America has had a bad history of supporting brutal dictators around the world. This is a policy it still engages in to this day. Take a lot at the Saudi Arabian regime for one example. Names that spring to mind include Noriega in Panama, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, but the list is much longer than that. It would take a long time to list them all.
I think Antonio Somoza President of Nicaragua, one of the most brutal dictators ever supported by the U.S. was one of these brutes about whom an American diplomat said, “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.” This was all part of Real Politick. If a political leader opposes our enemy he must be good enough to support. This was common in American foreign policy in the Cold War, but it has been part of that policy forever. Often that policy stinks. In South Vietnam that guy was President Diem. He was our son-of-a-bitch.
On June 10, 1963 journalist Malcolm Brown received an anonymous tip that something big was about to happen the next day in Saigon. So Brown went out with his camera, ready for anything. He had been told where to go and he went there. As it turned out a 73-year old Buddhist monk set himself on fire at a busy intersection and died a horrible death. Brown caught it all on film. The photo appeared around the world. I remember seeing it in Canada. It was hard to believe that anyone would do that to himself. Imagine the excruciating pain of the death. As he burned another monk chanted, “a Buddhist monk becomes a martyr.” He repeated it over and over.
President Kennedy acknowledged “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” Malcolm Brown won the Pulitzer Prize for the image. The monk’s death increased international pressure on the Diêm regime to announce reforms to mollify the Buddhists, but his promised reforms were never implemented.
This self-sacrifice caught the attention of the world. What were the South Vietnamese and their allies doing that would make a monk do that? Neil Sheehan said that he saw a poor woman take off her gold rings and drop them into a bucket for resistance. When he saw that, Sheehan said to himself, “This regime is over.” That was in 1963!
Contrast that with the reaction by Ngô Dinh Diêm’s sister. She clapped her hands gleefully at the sight of the burning monk and cheered. She said if she had been there she would have given the monk a match! She was power hungry, even though her husband was the leader of the secret police.
The martyr inspired others to immolate themselves as well. Soon people around the world began to realize that these Buddhists were serious. These were powerful statements. These images caused many students and Roman Catholics and others to join the rebels’ cause. It seemed noble. The South Vietnamese cause seemed crass and corrupt in comparison.
Activist Bill Zimmerman said that the civil rights movement had set the standard in the American South as to how people—ordinary people—who believed in a cause that was just could stand up to injustice. Anti-war activists learned a lot from the Civil Rights activists.
Anti-war activists, like Bill Zimmerman, were inspired by American Civil Rights activists who had allowed themselves to be beaten up or attacked by dogs or hit by the police. It was hard not to respect people who went that far. Then they saw a monk in Vietnam cover himself with gasoline and burn himself to death. That was a big step up. It was an extraordinary act of rebellion that inspired activists around the world.
During this time tensions increased between the Americans and the politician they had decided to support– Ngô Dinh Diêm. I day before a new Ambassador arrived in Saigon, after promising the Americans he would take no further repressive actions against the Buddhist minorities, he cut off power to the American officials and sent hundreds of special forces into Buddhist pagodas and brutally rounded up 1,400 Buddhist monks, students, and other rebels. It was hardly surprising that the Americans lost a lot of confidence in the leader they were supporting with large sums of money. Was this the democracy they wanted? When Americans complained Diêm went even farther, he declared martial law and authorized to shoot anyone on the streets after 9 p.m.
It was not just the Americans who were upset with Diêm. Everyone was mad at him. He closed universities, then other schools and even arrested students.
The world wondered, who were the Americans supporting in this war? Were they supporting the right side? Was the son-of-a-bitch worth it?