Today’s episode covers Vietnam during the early years of the Second Indochina War, from 1957 to the end of 1961. We will see communist guerrillas and their partners stage attacks, with guns and bombs, mostly against South Vietnamese officials, but sometimes even Americans become targets. At the end of 1960, they will be organized to form the Viet Cong, a major player in the conflict from now on. We will also see the response of the South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem; he enjoyed a string of successes in the previous episode, but begins to falter now. Finally, the United States sends military advisors to go with the military equipment being sent to South Vietnam. In that way, the Americans show they are determined to stay until communism is defeated.
Greetings, dear listeners! The day when this episode went online, August 16, 2019, also marks the 50th anniversary of the most famous rock concert of all time, the Woodstock festival in upstate New York. I was ten years old at the time, and I will admit that back then, I thought Woodstock was overrated, what with it coming between the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, and the devastating strike by Hurricane Camille, which killed nearly 400 people in the state of Mississippi. Still, a lot of ex-hippies wanted to celebrate Woodstock again this year, only to hear that the reunion concert had been canceled. If you’re one of those folks, there are other forms of entertainment available; why don’t you listen to a podcast instead? (Hint, hint) If it’s the right podcast, you will even learn something from it!
All kidding aside, after the table-setting episode we had last time, we are now ready to get into the narrative for the conflict we usually call the Second Indochina War, or the Vietnam War if you are American, or the American War if you’re Vietnamese. I am going to be referring to several events that were covered in Episode 71, Part 1 in this series, so if you haven’t listened to Episode 71 yet, by all means pause this episode, and go listen to 71. It’s available wherever you downloaded this episode. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you to come back.
All right, for those of you who are still here, I’ll assume you know what’s going on. To refresh your memory, in Episode 71 I introduced Ngo Dinh Diem, the first Vietnamese leader after the First Indochina War who didn’t have ties to either the French or the communists. We chronicled his rise to power, and how he became president of South Vietnam by staging a rigged election that got rid of his predecessor, Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam. Meanwhile, Diem used the South Vietnamese Army, soon to be called the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN, to wage war against the Binh Xuyen mafia, the private armies of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, two religious sects based near Saigon, and the communist Viet Minh guerrillas who had stayed in South Vietnam, when the country was divided in 1954. By the beginning of 1957 Diem had beaten all of his rivals, so the Americans, who had replaced the French as the chief opponents of communism in Vietnam, decided that Diem was their man, and gave him generous amounts of military aid. Finally, in Episode 70 I pointed out that the minority hill tribes, usually called the Degar or Montagnards, formed a political party called BAJARAKA in 1958, and Diem nipped this potential opposition movement in the bud, by arresting all of its leaders.
Before we go on, I need to apologize for a small mispronunciation in the previous episode. Over there, I casually mentioned the Australian prime minister during the early 1970s. One of my Australian listeners pointed out that I said his name was “Go Whitlam,” while they pronounce it “Goff Whitlam.” Sorry about that, and thanks for the correction. Maybe I should have used his first name of “Edward,” instead of the middle name he is called by most of the time. I’ll admit it’s not the first time I messed up an Australian name, and it’s a bit embarrassing when both Australians and Americans speak the same language. Now where were we? Oh, yeah . . .
If there ever was a time when it looked like Ngo Dinh Diem was on top of the game, it was from 1956 to 1958. According to the historian Gabriel Kolko, 12,000 suspected opponents of Diem were killed between 1955 and 1957, and 40,000 had been jailed by the end of 1958. But after that he became the Peter Principle in action. For those not familiar with the term, the Peter Principle was invented by a twentieth century author, Dr. Laurence J. Peter, and it says that everyone rises to his level of incompetence, meaning he will keep getting promoted until he ends up in a job where he cannot perform the duties expected of him. Accordingly, after becoming president, Diem committed some serious mistakes. The first mistake happened in the previous episode, when he did not allow the elections that were supposed to choose the government for a reunited Vietnam. He got away with this because neither South Vietnam nor its American backers had signed the 1954 Geneva Accords. That gave the handful of communists left in South Vietnam the excuse they needed to launch a low-key campaign of terrorism against the Saigon government.
If you want to keep track of the first acts of violence in the new conflict, the earliest one I could find any information about happened on October 10, 1957, when a bomb was thrown into a Saigon restaurant, injuring 13 people. On October 21, Major Harry Griffith Cramer, Jr. an American army officer, was killed by a bomb near the port of Nha Trang. Nha Trang was the site of Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam’s main naval base. I am inclined to call Major Cramer the first American to be killed in action in the Vietnam War, but we don’t know if the bomb explosion was meant for him. That is probably why most of my sources list two U.S. military advisors, Maj. Dale Buis and Sgt. Chester Ovnand, (I hope I’m pronouncing those names right) as the war’s first American casualties; they were killed by communist guerrillas at Bien Hoa, an air base north of Saigon, on July 8, 1959. Back in the States, it didn’t matter to Americans who got the dubious honor of being the first killed in Vietnam. At this date, most Americans couldn’t have found Vietnam on a map if you asked them, and they had other things occupying their attention, like the space race that had begun when the Russians launched the first satellite into orbit. Then on October 22, thirteen American soldiers and twenty-six civilians were injured in three attacks in Saigon, aimed at installations belonging to the Military Assistance Advisory Group, and the United States Information Service.
By the middle of 1958, the insurgents in the Mekong delta had been organized into 37 armed companies. However, this was done without Hanoi’s approval; North Vietnam was not ready for an all-out war to conquer the South, nor was it willing to give much aid to the rebels in the South. For one thing, the rebels were not all true communists; most of them were survivors from the private armies that Diem had defeated in the mid-1950s, and as far as the southern communists were concerned, anyone who opposed the Diem regime was welcome to join them. Indeed, we have reports that in some of the rebel units at this date, the only real communist was a “political advisor.” More importantly, the leadership in Hanoi was divided over how to reunite the country. Pham Van Dong, the prime minister and Ho Chi Minh’s right-hand man, thought it was still possible to do it peacefully through elections, while two senior policy makers, Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, wanted to support the insurgency in South Vietnam, in part because both of them had lived in South Vietnam before 1954.
Le Duan made a brief, secret visit to South Vietnam in 1958. When he got back, he wrote a report entitled The Path to Revolution in the South, in which he stated that North Vietnam had to do more to assist the southern rebels, or they would soon be wiped out. Because of arrests, and successful military actions on the part of ARVN, Communist Party membership had declined by two thirds in South Vietnam, and nearly disappeared from some provinces. Later on, the North Vietnamese admitted that late-1958 and early-1959 was the "darkest period" for communists in South Vietnam, when the forces of South Vietnam, quote, "truly and efficiently destroyed our party." Unquote. Because of that report, the Communist Party Central Committee decided to support the rebels in January 1959. In March Ho Chi Minh declared a People’s War to unite all of Vietnam under his leadership; the revolution was now changing from a political struggle to an armed struggle.
Did you catch that? We now have three dates for the beginning of the Second Indochina War. In Episode 71, I told you that the US Department of Defense picked November 1, 1955 as the start date for its record-keeping purposes, while I have gone with October 1957 because the fighting started then. But from the communist point of view, the Second Indochina War began in 1959, because that is when Hanoi declared itself on the side of the rebels in the south. I will let you decide which date works best for you. In the past I have said that wars in Southeast Asia have indefinite ending dates; now here is one with a fuzzy beginning date, too.
Over the course of 1959, North Vietnam created three important military units, to support the war effort. The first unit, Group 559, was established in May to smuggle troops, weapons and supplies into South Vietnam. To do this they constructed the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of roads and trails that ran through eastern Laos and ended in the highlands of South Vietnam, avoiding the guarded Demilitarized Zone by going around it. By July enough of it had been completed to send 4,000 Viet Minh guerrillas, natives of South Vietnam who had been in the North since 1954, back into South Vietnam. Later on, in the second half of the 1960s, the Ho Chi Minh Trail would be extended through eastern Cambodia, giving the communists direct access to the Mekong Delta. In 1959, it took six months to travel from one end of the trail to the other, but by 1968 it will take only six weeks, due to road improvements on the way. In the 1970s they even added a fuel pipeline, which ran parallel to the trail. The second new unit, Group 759, was organized in July to send supplies to the south by sea. In September the third unit, Group 959, was created to send supplies to the Pathet Lao, the communists in Laos. The Pathet Lao had launched their campaign to take over Laos in 1959; we will cover that in a future episode, devoted to the Second Indochina War in Laos. Finally, in April 1960 North Vietnam imposed universal military conscription on its population, with an indefinite tour of duty. This meant Ho Chi Minh and his associates expected the new war would last a good long time. In response to all this, Diem promoted a new law in May 1959 that made collaboration with the communists a capital crime.
If Diem had been a popular leader, he might have eventually overcome the communists. This is a good place to mention Diem’s second mistake. While the Americans wanted South Vietnam to develop into a true democracy, Diem’s government was an oligarchy, meaning all the important positions were held by his family and friends. And by “friends,” I mean members of the country’s Catholic minority. As a result, only friends, relatives and Catholics gave him their unquestioned support. Instead of seeking the goodwill of everyone else, he lorded over them like an emperor, refusing to give them a voice in government or even to meet with them. For example, he only made trips outside of Saigon when his American advisors told him it was good politics to do so.
Diem’s third mistake was his preoccupation with security. When the government had money to burn, he usually spent it on protecting himself, his family, or the country. Although he did build a number of new schools, otherwise he neglected the things the people really wanted, like infrastructure projects, economic improvements and better social services. And land reform worked in the opposite fashion from what the peasants wanted. In the parts of South Vietnam they had occupied during the First Indochina War, the Viet Minh took land from the landlords and gave it to the peasants for free. Now the Diem administration told the peasants they had to pay for the land they intended to keep – and if they didn’t, the land was given back to the landlords.
Ngo Dinh Diem’s closest advisor was his half-mad younger brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu. In his early years, Nhu had been the bookworm type; unlike his brothers, he wasn’t interested in becoming either a politician or a priest. He went to college in France, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in literature, and returned to Vietnam as World War II began. This got him a job in Hanoi’s National Library, but later the French fired him, due to the nationalist activities of his brother. By then he was married, and Nhu moved to Da Lat, the same resort town in the Central Highlands that Bao Dai used as a home away from home. There he stayed until 1955, when he played a key role in rigging the 1955 election that made Diem president. After the election Nhu, his wife and his elder brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc, all moved into the presidential palace with Diem.
Although Nhu held no executive position in the government, he wielded considerable power, as the founder and general secretary of Diem’s political party, the Personalist Labor Revolutionary Party. We will call it by its Vietnamese name, the Can Lao Nhan Vi Dang, Can Lao for short. Nhu also invented the party’s philosophy, called the Person Dignity Theory or just Personalism. This was an authoritarian ideology, which taught that Western-style capitalism and communism were not suitable for Vietnam, so a state that emphasized man’s spiritual nature should be in charge, and that submission to the head of state was the solution to every problem. Most people found this ideology unappealing, and few could even understand it. Nhu also commanded the ARVN Special Forces, a paramilitary unit that the First Family used as their private army, and organized members of the Can Lao Party as a secret police force.
Ngo Dinh Nhu’s beautiful, venomous wife was another key family member who did not hold a title. Her birth name was Tran Le Xuan, but most people simply called her Madame Nhu. Her family was among the rich elite that lived in Hanoi and got along well with the French, so much so that French was the official language in the household; she was fluent in French, but never learned to write in Vietnamese. Later on, when she made speeches in public, she would write the drafts in French and someone would translate them into Vietnamese. She married Nhu in 1943, when she was nineteen years old, and Nhu was 33. Previously, Nhu had a short affair with her mother, and because she was born a Buddhist, she converted to her husband’s religion. Since the president was a bachelor, Madame Nhu came to be seen as South Vietnam’s unofficial first lady. In this role Madame Nhu became a champion for women’s rights in South Vietnam, but otherwise she would have made a good villain in a movie or TV show. More interested in power than in anything else, Madame Nhu once said, quote, “Power is wonderful. Total power is totally wonderful.” Unquote. Another time, she told a group of American congressmen, quote, "I’m not exactly afraid of death. I love power and in the next life I have a chance to be even more powerful than I am." Unquote. Likewise, Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, described Madame Nhu this way. Quote: “I saw Madame Nhu as bright, forceful, and beautiful, but also diabolical and scheming — a true sorceress.” Unquote. Her father, Tran Van Chuong, was South Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States until 1963, when he resigned to protest the government’s anti-Buddhist policies.
In 1958 Hilaire du Berrier, an American pilot and spy, published an article in the conservative magazine The American Mercury that was highly critical of the Diem government and its American supporters. Du Berrier said that Diem, quote, "was imposed on a people who never wanted him," unquote, and that the American public had "not been told the truth." He went on to call U.S. policy, quote, "misguided meddling," unquote, and the Diem government a, "police state."
In August 1959 Diem held a parliamentary election, mainly to fool the Americans into thinking that the political progress they wanted was taking place. Although the government promised to honor secret ballots, officials in the countryside either told the peasants which candidates to vote for, or simply stuffed the ballot boxes. It was harder to rig the election in Saigon, but the authorities managed to do it by removing opposition candidates from the ballot, claiming that various “irregularities” disqualified them, and by bringing soldiers into the capital to vote on Election Day. The result was that only two of the 123 seats in the National Assembly went to opposition candidates; pro-government candidates won the rest.
The ongoing border dispute between Vietnam and Cambodia reappeared in the late 1950s. This is an issue I have mentioned in the past, concerning the Mekong delta; Vietnam had taken the delta in the years around 1700, and Cambodia wanted it back. If you don’t remember the details of that annexation, go back and re-listen to Episode 19 of this podcast. Anyway, in June 1958 ARVN troops crossed over into Cambodia’s Stung Treng province, and clashed with Cambodian troops. This led first to a war of words between Ngo Dinh Diem and the Cambodian prime minister, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, and then on August 31, 1959, Ngo Dinh Nhu tried to assassinate the Cambodian royal family by sending two suitcases containing parcel bombs to the royal palace. The packages came with a note saying they were a gift from an American engineering firm that had recently built a 134-mile-long highway running from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s seaport. Prince Norodom Vakrivan, the royal family’s chief of protocol, opened the packages; he and a servant were killed instantly when the bomb in one of them exploded. Sihanouk’s parents, the king and queen, were not hurt, though they were in a room adjacent to the one where the explosion took place. An investigation traced the origin of the parcel bombs to an American military base in Saigon. Sihanouk publicly accused Ngo Dinh Nhu of masterminding the bomb attack, while at the same time he suspected that the US was involved as well. Because of this incident, Cambodia gave refuge to the South Vietnamese officers who plotted unsuccessfully against Diem in 1960 and 1962.
Speaking of coup attempts, pressure on the Diem regime increased as 1960 went on. April saw eighteen distinguished South Vietnamese individuals send a petition to President Diem, asking him to reform his government, because it was rigid, family-run, and growing more corrupt. Diem saw the petition as a personal attack; instead of complying, he closed several opposition newspapers and arrested journalists and intellectuals. Then on November 11, three crack paratrooper battalions and a marine unit surrounded the palace, not to overthrow Diem, but to again force him to make reforms. The operation was badly planned: it did not do the things required in any coup, such as seize radio stations, block the roads going into Saigon, or cut the telephone lines connecting the palace with the outside world. Diem outwitted his opponents by making a speech that agreed to their demands like free elections; that gave him time to call in army units that were still loyal. For thirty-six hours there was a standoff; instead of attacking the palace, the coup plotters waited to see if Diem would keep his promises. When the loyalist troops arrived, there was a brief but bloody clash that left four hundred soldiers and civilians dead. As mentioned a minute ago, the coup leaders fled to Cambodia, and Diem promptly renounced the promises he had made under pressure. A harsh crackdown against all perceived “enemies of the state” followed, with more than 50,000 arrested by the police, including harmless critics and former members of Diem’s cabinet; many innocent civilians were tortured and executed. This made sure that the first plot against Diem would not be the last, and US officials started saying out loud that they might enjoy more success in Vietnam if somebody else was in charge, besides Diem.
North of the 17th Parallel, the Communist Party of North Vietnam, the Lao Dong, held its Third Party Congress in September 1960. Here the main topics covered were a formalization of the tasks of constructing socialism in North Vietnam, and a commitment of the party to liberation in the South. In communist countries, party congresses are the time when major policy changes are most likely to be announced. For example, it was at the 1956 Communist Party Congress in the Soviet Union, where Nikita Khrushchev made his speech denouncing Joseph Stalin, thereby ending the cult of personality for the late Soviet dictator. Vietnamese communists would not hold another party congress until 1976, after the war was over and Vietnam was reunited.
From 1959 onward, the rebels in South Vietnam did better, now that they were getting help from the North. Do you remember when I said that they killed 400 South Vietnamese officials in 1957? Well, the number of assassinated officials increased to 1,200 in 1959, and 4,000 in 1961. In addition, the number of violent clashes between the rebels and South Vietnamese government forces increased from 180 in January 1960, to 545 in September. On December 20, 1960, North Vietnam announced the reorganization of the southern rebels into one force, henceforth to be called the National Front for the Liberation of the South, or simply the National Liberation Front, NLF for short. Nguyen Huu Tho, a lawyer from Saigon who had been jailed by Diem for mildly left-wing activities, became the new movement’s chairman. For most of the war the NLF’s headquarters would be located a few miles north or northwest of Saigon, conveniently close to both the capital and the Cambodian border. The North Vietnamese insisted this was an independent organization with the same goals as they had, pointing to the members who weren’t communists, including Tho, but ultimately the NLF was controlled by the Lao Dong, making it Hanoi’s shadow government for South Vietnam. Saigon called the NLF the Viet Nam Cong-san, meaning Vietnamese Communists, and soon shortened this to Viet Cong. That name stuck; if you have only heard one name for the communists in South Vietnam, Viet Cong is it, and that is the name we will use from now on.
By the end of the 1950s, there were 900 US government and military personnel in South Vietnam. Most of the time President Eisenhower ignored Vietnam. He thought Laos was more important, because of its strategic location in the middle of the Southeast Asian mainland. However, Eisenhower retired in January 1961, and was succeeded by the first US president born in the twentieth century, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Kennedy and his incoming administration were inexperienced where Southeast Asia was concerned, but in his inaugural address, Kennedy promised this much. Quote: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to insure the survival and the success of liberty.” Unquote. However, outgoing President Eisenhower privately told him, quote, “I think you’re going to have to send troops…" Unquote.
Though the Laotian civil war was now fully underway, Kennedy and his advisors quickly decided that Laos was not for them, because as I have mentioned several times in past episodes, the country is too rugged to give ground troops an easy time. Instead, Kennedy was motivated by the Domino Theory, promoted previously by both the French and the Eisenhower administration, which said that if communism wasn’t stopped, all of Southeast Asia would fall to it, one country at a time. Vietnam was the place where communism had taken root, so the Americans would make their stand here. The new vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, visited South Vietnam in May 1961, and hailed Diem as a reincarnation of Winston Churchill, which technically couldn’t have been true because Winston Churchill was still alive at that time. But it was also clear that South Vietnam was going to need more help. Diem said that he didn’t want American soldiers in South Vietnam; what he wanted was the money, arms and supplies needed to enlarge the South Vietnamese army, from 150,000 to 270,000 men. Still, some Americans would be needed to show their allies how to use the new equipment they were receiving, so before May 1961 was over, Kennedy sent 400 American Green Beret “Special Advisors,” to train South Vietnamese soldiers in methods of “counter-insurgency” for their fight against Viet Cong guerrillas. And that wasn’t all the Green Berets did. Soon they also established Civilian Irregular Defense Groups, or CIDGs, made up of Montagnards. These fierce mountain men, with American assistance, built a string of mountain camps in the highlands to thwart infiltration by North Vietnamese.
The Viet Cong force increased from less than 3,000 in 1959 to 26,000 in late 1961. This allowed them to spread across South Vietnam’s countryside and launch several successful attacks on South Vietnamese troops, prompting Diem to request more military aid from the Americans. Accordingly, in October President Kennedy sent two of his top aides, Walt Rostow from the State Department, and General Maxwell Taylor, on a tour of Vietnam. When they returned, Taylor reported, quote, "If Vietnam goes, it will be exceedingly difficult to hold Southeast Asia." Unquote. Taylor went on to recommend that Kennedy increase the number of U.S. military advisors, and to send 8,000 combat soldiers as well. However, Defense Secretary McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff didn’t think 8,000 soldiers was enough to make a difference. They wanted a massive show of force like what the United States had sent to Korea, eleven years earlier, and suggested sending six divisions, or 200,000 men, to Vietnam.
The president didn’t like the idea of sending any combat troops. On October 24, 1961, the sixth anniversary of Diem becoming president of South Vietnam, President Kennedy sent a letter to President Diem that promised, quote, “the United States is determined to help Vietnam preserve its independence…” Unquote. After that Kennedy did not send troops, but he sent additional military advisors, along with American helicopters to transport and direct South Vietnamese troops in battle. The helicopter was fairly new to both transportation and warfare. The first practical helicopter had been designed and flown by Igor Sikorsky in 1939, but it wasn’t until the Second Indochina War that it saw much action. Although the Geneva Accords prohibited foreign troops from fighting in Vietnam, the use of helicopters meant Americans would now go into areas where fighting was taking place. Kennedy justified the expanded U.S. military role by saying it was a means, quote, “…to prevent a Communist takeover of Vietnam which is in accordance with a policy our government has followed since 1954.” Unquote. By the end of 1961, the cost the United States was paying, to prop up South Vietnam’s sagging army and to manage its own military effort in Vietnam, had risen to a million dollars per day.
1961 became 1962, and even with the increased American assistance, victory was no closer than it had been before. But there could be no turning back now. The United States had announced in no uncertain terms that it would stop the spread of communism, and now was committed to do that, no matter what the cost. Withdrawal was unthinkable – it would cost the US too much prestige – and no American president wanted to be the first president to lose a war. Already Americans were getting involved in firefights between South Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, but it was rarely reported in the news; the casualty counts were too low for the average American to care anyway.
On that note, I’m going to break off for today. Join me next time as we look at both an increase in the American commitment, and the downfall of the Diem government. And then if we have time, we will go to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which gave the United States an excuse to send combat troops to Vietnam. It’s going to be an exciting time for our narrative, and I’m sure you won’t want to miss it! Fortunately this is a podcast, not a radio or TV program. When I was a kid, if I missed a TV show, I didn’t have video recorders to catch the show for viewing later, nor did I have DVDs or videotapes. If the show didn’t have a rerun on another day, it was gone. Forever. But while I may jokingly tell you to tune in at the “same bat-time, same bat-channel,” you don’t have to catch this podcast at a particular time. Once the next episode goes up, it’s on the same website or app where you found this one, all ready for your listening pleasure. So I’ll see you later! Or as another TV show from my childhood used to say:
“See you real soon!”
“Why? Because we like you!”
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