Interview with Dr. Robert Topmiller
in regarding to his doctoral thesis " The Vietnamese Buddhist Movement
By Ven. Thich Nguyen
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.
Dr. Robert Topmiller and the Author
(Photo was taken at 12/2002)
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.
been published yet?
Yes, it was published in November
2002 and is available through Amazon.com
is the publisher?
University Press of Kentucky
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
yourself satisfied with your work; do you feel it is as complete as you
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.
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
Finally, I am writing a book on
Vietnamese history for American students. I hope to see it published in
Thich Nguyen Tang ( Jan 2003)
Layout: Nhi Tuong
Update : 01-12-2002