Published in Thich Nhat Hanh, Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change (1993)
This statement was read at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on June 1, 1966, and reprinted in the Congressional Record the next day.
Just this morning, the U.S. Consulate in Hue was destroyed by angry Vietnamese youths. In the past four days, five Vietnamese have immolated themselves, some of them leaving behind messages explaining that their actions were in protest against U.S. policy in South Vietnam. During my short visit to your country, I have repeatedly been asked why the Vietnamese people seem to have become so strongly anti-American.
I wish, first of all, to assure you that I am not anti-American. Indeed, it is precisely because I do have a great respect and admiration for America that I have undertaken this long voyage to your country, a voyage that entails great personal risk for me upon my return to South Vietnam. Yet I assume this risk willingly because I have faith that if the American public can begin to understand some thing of what the Vietnamese people feel about what is happening in our country, much of the unnecessary tragedy and misery being endured by both our peoples might be eliminated.
The demonstrations, self-immolations, and protests that we are witnessing in Vietnam are dramatic reflections of the frustrations that the Vietnamese people feel at being so effectively excluded from participation in the determination of their country’s future. Eighty years of French domination over Vietnam were ended by a long and bloody struggle waged and won by the Vietnamese people against overwhelming odds. During the twelve years since independence, most Vietnamese have remained without a voice in the nation’s destiny, and this at a time when the nation is being subjected to a destructive force far surpassing anything ever before seen in our country. If anti-Americanism seems to be emerging as a focus for some of the recent protests, it is because the Vietnamese people recognize that it is really only the awesome U.S. power that enables the Saigon governments to rule without a popular mandate and to follow policies contrary to the aspirations of the Vietnamese people. This is not the independence for which the Vietnamese people fought so valiantly.
The war in Vietnam today pits brother against brother, the Vietcong against the supporters of the Saigon government. Both sides claim to represent the Vietnamese people, but in reality neither side does. The most effective Vietcong propaganda says that the Saigon governments are mere puppets of the U.S., corrupt lackeys of the imperialists.
Every escalation of the war, every new contingent of U.S. troops confirms these charges and wins new recruits to the Vietcong, for the overwhelming majority of the Vietnamese people now thirst desperately for peace and oppose any further expansion of the war. They see clearly that the present policy of constant escalation only puts peace ever further into the future and merely guarantees an even greater destruction of Vietnamese society. There are now more than 300,000 Americans in my country, most of them knowing and caring little about our customs and practices and many of them involved in destroying Vietnamese people and property.
This creates friction which generously feeds the anti-American propaganda, and the fact that the war kills far more innocent peasants than it does Vietcong is a tragic reality of life in the Vietnamese countryside. Those who escape death by bombings must often abandon their destroyed villages and seek shelter in refugee camps where life is even more miserable than it was in the villages. In general, these people do not blame the Vietcong for their plight. It is the men in the planes, who drop death and destruction from the skies, who appear to them to be their enemies. How can they see it otherwise?
The United States chooses to support those elements in Vietnam that appear to be most devoted to the U.S.’s wishes for Vietnam’s future. But these elements have never been viewed by the Vietnamese people as their spokesmen. Diem was not, nor were Diem’s successors. Thus, it has been the U.S.’s antipathy to popular government in South Vietnam, together with its hope for an ultimate military solution, that has not only contradicted the deepest aspirations of the Vietnamese people, but actually undermined the very objective for which we believe Americans to be fighting in Vietnam.
To us, America’s first objective is to have an anticommunist, or at least a non-communist, Vietnam, whereas the Vietnamese people’s objective is to have peace. They dislike communism, but they dislike war even more, especially after twenty years of fighting and bitterness which has rotted the very fabric of Vietnamese life. Equally important, we now see clearly that continuance of the war is more likely to spread communism in Vietnam than to contain it. The new social class of military officers and commandants that has been created as a direct result of the U.S. involvement, a class of sycophants who support the war for crass economic reasons, are not the people to whom Washington should listen if it sincerely wishes to hear the voice of South Vietnam. The Vietnamese people reject with scorn this corrupt and self-seeking class that cares neither for Vietnam nor for the great ideals of America, but thinks only of its own interests.
The opinion is often expressed that there is no alternative to the present U.S. policy in Vietnam, neither on the political nor the military side. The non-communist alternatives to a military dictatorship are said to be too fragmented to offer a stable alternative, and a cease-fire and U.S. withdrawal are considered unfeasible because it is feared that the Vietcong will take over the country by terror.
The Vietnamese people recognize both of these dangers, but they also recognize the utter futility of the present course and the catastrophic effects that it is having on our society. Furthermore, we do not agree that there is no alternative to a military dictatorship. The force of Vietnamese nationalism is such an alternative. Indeed, this is the sole force that can prevent the complete disintegration of South Vietnam, and it is the force around which all Vietnamese can unite. But nationalism cannot attain its effective potential in the present Vietnamese political climate, where opposition to the government invites open persecution upon oneself and identification with it discredits one in the eyes of the people.
More than a decade of this atmosphere has served to drive many of the Vietnamese nationalists into the National Liberation Front, and many others of them into an ominous silence. Last year, an effort by a prominent group of nationalists to circulate a mild petition requesting peace negotiations between the South Vietnamese government and the NLF was so brutally attacked by the government that we are not likely to hear from them soon again, despite their having attained some 5,000 signatures in less than three days’ time.
Today, the means for nationalist expression rests mainly with the Vietnamese Buddhists, who alone command sufficient popular support to spearhead a protest for popular government. This is not a new role for Vietnamese Buddhism, for in the eyes of the Vietnamese peasants, Buddhism and nationalism are inseparably entwined. The historic accident that made the popularization of Christianity in Vietnam coincident with France subjugation of Vietnam created this image.
The repression of our faith by the French and by President Diem strengthened it. And today, when the Buddhist attempt to give expression to the long pent-up wishes of the submerged and ignored Vietnamese masses is met by the gunfire and tanks of the Vietnamese army, the Vietnamese people, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, clearly see whose action reflects our national heritage and whose action betrays this heritage.
Thus, although the Vietnamese people may lose skirmishes because they have no foreign sources of support, the crude victories of the Saigon generals serve merely to weaken their credibility while confirming the Vietcong’s propaganda claim that the government cares nothing about the people. The Buddhist efforts are designed not to weaken Vietnam’s resistance but to create a genuine will to resist.
Differences do exist among the Buddhists, the Catholics, and the other sects, but they would not be insurmountable if there were a climate in Vietnam that encouraged unity. But there are those who see a unified, popular, nationalist movement in Vietnam as a threat to themselves. Such persons help to sow disunity and then use the disunity which they create as a pretext for retaining power. No, we do not accept the evaluation that there is no alternative to the present type of government.
The second argument offered for continuing the present U.S. policy is that a cease-fire and U.S. withdrawal would merely leave Vietnam to the communists. This argument we must also reject. The Vietcong grow stronger because of the mistakes made by Saigon, not because of its communist ideology or its terror. If South Vietnam could achieve a government clearly responsive to the basic aspirations of the Vietnamese people and truly independent, there would no longer be any basis for popular support for the rebels. Indeed, the rebels would have lost their reason to rebel, and if any guerrilla activity were to continue, the Vietnamese people would have the will to resist it, for they could identify it as being hostile to Vietnamese nationalism, contrary to the people’s longing for peace and reconstruction, and therefore of foreign inspiration.
Since coming to the United States, I have been asked repeatedly to outline concrete proposals for ending the strife in Vietnam. Although I am not a politician and cannot therefore suggest every detail of a satisfactory settlement, the general direction that such a solution must take is quite clear to me and to many of the Vietnamese people. It does not involve the U.S. in any negotiations with Hanoi, Peking, or the NLF. To the Vietnamese people, such talks, if necessary, are the proper province of Vietnamese officials rather than of Washington.
My solution would be along the following lines:
1. A cessation of the bombing, north and south.
2. Limitation of all military operations by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to defensive actions: in effect, a cease-fire if the Vietcong respond in kind.
3. A convincing demonstration of the U.S. intention to withdraw its forces from Vietnam over a specified period of months, with withdrawal actually beginning to take place as a sign of sincerity.
4. A clear statement by the U.S. of its desire to help the Vietnamese people to have a government truly responsive to Vietnamese aspirations, and concrete U.S. actions to implement this statement, such as a refusal to support one group over another.
5. A generous effort to help rebuild, in light of the destruction that has been wreaked upon Vietnam, such aid to be completely free of ideological and political strings and therefore not viewed as an affront to Vietnamese independence.
Such a program, if implemented with sufficient vigor to convince the now understandably skeptical Vietnamese people of its sincerity, offers the best hope for uniting them in a constructive effort and for restoring stability to South Vietnam.
The plan is not perfect, for the question remains of how the U.S. can be sure that the South Vietnamese government and the Vietcong would cooperate in such a venture. Insofar as the South Vietnamese government is concerned, the past statements of Premier Ky have clearly indicated his unwillingness to seek a peaceful end to the war. In fact, it has been the contradiction between the aggressive words of Saigon and the peaceful statements of Washington that has so discredited the so-called U.S. peace offensive of last winter. The withdrawal of the U.S. support for Ky may thus be a necessary precondition for implementation of such a plan.
It is obviously not possible to predict the response of the Vietcong to such a program, but the installation of a popular government in South Vietnam, plus a cease-fire and the beginning of an American withdrawal, would so undercut the Vietcong’s position that it is likely to have no alternative but to cooperate.
Finally, if some may question why I ask the U.S. to take the first step, it is because the U.S. is militarily the strongest nation in the world. No one can accuse it of cowardice if it chooses to seek peace. To be a genuine leader requires moral strength as well as big guns. America’s history suggests that she has the potential to provide the world this leadership.”