I've started watching The Vietnam War, and would like to know something incidental to the early stages of this conflict.

Ngo Dinh Diem led an increasingly brutal and unashamedly pro-Catholic minority government in South Vietnam which ruled over a majority Buddhist population. Diem's policies treated the Buddhist majority with open contempt and worked to promote only Catholic interests. Diem's elder brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc, was also a Catholic bishop.

What did the Catholic Church publicly and privately think of Diem's South Vietnamese regime? It's hard to believe that they were ignorant of what was going on, so did they turn a blind eye to any ethical issues* presented by the regime because it was Catholic?

*Vote rigging, nepotism, corruption, persecution of Buddhists, land theft, summary execution, persecution of non-Buddhist local religions, etc.

  • 1
    After reading this question, it occurs to me that my town has a large community of Catholics who speak Vietnamese as their first language. I had never really thought about the political-religious aspect of that before.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 28, 2017 at 13:08
  • Please give some examples of "ethical issues presented by the regime" of Diem.
    – Geremia
    Sep 28, 2017 at 15:23
  • Some reviews say that the series is pretty biased. I personally found it quite tedious to watch, but I suppose it's a matter of taste.
    – user26470
    Sep 29, 2017 at 6:55
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    Ken Burns is well known for American sentimentalism, my reading of reviews is that it is biased significantly towards populist US remembrance, at the cost of the real issues present in the historiography. Oct 2, 2018 at 14:07
  • @SamuelRussell I am not American, and found it informative. It didn't strike me as particularly sentimental. More like an anatomy of a car crash which goes into contextual detail. Perhaps you should watch it yourself so you can make your own conclusions.
    – user17846
    Oct 2, 2018 at 14:17

2 Answers 2


The Vatican's opinion of Diem's regime, in public, seems to have been one of 'no comment' judging by the lack of public statements. In private, Diem may have initially enjoyed at least some support from the Vatican. Later, the Vatican distanced itself from Diem due to the unpopularity of the Vietnamese leader in his own country.

According to Wikipedia, referring to the period 1950 to 1954,

Diệm spent most of the next four years in the United States and Europe enlisting support, particularly among fellow Catholic politicians in America and Vatican officials. Diệm's success with the latter group was helped by the fact that his elder brother Ngô Đình Thục was the leading Catholic cleric in Vietnam and had studied with high-ranking priests in Rome.

Diem was initially strongly backed by Francis Spellman, the Archbishop of New York, who was very anti-communist and close to Pope Pius XII. It was Pius XII who approved the Decree against Communism in 1949 so it is feasible that he also supported Diem.

However, it seems that Diem's harsh policies towards Buddhists and the high level of corruption may have been a source of embarrassment to the Vatican for, in a 1963 issue of the Catholic Weekly,

it is noted that: "Archbishop Thuc later told reporters in Rome that the Vatican had ordered him to keep silent about his activities and the affairs of his country while he was outside Vietnam.”

The relationship between Diem and the Vatican seems to have already been strained - he had opposed the Vatican's choice for Bishop of Saigon, preferring instead the aforementioned Thuc, his brother.

Both John Cooney, in The American Pope (on Spellman), and especially Avro Manhatten, in Vietnam: Why did we go? claim that the Vatican was deeply involved in supporting Diem but both books are controversial to say the least. See comments here (Cooney) and here (Manhatten), for example.

Other sources:

The Catholic Church in Sydney & the Vietnam Conflict by C.F.Bowers

Catholic Vietnam: A Church from Empire to Nation by Charles Keith




President Ngo Dinh Diem was a Catholic and brother of the traditionalist Catholic Archbishop Thuc. Diem governed according to Catholic principles, even legislating laws more in accordance with Catholic teaching. He was one of the several assassinated by the CIA coup right before the Vietnam War began. Some consider Diem a martyr much as some French consider King Louis XVI a martyr.

The Vietnam War began over a dispute between the government, run by Catholics (some even say it was nepotism), and Buddhists. Diem enacted a law that said a religious group had to petition the government first before being able to fly a flag for a religious holiday. Diem's brother Abp. Thuc celebrated his 25th anniversary of his episcopal consecration civically and with great pomp, but thereafter the government denied the Buddhists the ability to fly their flags on their religious holiday (6 May 1963), and the Buddhists became violent in protest (hence the memorable pictures of violent Buddhist self-imolations / suicides). Thereafter, there was a CIA coup to assassinate Diem (2 Nov. 1963) because, as Johnson later said, Diem was unfit for governing Vietnam. A few million Catholics regrouped into one region of Vietnam.

Diem had a love-hate relationship with the U.S. and France. France was a colonizer, but France's withdrawal from Vietnam left it unstable. The U.S. could've helped with stabilizing it, but it doesn't seem assassinating Diem helped.

At its core, the Vietnam War began as a religious war of Catholics vs. Buddhists.

Diem had an audience with Pope Pius XII, as mentioned in Miller's Misalliance p. 38.

According to this, in 1966

Pope Paul VI addresses 150,000 people in St. Peter’s Square in Rome and calls for an end to the war in Vietnam through negotiations. Although the Pope’s address had no impact on the Johnson administration and its policies in Southeast Asia, his comments were indicative of the mounting antiwar sentiment that was growing both at home and overseas.

from my answer to the Christianity StackExchange question "What was the stance of the Roman Catholic Church on the Vietnam War?"

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    This does not answer the question. What did the Vatican say in public and private about the regime? The last paragraph doesn't even answer the question, it just says the Pope called for the end to the war... but the Pope always calls for an end to war, and this reveals nothing of the Vatican's opinion on the regime.
    – user17846
    Sep 28, 2017 at 14:42
  • @inappropriateCode You're right. I missed the date, which indicates the statement occurred after Diem's death.
    – justCal
    Sep 28, 2017 at 14:45
  • @inappropriateCode It did not condemn the regime as Pope Pius XI had the German Reich in his 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, if that's what you're looking for. Searching the AAS for "Thuc" only reveals a letter by Pope John XXIII constituting the episcopal hierarchy in Vietnam in 1961. Why would the Vatican condemn Diem's regime if he legislated according to Catholic teachings?
    – Geremia
    Sep 28, 2017 at 15:17
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    @Geremia I'm not sure how to put this more simply; I asked what was the Vatican's opinion of South Vietnam's regime under Diem, publicly and privately. Are you telling me there's no evidence of the Catholic hierarchy having any opinion on the rigged elections, nepotism, corruption, persecution of Buddhists... not a single senior Catholic was documented to say anything about any of that? Are you saying none of that had any relevance to the church if a regime showed favouritism?
    – user17846
    Sep 28, 2017 at 16:39
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    @inappropriateCode "Is there a specific term for the upper echelons of the Catholic chuch, akin to the government cabinet of a nation state?" yes, the Roman Curia
    – Geremia
    Sep 30, 2017 at 4:19

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