Hòa Hảo Buddhism was arguably among the least studied and least understood religious and political phenomena in modern Vietnam. Moreover, due to a variety of historical reasons the Hòa Hảo Buddhist community rarely had an opportunity to explain and defend itself.
The book of Nguyễn Long Thành Nam is not only an important account by an insider; it is probably a first attempt so far to express concisely the historical and doctrinal viewpoints of the Hòa Hảo community.
Hòa Hảo Buddhism has been targeted by concerted smear campaigns. Paradoxically, even mutually anathematizing enemies such as the Communist regime in Northern Vietnam and the administration of Ngô Đình Diệm simultaneously lashed out the Hòa Hảo congregation.
Notably, the Vietnamese Communists were reportedly behind rumors that the Hòa Hảo followers allegedly practiced ritual cannibalism. These allegations were never backed up by documented evidence. However, this propaganda trick arguably allowed the Communist officials to obscure the well-documented fact that thousands of Hòa Hảo followers, and notably the founder of the Hòa Hảo religion, all fell victims to Communist reprisals in the late 1940s.
On the other hand, few organizations have been more viciously targeted by a smear campaign than “United Front of the National Forces,” a short lived alliance of South Vietnam’s religious and political groups, which made a futile attempt to forestall Ngô Đình Diệm’s accession to power in 1955. The American press correspondents described the conflict as a morality play - a clash between the honest, moral Ngô Đình Diệm and the corrupt Front headed by dope-dealing “super-bandits,” the Bình Xuyên.
There was no smoke without fire and the Bình Xuyên did control the opium trade and the gambling sector. However, the principal forces of the Front, notably the Hòa Hảo and the Cao Đài, were all true homegrown political phenomena. They had also proved their ability to assure the security of the three most important areas of southern Vietnam.
A former Front negotiator with Ngô Đình Diệm, Nguyễn Long Thành Nam argued that the Front did not demand government reshuffle or Diệm’s ouster. The Front just wanted to get the central government reformed in a way to provide against the undue influence of certain individuals, notably Ngô Đình Nhu. The Front accepted the need to integrate all armed groups within the National army. Nonetheless, the Front was destroyed by military force.
The U.S. Sen. Mike Mansfield dismissed armed confrontation in March-April 1955 in a Harper's Magazine’s article of January 1956: “All Diệm lost was the prop of several thousand armed mercenaries in conflict with the communists.” Diệm’s propaganda and pro-Diệm writers dismissed their opponents as religious fanatics and feudal warlords. Yet in retrospect, it has been understood that - by violent destruction of the Front in general and the Hòa Hảo organization in particular - Diệm had just cleared the field, paving the way for an eventual Communist takeover. This is why the Front’s role merits consideration, and at least a bit of fair treatment.
In the aftermath of the Front’s demise, the opinion of the winning side prevailed and the Front was labeled as an umbrella organization for gangsters, drug dealers and brothel operators. The Front never had an opportunity to defend itself.
Correspondingly, the Hòa Hảo had little if any access to international media outlets and academia. Therefore, certain anti-Hòa Hảo stereotypes prevailed in many publications notably outside Vietnam.
This book could hopefully serve as the first step towards filling a perceived information vacuum relative to Hòa Hảo history. Although some imperfections may remain in this work, it deserves attention as a voice of the Hòa Hảo community. More than two million followers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism should have a voice on matters relative to the history of their religion.