North Vietnamese Public Security Policy toward the Vatican and the North Vietnamese Catholic Church, 1971
In 1971, North Vietnam’s Public Security Service convened a major conference to assess the status of the Vietnamese Catholic Church and formulate new plans for the "struggle" against Catholics.
During the war against the French colonial regime (1946-1954), relations between the Vietnamese Communist Party and the Vietnamese Catholic Church steadily became more and more hostile. Fighting between the Viet Minh forces and pro-French Catholic militia forces in the Phat Diem area of North Vietnam was particularly vicious. Because of fears of repression under the new Communist government of North Vietnam, a large percentage of the Catholic residents of North Vietnam (perhaps as many as 750,000-800,000), along with many of their priests and spiritual leaders, fled to South Vietnam following the signing of the 1954 Geneva Agreement on Indochina.
Nevertheless, a large number of North Vietnamese Catholics – including some of North Vietnam’s leading ethnic Vietnamese clerical leaders (such as the Bishop of Hanoi, Trinh Nhu Khue [Trịnh Như Khuê]) along with a number of foreign priests – decided to remain in the North.
While efforts were made by Catholic leaders to reach an accommodation with the new Communist government, relations quickly deteriorated and violent protests broke out in a number of Catholic areas (most notably in Quynh Luu District, Nghe An Province). The North Vietnamese government quickly repressed the protesters, in some cases by the use of regular North Vietnamese Army troops.
The North Vietnamese government and the Party then implemented a policy of trying to use propaganda and a “softer” approach designed to win the support of the Catholic faithful, while at the same time the regime worked to restrict, undermine, and eliminate the influence that the Vatican and foreign “counter-revolutionary forces” had on the “Catholic masses” in North Vietnam. Vietnamese priests and nuns in North Vietnam were placed under heavy restrictions, a number priests were arrested and imprisoned, and the small number of foreign Catholic priests still left in North Vietnam were systematically expelled from the country. The Papal Nuncio in Hanoi, John Dooley, was expelled in 1959, and the last foreign priest in North Vietnam was expelled in 1960.
In 1971, North Vietnam’s Public Security Service, the North Vietnamese equivalent of the former Soviet KGB and which at that time was called the Ministry of Interior, held a national conference to review the status of the Service’s efforts targeted against the Vietnamese Catholic Church over the past decade and a half and to formulate plans and policies for its future operations directed against the Church. In a speech given at the opening of this national conference, Party Politburo Member and Minister of Public Security General Tran Quoc Hoan [Trần Quốc Hoàn], outlined the successes that he said had been achieved in gaining the sympathy and support of the Catholic “masses” and in combatting what he called “reactionaries exploiting the Catholic religion”. He said that the percentage of North Vietnam’s one million Catholics who were members of cooperatives had risen from 26-percent in 1957 to 88-percent in 1971, that the number of Catholics who had joined the armed forces had increased exponentially during the same time frame (from a little under 2,500 to more than 16,000), and that the power and the resources of the Vietnamese Catholic Church had been greatly weakened. The Minister also said that the government and the Party had been successful in restricting the ability of Vatican to communicate with Catholics in North Vietnam and to direct North Vietnamese Catholics to carry out “counter-revolutionary” activities. However, he also gave examples of problems that had developed when local governmental authorities “let their guard down.”
Hoan emphasized to his audience that the “struggle” against the Catholic Church must be viewed as a long-term struggle because the Catholic religion had been so deeply ingrained in the Catholic “masses” that it simply could not be quickly eradicated. He said that instead the Catholic religion had to be dealt with in a slow, skillful manner, using propaganda and “soft” persuasion combined with efforts to infiltrate and gain control of the Church’s leadership. He said:
“I have heard some people claim that in just a few short years we will be able to complete the work of re-educating the Catholics. To think that is to be very subjective and very reckless. It is difficult enough to get people to give up smoking cigarettes or to wean them away from opium, to say nothing of attacking the problem of their religious beliefs. In my opinion, we must view this as a long-term problem that will take several decades to resolve, perhaps as much as forty or fifty years. ….Our comrades in Ha Tinh and Nghe An [Provinces have at times also had a tendency to use administrative measures and even to use “armed force” to achieve their goal of driving out and expelling reactionaries, but they have not done enough work to educate and mobilize the masses.”
Minister Hoan warned against both the “rightist” error of moving too slowly in taking against “reactionary” Catholics who were plotting against the regime and the “leftist” error of trying to move too quickly to combat Catholicism by doing such things as banning or greatly restricting Catholic religious services.
Tran Quoc Hoan insisted that the Catholic Church was a tool of “foreign imperialism” and that the Church was directly involved in the effort by “counter-revolutionaries” and US-backed commando teams to sabotage and overthrow the North Vietnamese regime. He specifically asserted that:
“After the Second World War, the Vatican moved all its money to the United States. The Vatican’s leaders are virulent counter-revolutionaries and they have always been blindly and insanely opposed to socialism and communism. Pious VII blatantly and openly followed the aggressive war-mongering policies of the American imperialists. Faced with the threat that the Catholic masses might abandon their religion, Pope John XXIII changed the church’s methods of operations. After John’s death, Pope Paul VI became Pope and continued to follow John XXIII’s policies. Recently [PRG] Foreign Minister Nguyen Thi Binh visited Italy and had a private meeting with the Vatican Foreign Minister, who presented to her a five-point peace proposal that was no different than Nixon’s five-point proposal. This is clear proof that the Vatican Foreign Minister is simply Nixon’s lackey. The closer they are bound together economically, the closer their political ties will become.”
Minister Hoan also raised the possibility that there might soon be a negotiated political settlement in Vietnam, which he said might give the Catholic Church and the “imperialists” an opportunity to utilize the terms of a negotiated political settlement (which by implication would involve the establishment of a seemingly neutral government in South Vietnam) and the establishment of normal relations between North and South Vietnam to dispatch Catholic “reactionaries” into North Vietnam to subvert the Northern regime. He told the conference:
“[A]fter suffering many battlefield defeats and after their “Vietnamization” plan has failed to the point that it cannot be resurrected, the American imperialists and their lackeys will be forced to continue to deescalate the war and to agree to implement a political solution. In that case, peace will be restored and relations will be established between North and South Vietnam. …Once relations are established between North and South Vietnam, the Northern refugees who fled to South Vietnam might use this as an excuse to return home to North Vietnam. Mixed in amongst the good, honest citizens returning to North Vietnam there will certainly also be many enemy lackeys, including many priests. This would strengthen the forces available to the reactionaries in North Vietnam. …In addition, the Vatican might establish diplomatic relations with us so they could send an ambassador to North Vietnam.”
For all of these reason, Minister Hoan stressed the need for Public Security offices throughout North Vietnam, and especially in Catholic areas, to collect more and better intelligence on the Catholic church and its followers and to recruit or infiltrate “agents” into the ranks of North Vietnam’s Catholic clergy. He told the participants in the conference that the Ministry’s goal was to recruit enough priests to ensure that one-quarter of all Catholic priests in North Vietnam would actually be active and responsive agents of North Vietnam’s Public Security Service:
“With regard to our agent network among the priesthood, we must strive to make additional recruitments in order to achieve our goal of having one-quarter of all priests serving as our agents, not including those priests who are openly progressive. We need to have effective agents at all levels, in all locations, and who can cover all targets so that we will be able to actively monitor the situation and take appropriate action to deal with the enemy. To expand our agent network, we need to target a number of young priests, seminarians, and monks to serve our long-term requirements, and we need to assess and recruit agents from among the reactionary Catholic prisoners that are still in prison and who are able to get close to reactionary priests and dangerous lackeys in individual parishes. We need to provide guidance to our village public security officers so that they can aggressively expand their networks of secret informers to ensure that we have our eyes and ears everywhere”.
The text of Minister Hoan’s speech, along with a number of earlier comments made by the Minister about Public Security’s policy on the handling of cases against Catholic “counter-revolutionaries” earlier in 1971, were published by the Ministry’s Public Security Scientific Research Institute (Viện Nghiên Cứu Khoa Học Công An) in 1975 as a “Top Secret” document that was also marked “For Internal Distribution within the Public Security Service Only.”
A Few Opinions Expressed by the Minister on Several Basic Issues during the General Review of the Handling of Cases (Spoken during a Discussion with the Committee to Review the Handling of Cases in 1971) [Excerpt]
Trần Quốc Hoàn, Một số vấn đề về đấu tranh chống phản cách mạng (Tổi mật; chỉ lưu hành nội bộ ngành công an) (A Number of Issues regarding the Struggle against Counter-Revolutionaries [Top Secret; For Internal Distribution within the Public Security Service Only]) (Hanoi: Viện Nghiên Cứu Khoa Học Công An, December 1975), 361-364. Contributed and translated by Merle Pribbenow.
VWP Party Politburo Member and Minister of Public Security General Trần Quốc Hoàn's comments about "transforming" the Catholic Church in Vietnam.
Trần Quốc Hoàn, Một số vấn đề về đấu tranh chống phản cách mạng (Tổi mật; chỉ lưu hành nội bộ ngành công an) (A Number of Issues regarding the Struggle against Counter-Revolutionaries [Top Secret; For Internal Distribution within the Public Security Service Only]) (Hanoi: Viện Nghiên Cứu Khoa Học Công An, December 1975), 431-462. Translated by Merle Pribbenow.
In 1971, North Vietnam’s Public Security Service (the North Vietnamese equivalent of the former Soviet KGB, known at the time as the Ministry of Interior) held a national conference to review the status of the Service’s efforts targeted against the Vietnamese Catholic Church over the past decade and a half and to formulate plans and policies for its future operations directed against the Church. In this speech given at the opening of the conference, Party Politburo Member and Minister of Public Security General Tran Quoc Hoan [Trần Quốc Hoàn], outlined the successes that he said had been achieved in gaining the sympathy and support of the Catholic “masses” and in combatting what he called “reactionaries exploiting the Catholic religion”.
About the Author
Merle L. Pribbenow II graduated from the University of Washington in 1968 with a bachelor's degree in political science. After serving in the CIA for 27 years, he retired in 1995 and is now an independent researcher/author specializing in the Vietnam War.Read More
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