Episode 85: Question and Answer Session 3



Here is the latest podcast episode!  It was supposed to go up on March 1, but you’ve heard the saying, better late than never!  Today we have a special episode, where I answer the questions which you the listeners sent in last January.  As with the previous Q&A show, listen and enjoy!




This episode is dedicated to Benedict P., for making a donation to the podcast.  In the nearly four years this podcast has existed, it only had a sponsor briefly, in 2018; the rest of the time it has depended on listeners like you for its support.  Benedict, thank you for doing your part to keep this labor of love running.  Here in the northern hemisphere, spring approaches; may you be blessed in this season of new life.  Now let’s get started with today’s show.

Episode 85:  Question and Answer Session 3

Greetings, dear listeners!  This will be a special episode; we are taking a break from our ongoing narrative on the Second Indochina War, or as Americans call it, the Vietnam War.  If you listened to Episode 51, our first question and answer episode, you know the format – I copied it from other podcasters who aired questions from their listeners, and then answered them.

Now I am sure that those of you who heard the first question and answer episode are looking at the episode titles and asking, “Where is Question and Answer Session 2?”  That was Episode 77, which I recorded four months ago.  I gave it the title “What Buddhism is All About,” because the longest answer was to a question about Buddhism, but because it was organized the same way as Episode 51, I now think of it as the second question and answer episode; I just didn’t change the title of Episode 77 to reflect that.

Anyway, a few of you were kind enough to send me questions in January 2020, either by email or by posting them on the podcast’s Facebook page.  Let’s open the mailbag and look at the questions.



Our first question comes from Jake T, and he wrote, quote: “Hi Charles, I have a question for your mailbag episode. Can you explain the major similarities and differences between the major languages of Southeast Asia? Do the mainland languages (Burmese, Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, Khmer) come from the same family? Why does Malay/Indonesian use the Latin alphabet, and why aren’t those languages tonal like the others? And where does Tagalog fit in?”  End quote.

This is going to be a complicated one to answer.  Fortunately a lot of it ties in with Episode 2, where I talked about the ancestors of today’s Southeast Asians migrating into the region from South China.  The languages of Southeast Asia are classified into five basic language families.  Wikipedia calls these families Kra–Dai, Austronesian, Austroasiatic, Hmong–Mien, and Sino-Tibetan.  Aside from Wikipedia, the best source I could find was a website called “Creative Obsessions,” and the URL for it is http://donlehmanjr.com/.  That’s spelled D-O-N-L-E-H-M-A-N-J-R, dot-com.  The names it gave to the language families were different.  Kra-Dai was called Tai-Kadai, Austroasiatic was called Mon-Khmer, Hmong-Mien was called Miao-Yao, and Sino-Tibetan was called Tibeto-Burman.  I will use the latter names here, because they are closer to what I used in the early episodes of the podcast.

Austronesian, sometimes called Malayo-Polynesian, is the most widespread of these language families.  These are the languages spoken in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, and East Timor.  Beyond Southeast Asia, Austronesian languages are in use as far away as Madagascar, Hawaii, and Polynesia.  Because these languages have so much in common, it is easy for linguists to trace the relationship between them.  As for why they are not tonal, my guess is that is because the most widely used tonal language in the world is Chinese, and the Austronesians got away from China before the other groups did.  To make that point, my sources mentioned an Austronesian tonal language called Tsat, spelled T-S-A-T.  It has 4,000 speakers, and they live – surprise! – in south China, on the island of Hainan.

You also asked why the Austronesians use the Latin alphabet.  That’s easy to answer; it was imposed on them by the Westerners who conquered them – the Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch and British.  I think I mentioned in the podcast that the Malays and Indonesians had an alphabet of their own before the Europeans arrived, derived from Sanskrit, and they introduced it to the Philippines.  This inspired the Filipinos to develop an alphabet called Baybayin around the thirteenth century, to use with Tagalog.  Today the largest collection of ancient texts written in the Baybayin alphabet is held by the University of Santo Tomas in Manila.

Austroasiatic or Mon-Khmer is the language family of the Khmers, today’s Cambodians, and the Mons, who we saw once had states in Thailand and southern Burma, but today they have been mostly absorbed by their Thai and Burmese neighbors.  It also appears that Vietnamese belongs to this language family, but it split off from the others at a very early date, before the migrations into Southeast Asia began.  These languages are not tonal except for Vietnamese, and again that can be explained because the Vietnamese have been exposed to Chinese language and culture for such a long time; just about all of their history, in fact.

The Tibeto-Burman languages, those related to Chinese, are spoken mainly in Myanmar, and like Chinese they are tonal.  The Miao-Yao languages are tonal as well, and are scattered across south China, northern Vietnam and Laos; speakers of these languages come from hill tribes like the Hmong and the Yao.  My older sources classified the Miao-Yao or Hmong-Mien languages as Tibeto-Burman, so I am going to speculate that they were all one group in prehistoric times, but the Miao-Yao speakers got isolated from the rest before leaving China, just as the Vietnamese-speakers separated from the Mon-Khmers.

That leaves the Tai-Kadai or Kra-Dai language family.  In the podcast I called their speakers Thais for short, and because they were the last group to migrate, I did not talk about their migration until Episode 10.  Besides Thai, the languages in the Tai-Kadai family include Lao, the Shan language of eastern Myanmar, Assamese in India, and Zhuang in China’s Guangxi Province.  These languages are tonal, and because they are young compared with the languages in the other families, they have much in common with one another.  In fact, I have heard Lao called a Thai dialect.  I will venture to say that Lao and Thai would not be considered separate languages if Thailand still ruled Laos, the way it did in the early nineteenth century.  There, did I leave anything out on this subject?


Next, we have four questions from a listener in Saigon.  I know, Saigon has been called Ho Chi Minh City since 1975, but I am old enough to remember when it was only called by the old name, so I am allowed to use the old name, too.  I have also heard that residents of Ho Chi Minh City will call it Saigon when the government is not paying attention.  His email had two names in it, Tanzor and Ilyousha; I’m not sure which is the real name.  That’s not a surprise either, since I have called myself Berosus, after a Babylonian historian, in more than one website or forum online.  Anyway, all the questions in the email have to do with financing, so here goes:

Question 1:  Do you think the cost estimates of the Vietnam War to the American taxpayers are accurate and realistic?

I would say yes, as far as I know.  The figures I heard were that the United States government spent $3 billion in the First Indochina War, in the form of aid given to France; I think I mentioned that in a previous episode.  1954 dollars were worth 9.59 times as much as today’s dollars, so to match that expenditure, Washington would have to spend $28.77 billion today.

As for the Vietnam War or Second Indochina War, the figure I heard quoted was that the United States spent $168 billion on it.  To find out how much that would cost today, I picked the year 1969, because that is when the number of American troops in Vietnam peaked, at more than half a million.  An item costing $1 in 1969 would cost around $7 today, so today’s equivalent of the $168 billion spent would be $1.176 trillion.

By the way, when the war ended, I remember somebody wrote a letter to Time Magazine which pointed out that for the amount of money the Americans spent on the war, they could have bought all of South Vietnam for $3,850 an acre.  Shall we consider that another missed opportunity?

Question 2:  Do you think lobbying by the Military-Industrial Complex groups for financial gains was significant in the Vietnam War’s genesis?

Yes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is why Dwight D. Eisenhower made a speech warning about the Military-Industrial Complex at the end of his presidency.  It must have been a shock at the time, since everyone knew Ike was a general before becoming president.  In the podcast, I commented on how every branch of the US armed forces wanted to see action in Vietnam because as American officers explained at the time, quote: “It’s the only war we’ve got.”  Unquote.

In the 1960s, another way those companies could make a lot of money was by building rockets and spacecraft for NASA, the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  Currently I am listening to a podcast about the history of space flight, and it talked about the competition between companies for NASA contracts; for the Apollo program, for instance, North American/Rockwell built the Apollo capsule, the command and service modules, while Grumman built the lunar module, the LEM.  There were only a few of those contracts available, so I can understand why the companies that didn’t get them would go for military contracts, and once the armed forces had new equipment, they would feel compelled to try it out.  Of course Vietnam was the place at the time to do that.

Question 3:  Do you think the Vietnam War was the main reason the owners of the United States had to default on gold backing of their fiat currency?

No, because the US federal government was spending an awful lot on other things besides the war.  Lyndon Johnson vastly increased government spending while he was president; collectively he called his programs for America the “Great Society.”  There were the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, for a start.  Then came Medicare, Medicaid, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Job Corps, and the Food Stamp program, officially called AFDC, or Aid to Families with Dependent Children.  Overseeing them all was an agency called the Office of Economic Opportunity, the OEO.  The OEO was disbanded in 1980, but the other programs are still with us today.  On top of that, Johnson created two new Cabinet-level agencies that are still around, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Transportation.

In the end, Johnson’s presidency was brought down because he tried to wage two wars at the same time, the real war in Vietnam, and the non-literal “War on Poverty.”  The next president after Johnson, Richard Nixon, was a big spender, too; in fact, he would be considered a liberal Republican if he was alive today.  Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1971, and the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973, and he tried unsuccessfully to stop inflation with wage and price controls.

To get back to your question, I will end by pointing out that the dollar was disconnected from the gold standard in 1974, after the United States had ended its active involvement in all of Indochina.

Question 4:  Do you think the Vietnam War was even possible to fund before the era of central banking and unbacked fiat money, which began in 1913 in the US?

Probably not.  The Americans did have two wars to fight in Southeast Asia before 1913, both in the Philippines, the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection, also called the Philippine-American War.  I covered those wars in Episodes 29, 30 and 31.  Though the Americans were successful here, they brought over a lot less equipment than they would bring to Vietnam, inasmuch as tanks and helicopters hadn’t been invented yet, and before World War I, airplanes were only useful for observation purposes, the way balloons were sometimes used in the nineteenth century.  The Spanish-American War cost the United States $250 million, and the Philippine Insurrection cost $400 million.  I ran the numbers in my calculator, and together the two conflicts would cost $19.37 billion in today’s dollars, less than 2 percent of what the Vietnam War cost.  And of course there were fewer lives lost, and the wars put a lot less stress on American society, but I’m not sure how to measure that.  Finally, I know from checking old copies of The New York Times in libraries, that the fighting in the Philippines did not make headlines almost every day for years, the way the Vietnam War did.

Of course, it helped a lot that no foreign power gave aid to Emilio Aguinaldo’s army on Luzon, or to the Moros in the south, the way China and the Soviet Union gave aid to North Vietnam.  That could have driven the cost of the war up to unacceptable levels for the Americans.  Along that line, I mentioned that in the 1860s, the emperor of Vietnam asked US President Lincoln for aid in stopping the French invasion of his country, but the Americans were too busy fighting their own Civil War at home to get involved.  An intervention in Vietnam at that date could have led to the Americans fighting the French; how’s that for alternate history?

You might want to take a look at another early overseas venture the Americans tried.  In 1871 they sent a squadron to open up Korea for trade; this was during the time when Korea was the “Hermit Kingdom” that refused to trade with anybody but China.  Modern Koreans call this the Shinmiyangyo Incident, while I like to call it the First Korean War.  The American expeditionary force lost only three men when it captured Ganghwa Island and its fortress, while 243 Koreans were killed.  From there the next logical step would have been to march on Seoul, but the Americans decided they didn’t have enough men to take the capital, so they withdrew after spending one month on Korean soil.  Because of this, the Americans won the battle, but because the Koreans weren’t persuaded to change their policies, the Koreans technically won the war.  Imagine how much that war would have cost, if the Americans had decided to send enough ships and men to go for Seoul!  The Koreans did agree to trade with the United States in 1882, so this became the real forgotten war in American history.  A big yellow and black flag, belonging to the Korean general killed in the battle, was captured by the Americans, and displayed at the Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, MD for a hundred and thirty years.  The flag was only returned to Seoul recently, in 2007.


Okay, the next question is from Brian F., who has been an enthusiastic fan of my work since 2001, meaning he enjoyed the history papers I wrote before I decided to become a podcaster.  Quote:

“Here is my question, and it has an introduction for context so you don’t need to cover everything:  In this region, Malaysia has recently had a breath of fresh air with their current prime minister, things look great politically in Timor-Leste, steady in Indonesia, and scary in the Philippines in regard to their president, Duterte-while full democratic institutions don’t seem to have eroded yet.  Burma looked promising a few years ago, but the genocide of the Rohingya would say otherwise.  Thailand has supposedly restored democracy, with the military stating they can rip-off the window dressing whenever they want. With this stated, Singapore/Thailand/Burma/the Philippines can possibly be added to my question as you see fit, or any other country in the region:

Do you believe Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos will embrace Democracy within the next 80 years?"


I will begin by agreeing with most of your assessment of the countries in the region, but no, President Duterte is not a threat to democracy in the Philippines, though we all know he is a bully boy.  I say that mainly because he is 74 years old, and so far has expressed no interested in staying in office after his term ends in 2022.  On the contrary, he has said he would like to step down now, due to his age.

By the way, when my wife and I visited the Philippines in December 2018, we flew into Ozamiz City, which has the nearest airport to her home town.  It is a small airport that only sees an average of six planes a day, and all of the airport’s facilities are housed in one building.  When we went there to begin our journey home, two flights were scheduled to depart that morning, and everyone waiting for both flights sat in one room.  In the front of the room was a life-sized cardboard cutout of the president, which I’m sure was there to make sure everyone behaved!

Singapore has probably gone as far as it can go, while keeping its unique economic and political experiment.  If you want to see a government that treats everyone like your mother and father treated you, there you have it!

While I was thinking of the answer to this question, I read a news story announcing the resignation of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, at the age of 94.  Since he had gotten elected only two years ago, his second administration as prime minister was much shorter than the first, which lasted from 1981 to 2003.  Enjoy your second retirement, Mr. Mohammed.  Malaysia will miss you.  Until you come back again.

Regarding the countries of the former Indochina, I would say Cambodia is the closest to becoming a democracy as we know it.  In fact, the current constitution claims it is a democracy now.  The only problem is that there is one party holding all the seats in the National Assembly, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.  Hun Sen is a former member of the Khmer Rouge, he has been prime minister since 1985, and he outlawed the main opposition party before the most recent election, in 2018.  Therefore it is safe to say that a complete transition to democracy will have to wait until Hun Sen is no longer prime minister.

With Vietnam, I have a feeling it will become a democracy eventually, mainly because of political trends across the Third World.  When I was young, I heard about coups and dictators all the time in Latin America, Africa, etc., but you have to admit they aren’t as common as they used to be.  With Latin America, the last of the old-style coups happened more than a quarter century ago; don’t quote me on this, but I think it happened in Haiti, in 1993 or 1994.  Worldwide, today’s heads of state are more cautious, and if they try to perpetuate their rule, they make it look like they are still playing by the rules; their favorite trick is to amend or replace the constitution to make their activities legal.   Indeed, we see Vladimir Putin doing the same thing in Russia.  Also, human rights abuses are less likely these days, thanks to the presence of the Internet almost everywhere; that is what persuaded Myanmar’s military to give up most of its power, a few years ago.

For what it’s worth, recently I read a comment from a conservative blogger who declared that Vietnam is a freer country than China, and China in turn is freer than California.  I think he was pointing out that present-day Vietnam is communist in name only; like China, it has embraced a capitalist economy, and the reason why we still call it communist is because everyone in the government is a member of the Communist Party.  Someday they may allow members of the opposition to speak their minds and run for office, if they can get leaders who aren’t afraid to hear dissenting views.

As for Laos, since 1975 the Laotians have done whatever the Vietnamese have done, while economically they are tied to both Vietnam and Thailand.  Therefore change won’t happen in Laos until one of their larger neighbors encourages it.

Finally, we have two questions from Gabriel S.  Here is what he wrote.  Quote:

Happy New Year, Charles. Keep up the good work. I have one question and one request. The question is, in your opinion, was the American War winnable for the United States and its South Vietnamese ally? The request is, will you in the future do a podcast on current geopolitical developments in the South China Sea?


Yes, I do plan on talking about the South China Sea dispute in a future episode.  It affects the Philippines and Vietnam directly, and Malaysia and Brunei could be drawn into it, too.

I saved Gabriel’s Vietnam question for last because it required some thinking, and I know that whatever answer I give to it will be controversial.  For the short run, I would say yes, it was theoretically possible to win.  The Americans could have bombed and slaughtered the North Vietnamese until they sued for peace.  Contrary to what we thought at the time, the Soviets and the Chinese probably would not have intervened had the tide of the war turned against the communists.  I noted in the narrative that Soviet leaders like Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and Aleksei Kosygin were less aggressive than Joseph Stalin was.  As for China, the Chinese defense minister in the late 1960s, Lin Biao, once said that he didn’t want to get involved in Vietnam.  No doubt the Chinese remembered that in Korea they fought the Americans and their allies to a standstill, but at a very heavy cost; among the Chinese dead was a son of Chairman Mao.  For a while it looked like Lin Biao was going to be Mao’s heir, so he would have been one of the few people who knew what Mao was really thinking.

However, once defeated, would the North Vietnamese and their clients stay that way?  I think not.  Remember what I said about Vietnamese persistence.  In the past, when the Chinese and the French defeated them, the Vietnamese said to themselves, “There’s always another day.” and started preparing for that day.  I am sure the communist leaders in Hanoi would have acted the same way; once the Americans declared victory and pulled out of Vietnam, there would be peace for a while, but then the trouble would start up again.  And as long as North Vietnam continued to support the Viet Cong, you can forget about anyone else winning, especially if the South Vietnamese government did not make a transition to true democracy, the way the South Korean government did in the 1980s.  In a nutshell, the Americans and their allies could win in the short run, but not in the long run.


I believe that takes care of all the questions.  If I forgot yours, drop me a line by email or on the podcast’s Facebook page, and I will answer it in the next episode.  I also plan to return to the Second Indochina War narrative.  Join me next time as we cover events in Vietnam during the second half of 1967, and maybe start our coverage of 1968.  1968 saw one of the most important campaigns of the war, the Tet Offensive, and the battles of 1967 led up to the Tet Offensive; I’m sure you won’t want to miss any of that.  Boy, what an exciting time that will be!

If you are enjoying this podcast and want to become a supporter of it, you can do so with a secure donation, done through Paypal.  All you have to do is go to this episode’s Blubrry.com page, scroll to the bottom, and click on the Paypal button, where it says, quote, “Support this podcast!”  End quote.

Next to the Paypal button, you will also find links to the podcast’s Hall of Fame page and the new Patreon page.  Paypal donors will have their first names mentioned on the Hall of Fame page.  For those not familiar with Patreon, it is a website that allows you to donate a small amount at the beginning of each month: $1, $3, $5, or more if you specify it.  I hope many of you will sign up on Patreon, and don’t worry; if for any reason you decide you don’t want to give anymore, let Patreon know and they will stop your donation.  And as if to prove that point, we lost one patron in February, but gained another, so the number of patrons has stayed the same, at three.  At a future date, I may offer gifts to patrons, as I think of them.  Some podcasters have placed episodes behind paywalls, so that only those who send money can listen to them, but I still believe in the free flow of information, and do not plan to do that.

Is there anything else you can do to support the podcast, besides send money?  Of course there is!  You can write a review on any website or app that offers the podcast, except Blubrry.com; sorry!  Hopefully some day Blubrry will permit reviews as well.  If you are on Facebook, “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page.  Currently the page has 588 “likes,” and I know from the number of episode downloads that is only a fraction of the listening audience.  Like the page and you will get to see the special content I share with the audience, like the picture of an Indonesian flying frog I shared on February 29.  Finally, do you know anyone who listens to podcasts, or is looking for a new history podcast to listen to?  You know what to do, spread the good news to them!  That’s all folks, so thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


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