On this day in 1963, troops from the South Vietnam army poured chemicals on the heads of peaceful Buddhist protesters in Huế. As a result of this, 67 of the protesters were hospitalized with “severe blistering of the skin and respiratory ailments.” This was part of the Buddhist crisis of 1963. At that time, Ngô Đình Diệm was president of South Vietnam. He was also a Roman Catholic and he discriminated against other religious faiths — most especially the Buddhists.
This was probably the first time the US government began to really question its support of Diệm. It shouldn’t have been. On 8 May 1963, the police and military shot guns and threw grenades into a group of Buddhist protesters. Nine of them were killed, and four others were severely injured. Diệm reacted by blaming the Viet Cong. I know of no reaction to this within the US government. I suspect it was like “plausible deniability”: Diệm had a plausible explanation. But the chemical attacks were another matter. And it was about to get much worse.
As a result of the push-back for the attacks on 3 June 1963, Diệm started negotiation with the Buddhists. This started but it was clearly not a serious effort. Regardless, even before the negotiations really got going, on 11 June 1963, Thích Quảng Đức self-immolated himself. Over the next five months, several other monks and nuns did the same thing — mostly with fire, but as I recall, at least one with a sword.
The crisis only abated when Ngô Đình Diệm was assassinated on 2 November 1963. I used to think it was crazy that he was the guy who the US decided was worth supporting. I know far too much now. He’s exactly the kind of repressive strongman that our government loves. And the truth is, any dream the US government had of hanging onto South Vietnam ended with his death. The country never again had a strong leader. But we would oversee the deaths of millions before we finally figured out that our fate had been sealed.
We mark this day 52 years ago as an important moment in the tragedy of Vietnam.