This new book on the American-Vietnam War, writes Robert J. Topmiller, "contains few American heroes but focuses instead on the enormous sacrifices of Vietnamese Buddhists to halt the conflict." In the end, the conflict caused 58,000 American and 3 million South and North Vietnamese deaths.
"The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam, 1964-1966" marks the culmination of one historian's decade-long endeavor to tell the story of America's longest war from the perspective of those South Vietnamese Buddhists "who risked everything for peace." The author, an alumnus of Central Washington University, is a Vietnam War veteran and a history professor at Eastern Kentucky University.
Topmiller asserts that America's defeat in Vietnam ultimately resulted from the illegitimacy and unpopularity of successive South Vietnamese governments, which aside from being dictatorial were dependent on and subservient to a warring foreign power, the United States. Above all, he writes, most South Vietnamese wanted peace and independence.
Examination of the Buddhist Peace Movement, Topmiller argues, typifies both "the ambiguity felt by Vietnamese over the American [Cold War] crusade" and "America's frustration over its inability to influence events in South Vietnam." The Buddhists, who hoped to establish peace and democracy and to eradicate poverty and injustice, represented the most significant non-communist group that challenged the South Vietnamese government.
The Buddhist Movement's first defining moment came in June 1963 when an elderly monk protested his government's religious persecution by setting himself on fire. Photographs of the self-immolation and the government's repression of Buddhist protesters galvanized American and world opinion against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, who was assassinated in a November coup.
As Topmiller emphasizes, the toppling of Diem did not work in favor of the Buddhists' drive for peace and nationalism. Instead, it created a political power vacuum filled by South Vietnamese generals, who permitted increased American intervention and an expansion of the war against communist North Vietnam. Washington secretly opposed the Buddhist objective of a populist government because it risked instability and possible cooperation with local communists, and at best, such a course would lead to a "neutralist" approach to the Cold War.
The United States found it increasingly difficult to maintain stability in South Vietnam, a country plagued by interest group factionalism and regional divisions.
Topmiller illustrates this vividly by reconstructing the 1966 Buddhist Crisis in Danang, where U.S. Marines attempted to prevent fighting between their military ally, the South Vietnamese Marines and Air Force, and Buddhist and student protesters, who were aided by dissident South Vietnamese army units. At one point, South Vietnamese fighter planes "accidentally" strafed and injured eight U.S. marines in Danang. A livid U.S. Marine general ordered American fighters to fly over the Vietnamese planes to forestall further strafing. Upset with this adverse action, the South Vietnamese launched additional planes to fly over the American jets. This retaliation only caused more U.S. planes to take to the air. Finally, "after more stern warnings" from the Americans, the Vietnamese Air Force "backed down."
Nevertheless, by the end of 1966, the U.S-backed government in South Vietnam forcefully subjugated the Buddhist Peace Movement. Topmiller suggests that the Buddhist Crisis may have represented a missed of opportunity for peace and a chance for the United States to avoid a humiliating and tragic defeat.
His well-written narrative and nuanced understanding of South Vietnamese and American motives and actions are the result of painstaking research in the United States and Vietnam, including interviews and correspondence with key actors.
With the United States at war in the Middle East, Topmiller's book serves to remind us of the challenges and pitfalls of American involvement in far-flung conflicts.