“Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia” by Eugene Ford

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“Over the past two years Chinese communists have devoted increasing attention to extending their influence in the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia,” reads an United States government report from 1957. To counter that influence, Eugene Ford writes in Cold War Monks, the US developed a strategy of “considerable guile, sophistication, and determination”, a funneling of significant funds through a front organization to help the Buddhist faith retain its hold on local populations and its leadership aligned with Western interests.

The effort to forge a regional Buddhist strategy to counter communist influence would have to overcome three inconsistencies. The first was that Buddhists were politically influential precisely because the faith transcended politics as deeply embedded symbols of national identity. The second was the modest nature of pan-national Buddhist identity and limited clarity as to why regionalism was essential to winning the complex fights that necessarily occurred at the national level. Ford suggests that this conceptualization was driven by American concerns that ethnic Chinese throughout the region would conspire against their home countries in favor of Beijing. The final inconsistency was Washington’s sensitivity that it honor the constitutional separation of church and state beyond its borders. To mitigate this, it would support front organizations, among them the Asia Foundation, which would remain secret until 1967.

In countries that had been colonized or subject to Cold War violence, Buddhist leaders were already becoming more politically active. Thailand was different. Having avoided colonization, the “symbiotic linkages that mutually sustained” the religion and the monarchy were “repeatedly reinforced and reformulated through indigenous initiative.” For that reason, Ford disproportionately focuses his time on that nation, positioning it as a sort of control to prove his broader claims.

Buddhists were receptive to foreign support because of their own fears that modernity risked their continued societal influence—a largely conservative force that Americans hoped would mitigate against communist encroachment. Religious leaders sought aid to better train their clergy and to support new construction and social programs. Moreover, they recognized the risk that communism could present to the free practice of their religion—but were just as dismayed by the repression of Buddhists under American-supported South Vietnamese leader, Ngo Dinh Diem. The self-immolation of the monk Quang Duc, images of which President Kennedy claimed that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world”, hastened the political crisis that would lead to Diem’s downfall and South Vietnam’s further spiral.

 

Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia, Eugene Ford (Yale University Press, October 2017)
Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia, Eugene Ford (Yale University Press, October 2017)

Monks, which is based on Ford’s Yale PhD thesis, draws on a number of previously unreported materials from the Asia Foundation, as well as additional archival research and interviews in Thailand. The book’s strengths consequently reflect Ford’s primary interest in the political awakening of Thai Buddhism.

Nevertheless, despite these rich sources of information, the book provides little context as to the aggregate American budget targeted towards Buddhist affairs or its cumulative reach. Lacking objective measures of effectiveness, it is hard to determine  that American influence over Buddhists decisively advanced its interests in the region.

The book’s framing on the United States runs the risk distracting from the more fundamental narrative of political awakening. While the United States was certainly interested in the potential to leverage the monkhood and expended cash readily—by 1967, the Foundation was spending $6.2 million per year, not all of it on Buddhist-directed activities—like much of its Cold War activities, American intrigue often far surpassed its actual influence. At crucial intervals of Thai political turmoil—including when controversial monk Thai monk Kittivudho open declared that the killing of communists was not a sin, the United States disappears entirely from the narrative. While China motivated the United States interest in a Buddhist strategy, it too is marked more by its absence than its presence in this narrative.

 

Intended for an academic audience, general readers might wish for introductory context about Buddhism and the countries in focus. There is room for a book focused  on the origin, nature, and implications of Buddhist nationalism in Southeast Asia independent of the detail of American intrigue. Whether a regional Buddhist identity will affect how Southeast Asia responds to China’s handling of the inevitable crisis of the Dalai Lama’s passing is one of many questions Ford’s book prompts.

In his conclusion, Ford acknowledges that Buddhist nationalism has shifted from anti-communist to anti-Muslim violence in Thailand and Myanmar, mirroring the United States’s own shift in attention towards Islam. The embrace of Buddhism during the Cold War was a discretionary tactic in the fight against communism. By contrast, today’s religiously-driven conflicts would seemingly make religious engagement a strategic imperative. But America has consistently struggled to engage fundamentalism where it is most potent, the ideological battlefield. In conflicts driven by belief, it is evidently in arms that America now most places its faith.


Kyle Hutzler is an MBA candidate at Stanford, previously with the consultancy McKinsey & Company.