Buttinger was born into a working-class family and left school at age 13 to help support his family. He became a youth movement leader in Austria and, by the age of 24, was secretary of the Social Democratic Party. After being imprisoned for several months in 1934, he became chairman of the Socialist underground and a leader of the anti-Fascist movement. When Germany occupied Austria in 1938, he and his American-born wife Muriel Gardiner fled to Paris, where he was chairman of the exiled Socialists. In 1939, several months before the fall of France, the couple moved to the United States with Gardiner's daughter from a previous marriage, Connie, whom Joseph later adopted.
In 1941, he and his wife arranged US visas for his brother Alois Buttinger and his family; one of the references for the visa application was signed by Alfred Einstein.
During and after World War II, Buttinger helped establish many of the refugee programs for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). His personal actions helped smuggle thousands of anti-Fascist refugees out of Europe. For over 40 years he served as director of the IRC's Paris office and European division, and as an IRC board member and vice president.
In the 1950s, Buttinger and his wife subsidized the democratic socialist magazine Dissent, edited by Irving Howe. He also wrote "In the Twilight of Socialism", which was a history of Austrian Socialism in the years 1934-38. During the 1950s, he aided North Vietnamese refugees in South Vietnam and took an abiding interest in the history and culture of that country. Initially a friend and supporter of Ngo Dinh Diem, Buttinger became disillusioned with Diem's dictatorial ways and renounced him. He formed the American Friends of Vietnam, and became a prominent scholar of that country's culture and politics, producing a two-volume work entitled Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled. He also produced several other books on Vietnam and on the history of socialism.
In 1972 the Austrian Government awarded him its Golden Order of Merit. According to the New York Times, the then-Chancellor of Austria, Bruno Kreisky, observed that `Mr. Buttinger was such a hero that if he had returned he would have become Chancellor.'
- "In the Twilight of Socialism" (1953)
- "The Smaller Dragon -- A Political History of Vietnam" (1958)
- "Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled" (1967)
- "Vietnam: A Political History" (1968)
- "A Dragon Defiant: A Short History of Vietnam" (1972)
- "Vietnam: The Unforgettable Tragedy" (1977).
- "Joseph A. Buttinger, Nazi Fighter and Vietnam Scholar, Dies at 85", New York Times, 8 March 1992
- "An Influential Political Journal Celebrates Its Golden Anniversary", Gerald Sorin, Forward, 16 January 2004