When the U.S. Government Tried to Fight Communism With Buddhism
JOE FREEMAN September 10, 2017 Politico
Recent violence in Myanmar reminds us that religion has long been central to Southeast Asian politics.
As Buddhist Myanmar is once again in the news for a brutal crackdown on its Rohingya Muslim minority, it’s worth remembering just how politically volatile religion can be in Southeast Asia—a part of the world more famous for meditation retreats than religious conflict. While the influence of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar, for instance, is often framed as an entirely new phenomenon, it has reared its head before, in similar times of uncertainty and confusion. During the Cold War, this region became a hotspot of competing visions and ideologies. And Buddhism was at the center of it all.
In 1953, several months after the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Vice-President Richard M. Nixon travelled with his wife, Pat, on a whirlwind tour of Asia. The trip included stopovers in Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, where the French took him to the front lines of the first Indochina war to watch a bombardment of Viet Minh fighters. Nixon was impressed but unsettled. He didn’t like the patronizing way the French, which the United States was backing against the communist insurgency in the country, treated their Vietnamese allies, concluding they had failed to summon an attractive alternative to the soul-stirring nationalism of their enemies.
The trip was a formative experience. The next year, in a letter to Undersecretary of State Walter Bedell Smith, Nixon wrote, “As you know, I have deep and continuing interest in the peoples of Southeast Asia, as well as the firm conviction that we have not done enough to convince the people themselves, as distinct from the government leadership, that their ideals and aspirations are very similar to, and held in common with, ours.” The sentiment might seem laughable in light of his secret bombing of Cambodia as president years later, but Nixon was onto something. He added that there might be a solution to the French problem. “I believe that the enclosed proposal would contribute to such mutual understanding,” he wrote. The proposal he included was from a relatively obscure group called the Foundation for Religious Action, or FFRA, and it called for a “Spiritual Counteroffensive in Southeast Asia.” The plan was to pump U.S. money into Buddhist institutions, hoping that the lure of faith would overpower the anti-religious hostility of the Soviet Union, China and global communism. Theirs would be a Saffron Curtain.
American officials had been intrigued by Buddhism for years. In the shadow of World War II and the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the U.S. realized that military action alone would not be sufficient in containing the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. They needed hearts and minds, or pagodas and temples. This is the story Eugene Ford sets out to tell in the forthcoming Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia, which recounts America’s short-lived infatuation with Buddhism as a political force and its subtle attempts to strengthen Buddhist institutions in the region at a time when ideologies could sway millions. “Religion was a lever the United States could use to wield influence of a nonmilitary or psychological nature,” Ford writes. “Not least by emphasizing to local populations the supposed communist threat to their religious institutions.” As they would find out, those threats were real.
Submerged in thrillers and spy movies pitting west versus east, we forget the religious crusade-like rhetoric of the period. In 1950, U.S. Senator Edward Martin said that America must proceed “with the Atomic bomb in one hand and the cross in the other.” Communism was “godless.” Religion, therefore, was a powerful weapon against it. In the words of one government agency, faith was a key “cold war instrumentality.”
The effort was not limited to Buddhism alone. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman called for a domestic religious and spiritual revival across faiths. As the historian Dianne Kirby has noted, the two words “Under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, and “the barrage of anti-communist, anti-Soviet propaganda in the early Cold War years subsumed most Christian leaders and certainly their congregations.” Attendance at houses of worship rose. Truman’s administration maintained close contacts with the Vatican for the purpose of sharing intelligence on communist activity in Europe. Ford also refers to a tantalizing but inconclusive plan for working with overseas Islamic organizations.
As for Buddhism, America’s Cold War fascination with using religion as a weapon against communism coincided with mounting excitement over the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s death and first “council” of his followers, who met to fully review his teachings. The lead-up to this milestone in the mid-1950s generated a wave of fresh pan-Buddhist consciousness, resulting in the founding of the World Fellowship of Buddhists. On May 25, 1950, the WFB held its first major conference in Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. “[F]or better or worse a new politico-religious organization with worldwide connections and a powerful appeal to the masses of Southeast Asia has been born,” one U.S. official reported from the event.
Southeast Asian governments understood the powerful appeal, too. They worried about the dissolution of Buddhist traditions with the popular rise of communist thought. A CIA memo in August 1951 captures the mood in the context of Burma, which like many governments saw communist ideas gaining traction. “Communist control of Burma would be a great strategic advantage to both the Chinese Communists and the USSR. It would drive a wedge between India–Pakistan and Southeast Asia, facilitate Communist penetration into Indochina and the other countries of South and Southeast Asia, and in a psychological sense give impetus to the claim that Communism in Asia is an irresistible force,” the memo said.
Looking warily at Mao Zedong’s triumph in China and seeing how vulnerable they were as Kuomintang forces spilled over borders, some regional leaders took action by themselves. Ford writes that in early 1950, Thai officials recruited rural monks to “teach respect for father, mother, King and State, and to make clear the distinction between communism and Buddhism.” More famously, Burma’s prime minister after independence, U Nu, said in 1950 that ideas attributed to Karl Marx were “less than one-tenth of a particle of dust that lies at the feet of our great Lord Buddha.”
And so the timing was right for the U.S. to step in. By the time Nixon sent his letter, the CIA was already busy working with Buddhist groups across the region. The agency had gathered intelligence on Bangkok’s ethnic Vietnamese monasteries as early as 1948 for the purpose of monitoring possible communist networks. But the CIA could not operate openly and needed to go through private organizations. The agency provided behind-the-scenes funding for the newly established Committee for a Free Asia—known from 1954 as the Asia Foundation—through the National Committee for a Free Europe, which oversaw Radio Free Europe at the time. The CIA continued to provided covert funding until it severed links with the foundation after they were exposed in the late 1960s.
Much of the early U.S. efforts occurred in Burma, which Ford describes as something of a laboratory for covert Buddhist ops (Burma’s U Nu, as we have seen from his comments on Marx, was a fervent Buddhist). The Committee for a Free Asia arrived in Burma in 1952 and helped provide assistance for the upcoming 1954-1956 council, billed as the sixth such gathering since the first was held two and a half millenia earlier. U Nu had asked the U.S. government for help with making the council, sometimes referred to as the Sixth Synod, a reality. Preparations would cost the Burmese government an estimated $6 million and involve the construction of a man-made cave to resemble the one in which the first council was held after the Buddha’s death. This cave still exists in Yangon, Burma’s commercial capital, and is a popular tourist site and part of a Buddhist college. Ford writes that by 1962 the CFA and its successor the Asia Foundation contributed more than $300,000 in printing equipment and technical advice, helping make Burma’s Buddha Sasana Press the “largest and best equipped” Buddhist publishing house in the world. The Asia Foundation, meanwhile, expanded its operations to nearby countries, including Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, giving Washington a regional platform and network in the Buddhist world.
The U.S. used the same quiet approach in other countries—grants to Buddhist educational and development groups, the distribution of anti-communist propaganda, staking out a presence at Buddhist conferences and the sponsoring of trips to the U.S. for senior members of the Sangha, or clergy, where they visited such sites as the Empire State building. The overall idea was to, as one official put it, give more “consideration to the possibility of pointing out to a greater extent the inconsistencies between communism and freedom of religion among all religious faiths.”
Naturally, U.S. officials were wary of looking as if they were exploiting Buddhism. A 1957 draft of a more formulated policy towards the region explained that “whatever is done should not appear to Buddhist leaders as a U.S. government ‘program’ but rather as friendly gestures designed to be mutually helpful to Buddhist and American lay and religious groups.” Still, U.S. officials noted a sense of urgency, as communist China was also busy cultivating religious contacts at the same conferences and gatherings.
In 1956, experts at the State Department went so far as to establish a “Buddhist Committee.” U.S. officials were learning that Buddhism was not a monolithic entity. There were different sects, and even though countries like Burma and Thailand shared a border and similar traditions, they also shared an unhappy history of war dating back hundreds of years. With respect to Laos, Ford cites a 1958 census that shows only about half of the population there had adopted Buddhism, meaning any attempts to influence the public through its teachings would be meaningless to many.
America’s efforts to forge ties with Buddhist leaders seem rather mild in hindsight, especially compared with U.S. military meddling in Southeast Asia and other countries during the Cold War. This wasn’t the “ugly American” tramping around places he didn’t belong or understand; Ford concludes there was “nothing sinister about their civic empowerment focus, and the sincerity and substantive expertise of some local implementers arguably fail to comport with the stereotype of arrogant interloper.”
But America’s brief romance with Buddhism was also clearly not very successful. Despite U.S. support on both military and religious fronts, communist regimes took power in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge killed senior monks and sent others into labor camps. In Burma, the military deposed the prime minister and Buddhist patron U Nu in 1962, and the junta later decided to fight communists the old-fashioned way—with guns. With America’s tacit support, Thailand carried out anti-communist and anti-leftist crackdowns whose brutality made the Asia Foundation’s work look irrelevant.
This history reminds us what Buddhism is not. The Western obsession with Buddhism’s spiritual and mystical qualities has obscured the faith’s more political—and sometimes violent—past. We don’t grapple with the militant Zen Buddhists who promoted imperial Japan’s violent incursions into China as a holy war. We don’t spend too much time thinking about the Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka who blessed soldiers going to fight Tamil Tiger insurgents. And we are shocked in Myanmar today—the country changed its name from Burma in 1989—by the nationalist monks who spark bloody religious riots and cheer pogroms against Muslims. The lesson here isn’t that Buddhism is uniquely violent—
it’s not—but that all religions, even seemingly peaceful ones, can be contorted to serve political and sometimes evil ends.
Did the Cold War fuel Buddhist militancy, as it did in pumping energy into the mujahideen in Afghanistan? That is the big question that hangs over the book, and while Ford alludes to it, he is not able to answer it. But the tensions of the Cold War undoubtedly fueled a more severe strain of political Buddhism, and Ford brings some of the politicized monks to life. One of them, a Thai monk named Kittivudho, was active in the 1970s and famously compared killing communists to slaughtering fish. “There is certainly demerit in killing the fish, but we place it in the alms bowl of a monk and gain much greater merit.”
US foreign policy initiatives suck! Almost every country they've interfered with in the last 60 years has blown right up in their faces.