Heather Marie Stur, associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi, is a Fulbright Scholar in Vietnam, where she is spending the 2013-14 academic year as a visiting professor in the international relations department at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. She received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an M.A. in history from Marquette.
In the fall of 1969, a reporter for the Saigon-based magazine Đối Diện, a monthly Catholic publication, interviewed Father Nguyễn Ngọc Lan about his position on the Vietnam War and prospects for peace. Father Lan was a known peace advocate, which had led some to label him communist-leaning. When the reporter asked him about the accuracy of the label, he replied that if desiring peace and caring for the poor made him a communist, so be it. The way Fr. Lan saw it, if a peace settlement led the warring halves of Vietnam to be united under a communist government, that would be better than to remain at war while a corrupt non-communist government continued to hold power in Saigon. What should we choose, the priest asked, if given the choice between war and peace?
Not all Vietnamese Catholics believed the issue was that simple. While the theme running through most issues of Đối Diện was the desire for peace and an end to foreign intervention in Vietnam, some writers—priests and laity—worried that peace under communism would strip Vietnamese Catholics of the freedom to practice their religion. The March 1970 issue of the magazine featured an article about a letter the archbishops of Saigon and Danang sent to Paris, where American and Vietnamese delegates were struggling to agree on terms that would end the war. The archbishops wrote that while Vietnamese Catholics wanted peace, they also wanted to ensure that religious freedom would remain even if a communist government took control of Vietnam as a whole. Peace without freedom is a “fake peace,” the archbishops argued.
The articles in Đối Diện offer a fascinating look at how traditional Catholicism, liberation theology, communism, and the postcolonial struggle to establish independence and identity converged and existed in tension in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although a minority group, Vietnamese Catholic intellectuals wrote widely about politics for publications such as Đối Diện and others, and Catholicism in Vietnam had gained international attention due to the exodus of Catholics from northern Vietnam in 1954 and during the presidency of Ngô Đình Diệm, a Catholic. In the case of Vietnam, Catholicism in the 1950s and early 1960s tended to be associated with anticommunism, but by the late 1960s, liberation theology had made its way from Latin America to Southeast Asia, and it gave some Vietnamese Catholics a way to reconcile their faith with their support for peace even if it brought communist control of Vietnam. Đối Diện published interviews with Brazilian bishops Helder Camara and Dom Fragoso, both of whom adhered to the tenets of liberation theology and emphasized that Catholicism and communism or socialism are not inherently adversaries. When Father Lan spoke with the Đối Diện reporter, he mentioned Bishop Camara as someone whose beliefs were similar to his, although Fr. Lan noted that while some called Bishop Camara a “red bishop,” Fr. Lan himself was only “đo đỏ” – “reddish,” “a little bit red.”
In a country that had been at war in some form or another for decades, and where foreign interventions continued to wreak havoc on the landscape and the economy, there was an audience open to the teachings of liberation theology. There was no consensus among South Vietnam’s Catholics about what their relationship to the peace movements and communism could or should be, but that is just one example of the diversity of opinions within South Vietnam about Vietnam’s postcolonial future. He would not have been speaking for all Vietnamese Catholics, but to the question “can a Vietnamese Catholic be a communist?” Fr. Lan likely would have said yes, if it meant peace. For others, the fear of religious persecution made it difficult to support a peace agreement that paved the way for a communist takeover of Vietnam in its entirety.