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Buddhist crisis of 1966

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For more information, see: Government of the Republic of Vietnam.
See also: Vietnamese Buddhism

Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky had a major political confrontation in 1966, which was called the Buddhist Crisis of 1966, but, given Ky himself was a Buddhist, was more complex. South Vietnam had intertwined Buddhist and political factions.

Beginning of the crisis

On March 10, Ky removed LTG Nguyen Chanh Thi as I Corps tactical zone Commander. Thi was considered Ky's major political rival; this event triggered substantial demonstrations in Da Nang on the 11th. Topmiller described a number of possible theories for Ky's action, which triggered what became known as the 1966 Buddhist crisis. First, Ky had just returned from a conference with Lyndon Johnson, and certainly felt strengthened by that recognition. Tension had been growing between Ky and Thi, with a February 1966 Time magazine story that the more dynamic Thi could take power whenever he chose.[1]

Ky argued that Thi had been abusing his power, comparing him to Diem's I Corps chieftain brother Ngo Dinh Can. Further, according to Ky, Thi wanted negotiations with the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) and left-wing Buddhists; Ky intended to fire anyone opposing a military solution. Thi himself accused Ky of being an American puppet, and that only a clique of generals, the Directory headed by Ky, wanted war.

Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge had cautioned Ky to be sure he had the power to remove Thi, who, aside from personality, had some strong relationships. He was considered quite honest, in a government known for corruption. Tri Quang indicated that Thi was the only general he trusted. U.S. Marine LTG Lew Walt, the senior U.S. Marine Corps officer in South Vietnam, respected Thi, and Thi's senior U.S. adviser said Thi's outspokenness caused his problems; Thi, according to COL Howard Sinclair, regarded Ky as a friend.[2]

Buddhist leaders, on March 12, called for return of the generals that overthrew Diem. This begins a period of political protest and general strikes. MG Nguyen Van Chuan, Thi's replacement and a member of the Directory, said he would not confront peaceful demonstrators.

General strike

By the 15th, Da Nang was 90 per cent paralyzed by general strike; about 1,000 ARVN personnel joined a 3,500-man protest demonstration. Ky then sent Thi back to Da Nang from Saigon on the next day, and began to give speeches in the I Corps area; Thi referred sarcastically to his removal for "health reasons". On the same day, Ky sent a force of strategic reserve soldiers, under his chief of staff, Cao Van Vien from Saigon to Danang. The 16th also saw the formal creation of the Struggle Movement, with which Chuan affiliated himself, denouncing the GVN.

Inside the U.S. government, INR reported that the unfolding of the Buddhist crisis, unsettling as it was, preempted Communist opportunities to exploit dissatisfaction. Further, INR expected the matter eventually to resolve with elections, which it did not see the Buddhists boycotting, but also not dominating. They saw the key issue, for the upcoming September elections, more as a matter of the size of the vote rather than the winner. [3]

Ky, on April 3, declared that Da Nang was in communist hands and troop movement to the city is imminent. The next day, President Johnson held an urgent meeting to discuss the situation, in which Ambassador Taylor said Thi was allied with Tri Quang, and the U.S. could not tolerate a Tri Quang government.[4]

Government intervention

On the 5th, Ky flew to Da Nang with two Marine battalions, but said that the city had been iniltrated, not taken over. The commander of the ARVN 1st Division announced his support of the Da Nang struggle; all U.S. advisors to his division went to U.S. base camps.

Demonstrations spread to Saigon and Hue, and all nonessential U.S. personnel were evacuated from Hue. The GVN sent two more battalions to Da Nang. 1st ARVN Div troops in Hue pass a resolution denouncing the Ky government but pledging to fight with US and third-country troops against the communists. On the 6th, LTG Ton That Dinh took command of I Corps, previously under Chuan, and one of the battalions sent, in the show of force, left Da Nang.

On May 14, government strategic reserve battalions flew to Da Nang and take control of I Corps HQ, the Da Nang garrison, city hall, the National Police garrison, and the radio station, encountering only isolated small arms and grenade fire as the struggle forces retreat into pagodas. I Corps Commander Dinh took asylum in III MAF HQ; GVN named MG Huynh Van Cao to replace him. Four days after becoming I Corps Commander, MG Cao also asked for asylum at III MAF HQ, claiming his life is in danger. The next command change of I Corps came on the 30th, when MG Hoang Xuan Lam, commander of the 2nd ARVN Division, became acting I Corps Commander.

The self-immolation of a Buddhist nun, on May 29, signaled a new round of Buddhist protests. Tri Quang, starting on June 8, began extended anti-GVN and anti-US hunger strike coupled with altars blockading the streets of Hue. A split in Buddhist opinion was signalled by a June 15 letter from Tam Chau regarding Tri Quang's actions.


  1. Topmiller, Robert J., The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam, 1964-1966, University Press of Kentucky, pp. 33-34
  2. Topmiller, pp. 34-36
  3. Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State, VI. A Massive Effort to Turn the Tide: February 1966-March 1968, Vietnam 1961-1968 as interpreted in INR's Production, vol. George Washington University National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 121, INR-VN6, pp. 10-18
  4. Gibbons, William Conrad (1986), The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, Princeton University Press, p. 280