A new month has begun, and you know what that means — it’s time for a new podcast episode! This episode covers events in the Second Indochina War, also called the Vietnam War, in 1969. In the United States there is a new president, Richard M. Nixon, and he starts the process of removing the Americans from the war, while on the streets of American cities, antiwar protests reach their peak. And over in North Vietnam, we say goodbye to Ho Chi Minh, who has been an important character in the narrative since Episode 35.
Episode 89: The Second Indochina War, Part 16
or, Now It’s Nixon’s War
Greetings, dear listeners! If this is the first time you listened to this podcast, I’m glad you’re here, or if you have listened to it before, welcome back! I recorded this during the Corona virus pandemic of 2020, so if you are listening around that time, I also hope you are staying safe, whether you are at home, or out working at one of the jobs the government considers quote-unquote “essential.” Along that line, listening to podcasts is one of the safer things you can do right now; recently I heard another podcaster call them “staycasts.”
Now here’s a great suggestion I saw on Facebook the other day. If you are one of those staying home, don’t say, “I can’t go out because of the virus.” That sounds weak, whiny and boring. The blood of our mighty ancestors may be running thin with this generation, but I for one don’t need another reminder of it. Try this instead: “I’ve sworn an oath of solitude until the pestilence is purged from the lands.” Sounds more valiant and heroic, right? Something a Viking would say. People might even think you are carrying a sword, like one of the real or mythological heroes of the past.
You can probably tell from this episode’s title that we have been covering the Second Indochina War, also called the Vietnam War in the United States, for a long time. If you are getting tired of this narrative, rest assured, we are more than halfway through the war, and after the events of this episode, an end to it will be in sight. In the past, I tried to give a quick summary of the events from previous episodes before resuming the narrative. The story has gotten so long that I won’t do that today; instead I will just give you the numbers of the episodes you need to listen to, if you haven’t caught them already.
Episodes 64 through 68 covered the First Indochina War, the previous conflict that set the stage for the one we are looking at now.
Episodes 71 through 73 looked at the early events of the Second Indochina War in Vietnam, up to the end of 1963.
Episodes 74, 75, 78 and 79 covered the part of the Second Indochina War in Laos. The episodes in the middle, 76 and 77, were about special topics unrelated to the war narrative.
And all of the episodes from 80 to 88, except for 85, have been about the Second Indochina War in Vietnam, from 1964 to 1968. If you haven’t listened to all of those episodes already, I recommend you go back and hear them now.
Okay, since you’re still here, I will assume you are ready to move on with the story, so let’s go!
Well, we now have a new group in charge in Washington. In the previous episode, we saw Lyndon Johnson’s presidency come to an end, and Richard Milhous Nixon won the election to succeed him. Nixon made a reference to the war in his inaugural address when he declared, quote,”…the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker. This honor now beckons America…” Unquote. After Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all had their turns at it, Nixon was the fifth President who would have to cope with Vietnam; we saw in the previous episode that he had successfully campaigned by promising, quote, “peace with honor.” Unquote.
But there would have to be still more fighting before peace could come. I mentioned in a previous episode that the Vietnam War is more difficult to follow than a straight conventional conflict like World War II. Whereas World War II’s main events were set-point battles and large-scale amphibious assaults against enemy-held beaches, Vietnam featured one named operation after another, endless patrols, and search and destroy missions that all blended together, because the outcome was usually the same: most of the casualties suffered were on the communist side, but the Americans and their allies usually failed to follow up on their “victories.” That being said, here’s the first operation for 1969.
On January 18, 1969, even before Nixon took office, Operation Dewey Canyon, the last major operation by US Marines, began in the Da Krong and A Shau valleys. Da Krong was in Quang Tri province, near the Marine bases just south of the Demilitarized Zone, while A Shau was west of the city of Hue. These valleys had been abandoned by American forces a year earlier, and since then had become a major North Vietnamese supply line for communist forces in South Vietnam. A successful campaign here would starve the North Vietnamese Army of much needed ammunition and men. Operation Dewey Canyon consisted of 3 phases that would end with the re-occupation of the valleys.
Leading the way were 2,200 Marines from the 9th Marine Regiment, and the 2nd Battalion from the 12th Marine Regiment. Supporting actions by the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and the South Vietnamese Army 2nd Regiment were run east of the operations area to keep communist reinforcements out of the valleys. Phase 1, from January 18th-25th, succeeded in establishing the fire bases around the objective. Phase 2, from January 31st-February 5th, involved aggressive patrolling around the fire bases in an effort to engage the North Vietnamese Army. After several clashes with the North Vietnamese and enduring the shelling of Firebase Cunningham on February 2nd, the Marines set up two more fire bases. Phase 3, the longest phase of the operation, lasted from February 11th until March 18th, and involved a raid on the North Vietnamese Army supply chain infrastructure in Laos. It ended with the Marines pulling back into South Vietnam. The Marines reported 130 of their own killed and 932 wounded throughout the campaign. As for the North Vietnamese, 1,617 of their bodies were found; again the number of wounded is unknown.
Though Operation Dewey Canyon was a tactical victory for the Marines, it failed to cut the North Vietnamese Army’s supply line. Nevertheless, there was little more that the Marines could do. Washington had given in to the pressure of public opinion, and would now start replacing the American troops involved in the war with South Vietnamese soldiers. One officer, 1st Lieutenant Archie Biggers, was awarded the Silver Star for his valor in Operation Dewey Canyon, and the entire 9th Marine Regiment was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.
Nixon called his policy for the war “Vietnamization,” and it’s easy to explain. Here American military forces would withdraw gradually, and South Vietnamese armed forces would take over responsibility for national defense. So far the South Vietnamese army, called ARVN, for Army of the Republic of Vietnam, had not proven it could fight and win when left alone, and both Nixon and the American commander in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, knew it would take time to build up and train South Vietnam’s armed forces. Those of you who listened to the First Indochina War episodes may remember that the French had recruited the first ARVN troops, with the goal of creating an army that was pro-French and anti-communist. The French called this policy jaunissement, meaning “yellowing,” and yes, the term was as racist as you’re probably thinking. It didn’t work then; will “Vietnamization” work now, or will we have an example of history repeating itself?
The trickiest part of Vietnamization was that the Americans had to time their withdrawal correctly. If the pullout took too long, increased casualties, antiwar protests in the United States, and foreign pressure would force Washington to withdraw more quickly, before South Vietnamese forces were ready to stand up to both a hostile neighboring state and a domestic insurgency. On the other hand, if the Americans got out too soon, the result would be the same – an easy Communist victory. Thus, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong did not make it easy for the Americans to leave.
For that reason, North Vietnamese regular forces and Viet Cong guerrillas launched a new offensive on February 23, 1969. We sometimes call it Mini-Tet or Tet 1969, because it resembled a small-scale version of the Tet Offensive from a year earlier. Whereas Tet was an all-out effort to win the war, by capturing cities, Mini-Tet was a coordinated series of 125 sapper attacks and 400 artillery or rocket bombardments against military targets across South Vietnam. Because the Viet Cong never recovered from the losses it had suffered in 1968, this time the objective was to make the Americans’ lives miserable, and hopefully persuade them to quit the war sooner. Intelligence operatives had traced large movements along the Ho Chí Minh trail in January and early February, so General Abrams knew the enemy was planning a surprise attack somewhere, and was ready for it. As a result, the Americans and South Vietnamese defeated this offensive, too, but the campaign was costly: more than 1,140 Americans and 1,500 South Vietnamese were killed during three weeks of fighting. One of the bloodiest attacks came on February 25, when the North Vietnamese raided Fire Support Bases Neville and Russell, two Marine camps near the Demilitarized Zone; 36 Marines were killed here. In response, US troops went on the offensive in the Demilitarized Zone on March 15, the first time they entered the DMZ that year.
Nixon’s response to Mini-Tet was to issue a threat on March 4, to resume bombing North Vietnam. He didn’t carry out this threat until 1972, but he did something else at this time and did not warn anyone about it first. Over the past few years, the North Vietnamese had built an extension of the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Cambodia, with base camps for communist troops. The Cambodian prince, Norodom Sihanouk, knew about the trail and the camps, but ignored them because he didn’t want the Indochina War to spill over into the last part of Indochina that was technically at peace. However, now Nixon decided that attacks on Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia would help to protect South Vietnam from Northern aggression, and buy time to build up the South Vietnamese military. Therefore on March 17, he secretly authorized Operation Menu, a year-long series of air strikes by B-52 bombers on the part of Cambodia adjacent to South Vietnam. He got away with this for two months, but then in May The New York Times broke the news of the secret bombing of Cambodia. What happened in Cambodia, at this time and afterwards, will be the topic of a future episode. For now I will say that it intensified the antiwar movement in the United States. And later, Nixon regretted that he had bombed the wrong targets in 1969. Long after he left the White House, Nixon wrote that his failure to respond to the Mini-Tet offensive with a massive bombing of North Vietnam had been the greatest mistake of his presidency.
Another consequence of The New York Times breaking the story of the Cambodian bombing was that Nixon ordered FBI wiretaps on the telephones of four journalists, along with 13 government officials, to determine the source of the news leak. Later on Nixon would spy on his perceived enemies again. In that sense, we can say that if the Vietnam War had not happened during Nixon’s watch, there would have been no Watergate, either.
US troop levels in Vietnam reached their all-time peak at the end of April 1969, with 543,482 American servicemen stationed there. The last troops to arrive had been ordered to come over before Nixon became president. By now 33,641 Americans had been killed in Vietnam, a total greater than for the whole Korean War.
So what would the last arrivals do, now that American leaders had decided they were not going to win the war? One possible assignment for them was Operation Apache Snow, a joint operation by the US Army and ARVN, to eliminate North Vietnamese units in the previously mentioned A Shau Valley. A little over a mile from the Laotian border was a 3,000-foot-high mountain that the North Vietnamese had heavily fortified, so the US command, MACV, ordered its capture first. The North Vietnamese called this high point Dong Ap Bia, meaning “the mountain of the crouching beast.” The Americans at first called it simply Hill 937, but the battle that followed became a proverbial meat grinder, so the site has been called Hamburger Hill since then. As 19-year-old Sergeant James Spears explained it to a reporter, quote, “Have you ever been inside a hamburger machine? We just got cut to pieces by extremely accurate machine gun fire.” Unquote.
With an American paratroop unit, the 101st Airborne, going first, it was thought that Hamburger Hill would be taken in a matter of hours. Instead, the battle lasted for ten days, from May 10 to May 20, and it took eleven assaults, supported by air and artillery bombardments, before the North Vietnamese were persuaded to withdraw into Laos. Bad weather was another factor; May is the beginning of the rainy season for the Southeast Asian mainland. Before the battle, this area looked like a typical Southeast Asian highland, covered with jungle. Afterwards it looked more like a barren moonscape; Meredith Lair, an associate professor of history at George Mason University, compared it with the devastated battlefields on the Western Front during World War I.
31 South Vietnamese and 72 Americans were killed in the battle for Hamburger Hill, while 630 North Vietnamese bodies were found afterwards. Chalk up another victory for the South Vietnamese and Americans–wait a minute! On June 5, just two weeks after the hill was taken, the troops were ordered to abandon it by their commander. After the Allies left, the North Vietnamese returned and recovered the hill unopposed.
The costly assault on Hamburger Hill, and its confused aftermath, provoked a political outcry back in the US that American lives were being wasted in Vietnam. Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy called the assault, quote, “senseless and irresponsible.” Unquote. The battle also eroded what support remained for the war. Thus, it was the beginning of the end for America in Vietnam; Washington now ordered General Abrams to avoid clashes like this in the future. ‘Hamburger Hill’ was the last major search and destroy mission by US troops during the war; small unit actions were used after this.
A long period of decline in morale and discipline began among American troops, who no longer knew what they were doing there.
<Play “The Walk” clip>
This was especially the case for the draftees, who had been sent to Vietnam against their will. Many turned against their officers, when ordered to do actions they considered suicidal. Reporters called these attacks “fragging,” because some mutinous soldiers did it by throwing fragmentation grenades into the tents of said officers, a tactic that left no fingerprints. Drug usage became a serious problem, as nearly 50 percent experimented with marijuana, opium, or heroin, drugs that were easy to find on the streets of Saigon. American military hospitals later became deluged with drug-related cases; as the war wound down for the Americans, the hospitals had more drug abuse casualties than casualties from the war.
On the other side, the North Vietnamese changed their fighting strategy, too. At this point they knew they did not have to beat the Americans, they just had to outlast them. And we have seen in this podcast that nobody can outlast an enemy like the Vietnamese can. Hanoi was confident that if they waited until the Americans were gone, the next time they pushed, the Saigon regime would crumble. Indeed, it probably would have happened in early 1965, had the Americans not intervened.
Because peace talks to end the war had begun under the Johnson administration, Nixon had another way to get the Americans out; if they could reach an agreement before the US troop withdrawal was complete, he would be able to bring the boys home sooner. On the first day of 1969, Nixon appointed Henry Cabot Lodge, who had twice been the ambassador to South Vietnam, as chief of the American negotiating team in Paris. Then on January 25, the talks resumed. This time the United States and North Vietnam were not the only parties involved; delegates from South Vietnam and the Viet Cong were in attendance, too.
Although Nixon had matured politically since the days when he was vice president in the Eisenhower administration, he remembered that Eisenhower also negotiated while fighting was going on, during the Korean War, and Eisenhower kept the talks moving by hinting he would resort to using nuclear weapons if he did not like how things were going. At first the Paris talks made no progress, just as they had failed to move in 1968, so Nixon considered using the nuclear threat. Here is how he explained it to his White House Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman. Quote:
<Insert Haldeman quote.>
Fortunately Nixon did not issue the nuclear threat, or carry it out. If he had, we probably wouldn’t be here. Instead, he kept calm for now. On May 14, he gave his first TV speech on Vietnam, where he presented a peace plan in which America and North Vietnam would simultaneously pull out of South Vietnam over the next year. The offer was rejected by Hanoi. Next, on June 8, Nixon met with the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, on Midway Island, a tiny coral atoll in the middle of the North Pacific, known mainly for the World War II battle fought there. Nixon informed Thieu that US troop levels would soon be sharply reduced, and at the press briefing after the meeting, he announced the withdrawal of 25,000 men, as the first step of the “Vietnamization” policy.
The first withdrawal of American troops took place on July 8, 1969, when 800 men from the 9th Infantry Division were sent home. The phased troop withdrawal occurred in 14 stages, lasting from July 1969 through November 1972. President Thieu was nervous as the first American troops left, but since he had no choice in the matter, he let them go. Three weeks later, on July 30, Nixon came to South Vietnam, to meet with Thieu again and to visit American soldiers. This was Nixon’s only trip to Vietnam during his presidency.
When nothing else broke the deadlock in the peace talks, Nixon decided to play a special ace that he had up his sleeve. Here is where I will introduce Nixon’s most important negotiator, Henry Alfred Kissinger. Kissinger was born to a Jewish family in Germany in 1923. Those of you familiar with European history will recognize this as the time of the Weimar Republic, the unsuccessful, unpopular government that ran Germany after World War I. Ten years later, the Weimar Republic was replaced by the Third Reich, definitely a bad time and place to be a Jew. It was during the 1930s that Kissinger developed his negotiation skills, by talking Aryan bully boys out of beating him up. Then in 1938 his family escaped Nazi persecution completely, by emigrating to the United States. When World War II broke out he was drafted into the infantry, and there he was spotted by another German immigrant, Fritz Kraemer, who recruited him for the US military administration that would run part of Germany after the war. Kissinger did so well in this job that Kraemer next suggested he attend Harvard when he returned to the United States; he did so, and there he met another mentor, William Yandell Elliott, a professor of government who named him head of a summer seminar for promising foreign-born Americans. This made him a member of the Harvard faculty, while he was still a student. He graduated summa cum laude, won an award for his doctoral dissertation, and on Elliott’s suggestion, joined both the National Security Council and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Kissinger wanted most to become one of the shapers of US foreign policy. He was ready to do that in the 1960s, but the Democrats in charge weren’t interested in him; they had enough eggheads working for them already. Instead, Kissinger became a foreign policy advisor to Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican candidate for president, and between elections he continued to teach at Harvard. For the 1968 election, Nixon was his least favorite candidate. Shortly before Nixon won the Republican nomination, Kissinger called him, quote, “the most dangerous, of all the men running, to have as president.” Unquote. Here he was expressing the typical opinion of a Harvard professor, but when it began to look like Nixon would get elected, his ambition became more important. He made contacts with members of Nixon’s staff, and after the election, when Nixon offered him the position of National Security Advisor, he accepted. As he took the job, Kissinger confidently said, quote, “We will not make the same old mistakes. We will make our own.” Unquote, and remember that line!
Podcast footnote: You would think Nixon would have picked a foreign policy expert like Henry Kissinger to be Secretary of State, but he did not trust the State Department. Instead, his first choice for Secretary of State was William P. Rogers, a lawyer who had been Eisenhower’s Attorney General. Rogers knew nothing about foreign affairs and wasn’t interested in them; Nixon knew that as long as Rogers was in charge of the State Department, it would not give him any trouble. It wasn’t until 1973, after Nixon’s second term as president began, that Kissinger replaced Rogers as Secretary of State. End footnote.
The first assignment Nixon gave to Kissinger regarding Vietnam was to conduct secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese. The official peace talks in Paris had been going on for a year by now, and had not accomplished anything; they were too public, too exposed to media scrutiny, and too politicized. Therefore, on August 4, 1969, Kissinger went to his first secret meeting with Xuan Thuy, the chief negotiator for the North Vietnamese, while the official peace talks continued openly. The place for this meeting was the apartment of Jean Sainteny, an elder statesman. I probably should have mentioned Sainteny in a previous episode, so I will mention him now. He was the highest-ranked French official in Indochina at the end of World War II, so he was the one who accepted the Japanese surrender on behalf of France, and when Ho Chi Minh negotiated with France in early 1946 concerning Indochina’s future, Sainteny led the French negotiating team. We will have to leave Kissinger for now; progress will not happen here until after 1969. Indeed, on December 20, a frustrated Henry Cabot Lodge quit his job at the official Paris peace talks. What all the peace talks produced will be a subject for another episode.
Meanwhile, Nixon tried one more idea. In July he personally wrote a letter to Ho Chi Minh, urging that all parties “move forward at the conference table” to settle “this tragic war.” This letter was passed from Henry Kissinger to Jean Sainteny, because Sainteny remained a friend of Ho after the 1946 negotiations ended, and Sainteny made sure the letter was delivered to Hanoi. Nixon also asked Sainteny to deliver an ultimatum to North Vietnam’s government; if there wasn’t real progress towards peace by November 1, the first anniversary of former President Johnson’s halt to the bombing, he would resort, quote, “to measures of great consequence and force.” Unquote. Ho’s reply to the letter reached Washington on August 31, and all it did was repeat the lines North Vietnam had given previously, the main one being that the South Vietnamese government must be replaced with a coalition government that included the Viet Cong as part of it.
We now believe Ho Chi Minh did not write that letter; he may not have even seen the letter from Nixon. By 1969 he was 79 years old, and he started suffering from heart failure early in the year. In August he became so sick that he stopped working in his office. Then on the morning of September 2, he died. As communist governments tend to do, Hanoi waited a day before announcing his death; by then rumors of his passing were already circulating. Once the news was out, there was widespread mourning all over North Vietnam for the man they called “Uncle Ho.”
The day of Ho’s death also happened to be the 24th anniversary of the date when he declared Vietnam’s independence. Now in the same city square of Hanoi where Ho made that speech, Le Duan, the current leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party, publicly read the last will of Ho Chi Minh, urging the North Vietnamese to fight on, quote, “until the last Yankee has gone.” Unquote. Ho Chi Minh has been an important player in our podcast narrative since Episode 35 – that’s more than two years ago in real time – and here we say goodbye to him.
Ho stated in his will that he wished to be cremated, but instead his associates gave him the “Lenin treatment.” Experts were brought in from Moscow, who had kept the body of Vladimir Lenin preserved since his death in 1924, and they embalmed Ho, too. Then a grand mausoleum, looking like the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, was built in the middle of Hanoi; if you go there today you can see Ho’s 130-year-old body in a glass case.
From a practical standpoint, few changes came with Ho’s death, because as we noted before, he delegated his powers to others at the beginning of the 1960s, while keeping the ceremonial job of president for the last years of his life. Most of the power went to Pham Van Dong, the premier and his closest follower, and to Le Duan. Meanwhile, Vo Nguyen Giap continued to lead the armed forces. Finally, Truong Chinh, Le Duan’s predecessor as Party boss, stuck around in an advisory role. This four-man team would run North Vietnam for the rest of the war, and after the war they would manage a reunited Vietnam until the mid-1980s.
To replace Ho Chi Minh as president, Ton Duc Thang, another veteran Communist Party member, took that job. At the age of 81, Thang was even older than Ho. He came from the Mekong delta, the southernmost part of Vietnam, and his presence at meetings with Ho Chi Minh was a message to everyone that Ho never gave up on his dream of reuniting the North and the South. Thang would serve as a figurehead president until his death in 1980. Then the office of president was abolished; Vietnam has not had a president since 1980.
Aside from Ho, none of the individuals I mentioned ever gained a following, nor was a cult of personality allowed to spring up for any of them. In present-day Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh is the only political leader for which statues and portraits are permitted.
In the United States, President Nixon followed up on the first troop withdrawal from Vietnam, with orders for the withdrawal of 35,000 more on September 16, along with an order to reduce the number of draft calls. Then on December 15, he ordered the withdrawal of an additional 50,000 troops. Most Americans at this time felt he was doing the right thing; a public opinion poll taken in October reported that 71 percent of Americans approved of Nixon’s Vietnam policy.
Still, for the antiwar movement, the troop pullouts were not coming fast enough: American soldiers were still dying in Vietnam, even if there weren’t any big battles in the second half of 1969. On October 15, they staged the biggest mass demonstration in US history, called the “Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam,” Moratorium Day for short. In 200 towns and cities across the country, more than two million people took part in religious services, school seminars, street rallies and meetings; the one common denominator among them were the black armbands they wore, to pay tribute to the Americans that had been killed in the war. The largest events were in New York City and Washington DC, involving a quarter million protestors each, and in Boston, where another hundred thousand took part. Some soldiers who had fought in Vietnam went to the events, and they were not viewed as enemies of the movement — in fact, many were actually part of it. This was followed up with the “Mobilization” peace demonstration on November 15, a massive march in Washington where half a million people participated, making it the largest single protest event ever held in the United States.
Previously, North Vietnam did not say anything to the antiwar movement, but these demonstrations were too big to ignore. Premier Pham Van Dong wrote a letter to the protest organizers, saying, quote, “…may your fall offensive succeed splendidly.” Unquote. The letter infuriated American conservatives, including Vice President Spiro Agnew, who called the protesters Communist “dupes” comprised of, quote, “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” Unquote.
President Nixon delivered his response in the form of a major TV speech on November 3, asking for support from, quote, “the great silent majority of my fellow Americans,” unquote. As he put it, quote, “…the more divided we are at home, the less likely the enemy is to negotiate at Paris…North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.” Unquote. A majority of Americans viewed this speech favorably; a poll taken afterwards gave Nixon a 68 percent approval rating.
By the end of 1969, America’s fighting strength in Vietnam had been reduced by 115,000 men, meaning there were 428,000 troops still on the scene. 40,024 Americans have now been killed in Vietnam since the start of the war. To take their place, South Vietnam drafted more men to serve in ARVN, in accordance with the “Vietnamization” program.
Okay, that takes care of another year in our timeline of the Second Indochina War. However, we won’t be moving on to 1970 right away. There were two special events in 1968-1969 I have barely mentioned so far: the My Lai Massacre and the spread of the war into Cambodia. We are going to need at least one, more likely two episodes, to cover them, so join me for that next time. And then we won’t need too many episodes after that to finish up this war series.
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