Interview with Dr. Robert Topmiller
in regarding to his doctoral thesis " The Vietnamese Buddhist Movement 1963-1966"
By Ven. Thich Nguyen Tang
Introduction : Dr. Robert Topmiller is a teacher at the University of Eastern Kentucky and an historical researcher. Giac Ngo Readers has known him in 1996, when he came to VN to collect material for his doctoral thesis " Lotus unleashed, The Buddhist Pease Movement in South Vietnam 1964-1966". Finally, his research has been completed and been submitted successfully receiving destictions for his work. This interview was made in Vietnam while we recently toured collecting information towards a further publication on the Buddhist Nuns and their contribution to the Peace Movement.
Can you summarize your doctoral thesis, “The Vietnamese Buddhist Movement 1963-1966” for us?
First of all I want to say that my University and I decided to limit our study to the 1964 -1966 period because we felt that 1963 had been discussed by many other historians. However, the 1964-66 Buddhist movement has never been examined in depth by any American historian.
Essentially, my book examines the philosophical and religious foundations of the Buddhist movement and attempts to tie those in with South Vietnamese nationalism. In the process, I tried to demonstrate that the Buddhist movement was a legitimate peace movement that reflected both Buddhist beliefs and the will of most of the South Vietnamese people. Since my book is the first book on the topic in English, I anticipate lots of criticism and a strong debate over my arguments.
Has it been published yet?
Yes, it was published in November 2002 and is available through Amazon.com http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0813122600/qid=1043572535/sr=8-3/ref=sr_8_3/103-4181349-2599823?v=glance&s=books&n=507846
Who is the publisher?
The University Press of Kentucky
What has been the reception of your thesis by those whom have examined it?
In general the reception has been very positive and a number of people have commented on my argument that historians in general have ignored South Vietnamese actions and opinions during the war. However, a number of people disagree with my argument that the Buddhists could have prevented a communist victory in 1975.
What as been the opinion of the US Vietnamese community of your thesis?
The few people that have read it generally say that they feel that I have really captured the essence of the Buddhist Movement during the 1960s. However, I anticipate when it is viewed by a wider Viet Kieu audience that there will be some opposition to my ideas because of the heavy anti-communist orientation of the Vietnamese community in the US.
What is the message that your thesis has for the US government as to their involvement in Vietnam during those times?
I think the strongest part of my message is the utter futility of trying to pursue a war when the local people mainly want peace. On a larger level, this says a lot to the US government about ignoring local populations in carrying out its foreign policy.
What is the message that your thesis, regarding the Most Venerable Thich Quang Duc and his self-immolation in 1963?
Basically, I try to put self-immolation, not just Thich Quang Duc’s, but all of the Buddhists who immolated themselves, into the larger context of anti-war activity. While I spent some time in my book talking about this issue, I mainly try to reject the idea that it was a form of radicalism, but instead it grew out of the Buddhist belief in nonviolence. Hence, in my book, I try to look at all Buddhist protests in the larger context of Buddhist nonviolent protest against the war.
What is the message that your thesis has for the Vietnamese people as the suffering that occurred during those tumultuous years?
Basically, I believe that the Buddhist held the solution to South Vietnam’s suffering. I know after the war some people blamed the Buddhists for South Vietnam’s defeat, but I argue that the Buddhists could have prevented a totally unnecessary war that caused enormous human suffering. I believe the Buddhists would have created a coalition government that included the NLF, but at least that government would have reflected the opinions of many South Vietnamese. One of the great problems the US had during the war was that it never trusted the South Vietnamese to make their own choices. It is rather ironic, if you think about it, that the world’s greatest democracy didn’t trust democracy in South Vietnam.
I truly believe that the leaders of the Buddhist movement were the only individuals in South Vietnam who truly understood the impact of the war and fashioned a very rational and logical solution to the conflict.
What is the American’s opinion about immolations about all Buddhist monks and nuns at that time?
In 1963, most Americans were very sympathetic to the Buddhist who burnt themselves, especially Thich Quang Duc, because many Americans believed that the Buddhists were fighting for religious freedom. However, after 1963, the US government and the South Vietnamese government worked hard to convince Americans that self-immolation was a form of radicalism and thus many Americans were not as sympathetic to South Vietnamese Buddhists.
However when I teach my class on the Vietnam War or when I give public lectures about Vietnam, most Americans are shocked when I tell them how many self-immolations occurred during the war. This is especially true when I discuss the large number of young women who immolated themselves for peace.
Are you yourself satisfied with your work; do you feel it is as complete as you would like?
I am not completely satisfied with it and would like to expand it to tell the story of more Buddhists during the war. At this time, the Journal of Women’s History has asked me to write an article about women in the Buddhist movement which I am now researching.
What is your next research plan ?
After I complete my article on women in the Buddhist movement, I plan to write an article about the impact of Agent Orange on the people of Vietnam in the 21st Century. I visited a Buddhist orphanage in Hue last month that had 50 children, including four from one family, who are suffering from Agent Orange related illnesses. I was so moved by the compassion of the Buddhists in that facility that I am determined to raise awareness in the US about this problem and to try to raise money to support the work of these facilities.
Finally, I am writing a book on Vietnamese history for American students. I hope to see it published in 2004.
By Thich Nguyen Tang ( Jan 2003)
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