In 1954, the Geneva Conference ended the First Indochina War by dividing Vietnam into two temporary zones. Military troops had to regroup to the communist zone in the North or the noncommunist zone in the South. Civilians could also join the zone of their choice for 300 days. As a result, more than 800,000 civilians left the North to move to the noncommunist zone.
Many Western newspapers published the story of Vietnamese escaping communism. The French Catholic journal Missi sent its editor in chief to cover the story. Father Naïdenoff gave a vivid depiction of their ordeal. A photograph showed a man lying on the deck of a boat, with one hand on his forehead and the other one holding a crucifix to his chest. The accompanying caption read: “A poignant vision of faith. In the deepest sleep, they hold a crucifix which serves as an identity card in their exodus to freedom.” The importance of the Catholic faith in the exodus was paramount.
The Vietnamese Catholic community had grown since the first missionaries in the seventeenth century to almost two million. Although they made up only 10 percent of the Vietnamese population, 80 percent of the civilians moving South were Catholics. Others were Buddhists and Confucianists, and only 1,000 were Protestants. Donations from Catholics abroad reached such proportions that an Auxiliary Committee for the Resettlement was created to distribute them. Why was there a Catholic dimension to this migration? Why was one’s religious affiliation important in this displacement and in the worldwide response to it?