Cold War Monks

Buddhism and America's Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia

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Eugene Ford
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , October
     392 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia, Eugene Ford employs a wide range of sources in both Thai and English to demonstrate that the political realities and paranoias of the Cold War made Buddhism “more diverse, more political, and more internationalized” as Thailand’s ecclesiastical leadership and US government agents cooperated and competed over strategic interests in Southeast Asia (2).

After a brief introduction that demonstrates the need to reconsider the role of Buddhism within studies of US foreign policy and Thai histories of the Cold War, Ford begins his analysis of the early post-WWII years in which international Buddhism expanded and the US “Buddhist” policy first emerged. Even though a small collective of Japanese Zen practitioners attempted to motivate Thai Buddhists toward a politically active pan-Asian anti-colonialism during World War II, Ford demonstrates that it would not be until the development of a Buddhist-based nationalism in Burma and a growing postwar relationship with the United States that the Thai Buddhist clergy would be drawn into contact with the “secular realm” of international politics (21). Further, the 1950 founding of the World Fellowship of Buddhists as a non-aligned transnational religious organization designed to promote Buddhist interests drew Thailand’s ecclesiastical hierarchy into a more internationalized role.

While Thai monks and lay organizations debated the merits of international Buddhist organizations, American government agents sought to understand, promote, and manipulate the religion and its practitioners in hopes of gaining an advantage in the Cold War. As Ford demonstrates, this initially raised ethical concerns as US officials purported to “maintain a strict separation of church and state” not only at home, but also in foreign policy (26). However, the deference to moral arguments did not last long. During the early 1950s, various agencies including the CIA, the United States Information Agency (USIA), and the Operations Coordinating Board developed multiple approaches for utilizing “Buddhist clergy and lay organizations on an ecumenical basis” to “achieve US policy objectives” (55). 

Those ideas coalesced into a general decision that “the United States would carefully avoid any outward indication that it hoped to manipulate Buddhism for political purposes” by channeling secretly most of its funding and support through an ostensibly private, though CIA created and sponsored, non-profit organization: the Asia Foundation (TAF). Operating on the belief that Buddhism confronted “a crisis of social competition and declining influence” in the face of “modernization,” TAF opened an office in Thailand in 1954 and immediately began conducting research, funding monasteries and educational programs, and encouraging monks to participate in rural community development efforts (110). As Ford demonstrates, TAF officials, in coordination with US intelligence agents, believed this support would “strengthen traditional Thai Buddhism by increasing its capacity to confront modern social problems” and promote the clergy as a stabilizing anti-communist force within the nation (113).

While the Asia Foundation promoted their vision of religious influence, Thailand’s ecclesiastic hierarchy developed their own responses to the shifting battle lines of the Cold War. As Ford explains, during the 1950s and 1960s, the Thai monastic community “was seriously divided among multiple axis” in contention for adherents, funding, and influence within the priestly administration (103). The community divided primarily into two sects—the numerically superior Mahanikay, popular among rural and lay practitioners, and the royally promoted Thammayut, popular among the urban elite. In the immediate post war environment, with a newly liberalizing Thai state, the Mahanikay sect championed left-leaning leaders such as the internationally revered monk Phra Phimolatham, who grew up in a rural setting near the Lao boarder and embraced a Burmese-style insight meditation practice. 

However, by the late 1950s, as Ford documents, changes in domestic politics brought conservative leaders into power and the ecclesiastical hierarchy followed suit. Growing concerns over the conflicts in Vietnam and the politicization of monks in Burma, Cambodia, and Laos prompted the clerical leadership, dominated by the Thammayut, to promote the sangha (the Buddhist community of monks, nuns, and lay practitioners) as an ostensibly non-political stabilizing force capable of “protecting” nation, religion, and king. Thailand’s monastic elite rejected the calls for political support from Buddhists in conflict across Southeast Asia and instead endorsed Thai military efforts in Vietnam as a method for securing peace at home. Moreover, with the assistance of TAF, clerical leaders promoted and trained young monks to return to the countryside and engage in “social development” projects aimed at preventing the perceived corrosive effects of communism near the Lao and Cambodian borders (193).

Of course, as Ford carefully demonstrates, not all Thai monks supported these shifts toward an anti-communist “stabilizing” role for the sangha, especially as the conflict in Vietnam dragged on and Thai politics took a deadly turn with the October 1973 coup and massacre of students at Thammasat University. For example, in 1974, Jud Kongsook, a prominent young monk from southern Thailand, openly promoted ideas linking the “economic exploitation” of Thai farmers at home with “violence against Buddhist neighbors abroad” (245). This sort of politically active cleric seriously disturbed the conservative leadership, who in turn promoted more nationalistic and anti-communist monks within their ranks. The rhetoric of “fascistic” abbots such as Phra Kittivudo, who in 1976 publicly expressed his ideas that “killing communists was not a sin,” gained a more reputable platform and continues to an extent to influence Thai religious life despite the ecclesiastic elites’ insistence that monks should remain aloof from the political realm (266).

Overall, Ford’s text does an excellent job centering Southeast Asia within Cold War studies while walking a fine line between histories of US foreign policy and Thailand’s religious communities. The work lacks some key sources that would have supported and complicated Ford’s arguments. For example, no USIA archival material was used, perhaps because these records were still classified when the text was composed. That being said, Cold War Monks is well written and convincingly utilizes a wide-range of Thai-language sources in its arguments. This sort of archival work is rare, and sorely needed, in many discussions of US foreign policy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert A. Findlay is Assistant Professor of History at Georgia Gwinnett College.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eugene Ford received a PhD in history from Yale University, winning the Arthur and Mary Wright Prize for an outstanding dissertation in the field of history outside the United States or Europe.



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