Episode 76: Monsters of Southeast Asia



Today we are taking a break from the ongoing narrative.  Several podcasts tell spooky stories for their late October episodes, so this episode will look at myths and legends from Southeast Asia, especially those about monsters.  You may not want to listen to this alone!



<Creepy sound effects>

Good evening.  No, you did not download the wrong podcast by mistake.  Let me get the opening credits out of the way first, and then I will explain.


Episode 76:  Monsters of Southeast Asia

Greetings, dear listeners!  In case you haven’t figured it out by now, we’re going to do something different today.  I am recording this in the middle of October 2019; when Halloween approaches, some podcasters take time out from their usual topics, and tell spooky stories instead.  For example, I have listened to podcasts about Egyptian and Chinese history, and their podcasters told spooky stories from those cultures.

Before we get into today’s content, I want to give a shout-out to Dean H., who made a donation to the podcast last week.  Dean, this episode is dedicated to you.  I hope you’re doing well as the seasons change, wherever you happen to be, whether it’s fall in the northern hemisphere, spring in the southern hemisphere, or the end of the rainy season if you’re in Southeast Asia itself.  And may the monsoon winds blow in your favor, in the months that lie ahead.

Anyway, a lot of the monsters in horror stories are associated with specific places.  Dr. Frankenstein and his monster are from Germany, Count Dracula and the Wolfman are from Transylvania, the Minotaur is from the island of Crete, the Yeti or Abominable Snowman is from Tibet, and while mummies were made by several cultures, the Mummy in horror stories usually comes from Egypt.  So what kind of monsters do Southeast Asians tell stories about?  Well, in this episode I will share an assortment of those stories.  In searching for them, I found mythological creatures for every Southeast Asian country except two of the smallest ones, Brunei and East Timor, so the whole region of Southeast Asia is well represented here.

In the past, I ignored the inclination to tell scary stories in October.  I could have ignored it this year as well, because as veteran listeners will know, lately this podcast has been covering the wars in Vietnam and Laos, during the mid-twentieth century.  I can imagine some of you don’t want me to break off from the war narrative; you’re saying, “Oh come on, the Vietnam War is scary enough!”  And the typical war is scary, without the need to add a supernatural element, but there was one even here.

In the case I am thinking about, American soldiers tried to scare the Viet Cong by playing on their fear of ghosts.  The Vietnamese believed that if a dead person isn’t buried near the place where he lived, the soul will wander the earth, sort of like Jacob Marley’s ghost with the chains.  So in a project the Americans called Operation Wandering Soul, they recorded an eerie voice that was supposed to be a dead Viet Cong soldier, and played the recording where they thought the enemy would hear it.  A quote from The Tropic Lightning News, dated February 1970, reported how the recording shook up the Viet Cong.  Quote:

“If you were a Wolfhound of the First Battalion, 27th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, and were at Fire Support Base Chamberlain on the night of February 10 you might have sworn the place was being haunted by poltergeists, ghosts that is.  The moans, groans and weird sounds began at eight that night, a likely time for the cloudlike forms to reveal themselves.  Of course, ghosts are nonexistent, or are they?  In this case the ghosts and weird sounds were furnished by the Sixth PSYOP Team and the S-5 Section of the 1/27th Wolfhounds who were conducting a night mission at Chamberlain.  With the help of loud speakers and a tape of ‘The Wandering Soul,’ a mythical tale of a Viet Cong gone to Buddha, the mission was a success.

The Wandering Soul is a tape about the soul of a dead Viet Cong.  It describes the wandering of this soul about the countryside.  ‘The dead VC tells his comrades to look at what has happened to his soul and that he will never be at rest, always wandering,’ said Captain William Goodman of Philadelphia, the battalion S-5.  ‘Buddhists believe very strongly that if they aren’t properly buried and properly mourned, their soul will wander through eternity,’ added First Lieutenant Peter Boni of Boston, the officer in charge of the Sixth PSYOP Team.  ‘We play upon the psychological superstitions and fears of the enemy.  The method is very effective,’ Boni said.”

End Quote.

I assume the Viet Cong were supposed to believe that if they were killed in action, they would suffer the same fate as the dead soul they heard.  But they did not always run away when they heard the tape.  In fact, helicopter crews reported receiving heavier fire when playing the Wandering Soul tape and they would even use it to goad Viet Cong ground troops into shooting at them.  One swiftboat reserve lieutenant even recalled how the Wandering Soul tape got their boat pelted with rockets, so they switched to blasting Tina Turner songs — for some reason the Viet Cong stopped shooting when they heard the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the middle of the night.

Podcast footnote: It just occurred to me that one of Tina Turner’s songs is appropriate to play in a war zone – “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”  Unfortunately the swiftboat crew couldn’t play that hit, because it was recorded in 1985, a full decade after the Vietnam War ended.  End footnote.

<Tina Turner sound clip>

Okay, the Vietnamese believe in ghosts, but so do many people from other cultures.  Let us look for some monsters that are truly unique to this part of the world.  We will try to visit one country at a time, but we can’t stick to that itinerary because there are cases where people in more than one country believe in the same monster.


Even the little city-state of Singapore has a monster to call its own, the Merlion.  We are starting here because I told Singapore’s story already, in Episode 11, so for those of you who didn’t hear it, here is a summary.  Singapore was founded in 1299 by an Indonesian prince named Seri Teri Buana; in fact, he was the last prince of Indonesia’s first important state, Srivijaya.  The prince came to an island with a fishing village called Temasek, which means “Sea Town” in Javanese.  Because Srivijaya was no more, he was looking for a place to establish a new kingdom for himself, and while hunting here, he claimed he saw a lion.  However, lions have never lived in Southeast Asia, and the animal Seri Teri Buana described sounds more like a tiger.  Still, the prince took this as a sign that this was the place for his kingdom, so he took over the island, and changed the name of Temasek to Singapura, meaning the Lion City; from Singapura we get the present-day name, Singapore.

Now fast-forward to the twentieth century.  When Singapore became independent, a subject we will cover in a future episode, the Merlion was invented to be the national symbol.  As you might have guessed from the name, this creature looks like a lion from the waist up, and a fish from the waist down.  As far as I know, there are no myths or legends behind the merlion; Singaporeans will tell you that the lion part represents the modern city, and the fish part represents the original village, Temasek.  Personally, I like to think that the fish part of the merlion also represents the seaborne commerce with other nations that has made Singapore rich.  Today five statues of the merlion stand in Singapore, and they are the city’s most famous landmarks.

Myanmar, formerly Burma

Next, we will visit the country farthest to the west.  As you might expect, because Myanmar contains many ethnic groups, they have plenty of myths about monsters, too.  I counted twenty-seven different monsters in the Wikipedia article on Burmese monsters.  Some of these, like the nagas, originally came from Hindu mythology; we saw in the earliest episodes of this podcast how important India was in getting Southeast Asia’s civilizations started.  Others, resembling crocodiles and snakes, were probably inspired by the wildlife living in the wide Burmese rivers.  For instance, when I submitted to Google the phrase “Monsters in Myanmar,” one of the entries I got back was a photo of a one-hundred-pound catfish, caught in the Salween River.  Finally, the Burmese carve statues of an animal called the Chinthe, and put them at the entrances of their pagodas.  Supposedly these are lions, but they look more like dogs; obviously the first chinthe was carved by a sculptor who never saw a lion up close.  You may remember a British guerrilla unit called the Chindits in Episode 48; they were named after the chinthe.

The most famous Burmese monster is the Belu, an ogre with fangs and shapeshifting powers.  This is the Burmese version of an Indian monster, the Rakshasha.  Belu appear in the Yama Zatdaw, the Burmese version of the Ramayana, the great Hindu epic, and they are also important characters in a series of stories about the Buddha called the Jatakas.  They are called Pan-kike Belu if they are evil and eat people, while Panswé Belu eat flowers and fruits, and are generally considered good.


Because the largest communities in Laos are all along the Mekong River, the chief monster of Laos, appropriately, lives in the Mekong.  This is the Phaya Naga, a river serpent that protects the nation’s capital, Viangchan or Vientiane.  As you can tell from the name, this is a variation of the Hindu naga.  Thailand, Cambodia, Burma and Vietnam also claim to have nagas within their borders.

One of my sources suggested that the Laotians got the idea for the Phaya Naga from the oarfish, a giant, rarely-seen fish that looks like a sea serpent.  I don’t think so myself, because the oarfish is an ocean fish, and it has never been seen in fresh water.  Remember, Laos is hundreds of miles from the sea.  Occasionally, in the part of the Mekong next to Laos, fireballs rise from the water and burst; these range in size from just sparks to basketball-sized balls of flame.  Laotians used to believe the Phaya Naga produced these fireballs, but it now appears they are bubbles of methane gas, produced by fermentation at the bottom of the river.


In a lot of countries, people used to believe in dragons.  One of those countries was China; because the Vietnamese people originally came from China, and because they got most of their culture from China, it should not surprise any of you that the Vietnamese used to believe in dragons, too.  In fact, I already told you about it in Episode 8 of this podcast, where I mentioned that the present-day capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, was founded on a stretch of the Red River where an eleventh-century emperor claimed he saw a dragon.

The Vietnamese have another important dragon legend going way back beyond the beginning of their long history.

<Troglodyte sound clip>

All right, not THAT far back, but far enough in the past.  In Episode 4 we saw that the Vietnamese claimed the oldest kingdom in Vietnam was named Van Lang, and it was supposedly founded in 2879 B.C.  According to Vietnamese legends, the second king of Van Lang, Lac Long Quan, enjoyed a long reign of 269 years, from 2793 to 2524 B.C.  Yes, I know the dates I threw out are probably not accurate, but they will have to do until someone can come up with a better chronology.  If these dates are correct, it means that Lac Long Quan ruled while the ancient Egyptians were learning how to make a big pile of stones and call it a pyramid.

Anyway, like other legendary founders of kingdoms, Lac Long Quan is credited with heroic deeds; the Vietnamese claimed he slew a great fish and a nine-tailed fox that were killing his people.  In fact, all the people had to do was call his name or “Father” and he would appear to help them.  But what interests us here is Lac Long Quan’s ancestry.  His father was Kinh Duong Vuong, the first king of Van Lang, of course, but his mother, Long Mau Than Long, was a dragon goddess that ruled the sky and the ocean.

One day Lac Long Quan met an incredibly beautiful woman, an immortal mountain fairy named Au Co.  It was love at first sight, and they got married immediately.  Au Co became pregnant shortly after that, but instead of giving birth to a baby, she produced a large sack of eggs.  This grew larger and larger until the seventh day, when it burst and 100 children were born to the dragon lord and his fairy wife.  Each child already had one of the 100 Vietnamese family names.

This instant royal family lived in harmony after that, but there was one problem.  Because Lac Long Quan was part dragon, and Vietnamese dragons are water reptiles, he needed to live near water, while Au Co was homesick for the mountains she came from.  In the end they separated, but stayed married.  Lac Long Quan took fifty of the children and moved to a beach, where he taught them how to survive around the sea – how to fish, how to sew, how to cook rice, and how to wear tattoos to scare away sea monsters.  Meanwhile Au Co took the other 50 children and moved back into the highlands, where she taught them to raise animals, grow fruit trees and to build homes on sturdy bamboo stilts.  Still, the king and queen continued to watch over their country for the rest of their lives.  And that is how the Vietnamese explain where ethnic Vietnamese and the country’s hill tribes came from.  You may want to compare this with what I said about the hill tribes in Episode 70.

Speaking of hill tribes, the Vietnamese also believe in a manlike creature.  Sightings of it come from the remote parts of Vietnam, especially the Vu Quang nature reserve.  The Vietnamese name for these creatures is Nguoi Rung, or “forest people,” and they are described as being about four feet tall, covered with hair, and pot-bellied.  More sightings have been reported in Laos and North Borneo; Laotians call the creature Ujit, while Malaysians call it Batutut.

A French colonist in Vietnam reported seeing the creature in 1947, and called it an homme sauvage, meaning wild man.  Some tribesmen in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam claimed to have captured two Nguoi Rungs in 1971.  In 1974 a North Vietnamese general, Hoang Minh Thao, requested an expedition to find evidence of the creatures, but it found nothing.  Then in 1982, Professor Tran Hong Viet of Pedagogic University of Hanoi, reported that he found mysterious man-like footprints in 1970; they measured 28×16 cm., or 11×6 inches, and he made casts of them.  You can say this is the first hard evidence found so far, for the Vietnamese equivalent of Bigfoot.  All the way back in Episode 1 of this podcast, I mentioned that teeth from a prehistoric ape, Gigantopithecus, were found in Vietnam; is it possible that Gigantopithecus is still alive today?


Thailand has a legend about a couple with names that rhyme, Mak and Nak, who were deeply in love.  When Nak was pregnant, her husband Mak was sent away to fight in a war, and while he was gone, Nak and her unborn child died.  As bad as this sounds, Mak returned home to find his wife and child alive and well.  They lived together happily for a while, but eventually Mak realized, through a mixture of rumors from his neighbors, and some strange things happening at home, that he was living with two ghosts.  Mak fled to a temple, because Buddhists believe that supernatural beings like ghosts are not allowed on holy ground.  Nak was enraged so much that she haunted the region of Phra Khanong.  This sounds like a job for the Ghostbusters, and sure enough, an exorcist captured her spirit in an earthenware jar and tossed it into the Menam River.

<Ghostbusters sound clip>

Like many legends, this one has more than one ending, because it has been told many times by many people.

Ending number one:  Nak later escaped when a fisherman accidentally pulled her jar out of the river, so she is now at large again.

You didn’t like that ending?  Okay, here is ending number two:  This one starts out with Nak escaping, like in ending number one, but a famous nineteenth-century monk, Somdej Toh, recaptured the soul, trapped it inside some of the bones from Nak’s body, and made the bones into a wrist band.  This may sound gross, but I have heard of other cases where Buddhists made beads for necklaces and wrist bands out of human bones, to remind themselves that nobody lives forever.  At first the monk wore the wrist band, but later, for safe keeping, he passed it on to the Royal Family of Thailand.  So if you want to see the wrist band today, the king has it.

Did you say you wanted a happy ending?  Maybe you will like ending number three:  Here Nak escapes again, and Somdej Toh captures her again, but this time the monk tells Nak that if she lets herself be reincarnated, she can be reunited with Mak in their next life.  Convinced, Nak leaves this world in peace.

Phra Khanong, the area where this story took place, is a neighborhood in the heart of present-day Bangkok.  Today there is a shrine to Nak here, called the Mae Nak Shrine, and women go there to pray for favors, such as successful births.  Most of all they pray that their husbands will be left at home, meaning they won’t be forced into military service, so maybe in Thailand, peace depends on this holy place.


If any of the monsters on this list are real, the best candidate is from Cambodia, the Kting Voar or snake-eating cow.  It is described as looking like a cow, but with spotted fur and twisted horns about 20 inches long.  There have been reported sightings in Vietnam as well, and the Vietnamese call it Linh Duong.  However, this is also the name for a goatlike antelope living in Vietnam, what we call the serow.  The best evidence available for the kting voar’s existence is a set of horns found by a biologist, Wolfgang Peter, in a Ho Chi Minh City market.  The horns looked so strange to Peter that he declared in a 1994 paper that they must belong to a new species.  Another Vietnamese antelope, the saola, was only discovered in 1992; I am assuming that the horns Peter found look nothing like saola horns, which are long and slightly curved.

Cambodians also believe in elflike creatures called Mrenh kongveal, which look like human children, and spend most of their time guarding animals, especially herd animals like elephants.  People living in or near the jungle may leave offerings in baskets for the mrenh kongveal, when seeking their help.  Hunters will leave offerings if they want a successful hunting trip, especially if the goal is to capture young elephants or water buffalo, while farmers will leave offerings to keep those same animals away from their crops.  It was once believed that the mrenh kongveal were nomads, wandering in the jungle, but today they are seen as supernatural guardians, associated with a specific person, place, or institution.  They will protect or offer guidance to their benefactors, either through telepathy, which sounds like whispering, or by influencing dreams.  They can only be seen by children between the ages of 6 and 14 who are "pure of heart," and some Cambodians claim they saw mrenh kongveal when they were kids.

Before we leave Cambodia, I will introduce you to Southeast Asia’s most gruesome monster.  What amazes me is that most of Southeast Asia believes in this one.  Cambodia calls it the Ap, Laos calls it the Kasu, Thailand calls it the Krasue, Malaysia calls it the Penanggalan, Bali calls it the Leyak, and the Philippines call it the Manananggal.  We will use the name ap here because it is the easiest to say and spell, having only two letters.  In most places, the ap looks like a beautiful woman with a normal body in the day, but at nightfall she becomes a disembodied flying head, with a bloody mess hanging down from it, made up of her spine and internal organs.  A mysterious red glow appears just before the ap becomes visible, and she smells of vinegar because she has to clean her entrails with it and stuff them back into her body when morning arrives.  The myths go on to say that the ap eats blood and fetuses, and that her favorite snack is the guts of pregnant women.  Southeast Asians believe that they can keep the ap away from their houses by planting thorny vines around them, because these dangly heads with equally dangly entrails don’t want to risk getting caught in the vines.  There are two ways a person can become an ap.  First, women who practice too much black magic can be turned into an ap as punishment for their wicked ways.  Second, a person can turn into an ap by ingesting the saliva of another ap.  So if you think the person offering you food, a drink, or a kiss is an ap, I recommend you politely refuse her offer, and get away as fast as you can.

The Filipino version of the ap, the manananggal, looks different in that it resembles an old but attractive woman, instead of a young one, and she has bat wings to fly with.  When she goes flying she has to separate at the waist, and leave the bottom half behind.  The good news is that if you find the bottom half, you can kill the whole creature by covering the bottom half with salt, garlic or ashes.  Next, I will tell you where to get the garlic – the Philippines has a myth about that, too!

The Philippines

Once upon a time there lived a beautiful young girl, and her mother made arrangements for her to marry the son of one of the richest people in the land.  Unfortunately, the girl was so beautiful that a rival suitor murdered her fiancé.  And as we all know, romances that lead to murder start blood feuds, violence causes more violence, and that rival was, in turn, killed by the dead fiancé’s exceptionally loyal slave.  The girl couldn’t stand being the reason for all these deaths, so she climbed a sacred mountain and screamed at the heavens, directly to Bathala.  Before the Spaniards and their missionaries came to the Philippines, the Tagalog people believed in many gods, of which the most important was Bathala, the creator of the universe.  Anyway, the girl pleaded for Bathala to take her away so that her beautiful face will cause no more deaths.  In the fashion of hairy thunderers from other myths, Bathala killed her instantly with a lightning bolt.  Her body was retrieved by her mother, who buried her and cried, watering the grave with her tears.

Not long after that, the mother was tending her daughter’s grave, and noticed some grass-like plants sprouting from it.  Thinking these were just weeds, the mother pulled them and noticed that they grew from seeds that looked like her dead daughter’s teeth.  Then out of the sky, she heard a supernatural voice boom, saying, quote: “Those are your daughter’s teeth.”  Unquote.  The mother gave thanks, knowing that Bathala had given her something that would remind her of her beautiful, tragic daughter, so she planted the seeds all over her land to help spread the memory of her daughter.  And that is where garlic plants came from.

Podcast footnote: My Filipina wife uses garlic in her cooking all the time, so it makes sense that the Philippines has a story about garlic.  It is also appropriate that the story has a mountain in it, because the only place you can grow garlic in the Philippines is in the mountains; the lowlands are too hot.  End footnote.

When it comes to monsters, the Philippine specialty is the Tikbalang, or man-horse.  This is not like the centaurs of Greek mythology.  I think of them as reverse centaurs, because they have the head of a horse and the body of a man.  In addition, the tikbalang is ten to fifteen feet tall, has hooves at the end of its legs instead of feet, and its arms and legs are much longer than those of an ordinary human, so much longer that when a tikbalang sits in a squatting position, its knees are higher than its head.  My sources suggest that the tikbalang was inspired by Hindu mythology, because a Hindu god, Hayagriva, is also portrayed as having a man’s body and a horse’s head.  Or maybe the Filipinos got some strange ideas about the first horses Spain brought to the islands, because they had never seen horses previously.

Some believe the tikbalang is the spirit of an aborted fetus, sent back to earth for a second chance at life.  Legend has it that the tikbalang is not a malevolent creature looking for people to kill, but a mischievous trickster.  They are known to scare travelers, or give them directions that cause the travelers to keep returning to the same place, no matter how far they go or what direction they go in.  Some versions of the myth claim that the tikbalang can also change its appearance or become invisible, to deceive its victims some more.  If you think the person you are walking with is a tikbalang in disguise, the best way to tell is by the smell of tobacco around them – tikbalang love to smoke cigars.  If a tikbalang rapes a woman and she becomes pregnant, she will give birth to another tikbalang.  Parents in the Philippines will scare their children with stories about the tikbalang, to keep them from going outside at night.

Because there are many versions of the myth, they also give you many ways to control or outwit a tikbalang.  One says a tikbalang cannot trick you if you wear your shirt inside out, another says you may make yourself immune to tricks by asking a tikbalang’s permission to pass by.  And tikbalang are terrified by stingrays, so if a tikbalang is lurking on your property, placing a stingray’s tail where the creature can see it will cause the creature to leave.  However, the most effective way to subdue a tikbalang is by jumping on it and holding on until you can get at its mane, before it can throw you off or kill you.  One version of the myth says you need to pull out the three thickest spines in the mane, and make them into a talisman; another says you have to pluck three golden hairs from the mane.  Either way, if you can do it, the tikbalang will serve you for the rest of your life.


Malaysians tell a fairy tale about a 4,000-foot-high mountain on the Malay peninsula.  When the British were in charge, they called the mountain Mt. Ophir, after a mysterious, wealthy kingdom mentioned in the Old Testament, but today it is known by its Malay name, Gunung Ledang.  According to the story, a beautiful fairy princess lived on the mountain, and vowed to never take a husband.  Naturally, many men saw this vow as a challenge.  One of them was the sultan of Malacca, Mahmud Shah.  He was already married to a princess from Java and a princess from China, but he felt that if he married this princess as well, he would have a wife unlike any other.

Accordingly, the sultan sent his finest warriors to the mountain, led by his best soldier of all, Hang Tuah, to deliver the marriage proposal.  On the mountain, they encountered strong winds, singing bamboos and clouds close enough to touch, which kept them from climbing it.  However, one of the warriors, Tum Mamat, made it through these obstacles, and he reached a beautiful, lush garden where he found four women.  When he gave them the sultan’s proposal, the women abruptly vanished.  The warrior stayed there for the night, and at one point during the night, a withered old woman appeared before him.  She gave the warrior a list of things the princess demanded; the sultan had to make all of these before the princess would accept his proposal:

1.  A bridge of gold running from Malacca to the mountain.
2.  A bridge of silver that also ran from Malacca to the mountain.  In case you’re wondering, the distance between Malacca and the mountain is 32 miles.
3.  Seven trays of mosquito hearts.
4.  Seven trays of flea or mite hearts.
5.  Seven large clay jars of betel nut juice.
6.  Seven large clay jars of virgin’s tears.
7.  A bowl containing the blood of the sultan’s young son.

Obviously the princess gave these impossible demands because she did not want to marry the sultan.  Once again, the legend breaks off into several different versions to explain what happened next.  One simply says that the sultan could not meet the requests, and the princess has lived in a secret cave on the mountain to this day.  Another says that the sultan fulfilled the first six requests, which caused the ruin of the Malacca Sultanate, but he would not give the bowl of blood because that would have meant killing his son.  Personally I like this version, because history records Sultan Mahmud Shah as ruling from 1488 to 1511, making him the sultan when the Portuguese conquered Malacca; go to Episode 12 to hear what I said about that conquest.  A third version of the story has the sultan approach his sleeping son with a dagger to get the blood.  Before he could commit the deed, an image of the princess appeared, and she said that she could not possibly marry a man willing to wound his own son; then she vanished, and was never seen again.  Still another version asserts that the two get married, another says that the princess has an army of sisters, and one even claims that the princess is the sultan’s own daughter.



In the islands of eastern Indonesia, the chief monster is the Orang-bati, meaning “man with wings.”  Described as five feet tall and a combination of half-monkey, half-bat, this creature claims the island of Seram as its home, but there have also been reports of sightings on the surrounding islands.  If you were scared by the flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz,” you will want to stay away from this one!  Supposedly its favorite food is children; it will steal kids from villages, and take them to its home in the local volcano to eat later.

When the first Christian missionaries came to this part of Indonesia, nearly five hundred years ago, the locals told them about the Orang-bati.  One missionary, an Englishman named Tyson Hughs, claimed he saw one in 1987.  We already know the world’s largest bat, the fruit bat or flying fox, lives in Southeast Asia, and I saw a photo on the Internet of somebody holding a fruit bat, claiming it was a captured Orang-bati.  If the Orang-bati exists, it is either an oversized bat, or the world’s only flying primate.

Finally, Southeast Asia has its own vampire, and I saved it for last, because Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines all believe in this one.  It is called Pontianak in Malaysia and Indonesia, and Asuwang in the Philippines.  However, for Filipinos, Asuwang is also an umbrella term that can mean ghouls, witches, gut-suckers, and werewolves as well as vampires; in short, the name is given to any creature that goes bump in the night.

The Pontianak is said to be the spirit of a woman who died while pregnant or giving birth.  They are said to look like beautiful, pale-skinned women with long hair.  The way you can recognize one is that they have red eyes and always wear white clothing.  Besides looking for blood, the pontianak may use her long fingernails to rip open a victim’s stomach, so she can feast on the internal organs.  It is said that a pontianak is nearby if a baby cries softly or a dog whimpers; you know one is around if you first smell a flowery fragrance, then a horrible stench.

On the west side of Borneo is a modern city of half a million people named Pontianak.  Supposedly it got its name because the sultan who founded the city in 1771 was haunted by these creatures, until his army drove them away by shooting cannonballs at the site; then the sultan built a mosque and his palace right where the monsters had their nest.  Even so, many Southeast Asians don’t want to speak the word “pontianak,” out of fear that it might summon one of those monsters.

I mentioned near the beginning of this episode that American soldiers in Vietnam tried to make the Viet Cong think ghosts were close at hand.  In the Philippines, during the Hukbalahap Rebellion, Americans did the same thing with vampires.  In case you don’t remember, we covered this conflict in Episode 62, and America’s man on the spot was Edward Lansdale, the CIA agent we introduced in that episode.  Lansdale’s favorite tricks were psychological ones, and here is his account of how he spooked the communist rebels by staging a fake asuwang, or vampire attack.  Quote:

“To the superstitious, the Huk battleground was a haunted place filled with ghosts and eerie creatures.  A combat psy-war squad was brought in.  It planted stories among town residents of an Asuang living on the hill where the Huks were based.  Two nights later, after giving the stories time to make their way up to the hill camp, the psywar squad set up an ambush along the trail used by the Huks […] When a Huk patrol came along the trail, the ambushers silently snatched the last man of the patrol, their move unseen in the dark night.

They punctured his neck with two holes, vampire-fashion, held the body up by the heels, drained it of blood, and put the corpse back on the trail.  When the Huks returned to look for the missing man and found their bloodless comrade, every member of the patrol believed that the Asuang had got him and that one of them would be next if they remained on that hill.  When daylight came, the whole Huk squadron moved out of the vicinity.”

End quote.  Where’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer when you need her?

<Creatures of the Night sound clip>

All right, have I spooked you enough with these stories?  Next time we will return to our narrative about another scary situation – the Second Indochina War.  At this point, I’m not sure if we should resume coverage of the war in Vietnam, or finish covering the war in Laos first.  But don’t worry, I will have made my mind up by the time you hear this.


It takes money, time and energy to record this podcast and make it available to the rest of the world.  I have the time to do this because currently I don’t have a day job; my income comes from self-employment.  So if you think this episode was worth at least a dollar, the best way you can express your appreciation is by supporting the podcast financially.  To do that, go to the host of the podcast, Blubrry.com, or to my personal blog, look for the gold button that says “Donate,” and click on it to make a secure donation through Paypal.  The URL for the host site is  http://www.B-L-U-B-R-R-Y.com/H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A/; once you are there, click on any episode’s page and scroll to the bottom.  Or if you’d rather donate through my blog, the URL is http://, no WWWs, and then X-E-N-O-H-I-S-T-O-R-I-A-N-dot-W-O-R-D-P-R-E-S-S.com.  Thank you in advance for whatever you can give.

Maybe you’re saying, “I cannot give right now.  What else can I do to help?”  I’m glad you asked!  You can rate the podcast, on the website or app where you download or listen to it!  And maybe write a review, while you’re at it; reviews attract more potential listeners.  And if you’re active on Facebook, “Like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast Page, so you will catch the content I share that’s related to the show, like pictures, videos, and articles.  At the end of the previous episode, I noted that the page had been liked 493 times, and I asked you to give it enough likes to make that 500.  Well, you did it!  As I look at the page now, the number of likes is exactly 500, so thank you again for your support!  And finally, tell others about the show; you never know who may be interested enough to give it a listen.  When it comes to advertising, the simplest kind, word of mouth, is still the most effective.  That’s all for today.  Thank you for listening, and pleasant dreams.

<Evil laugh>


Episode 75: The Second Indochina War, Part 5




This podcast episode continues the narrative we started last time, on the Second Indochina War’s phase in Laos, also called the Laotian Civil War.  Unfortunately, the cease-fire and the coalition government set up at the end of the previous episode couldn’t last.  Today we look at events in 1963 and 1964, and learn the overall trends that will characterize the war until the next cease-fire is signed, in 1973.



This episode is dedicated to Louis C., who made another donation to the podcast; I believe this is his third so far.  Louis, you are in the History of Southeast Asia Podcast Hall of Fame for sure!  Now who else wants to step up and follow the example Louis has set?  While you’re thinking it over, I will start today’s show.

Episode 75:  The Second Indochina War, Part 5

or, The Three-Sided Civil War in Laos, Part 2

Greetings, dear listeners!  Boy, I have given you quite a string of numbers to remember!  Not only are we up to the 75th episode in this podcast, this is the fifth episode covering events in the Second Indochina War, and the second episode about the civil war in Laos.  Don’t worry, the narrative won’t get any more complicated than this.

Before we get into today’s narrative, I must confess to yet another mispronunciation from pervious episodes.  Or maybe I should say a politically incorrect pronunciation.  Recently I found out that while Vientiane is a correct name for the capital of Laos, it isn’t the only name.  The Lao name for their capital is Viangchan, but the French couldn’t say that, so during the sixty years that they ruled Laos, they made up the name Vientiane, and used that instead.  Since I’m not French and can say Viangchan, I plan to use that name from now on; I don’t want anyone to think I’m nostalgic for the bad old days of colonialism.  Especially after all the time I spent recently on how colonialism ended in Southeast Asia.  Apologies in advance for any native French speakers listening to this!

Now because this is Part 2 of our Laotian civil war story, I sure hope you aren’t joining us for the first time.  If this is your first visit, I recommend you listen to Part 1, Episode 74, and then come back  for this episode, so you’ll be up to date on what’s happening.  History is like a TV soap opera; it’s a never-ending story that won’t slow down for those who don’t know what has happened already.  And speaking of that, here’s the story so far.


Previously in this podcast, we noted that the traditional symbol of Laos is the elephant.  Elephants represent strength; before the twentieth century, war elephants were the tanks of Southeast Asia.  When we first saw the Laotian kingdom, back in Episode 10, it was called Lan Xang, the “Land of a Million Elephants,” and elephants were featured on the Laotian flag until 1975.  Today’s Laotians have a proverb about elephants to explain what happened to them in the Indochina Wars.  Quote:  “When elephants fight, ants die.”  Unquote.  In this case, Laotians were the ants, and foreign powers were the elephants.

That, in a nutshell, is the tragedy Laos suffered in the mid-twentieth century.  The people of Laos wanted, more than anything else, to be left alone.  When researching this topic, I learned that because the leaders of each faction were princes, and members of the same royal family, they did not really hate each other that much, and probably could have resolved their differences without going to war.  In other words, the 22-year-long Laotian Civil War was completely unnecessary.  But foreign nations, chiefly the United States and the Soviet Union, would not leave them in peace.  The Americans and the Soviets wanted the sides they backed in neighboring Vietnam to have the advantage, and they thought winning control over this small nation was crucial to that.  Thus, both the communist and rightist factions continued to receive support from their outside patrons, every time a new coalition government was set up.    For most of the 1960s and early 1970s, the Royal Lao armed forces were entirely paid for by the United States, while the Pathet Lao got all its funding from North Vietnam, which in turn took aid from the Soviet Union and China.  This ensured that both the cease-fires and the coalitions wouldn’t last, and that the now-neglected neutralists would not win.

And it is not just the princes who were forced to fight when they would have preferred not to do so.  The Lao people by their very nature are easy-going folks.  On both sides the soldiers, except for the US-trained Hmong guerrillas, did not measure up to the standards of the foreigners helping them.  I already told you in the previous episode about the low morale of Royal Lao Army troops.  On the other side, the North Vietnamese did not think much of the communist faction in Laos, the Pathet Lao.  Mervyn Brown, a British diplomat who was held captive for a month by the Pathet Lao in June 1962, agreed.  Quote: “By world standards the Pathet Lao are incompetent and lazy soldiers.  By comparison with their actual opponents they are a tough and effective guerilla force.”  Unquote.

I also have two quotes from an anonymous North Vietnamese advisor who worked with the Pathet Lao and later defected to the West.  Here is what he said to an interviewer.  Quote:

“The Vietnamese are disciplined and well-organized.  The Lao are not.  Sometimes the Lao troops will say frankly that they want to defect or that they don’t want to work.  Their chiefs will often just listen and smile. If that happened in a Vietnamese unit—watch out . . . But in the Pathet Lao, a cadre who would discipline such a man would have to fear being shot, either by the man or another soldier in the unit.”


In the other quote, our source told us how the Laotians were amazed by the Vietnamese, who were disciplined puritans compared with them.  Quote:

“As for the Pathet Lao soldiers, their morale was low; they were poor fighters and poor shots.  Sometimes they still fired when there was no enemy present at all.  Their cadres were unable to control the soldiers during combat.  They could not keep operations secret . . . The Vietnamese did not trust the Lao, and the Lao relied on the Vietnamese, so that coordination in battle was not tight enough to defeat the enemy.  The Pathet Lao forces were weak.  If they were sent somewhere, a Vietnamese unit had to be sent with them.”


Anyway, France granted independence to Laos in 1953, and in the following year, the Geneva Accords were negotiated and signed, in order to solve the problems in the three nations that had formerly made up French Indochina.  Those nations were Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  Because Laos, like Vietnam, was divided between political factions, the Accords called for elections to create a unified government, under a constitutional monarch.  Those elections took place in 1955 and 1958, but coalition governments are inherently unstable; they are only as strong as the weakest link.  In this case, the weakest link was the faction representing the main body of the royal family, the neutralists.  When the neutralist prime minister, Prince Souvanna Phouma, was forced to resign, and a pro-Western rightist took his place, the Pathet Lao stopped playing by the rules, withdrew to the jungle, and in 1959 they resumed the guerrilla war they had waged before independence.  Again they had help from the communists in Vietnam, and together they gained control over the two provinces the Pathet Lao were based in.  The North Vietnamese also grabbed tracts of land along the border of North and South Vietnam, and here they built the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in order to advance their own war by sending men and supplies to their partners south of the Demilitarized Zone, the Viet Cong.

By May 1961 the whole eastern half of Laos was held by the communists.  At this point the new US administration of President John F. Kennedy had second thoughts about fighting a war in Laos, and decided to back the neutralists instead of the rightists.  The Soviet Union agreed that peace was the best option, and representatives of fourteen countries met in Geneva, Switzerland, for a new conference on the Laos question.  Negotiations went on for more than a year before they reached an agreement, chiefly because the three factions were not willing to make the compromises needed to form a second coalition government.  The rightists were the most stubborn of all.  It took a temporary suspension of US aid, and a military defeat, the battle of Luang Nam Tha, to convince the right to cooperate.  That battle, by the way, brought the northwest corner of the country under Pathet Lao control.

Under the arrangement reached in July 1962, the new coalition government had eleven neutralist ministers, four rightist ministers and four Pathet Lao ministers.  Souvanna Phouma, the “White Prince,” was Prime Minister and Minister of Defense; Souphanouvong, the “Red Prince,” was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy; Phoumi Nosavan, the previous prime minister and cousin of the prime minister of Thailand, was the other Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.  As for Boun Oum, the prince of Champassak, he retired from politics, so we won’t hear from him anymore.  Boun Oum, <exit stage right>.  American, Thai and Soviet personnel got out of the country, except for agents of the US Central Intelligence Agency.  The CIA continued to give support to the Hmong soldiers it had been training, and Souvanna agreed to let Air America, a CIA-funded airline, bring in US supplies.

Finally, I need to mention the change in kings.  As with other countries that still had a king in the mid-twentieth century, the king of Laos was no longer an absolute monarch whose word was law, but he was still respected by just about everybody.  Sisavang Vong, the king of Luang Prabang, and eventually all of Laos, since Episode 34, died in October 1959.  He was succeeded by Savang Vatthana, who predicted he would be the last king of Laos, and if you don’t mind a spoiler, he will turn out to be right.  Okay, now that we are caught up, let’s resume the narrative!


Alas, the second coalition government worked no better than the first one.  Within a year it was in trouble, for the same reasons as before.  The North Vietnamese continued to give arms and supplies to the communists, and the Americans did the same for anyone who opposed the communists.  Hanoi expected the Lao government to turn a blind eye to the presence of the Ho Chi Minh trail on Laotian territory, as they used it to infiltrate South Vietnam, while the Americans wanted to prevent such activity in a nation that was supposed to be neutral.

The first squabble was between the Pathet Lao and the neutralists; the Pathet Lao objected to the neutralists receiving US aid.  The neutralist army at this point was commanded by Kong Le, the officer we met in the previous episode, and when his second-in-command, Colonel Ketsana, tried to arrest members of a neutralist army unit with Pathet Lao ties, he was assassinated.  Soon after that, on April 1, 1963, Quinim Pholsena, a neutralist foreign minister with leftist leanings, was assassinated by one of his guards, in retaliation for the first assassination.  In fear of their lives, Prince Souphanouvong and the other Pathet Lao ministers fled Viangchan, and Pathet Lao forces attacked the neutralist soldiers who were based on the Plain of Jars.  Characteristically, each side accused the other of violating the Geneva agreement.  The resumption of the war also meant the end of an effective neutralist fighting force, as neutralist units either went over to the Pathet Lao or joined the rightists.  In the middle of it all, Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma struggled to keep up the image of a functioning coalition, but with the Pathet Lao ministers gone, those who remained were either rightists or favored the right.  Even so, all parties, domestic and foreign, pretended that the government was still neutral, if only to avoid admitting that the Geneva agreement had failed already.  For example, international diplomatic support kept Souvanna Phouma in office when rightist generals tried staging coups in 1964 and 1965.

1963 marked the beginning of a rough stalemate in the war that would last for the next decade.  The Pathet Lao gradually occupied the rest of the highlands – in previous episodes we noted this area takes up most of the country – but it is also a sparsely populated area, because any given square mile cannot feed many people.  The Mekong valley lowlands and the two capitals — Luang Prabang, the royal capital, and Viangchan, the administrative capital – remained in government hands.

That left one place still in contention, and the two sides fought harder for this area than any other place in the country – the Plain of Jars.  To refresh your memory from past episodes, the Plain of Jars is an area of about 500 square miles, that got its name because more than 2,000 years ago, an unknown tribe or culture carved thousands of huge stone urns, and left them all over the landscape.  Because this area is mostly flat, and located near the middle of the country, the Plain of Jars was considered prime real estate, a good area for farming and to build communities in.  The Americans considered building a major airbase on the Plain of Jars; all of North Vietnam would be within easy reach of aircraft taking off from here.  And North Vietnam’s worst nightmare was that the Americans would do exactly that, so the communists wanted the Plain of Jars simply to keep their enemies from having it.  Although the fighting never settled down enough on the Plain for the Americans to build the airbase they wanted, during the early 1960s they built 200 crude air strips in the vicinity.

Over the course of 1963, the Pathet Lao pushed the neutralists off the Plain of Jars.  In response, Vang Pao, the Hmong general in the Royal Lao Army, used three Hmong battalions to launch an offensive into the northeast, around the town of Sam Neua.  The Americans backed up this move by airdropping supplies to the guerrillas.  Later in the year the Americans also donated four T-28 Trojan aircraft to the Royal Laotian Air Force.  These were military trainer aircraft, converted to use as fighters in counter-insurgency warfare.

Podcast footnote: One of the T-28s was flown by a Thai pilot, Lieutenant Chert Saibory.  In 1963 Saibory defected to North Vietnam; there he was immediately imprisoned and his plane was impounded.  Within six months the T-28 was refurbished and commissioned into the North Vietnamese Air Force as its first fighter plane.  I will talk more about the North Vietnamese Air Force in a future episode.  End footnote.

However, the Americans did not approve of the idea the rightist general, Phoumi Nosavan, came up with.  Phoumi wanted the Royal Lao Army to strike across the northern part of southern Laos, the country’s long “panhandle,” going all the way to the Vietnamese border.  Such a campaign, if successful, would have cut the communist-controlled area in two.  The Americans thought the plan was doomed to fail because if the troops got too close to North Vietnam, the North Vietnamese army would personally intervene to defeat them.  They may have also remembered that Phoumi’s previous campaign, at Luang Nam Tha, didn’t go very well either.  Nor were the Royal Lao Army and neutralist troops thrilled with the plan.  Phoumi went ahead with it anyway.  Launching the offensive from the town of Nhommarath, the force consisted of the neutralist 8th infantry battalion, the Royal Lao 5th paratroop battalion, a neutralist light tank company, and the 350th regional battalion.  Together, they occupied the town of Lak Sao at the end of November 1963.  From here it was 19 miles to Nape Pass, the nearest border crossing, and the North Vietnamese had recently built a road from Nape Pass to Lak Sao, but when the government troops set out on this road in early December, they encountered first Pathet Lao guerrillas, and then three North Vietnamese battalions.  Against the North Vietnamese, the government forces tended to flee rather than fight.  The 11th and 55th paratroop battalions, and the 34th volunteer battalion were sent to the rescue, but half of the 55th paratroops were blown over a ridge, causing them to miss the drop zone, and the best the other units could do was cover the retreat of the whole force.  By January 1964 the whole area around Lak Sao, the Nakay Plateau, was back in communist hands.


The part of the Laotian Civil War from 1964 to 1973 is often called the “Secret War” in today’s history texts.  This is because the fighting in Laos didn’t get much attention in the press while the war in Vietnam was going full-scale, and because the main American activity on the ground in Laos was the training and support of Hmong guerrillas by the Central Intelligence Agency.  The Americans also began training Lao pilots, and because doing it in Laos would have violated the Geneva Agreement, the training was done at an air force base in Thailand.

Personally I don’t like the name “Secret War.”  I was a kid when this war took place, fourteen years old when the 1973 cease-fire went into effect.  Even so, I knew back then that a war was going on in Laos; even though it wasn’t making many headlines, the place was mentioned in the news from time to time.  I could also look up Laos in an encyclopedia, and it would make statements about the war, like declaring that the Pathet Lao finished conquering the Plain of Jars in 1971.  And because National Geographic Magazine ran an article about the Hmong tribe in 1974, I even knew a bit about their involvement.  While the CIA activities were secret at the time, the idea that the whole war was secret isn’t true; that has to be one of the worst-kept secrets of the twentieth century!

May 1964 saw several Lao generals stage an unsuccessful coup in Viangchan.  While this was going on, the confused royalist and neutralist troops on the Plain of Jars didn’t know what to do, and the communists launched an offensive that overran several enemy positions.  The communists were on the verge of victory on the Plain when the Americans threw caution to the wind and began the air war over Laos, bombing and strafing communist positions on the Plain of Jars, beginning on May 19.  They also gave the Royal Lao Air Force the ordinance it needed to conduct similar missions, and started flying reconnaissance missions over southern Laos to watch what was being moved into South Vietnam on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Then on June 9, US President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered an F-100 strike against the enemy in retaliation for the shooting down of a US aircraft.

The summer of 1964 saw one of the few triumphs by the Royal Lao Army.  You may remember that in the previous episode I mentioned that there was one good road between Luang Prabang and Viangchan, Route Nationale 13, and that the Pathet Lao cut it by capturing its only junction in March 1961.  Well, through an operation called Operation Triangle, government forces took it back.  This won’t affect the rest of the narrative; I just thought you’d like to know about this victory, in case you’re keeping track.

US involvement by air quickly expanded to include bombing runs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Called Operation Barrel Roll, this action was launched on December 14, 1964, and it continued until March 29, 1973.  During all these years, Barrel Roll was a carefully guarded secret, because violating a neutral country’s airspace was clearly against the Geneva Agreement.  Here the North Vietnamese helped out by saying nothing about the air raids on them.  They were supposed to have gotten out of Laos by October 1962, and to admit they still had personnel in the country would have been another violation of the Geneva Agreement.  For this reason both the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao swore up and down that no North Vietnamese were left in the country, and when government troops were lucky enough to capture a North Vietnamese soldier, they paraded him through the streets of Viangchan to show that the communists were telling a lie.

Before the Americans were done, they made Laos the most bombed-out country of all time.  According to official figures, the United States dropped 2,093,100 tons of bombs, on 580,944 sorties.  That is almost equal to the 2.1 million tons of bombs that the United States dropped everywhere during all of World War II.  If you do the math, Laos was hit by a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years.  The cost of all this in money was US $7.2 billion, or US $2 million a day.  No one knows how many people were killed, but one-third of the population, then numbering 2.1 million, became internal refugees.  You can look at it this way: the United States dropped nearly a ton of explosives for every man, woman and child in the country at the time.

The most outrageous thing about the bombing is that the bomber crews were not always aiming at enemy targets.  Sometimes the bombers would fly a mission over Vietnam or Cambodia, and for one reason or another, they would not drop their ordinance.  In that case it was considered dangerous to come back to an airbase with the bombs, so rather than run that risk, the bombers would fly over Laos and drop the bombs anywhere it was convenient to drop them, before returning to base.

The most fiendish bombs used were cluster bombs, which scatter a bunch of smaller “bomblets” for the purpose of killing personnel and destroying vehicles.  Of the 262 million cluster bombs dropped on the Plain of Jars, an estimated 80 million landed without exploding – that’s 30 percent.  Fifty years after they were dropped, those bombs are an ongoing deadly threat to the local population, because they don’t look very threatening to those who find them.  Around 50 people are killed or maimed by the bombs every year.  Thus, visitors to the Plain of Jars are only safe as long as they stay on cleared and marked pathways, and archaeologists cannot yet do a comprehensive study of the stone urns on the site.  Although efforts have been made to remove the bombs, at the rate the minesweepers are going, it will take the rest of the twenty-first century for them to finish the job.

Podcast footnote:  In 2016, Laos hosted the annual summit meeting of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.  One of the guests attending the meeting was US President Barack Obama, and afterwards he increased the amount of aid the United States was sending to Laos, in order to speed up the process of clearing out the bomb hazards.  At the United Nations, the present-day Laotian government applied in 2013 to have the Plain of Jars declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and that status was finally granted this year, on July 6, 2019.  End footnote.

On the ground, the monsoon weather cycle dictated who would move at any given time.  We have seen in past episodes that because the temperature in Southeast Asia stays hot all year round, wet and dry seasons are the seasons that matter.  In Laos, the dry season runs from November to May, and because of primitive state of the roads, the dry season was the best time to travel, so the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao would launch their offensives during this time.  Then during the wet season, from June to October, Vang Pao’s Hmong guerrillas, sometimes accompanied by Thai soldiers, would stage their attacks.  Because they used air power for transport and supply, the guerrillas did not need roads, and usually succeeded in pushing the communists back to their starting places – until the dry season arrived and the cycle started again.


Oh my, it looks like we are running out of time already!  One of the overall trends we have noted in the Indochina Wars is that the US commitment to fighting communism in the region increased as time went on.  Likewise, the more research I do for this story, the longer it gets.  When I started, I thought the war in Laos would only need one episode, but now we’re up to the end of 1964 and we’re going to need a third episode to continue, so join me for that.  However, that won’t be the episode coming up next.  I am planning a special episode for the second half of October 2019, and for now I’ll just say it’s a diversion appropriate for the season.  And then after that is done and the Laos narrative is done, we have to go back to Vietnam to continue that narrative.  Yes, we’re coming to the end of today’s episode, but by no means are we near the end of our history.  See you again in two weeks if you are listening to the podcast in real time, or I’ll see you again whenever you get hold of the next episode!

By the way, I just checked the statistics on where people are downloading this podcast.  Of the more than a quarter million downloads this podcast has gotten so far, 43.5% are in the United States.  Here’s the top ten list of the number of downloads per country.  The United States is number 1, of course, and Australia is number 2.  Thank you very much, Australia!  The top Southeast Asian country on the list is Singapore, at number 3.  Way to go, Singapore!  Number 4 is the United Kingdom, number 5 is Canada, number 6 is Thailand, and number 7 is the Philippines.  My wife’s homeland hasn’t been on the top ten list before, so I’m glad to see you moving up, Philippines!  Number 8 is Vietnam, no surprise since we have been talking a lot about Vietnam lately.  Number 9 is Japan, and number 10 is Germany; that’s impressive because this podcast is not available in any language besides English.  Finally, in the past I noted that every country in Southeast Asia except East Timor has listeners to this show.  Well, now there have been two downloads in East Timor, so the whole region is now listening!  I hope whoever is listening in East Timor will be back when I talk about how that half-island nation achieved independence.

One more thing about the downloads.  The total number of downloads for this month is up.  Way up.  Whereas the podcast got nearly 11,000 downloads for August 2019, the last time I checked the September downloads, there was an incredible surge of demand during the last week, resulting in more than 26,000 downloads for the month.  That’s a 136 percent increase!  To whoever downloaded all those episodes, welcome to the podcast, we’re glad to have you on board.

Now here are my requests from now until the next episode comes out.  The only time I ever ran advertisements was for two of last year’s episodes, so if you think this podcast is worth the time and effort I put into it, consider giving it your financial support.   On each page of Blubrry.com that hosts an episode, I have included a gold button that says “Donate!”, and you can use it to make a secure donation through Paypal.  If you are listening through iTunes or some other website or app, you will have to go to Blubrry for that.  Type this URL into your browser:  http://www.B-L-U-B-R-R-Y.com/H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A/.  Donations start at one US dollar, and feel free to make donations more than once, like Louis C. has done.  And here’s one more announcement concerning donations.  I have added the Paypal button to the upper left-hand portion of my personal blog, so if you don’t want to go to Blubrry, you can go to my blog instead.  The blog URL is Xenohistorian.wordpress.com.  That’s http://, no WWWs, and then X-E-N-O-H-I-S-T-O-R-I-A-N-dot-W-O-R-D-P-R-E-S-S.com.

Now what else can you do to support the podcast?  You can write a review, of course!  Today most organizations and corporations ask for feedback, so feel free to give it where you listen to the show, and that will attract more potential listeners to check it out.  If you are active on Facebook, “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page, so you won’t miss the content I am sharing that is related to the show.  As I record this, the page has been “liked” 493 times; can we get it to 500 in the next few days?  And last but not least, there’s the low-tech way of promotion, by word of mouth.  Tell your family, friends, and anyone else you think may be interested in this podcast.  Like I said before, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


How to Finance the American Civil War


I have just written a new section for Chapter 4 of my North American history, telling how Americans paid for the Civil War, with special emphasis on the Union solutions.  Read and enjoy!


Finding New Ways into the People’s Pockets

Before the Civil War, the federal government got most of its money from tariffs and a few other taxes, and issued various bonds and notes when it did not raise enough revenue this way. Federal spending was kept low, because most administrations, from Jefferson to Pierce, thought accumulating debt was bad in the long run. The Buchanan administration allowed an exception to this rule, because the financial panic of 1857 had reduced normal income from tariffs and duties. In 1857 the national debt was $28 million, not enough to scare anybody, and by issuing bonds and notes to cover the shortfall in revenue, Washington added $76 million to the debt by 1861. Then came the Civil War, and the calls to recruit hundreds of thousands of new soldiers. All those troops needed to be paid, and they also needed uniforms, guns, ammunition and food, so the Civil War was not only bigger than any previous war in North America — it was also more expensive. And because both sides had originally expected the war would be short, Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary (Salmon P. Chase), and his Confederate counterpart (Christopher Gustavus Memminger) did not think they would have to raise billions of dollars for the war effort, but that is what they eventually did.

To find new sources of revenue, President Lincoln called a special session of Congress in July 1861. The ideas considered at this session included the sale of government bonds, increased tariffs, new taxes or duties, and the sale of public lands. Congress approved a $240 million bond sale, and the introduction of an income tax; the latter was a flat tax of 3% on everyone making more than $800 a year. Before the new tax was collected, though, Congress passed a new Revenue Act (in mid-1862), to replace the Revenue Act of 1861. This modified the income tax, so that it collected 3% on annual incomes above $600, and 5% on incomes above $10,000 or on US citizens living abroad. Most important of all, the income tax was declared temporary; collection of it would end in 1866. After that, Americans would not be saddled with an income tax again for almost fifty years.

The 1861 bond sale raised only $150 million, so a $500 million bond sale was authorized in February 1862. Since bonds were bought mostly by banks and brokers, Secretary Chase gave the responsibility of selling the bonds to one of the buyers, a banker named Jay Cooke. This was a roaring success; Cooke did it by running newspaper advertisements, using a network of 2,500 salesmen spread out across the country, and by writing editorials promoting the bonds. Some of the bonds had a face value as low as $50, making them affordable to private citizens, and Cooke declared that buying a bond was a patriotic act, that should be considered by anyone who wanted to preserve the Union. Because Cooke did so well, Congress authorized an $830 million bond issue in early 1865, and this time Cooke sold them all by the summer of the same year. Altogether, bond sales paid two-thirds of the $3.4 billion that the Civil War cost the Union government.

Finally, the Civil War saw the introduction of paper money as present-day Americans know it. At the beginning of the war, the money supply in circulation was $200 million worth of banknotes. Each state authorized a few banks to print the money, and from state to state the bills looked different, and were in different denominations. To reduce the confusion this understandably caused, Treasury Secretary Chase suggested that the federal government print $150 million worth of a new paper currency not backed by gold, but still considered an obligation of the USA. Printed on green paper, these "greenbacks" would be convertible into an equal amount of government bonds and considered legal tender for all public and private debts. After two months of heated deliberation, Congress approved his plan, through the Legal Tender Act of 1862. Ironically, the first dollar bills printed had Chase’s picture on them. Still, the new standard currency was soon accepted by both merchants and consumers, so in July 1862, Congress authorized another $150 million greenback issue, and urged that about 25% of the notes be issued in denominations of one to five dollars. Then it approved the third greenback issue, worth $150 million, in early 1863. By the end of the war, approximately $450 million worth of the new paper money was in circulation.

Episode 74: The Second Indochina War, Part 4


Live long and prosper; Episode 74 of the podcast is now available!  Because the previous three episodes were focused on just Vietnam, it is now time to go west and catch up on the Second Indochina War in Laos.  This episode covers the history of Laos from 1954 to 1962.



This episode is dedicated to Sheldon G., who made a donation to the podcast last week.  Way to go, Sheldon, I’m glad you found the podcast’s Facebook page, too!  And I trust you also enjoyed the pictures and maps that went up on the page, in advance of this episode.  Now, without further ado, let’s get on with the show!

Episode 74:  The Second Indochina War, Part 4

or, The Three-Sided Civil War in Laos, Part 1

Greetings, dear listeners!  So far in our narrative on the Second Indochina War, we have only been paying attention to one country in the area that was formerly called Indochina – Vietnam.  There was action in Laos and Cambodia as well, but we ignored it during the past three episodes.  Most of the trouble in Cambodia started in 1970, when the monarchy was overthrown, and because our narrative on Vietnam has only gotten up to the end of 1963, we will have to save Cambodia for another time.  Laos, however, is a different matter.  It has been mostly forgotten today, but from 1959 to 1962, Laos made more headlines than Vietnam.    Therefore we now need to catch up on events in Laos.  This will be mostly a table-setting episode, like Episode 71 was for Vietnam; we will introduce the players in Laos, but there will be some fighting before this episode is done.

In the United States, the Eisenhower administration thought Laos was more important than Vietnam, because of the strategic location of Laos.  Laos shared a common border with six other nations:  China, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and Thailand.  The only place on the Southeast Asian mainland the Laotians weren’t next to was the Malay peninsula.

In the 1950s, the RAND corporation did a study of Laos, and it summarized the nation as follows.  Quote: “Hardly a nation except in the legal sense, Laos lacked the ability to defend its recent independence.  Its economy was undeveloped, its administrative capacity primitive, its population divided both ethnically and regionally, and its elite disunited, corrupt, and unfit to lead.”  Unquote.  Nevertheless, when outgoing US President Dwight D. Eisenhower met with his successor, John F. Kennedy, he called this minor state, quote, “the cork in the bottle,” unquote, and warned that losing Laos would be, quote,“the beginning of the loss of most of the Far East.”  Unquote.  A few days ago, I listened to another podcaster say that fear is one of humanity’s biggest motivators, and here we have a case of the United States being motivated by fear.


Since the 1960s, the whole country of Laos hasn’t gotten much attention from the outside world.  Just last week, when describing this podcast to a college student, I happened to mention Laos, and she had never heard of the place.  I tried throwing out some names associated with Laos, like the Plain of Jars, Vientiane, the Pathet Lao and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but nothing rang a bell.  Perhaps I should have played the Laotian music you just heard.  Therefore we definitely need to give Laos equal time, even in this podcast.  Would you believe that this episode, Episode 74, is our first episode that is only about Laos?  All the way back in Episode 10, I told you how the Laotian kingdom got started, but that wasn’t an exclusive episode; in the same episode I told you how Siam, modern-day Thailand, got started, too.

In fact, it is only because of a political accident that we can mention Laos as a modern state at all.  In Episode 18, we saw that after Lan Xang, the first Laotian kingdom, fell to pieces in the early 18th century, Siam conquered all the land that belonged to it, and probably would have kept it if permitted, since the Lao and the Thais are descended from closely related tribes.  Instead, the new rulers over Vietnam in the 19th century, the French, took away everything east of the Mekong River in 1893, and then they took a little bit on the Mekong’s west bank after the twentieth century began.  It was only Siam’s talented diplomats that stopped the French from annexing more, perhaps all of the territory Siam had left.  As a result, the territory that used to be the western half of Lan Xang, the Khorat Plateau, is now part of Thailand, though it still has a Lao-speaking population even today.

For events that happened in Laos in the first years after World War II, go to Episodes 64 and 67.  We saw that the king at the time, Sisavang Vong, liked the French and the French liked him.  But before the First Indochina War was over, the French granted independence to Laos, in 1953.  Because Laos was now officially a constitutional monarchy, the country had two capitals, spaced one hundred miles apart; the king continued to reside in Luang Prabang, the original royal capital, while the rest of the government was based in Vientiane, the largest city.  In the 18th and 19th centuries there used to be a third Laotian capital in the south, near the Cambodian border, for a Lao kingdom called Champassak, but because there were no more kings of Champassak, this city, Pakse, would not be a capital anymore.

At the same time, the first Laotian nationalist movement sprang up, the Lao Issara, led by a prince named  Phetsarath Ratanavongsa.  However, soon the movement broke up into different factions, each led by another prince.  One of those factions turned into a communist party, and named itself the Pathet Lao, meaning Land of Laos.  The front man for the Pathet Lao was Prince Souphanouvong, who we saw was nicknamed the “Red Prince,” but because communists are prejudiced against royalty, he could not really lead the movement; the actual leader, Kaysone Phomvihane, stayed out of the limelight most of the time.  For the other factions, Prince Souvanna Phouma, the “White Prince,” led the neutralist faction, and Prince Boun Oum of Champassak led the royalist or rightist faction.

Podcast footnote: Souvanna Phouma and Souphanouvong were half-brothers, and until the communists took over Laos in 1975, it seems that Souvanna Phouma could not believe a Laotian  of “royal blood” could ever become a communist.  Souphanouvong played on this idea, telling everyone that he was first and foremost a Lao nationalist.  End footnote.

Communism had a hard time taking root in Laos, and if you know anything about the Laotian people, it’s easy to understand why.  First, communists tend to oppose religion of any kind.  Karl Marx famously said, quote, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” unquote, and the Lao are hard-core addicts of one religion, Therevada Buddhism.  In the late 1950s, Prince Souphanouvong wrote a booklet entitled Lao Buddhist Socialism, which argued unconvincingly that communism and Buddhism were compatible.  Second, the first communists in Indochina were Vietnamese – you can thank Ho Chi Minh for that – and the Lao saw the Vietnamese as colonial oppressors, hardly better than European imperialists.  I mentioned in a previous episode that the French encouraged Vietnam’s surplus population to move into Laos, and after independence came, the Lao launched a wave of persecution on their Vietnamese neighbors, forcing 80 percent of them to flee back to Vietnam.  Indeed, the Pathet Lao movement only succeeded because it got lots of help from Vietnamese communists.  The founders of the Pathet Lao had Vietnamese connections as well.  Souphanouvong had a Vietnamese wife, and while Kaysone Phomvihane was born in Laos, his father was Vietnamese and his mother was Laotian; originally he had a Vietnamese name, Nguyen Cai Song, which he had to drop when he became a Laotian nationalist.  In 1953 the Pathet Lao and the Viet Minh got together to launch an offensive from Vietnam, and while it failed to capture its main objective, Luang Prabang, it gained control over two provinces, Phongsali, the northernmost province, and Houaphan, the northeastern province, and those became new bases for the Pathet Lao.


For the government, the main challenge after independence was money.  When the French were in charge, they could cover any deficit spending in Laos with funds from somewhere else in the French Empire, usually from Vietnam, but with the French out of the game, the Laotian government now had to find another foreign benefactor.  That could only be the United States, and the Americans were willing to give financial aid, so long as the government did not show signs that it was turning communist.  Between 1955 and 1958, the United States gave $120 million, four times as much as the French had given during their last eight years in Indochina.  The entire budget of the Laotian armed forces was paid for with American dollars, and because of that, the United States became a strong anti-communist influence on the country.

Another challenge was that the whole country was underdeveloped.  The two problems are connected; it would have been easier for the people to make money, and for the government to raise money, if an infrastructure had existed.  We talked earlier about the strategic location of Laos, but it was also the least accessible country in Southeast Asia.  You may remember me saying in a previous episode that one hundred years ago, Laos was the most remote part of the French Empire, and that French citizens looking to “get away from it all” would come here.  I have also said more than once that in most of Laos, the terrain is jungle-covered mountains.  The main exceptions to this rule are the Plain of Jars, located near the middle of the country, and the Mekong River valley.  Before the twentieth century, the easiest way to get into Laos was by sailing up the Mekong River from Cambodia, and usually it has been the main artery of transportation within the country as well.  That being said, there have been surprisingly few bridges built over such a major river.  In the 1950s there were just four: one in South Vietnam, one in Cambodia and two in southern Laos.  A bridge over the Mekong at Vientiane wasn’t built until 1994.

In the mid-1950s, there were 3,500 miles of roads in Laos, but only 500 of those miles were paved roads, meaning the rest were unsafe to use during the rainy season.  The paved roads were mainly built by the French, and the most important one was Route Nationale 13, which ran from Vientiane to Pakse, the former southern capital.  Later on, this road would be extended on both ends; the most important extension was the stretch between Luang Prabang and Vientiane.  Today this is the main north-south road in the country, and by using it, it is possible to take a bus across Laos from the Chinese border to the Cambodian border, or the opposite way if you prefer.  The French also wanted to build a railroad across northern Indochina, from Hanoi to Vientiane, but the plans for this project were never approved.

Podcast footnote: It is only in our own time that anybody tried to build a railroad between Hanoi and Vientiane.  The governments of Vietnam and Laos just signed the agreement to build the railroad in September 2015.  Two years later, they launched a feasibility study to determine the cost of a 4-to-6-lane highway along the same path.  Their estimate was that an expressway from Hanoi to Vientiane will cost $2.5 billion, and run for 725 kilometers, or 453 miles.  I believe both the railroad and highway are under construction as I record this.  End footnote.

The lack of roads wasn’t the only thing that limited transportation and communication.  In 1945 there were only nineteen registered vehicles in the country, and by the time independence arrived, that figure had risen to around 100.  Air transport was minimal, and telephone service outside of the capital cities was not available until 1967.  Development of the local economy was impossible under such conditions.  Most Laotians were either peasants or members of hill tribes, and they lived by subsistence farming, producing most of the food and other things that they needed, and trading, usually by barter, to get what they couldn’t make for themselves.  Because the Royal Laotian government didn’t have access to the peasants, it did not tax most of them for the whole time it existed.

To give you more of an idea on what it was like in Laos immediately after independence, I will read two quotes from outsiders who visited in the 1950s.  The first was Graham Greene, author of a famous novel on Vietnam entitled The Quiet American.  Here is his impression of Vientiane in January 1954.  Quote:

“a century away from Saigon . . . an uninteresting town consisting of only two real streets, one European restaurant, a club, the usual grubby market . . . Where Vientiane has two streets Luang Phrabang has one, some shops, a tiny modest royal palace (the King is as poor as the state) and
opposite the palace a steep hill crowned by a pagoda . . .One can see the whole town in a half an hour’s walk . . . “

End quote.
It was much the same story a few years later when Oden Meeker, a worker for the international aid organization CARE, came to Laos for a one-year assignment.  Quote:

“Vientiane is a wandering village and a few lines of weathered, one-story wooden shops selling pressure lamps, cotton goods, tinned French delicacies, and a scattering of notions.  Here and there on one of the three parallel main streets which make up the center of town there are a few two-story buildings.  Most of the houses are built of wood and thatch and plaited bamboo, on stilts high off the ground, set back in clumps of thin bamboo and pale-green, oar-bladed banana trees.  Everywhere there are pagodas . . . There are a number of pedicabs but few automobiles. This is the capital of Laos . . . “

End quote.


The 1954 Geneva Accords, which ended the First Indochina War, declared Laos a neutral nation, and called for elections to set up a coalition government.  As you know from previous episodes, efforts to unify Vietnam in this way failed, leading to a new war in Vietnam, but in Laos, all factions genuinely tried to make the accords work.  In return for a place in the coalition government, the Pathet Lao were ordered to give up the two provinces they held.  The Pathet Lao resented this, and boycotted the parliamentary elections scheduled for 1955.  As a result, Souvanna Phouma’s party, the National Progressive Party, won 22 of the 39 seats, and Souvanna Phouma became prime minister.  Among the other seventeen seats, the rightists won seven, and the Pathet Lao, running under the name of the Lao National Union Party, only won two.

The problem with the coalition government was that it only worked as long as no faction gained enough power to control the government by itself.  It took until November 1957 to set up a government that included Pathet Lao members as ministers, and when it went into effect, the slogan for it was, quote, "one vote to the right, one vote to the left to prevent civil war."  Unquote.  Then in 1958, parliamentary elections were held again, for 21 more seats.  This time the Pathet Lao won nine seats, the National Progressive Party picked up four more seats, and a party allied with the Pathet Lao, the Peace and Neutrality Party, won four seats.  Although the National Progressive Party remained the largest faction, now holding 26 out of 60 seats, they were no longer the majority party, and the Pathet Lao and their allies were in second place with 15 seats, a full 25 percent of the National Assembly.  Prince Souphanouvong himself ran for the seat representing the city of Vientiane, and won it with the largest number of votes for any candidate.  All this raised fears among the rightists, who saw the communists becoming stronger than themselves.  They formed a pro-Western political organization, the Committee for the Defense of the National Interest, or CDNI.

The Pathet Lao gains made the Americans furious.  The United States cut off aid to Laos, causing both a financial and political crisis; the coalition government collapsed only eight months after it was set up.  Souvanna Phouma lost a no-confidence vote and was forced to resign as prime minister; a rightist, Phoui Sananikone, took his place, and when Phoui set up a new Cabinet, it included four members of the CDNI, but no Pathet Lao members.  By the way, I remember reading a Time Magazine article from 1958 about this incident, and it made fun of the new prime minister’s name by using it in the title.  Quote: “Phoui to the Communists.”  Unquote.  Another rightist, Colonel Phoumi Nosavan, became the new defense minister, with American approval.

Podcast footnote: Phoumi Nosavan had just gotten back from France.  In 1957 he became the first Lao officer to attend France’s equivalent of West Point, the École de Guerre (that’s War College in English).  While in France, he met an American captain in the French Foreign Legion, John F. "Jack" Hasey, who also happened to be an agent in the US Central Intelligence Agency.  In previous episodes we met another CIA agent, Edward Lansdale, who was active in the Philippines and South Vietnam during the 1950s.  Now the friendship between Phoumi and Hasey marked the beginning of CIA activity in Laos.  In 1959 the CIA started giving guerrilla training to members of the Hmong tribe; go back to Episode 70 to hear what I said about the Hmong.  There was only one ethnic Hmong general in the Royal Lao Army, a man named Vang Pao, and the CIA made him commander of the troops they trained.  End footnote.

December 1958 saw North Vietnamese troops cross the border and occupy several villages near the town of Tchepone, in eastern Savannakhet province.  This extremely rugged district was the part of Laos next to Vietnam’s Demilitarized Zone, and here the North Vietnamese soon built the first part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to get troops and supplies around the DMZ into South Vietnam.  The Laotian Government immediately protested this incursion on its territory, while Hanoi claimed that in the past, the villages had been part of Vietnam.  In response, Phoui partly suspended the constitution and began to rule under emergency powers, which he used to purge Pathet Lao supporters from the civil service, and he arrested all Pathet Lao leaders in Vientiane, including Souphanouvong.

From 1955 to 1958, the Pathet Lao had spent most of its time recruiting new troops for its army.  By the beginning of 1959, it had at least 7,200 soldiers, but it only admitted to having 1,500, and these were organized into two battalions.  While the coalition government was in charge, the plan was to integrate the two battalions in the Royal Lao Army.  But now the US embassy protested, declaring that Congress would not want to approve sending more aid if the Pathet Lao troops were brought into the army without first “screening and re-indoctrinating” them.  Plans were made to hold the final integration ceremony in May 1959, and the Pathet Lao used a quibble over officer ranks to keep it from happening.  Government troops then surrounded the Pathet Lao units and demanded their allegiance.  After the monsoon rains for the season began, the battalion located on the Plain of Jars slipped away, taking their equipment, families, and livestock with them.  The other battalion, near Luang Prabang, allowed itself to be integrated.


Meanwhile, Souphanouvong and his aides escaped unharmed from the government’s custody on May 23, 1959.  This marked the beginning of the Laotian Civil War.  The Pathet Lao troops that escaped from the Plain of Jars moved north and east, near the borders of China and North Vietnam.  Here the North Vietnamese gave them help again, this time to drive Royal Lao troops out of Phongsali and Houaphan, the two provinces the Pathet Lao had held previously.  North Vietnamese troops, and even a few North Vietnamese tanks, participated in attacks from July 28 to July 31, 1959.  Typically the North Vietnamese would lead an attack on a strong point, and then they would fall back, leaving the Pathet Lao to occupy the newly captured area.  This tactic concealed the North Vietnamese presence, but rumors that they were in the vicinity frightened their opponents anyway.  One of those who heard the rumors was a 25-year-old Royal Lao Army captain named Kong Le.  Kong Le led two companies of the 2nd Paratroop Battalion on a patrol of the North Vietnamese border in Houaphan province, and when they returned to Sam Neua, the provincial capital, without meeting any enemy troops, they found that the local garrison was no longer there – it had abandoned the town.  With 25,000 men under its banner, the Royal Lao Army was larger than both the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese forces in the country, but its poor performance showed it was also weak; the only soldiers in its ranks who had the training and morale to stand and fight were the US-trained Hmong tribesmen.

October 1959 saw the deaths of the two best-loved members of the royal family, first Prince Phetsarath, and then King Sisavang Vong.  The king had ruled for 55 years, and was universally admired by the Laotian people, so much so that the Pathet Lao have allowed his statue to stand in Luang Prabang to this day.  He was succeeded by the 51-year-old crown prince, Savang Vatthana.  The new king was decidedly pro-American when it came to foreign policy, but he lacked his father’s popularity and Phetsarath’s charisma.  A deeply fatalistic man, Savang Vatthana predicted he would be the last king of Laos, and as if he was trying to fulfill that prophecy, he never had a formal coronation, because an auspicious or well-omened date for the coronation ceremony could not be found.

Speaking of being pro-American, the rightists in the army agreed that bringing in Pathet Lao soldiers was a bad idea.  They thought Phoui was acting too much like a neutralist, so at the end of 1959, rightist army officers staged a bloodless coup, replacing Phoui with one of their own, General Phoumi Nosavan.  Now that Laos had both a pro-American king and a pro-American prime minister, US aid to the country resumed.  And because Phoumi Nosavan was a first cousin of the prime minister of Thailand,  Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, having Phoumi in charge meant Thailand would support the new government, too.  However, this wasn’t the end of the game for Phoui.  He became president of the National Assembly, a relatively powerless position, and held that job until 1975.

The situation got more complicated on August 9, 1960, when Captain Kong Le used the 2nd Paratroop Battalion to quietly but firmly seize control of government offices, communications and the power station in Vientiane.  This action came to be known as the Kong Le Coup, and it succeeded because the whole government was in Luang Prabang, preparing for King Sisavang Vong’s funeral.  The funeral had been delayed nine months, while the astrologers looked for a suitably auspicious date for the late king’s cremation.  Kong Le had staged the coup to bring the neutralists back to power; he stated that he wanted an end to the fighting in Laos, the end of foreign interference in his country, an end to the corruption caused by foreign aid, and better treatment for his soldiers.  Quote: “We have only seen Lao killing Lao without cause.  In my experience, many past Lao governments have told us they wished to follow a neutral course, but they never did so.  My group and I decided to sacrifice everything, even our lives, in order to bring peace and neutrality to the nation.”  Unquote.  Thus, many Laotians saw Kong Le as a hero, who had come to save Laos from the foreigners, especially the Americans.

Kong Le reinstated Souvanna Phouma as prime minister, but had no plans for what he wanted to do after that.  Souvanna in turn tried to form another Cabinet that included members of all factions, but Phoumi refused to participate, after he saw that Souvanna wanted him as deputy prime minister and minister of the interior, when Phoumi really wanted to be defense minister again.  Likewise the United States and Thailand refused to recognize the new government, and declared an embargo of Vientiane instead.  The United States also flew in twelve B-26 bombers, parking them on an air force base in Thailand, but because of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba during the following year, the Americans decided not to use these bombers on combat missions over Laos.  On the ground, most of the Royal Lao Army outside of Vientiane went with General Phoumi, because he still outranked Kong Le, and because he had CIA money, his troops were regularly paid.

To break the blockade, Souvanna turned to the Soviet Union, asking them for help, and one of his leftist ministers flew to Hanoi, signing an agreement that established an alliance between the neutralists and Pathet Lao.  Henceforth the Soviets used an airlift to provide arms, fuel and other supplies to the neutralists, meaning they were now backing two sides in the Laotian war (they were already backing the Pathet Lao indirectly, by giving military aid to North Vietnam).  This prompted Phoumi to attack Vientiane on December 13.  The bombardment by artillery lasted for three days, killing 500 civilians and seventeen of Kong Le’s paratroopers.  Kong Le and the rest of the neutralists escaped to the Plain of Jars; their withdrawal was covered by artillery fire from North Vietnamese howitzers rushed into the area.  Souvanna Phouma fled to Cambodia, and another right-wing government was established; this time the most conservative of the princes, Boun Oum, became prime minister.

The split of the Royal Laotian Army into neutralist and rightist factions, and the subsequent going over of the neutralists to the communist side made a military victory against the communists unlikely.  The rightist troops were demoralized, and usually gave up ground wherever their enemies attacked.  Although Thai pilots, using aircraft supplied by the United States, began flying combat missions over Laos in January 1961, and the Americans airdropped arms to a force of 7,000 Hmong guerrillas, they could not stop a communist offensive.  For example, on March 9, the communists captured the only road junction between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. When Royal Lao Army troops were ordered to counterattack and retake the junction, they dropped their weapons and ran.  To the southeast, March and April saw the North Vietnamese Army launch an offensive that took the rest of the land along the borders of North and South Vietnam.    Now the North Vietnamese had what they really wanted, enough territory to finish construction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  By May 1961 the whole eastern half of the country was under communist control.

At the end of 1961, the rightists decided to have the Royal Lao Army clear the communists out of Luang Nam Tha, a province in the northwest near the borders of Burma, China and North Vietnam.  The nearest army forces were moved to the capital of that province, also named Luang Nam Tha, in January 1962, and the battle began when communist troops in the vicinity fired a few mortar rounds into the fringes of the town.  Eventually the strength of the defending force reached 5,000; against them were an estimated 2,000 Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese which later grew to somewhere between 2,500 and 4,000.  In addition, there was Chinese involvement on both sides.  Reports were received of Communist Chinese forces crossing the border to assist the communists in Laos, while a battalion of Nationalist Chinese soldiers, who had been parked in neighboring Burma for the past decade, saw another opportunity to fight communism, and joined the Royal Lao forces as mercenaries.  I last talked about the Nationalist Chinese in Episode 63, so go there if you’re wondering what they were doing in Burma.

The size of the Royalist force should have been enough to hold the town, but there were also American military advisors on the site, and one of them doubted the town could be defended, because the surrounding terrain looked too much like the terrain around Dien Bien Phu.  If you’re not familiar with the battle of Dien Bien Phu, go listen to Episode 68 for the reference.  Sure enough, communist artillery shelled the local airstrip, making further air support impossible, and the only reinforcements that could be flown in after that were paratroops.  A slow siege followed, which ended on May 5, when four North Vietnamese battalions launched an assault on Luang Nam Tha from three directions.  The Royalists broke and fled the next day, following the Pak Beng valley to the Mekong River; some of them did not stop until they reached Thailand, more than a hundred miles away.  The battle showed that Phoumi Nosavan was a lousy military commander, so he was more willing to talk peace afterwards.  Because of that disaster, northwestern Laos would remain in communist hands for the rest of the war, except for a surprise raid in late December 1967, when a CIA-backed guerrilla force occupied Luang Nam Tha for two days. 

While all this was going on, both the United States and the Soviet Union realized it was not a good idea to have their aircraft flying at the same time in a small airspace, backing opposing armies.  Moreover, US President Kennedy decided that backing the rightists was a mistake; Souvanna Phouma was the only person who could make Laos both neutral and peaceful.  Starting in March 1961, the Americans and the Soviets began calling for, quote, “an International Conference on the Settlement of the Laotian Question.”  Unquote.  Like the 1954 conference that ended the First Indochina War, this conference would be held in Geneva, Switzerland.  Peace talks began in May, and in January 1962 the three princes involved, Boun Oum, Souvanna Phouma and Souphanouvong, met in Geneva.  Talks went on after that until everyone agreed to set up another coalition that gave equal representation to both the right and the left, and the agreement was signed on July 23, 1962.

This new coalition government took office blessed by popular goodwill and hope.  It had eleven neutralist ministers, four rightist ministers, and four Pathet Lao ministers.   Souvanna Phouma became the prime minister again, with Souphanouvong and Phoumi Nosavan as his deputies.  This was Souvanna’s fourth term as prime minister, and the longest; this time he will hold the job until 1975.  The Geneva agreement called for the removal of all foreign military forces by October, so the Americans pulled out their military advisory teams and the Soviets stopped flying airlifts.  However, all North Vietnam did was conduct a symbolic withdrawal of 15 soldiers on August 27, and maybe 25 technicians by the time the deadline arrived; the rest managed to stay because they could not be told apart from Pathet Lao troops.  My sources disagree on the number of North Vietnamese remaining in Laos; they give figures ranging from 2,000 to 10,000.


The war in Laos is not over, but with all sides calling a time out in the second half of 1962, this is a good place to stop for today.  We’re not done yet catching up the Laos narrative with the Vietnam narrative, so join me next time for another episode on Laos.  How long will the cease-fire and the coalition government last this time?  I am also thinking of recording another special episode, because judging from the number of downloads, the most recent one, Episode 70, is the most popular episode from the past few months.

And now here are my requests for you, the listeners.  First of all, keep those donations coming.  That compensation for my work and research shows me you want to hear more.  If you enjoyed this episode and have a Paypal account, you can make a secure donation by going to the Paypal link at the bottom of the Blubrry.com page hosting this episode, and clicking on the gold button that says “Donate!”  Blubrry is spelled with no “Es”, so the Internet address for the podcast’s home site is http://www.B-L-U-B-R-R-Y.com/H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A/.&#160; Once you get there, go to the page for any episode.  Donations can be a one-time deal, or if you really want to show your love for the podcast, you can set up Paypal to make a monthly donation of $1 or more.

If you can’t afford to make a donation at this time, there are still things you can do to promote the podcast, and all of them are appreciated.  First, you can write a review.  While I don’t see a place on the Blubrry pages where you can write a review, the other websites and apps that share this podcast allow it.  You can also go to Facebook, and leave your review and comments on the History of Southeast Asia Podcast Facebook page!  And speaking of the Facebook page, “like” it so you won’t miss the new episodes when they appear, and related content that I share.  While there are three other forums where I announce new episodes, Facebook is my main social media outlet for now and the foreseeable future.  And even if you’re not online every day, you can share the podcast by telling others about it.  Remember what I said in the last episode about the current interest; as long as the topic is the Second Indochina War, this podcast is relevant to American history and military history, as well as Asian history.  Chances are you know somebody who is interested in one of those.  Okay, those are your assignments until we meet again.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 73: The Second Indochina War, Part 3



For today’s episode, the narrative on the war in Vietnam continues, covering events in 1962 and 1963.  We will see the Americans increase their commitment, because they are no closer to winning than they were before.  Nevertheless, the Viet Cong will win the first big battle of the war, at Ap Bac.  And then we will see the downfall of the South Vietnamese government, after President Ngo Dinh Diem makes one mistake too many.



This episode is dedicated to Savern P. and James K., for making donations to the podcast.  It has been two months since any donations arrived on my end, so I am grateful to both of you for ending the dry spell.  From an economic standpoint, a dry spell can never end soon enough.  And Savern, I noticed you have a Laotian last name, so you will be pleased to know that the next episode after this one will be all about Laos.  Now are we ready for today’s show?  Great!  Let’s cue the theme music!

Episode 73: The Second Indochina War, Part 3

or, The Fall of Ngo Dinh Diem

Greetings, dear listeners!  Today I will begin with a bit of old business.  In the middle of August 2019, right before the previous episode went up, the total number of downloads for the podcast passed the 250,000 mark.  It took a year and a half, to go from 100,000 downloads to a quarter million, and a little more than three years to get here from nothing.  I can’t thank you enough for letting me speak to you on this subject, twice a month if you are listening to the episodes right after I upload them, or at a different rate if you so choose.  That’s the advantage podcasts have over radio and TV programs.  You don’t have to listen to them at any particular time, and by downloading an episode, you can listen to it more than once.  For example, I know some folks who use podcasts to pass the time at a boring job, or to entertain themselves on a long road trip.  Heck, I’ve done that, too.  For example, two years ago, I drove two hundred miles west to see the Great American Solar Eclipse, and traffic on the roads was so bad, it took me five hours to reach a place where the eclipse was total, and seven hours to come back, so I played four podcasts on the trip, one of them being Dan Carlin’s latest six-hour marathon.  Anyway, thank you once again for your support, and let’s see if we can get the podcast to a million downloads, before the history narrative reaches the present.

I predicted some time back that a lot of new listeners would join us, when the Vietnam War became the topic, and sure enough, the number of downloads is up this month.  If you are just joining us, we began the current topic, the Second Indochina War, or as Americans call it, the Vietnam War, with Episode 71, so I recommend you go listen to Episodes 71 and 72, in order to understand what’s going on now.  And even at the beginning, I didn’t introduce all the characters and factions, so if you want the background material on Vietnam, here are the previous episodes:

Episode 4 for Vietnam in ancient times.
Episode 8 for Vietnam in medieval times.
Episode 19 for Vietnam in early modern times.
Episodes 25, 26, 34 and 35 for the period of French conquest and rule over Indochina.
Episode 58 for the World War II battles between the Japanese and the French in Indochina.
And for the First Indochina War, listen to Episodes 64 through 68.

Anyway, after the French left Vietnam, the Americans did not take over, but they replaced the French as the main faction opposing the spread of communism in Indochina.  The Americans found a nationalist named Ngo Dinh Diem who wasn’t a communist, and in Episode 71 we saw his rise to the presidency of South Vietnam.  But then his failings became visible in Episode 72, and the Diem administration went from good times to troubled times, and not just because a new round of fighting began, between the communists and their opponents.  Part of the problem was that Diem ruled more like an emperor than a president, and he ignored advice from the Americans to run South Vietnam more like a Western democracy.

In one way this was a case of history repeating itself.  Around 1900, Admiral Henri Rieunier, a senior French official in Vietnam, said this about the Vietnamese.  Quote:  "On our side, we have only Christians and crooks."  Unquote.  Sixty years later, the Americans involved with Vietnam could say exactly the same thing.

Also in the previous episode, we saw how the United States came to realize that just sending money to South Vietnam would not defeat the communist insurgency.  By the beginning of the 1960s, the Americans were sending military equipment as well, especially helicopters, and US military personnel went as “advisors,” to show South Vietnamese troops how to operate them.  Those of you familiar with military history will recognize this pattern.  Back in the early years of World War II, in 1940 and early 1941, the United States sent military aid to Britain, but did not get involved in the fighting until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.  President Franklin Roosevelt talked about giving the British, quote, “all aid short of war,” unquote, and thus, both the Eisenhower and the Kennedy administrations said they were doing the same thing for South Vietnam.  Of course they were confident they would win.  After an almost uninterrupted string of successes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Americans had come to believe they could do anything.  Withdrawal was unthinkable, after what had been committed so far.  And the communists in Vietnam were at best a third-rate military power.  What could go wrong?

<helicopter sound effect>

On that note, let’s get into today’s narrative.  Today we are covering Vietnam in 1962 and 1963.  Two years doesn’t sound like much, after the thousands of years we have covered in this podcast, but with all that happens, it will be enough.  Anyway, introducing helicopters gave the Viet Cong a setback, but it was only temporary.  At first they were a shock, because with choppers, the South Vietnamese army, also called ARVN (for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam), could get at even the most remote Viet Cong hideaways.  But the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese backers were adaptable, you have to give them credit for that.  They dug trenches and tunnels to hide from helicopter raids, practiced assaults against mock-ups of helicopters on the ground, and as they captured mortars and machine guns from the enemy, they would try using them to shoot down helicopters.  Also, paradoxically, at the same time the helicopters made the South Vietnamese government and armed forces more rigid.  The South Vietnamese troops became less willing to confront the Viet Cong in ground battles, if American air strikes and artillery would do the job for them.  And as long as President Ngo Dinh Diem thought he was winning the military struggle, he resisted making the political, economic and social reforms that both his people and the Americans wanted.

Diem’s rigid behavior prompted two South Vietnamese pilots, Second Lieutenant Nguyen Van Cu and First Lieutenant Pham Phú Quoc, to take matters into their own hands.  On February 27, 1962, these pilots, flying World War II era fighter planes, bombed the presidential palace.  Their goal was to kill the president and his family; if they didn’t succeed, they hoped their raid would spark an uprising to topple the South Vietnamese government.  As it turned out, three staff members were killed and 30 were injured, but the only family member hurt was Diem’s sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, and her injuries were minor.  One bomb fell into a room where Diem was reading but it failed to detonate; because he was unhurt, the president claimed afterwards that he had “divine protection.”  And no uprising followed.  As for the pilots, Cu escaped to Cambodia, thinking that the raid had succeeded, and gave a press conference from there.  Meanwhile Quoc was arrested and imprisoned.  After Diem’s death, Cu was able to return, Quoc was set free, and both were reinstated in the Air Force.  Quoc ended up getting killed in an air raid over North Vietnam in 1965.  Cu managed to survive through the entire war, only to be locked up in a communist re-education camp for ten years after the war’s end.  In 1991 he immigrated to the United States, where he lives now, at the age of 85.

Unfortunately, American support for the defense of South Vietnam meant that Americans began straying into combat zones, and this was a violation of the 1954 Geneva Accords, which prohibited foreign troops in the former Indochina colonies for combat purposes.  The response from American leaders was to cover up the activities of the servicemen, or to simply lie.  For example, at a press conference on January 15, 1962, US President John F. Kennedy was asked if any Americans in Vietnam were engaged in the fighting.  The president responded "No," without further comment.  And when American pilots began to fly combat sorties out of Bien Hoa, an air base north of Saigon, the official story was that the flights were training exercises for South Vietnamese pilots.   Kennedy also authorized the American pilots to use napalm, a nasty incendiary weapon, and defoliant chemicals, to remove the jungle cover that concealed the Viet Cong, and to destroy the crops that kept them fed.  The most notorious of the defoliants, Agent Orange, would make news for years to come, because of its lingering effects on the people exposed to it.  For activities on the ground, the Americans introduced M-113 armored personnel carriers, which could go virtually anywhere in the swampy terrain of the Mekong delta.

In February 1962 a new organization, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, or MAC-V, was established to oversee American military activities in Vietnam.  Its first commander was General Paul Harkins, who had been a member of General George Patton’s staff in World War II.  The general’s previous experience meant he knew how to win battles, and the appointment of a fighting general showed that the American mission was changing from giving military aid and training, to combat.  At first the MAC-V assisted the group that had previously been in charge of the military aid and advisors, the Military Assistance Advisory Group, or MAAG Vietnam; you may remember I introduced that group in Episode 71.  But eventually, in 1964, MAAG Vietnam was absorbed into the MAC-V.  Meanwhile, the American commitment to Vietnam continued to grow.  In late 1961 there were 685 American advisors in Vietnam; at the end of 1962 there were 11,300 US servicemen on the scene; by the end of 1963 there were 16,300.  In addition, there were 122 American combat deaths in 1963, and South Vietnam received $500 million in US aid for that year.


In the 1950s, the British had crushed a communist insurgency in Malaya; we covered that in Episode 69 of the podcast.  Now, because brute force wasn’t working to destroy the Viet Cong, American and South Vietnamese leaders looked at the Malayan example, and saw that the British won by putting Chinese peasants in fortified villages, thereby cutting off the communists from their supporters.  Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, liked this idea, and in 1959 they tried relocating the peasants of the Mekong delta into fortified villages called “agrovilles,” but because the program was so badly handled, and because the peasants were overwhelmingly hostile to it, the program was abandoned after only a few agrovilles were built.  Now in March 1962, they decided to try it again, this time calling it the Strategic Hamlet Program.

The Strategic Hamlet Program failed miserably, for two reasons.  First, Vietnam is not like Malaya.  The Malayan communists were all Chinese, so the British only had to win the hearts and minds of one ethnic group; the other ethnic groups, the Malays and Indians, stayed loyal during the “Malayan Emergency.”  In addition, Malaya is a rice-poor land (Malaya is known for producing tin and rubber, not rice), and the communists starved when the rice was stored in the fortified villages, but in Vietnam, where rice is widely grown, the Viet Cong could get it elsewhere.

Second, and more important, the peasants had nothing to gain by moving into the new villages, which were now called “strategic hamlets.”  Indeed, the government demanded more taxes and labor from the peasants, once they were in the hamlets.  The peasants resented having to walk long distances from the hamlets to their fields, market places and ancestral burial grounds.  The old village societies were disrupted, and in some cases the peasants were moved to places where they had to work inferior or unbroken ground.  But what would you expect of a policy imposed from above, by men who had never spent a day on a farm?  The money promised to the peasants when they moved often disappeared into the pockets of corrupt officials, as well as money earmarked for seed, fertilizer, irrigation, medical care, education, and sometimes even weapons.  The hamlets were thrown together in such a slapdash fashion that in more than fifty of them, Viet Cong agents remained inside; they became informers for their comrades, and soon took over by killing or intimidating the village leaders. 

As a result, Diem ordered bombing raids against suspected Viet Cong-controlled hamlets.  The air strikes by the South Vietnamese Air Force were supported by U.S. pilots, and the Americans also conducted some of the bombings.  Of course civilian causalities eroded popular support for Diem and increased peasant hostility toward America, which they blamed for both the unpopular resettlement program and the bombings.  The long-term result of the Strategic Hamlet Program was that it drove many neutral peasants into the arms of the Viet Cong.

By this time, the Viet Cong had perfected their recruiting techniques.  In fact, the Viet Cong spent more time recruiting than they did fighting; that’s why their numbers grew so quickly.  Typically they would send a team to a village, flatter the residents, and perform plays that were both entertaining and carried a political message.  Often members of the teams came from the same province where they recruited, and that allowed them to fine-tune their propaganda, to mention things that the locals needed and wanted.  And guerrilla units tended to split up, with their members living and working in the villages like ordinary peasants, until they got the signal to reunite for a military mission.  In return the peasants gave them remarkably good intelligence about what the government was doing, allowing them to plan their own activities more successfully.  In the previous episode I mentioned there were about 26,000 Viet Cong fighters in late 1961; by the end of 1963 there were around 100,000 of them.

Podcast footnote: The largest US bases in South Vietnam were either on the coast, where it was easy for the Navy to supply them, or near Saigon.  US Special Forces broke out of that pattern in August 1962, when they established a camp and an airfield at Khe Sanh, a hilly area just seven miles from the Vietnamese-Laotian border, and ten miles south of the Demilitarized Zone.  Previously the French had a fort in this area, and the Americans came here for two reasons: to give aid and protection to the local hill tribes, and to monitor communist movements on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in the nearest part of Laos.  I am mentioning this because Khe Sanh will become the site of a big battle in 1968.  Although you will have to wait for a future episode for details on that battle, the stage was set for it now.  End footnote.


Speaking of battles, up until the end of 1962, firefights had taken the form of raids and ambushes when the communists attacked, and skirmishes when the South Vietnamese forces did.  However, 1963 began with the first battle that would characterize the war from now on, the battle of Ap Bac.  Ap Bac was a village in the middle of the Mekong delta, about forty miles southwest of Saigon, and the South Vietnamese learned that the Viet Cong had about 120 guerrillas concentrated in the area, with a radio transmitter.  On the first day of 1963, 1,200 South Vietnamese troops approached Ap Bac from three directions, with ten American helicopters and thirteen armored personnel carriers backing them up.  Because the Viet Cong were hopelessly outnumbered, it was expected that there would be a clash between the Viet Cong and ARVN, the Viet Cong would flee in the one direction left open to them, and they would be massacred by artillery and aircraft gunfire.  But the information ARVN and the Americans received was faulty; there were really three companies of Viet Cong in the area, or 350 guerrillas.  Moreover, the Viet Cong heard their enemies were coming for them, and decided to dig in.  They got this information from Phan Xuan An, a reporter for Time Magazine who was secretly working as a Viet Cong spy.  After the battle, Phan Xuan An would receive a North Vietnamese medal for his role in it.

The battle began with ARVN attacking at 7 AM on January 2, 1963.  Americans had been looking for an opportunity to whip the Viet Cong when they stood their ground, and now they had their chance.  The Viet Cong held their fire until the helicopters landed, to release the South Vietnamese troops they carried.  Because the helicopters became a vulnerable target on the ground, the result was devastating; two helicopters were destroyed at once, and three more were shot down later in the morning, when they came back to rescue the crews of the first two.  Meanwhile, the close-quarter fighting between the South Vietnamese and Viet Cong largely canceled out the advantage in firepower the South Vietnamese and Americans had; if they used the big guns here, they ran the risk of killing soldiers on their side.  The highest ranking American on the scene, Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann, flew overhead in an observation plane, but he could not tell how many enemies they were fighting, and when he ordered the commanders of the other South Vietnamese units to go in and rescue the unit under fire, they refused to move.  Late in the day the armored personnel carriers arrived, but their commander refused to take orders from Americans, and when they charged the Viet Cong positions, the gunners riding on top of the vehicles became a target for snipers.  By concentrating all the weapons they had against the APCs, the Viet Cong managed to put three of them out of action.

At the end of the day the Viet Cong withdrew from the battlefield; they knew that they wouldn’t be able to hold this ground if the Americans brought in reinforcements.  That’s one advantage of the guerrilla fighter – he doesn’t have to defend a fixed position.  Because the Viet Cong were gone from Ap Bac, American and South Vietnamese leaders called the battle a great victory.  So did most of the American media.  However, the body counts told a different story.  The Viet Cong suffered 18 killed, 39 wounded, while 83 ARVN troops were killed and more than a hundred wounded; three Americans were killed as well.  That shouldn’t have happened when the odds were all against the Viet Cong!  Even more important was the battle’s effect on communist morale, they had stood their ground against a larger, better armed opponent, and never before had they taken out five helicopters in one encounter.  The battle of Ap Bac has been called "the turning point of the early stages of the war" because it also showed that ARVN was weak; the South Vietnamese troops were more concerned about saving themselves than in fighting to win.  Afterwards, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were a lot less afraid of the Americans, communist propaganda often talked about what happened at Ap Bac.  In the United States, the American people now realized they had another war on their hands.  One reporter, 27-year-old Neil Sheehan of The New York Times, called Ap Bac a defeat; later on, the North Vietnamese would proclaim him a hero for that.

In his presidential palace, Ngo Dinh Diem tried to minimize the threat. He did not want to offend his American patrons by letting them know the problem was greater than they thought it was. Likewise, his subordinates swept the bad news under the rug because they were afraid of reporting it openly.  Most of the provincial governors and army officers were promoted not for their abilities and experience, but for their loyalty to Diem; that meant they were not very competent, and it goes a long way towards explaining why ARVN performed so badly at the battle of Ap Bac.  The officers had orders from Diem to avoid casualties as much as possible.  Their primary mission was to protect Diem from any coup d’etat in Saigon.

Foreign reporters told each other that if Diem granted them an interview, they had better go to the bathroom first, because he would keep them in his office for five or six hours, while leaving other visitors and the country’s problems waiting outside.  During those interviews he gave marathon monologues on "personalism," the confusing authoritarian ideology developed by his brother Nhu.  Communist propaganda portrayed Diem as an American puppet, and routinely linked Diem’s name to that of America with a hyphen.  Yet there was no way South Vietnam could rid itself of the Americans without losing the vital support that was needed more with each passing day.

American officials also cast a positive spin on the US war effort.  In May 1962 the US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, visited Vietnam and reported, quote, “We are winning the war.”  Unquote.  He thought it would be possible to begin a gradual withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam, which would be completed in 1965.  And most of the war’s coverage in the American press was upbeat and favored the armed forces, the way it had been in previous wars.  But the biggest voice of optimism was that of General Paul Harkins, who did everything he could to keep morale high, saying in all his reports that the situation is quote, “well in hand.”  Unquote.  This was especially the case when American officers in the field gave much more pessimistic views, and after the battle of Ap Bac, when it became clear that things were not going well for South Vietnamese troops, Harkins continued to look on the bright side.  Two reporters for Time Magazine, who regularly heard the press conferences that Harkins gave, composed a song making fun of this, sung to the tune of an old Christian hymn, “Rock of Ages.”  Let’s see, am I in voice?

“We are winning, this I know,
General Harkins tells me so.
In the mountains, things are rough.
In the delta, mighty tough.
But the V. C. will soon go,
General Harkins tells me so.”

<Simon quote>

Alright Simon, I am not the singer in the family!  Anyway, those Americans who realized that Ap Bac wasn’t a victory remained optimistic.  To use the “light at the end of the tunnel” symbolism we have mentioned in the past, they now believed the situation in Vietnam would get darker before it got brighter.  This included President Kennedy, who now felt that the withdrawal of Americans from Vietnam would have to wait until after his re-election in 1964; he would send over more quote-unquote “advisors” first.  Late in 1962, he sent a colleague, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, to survey the situation in Vietnam.  I mentioned Mansfield in Episode 71, as one of the first Americans who supported Ngo Dinh Diem, because he was a Catholic like Diem, but he could also change his mind.  When he came back, he was brutally frank.  The United States had spent $2 billion over the past seven years to support the Diem regime, but, quote, “substantially the same difficulties remain if, indeed, they have not been compounded.”  End quote.  Part of the problem was caused by the ongoing war with the Viet Cong, of course, but the blame could also be placed on a shortsighted US policy and Diem’s unwillingness to share power with folks outside of his family.  He warned that the United States must take a second look at what it is doing in Vietnam, before it gets more involved than it already is.  Quote: “It is their country, their future that is at stake, not ours.  To ignore that reality will not only be immensely costly in terms of American lives and resources, but it may also draw us inexorably into some variation of the unenviable position in Vietnam that was formerly occupied by the French . . . The great increase in American military commitment this year has tended to point us in that general direction.”  End quote.

Whoa!  Those of you familiar with the Vietnam War can see that Mansfield is predicting what will come in the future.  Soon afterwards, Mansfield attended a party on the president’s yacht, and Kennedy scolded him for writing such a critical report.  Mansfield replied, quote, “You asked me to go out there,” unquote, and Kennedy said, quote, “Well, I’ll read it again.”  Unquote.  The president did so, and then confided this to an assistant, Kenneth O’Donnell.  Quote: “I got angry with Mike for disagreeing with our policy so completely, and I got angry with myself because I found myself agreeing with him.”  Unquote.


The end of the Diem regime came not because of the fighting with the Viet Cong, but because Diem picked a fight with South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority, and the military sided with the Buddhists.  Previously I talked about Diem making some big mistakes, so you can call this his last mistake.  On May 8, 1963, Buddhists assembled in Hue to celebrate the 2,527th birthday of the Buddha, and a local Catholic official prohibited them from flying their multicolored flag.  Only a week earlier, the same official had encouraged Catholics to wave blue and white papal flags, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the ordination of Ngo Dinh Thuc, Diem’s brother and the Archbishop of Hue.  The Buddhists protested against this discrimination, and in the demonstration that followed, government troops opened fire, killing a woman and eight children.

Diem tried to blame the trouble on the communists (of course), and the Buddhists organized an opposition party.  Although the Buddhists had no formal ties with the communists, they organized their party the same way.  They established a network of three-member cells, put their headquarters in temples, and they quickly learned how to write, copy and distribute their messages, and to translate them into other languages so that foreign reporters knew what they had to say.  When it came to organizing rallies and hunger strikes, they did so with great efficiency.  The party leader was Tri Quang, a monk in his early forties, and he called on help from the Americans with this statement to US officials.  Quote: “The United States must either make Diem reform or get rid of him.  If not, the situation will degenerate, and you worthy gentlemen will suffer most.  You are responsible for the present trouble because you back Diem and his government of ignoramuses.”  Unquote.  The US ambassador, Frederick Nolting, urged Diem to treat the Buddhists fairly, but Diem still insisted that the Viet Cong had caused the Hue incident, while Madame Nhu declared that the Buddhists were being manipulated by the Americans.  Later, when another American diplomat, William Trueheart, warned that the Diem government could lose US support if its repression of the Buddhists continued, Madame Nhu screamed, quote, “Blackmail!”, unquote, while Diem created a powerless committee to investigate the Buddhist complaints.

One month after the trouble started, the Buddhists burst a bombshell.  On June 11, at a busy intersection in Saigon, not far from the Cambodian embassy, a 66-year-old monk, Thich Quang Duc, surrounded by a group of monks and nuns, sat down in the street.  Another monk poured gasoline on him, and Quang Duc struck a match, setting himself on fire.  During the next ten minutes he burned himself to death, his hands fixed in an attitude of prayer.  The other monks prostrated themselves at this extreme example of protest, and so did some of the bystanders and police.  A shocking photo of the burning appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world the next day.  Buddhists immediately declared Quang Duc a saint, or to use Buddhist terminology, a bodhisattva.  The only part of him which did not burn was his heart, so that became a holy relic.  The car which brought Quang Duc to the site of the burning became a holy relic, too; today you can see the car at a pagoda in Hue.

While world opinion turned against the Diem regime, Madame Nhu told some sick jokes about the burning, calling it a “barbecue.”  Here is a sound file I found of her saying that.  I apologize in advance for the sound quality, hopefully you can understand it.

<Madame Nhu>

Podcast footnote: It’s no surprise that the monk’s suicide attracted so much attention, and over the summer of 1963 more monks burned themselves to death.  However, some people today have the wrong idea about this form of protest.  I remember in particular one individual I met in an online forum who thought the monks were protesting US involvement in Vietnam, and that the burnings went on until the war ended.  Obviously that person was too young to remember the war, or he would have known better.  Let me straighten out these misconceptions now.  First, the monks should not be compared with other individuals famous for committing suicide, like the kamikaze pilots of Japan, or the terrorists of today.  Unlike those other groups, the monks did not try to take anyone with them.  By the way, the kamikaze pilots had their time in this podcast last year, especially in Episode 50.  Second, the monks were never protesting the Americans; their opposition was always directed at the Diem government.  Once Diem was overthrown, the burnings stopped.  End footnote.

As more monks went up in flames, Washington decided that Diem was a political liability that had to be replaced if South Vietnam was not going to be lost to communism.  In early July, a South Vietnamese general, Tran Van Don, tipped off a CIA agent, Lucien Conein, that army officers were plotting against Diem.  Because Diem was no longer on speaking terms with Ambassador Nolting, President Kennedy sent a new ambassador in August, Henry Cabot Lodge.  Lodge looked like a great choice, because of his past experience; like Kennedy, he was both a former senator from Massachusetts and a World War II veteran.  Furthermore, he had been the US ambassador to the United Nations under the Eisenhower administration, and had unsuccessfully run for vice president in 1960.  Finally, because Lodge had once been a political opponent of Kennedy, Kennedy thought that having Lodge on his team would encourage Republicans to support his Vietnam policy wholeheartedly.  But Nolting left Saigon a day before Lodge arrived, and Diem used that gap between ambassadors to impose martial law on all of South Vietnam.  Members of the special forces, originally trained by the US and now controlled by Diem’s brother Nhu, waged violent crackdowns against Buddhist sanctuaries in Saigon and Hue, and this sparked more anti-Diem demonstrations.

Because Nhu was using and abusing power the most, Washington figured the situation would start to improve if Diem took his privileges away.  On August 26, four days after his arrival, Lodge had his first meeting with Diem, and neither would give an inch to the other.  Here is how Lodge described the meeting.  Quote: “I could see a cloud pass across his face when I suggested that he get rid of Nhu and improve his government.  He absolutely refused to discuss any of the topics that President Kennedy had instructed me to raise, and that frankly jolted me.  He looked up at the ceiling and talked about irrelevant subjects.  I thought it was deplorable.”  Unquote.

After this, President Kennedy and his top aides began discussing what to do about Diem; they no longer believed the war could be won with the current South Vietnamese government in charge.  Although the US would not get involved in any coup, Lodge was instructed to maintain contacts with the officers who were plotting one.  But the Americans probably could not have directed a coup from the other side of the world anyway.  Lodge said as much when he admitted that getting the conspirators to move was like, quote, “pushing a piece of spaghetti.”  Unquote.  On September 2, Kennedy was interviewed by Walter Cronkite, America’s most respected news anchor, and he suggested that South Vietnam would be better off under different leadership, when he described Diem as "out of touch with the people" and added that South Vietnam’s government might regain popular support, quote, "with changes in policy and perhaps in personnel."  Unquote.  But he still did not feel that the American commitment to Vietnam was a mistake.  In the same interview he said, quote, “If we withdrew from Vietnam, the Communists would control Vietnam.  Pretty soon, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaya, would go…”  Unquote.

The anti-Diem generals waited to act because they wanted reassurances that the United States would not stop sending aid to South Vietnam, should the coup succeed.  They got those reassurances in October, when Ambassador Lodge and Lucien Conein, the previously mentioned CIA agent, both hinted to the generals that Washington wanted the coup to happen.  Chief among the generals was Duong Van Minh, or “Big Minh”; we met him in Episode 71, when he was putting down non-communist rebels in the Mekong Delta.  Meanwhile in Washington, the White House grew increasingly nervous about the possible public relations fallout, if the coup failed.

On November 1, 1963, Ambassador Lodge and the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Harry D. Felt, met with Diem from 10 AM to noon.  It was a routine meeting, dominated by one of Diem’s monologues.  At one point he mentioned that he had heard rumors of a coup, but he seemed confident that the forces led by his brother Nhu would defeat it.  When the Americans left, Diem said that they should meet again soon, to resolve their differences.  Then at 1:30 in the afternoon, normally a siesta time in Vietnam, the coup plotters struck.  Mutinous troops roared into Saigon, surrounded the presidential palace, and seized police headquarters.  Trapped inside the palace, Diem and Nhu refused to surrender, and tried unsuccessfully to talk the rebel generals out of the coup.  Diem called Lodge on the telephone next, and asked, quote, "…what is the attitude of the United States?" Unquote.  Lodge answered, quote, "…it is four thirty AM in Washington, and the US government cannot possibly have a view."   Unquote.  Lodge finished the call by expressing concern for Diem’s safety, and Diem replied, quote, "I am trying to restore order."  Unquote.

By the end of the day, Diem and Nhu realized that no army units in Saigon were loyal to them.  At 8 PM, they sneaked out of the palace unnoticed and went to a safe house on the outskirts of Saigon that belonged to a wealthy Chinese merchant.  Not knowing that their quarry had escaped, the army attacked the presidential palace at 9.  The only people left in the palace were the presidential guards, and in the battle that followed, the guards died, thinking that Diem was still there.

At 3 AM on November 2, one of Diem’s aides betrayed his hiding place to the generals, and they moved again, this time to a Catholic church.  From here Diem telephoned the generals at 6 AM, and offered to surrender in return for safe conduct out of the country.  The generals agreed, Diem and Nhu gave themselves up, and they were placed in the back of an M-113 armored personnel carrier, which they were told had been sent to protect them from “extremists.”  On the way, the car stopped at a railroad crossing, and one of the soldiers in the car shot Diem and Nhu, so both of them were dead on arrival when the armored car reached staff headquarters.

In the White House, President Kennedy was meeting with General Maxwell Taylor and other aides when news of Diem’s death arrived.  According to witnesses, the president’s face turned pale and he immediately left the room.  Later, he wrote in his private diary, quote, "I feel that we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it."  Unquote.

What happened to the rest of Diem’s family?  One of his brothers, Ngo Dinh Can, had been a rival of Nhu, and virtual dictator over the northern half of South Vietnam, from the coastal town of Phan Thiet to the 17th Parallel.  At the time of the coup, he was living with his ailing mother in Hue.  On November 4 he flew to Saigon, with intentions of going abroad, to either the United States or Japan, but in Tan Son Nhut Airport he was arrested, and charged with various crimes and atrocities.  His mother died during the trial, which ended with him being convicted, and Can was executed by a firing squad in May 1964.

Ngo Dinh Thuc, the brother who was Archbishop of Hue, was attending the Second Vatican Council in Rome when the coup took place.  Naturally he spent the rest of his life in exile, in Italy, France and the United States.  He died in Missouri in 1984, and is buried in Springfield, MO, a long way from home for sure.

Madame Nhu was finishing up a goodwill tour of the United States, in Beverly Hills, California, when her husband was assassinated.  Instead of going home, she and her four children moved to Rome, where they could at least be near her brother-in-law Thuc.  She stayed in a 15-room villa, “living in seclusion and silence,” as The Washington Post put it, only granted interviews for a hefty price, and died there in 2011.  One of the last outsiders she met was an author named Monique Brinson Demery, who tracked her down in Rome and began a correspondence that she would publish in 2013 as a book entitled, “Finding the Dragon Lady.”  When Demery appeared on “The Daily Show” to promote the book, she told Jon Stewart that it took a very long time to convince Nhu that she wasn’t a secret government agent.

The youngest brother, Ngo Dinh Luyen, had been appointed ambassador to Britain by Diem, and thus was in London at the time of the coup.  He lived until 1990, and was the only brother of Diem, besides Thuc, who finished his life peacefully.

Back in Saigon, General Minh became the new head of state, and told everyone, unconvincingly, that Diem committed suicide.  The people of Saigon celebrated by tearing down Diem’s portraits and slogans.  Political prisoners, many bearing the scars of torture, were released from the jails, and the city’s nightclubs, which had been closed by the puritan president, now reopened.  In the countryside, the peasants, with Viet Cong help, destroyed the strategic hamlets.  Everyone was in a good mood for the next few days, prompting Lodge to send a telegram to Kennedy that said, quote, “The prospects now are for a shorter war.”  Unquote.

Alas, Lodge was being optimistic.  North Vietnam and the Viet Cong were not going to lay down their arms, simply because Diem was gone.  And on November 22, twenty days after Diem’s assassination, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.  You probably know that the Kennedy assassination case has never been settled to everyone’s satisfaction.  A bunch of conspiracy theories have been floated about who killed JFK, and for what it’s worth, one of the theories suggested that Madame Nhu was the mastermind behind it, in retaliation for the deaths of her husband and brother-in-law.  She did send a condolence letter to Jacqueline Kennedy that included this cruel line.  Quote:  “I sympathize the more for I understand that that ordeal might seem to you even more unbearable because of your habitually well-sheltered life.”  End quote.

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in to take Kennedy’s place, and two days later, Johnson declared he will not "lose Vietnam," while meeting with Ambassador Lodge in Washington.  Thus, Johnson will oversee a massive escalation of the war effort, while relying on many of the same policy advisors who had served Kennedy.  With new governments running both the United States and South Vietnam, a new phase in the Vietnam War was about to begin.


Well, that’s a good place to end the narrative for today!  However, next time I won’t go straight into what was happening in Vietnam in 1964.  To the west, a civil war erupted in Laos in 1959, between the royalists, the communist Pathet Lao, and a right-wing faction.  The first phase of that conflict finished before the end of 1963, so we need to catch up.  Therefore, as I mentioned at the beginning of this show, the next episode or two will cover the Second Indochina War’s Laotian phase, and then we will resume the narrative on Vietnam after that.  Will you join me next time?  Of course you will!

You’re probably thinking, “How can I support the podcast, to make sure the future episodes that Charles promised will become a reality?”  I’m glad you asked!  First, you can tell anyone you know who listens to podcasts.  I meet folks like that almost every time I leave home, and you probably have friends and relatives who listen to podcasts, too.  Tell them about this one.  Whether they are interested in Asian history, American history or military history, there is something in the current episodes for them.  A long time ago, I commented on this show that the typical American bookstore divides its history books between three shelves: one for American history, one for military history, and one for everything else.  In that sense, this podcast has all three bases covered!

And that’s not all you can do.  You can also write a review, and leave some stars, on the website or app where you download your favorite episodes.  It’s reviews that make the Internet go round, and today’s businesses depend on them, too.  And if you are on Facebook, “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page.  That way you will know when a new episode is available, and you will see the content I post the rest of the time.  All of it ties in with Southeast Asia, but not all of it is history-related.  Last week, for example, we had a fun discussion about the durian, Southeast Asia’s most notorious fruit!

Last, but not least, you can keep the lights on by making a donation!  The website that hosts the sound files, Blubrry.com, isn’t free, and all the time and effort I spend on research and recording is worth something as well.  In addition, those who donate will have their first names honorably mentioned at the beginning of the next episode.  Donations are secure and done through Paypal.  Go to the Blubrry.com page for any episode of this podcast, and click on the gold button at the bottom of the page, the one that says “Donate.”  Donations start at one US dollar.  I have heard from two of you that Paypal does not accept Singapore dollars, so hopefully I can get an alternative to Paypal up for you soon.  Okay, I have said enough for today.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 72: The Second Indochina War, Part 2


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!”

But seriously, I have been paying for this podcast from the start, and now it’s time for you to help.  Wars are expensive, as you heard today, and it costs money to put up podcasts about wars, too.  So if you enjoyed this episode and would like to give me a hand, make a donation through Paypal.  It’s a secure donation, with no danger of identity theft, and you can do it by going to the Paypal link at the bottom of the Blubrry.com page hosting any History of Southeast Asia Podcast episode.  Go below whatever content I have shared, and click on the gold button that says, “Donate.”  If you get your episodes from iTunes or any other source, I haven’t found a way to put the Donate button there, so you will have to visit Blubrry.  It is spelled like “blueberry” without the “Es,” so the URL or Internet address is http://www.B-L-U-B-R-R-Y.com/H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A/.&#160; If you think this episode was worth a dollar, go for it!


But wait, there’s more you can do!  Write a review and give the podcast some stars, if you haven’t done so already!  And in the name of keeping a presence in social media, this podcast has a Facebook page.  Currently the page has 470 “likes,” but I know there are many times that number of listeners, so if you’re on Facebook and you haven’t liked the page yet, that’s your assignment before we meet again.  And continue to spread the news about this podcast in the real world, to family, friends and acquaintances.  Since our current topic is the Indochina Wars, this podcast will be interesting to anyone who wants to know more Asian history, military history, and twentieth-century American history.  Now get to it.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 71: The Second Indochina War, Part 1



Happy New Month, if you are listening on the day this episode was uploaded!  Here the podcast narrative will begin covering the Second Indochina War, or as Americans call it, the Vietnam War.  This is the table-setting episode for the conflict, describing Vietnam in the mid-1950s, the events that caused the war to begin, and the motivations for the United States to get involved.



Greetings, dear listeners!  And if you’re listening around the time I recorded this, I am back!  At the end of the previous episode, and on Facebook, I announced that this episode would be late, because I expected to be out of town.  Don’t worry, nothing was wrong.  My wife and I went on a short summer vacation to visit our daughter’s family.  I have two grandchildren, and because I don’t live in the same state as them, it’s my duty as a grandfather to go see them from time to time.  I am now sixty years old, and after listening to several other podcasts, I have gotten the impression that I am one of the oldest podcasters in the business.  Heck, I have listened to some very good podcasts done by people who are only half my age!

But enough with that, let’s get on with the show.  Now it is time to say good morning, Vietnam!  After a three-year progression from the stone age to the present, this podcast has finally reached what my American listeners will probably consider the climax of the whole series – the Second Indochina War, or as they call it, the Vietnam War.  Yes, it goes by more than one name; recently I learned that my Vietnamese listeners call it the “American War.”  And when I was in school some of my professors insisted on calling it the “Vietnam Conflict,” because the US Congress has not declared war on anybody since World War II.

This will be a difficult topic to cover; I will admit it here at the start.  First, it was a longer, more complicated struggle than the two World Wars, especially if you include the five episodes I have already devoted to the First Indochina War.  And because it was not a conventional war until the 1970s, I cannot explain it simply by presenting maps that show where the front lines were, and who controlled which pieces of territory.  As long as one side mainly relied on guerrillas to do most of the fighting, there weren’t really any front lines – all of South Vietnam was a battleground, as the 1968 Tet Offensive will show you.

Another factor is the emotional baggage.  In the 1990s I heard some young people complain that my generation doesn’t talk much about the Vietnam War.  Well, we had a good reason not to talk about Vietnam – we lost, sir!  Along that line, in 1998 and 1999 I posted what I knew about Southeast Asian history, in an online history club that no longer exists, Ancientsites.com.  Most of the time there weren’t any comments on what I wrote.  I think the first comment came when I wrote about the city-state of Malacca, which this podcast covered in Episode 11; somebody posted a message saying, “There’s a state I have heard of.”  Even World War II did not generate many comments, but when I got to the Vietnam War, a veritable flame war erupted, in which every participant was attacked except me!  It involved arguments over the war you might have heard before, like whether or not the war was winnable for the Americans, who caused the Americans to lose, and the disrespectful treatment given to returning veterans.  I thought 24 years was enough time to heal the psychological wounds caused by the fighting in Vietnam; the argument in that forum showed how wrong I was.  Now another 20 years have gone by, but with a lot of people still alive who remember the war, besides myself, if you’ll pardon the technical terms, the metabolic residue could encounter the air circulation system again.  I’ll give you a few seconds to think about what I meant by that.

Anyway, this episode will be what history podcasters call a table-setting episode.  Despite the title, we won’t be covering the actual Second Indochina War; I’m saving that for future episodes.  What we will cover are the events between 1954 and 1957, the three years from the end of the First Indochina War to the first acts of violence in the second war.  In that way we will see what caused the second war, and how the Americans were enticed to get involved in it.

For this episode, the main theater will be South Vietnam, but we will also go over to Europe and the United States to catch some key events happening there, and there will be one extraordinary interview in Hanoi, between the Vietnamese communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, and the protagonist of today’s story, Ngo Dinh Diem.  Finally, we will take a look at North Vietnam in the mid-to-late 1950s.  Are we ready?


Good, let’s resume the narrative!


Three countries were divided by the Cold War:  Germany, Korea, and Vietnam.  Each of them had two governments, one communist and the other non-communist.  In one way the United States treated Vietnam like the others; the Americans hoped that the Vietnamese would compare the two halves of their country, and realize they were better off in the part that wasn’t communist.  With Germany, this strategy was a complete success; even after the infamous Berlin Wall was built, the East Germans could look over the wall and see the brilliant lights, and the hustle and bustle, of West Berlin.  Eventually the people of East and West Germany got together, knocked down the Berlin Wall, and reunited their country as a capitalist state.  The wall stood for twenty-eight years, and I am recording this nearly thirty years after it came down; the wall has been down longer than it was up.  The American strategy has worked to a lesser extent in Korea; although Korea is still divided today, in the 1980s South Korea transformed itself from a military dictatorship into a true democracy.  I’m sure none of you will deny that South Korea is the successful half of the peninsula; North Korea has only survived because for most of the past seventy-one years, it kept itself hermetically sealed from the rest of the world, except for the two countries that gave it aid, China and Russia.

Unfortunately, South Vietnam turned out to be more like China under Chiang Kai-shek, than like South Korea or West Germany.  For all of its existence, the South Vietnamese government was corrupt, undemocratic, and totally ineffective when it came to defending itself or improving the lives of the people it ruled.  When the Americans chose to support the Saigon regime, they figured they could do a better job than the French because, after all, the French haven’t won too many wars since Napoleon surrendered at Waterloo.  In Episode 66, we saw that the French did win their battles, when they had the right general in command, but more people remembered the poor performance of France in both World Wars: France only came out on the winning side in those conflicts because it got help from Britain and the United States.  And right after the French left Indochina, they got involved in a war with another one of their colonies, this time Algeria.  Not only did they lose this war, it brought down their government, too, and forced France to bring back Charles de Gaulle as president, so the Algerian war has been called “the grave of the Fourth Republic.”

Anyway, the United States was not only stronger than France, it was also richer.  That was shown when the Americans paid the cost of rebuilding Western Europe, under the Marshall Plan.  In the next few episodes we will see how backing South Vietnam worked for the Americans.  Hint: it will not be too good!.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The last time our narrative looked at Vietnam was in 1954, when the First Indochina War ended.  For Vietnam, the Americans wanted a government that was both respectable and anticommunist.  But true nationalists who were not also communists were hard to find in 1954.  Many had been killed by the communists or the French.  Others withdrew from politics completely.  Still others moved to France, where they could express their ideas freely, but they could no longer get things done.  Into this vacuum stepped Ngo Dinh Diem, and Americans saw him as the savior Vietnam needed.

To start with, Diem had an appealing life story.  Born on January 3, 1901, he was the third of six sons, and he came from an upper-class family, what foreigners called mandarins in those days.  His father, Ngo Dinh Kha, was a counselor to the emperor Thanh Thai.  We mentioned this emperor in Episode 34; the French deposed him in 1907 because they thought he was insane.  Disgusted, Kha quit; because he had refused to sign a petition calling for the emperor’s abdication, he was subsequently stripped of all ranks, functions and honors, and not even given the pension which was entitled to him.  Afterwards he divided his time between meditating, farming a few rented acres, and running the school he had founded in Hue in 1896.  This school, the Quoc Hoc, combined Eastern and Western studies, and is the second oldest high school in Vietnam.  We have mentioned the school previously, because several future communists attended here: Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong, and Vo Nguyen Giap.  Ngo Dinh Diem attended here too, because his father was the principal, after all.  If you ever visit Hue, drop in for a visit; the school is still open today.  In 1919, a few years before Kha’s death, the imperial court rehabilitated him, restoring his titles and rank, and paid him what he was owed on his pension.

Diem’s noble background gave him an air of sophistication that would someday appeal to many important Americans, as we will soon see.  Equally important, he was a devout Roman Catholic.  When French Catholic missionaries began coming to Vietnam in the seventeenth century, Diem’s ancestors were one of the first families to convert.  An elder brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc, was Archbishop of Hue from 1960 to 1968.  Thus, Catholic Vietnamese looked to Diem for leadership and protection; he responded by trusting few others.

For a while Diem considered becoming a priest like his brother Thuc, so he made a vow of celibacy, which he kept after he decided that the discipline required for the priesthood was too tough for him.  As a result, there were never any important women in his life.  An old acquaintance of his once remarked, quote: “A woman might have tempered his character.”  Unquote.  He followed his eldest brother, Ngo Dinh Khoi, into law school, went into the civil service immediately after graduation, and was appointed a provincial governor of Binh Thuan Province, when he was twenty-eight years old.  When comparing this step in his career with what happened later, this was probably the happiest time of his life.  At this job he rode on horseback through rice fields and mountains, and when he encountered communist agents spreading propaganda in the territory, he wrote anti-communist pamphlets, and worked hard at fighting corruption and improving the lives of peasants.  Political ideology had never mattered to the peasants before, so Diem described the experience with these words.  Quote: “I was working with advanced ideas in very small dimensions.”  Unquote.

Diem did such a good job as governor, that in 1933 the French recommended that Emperor Bao Dai appoint him to a Cabinet post, as Minister of the Interior.  They also put him on a commission to examine administrative reforms, but when the French refused his demand to establish a Vietnamese legislature with real influence, he resigned, after serving for only three months.  The French took away his decorations and titles, threatened to arrest him, and later fired his brother Khoi, who was also a governor by this time.  Realizing that the French would never willingly grant what he and the Vietnamese people wanted, Diem made this prediction.  Quote: “The Communists will defeat us, not by virtue of their strength, but because of our weakness.  They will win by default.”  Unquote.  After that Diem moved to Hue, and stayed there with his relatives for the next twelve years, quietly promoting the cause of Vietnamese independence.

When World War II arrived, the Japanese occupied Vietnam, as we saw in previous episodes, and they offered to make Diem prime minister in 1942.  He rejected the offer, after they turned down his request to make Vietnam independent at the same time; he would not serve in a government where he was a puppet of the Vichy French, who in turn were puppets of the Japanese.  Then in March 1945, when the Japanese kicked out the French, they offered Diem the job of prime minister again, but changed their minds at the last minute, because they realized they couldn’t control a prime minister with a personality as strong as Diem’s.  That move saved Diem’s career; from then on both friends and enemies admitted he was a certified patriot, who had never collaborated with either the French or the Japanese.

However, Diem ran foul of the communists.  In September 1945, right after World War II ended, Diem warned Bao Dai against cooperating with the Viet Minh, and on his way back to Hue from that trip, the Viet Minh kidnaped him.  They held him prisoner for six months.  For most of that time, Diem was sick with malaria and dysentery, while in a separate incident, the Viet Minh shot his brother Khoi, and Khoi’s son.  In February 1946, they took Diem to Hanoi to meet with Ho Chi Minh.  Ho offered Diem the same position he had held in Bao Dai’s government; this time he would be the Viet Minh Minister of the Interior.  Ho’s thinking was that if Diem was on his team, Catholics would come around to support the Viet Minh.  Later on, in 1961, Diem recalled the conversation they had.  This is a long quote, and I want you to keep in mind that we only have Diem’s side of the story, so we cannot be sure these are the words they actually exchanged.  Diem spoke first.

<Read conversation between Ngo Dinh Diem and Ho Chi Minh>

That was when Diem walked out.  Soon after the meeting, Ho released Diem.  Later on, Ho’s associates would admit that letting Diem go was a mistake.  They sentenced him to death in absentia, and tried at least once to kill him, when he made a trip to the Mekong delta, to visit his brother Thuc.  Taking the hint, Diem stayed abroad from 1950 to 1954.  This time it looked like he would become a priest, or at least a monk.  First he went to the Vatican, then to the Maryknoll seminary in Lakewood, New Jersey.  Here he lived humbly for two years, scrubbing floors, washing dishes, and praying.  But he also made friends with some powerful Americans: Francis Spellman, the cardinal of New York; Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas; and two senators, Mike Mansfield of Montana and John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

None of those Americans were part of the Eisenhower administration, though, and the US government was not yet ready to support someone like Diem, because it was already committed to the French.  So in 1953 he moved to Europe, where he bounced between a Benedictine monastery in Belgium and Paris; in Paris his youngest brother, Luyen, was working as an engineer.  He finally got the break he needed, when the battle of Dien Bien Phu, which we covered in Episode 68, persuaded the French to leave Vietnam for good.  It just so happened that Bao Dai, the former emperor and now first president of South Vietnam, was in France, too.  Bao Dai, his wife, and five children were staying at a chateau in Cannes, the beach resort that is now famous for its film festival, but he also kept a Vietnamese mistress in Paris, and his aides could provide him with French girls if he asked for them.  Like Diem, he had gone to France out of concern for his safety, but with the First Indochina War winding down and real independence coming to Vietnam, he realized he would now have to act like a real head of state.  To do this successfully he would need all the friends he could get, and he thought if he had Diem on his side, the Americans would keep sending him military and economic aid, so he summoned Diem.  On June 18, 1954, he made Diem swear before a crucifix that he would defend Vietnam, quote, “against the Communists and, if necessary, against the French.”  Unquote.  With that, Diem became Bao Dai’s prime minster.  Little did Bao Dai know, he had just elevated the man who would soon end his own career.

Meanwhile, as the French withdrew from Indochina, the American Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, conceived a plan for a military alliance to keep communism from spreading in Southeast Asia.  This was SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.  In September 1954, two months after the Geneva Accords ending the First Indochina War were signed, representatives from eight nations met in Manila to sign a treaty of alliance, called the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, or Manila Pact.  A follow-up meeting was held in Bangkok in February 1955, and Bangkok was the organization’s headquarters thereafter.

Because another anti-communist alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, had been a success, SEATO was modeled after it.  However, SEATO had shortcomings that limited its effectiveness.  To start with, the name was inaccurate.  Of the eight member nations, only two of them were in Southeast Asia: the Philippines and Thailand.  If you have listened to the past few episodes, that shouldn’t surprise you; those are the two most pro-American countries in the region.  Although the Philippines were now independent, they tended to do whatever the United States did, when it came to foreign policy; the US bases in the Philippines also created thousands of jobs for Filipinos.  As for the Thais, the United States had been good to them, even though Thailand was on the side of the Japanese in World War II, and we saw in Episode 61 that the current Thai leader, Field Marshal Phibun Songgram, was definitely anti-communist.

The other six members of SEATO were countries that had interests in Southeast Asia:  the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, France, Pakistan and of course, the United States.  Malaya was not independent yet, and Burma and Indonesia were not interested in joining, because they wanted to stay neutral in the Cold War; later on, both Burma and Indonesia would become important players in the Non-Aligned Movement.  The four countries in Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam and South Vietnam) were prohibited from joining by the Geneva Accords, since their status was likely to change, after the promised elections to reunite Vietnam.

Worst of all, SEATO’s members were only required to act if communism presented a “common danger” to all of them, and members were expected to deal with a guerrilla insurgency by themselves.  This meant the alliance only worked if there was an invasion by conventional forces, like what the Japanese did in 1941.  Long-time listeners will know that most wars in Southeast Asia involve guerrillas; the jungles and mountains make conventional warfare unfeasible in most places.  In World War II, for example, the only part of Southeast Asia that saw much action with tanks was Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines.  Like too many generals, Dulles was preparing for the last, rather than the next war.  Because no invader marched in with banners and bugles, SEATO sat mostly inert in one of the world’s most troubled areas.

SEATO’s only contribution came during the Second Indochina War, when it sent soldiers from five nations to fight alongside the Americans in Vietnam.  Here are the nations and the number of troops they committed:

The United States sent 2,709,918 personnel during the war years, 1961 to 1975.  American involvement peaked in April 1969, when there were 543,000 American troops in Vietnam.  More about them in future episodes of this podcast.

South Korea sent 320,000; the most in Vietnam at any time was 48,000.  Although South Korea was not a member of SEATO, it owed the Americans a favor after the Korean War.

Australia sent 50,190; the most in Vietnam at any time was 7,192.  Normally Australia and the United States are the best of friends, but the involvement of both in Vietnam seriously strained their relationship.  The troops were pulled out by Gough Whitlam, the most anti-American prime minister Australia has had so far.

Thailand contributed 32,000, and unlike the other nations, it sent some of them into Laos, which is just across the Mekong River.

New Zealand sent 3,500, of which no more than 552 were in Vietnam at any time, and the Philippines sent 2,061.

Despite all this, the only member of the multinational coalition that the news media paid attention to was the United States; since then the world has forgotten the participation of the others.  Even before the war ended, Pakistan quit SEATO, because the Pakistanis were expecting the other members to help them in their 1971 war against India, and that didn’t happen.  That war was fought over Bangladesh, then called East Pakistan, and if you will look at a map, Bangladesh is on the edge of Southeast Asia, next to Burma/Myanmar.  After the Second Indochina War ended, SEATO no longer had a reason to exist, and on June 30, 1977, it was dissolved by the mutual consent of its members.


Now let’s get back to what was happening in South Vietnam.  With the French out of the game, the United States could now commit itself to Diem, and even before Diem returned, some Americans came to Saigon to check out the situation for themselves.  In the long run, the most important of these agents was an Air Force officer, Colonel Edward Lansdale.  We met him in Episode 62.  Lansdale was an OSS agent during World War II; after the war he found a superb Filipino leader, Ramon Magsaysay, helped him get elected president of the Philippines, and then helped him suppress the communist insurgency in those islands, the Hukbalahap Rebellion.  Now he worked with the CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency, and because his activities in the Philippines went so well, the CIA sent him to South Vietnam to do the same thing there.  Thus, from 1954 to 1957 he was stationed in Saigon, acting as Diem’s chief American advisor, and working to train and organize the fledgling South Vietnamese armed forces.

For a year the playboy and the puritan made an odd couple. Bao Dai thought he was using Ngo Dinh Diem, but the tail was strong enough to wag the dog.  Three months after his arrival in Saigon, Diem launched a pacification campaign to get rid of his rivals in the capital, feeling that would prove himself worthy of American support.  The first to go was Nguyen Van Hinh, the pro-French Vietnamese general from the First Indochina War.  Bao Dai had put him in charge of the Vietnamese National Army, but he refused to recognize Diem’s authority, declaring that South Vietnam needed a “strong and popular” leader like himself.  Of course.  Diem ordered him to leave the country, but still acting defiant, Hinh drove around the city on a motorcycle, displaying his expulsion notice, and then barricaded himself in his headquarters with tanks.  This could have been the beginning of a coup, but Bao Dai defused it by inviting Hinh to France for “consultations,” in November 1954, and subsequently relieved Hinh of his command, while Lansdale cut off the general from his base of support by moving Hinh’s top lieutenants to Manila.

When it came to winning over the Americans, Diem’s strategy worked.  The United States government made its first pledge to Diem at the beginning of 1955:  $300 million in military aid.  Later in the same year, they also overhauled the Vietnamese National Army, making so many changes that it needed a new name, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or A-R-V-N.  In future episodes you will hear me call it ARVN for short.

We have met the other rivals before.  They included Saigon’s mafia, called Binh Xuyen, and two new religious sects I introduced in Episode 35, the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao.  All of them had private armies; the Binh Xuyen force had 40,000 men, the Cao Dai had 25,000, and the Hoa Hao had 30,000.  In addition, the religious sects gained control over several districts near Saigon and in the Mekong delta, after the Geneva Accords forced the Viet Minh to evacuate these areas in 1954.  Against these groups, Diem had 151,000 troops of his own, but only 10,000 were deployed around Saigon, and he could not be sure of their loyalty.  He realized that the other groups were a real threat during the crisis with General Hinh; first the Binh Xuyen guarded Diem’s palace with armed men, then they switched their allegiance to Hinh.  Afterwards, Diem called the Binh Xuyen, quote, “gangsters of the worst sort,” unquote, and in January 1955 he revoked their license to operate the Grand Monde casino, a major source of income.  Then in March the armies of the Binh Xuyen, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao all assembled in Saigon.  They formed what they called a “United Front” to oppose Diem, but they could not agree on who would replace him.  There was a clash on the night of March 29-30, but the French, who had not yet finished evacuating Saigon, kept their troops and tanks between the two sides long enough to persuade them to accept a cease-fire.  This lasted for a month, the Cao Dai forces withdrew from Saigon, and then at the end of April, Diem attacked the now-isolated Binh Xuyen.  In a brief but violent urban battle that left between 500 and 1,000 people dead, 2,000 wounded, and about 20,000 homeless, the Vietnamese National Army crushed the Binh Xuyen gang.

Diem felt he could make a deal with the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao armies, because they had fought the communists during the recent war.  Late in 1954 he sent Lansdale and his younger brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, to negotiate with the sectarian army commanders.  These generals were persuaded, usually by bribes, to join the South Vietnamese army, and bring their troops with them.  Some of the bribe money came from the CIA, but my sources disagree on how much the CIA spent; estimates range from $3 million to $12 million.  Lansdale contacted a renegade Cao Dai commander, twenty-four-year-old Colonel Trinh Minh Thé, who led 2,500 troops and had fought both the French and the communists.  They got along great, and it didn’t take much persuasion on Lansdale’s part to make the Colonel join the  official army.  Thus, for the battle against the Binh Xuyen gang, Thé fought on Diem’s side.  But just a few days later, on May 3, Thé was shot in the back of the head by a sniper.  To this day we don’t know who ordered Thé’s assassination, or if he would have stayed loyal to the government had he lived.

Four Hoa Hao units had refused offers to join Diem’s army; they declared that they recognized Bao Dai as the only leader of Vietnam, and fought on the side of the Binh Xuyen in Saigon.  In the Mekong delta they staged several attacks, the main one being a mortar bombardment into the city of Can Tho.  Diem’s army, led by General Duong Van Minh, launched a counterattack in the delta in June, that drove the Hoa Hao forces to the Cambodian border by the end of the month.  Duong Van Minh was nicknamed “Big Minh” because he stood six feet tall, a rare height in Vietnam.  Remember him; we will see him again in future episodes of this podcast.  Anyway, three of the Hoa Hao units surrendered, leaving 3,000 men under the command of Ba Cut, a cruel, fanatical guerrilla who claimed Diem was trying to turn Vietnam into a Catholic country.

Next, Diem turned on Bao Dai.  Bao Dai had tried to remove Diem from office during the Saigon battle, by summoning him to France.  Diem not only ignored the summons, he also announced an election for October 23, 1955, in which the voters would choose whether they wanted a monarchy under Bao Dai, or a republic under Diem.  Because Bao Dai had never returned to Vietnam, and many Vietnamese still saw him as a French puppet, Diem had all the advantages in this campaign.  He banned campaigning for Bao Dai, and used the police and army to enforce the ban.  Meanwhile, the Diem campaign portrayed Diem as the morally straight hero of the Vietnamese people, while emphasizing Bao Dai’s decadent lifestyle, especially his gambling habit and his endless appetite for women.  Lansdale, who always preferred psychological warfare, made up red ballots bearing Diem’s name and green ballots with Bao Dai’s name; in Vietnamese culture, red is a symbol of good luck, while green represents bad luck.  There were also some goons in the polling stations, and they beat up the voters they caught casting green ballots.  However, this was Diem’s idea, not Lansdale’s; Lansdale knew that dirty tricks should not be obvious.  He told Diem not to rig the vote, because he would probably win anyway, with a 60-70% majority.  But Diem didn’t want a majority victory, he wanted a unanimous one.  Therefore, the vote counters reported that Diem won with 98.2% of the vote; in Saigon they reported 600,000 ballots cast for Diem, though there were only 450,000 registered voters!

With that overwhelming victory, Diem deposed Bao Dai, proclaimed the creation of the Republic of Vietnam, and named himself as president.  Bao Dai has appeared several times in this narrative, since Episode 34, but now we are done with him.  For the rest of his life, Bao Dai’s home was in France; he died there in 1997, at the age of 83.


In October 1955 Diem also sent troops to take back Tay Ninh, the province just northwest of Saigon that was the Cao Dai headquarters.  Pham Cong Tac, the Cao Dai pope, fled to Cambodia, and the remaining Cao Dai leaders were incorporated into the South Vietnamese bureaucracy and military.  As for the Hoa Hao, their resistance ended with the capture of Ba Cut in April 1956.  He was put on trial, accused of both treason and collaboration with the communists (the latter charge was probably false), and sentenced to death.  For the sentence, Diem showed what he had learned from the French; instead of sending Ba Cut to a firing squad, he had him publicly guillotined.


Ooooh.  Then to finish up the pacification campaign, Diem went after the 10,000 or so communists that had stayed south of the Demilitarized Zone, when Vietnam was divided in 1954.  Those arrested were denied counsel and hauled before "security committees," with many suspects tortured or sent to Pulo Condore Island, modern Con Son, the same island where the French used to imprison Vietnamese nationalists.  Often the police executed prisoners, and reported they were, quote, “shot while attempting escape.”  Unquote.  By the end of 1956, the army could claim it had smashed 90 percent of the Viet Minh cells in the Mekong delta; the remaining communists had to move constantly to avoid capture.

Ngo Dinh Diem had brought stability and security to South Vietnam, and this gained him praise and admiration from American officials.  In May 1957 he visited Washington D.C., where President Eisenhower hailed him as the "miracle man" of Asia, and reaffirmed the US commitment with these words.  Quote:  "The cost of defending freedom, of defending America, must be paid in many forms and in many places…military as well as economic help is currently needed in Vietnam."  Unquote.  Even those Americans who didn’t like Diem gave their support, because he was the only Vietnamese leader they had on their side.  At this stage Diem was at the peak of his career; afterwards his many failings would cause him to make grave errors, with violent consequences.

The first error was probably unavoidable, in view of the circumstances.  The 1954 Geneva Accords called for elections to reunify Vietnam by July 1956.  Diem rejected the accords, and announced in the middle of 1955 that he would not allow the elections to be held.  He had his reasons.  He said the elections could not be “absolutely free,” if part of the voting took place in communist-ruled territory.  Though this was true, he also knew that he didn’t have much chance of winning, because of simple demographics.  The population of North Vietnam was larger than that of South Vietnam, and Diem had no control over the voting that took place north of the 17th parallel, so the communists were likely to win a nationwide vote.  A few years earlier in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union had imposed communist governments on the countries the Red Army “liberated” at the end of World War II, and then the Soviets staged rigged elections to make those governments look legitimate, so everybody knew that Ho Chi Minh could stuff ballot boxes, too.  Thus, the July 1956 deadline came and went with no voting.  In January 1957 the Soviet Union proposed that North and South Vietnam be admitted into the United Nations as, quote, “two separate states . . . which differ from one another in political and economic structure.”  Unquote.  The United States rejected this proposal, because it would have meant recognizing a communist government.  That was a mistake, and another missed opportunity regarding Vietnam, because future wars might have been avoided if there had been a place where the North and South Vietnamese governments could talk.  Indeed, North and South Korea both joined the UN in 1991 for that reason.  As Winston Churchill reportedly once said, quote, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”  Unquote.

Diem’s decision not to hold the elections may have been sound, and his American advisors agreed with it, but it was the spark that touched off the Second Indochina War.  At the end of 1956, the communists south of the Demilitarized Zone received their first orders from Hanoi since 1954 – they were now authorized to begin a low-level insurgency, a campaign of terrorism with bombings and assassinations.  The first acts of violence took place in October 1957; by the end of the year, they had killed more than 400 minor officials of the Saigon Regime.  Soon, the remnants of the Binh Xuyen, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao forces that had escaped the South Vietnamese army would join them.  Together they would become the first Viet Cong guerrillas.

Podcast footnote: According to the US Department of Defense, the official date for the beginning of the Second Indochina War is November 1, 1955.  On that day, the Military Assistance Advisory Group, or MAAG Vietnam, was created to support South Vietnam in its war against the North Vietnamese communists.  It replaced MAAG Indochina, which had been established by President Harry Truman in 1950.  Of course this is a purely arbitrary date.  As you just saw, Ngo Dinh Diem did not go after the communists until 1956, and the communists did not begin to fight back until October 1957, almost two years after that date.  The DoD picked that date so it could define who was a Vietnam War casualty; the definition is now any American killed in Vietnam between November 1, 1955 and April 30, 1975.  The first American to fit those criteria was Air Force Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr., who was murdered by another American airman in Saigon on June 8, 1956.  And yes, his name is included on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  End footnote.


Now what was happening in North Vietnam, while Diem was consolidating his control over the South?   Well, Ho Chi Minh did not have to worry about armed religious sects or gangsters; the people who stayed in North Vietnam after 1954 were overall loyal.  The problems he faced were economic ones.  Railroads, bridges and buildings had been destroyed, so a major infrastructure building program was required.  And while the Red River delta was a major rice-growing area, it did not produce enough to feed the north’s population; in the past, northern Vietnam had depended on the south to make up for the shortfall.  It took emergency rice imports from Burma, paid for by the Soviet Union, to prevent a famine like the one that afflicted northern Vietnam in 1945.  Here is how the war correspondent Bernard Fall explained the situation in his 1954 article The Cease-Fire in Indochina–An Appraisal.  Quote:

“North Vietnam now faces the tremendous problems of having to rebuild its part of the country practically from the ground up.  The Red River Delta, far from being a rice bowl, must import 250,000 tons yearly to meet its own minimum needs.  The Viet Minh must rebuild the communications system (canals, power stations and lines, roads, bridges and railroads) it had so efficiently sabotaged and destroyed for eight years.  And it must make good on its promises of land reform.  This Ho Chi Minh will find difficult to do.”

End quote.

Ho Chi Minh visited first Beijing, and then Moscow, in 1955, where he met the Chinese and Soviet leaders and accepted aid packages from them.  Both governments probably also reminded him that it was time to carry out the radical reforms that communist governments are known for.  In the Soviet Union, the Bolshevik Revolution had been followed by a devastating civil war, and after the war Vladimir Lenin had left the economy alone so it could recover, from 1921 to 1928.  By the end of the recovery period, Joseph Stalin had replaced Lenin as the top Soviet leader, and he launched his first five-year plan to restructure both agriculture and industry.  In the case of agriculture, that meant replacing private farms with collectives; those farmers who had gotten rich over the past few years, who the Russians called Kulaks, were plundered and sent to the Gulag, Stalin’s network of prison camps.

Accordingly, in 1955 the North Vietnamese Communist Party, the Lao Dong, launched its own collectivization program, without first allowing a period of recovery.  Peasants were grouped into five categories; the richest five percent were called “landlords” and the poorest were called “farm workers.”  Landlords were forced to give up their land to peasants who had little or no land, and in an effort to reorganize society, the landlords were made to do menial work, and other peasants were not allowed to call them “mister,” “sir” or any other title of respect.  Peasants were given quotas on how many landlords they had to turn in; a community of two thousand people, for example, was expected to have twenty landlords.  One of my sources tells a story about a group of Lao Dong cadres who went to a village and only found two “landlords”; they were told to go back and find six more, and they did it by grabbing six random peasants.  Suspected enemies like Catholic priests and missionaries, Buddhist monks, upper and middle class city-dwellers, Francophiles, academics and intellectuals were denounced to “security committees” and arrested; hasty “trials” led to between 10,000 and 15,000 executions and the sending of thousands more to forced labor camps.  Those in the camps were kept indefinitely, not knowing if they would ever be released.

In August 1956 Ho Chi Minh had to admit that the ideological campaign had gotten out of control; by now even some Viet Minh veterans of the previous war had been executed.  The secretary-general of the Communist Party, Truong Chinh, was dismissed from that job, but since he remained a member of the Politburo, the party’s senior committee, this was only a slight punishment.  Now a “Campaign for the Rectification of Errors” was launched, but while the peasants were told to forgive and forget, not all were willing to do so.  November 1956 saw a major peasant revolt in Nghe An, the province where Ho Chi Minh was born.  Ho responded exactly the same way the French had responded, when that province experienced another revolt back in 1930 – he sent in one division of troops, and they killed or deported an estimated 6,000 peasants.  The communists got away with this atrocity because the world was paying attention to two other news stories at the same time: the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, and the Soviet Union’s use of tanks to suppress an uprising in Hungary.

After a brief time out, Ho Chi Minh announced the launching of a “three-year plan for the development and reorganization of the economy,” which would run from 1958 to 1960.  As with similar programs in the Soviet Union and China, this meant all land, individual enterprises and privately owned wealth were seized; land was first redistributed to landless peasants, then reorganized into large collective farms.  When the three-year plan ended, the Lao Dong was able to claim significant progress had been made.  North Vietnam had more than 40,000 agricultural co-operatives, spanning almost nine-tenths of the country’s farmland.  Rice production reached 5.4 million tons, more than twice the amount of harvests in the 1930s, and there was also increased production of corn, sweet potatoes and beans.  The three-year plan also set goals of 86 percent growth in traditional manufacturing and almost 170 percent in heavy industry, but these were not met.  Still, with a helping hand from other communist countries, North Vietnam was able to build new factories, power plants, and coal mines.  The main challenges to the development of industry were a shortage of skilled workers, and a lack of cash to pay for raw materials that needed to be imported.


Okay, that’s enough for today!  We covered a lot of material, and I don’t like to record episodes that run for more than an hour, so I’d better break off here.  Join me next time as we continue the narrative.  In the next episode we will see a new conflict blaze up in South Vietnam, and a new administration take charge in the United States, under newly elected President Kennedy.  The new American leaders will decide that just sending money and military equipment to South Vietnam isn’t enough – they will send American advisors as well.  As one popular saying puts it, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.  Now that I’m back, take your summer vacation, if you haven’t already, or a winter vacation if you’re in the southern hemisphere, and I hope to see you again afterwards!

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