his masters in Washington as… oh, think of something… George Washington of Asia who stood alone in his deadly struggle against “Communist oppression”!. The honeymoon might have lasted longer but for the rapaciousness and zealotry of Diem, his family and his regime enforcers. The rumours of the nation-wide killing spree which had resulted in a large number of dead, imprisoned, dislocated and dispossessed non-Catholics started to reach the pricked ears of the Western media. No amount of slick propaganda could hide the horrors of Diem’s torture chambers and death squads (shades of Papa Doc Duvalier and his Ton Ton Macoutes). Not only did Diem antagonise the absolute majority of Vietnamese people including many hitherto loyal Catholics, but his masters in Washington were starting to get alarmed—similar to the German and Italian unease with the genocidal rage of Pavelic’s Ustashe whose cruelty threatened to upset Hitler’s European apple cart.
John F. Kennedy who had by then replaced an aging Eisenhower was faced with a serious problem. As a loyal Roman Catholic and a protégé of Cardinal Spellman, he was a passionate supporter of Diem and his Independent Croatia on the Mekong. As a young senator, Kennedy owed the support of his (mainly Irish Catholic) Boston constituents who were clamouring for a war against the USSR to his rabidly anti-Soviet and anti-communist pronouncements. Once he reached the top spot, he had to face some hard truths: First, Roman Catholics were still a minority in the USA and he had to moderate his inclinations and instincts in order to appeal to the majority. Second, the instability of South Vietnam caused by Diem’s persecution of the Buddhists (large-scale resistance started only in 1961) was threatening America’s wider interests in South-East Asia. Until the very last moment, he procrastinated. Removing Diem would not only end Spellman’s dream of a Catholic Vietnam but Kennedy would have to betray all that he held dear.
To assuage his guilt, he decided to revamp the war strategy in order to bolster Diem’s regime. First, he ordered a large increase in the number of “military advisers” who by now were taking an active part in the fighting. Second, following the doctrine outlined by General Maxwell Taylor, Kennedy placed the accent on the role of the special forces—specially trained paramilitary units used for targeted attacks, sabotage, training various collaborationist forces and assassination. The so-called Green Berets have their origins in the darkest days of the Cold War when the 10th Special Forces Group was placed in Germany in order to create an elite stay-behind army. The Lodge-Philbin act ensured that large numbers of East European Catholics, many of them with strong Nazi inclinations, received the green headgear and later proved their “mettle” in Vietnam.
Kennedy’s efforts proved in vain. The elan and fighting spirit of the Viet Minh (now called Viet Cong by its enemies) could not be matched even by the heavily armed and US-assisted South Vietnamese ARVN (Army of the Republic of South Vietnam). Helicopters and fighter-bombers flown by American officers and large-calibre artillery were largely helpless against a lithe and mobile guerrilla force motivated by patriotism and belief in a better future. The most egregious example of the impotence of Diem’s military and their US advisers was the battle of Ap Bac which took place in early 1963 and was described in great detail by Neil Sheehan in his famous book. The defeat of Diem’s army and the US strategy reverberated far and wide. But this was only a side issue. By the spring of 1963, the Buddhists of Vietnam had had enough. Having failed to stop Diem’s terror through protest and civil disobedience, they resorted to the ultimate weapon of non-violent religions—public suicide.
A number of monks and nuns burned to death in city centres in full view of foreign news cameramen. Diem’s obduracy and unwillingness to heed the protest convinced many in the United States that Diem was beyond salvation (pun not intended) and that America’s interest would be better served by somebody else. The two quarrelling factions bickered for months until the newly-appointed ambassador to Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge (a protestant and a political rival of the Kennedys) started organising a coup. Diem and his brother Nhu were aware of America’s deadly grudge and tried at the last minute to start negotiations with the North Vietnamese government. But time had run out. The ever-loyal Kennedy had to accept his advisers’ recommendation and OK the removal of the would-be Catholic emperor of the East. This was executed by a junta of non-Catholic generals with a little help from an experienced CIA agent of French extraction, Lucien Conein.
Diem was overthrown soon and after an adventurous escape attempt ruthlessly killed, together with his brother while on his way to surrendering to the new government. When he heard the news, Kennedy was genuinely distraught and bereaved. Clearly, his emotions had nothing to do with the fight against communism in which Diem had been failing terribly, and everything to do with the fact that he himself was responsible for the murder of the last openly Catholic leader in Asia. Only three weeks later, he, the first Catholic leader of America would meet the same fate.
The early hope that a less repressive regime in Saigon would motivate the people to turn against the Viet Cong proved empty. Disaster after disaster followed with the guerrillas strengthened by infiltrators from the North Vietnam destroying large ARVN units without suffering major losses. Indeed, the Buddhists were not as good as Diem at killing “commies” and after a couple of years of chaos, the chastened and worried US empire decided to up the ante. The new strategy was two pronged. On the one hand, the old Catholic hands had to be quietly reactivated in order to form a “patriotic” core within the government and the army and second, the fighting would have to be done by the Americans.
By 1964, the stage was set for a drawn-out and bloody denouement of Vietnam’s struggle for freedom and independence. In its attempt to crush the Vietnamese resistance, the Americans employed every weapon and killing technique known to (in)humanity. Having laid out the broad historical context, in part II of this essay I shall analyse the strategy behind and impact of one of the most horrifying weapons wielded in an already horrific war—the Phoenix Programme.
- “Poglavnik” was the official title (meaning the Head or Leader) of Ante Pavelic, the leader of one of the bloodiest regimes in modern history—The Independent State of Croatia. ↑
- Another analogy is the distinction between a person suffering from delusions seeing connections and references everywhere (which does not necessarily mean they don’t exist) and another person with amnesia who is incapable of learning from past experiences. ↑
- This is not quite correct. The Jesuit infiltration into Vietnam began much earlier. The fact that these early “explorers” happened to be Portuguese is relevant for what is to follow. Numerous Catholic militias existed well into the 1960s and were an inextricable part of the French and American war efforts. They are also mentioned in Grahame Green’s “The Quiet American”. ↑
- There are close parallels between the Vietnamese struggle and the Chinese Boxer rebellion which was also triggered by the excesses of the (mainly RC) missionaries. ↑
- Please remember this bit because it is directly related to the topic of the essay. Also, what I describe here has been the modus operandi not only of the right wing of the Roman Catholicism but also many militant schools of Sunni Islam. ↑
- An excellent analysis of Vietnamese communism can be found in Gabriel Kolko’s “Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience”. ↑
- That this was total nonsense became clear when Diem started to arrest, kill and torture anyone who had fought against the French. ↑
- This refers to the book by John Cornwell: Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. ↑
- The personal accounts by Catholic refugees largely fail to mention Lansdale (who might have been inflating his own role) and ascribe the decision to move to the local clergy—disciplined soldiers of the Vatican. ↑
- JFK was particularly impressed by Father Hoa and his fiery anticommunism. ↑
- Hansen, P. (2009). Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 4, Issue 3, pps. 173–211. ↑
- Exactly the same thing happened in the Independent State of Croatia. ↑
- From “Vietnam: Why did We Go?” by Avro Manhattan: “Before engaging upon a thorough persecution against the Buddhists, President Diem attempted to form a body of Buddhists who would support his policies of coordination and integration.” ↑
- See William Simpson’s “Blowback” for a detailed account of this infamous episode. ↑
- The book “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” is an excellent if sanitised source of facts on the American strategy in Vietnam. One just needs to fill in the gaps with executions, secret torture chambers and other CIA special desserts. ↑