Episode 82: The Second Indochina War, Part 10



All right, Episode 82 of the podcast is available a day ahead of schedule!  Today we continue the ongoing narrative about the Second Indochina War in Vietnam, covering events for the rest of 1965, and culminating with the battle of Ia Drang.



This episode is dedicated to Neil G., Jacob T., and Marilyn E.: all of them made donations to the podcast.  What’s more, this is Jacob’s second donation: at the end of the episode I will tell you what he gets for that.  To all three of you, thank you for your support.  This is going to be a busy year for the podcast, and you helped the year get started right.  Now let’s go to the episode you helped make possible!

Episode 82: The Second Indochina War, Part 10

or, Escalation

Greetings, dear listeners!  And welcome back to our ongoing series on the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War if you are in the United States, or the American War if you are in Vietnam.  Sometimes I call this the unofficial Vietnam War podcast, because there is at least one other podcast claiming to be the official one.  Anyway, this is the sixth episode in the podcast covering the Vietnamese phase of the conflict; there are also four episodes about the war in Laos.  I am assuming that most of you are veteran listeners, but if this your first visit to this podcast, here are the episodes you need to listen to, in order to be up to date on what the podcast is covering now:

Episodes 71, 72, 73, 80, and 81, for the war in Vietnam.
And Episodes 74, 75, 78, and 79, for the war in Laos.

Last time, we finally saw the United States send ground troops to Vietnam, after various individuals had warned for years that ground troops would be needed to stop the spread of communism.  The Americans did not suddenly declare war and immediately send as many troops, ships and planes as possible, the way they did against Japan in World War II.  Instead the American buildup had been a gradual process, stretching back to the days right after North and South Vietnam became independent nations.  First the Americans sent money and military equipment, to help South Vietnam defend itself from communist North Vietnam and from the communist guerrilla force rising up within its borders – the Viet Cong.  When that didn’t change the course of the new war that broke out in the second half of the 1950s, the United states sent over military advisors, to train the army of South Vietnam, also called ARVN, for Army of the Republic of Vietnam.  That didn’t work either, because the South Vietnamese resisted their enemies only half-heartedly; we saw that after the officers overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, they were more interested in fighting each other than the communists.  Eventually some of the American advisors, namely helicopter pilots, got involved in the firefights between ARVN and the Viet Cong.  However, this also did not turn the tide of the conflict, so in 1965 the rest of the US armed forces intervened, taking over the anti-communist side of the war.  But even the first few American units weren’t enough to replace the troops that South Vietnam was losing, so in the middle of 1965 the American general in charge, William Westmoreland, requested a lot more troops – and got them.  On the other side, North Vietnam began sending its own troops into South Vietnam, beginning the transformation of the conflict from a guerrilla war to a conventional war, a process that would not be completed until after the Tet Offensive of 1968 – but we’re getting ahead of ourselves now.

Throughout the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, the average American – the “man on the street,” so to speak – was only vaguely aware of the war in Southeast Asia.  If he thought about it at all, he probably saw it as a second front or a continuation of the war fought in Korea in the early 1950s; chances are, he knew nothing about Vietnam and Laos.  Most of the time he thought about other things, from the space race with the Soviet Union to the popular new programs on TV.  Then after Lyndon Johnson became president, most Americans realized they were involved in a hot war, not a “Cold War” like what had been the case for the past decade.  In previous episodes I gave the count on the number of Americans involved in Vietnam at the end of every year.  Here are those numbers again:

For 1961 = 685.
For 1962 = 11,300.
For 1963 = 16,300.
For 1964 = 23,300.
Now for the end of 1965 – are you ready for this? – = 184,300.  The human commitment was matched by a financial commitment; the war was costing Washington more and more dollars every year.  For example, on August 4, 1965, just a week after President Johnson granted Westmoreland’s request for more troops, he asked Congress for an additional $1.7 billion for the war effort.


And there will be still more troops coming.  Westmoreland soon realized that because this was a war without frontiers; the Viet Cong could be driven away from one spot, but they would return after their opponents had moved elsewhere.  In this situation, progress was not measured in territory gained, but in the number of casualties inflicted.  Therefore Westmoreland’s strategy was to make this a war of attrition, by killing more Viet Cong and North Vietnamese than could be replaced.  By doing this, and by bringing in more Americans, the war would eventually reach what Westmoreland called the “crossover point,” enemy forces would break, and just like in World War II, the Americans would charge to victory.  For the Americans, the main question was where this crossover point was.

Of course all those troops are going to need logistical support, so overnight an entire infrastructure was built up in South Vietnam to accomodate them.  Stanley Karnow, Time-Life’s Southeast Asia correspondent, described the buildup in the book he wrote after the war, “Vietnam, A History,” so I will use his words here.  Quote:

<Insert Stanley Karnow quote>

Saigon also got a modern, capitalist economy, as it was flooded with every luxury or necessity the troops could ask for, including guns and ammo, oil, spare parts, sports clothes, cameras, radios, tape recorders, soap, shampoo, deodorant, razors, and, of course, condoms.  A lot of American-made items were stolen from PXs and warehouses, to be sold on the black market, and wherever the troops were based, trades in prostitution and narcotics sprang up.  Every form of weapon in the American arsenal, except nuclear warheads, was brought over for field testing, and every branch of the military got involved in Vietnam, because as American officers explained at the time, quote: “”It’s the only war we’ve got.”  Unquote.

Podcast footnote: In the 1960s all modern cities had problems with air and water pollution.  Before long, all the American activity mentioned here gave Saigon a serious pollution problem, too.  Some Americans stationed in Saigon joked that the quickest way to end the war would be to invite Ho Chi Minh to visit Saigon.  After one look – and after smelling the South Vietnamese capital – the North Vietnamese leader would leave, saying, “I don’t want any part of it.”  End footnote.

Never before had so much military and industrial power been brought to bear against such an insignificant opponent; North Vietnam in the mid-1960s was a third-rate military power, at best.  We saw during the First Indochina War that Ho Chi Minh described his conflict against the French as a struggle between "grasshoppers and elephants"; now, as Stanley Karnow put it, he was a microbe facing a leviathan.  But microbes carry diseases, which even the greatest monsters can catch.  To continue this analogy, eventually the American leviathan would catch the microbe’s disease.


Of course, at this stage most Americans figured there were few problems in Vietnam that couldn’t be solved with a sufficient application of brute force.  One of those who disagreed with this approach was the US ambassador to South Vietnam, former General Maxwell Taylor.  Taylor resigned in July 1965, but he stayed in the Johnson administration for the rest of Johnson’s presidency, becoming a Special Consultant to the President, Chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and President of the Institute for Defense Analyses.  To replace Taylor as ambassador, Johnson brought back his predecessor, Henry Cabot Lodge.  This time Lodge held the ambassador’s post until 1967.

At first, the Viet Cong concentrated their attacks in Quang Nam, the province containing Da Nang, because that was where the first American troops had landed.  On July 1, 1965, an 85-man Viet Cong group reinforced by a 13-man North Vietnamese sapper unit launched a ground and mortar attack against Da Nang air base, using one 57mm recoilless rifle, four 82mm mortars, grenades and assorted demolition equipment.  They destroyed three aircraft and damaged three more.  Then they withdrew when the Marines guarding the air base fired back.  Although no enemy was confirmed killed by the Marines, blood trails leading away from the airfield were found the following morning.

In response to the raid, the Marines increased the area they patrolled outside the base to include Cam Ne, a collection of six villages.  The Viet Cong controlled these villages with around 100 fighters, and the villages were full of traps: trenches, tunnels, bunkers, fighting holes, mines, tripwires designed to set off grenades or mortar shells, sharpened Punji sticks poised to stab an unsuspecting person going by, and so on.  Naturally there was heavy fighting when the Marines first came here, and they encountered a trap every few yards within the villages; at least seven Marines were killed as a result.  On August 1 the Marines sent in four Marine A-4D Skyhawks to attack the villages with bombs, rockets and cannon fire.  Then on August 3 the Marines came back to Cam Ne, and this time they burned down the villages, destroyed whatever the peasants owned, especially stockpiles of rice, and removed the peasants, to be relocated to an area the South Vietnamese government controlled.

The Cam Ne incident got worldwide attention because a CBS reporter, Morley Safer, and a South Vietnamese cameraman, Ha Thuc Can, went with the Marines, and reported on everything they saw.  The film footage they took was shown across the United States on the CBS Evening News when the network got the story, while newspapers ran pictures of a Marine setting a hut on fire with a cigarette lighter.  The story played down the Viet Cong activities that brought the Marines to the villages in the first place.  Senior commanders in Vietnam declared the story was distorted and incomplete, and CBS got a lot of complaints from patriotic viewers for broadcasting the story.  One of the complaints came from President Johnson himself, who woke up CBS president Frank Stanton with an angry phone call.  I won’t quote Johnson’s words here; they’re not suitable for a family-friendly podcast.  If you’re looking for examples of media bias involving Vietnam, here’s one of the first.

On August 5, the Viet Cong struck again, destroying two million gallons of fuel in storage tanks near Da Nang.  Two more Marines were killed near Cam Ne on August 9, and that brought the Marines back to secure Cam Ne once and for all.  They came in force to search again for Viet Cong hideouts on August 18, but this time, the villagers were given full warning of the Marines’ arrival.  The entire village was cleared with no difficulty; no casualties were taken by the Marines, no enemies were found in Cam Ne, and shelters were built for homeless Vietnamese civilians.


Meanwhile, in another part of Quang Nam Province, came the first battle where regimental sized units on both sides clashed.  A Viet Cong defector informed the local South Vietnamese general that the 1st VC Regiment was planning to attack Chu Lai, an American air base, from Van Tuong, a village twelve miles away.  The Americans acted first by launching a pre-emptive strike, called Operation Starlite.  Five Marine battalions took part in an amphibious assault of the beach next to Van Tuong, backed up by tanks, helicopters and ships.  The Viet Cong were taken completely by surprise, in part because ARVN was not informed of the Marines landing on the beach before it took place, thereby eliminating the possibility that a South Vietnamese informer would pass this information on to the enemy.  There was only organized resistance on the first day of the battle, August 18, but fighting continued until August 24, when the last Viet Cong fled the area.  By the time it was over, 45 Americans and 614 Viet Cong had been killed, making Operation Starlite the first major victory in the war for the Americans.  The Viet Cong learned that the tactics they had used successfully against ARVN did not work so well against US Marines, and it would be many months before they would stand to fight against the Marines in another battle.

Two months after Operation Starlite, came the first battle between American and North Vietnamese forces.  In October 1963, the US Army Special Forces had established a camp at Plei Me in the Central Highlands, 25 miles south of Pleiku and less than 20 miles from the Cambodian border.  It was one of several camps near Pleiku that were used to work with the local Montagnards, or hill tribesmen, and to gather intelligence on North Vietnamese infiltration of the area.  Two years later, in October 1965, it was defended by 12 Americans, 14 South Vietnamese, and around 400 Montagnards; the wives and children of the Montagnards lived with them in the camp.  Two North Vietnamese regiments, with an estimated 4,200 men between them, moved to take Pleiku; on the night of October 19, 1965, they attacked a Montagnard patrol from Plei Me, then they overran an outpost near the camp, killing all 25 defenders after their ammunition ran out, and then they attacked the camp itself.  The American commander at Plei Me, Lt. Colonel Harold Moore, called in airstrikes, and the next day, helicopters arrived to drop supplies into the camp and bring reinforcements, 12 Americans and 250 South Vietnamese.  An armored relief column containing 1,400 men came to the rescue from Pleiku; the North Vietnamese ambushed it twice, but were driven off each time.  The column reached Plei Me on October 25, and the North Vietnamese ended their siege of the camp; by this time, bombs and napalm from the airstrikes had destroyed all vegetation surrounding the camp, meaning the attackers no longer had any place to hide.  Westmoreland visited the camp after the siege, sent in elements of the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, and authorized them to pursue and destroy the North Vietnamese units as they withdrew.

When it was all over, three Americans, 14 Montagnards and 16 South Vietnamese had been killed at Plei Me, and a slightly larger number in the pursuit, while the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong lost an estimated 850 during the siege and pursuit, meaning Plei Me was a victory for the anti-communist forces.  As it turned out, though, Plei Me was a prelude for a larger battle in the same part of the Central Highlands, the battle of Ia Drang.


The pursuing Americans caught up with the North Vietnamese seven miles from the Cambodian border, in the Ia Drang valley.  Here the 1st Cavalry detected a concentration of enemy troops near Chu Pong Mountain, and  it directed the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, a unit of 450 men, to do a reconnaissance of the area.  For what it’s worth, this was the same 7th Cavalry that George Armstrong Custer had led in the old West, at the disastrous battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.

<Cavalry sound effect>

Since the old West days the 7th Cavalry has replaced their horses with helicopters, but you know that any battle they go into is going to be a bloody one.  Anyway, the commander of the 7th Cavalry battalion was Lt. Colonel Moore again, and he picked three spots near Chu Pong mountain, to use as landing zones, calling them Landing Zones X-Ray, Albany and Columbus.  Because the helicopters, 16 Bell UH-1 Iroquois “Hueys,” could only carry 6 to 8 soldiers per trip, and it took them half an hour to make a round trip between Plei Me and Ia Drang, it would take several hours to bring all the troops in.  On November 14, an hour and a half after the troops started landing, the North Vietnamese 33rd Regiment attacked Landing Zone X-Ray.  This firefight continued all day and into the night.  Although they were completely surrounded, Moore and the 7th Cavalry did not have to make a last stand like Custer did; artillery units and B-52s bombers struck at the North Vietnamese, taking out much of the 33rd Regiment.  On the second morning, the North Vietnamese 66th Regiment joined the battle, and then around noon, two more American units, the 2nd Battalion from the 7th Cavalry and the 2nd Battalion from the 5th Cavalry, arrived as reinforcements.  By the third day, November 16, the Americans had gained the upper hand, driving off the enemy.  The final score was 96 Americans killed and 121 wounded; for the North Vietnamese, 834 were confirmed dead, and it is believed they suffered another 1,000 casualties, which they managed to remove from the battle.

As soon as the Americans realized they had won, the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry was ordered to move cross-country to Landing Zone Albany, and the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Cavalry was ordered to go to Landing Zone Columbus; there the two units would be picked up by helicopters and moved to new locations.  The battalion from the 5th Cavalry made it to Colombus without any trouble, but on November 17, while the battalion from the 7th Cavalry was moving through the jungle in a long column, the 8th battalion of the North Vietnamese 66th Regiment sprang a massive ambush.  Of the 400 men in the American unit, 155 were killed, 124 were wounded, and only 84 were able to return to immediate duty after the battle.  Again air support and reinforcements were called in, and the battle around Albany went on until November 18, before the surviving Americans could be rescued.  A minimum of 403 North Vietnamese were killed at Albany.  It was the most successful ambush against U.S. forces during the entire war.


When they heard the news, senior American officials in Saigon declared the Battle of Ia Drang a great victory, because according to their figures, the North Vietnamese had lost twelve soldiers for each American killed.  However, it is more accurate to say that the Americans won the first clash of the battle, at Landing Zone X-Ray, while the North Vietnamese won the second clash, at Landing Zone Albany.  Both sides learned from Ia Drang that they should concentrate on their strengths; the Americans should stick to using their superior air power, while the North Vietnamese learned that if they get as close to the Americans as possible, the Americans will be less likely to use artillery or air power, out of fear that they will inflict “friendly fire” casualties on their own side.

When President Johnson heard about the battle, he ordered Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who was on a trip to Europe, to make a stop in Vietnam before coming home, to find out what really happened.  McNamara did so, meeting with Ambassador Lodge in Saigon, and then he went to An Khe, the 1st Cavalry Division’s base camp, where he met with the officers involved in the battle, including Moore.  Afterwards, on November 30, McNamara wrote a top-secret memo to LBJ which stated that the enemy had not only met but exceeded the American escalation.  Quote: “We have come to a decision point and it seems we have only two choices:  Either we arrange whatever diplomatic cover we can find and get out of Vietnam, or we give General William C. Westmoreland the 200,000 additional U.S. troops he is asking for, in which case by early 1967 we will have 500,000 Americans on the ground and they will be dying at the rate of 1,000 a month.”  End quote.  McNamara went on to predict that after the additional troops arrived, all they would have is a military stalemate at a much higher level of violence.

On December 15, 1965, LBJ called his council of “wise old men” to the White House:  McNamara, Clark Clifford, Abe Fortas, Averell Harriman, George Ball and Dean Acheson.  They were meeting to decide what to do next about Vietnam.  As the president walked into the room, he was holding McNamara’s memo in his hand; he shook it at the defense secretary, and said, quote, “You mean to tell me no matter what I do I can’t win in Vietnam?”  Unquote.  McNamara nodded yes.  The wise men talked for two days, but they paid more attention to the 12:1 casualty ratio than to McNamara’s “Option 1” — getting out of Vietnam.  Ultimately they voted unanimously to further escalate the war.

After Ia Drang came several other conventional engagements against the Americans in Binh Dinh Province, the part of the coast just south of Da Nang.  These clashes convinced Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese military commander, that in any one-on-one conventional fight between Americans and North Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese would get the worst of it.  Therefore he told the rest of the Politburo in Hanoi that they needed to go back to waging a protracted guerrilla war.  He told them that a conventional war against the Americans now, and for 1966 and 1967, would be suicide; superior fighting spirit was not enough to make up for the amazing firepower and mobility that was the American advantage.  By using small units for ambushes, harassment, and hit and run raids on bases and government offices, the communists would eventually wear down American and South Vietnamese forces, and protect the shadow government the Viet Cong had in the villages.  In other words, the transformation from a guerrilla war to a conventional war, which I talked about earlier, would be delayed until 1968, at least.  Thus, Ia Drang played a major role in shaping the strategy of both sides, for 1966 and 1967.

Podcast footnote:  In 1995, thirty years after Ia Drang and twenty years after the end of the war, General Giap, now 84 years old, got to meet his opponent, former Defense Secretary McNamara.  At the meeting he gave several reasons why the Americans did not defeat the North Vietnamese, of which the most important one was, quote, “the US missed many opportunities to end the war in Vietnam, while Vietnam always took advantage of them all.”  Unquote.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Giap was thinking of Ia Drang and its aftermath when he said that.  End footnote.

After the war, the battle of Ia Drang became the setting for the novel We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young, written by Harold Moore, now a retired general, and Joseph Galloway, a newspaper correspondent who was also present at the battle.  In 2002 this book was made into the movie We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson as Moore.

Our narrative is now up to the end of 1965.  Boy, that was a busy year for Vietnam; it has taken two episodes for this podcast to cover events in 1965!  I said earlier that in 1965, the number of American troops in Vietnam reached 184,300.  Now here are some other statistics to think about.  It is appropriate to talk about numbers here because the advisors to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson saw the war as a numbers game.  When it came to data collecting, chart-making, and calculations, the Vietnam War was more heavily studied while it was taking place, than any previous war the United States was involved in.

Anyway, by year’s end, 2,344 Americans had been killed in Vietnam.  An estimated 90,000 South Vietnamese soldiers had deserted, while an estimated 35,000 soldiers from North Vietnam infiltrated the South via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Up to 50 percent of the countryside in South Vietnam was under some degree of Viet Cong control, meaning the Viet Cong lost some ground; they held around 75 percent of the countryside before the American troops arrived.  Finally, at the end of the year, Time Magazine chose General William Westmoreland as their “Man of the Year” for 1965.


Okay, that does it for today!  Join me for the next episode, when we look at the course of the Second Indochina War in 1966, and maybe 1967.  We now know what strategies both sides will follow.  The Americans will use more of what they are using already, meaning more troops for South Vietnam, and more air strikes for North Vietnam.  Meanwhile, the communists are going back to the guerrilla tactics that have served them well in the past.  As for the South Vietnamese, President Johnson will suggest they hold a US-style presidential election; let’s see how that works out.  And speaking of the US, how will Americans back home feel about the war?  Will they give it their united support, the way they did during World War II?  Tune in for that in February 2020 or later; be there or be square!

For the past few episodes I have said I want to record a question-and-answer episode in the near future.  Well, since 2020 began, I have gotten questions from four of you, and because one listener asked more than one, I think I now have enough for the episode.  It will probably come out some time in March; I’m looking for a good spot to interrupt the Vietnam narrative for that special episode, maybe when we get done with the Tet offensive.  Thank you for coming through with the questions; I guess you all had to wait until the holidays were behind you before thinking up some!  If you want to send more questions, contact me on the podcast Facebook page, or email them to Berosus@gmail.com.  That’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S, at gmail.com.


This podcast has depended on listener support to run for three and a half years.  If you are getting something out of the podcast, it is never too early or too late to show your support.  The main way to do that is to make a donation through Paypal.  Donations are secure, and to make one, go to the Blubrry.com page for any episode of this podcast, or to the new Podcast Hall of Fame page, and click on the gold button at the bottom of the page, the one that says “Donate.”  Those who do so will be honorably mentioned in this podcast, and their names will be added to the Podcast Hall of Fame page.

I introduced the Podcast Hall of Fame page in the previous episode.  For those who missed that episode, there is now a webpage where I post the first names or initials of the donors, to make them famous for as long as this podcast endures.  I put a link to the Hall of Fame page on the Blubrry.com page hosting this episode, and on the podcast’s Facebook page.  Those who donate in more than one year will get special recognition, in the form of an icon representing the head of a Southeast Asian animal, the water buffalo, next to their names.  When I created the page, one donor, Wallace D., qualified for the water buffalo icon; now Jacob T. is the second to qualify, because he made another donation two years ago.  Who will be next?

This week I set up another way you can support the podcast financially, through Patreon.  This is probably something I should have done a long time ago, because over the years I have donated to two other podcasts this way.  For those not familiar with Patreon, this is a website that allows you to support various artists by committing to give them a small amount each month.  You can think of it as being like a magazine subscription, and chances are, you won’t miss the money you contribute, but if many people each give a little, it will help the artist a lot!  To visit the Patreon page, go to http://www.patreon.com/historyofsoutheastasia , or click on the links I have shared on the Facebook page or the Blubrry.com page for this episode.  Patreon is spelled P-A-T-R-E-O-N, and historyofsoutheastasia is spelled as one word, no spaces.  Once you are there, you can sign up to support the podcast at $1 a month (that’s less than the price of coffee in a gas station these days!), $3, or $5 a month.  Some benefits are listed, but those were suggested by Patreon, and are likely to change.  Currently I don’t have mugs and T-shirts with the name of the podcast on them, like some other podcasters have.  As I am writing this, one listener, Ed D., has broken the ice already, signing up to become a Patron on the day after I announced the new page.  Welcome aboard, Ed!

Now what can you do for the podcast, that doesn’t involve money?  I’m glad you asked!  In the past couple minutes I have mentioned the Facebook History of Southeast Asia Podcast page more than once.  If you are on Facebook and haven’t liked it yet, do so now, so you won’t have to wait until the next episode to hear from me.  And if you listen to or download the episodes from a place that allows reviews, by all means write one, to spread the word on what you are listening to.  Finally, spread the word in the real world about the podcast; tell your friends, relatives, and anyone else who listens to podcasts.  If I can do it, so can you!  That’s all.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


The Patreon Page Launch


After years of using Patreon to send donations to other podcasts, I have finally set up a Patreon page for my own show, the History of Southeast Podcast.  Take a look around (I know, there’s not much to see yet), and if you’re willing to support the podcast for one or more US dollars a month, consider becoming one of my Patrons.  Thank you for visiting.


Episode 81: The Second Indochina War, Part 9



Happy New Year, and here is the first episode for 2020!  In Episode 81 the first American combat troops come to Vietnam, only to find that their visit will not be a short one, and that a lot more Americans will have to join them.



This episode is dedicated to Will K. and Gabriel S., who made donations to the podcast.  If you were looking to get your donations in before the old year ended, you did it just in time!  And of course I added your names to the new Podcast Hall of Fame page; more about that at the end of this show.  New years are a time for new beginnings, so may this new year be a time of great opportunity and success for both of you.

Today I am going to do something I normally don’t do with the podcast.  I am going to begin the episode with a story.

Like other wars, Vietnam is full of stories, and this may be the most amazing story I have heard about American soldiers in Vietnam.  Lauri Törni was born in Finland in 1919, and over the course of his life he became a war hero in three countries:  Finland, Germany and the United States.  When World War II began, in 1939, he was twenty years old, prime age for military service.  Thus, he served during the four-month conflict which we now call the Winter War, when the Soviet Union invaded Finland.  Then in 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Finland saw it as a rematch and entered the war on Germany’s side; today Finns call the conflict on the Russian Front the Continuation War.  Of course Törni fought in the Continuation War as well.  The Germans gave him additional training, and he was good enough to get into the SS, meaning he was now technically a Nazi.  In the Finnish army he eventually reached the rank of captain and commanded the most elite unit in the Finnish army.  This unit gave the Russians so much trouble that the Russians offered a reward of 3 million Finnish marks for him, dead or alive – the only Finnish soldier to have a bounty on his head.  For his achievements, Törni was awarded the Mannerheim Cross, the highest medal of valor in Finland.

Then in September 1944 Finland surrendered, but by now Törni hated the Soviets so much that he didn’t want to stop fighting when Finland did, so he defected to Germany; because of his past experience, he joined the German army, and soon he won another award, the Iron Cross.  However, Germany also surrendered only a few months later, and Törni ended up in a British prisoner of war camp.  Escaping from that, he returned to Finland, but the Finnish government now considered him a traitor; it first threw him in jail, then changed its mind and pardoned him in 1948.  After that Törni moved to the United States, changed his name to an American-sounding name, Larry Thorne, tried working as a carpenter, and got bored with this.  Then in 1954 he took advantage of a law that allowed foreigners to become US citizens, if they served in the US Army for five years.  Although he was on the other side during World War II, the Army accepted him; during the background check, they found he had killed no Jews during the war, only communists.

Thorne started out in the US Army as a private; he couldn’t transfer his officer’s rank from previous service in other armies, but he was such a talented soldier that he rose quickly through the ranks, and became a captain again.  Because he joined too late to serve in the Korean War, he had to wait a decade before he got his chance to fight the communists again, this time in Vietnam.  For the courage he showed in battle, he was awarded a bronze star and two purple hearts.  On October 18, 1965, he was killed when his helicopter lost its way in fog and crashed into a mountainside, while taking part in a raid on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.  I covered the campaign against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Episode 78 of the podcast.  The Army did not locate the crash site; Thorne was posthumously promoted to major and given two more medals, the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross.  Finally in 1999, his remains were found, along with those of the three South Vietnamese soldiers that were also in the helicopter, and they were buried in one grave at Arlington National Cemetery.  I told you in Episode 49 how a British general, Orde Charles Wingate, was buried at Arlington because he was on an American plane when it crashed; now you have met the only former Nazi buried there.  And here is one more amazing fact surrounding Larry Thorne’s story; the old soldier that John Wayne played in “The Green Berets” was modeled after Thorne.

Episode 81: The Second Indochina War, Part 9

or, “Good Morning Vietnam!”

Greetings, dear listeners!  Yes, some time back I got a message from one of you saying that Robin Williams was shockingly loud.  However, his movie was set in the year 1965, and this episode is about Vietnam in 1965, so it seemed appropriate to bring him on the show once more.

Speaking of years, this is the first episode recorded in 2020, so if you are listening around that time, Happy New Year!


And before we go any further, I need to give a belated apology.  A very belated apology.  It has to do with Episode 37, which was recorded almost two years ago.  There I said that the British could not defend Singapore against the Japanese because the big gun batteries in the city’s fortresses could not be pointed backward, to fire at an enemy coming from the mainland.  Most of my sources said the same thing, so I repeated it in the recording, but one of you recently pointed out that was not the case.  I had to go to Wikipedia to straighten this one out; mind you, that’s not my first choice when it comes to sources.  It said some of the guns could be turned around, but they were designed to punch holes in naval vessels, up to 24 miles away.  Furthermore, most of the ammunition was armor-piercing shells, which do damage in a relatively smaller area than incendiary or high explosive rounds.  Thus, it was hard to aim the guns at a much closer, spread-out target, in this case an invading army, and that meant they were not very effective.  Sorry about spreading an urban legend; now let’s move ahead to 1965. 

As you know by now, this is the latest episode in the podcast’s ongoing series about the Second Indochina War, also called the Vietnam War by Americans, and the American War by Vietnamese and NPR, the National Public Radio network.  To hear what we covered previously, go to Episodes 71, 72, 73 and 80 for the war in Vietnam, and Episodes 74, 75, 78 and 79 for the war in neighboring Laos.  Here I will summarize the Vietnam phase in a nutshell.  When the First Indochina War ended in 1954, and France got out of its Southeast Asian colonies, Vietnam was independent but divided, into communist North Vietnam and anti-communist South Vietnam.  For a little while in the mid-1950s, they didn’t fight, because both were busy with internal affairs; North Vietnam was engaged with economic and land reforms, which killed so many innocent people that a “Rectification of Errors” campaign came afterwards, while the South Vietnamese government put down rebellions from rival factions, in the Mekong River delta and in Saigon.  However, there was supposed to be an election to form a government for a reunited Vietnam, and this never happened; then the South Vietnamese government went from being a republic to a dictatorship.  By the end of 1964 there was a civilian government, led by President Phan Khac Suu and Premier Tran Van Huong, but it was a powerless front organization.  The real power was held by a military junta in which General Nguyen Khanh was the most important member.

The Second Indochina War began in the late 1950s, when North Vietnam trained communist guerrillas, and sent them south to wreak havoc and recruit and train more guerrillas.  By the end of 1960, these guerrillas called themselves the National Liberation Front, but to the outside world they were better known as the Viet Cong.  The United States responded by sending military aid, but after they received it, the South Vietnamese armed forces did no better than they had before, so beginning in 1961, the United States sent “military advisors” to go with the equipment already going over there.

Though more and more Americans went to South Vietnam every year, the Viet Cong continued to win, and in 1964 North Vietnamese troops began infiltrating the south, making the communist force even tougher.  Nevertheless, the officers that ran South Vietnam continued their petty bickering; they thought it was more important to fight each other, than to fight an enemy that could destroy them all.  By the end of the year the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese partners controlled about 75 percent of South Vietnam’s countryside, and could move freely through the rest.  All that was left to the Saigon regime were the cities, and if they started falling to the enemy, the war would soon be over.  US President Lyndon Johnson and his aides were firm believers in the “Domino Theory,” thinking that if they did not stop communism in Vietnam, it would spread to the rest of Southeast Asia, so they were not about to pull US forces out of Vietnam.  Instead they made a total commitment to winning here.  Soon American ground forces would arrive; to the Americans, Vietnam seemed like an example of the saying, “If you want to make sure something is done right, you gotta do it yourself.”  And that’s where we were when the last episode ended; now let’s resume the narrative!



Because President Johnson had not responded to recent attacks in Saigon and at Bien Hoa, the nearby US air base, the communists now gambled that any US intervention in Vietnam after 1964 would be severely limited in nature, and this encouraged them to launch their largest attack so far, at Binh Gia, a village 40 miles east of Saigon.  The village was populated mostly by Catholic refugees who had fled from North Vietnam in 1954.  This was the first large, set-piece battle involving the Viet Cong, and they raised a new unit, the 9th Division, for this encounter.  More than a thousand men were moved here from Tay Ninh, a province just northwest of Saigon; they traveled in small groups to avoid detection.  On the coast they picked up a supply of weapons, smuggled to them in North Vietnamese boats.  Although the nine ARVN battalions in the neighborhood had an advantage in helicopters, tanks and armored personnel carriers, they were not as fast and flexible as the Viet Cong, and that made the difference here.  After taking positions along the roads leading to Binh Gia, the Viet Cong launched their attack on December 28, 1964.  The 9th Division captured Binh Gia and held the village for the next four days, badly mauling the ARVN units that tried to drive them out.  Then the Viet Cong escaped on January 1, by withdrawing into the jungle.  Like the battle of Ap Bac, in 1963, the retaking of Binh Gia was hailed as a South Vietnamese victory, but again the body count told a different story.  196 South Vietnamese and five Americans were killed; all but one of the Americans were in a helicopter that had been shot down; there were also 192 South Vietnamese wounded, and 68 missing.  For the Viet Cong, there were only 32 confirmed deaths; if there were any more, the bodies were removed from the battle site.  One American officer in Saigon had this to say about the battle.  Quote: “The Viet Cong fought magnificently, as well as any infantry anywhere.  But the big question for me is how its troops, a thousand or more of them, could wander around the countryside so close to Saigon without being discovered.  That tells something about this war.  You can only beat the other guy if you isolate him from the population.”  Unquote.  And later on Le Duan, the leader of the Communist Party in Hanoi, explained what made Ap Bac and Binh Gia important battles.  Quote:  “After the Ap Bac battle the enemy realized that it would be difficult to defeat us. After Binh Gia the enemy realized that they would lose to us.”  Unquote.

The US ambassador to Saigon, Maxwell Taylor, and the American commander on the spot, General William C. Westmoreland, urged President Johnson to launch some kind of retaliation, but Johnson held off, feeling it wasn’t time for that yet.  Then in late January, two more aides of Johnson, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, sent him a memo stating that America’s limited military involvement in Vietnam is not succeeding, and that the US has reached a ‘fork in the road’ in Vietnam; now it must either escalate or withdraw.

On February 4, 1965, McGeorge Bundy visited South Vietnam.  He had never been there before, and was coming to see the situation first hand.  Coincidentally, the Soviet Prime Minister, Aleksei Kosygin, arrived in Hanoi on the same day.  Kosygin wanted to scale down the war, by persuading the North Vietnamese to negotiate with the Americans, but as it turned out, the next Viet Cong raid would drastically alter the missions of both Bundy and Kosygin.  On the night of February 6, the Viet Cong attacked Camp Holloway, the US military compound at Pleiku, a provincial capital in the Central Highlands.  Eight Americans were killed, 126 were wounded and ten aircraft were destroyed, by demolition charges the Viet Cong had planted.  One Viet Cong body was found, carrying a map of the campsite, showing that the communists had successfully spied on the area before the raid.

When President Johnson heard the news, he said, quote, “I’ve had enough of this," unquote, and then he approved Operation Flaming Dart.  For seventeen days, US Navy jets from the carrier Ranger bombed a North Vietnamese army camp near Dong Hoi, the southernmost city in North Vietnam.  Then Johnson agreed to a long-standing recommendation from his advisors for a sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam.  Meanwhile in Hanoi, the North Vietnamese pleaded with Kosygin to give them unlimited military aid to counter the American "aggression."  Kosygin felt he has no choice, and gave them what they wanted; within a few weeks, the newest Soviet SAMs, surface-to-air missiles, were delivered to Hanoi.

Over in Saigon, Nguyen Khanh tried on February 16 to install another puppet as prime minister, an economist named Nguyen Xuan Oanh, to replace Tran Van Huong, but the other officers overruled him and installed their choice, a former defense minister named Dr. Phan Huy Quat.  Then on February 19, two officers, Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao and Major General Lam Van Phat, launched a coup for the purpose of getting rid of Khanh, whom they saw as a dictator.  Tanks and infantry seized control of the military headquarters at Tân Son Nhut, Saigon’s airport; they also seized the post office and the radio station of Saigon, and they surrounded the homes of Khanh and Phan Khac Suu.  Khanh escaped by taking a plane from Tan Son Nhut, and he visited several provinces, trying to rally support from the local troops, before his plane ran out of fuel at Da Lat.  Back in Saigon, the ruling council voted unanimously to replace Khanh with the air vice marshal, Nguyen Cao Ky, as its leader.  After a brief round of negotiations at Da Lat, Khánh agreed to resign and leave the country if he was given a dignified send-off, so the other generals arranged a ceremony at Tan Son Nhut.  There, as his enemies, other officers and the US ambassador watched, military bands serenaded him, and he bent down, picked up some loose dirt and put it in his pocket, saying that he was taking his beloved homeland with him.  Khanh was also given the honorable title of ambassador-at-large, but the truth was that he had just been exiled.

Podcast footnote: After leaving Vietnam, Nguyen Khanh first went to France, but like many Vietnamese in exile, after the war he moved to the United States, along with his wife and four children.  At one point he ran an unimpressive little Asian restaurant in West Palm Beach, Florida, and eventually settled down in Orange County, California.  After the war Vietnamese refugees set up several so-called “governments in exile.”  The largest of these groups, the Government of Free Vietnam, GFVN for short, was founded in California in 1995.  This group claimed it trained more than 100,000 supporters at KC-702, a hidden camp somewhere near the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, but to this day we do not know the camp’s location, or even if it existed at all.  The GFVN also claimed to have staged raids inside Vietnam, but aside from the Vietnamese government calling GFVN members “terrorists,” we don’t have evidence that the raids took place.  It’s possible that the organization was just a group of old men, playing at being Rambo.  Then in 2005 Nguyen Khanh became the leader of the movement.  He died in 2013, at the age of 85, and because the Government of Free Vietnam was going nowhere, the organization was dissolved at that time.  Even before then, sometime between 2009 and 2011, the organization’s website went dark, and the website domain, gfvn.org, is for sale today.  As The OC Weekly, a California newspaper, put it, quote, “The Government of Free Vietnam Is No Republic for Old Men.”  Unquote.  This reminds me of the VNQDD, a Vietnamese nationalist group I described in Episode 35.  If you listened to that episode, you will remember that the VNQDD was the most important independence movement before Ho Chi Minh came along, and after the French defeated and executed its leaders, the VNQDD lingered in exile for about eighty years, finally ending up in the part of Florida where I used to live.  End footnote.


As soon as the political crisis had passed, a new military crisis arose.  On February 22, General Westmoreland requested two battalions of US Marines to protect the American air base at Da Nang, because 6,000 Viet Cong had gathered in the vicinity.  Later on, Westmoreland claimed that he did not see this request as the beginning of a campaign that would eventually cause more than half a million American soldiers to go to Vietnam.  Ambassador Taylor did, though; he said he had "grave reservations" about this, warning that America may be repeating the same mistakes made by the French, by sending more and more soldiers into the jungles of a "hostile foreign country," where friend and foe could not be told apart.  President Johnson listened more to Westmoreland, and approved the request.

When Westmoreland’s request arrived, the follow-up to Operation Flaming Dart was already being prepared.  This was Operation Rolling Thunder, and it began on March 2, with more than 100 American fighter-bombers attacking an ammunition dump in North Vietnam.  Johnson supervised the operation, choosing the targets and once boasting that, quote, “they can’t even bomb an outhouse without my approval.”  Unquote.  When the raid had no noticeable effect on the ground war, the American response, as you might expect, was to send more planes, and bigger ones, up to the largest bombers available, the B-52s.  And the kinds of ammunition used in the air raids increased; now the planes dropped napalm and cluster bombs, too.  Originally scheduled to last eight weeks, Rolling Thunder turned into a general bombing campaign, that would go on for three years.  The chief targets were fuel depots and factories, and the North Vietnamese reacted to the air strikes by decentralizing their factories and supply bases, thus minimizing their vulnerability to bomb damage.  However, the planes did not target the dikes along the Red River; that would have flooded the Red River delta, killed untold thousands of people, and left more homeless.  Nor did they carpet bomb the cities, the way American and British bombers did to German and Japanese cities during World War II.  The idea here was to avoid causing too many civilian casualties, because that would give the Soviets and the Chinese an excuse to intervene, and then the Indochina War would turn into World War III.  It was the same kind of thinking that kept the Americans from using nuclear weapons to save the French, during the battle of Dienbienphu in the First Indochina War.

The Marines Westmoreland had requested, 3,500 of them, landed at China Beach near Da Nang on March 8, 1965.  These were the first American combat troops to go to Vietnam.  Vietnamese girls gave them flower garlands on the beach, as if they were tourists visiting Hawaii.  The South Vietnamese government was not consulted before the Marines were sent, which shows how weak the Saigon regime really was.  Officially Saigon welcomed the Marines, but deep down they were unhappy at this new development.  Long-time listeners may remember that 118 years earlier, when the French came to Vietnam, Da Nang was the place they attacked first, in Episode 25.  In the United States there was little talk of the Marines going over, because when Johnson talked about their mission, he made it sound like this was a short-term action, not the beginning of a massive troop buildup.

Okay, we have seen the United States act in the air with Operation Rolling Thunder, and on land with the Marines.  For the sea they introduced Operation Market Time on March 11.  This was a joint effort between the US and South Vietnamese Navies, which disrupted North Vietnamese efforts to smuggle supplies to the Viet Cong by boat.  The operation was highly successful in cutting off coastal supply lines, and it forced the North Vietnamese to put more effort into sending supplies on the slower, more difficult land route through Laos that was called the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The Viet Cong responded to the arrival of the troops by setting off a car bomb outside the US Embassy in Saigon, on March 30.  Two Americans, nineteen Vietnamese, and a Filipino serving in the US Navy were killed, while 183 were injured.  The US Congress appropriated $1 million to rebuild the embassy in a new location afterwards, and the attack may have influenced Johnson’s decision on April 1 to authorize sending two more Marine battalions and up to 20,000 logistical personnel to Vietnam.  The President expected the new Marines to guard American bases and installations, like the ones in Da Nang, but Westmoreland was a fighting general.  Westmoreland believed that the best defense was a good offense, and he wanted the troops to patrol the countryside, in order to get the enemy before they could strike.  Johnson approved this, but kept the offensive operations secret from the American press and public for two months.  He had a reason for doing this; on April 17, one of the first protests against the Vietnam War took place, as 15,000 students gathered in Washington to demonstrate against the bombing campaign.  Johnson also made a speech at Johns Hopkins University, where he offered Hanoi "unconditional discussions" to stop the war, in return for massive economic assistance in modernizing Vietnam.  This included a proposal for a program to build hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River, something like the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States.  Thinking that Ho Chi Minh was like an American politician, Johnson privately told his aides, quote, "Old Ho can’t turn that down."  Unquote.   But this only showed that Johnson did not understand the North Vietnamese, because his peace overture was quickly rejected.

By May 1965, four North Vietnamese regiments, about 5,000 men, were fighting alongside the Viet Cong; together they were destroying the equivalent of a South Vietnamese battalion every week.  The first US Army combat troops, 3,500 men of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, arrived in Vietnam on May 3.  And not a moment too soon.  On May 11, the Viet Cong overran the capital of Phuoc Long, a province about fifty miles north of Saigon.  They went on to attack a nearby US special forces camp, and here 2nd Lt. Charles Williams became one of the first American heroes in the war; he earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for knocking out a Viet Cong machine-gun and then guiding rescue helicopters, though he was wounded four times.  Meanwhile, in the coastal city of Quang Ngai, another Viet Cong attack destroyed two South Vietnamese battalions.

In Saigon on June 18, Nguyen Cao Ky dispensed with having civilian front men; he fired Phan Khac Suu and Phan Huy Quat, appointed himself prime minister, and picked another general, Nguyen Van Thieu, to be the figurehead president.  This was the last coup in South Vietnam – I promise you! – and it established South Vietnam’s 10th government in 20 months.  Ky and Thieu would remain in charge until 1975, so remember their names.  Ky was just 34 years old – he and his wife were flamboyant figures, always dressed fashionably, and Ky was known for speaking out boldly against his enemies, but not carrying out those threats.  As for Thieu, he was 41 years old, and at the end of World War II he had first joined the Viet Minh, but then quit a year later and joined the Vietnamese army created by the French.  He was indecisive and distrustful, and being a Catholic, he reminded Buddhists of Ngo Dinh Diem, the former Catholic president who had oppressed them.  Later on Thieu would be known for outdoing other Vietnamese leaders in corruption.  William Bundy, a CIA analyst, expressed the feelings of the Johnson administration when he described the government of Ky and Thieu as, quote, "the bottom of the barrel, absolutely the bottom of the barrel."  Unquote.

You would think the return of stability in Saigon would be good news, but the Americans did not notice it much, because ARVN, the army of South Vietnam, was falling apart at the same time – some of its best units were gone already.  For Westmoreland, this meant the troops he had would not be enough – many more would be needed to hold back the communists until ARVN could recover.  Accordingly, he asked Johnson for thirty-four American battalions, and ten battalions of South Korean troops, a total of 180,000 men.  He probably requested the South Koreans because he felt they owed the United States a favor, for saving them in the Korean War.  I mentioned in a previous episode that five pro-Western nations sent troops to fight alongside the Americans and South Vietnamese.  Those nations were South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand, and among those, the largest number of soldiers came from South Korea.  But even if Westmoreland got the requested reinforcements, that wouldn’t be enough; he felt another 100,000 troops would be needed in 1966, to turn the tide of the war and push the communists out of the lands they had taken.

As you might expect, Johnson debated the request with his aides and rivals; this would require mobilizing the reserves and the National Guard.  And in everybody’s mind were the nagging questions, “Will the additional manpower be enough, if North Vietnam sends more troops south?  What if China or the Soviet Union intervene, the way the Chinese intervened in Korea, fifteen years earlier?”  In the end Johnson decided to give Westmoreland the forty-four battalions he wanted, but to keep it from looking like he was wholeheartedly committing the United States to war, he muffled his response.  The troops were sent over gradually, instead of all at once, and though McNamara recommended calling up the reserves, he did not do so.  And when he announced the troop buildup, on July 28, 1965, he did it in the middle of the day, when few people besides stay-at-home housewives were likely to be watching TV.  For the speech he said, quote, “I have asked the commanding general, General Westmoreland, what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression.  He has told me.  And we will meet his needs.  We cannot be defeated by force of arms.  We will stand in Vietnam.”  Unquote.


On that note, our time is up for today!  Join me next time as we listen to the consequences of the US troop buildup.  If you think you have seen all that the Americans can do, remember what the band Bachman Turner Overdrive said:

<You ain’t seen nothing yet>

That’s right, you ain’t seen nothing yet!  And while I did mention a protest march, so far an overwhelming majority of the American people have given their support to the troops and the president.  Can this last?

Each episode of this podcast ends with housekeeping announcements, and here they are.  First, I said not too long ago that I would like to do a question and answer episode in 2020.  Go to Episode 51 or 77 to hear what a question and answer episode sounds like; those are the ones I did previously.  Start thinking of the questions you would like to ask – anything involving Southeast Asia will do – and contact me with them either on the Podcast Facebook page, or send an email to Berosus@gmail.com.  That’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S, at gmail.com.  I’m sitting here by my inbox, waiting for your questions now!

This podcast depends on the financial support of you, the listeners, to remain available online, and to cover the time and cost that goes into producing each episode.  So if you learned something from this episode, the best way to support the continued progress of the podcast is by making a secure donation through Paypal.  It doesn’t have to be much; I know a lot of folks have extra bills to pay after the holidays are done.  In fact, a lot of small donations from many people is just as good, maybe even better, than a few big ones.  Whatever you want to send, 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.”  I have also added the Paypal button to the new Podcast Hall of Fame page, and to my personal blog, Xenohistorian.wordpress.com.  Or if you’d rather send me a check, let me know on the Podcast’s Facebook page, or send an email to Berosus@gmail.com , and I’ll give you a snail mail address to send the check to.  Fair enough?  Finally, I am thinking of setting up a Patreon page for those who want to give a dollar or two each month.

I mentioned the Podcast Hall of Fame page a minute ago, and it’s up now.  There’s a link to it on the podcast Facebook page, and I also put a link to it in the show notes, on the Blubrry.com page for this episode.  Donors will get their first name or initial there, to be remembered for as long as this podcast is available online.  Those who donate in more than one year will get an icon showing a water buffalo’s head next to their names.  I’m thinking of calling him Walter the Water Buffalo, or Walter the Carabao.  So far one donor has qualified for the water buffalo.  Since it is the beginning of a new year as this episode goes online, if you donated in the past, make another donation now, even a little one, and you can qualify for the water buffalo, too.

<Carabao sound file>

Now here are the other things you can do to help, whether you can afford to donate at this time or not.  I have mentioned the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook more than once.  If you are on Facebook and haven’t “liked” the page yet, what are you waiting for?  There I share pictures, announcements, and some videos and news stories relevant to the show.  A few months ago, for example, I posted the news that Indonesia is planning to move its capital from Java to a site on Borneo.  And you can write a review!  Sorry, Blubrry.com does not have a place for reviews of the show, but any other website offering the podcast does, so write a few words and give the show some stars!  Finally, there are a lot of folks out there who enjoy podcasts; unless you’re a hermit or a recluse, you meet them every day without knowing it.  Tell them about the show, and make their day!  Okay, I’ve said enough, so now I’ll let you go and enjoy the new year.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 80: The Second Indochina War, Part 8



Episode 80 is now available, and as promised, we are going back to follow the Second Indochina War in Vietnam.  Today we look at events in 1964, with special attention on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, and learn what caused the United States to get totally involved in the war.  This is the last episode of the podcast scheduled for 2019, so Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy New Year and all that!



This episode is dedicated to Andrew M., for making a donation to the podcast.  I am recording this in mid-December 2019, so thank you for ending the podcast year on a happy note.  May the upcoming year be a blessed one for you.  I will also add your name to the new webpage I am creating to honor the donors; you’ll hear more about that near the end of the episode.  Now we’ve got a lot to cover today, so without more ado, let’s get started.

Episode 80: The Second Indochina War, Part 8

or, The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Greetings, dear listeners!  I am recording this in the middle of December, and this is the last episode scheduled for 2019.  So if you are listening to this in 2019, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or happy whatever other holiday you celebrate at this time of the year!  Chances are, this is a busy time for you, and I appreciate you taking the time to listen to me.  As promised, today the narrative returns to the Second Indochina War in Vietnam, what you probably call the Vietnam War or the American War, depending on which side you’re on.  Here we will cover the events from November 1963 to December 1964, basically telling the story of how the United States became fully committed to fighting in Vietnam.

It has been a while since we looked at the war in Vietnam; Episodes 71, 72 and 73, to be exact.  There we covered events in Vietnam from 1955 to 1963.  Then we took a six-episode break from the narrative, four episodes to cover the war happening in Laos at the same time, and two episodes on special topics.  In case you missed episodes 71 through 73, here is what was in them:

The First Indochina War, waged between the French and the Vietnamese communists, then called the Viet Minh, ended with Vietnam becoming independent, but divided in two, into a communist North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh,  and an anti-communist South Vietnam, led by Bao Dai, the former emperor.  However, in the south the new prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, soon ousted Bao Dai and proclaimed himself president.  Now elections were supposed to take place in 1956 to create a government that would reunite Vietnam, but Diem never allowed those elections to be held.  That gave the communists the excuse to start the Second Indochina War, by sending guerrillas into South Vietnam, to recruit followers and commit acts of violence.  At first the guerrillas were a loosely organized force, but from 1960 onwards they were known as the National Liberation Front in the communist world, and the Viet Cong in South Vietnam and the Western nations.

Because this was the Cold War era, the United States favored South Vietnam from the start.  But by the beginning of the 1960s it was clear that South Vietnam was losing, despite all the military aid the Americans were sending.  Thus, in 1961 the Americans started sending military “advisors” to show the South Vietnamese how to use the equipment they were receiving.  Chief among these advisors were helicopter pilots, because the equipment included helicopters – indeed, this was the first conflict in which helicopters were extensively used.  Soon these pilots were also flying missions against the Viet Cong.  American servicemen were not supposed to get involved in the war, and the Kennedy administration in Washington kept this activity secret for as long as possible.  Still, the Viet Cong continued to win wherever the Americans weren’t present, so the United States sent more and more “advisors” – without changing the course of the war.

In Saigon, Diem looked good during his first years as president – the United States went so far as to call him the “miracle man of Asia” – but after the 1950s became the 1960s, Diem started looking more like an incompetent dictator.  Two of the best examples of this were the “Strategic Hamlet” program, which sought to isolate peasants from the Viet Cong by moving the peasants into fortified villages, and Diem’s discrimination against South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority, in favor of the Catholic minority.  In 1963 Washington started dropping hints that it would like to see someone else running the country.  Well, officers in the South Vietnamese army, called ARVN for Army of the Republic of Vietnam, were planning to do just that.  At the beginning of November 1963, they staged a coup in which Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were killed.  All of Vietnam celebrated for a few days afterwards; the South because they thought better times were coming next, and the North because they thought with Diem gone, they would soon win the war.  But if you think Vietnam’s troubles were over, then you need to listen on.  Can we have a little music?


As bad as Ngo Dinh Diem was, his successors were worse.  Diem was at least able to maintain order, for most of the time that he was in charge.  The generals who succeeded him were total incompetents, who spent more time fighting each other than the Viet Cong. In the year and a half following Diem’s assassination, South Vietnam had ten different governments. 

The first head of state after Diem, General Duong Van Minh, didn’t have the skills to run a government, and wasn’t even very interested in doing so.  Once he confided to a reporter that he would rather pursue his hobbies: playing tennis, and raising orchids and exotic birds.  Minh shared power as the leading member of a twelve-member military revolutionary council; supposedly this was set up to make sure one of them did not gain too much power, but Minh really established the council so he could pass some of his responsibilities to others.  In practice, however, the council members argued constantly, and because each member had the power of the veto, it usually took unanimous approval to get anything done.  A civilian government was set up under Diem’s former vice president, Nguyen Ngoc Tho, who now served as prime minister, but it was merely a front organization which existed to hide the activities of the council.

In late January 1964, less than three months after Minh took over, Nguyen Khanh, a general who was not a member of the council, seized power in a bloodless coup.  Khanh had also taken part in the coup against Diem, but the other generals did not trust him, so they put him in charge of the I Corps, the part of ARVN in the northernmost part of South Vietnam; he resented not being given a more important command, like that of the troops near Saigon.  Once in charge, he did away with Tho’s civilian government, expanded the Military Revolutionary Council from 12 to 50 members, and changed its name to the High National Council.  Because Minh was more popular, the United States put pressure on Khanh to keep Minh around, though now he was powerless.

The chaos in Saigon was matched by increasing Viet Cong success in the countryside.  In the first two weeks after Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination, the Viet Cong staged 400 attacks.  By March 1964, they controlled about 40% of the countryside and 50% of the rural population.  However, afterwards  they began to suffer setbacks.  Most of the peasants mainly wanted to get rid of Diem, and after Diem was gone, communism became less appealing to them.  In fact, many peasants preferred the post-Diem government over the communists, because members of the new government were too busy fighting with their personal quarrels to bother the peasants much.

At this point, I should take a timeout to explain the changes taking place in North Vietnam’s leadership, which outsiders were completely unaware of while they happened.  The first reason for these changes was that Ho Chi Minh was getting old.  Although I have mentioned the Ho Chi Minh Trail several times in recent episodes, I haven’t had much to say about Ho Chi Minh the man since the First Indochina War ended, and that is because he wasn’t playing as active a role in leading the Vietnamese communists as he had in the past.  In 1960, when he reached the age of seventy, he started turning over his powers and responsibilities to other senior Communist Party members, especially the premier, Pham Van Dong, and the new Hanoi party boss, Le Duan.  Both of them have been mentioned in the podcast before, but I must confess that I mispronounced Le Duan’s name when he appeared, in Episode 72; there I called him “Le Duan,” but afterwards found out that the Vietnamese pronounce the “D” in his name like a “Z.”  To complete the list of North Vietnamese leaders, Vo Nguyen Giap continued to command the armed forces, and Truong Chinh, the former party boss, was now chairman of the National Assembly.  Henceforth, Ho Chi Minh would remain admired by everyone north of the Demilitarized Zone – the North Vietnamese people called him “Bac Ho,” meaning “Uncle Ho,” – but he was mostly a figurehead for the rest of his life.

Podcast Footnote: Truong Chinh’s real name was Dang Xuan Khu.  The name we call him by is an alias, a nom de guerre that he chose, after he became a communist.  “Truong Chinh” is Vietnamese for “Long March,” and it commemorates the 6,000-mile-long march that the Chinese communists went on, in 1934 and 1935, to escape the army of Chiang Kai-shek.  This is considered the crucial turning point in the history of Chinese communism, because Mao Zedong became leader of the Chinese Communist Party in the middle of it, and because the communists stopped losing battles to the Nationalists after the Long March was over.  Truong Chinh lost his job as leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party, because he was blamed for the abuses that happened during the land reform program of the mid-1950s; we covered this in Episode 71.  Nevertheless, he did not suffer much from this demotion, and remained one of the most important people in Hanoi until he retired in 1987.  End footnote.

The other reason for the split in Hanoi was the split in Communism in the outside world, between the Soviets and the Chinese.  The communist government in China was young and full of beans; Mao wanted to continue the communist revolution, no matter what the cost, until communism ruled the whole world, because China could keep going on, even if it lost hundreds of millions of people in the struggle.  Moscow, on the other hand, had been under less aggressive leadership since the death of Stalin, and they were appalled at this idea; they thought that there must be a way to win without sacrificing millions of their own people, and would negotiate peace with non-communists when it was in their interests to do so.  Since North Vietnam was receiving aid from both the Soviets and the Chinese, both had influence in Hanoi.  Ho Chi Minh had traveled extensively early in his career, and thus favored the Soviet approach; he thought the way things were going, they were sure to win, so it wouldn’t hurt to negotiate a cease-fire with the enemy.  However, Le Duan and Truong Chinh wanted to continue campaigning aggressively until South Vietnam was crushed.  When the Hanoi leaders met near the end of 1963 to decide what their strategy should be, now that South Vietnam and the United States had new presidents, Ho Chi Minh’s moderate approach was outvoted.  That would play an important part in what happened in 1964.
Back to South Vietnam.  Nguyen Khanh may have been more clever than Duong Van Minh, but otherwise he was just as incompetent.  Between January and October 1964 he served as president, prime minister, and for a little while he held both jobs at the same time.  There were several coup attempts while he ran the show, and once he resigned.  In March the US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, came to Saigon in an effort to promote stability, by telling everyone that Khanh was the South Vietnamese leader that Washington supported, but after the visit the Saigon government continued to resemble a revolving door, where military officers and politicians went in and out with unsurprising regularity.  I will not be describing all of the political upheavals here, because most did not make a difference in the “big picture.”


In Episode 73 we ended the narrative by pointing out that three weeks after Diem’s downfall, the American president, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson – LBJ for short – took his place.  Johnson’s favorite hero was a previous president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and like Roosevelt, Johnson would launch a big package of domestic reforms, which he called the “Great Society.”  Because the Great Society was his priority, he saw Vietnam as a nuisance, a distraction; moreover, if he acted too aggressive in foreign policy, he ran the risk of being called a warmonger.  Still, he did not want to be the first American president to lose a war, and on November 24, 1963, just two days after becoming president, he met with the US ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, and promised he would not “lose Vietnam.”

In Washington, Johnson chose to keep the men Kennedy had surrounded himself with; Robert McNamara stayed on as Secretary of Defense, and Dean Rusk continued to be the Secretary of State.  In Vietnam, though, Johnson wanted his own people in charge.  Ambassador Lodge resigned in 1964 so that he could run for president once more, and Johnson picked Kennedy’s favorite soldier, General Maxwell Taylor, to be the new ambassador.  To lead American forces in Vietnam, Johnson replaced Paul Harkins, the commanding general we saw previously, with General William C. Westmoreland.  As a highly decorated veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, and a former Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Westmoreland looked like an excellent choice.

Like other vice presidents who move into the top spot when the president dies or resigns, Johnson felt he needed to win a presidential election in order to be seen as a legitimate president.  Therefore he saw the 1964 presidential election as the first important test of his administration.  Although the polls showed Johnson well in the lead, his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, accused him of being “soft on communism.”  To prove that wasn’t the case, he would have to get tough on the North Vietnamese at some point, and dropped hints that he would do so.  For example, when the joint chiefs of staff came to a White House reception on Christmas Eve, 1963, Johnson told them, quote, “Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war.”  Unquote.

While Nguyen Khanh was running South Vietnam, he called, more than once, for the United States to end the Viet Cong threat by supporting an invasion of North Vietnam from the South, thereby turning the tables by moving the battleground to the North.  Khanh thought that with the Americans backing him up, he couldn’t lose, but the Americans refused to cooperate, feeling that an invasion of North Vietnam did not have much chance of success.  The North Vietnamese agreed; Ho Chi Minh called it, quote, “sheer stupidity,” unquote, and he also said this about it.  Quote:  “How can he talk about marching north when he cannot even control areas in the immediate vicinity of Saigon?”  Unquote.  And the US Central Intelligence Agency had already smuggled teams of agents into North Vietnam, to assassinate officials and blow up important buildings and other structures, but the North Vietnamese government had such a strong grip on the country, that it was able to capture nearly all the agents before they could carry out their missions.

Still, something different would have to be done.  For the first few months of his presidency, Johnson kept US involvement in Vietnam at the same level as Kennedy had it in 1963, though it was now costing the United States $2 million dollars a day, and the defeat of the communists looked no closer than it was before.  In March 1964, the US National Security Council recommended the bombing of North Vietnam, but President Johnson only approved having the Pentagon make plans for such a campaign.  Then in May, Johnson’s aides began work on a Congressional resolution supporting the President’s war policy in Vietnam, which they would introduce when an opportunity came to expand the war effort.

That opportunity would come in the following summer.  While an invasion of the North at this time had been ruled out, the South Vietnamese navy could gain mastery over the waters off North Vietnam’s coast, in preparation for a future invasion.  To do this, the Americans encouraged South Vietnamese speedboats to go into the body of water called the Gulf of Tonkin, raid offshore islands and locate radar transmitters – while American warships watched all this from a distance.  The commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp, thought that as long as the Navy stayed at least eight miles from North Vietnam’s coast and at least four miles from the islands, the North Vietnamese would not retaliate.


Well, that is what he thought.  On July 30, 1964, South Vietnamese commandos in unmarked speedboats embarked on their latest raid in the Gulf of Tonkin.  This time they bombarded Hon Me, an island with an enemy radar station, and Hon Ngu, an island three miles from Vinh, one of North Vietnam’s busiest ports.  An American destroyer, the USS Maddox, went with them and observed the action.  Then on August 2, three North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked the Maddox, ten miles from the Red River delta.  They fired three torpedoes and machine-guns, but only a single machine-gun bullet struck the Maddox, no Americans were killed or injured.  In response, three U.S. Navy fighters from the carrier Ticonderoga attacked the patrol boats, sinking one and damaging the others.  Captain John Herrick of the Maddox wanted to finish off the two damaged boats, but he was ordered to pull back and wait for further instructions.  Ten days later, North Vietnamese propaganda claimed that they had shot down one American plane and damaged the other two, while not saying a word about casualties on their side.

At the White House, President Johnson heard about the incident.  Because there were no American casualties, he decided against retaliation.  Instead, he sent a diplomatic message to Hanoi warning of "grave consequences" from any further "unprovoked" attacks, and ordered the Maddox to resume operations in the same waters where the attack had occurred.  In addition, another destroyer, the USS C. Turner Joy, would accompany the Maddox.  The two American vessels sailed a zigzag course, which at the nearest points came within eight miles of North Vietnam’s coast.  Meanwhile, the South Vietnamese boats went after new targets, about 75 miles north of the 17th Parallel.  On the evening of August 3, thunderstorms rolled in, affecting the accuracy of electronic instruments on the destroyers.  Crew members reading their instruments, and intercepting radio messages from the enemy, believed they were under torpedo attack from North Vietnamese patrol boats again.  Their sonars detected twenty-two torpedoes, and the ships maneuvered wildly to dodge them; there were no torpedo hits.  The battle lasted from 8 PM to midnight, with officers on the destroyers thinking they had sunk two or three enemy boats; eight fighters from the Ticonderoga came to help, but their pilots saw nothing worth shooting at.  Thus, as soon as the battle was over, Captain Herrick wondered if any enemy had attacked them at all.


These were the two encounters that came to be known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.  Although there were questions about whether there had been one attack or two, the Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly recommended a retaliatory bombing raid against North Vietnam.  In the United States, the news media greatly embellished the second attack with spectacular eyewitness accounts, though no journalists had been on board the destroyers.  This prompted President Johnson to retaliate.  On August 4, the first bombing of North Vietnam by the United States took place as oil facilities and patrol boat bases were attacked without warning by 64 U.S. Navy fighter bombers.  One hour after the air raids began, President Johnson went on TV to tell the American people about it.  Quote: “Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defense, but with positive reply.  That reply is being given as I speak with you tonight.”  Unquote.

Two Navy jets were shot down during the bombing raids, and one of the pilots, Lt. Everett Alvarez of San Jose, California, was captured.  Premier Pham Van Dong happened to be visiting the area northeast of Hanoi that Alvarez had raided, and he briefly met with Alvarez, before Alvarez was taken to a prison in Hanoi, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” as American prisoners of war would soon call it.  Alvarez was the first of nearly six hundred Americans who would be brought there over the next eight years; he was not allowed to leave until after the signing of a cease-fire agreement in 1973.

Speaking of Hanoi, we don’t know to this day who ordered the patrol boats to attack American ships; generally it is assumed that Le Duan did it.  Ho Chi Minh was furious; you may remember that back during the First Indochina War, he tried to get the Americans to support his side, instead of the French.  In 1964 he was still optimistic that the communists would win, but victory would be a lot easier if they didn’t have to fight the Americans, and now the Americans had the excuse they needed to get directly involved in the conflict.

Opinion polls taken on August 5, the day after the first American raids, reported that 85 percent of Americans supported President Johnson’s bombing decision.  Numerous newspaper editorials also come out in support of the president.  Johnson’s aides, including Defense Secretary McNamara, decided that the next step would be to get Congress to pass a White House resolution, that would give the President a free hand in Vietnam.  However, there was one senator who did not support this – Wayne Morse from Oregon, a man who was considered the most annoying member of Congress.  Morse had been tipped off by someone in the Pentagon that the Maddox was not an innocent bystander, the victim of an unprovoked attack, but had in fact been involved in the South Vietnamese commando raids against North Vietnam.  When McNamara went to Capitol Hill to sell the resolution to the Senate, Morse confronted him about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and McNamara declared that the U.S. Navy, quote, "…played absolutely no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any…"  Unquote.  Yeah, right.

Morse was considered a pompous windbag, and the rest of the Senate did not pay attention to him, so on August 7, 1964, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution put forward by the White House, allowing the President "to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force" to prevent further attacks against U.S. forces.  This gave the president the power to wage an undeclared war in Vietnam.  The resolution was passed unanimously by the House of Representatives, while in the Senate, only two voted against it.  One of the opposing senators was Wayne Morse, of course; the other was Ernest Gruening of Alaska, who said, quote,  "all Vietnam is not worth the life of a single American boy."  Unquote.

Soon after the resolution was passed, the Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant, decided it was time to pay a visit to Washington.  U Thant was Burmese, so we will be mentioning him again in a future episode of this podcast, and he offered to host peace talks between the United States and North Vietnam at Rangoon, the capital of his home country.  For a while it did look like negotiations would begin already, because the Soviet Union wanted to cool down the situation in Vietnam, and only the USSR could supply the surface-to-air missiles that North Vietnam needed to defend itself from American bombers.  But then in October the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, was ousted, and his successors, Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin, were more interested in other matters.  As for the Americans, they were more interested in fighting than talking, and in November Election Day arrived.  Johnson won the landslide he had wanted, getting 61 percent of the popular vote, so now he felt he had a mandate from the people as well as from Congress, to set his own policy for Vietnam.  While all this was going on, U Thant’s proposal was quietly forgotten.  You can add it to the long list of missed opportunities that characterize the Vietnam War.

The North Vietnamese response to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was to start sending regular North Vietnamese soldiers to infiltrate South Vietnam, via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Here their goal was not only to help the Viet Cong, but also to cause the South Vietnamese government to collapse, thereby winning the war.  And they had to do it before the Americans arrived in large numbers.  By December there were 10,000 North Vietnamese troops in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, carrying sophisticated weapons provided by China and the Soviet Union.

Whereas in the past some Americans were caught in bombings and firefights, now Americans were added to the list of possible targets.   On November 1, the first deliberate attack by the Viet Cong against Americans occurred at Bien Hoa air base, 12 miles north of Saigon.  A pre-dawn mortar assault killed five Americans, two South Vietnamese, and wounded nearly a hundred others.  Unlike what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, President Johnson dismissed recommendations for a retaliatory air strike against North Vietnam.


Back in Saigon, the political upheavals continued.  While the officers carried out their vendettas against each other, crowds of students and Buddhists demonstrated in the streets, demanding that the junta do more about human rights, and Catholic activists came out to oppose the Buddhists.  October 1964 saw another civilian government set up, with an agricultural engineer, Phan Khac Suu, as the head of state, and the former mayor of Saigon, Tran Van Huong, as prime minister.  Both of them were decrepit senior citizens; Huong was sixty-one years old, and Suu may have been as old as eighty.  Nor were they allowed to do much, because the military council still held the power.  I am mentioning them because Suu was a founding member of the Cao Dai, a local religion that appeared in Episodes 35 and 71 of this podcast; indeed, he was the only member of that religion to become a head of state.  The civilian government lasted for three months, until January 1965, when Khanh got tired of Huong and dismissed him.

On December 20, behind the civilian government that was supposedly in charge, yet another coup took place.  This time Khanh and the younger officers, led by Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky and General Nguyen Van Thieu, ousted the older generals from the government, including Gen. Minh.  Maxwell Taylor’s response to the coup showed that he wasn’t the best choice for the job of ambassador.  Although he was an intelligent soldier, Johnson had appointed him largely to keep the Pentagon happy, and he had little patience for the bickering among the South Vietnamese leaders.  Later on Taylor said this about his experience in Saigon.  Quote: “One of the facts of life about Vietnam was that it was never difficult to decide what should be done, but it was almost impossible to get it done.”  Unquote.

Anyway, the day after the coup, an angry Ambassador Taylor summoned the young officers to the US embassy, and scolded them like schoolboys over the continuing instability and endless intrigues plaguing South Vietnam’s government.  He had warned them before that Americans are "tired of coups," and now he warned them again.  This greatly offended the young officers.  Khanh retaliated by lashing out in the press against Taylor and the US, stating that America was reverting to "colonialism" in its treatment of South Vietnam.  Taylor’s response to this was a suggestion that Khanh resign and go abroad.  The truth of the matter was the Americans could no longer live with Khanh, but because they were committed to winning the war, they couldn’t live without him, either.

Speaking of the war, Americans became a Viet Cong target again on December 24, when the Viet Cong set off a car bomb at the Brinks Hotel, an American officers’ residence in downtown Saigon.  Set to go off at 5:45 p.m., during “happy hour” in the bar, the bomb killed two Americans and wounded 58.  Again, President Johnson said no to recommendations for a retaliatory air strike against North Vietnam.

During 1964, the US commitment to save South Vietnam continued to deepen.  There were 16,300 American servicemen stationed in South Vietnam at the beginning of the year, and by the year’s end that number had increased to 23,310.  And that wouldn’t be the maximum; on December 1, President Johnson’s top aides, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Defense Secretary McNamara, recommended a policy of gradual escalation of US military involvement in Vietnam.  That means the ground troops will be coming from the States next; expect to see them soon!

For the rest of the numbers, there were currently 514,000 soldiers in ARVN, the South Vietnamese army, and four other countries that opposed communism – South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand – had a combined total of 450 servicemen in South Vietnam.  Opposing them were an estimated 170,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters in the “People’s Revolutionary Army,” which began waging coordinated battalion-sized attacks against ARVN in the villages around Saigon.  This means the odds are against the communists – they are outnumbered by more than three to one.  But with much of the fighting in the jungle, and the Viet Cong using guerrilla tactics, the odds aren’t going to matter as much as you may think.  At the end of 1964, the Viet Cong could go anywhere they wanted in the countryside; although every town and city in South Vietnam was still under government control, for all practical purposes they were islands in a communist sea.


Would you believe we have run out of time already?  Before starting to work on this episode, I thought I was going to get as far as the American ground troops arriving, but don’t worry – they will definitely be here in the next episode!  I’m sure you will want to join me to hear how that turned out, especially if you are one of my American listeners.

Now here is a reminder that early next year, I plan to do a question and answer episode, where you the listener set the topic by asking questions about Southeast Asia, and I will do my best to answer them.  I haven’t gotten any questions yet, so start thinking of some!  You can post them on the podcast’s Facebook page, or drop an email to me at berosus@gmail.com.  That’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S, at gmail.com.

And while you are thinking of those questions, consider supporting the podcast as well.  If you are enjoying the show and want to make sure I can keep the episodes coming, the best way to do it is by making a secure donation through Paypal.  Now you will have to go to the podcast’s home site, on Blubrry.com, if you listen or download it from anywhere else.  The URL for the page is https://blubrry.com/hoseasia/ .   That’s spelled h-t-t-p-s://-B-L-U-B-R-R-Y-dotcom, /H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A/.  Once you are there, click on any episode’s page, scroll to the bottom, and click on the gold button that says “Donate.”  When you do so, you will get your first name mentioned at the beginning of the next episode, and you will be added to the Donor’s Hall of Fame page.

Now what is the Donor’s Hall of Fame page?  I said last time that I was thinking of giving special recognition to the donors.  Well, here is my idea.  As I record this, I am also working on a webpage that will list the first names and initials of the donors.  I’m not finished with it yet, because I’m doing so many other things right now, but it should be ready for viewing a day or two after this episode goes up.  When it is done, I will post links to it on the podcast Facebook page and from Blubrry.com.  Any donation will get your first name or initial on it.  Those who donate in more than one year will receive a special icon next to their name.  Since the icon has to be something associated with Southeast Asia, I have chosen an icon that looks like a water buffalo, called the carabao in the Philippines, since water buffaloes are found in every country of the region, except maybe in Singapore.  So far one donor has qualified for the water buffalo icon; will you be the next?  If you have already donated before, you only have to wait two weeks before donating again, and the water buffalo icon is yours!

<Carabao grunt>

That’s the water buffalo, saying hello!  Now here are the other requests I usually give at the end of each episode.  First, keep those written reviews and ratings coming in.  I appreciate all of them; even those reviews that don’t come with five-star ratings are useful, as constructive criticism.  If you go on Facebook, visit the History of Southeast Asia podcast page, and “like” it if you haven’t done so already.  Last and most of all, I want you to tell anyone you know, who listens to podcasts, about this show.  If they have a job where they spend a lot of time not doing much, if they have a long commute every workday, or if they are planning to go on a long trip soon, this will brighten their days, and hopefully they will thank you for it.  And now it is my turn to give thanks.  Since the next episode will come out on or near New Year’s Day, Happy New Year in advance!  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 79: The Second Indochina War, Part 7



Sorry I’m early!  I finished the next podcast episode ahead of schedule, so I am letting you have it today instead of tomorrow.  This episode covers the part of the Second Indochina War in Laos, the Laotian Civil War, from 1968 to 1974.  Now all we have left to do with Laos is talk about how the Civil War ended, which I plan to do when we wrap up the Vietnam War as well.



This episode is dedicated to Wallace D., Anthony B., and Gregory L., who made donations to the podcast.  To all of you, thank you for ending the dry spell, when it comes to donations.  From a financial point of view, a dry spell can never end soon enough.  Because I am recording part of this episode on the American Thanksgiving Day, I wish all of you a wonderful holiday season.  I also noted that Wallace has donated twice before, so you deserve special recognition.  At the end of this episode I will mention an idea I have concerning that.  And speaking of episodes, let’s get on with today’s show.

Episode 79:  The Second Indochina War, Part 7

or, The Three-Sided Civil War in Laos, Part 4

Greetings, dear listeners!  If you have listened to the podcast before, welcome back, and if this is your first time here, welcome to the show!  I hope all is well on your end.  Myself, I’m feeling better.  I must have sounded a bit exasperated in the previous episode, after all the recordings I did to get it right.

Anyway, this is the last episode I plan to do that is just about the Second Indochina War in Laos.  I’m not going to give much of a recap this time, because we are entering the home stretch of the story.  If you haven’t heard the story so far, and want to catch up to where we’re at, here are the episodes I recommend listening to:

Episodes 64 and 67 talk briefly about Laos during the First Indochina War, when the main conflict was between the Vietnamese communists, then called the Viet Minh, and the armed forces of France.  There we learned how Laos became independent, after sixty years as a French colony, and we met the Laotian leaders who would become the main characters in the Laotian Civil War, which was fought on and off from 1953 to 1975.  Then the narrative moved on to other topics, especially the Second Indochina War in Vietnam.

Episode 74 covered events in Laos from 1955 to 1962.

Episode 75 looked at what was happening in 1963 and 1964.

And Episode 78 followed the civil war from 1964 to 1968.

Now here are the overall trends to remember.  First, the factions.  There were three major factions fighting to control Laos: the communists, better known as the Pathet Lao; the rightists, also known as the royalists; and the neutralists.  The Pathet Lao were heavily supported by North Vietnam, which was also under communist rule, and North Vietnam was in turn supported by the Soviet Union and Red China.  The official leader of the Pathet Lao was a Laotian prince, Souphanouvong, nicknamed “the Red Prince.”

The rightists or royalists were anyone in the royal family, the government, and the armed forces who opposed the spread of communism in Laos.  Since this was the Cold War era, naturally the United States backed this faction.  So did Thailand, because Laos was on Thailand’s northern and eastern borders, it had been part of Thailand in the 19th century, when the kingdom was called Siam, and because the prime minister of Thailand at this time was a right-wing military dictator.  Over the course of the Laotian Civil War, the rightists had more than one leader, but the only one who was very effective was General Vang Pao, the commander of the US-trained Hmong tribesmen.

Most of the royal family belonged to a third faction, the neutralists, who mainly wanted all foreign powers to get out of Laos and leave their country alone.  Their leadership wasn’t very effective, either; the commander of the neutralist armed forces, General Kong Le, was forced to flee the country in 1966, and he never came back.  The top man among the neutralists was the prime minister, Prince Souvanna Phouma, the “White Prince.”  As time went on the neutralists shrank as a faction, with members either moving over to the American camp or to the Pathet Lao.  Souvanna Phouma, for instance, went from being totally neutral to pro-American.

Next, remember the ground fighting.  From 1964 onward, the war followed a pattern.  We have seen in previous episodes that warfare in Southeast Asia depended on the wet and dry seasons of Southeast Asia’s monsoon cycle.  During the dry season, which in Laos usually runs from November to May, the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese together launched their attacks.  Then during the rainy season, from June to October, the Royal Lao Army, the Hmong guerrillas, and what remained of the neutralist army would stage counter-attacks, to take back as much land from the communists as possible.  Most of the fighting took place on and near the Plain of Jars, a strategically important area in the middle of the country.  However, the anti-communist forces could not recover everything the communists took, so every year ended with the Pathet Lao controlling more of Laos than they did previously.  We should also note that after the cease-fire of 1962 was signed, foreign military personnel were not allowed in the country.  Most American servicemen did leave as a result, but a few got around this obstacle by being temporarily released from the Army or Air Force, and working under aliases instead of their real names.  As for the North Vietnamese, only a handful left; the rest stayed in the country under disguise, and more North Vietnamese troops sneaked into Laos every year.

Finally, there was the air war.  American aircraft, with the help of a few planes from Thailand, flew missions over Laos from bases in Thailand and South Vietnam.  They had two principal objectives, to give support to Lao government forces fighting on the ground, and to keep the North Vietnamese from using the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the road they had built in southeastern Laos to get supplies to the communists in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong.  The missions were organized under several operations:  missions over northern and central Laos were under Operation Barrel Roll, while Operations Steel Tiger and Tiger Hound were for the missions over the south.  However, they could not stop activity on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or completely halt the communist advances on the Plain of Jars.  The main result of the air war was that Laos became the most heavily bombed country of all time, and even now they are dealing with the problem of removing unexploded bombs, which can kill or seriously injure the unlucky folks who find them.

Okay, when we broke off the narrative last time, it was 1968, one of the peak years for American involvement.  Now let’s pick up where we left off, and cover what happened as the Americans started to pull out of Indochina.



By November 1968, it was clear that American bombing missions were not stopping the communist infiltration of South Vietnam.  Operations Steel Tiger and Tiger Hound were canceled, as well as the raids on North Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder.  In their place came Operation Commando Hunt, a more intense bombing campaign on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Here the thinking was that if the North Vietnamese lost enough personnel and trucks, they would realize it was useless to support the Viet Cong, and maybe they would be willing to talk peace.  Unfortunately, Air Force intelligence never knew for sure how much traffic was on the trail, or how much of it they were taking out.  If North Vietnam had a breaking point, it was not reached, and the operation was called off on March 29, 1972.  Like the other operations, Commando Hunt had not achieved much success.

I mentioned earlier that most of the aircraft used over Laos were based in South Vietnam or Thailand.  The main air base in Laos itself was at Long Tieng, in a valley just south of the Plain of Jars.  Almost nobody lived here in 1962 when the CIA set up the headquarters on this spot for Vang Pao and his Hmong troops.  Then in 1964 a runway was built, and the whole community took off.  Soon Long Tieng was the largest Hmong community in the world, with a population of at least 30,000, though it had no sewers and most of it was unpaved.  Because the Americans needed to keep their activities secret, the CIA called Long Tieng “Lima Site 98″ or “Lima Site 20A,” and the town did not appear on most maps until after the war.  In 2008 a German documentary about Long Tieng was released under the English title,“The Most Secret Place on Earth.”

I will read you a quote describing the place, from a USAID officer, Jim Schill, as quoted by Larry Clinton Thompson, in the work Refugee Workers in the Indochina Exodus, 1975-1982.  Quote:

“What a place is Long Tieng.  Tribal soldiers dressed in military garb standing next to traditionally dressed Hmong, with Thai mercenaries milling about.  And the Americans here are mostly CIA operatives with goofy code names like Hog, Mr. Clean, and Junkyard.  The town itself is not much.  There’s one paved road running through it and tin shacks on either side with eating shops, food stalls, and living quarters.”

End quote.

Anyway, in 1969 the seasonal cycle of “communist attacks in the dry season, anti-communist counter-attacks in the rainy season” was broken, because the number of sorties flown by Operation Barrel Roll increased sharply.  From 1965 to 1968 there had typically been 10 to 20 sorties a day; in 1969, however, there were as many as 300 sorties on one day.  The Royal Lao Army started by launching its annual counter-offensive on the Plain of Jars on March 23, 1969, before the dry season had ended.  In response, the North Vietnamese increased their force in Laos to 70,000 men, and with the Pathet Lao they struck back in June; being in the wet season, this was an out-of-time movement for them, too.  This time the communist offensive advanced far enough to threaten Long Tieng.  The Americans launched hundreds of air strikes, and though many were canceled because of bad weather, they were able to halt the offensive.  Thus, Vang Pao could launch a second counter-offensive in August, called “Operation About Face.”  For the first time since 1960, the entire Plain of Jars was in government hands.  Then the North Vietnamese launched a second offensive of their own in mid-September, which lasted until April 1970 and recovered the Plain of Jars.  On February 25, 1970, the Royal Lao government also abandoned Xiengkhouang, the capital of the province containing the Plain of Jars.


By 1970, attempts to keep the air war secret were getting ridiculous, because reports of the fighting in Laos appeared in the news from time to time, and the government in Washington kept denying its involvement.  After the election of a new US president, Richard Nixon, in 1968, members of Congress, who knew about the secret all along, began calling for disclosure.  One of them was Senator Stuart Symington from Missouri, who had visited the air bases in Thailand and was fully briefed.  In 1969 he said, quote, “We have been at war in Laos for years, and it is time the American people knew more of the facts.”  Unquote.

President Nixon had to come clean about it in March 1970, when the communists began to put pressure on Long Tieng again.  On March 6, he issued a lengthy statement on “the situation in Laos,” in which he acknowledged that US aircraft were flying combat missions in northern Laos and against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Laotian panhandle.  However, he incorrectly stated that no Americans stationed in Laos had ever been killed in ground combat.  As it turned out, an estimated 27 Americans were killed there in the past year alone.  The story of the secret war was now out, but the controversy was far from over.  Congress passed the Cooper-Church Amendment in December, which again prohibited US ground troops and advisors from entering Laos.

On May 1, 1970, a combined attack by North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao units took Attopeu, the southernmost provincial capital.  Because the Ho Chi Trail ran nearby, this gave the communists a solid grip on the southeast corner of the country.  Around the same time, Washington, believing that US objectives in Southeast Asia were being achieved, cut defense spending for the Indochina War effort, and this reduced the number of missions the Air Force could fly against the trail.  Throughout 1970, the North Vietnamese moved so many men and trucks on the trail, that US intelligence reports suggested they were getting ready for a major offensive in South Vietnam.


To do something about this, 18,000 men from ARVN, the army of South Vietnam, invaded Laos on February 8, 1971.  The invasion force was organized into 18 battalions of infantry (including airborne), four artillery battalions, three armored cavalry squadrons, two engineer battalions and six marine battalions.  They were encouraged to go in by the Americans, who for the past two years had been training the South Vietnamese to fight by themselves, without American help.  This program was called “Vietnamization” by President Nixon, and it will be covered in a future podcast episode.  The Americans felt that a successful operation here would be a big boost to South Vietnamese morale, sort of a “graduation exercise” after the training.  Although American troops could not follow the South Vietnamese into Laos, they could clear the Viet Cong away from the point of entry, near Khe Sanh, and provide air support.

The campaign was called Operation Lam Son 719, and its objectives were to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and to destroy two enemy bases near the Demilitarized Zone: Base 604, at the town of Tchepone, and Base 611, between Tchepone and the South Vietnamese border.  Both of the bases had supply depots stocked with tons of weapons, ammunition and food.  If successful, the South Vietnamese would stay in that part of Laos until May, when the rainy season began.  While most of ARVN moved on foot, American helicopters went ahead to drop paratroops and marines at key points.  In fact, this was the largest helicopter operation in the whole Indochina War.  However, the enemy knew the Americans and South Vietnamese were coming, and were ready for them.  The South Vietnamese Army marched on a road named Route 9, which had mountains and a river on the sides, providing several opportunities for ambushes.  Ground fighting was not heavy on the first day, but seven helicopters were shot down by enemy fire and several others were damaged.  On February 11, ARVN encountered the first serious firefights, near the village of A Loui, and the offensive stalled there.  The Americans had urged the army to move quickly, but the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, told the operation’s commanding general, Hoang Xuan Lam, that the safety of the troops was the first priority, and that he should cancel the operation if ARVN suffered 3,000 casualties.  Consequently the general gave no orders to the troops for three weeks after the firefights, and the troops would not move again until they heard from him.  Meanwhile, as you probably guessed, the communists brought reinforcements into the area, which included tanks, so the next time the South Vietnamese encountered resistance, it was tougher than expected.

Once ARVN resumed its march, President Thieu intervened again.  This time he told General Lam to not bother with the enemy bases, just concentrate on taking Tchepone.   The Ho Chi Minh Trail ran just west of Tchepone, meaning that ARVN would not reach the trail if they stopped in the town, and there were enemy supply caches in the jungle and mountains surrounding the town, but the civilian population had abandoned the town itself a few years earlier.  This meant Tchepone had no real military value; capturing it was just a face-saving move, that would allow the South Vietnamese to claim victory.  The battle for Tchepone began on March 3, with the helicopters leading the way by airlifting troops to four landing sites around the town.  The enemy resisted with anti-aircraft and artillery fire; the heaviest fighting was at a landing zone called LZ Lolo, where eleven helicopters were shot down and 44 were damaged.  It took until March 7 before there were enough troops on the ground to go for the town, and Tchepone was declared secured on March 9.

This was when both President Thieu and General Lam ordered the army to withdraw.  With reports of as many as 60,000 North Vietnamese in southern Laos, it was time for ARVN to quit while it was ahead.  The North Vietnamese did everything they could to prevent the South Vietnamese from escaping, pursuing them with tanks and other armored vehicles while continuing to pound them with artillery, rockets and mortars.  Route 9 became a tangle of disabled and destroyed ARVN tanks and other vehicles.  The American helicopters had to be used to evacuate the ARVN troops; the last of them returned to South Vietnam on March 24.

Although Nixon and Thieu called Operation Lam Son 719 a victory, the South Vietnamese had failed to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail; the farthest they had gotten into Laos was 22 miles.  Moreover, casualties were high for everybody.  ARVN lost 1,529 killed and 5,483 injured, almost 40 percent of their force; in addition, 96 artillery pieces and 71 tanks were destroyed.  Thousands of tons of enemy supplies were destroyed, including 1,500 crew-served heavy weapons, 106 tanks, 76 artillery pieces, and more than 4,000 small arms.  ARVN claimed it killed 13,345 enemies, while North Vietnam admitted to suffering 2,163 dead and 6,176 wounded.  Because of these losses, the next communist offensive in South Vietnam was postponed from 1971 to 1972.  The Americans had heavy losses as well:  253 killed, 1,149 wounded, 38 missing, 108 helicopters destroyed, and 544 helicopters damaged (of which 20% turned out to be damaged beyond repair).  Eventually the Americans realized that the operation wasn’t a victory after all; this was a bad omen, an early warning that the South Vietnamese would not be able to defend themselves, after the Americans got out of Vietnam.

I will finish the coverage of Operation Lam Son 719 with an excerpt from a Newsweek article, dated March 15, 1971.  Like the rest of the American news media, Newsweek Magazine has been accused of being biased against the US war effort in Indochina, but this article was more objective than most at the time.  Quote:

“To the modern American cavalryman of the air, the plunge into Laos has been something like an old-time charge on horseback:  admirably heroic, stunningly effective-and terribly costly.  For four weeks now, American helicopter pilots have flown through some of the heaviest flak in the history of the Indochinese war.  One-day alone last week, the Army admitted to losing ten aircraft to the unexpectedly heavy North Vietnamese ground fire, and there were reports from the field that the actual losses had been much worse.  As a result, the customary bravado of the American chopper pilot was beginning to wear a bit thin. “Two weeks ago,” said one gunship skipper, “I couldn’t have told you how much time I had left to serve in Vietnam.  Now I know that I’ve got 66 days to go, and I’m counting every one.”  Another flier added anxiously:  “The roles are reversed over there. In Vietnam, you have to hunt for the enemy.  But in Laos, man, they hunt for you.”

Despite the risks, it was inevitable that U. S. helicopters should be deeply involved in the Laotian campaign, for more than any other artifact of war, the chopper has become the indelible symbol of the Indochina conflict.  Helicopter pilots were among the first Americans killed in the war a decade ago, and, under President Nixon’s Vietnamization program, they will probably be among the last to leave.  In the years between, the chopper’s mobility and firepower have added a radically new dimension to warfare, and the daring young American pilots have scooped up their Silver Stars, Distinguished Flying Crosses and Air Medals by the bushel-along with Purple Hearts.  In the opinion of many military experts, the helicopter has been the difference between a humiliating U. S. defeat in Vietnam and whatever chance remains of attaining some more satisfactory outcome.”

End quote.


Elsewhere in southern Laos, the North Vietnamese 968th Infantry Regiment and Pathet Lao forces reclaimed the Tha Teng and Lao Nam areas, and captured the Bolaven Plateau.  In the north, the usual government counter-offensive on the Plain of Jars took place during the rainy season, and then in December 1971, the communists launched an offensive of their own.  For this, North Vietnam committed the 312th and 316th Infantry Divisions, the 866th, 335th, and 88th Regiments, and nine specialty branch battalions, while the Pathet Lao committed seven battalions.  They took the whole Plain of Jars once more, and spent the rest of the dry season digging into defensive positions.  The final campaign on the plain, another Royal Lao government counter-attack, lasted from May 21 to November 15, 1972.  Here the communists claimed to have killed 1,200 troops and captured 80.  By now it no longer mattered who controlled the plain, because the war was winding down in Vietnam, and that caused the war to wind down in Laos as well; US air strikes decreased in Laos, for example, because American planes were now needed more for bombing missions against North Vietnam.  At this point, about 80 percent of the country was under Pathet Lao control.

In November 1972, Pathet Lao and Laotian government representatives agreed to meet for peace talks.  They could not reach an agreement until a cease-fire was signed for Vietnam, in January 1973, and then the Laotian factions signed their own cease-fire, called the Vientiane Treaty, in Vientiane on February 21, 1973.  As with the 1962 cease-fire, the North Vietnamese violated it by keeping their troops in the country, around 50,000 this time.  At Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma’s request, US aircraft flew some more missions before they left; the final missions were against targets south of the Plain of Jars on April 17, 1973.

Now the political wrangling began, because the agreement called for the creation of a coalition government, the third since independence.  Not until September was an agreement reached on the composition of the Third Coalition Government and how it would operate; then it took another six months, until the spring of 1974, before security arrangements were in place for it to take office.  This time the Laotian cabinet had five communist, five rightist, and two neutralist members.  One of the neutralists was Souvanna Phouma, who continued on as prime minister.  If you remember the previous coalition governments, note the changed balance of political power; in the past the neutralists were the largest faction, now they are the smallest.

In July 1974, Souvanna Phouma suffered a heart attack.  It was so severe, that he spent part of the year recuperating in a hospital in France.  By now he was 72 years old, and had been prime minister, on and off, for most of the time since 1951.  Sensing that his days were numbered, he called for new elections to be held in 1976, and announced he would retire after the elections were finished.  We’ll see in a future episode how that worked out.


Yes!  We’re almost done covering the Laotian Civil War.  The only thing left to do is look at how the war ended, and I’m saving that for a future episode, because it is tied in with the end of the war in Vietnam.  And speaking of Vietnam, next time I plan to return to our narrative for that country, so join me for that.  So far in Vietnam, the Americans have acted a little like the parent whose kids are making too much noise in the basement, and the parent says, “Don’t make me come down there!”  Now it is time for the Americans to “come down there,” so to speak, by sending in the ground forces, thereby completing America’s commitment to winning the conflict.  Of course I have to say “conflict” because war was never declared here.  Don’t miss it, especially if you are an American or Vietnamese listener.


In case you haven’t heard the announcement, it’s time for another question and answer show!  This is when you the listener chooses the topic for an episode, instead of me.  Our first question and answer show was Episode 51, from a little over a year ago, so listen to that, to hear how it is done.  Basically you ask me questions on anything having to do with Southeast Asia, and I do my best to answer them.  For now, think about what you would like to ask, and post your questions on the podcast’s Facebook page, or email them to me, at berosus@gmail.com.  That’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S, @gmail.com.  I don’t know yet when I will do the episode, except that it will be after Episode 81.

Long-time listeners know that I politely ask for donations at the end of each episode, because this is my only compensation for the time, research and work that goes into the podcast, and it makes my wife happy, too!  A few times, I have casually talked about a podcast “hall of fame” for donors.  Now I am thinking of making a webpage that gives credit to the donors, after seeing another podcaster’s page that does it.  If you donate to the podcast, you will get your first name mentioned on the page.  Those who donate in more than one year will get a special icon placed next to their name; so far Wallace D. is the first to qualify for that honor.

If you feel this episode was worth your time, and you would like to get on that page, join the “Heroes of the History of Southeast Asia Podcast,” by making a secure donation through Paypal.  Go 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.”  Blubrry 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/.  If you can’t use Paypal, send me an email and I’ll give you a snail mail address to send a check to.  Finally, I am also thinking of setting up Patreon to receive a small monthly donation, for those who would rather give that way.  Stay tuned for more details about that in a future episode.

In the past I have asked you to write a review where you listen to or download your podcasts.  One of the latest reviews on iTunes complained about popping sounds and terrible acoustics.  I wish I knew where that was coming from, but I don’t hear any of that on this end, either when recording or playing it back to friends.  I’ll admit I did have a problem with popping sounds in the earliest days of this podcast, until I tried the solution some other podcasters have done – I put a sock over the microphone.  Don’t worry, it’s a clean sock, and I don’t remember ever wearing it.  Anyway, thank you for all the iTunes reviews; now do me a favor and leave a few reviews on the other websites and apps offering this show.

Would you like more content related to the show?  Then go on Facebook and “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page.  There you can see pictures, videos and show announcements.  Last but not least, tell everyone you know who might be interested about the show.  For those who are curious, I just went on Blubrry to look at where the podcast is being downloaded.  Recently I gave you a list of the top ten countries downloading the show; now here are the downloads for the top ten states in the United States.  Can I have a drumroll?


1. California
2. New York
3. Texas
4. Washington
5. Georgia
6. Illinois
7. Virginia
8. Massachusetts
9. Florida
10. North Carolina


Did you notice that Kentucky is not on the list?  All the other states where I have lived are in the top ten, but while I promote the podcast all the time locally, Kentucky ranks Number 27!  That means I’ve got work to do, and you can help by sharing word of the podcast with your family, friends, and acquaintances.  What the heck, share the podcast with your enemies, too, and maybe they won’t be enemies anymore.  Like I was saying, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 78: The Second Indochina War, Part 6



After a two-episode break, we are going back to the narrative about the Second Indochina War in Laos, this time covering events from 1964 to 1968, with special emphasis on the battles for Nam Bac Valley and Lima Site 85.



Episode 78:  The Second Indochina War, Part 6

or, The Three-Sided Civil War in Laos, Part 3

Greetings, dear listeners!  We recently took a two-episode break from our regularly scheduled programming, meaning the narrative that occupied Episodes 74 & 75, and now it is time to get back into it!  Therefore first-time listeners should listen to Episodes 74 & 75 first, in order to be up to date about what is going on in this episode.

For a quick recap, in Episode 71 I started covering the Vietnam phase of the Second Indochina War, what Americans call the Vietnam War and what Vietnamese call the American War.  There, have I confused you enough yet?  Three episodes of that brought us up to the end of 1963, and then I shifted the focus west, to cover the civil war going on in Laos at the same time.  Like Vietnam, Laos was divided into communist and anti-communist factions, but here they made an honest attempt to resolve their differences peacefully.  Elections were held more than once, and two coalition governments were set up, in 1958 and 1962, but neither government lasted very long.  The real source of trouble was that the war in Vietnam fueled the conflict here.  The United States, and to a lesser extent Thailand, supported the anti-communist factions:  the rightists, also called royalists, and the neutralists.  On the other side, the Soviet Union and Communist China supported North Vietnam, which in turn backed the communist faction in Laos, the Pathet Lao.  When they weren’t part of a coalition government, the Pathet Lao usually had their headquarters at Sam Neua, a provincial capital in the northeast.

By outside standards, the Pathet Lao were poor and lazy fighters.  They only succeeded in battles when North Vietnamese troops went with them.  But except for the Hmong tribesmen, who received guerrilla training from the US Central Intelligence Agency, the soldiers on the anti-communist side were even worse.  Only about ten percent of the Royal Lao Army soldiers had more than three years of education, meaning most of them couldn’t read, and most of them were only loyal to the officers they knew personally.  Therefore, in most of the battles during the early years of the war, 1959 to 1963, the Pathet Lao were the winners.  Eventually they gained control over just about all of the highlands, which make up most of the country’s landscape.  That left the Mekong River valley and the strategic Plain of Jars, a flat area in the middle of the country, to the royal government.  The Mekong valley remained under government control, because both Laotian capitals were on the banks of that river; the king stayed in his palace at the royal capital, Luang Prabang, while the rest of the government met in the other capital, Vientiane.  Meanwhile in the east, near the Vietnamese border, the North Vietnamese built the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to smuggle supplies and personnel to their partners in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong.

In 1964 the ground fighting settled into a stalemate.  Each year after that, the Pathet Lao launched their offensives during the dry season, which runs from November to May in Laos, and then during the rainy season months, between June and October, anti-communist forces, led by the US-trained Hmong, launched counter-offensives to take back as much territory as possible.  Most of the fighting was over the Plain of Jars, because both sides now felt they must have this area to win.

In the air, the Americans conducted first reconnaissance missions over communist-controlled territory, then secret bombing raids over the same areas.  Here the first objective was to help anti-communist forces on the ground.  The anti-communists were organized into three armies: the Royal Lao Armed Forces (which included those neutralists who had not gone over to the Pathet Lao), CIA-backed Hmong mercenaries, and the Thai border patrol police, who were then called the Volunteer Defense Corps.  The second objective was to stop the North Vietnamese from using the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Consequently the lion’s share of the bombs fell on the Plain of Jars, and in the provinces the Ho Chi Trail ran through.  From December 1964 onward, the bombing runs were called Operation Barrel Roll by the Americans.

During the air war, there were few Americans on the ground in Laos, and most of those present were civilians.  This was done because foreign military personnel were not permitted in Laos, according to the Geneva cease-fire agreement.  Likewise, most of the aircraft used over Laos were based in South Vietnam or Thailand, and the US Air Force trained Lao pilots at an air base in Thailand, instead of Laos; this activity was called Project Water Pump.  On the other side, the North Vietnamese also kept quiet about their activities in Laos, because they were not supposed to have any soldiers there either, but when the Geneva Accords called for them to leave, North Vietnam withdrew no more than 40, leaving thousands more in the country.  As a result, both the United States and North Vietnam would have liked to publicize the enemy’s violation of the accords, but both had more to gain by keeping quiet, so as not to reveal their own activities.

Finally, I pointed out that the bombing of Laos was simply overkill, no matter how you look at it.  Besides striking military targets, bomber crews came here to drop the ordinance they failed to drop on Vietnam and Cambodia, because it was safer to get rid of the bombs than it was to come back to an air base with them.  This meant that almost any place in Laos could get hit by bombs, and most of my sources pointed out that Laos is the most bombed country of all time; the Americans dropped more bombs here than they did everywhere in all of World War II.  And this hazard is not a thing of the past; a lot of the bombs landed without exploding, and since the war ended, they have killed and maimed thousands of civilians who were unlucky enough to find them.  Efforts have been made to find and disarm the unexploded ordinance, but there are so many bombs lying around, especially on the Plain of Jars, that it doesn’t look like the danger will go away any time soon.

All right, we have caught up.  Let’s resume the narrative!


The commander of US forces in and over Laos was a civilian, the US ambassador to Laos.  For the first half of the air war, from December 1964 to June 1969, the ambassador and commander was William H. Sullivan.  He was also the most controversial person to hold that title.  Considered brilliant by most and tyrannical by many, Sullivan was despised by the American high command (both Army and Air Force) in Saigon, because he demanded complete control over every aspect of American military operations in Laos.  To start with, every target the Air Force went after had to be approved by him.  General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, sarcastically referred to Sullivan as the “Field Marshal.”  But you have to admit that the ambassador had a difficult job.  He had to balance the competing interests of the CIA, the Seventh Air Force, the US armed forces in South Vietnam, and the Thais, and this had to be done without alienating the prime minister, Souvanna Phouma; by allowing US activities in the country short of an outright invasion, Prince Souvanna had become an ally in all but name.

With the intervention of US ground forces in South Vietnam in 1965, the Americans thought they would beat the North Vietnamese in a year or two.  They figured Vietnam would be like the Korean War in the fall of 1950, before the Chinese got involved in that conflict, with the communists forced to retreat everywhere they were attacked.  No one expected the Indochina War to go on for another decade.  Therefore the Americans did not see the need to send ground forces into Laos.  With Laos their principal objectives were to keep the North Vietnamese from using the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and to prevent a communist invasion of Thailand, so a holding action was all that they thought was needed.  As US Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it, quote:  “Laos was only the wart on the hog.”  Unquote.  Here is how Air Force historian Colonel Perry F. Lamy described Washington’s view of the situation.  Quote:

“Since the fate of Laos did not depend on a military solution in the air or on the ground in Laos and could only be decided by the outcome in Vietnam, winning the war against the DRV in northern Laos was not the objective. Instead, maintaining access to the country was paramount and keeping the Royal Lao government in power became the primary objective.”

Unquote.  By “DRV” Lamy meant the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, North Vietnam’s official name.

Laos experienced two military coups in January 1965.  The first coup, on January 27, was launched by General Phoumi Nosavan, the rightist leader, who wanted to run the government again.  For taking part in the unsuccessful coup attempts in 1964, Phoumi had lost his job as defense minister, and thus supposedly had no troops under his command; nevertheless, he persuaded one battalion and two companies to march on Vientiane, by telling them they were needed to stop an attack on the capital by another army unit.  Then on January 31, Lieutenant Colonel Bounleut Saycocie, who was unaware of Phoumi’s coup, launched a second coup with three companies, which occupied the radio station and some other critical points in Vientiane.  Five announcements were aired on the radio station before US Ambassador Sullivan got an Australian technician to sever the radio station’s connection to its antenna, thereby taking the radio station off the air.  General Kouprasith Abhay, the military region commander, used the troops already in Vientiane to suppress both coups by February 4.  Phoumi fled to Thailand and stayed there in exile until his death in 1985, so we won’t hear from him anymore.  Two other generals were purged and one was jailed.  Behind the scenes, elite families settled scores, causing several junior officers to be jailed, murdered, or dismissed from the army, further weakening the government armed forces.

In March of 1965, the first US combat troops arrived in South Vietnam.  As a result, from this point onward American activities in Laos were done for the purpose of supporting American activities in Vietnam.  On April 3, the US Air Force launched its second operation over Laos, Operation Steel Tiger.  This operation went after targets in southern Laos, where the objective was to destroy enemy forces and supplies moving on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Henceforth, the first Air Force operation, Operation Barrel Roll, would continue, but only over northern Laos.  The communists responded by increasing their infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and by conducting most of their movements at night, making them harder to detect.  To stop this action, in December 1965 a third operation, Operation Tiger Hound, was launched.  This operation was concentrated on the part of Laos adjacent to the border of South Vietnam, and it used aircraft from the Air Force, the US Navy, the US Marines, the South Vietnamese Air Force, and the Royal Laotian Air Force.

Now let’s move to the ground war; did the Americans and the Royal Lao Army have any plans for driving back the communists?  The best idea they could come up with was to take back the Nam Bac valley.  This valley was located in the north, halfway between Luang Prabang and the Chinese border.  It had been abandoned to the Pathet Lao in 1961, and if the government held it again, this would block the traditional invasion route into Laos from Vietnam.  The problems in taking and holding the valley were the same that the French experienced at Dienbienphu, which I covered in Episode 68.  The only road going to Nam Bac was controlled by the North Vietnamese, so any troops in the area would have to be supplied by air, and they would have to occupy the hills surrounding the valley to prevent communist attacks from succeeding.

In July 1966, Royal Lao Army troops, composed of three infantry regiments, one independent infantry battalion, and one artillery battalion, were airlifted to the Nam Bac valley by helicopter.  This, combined with the bombing raids from Operation Barrel Roll, slowed down the Pathet Lao advance on the Plain of Jars, allowing government forces to counter-attack there as well.  By August, there were Royal Lao Army troops within 45 miles of the North Vietnamese border, the closest they had gotten since the battle of Lak Sao, three years earlier.  So far there had only been a few casualties, and this action was hailed as a great victory by the Royal Lao Army.  In response, North Vietnamese troops were sent into the hills surrounding the valley, and they thwarted attempts by the Royal Lao army to break out of the valley in early 1967.  Both sides sent reinforcements in 1967, building the troop strengths up to 4,100 for the communists, and 7,500 for the Royal Lao Army, which included 3,000 guerrillas.

Because of a shortage of helicopter pilots, government forces did not receive enough supplies, and as was the case at Dienbienphu, artillery bombardment of the valley’s airfield made it unsafe for fixed-wing aircraft to come in.  But there weren’t that many planes available, either; in July 1967 the North Vietnamese staged a ground attack on Luang Prabang airfield, destroying about a dozen T-28s of the Laotian Air Force.  By the time the dry season began in October, the battle for Nam Bac had become a Dienbienphu-style siege, with the initiative passing to the communists.  The government sent a unit of General Vang Pao’s Hmong guerrillas in an attempt to lift the siege, but communist reinforcements arrived first.  December saw the North Vietnamese commit their battle-hardened 316th Division, along with the 335th Independent Regiment.

On January 11, 1968, the North Vietnamese 41st Special Forces Battalion attacked the northern outskirts of Luang Prabang.  Two days later, thinking that the rest of the Nam Bac valley had already fallen to the communists, the Royalist commander, Savatphayphane Bounchanh, left his command post and withdrew south.  In reality it hadn’t fallen, but once the command post was abandoned, the communists routed the leaderless Royal Lao Army and quickly occupied the valley.  About 200 Royal Lao Army troops were killed in action, and 2,400 were captured, of which more than 600 eventually switched sides, joining the Pathet Lao.  Only about 1,400 Royal Lao Army soldiers returned to government service after the battle, meaning that a lot of soldiers simply deserted; the army never completely recovered from these losses.  The communists also captured a great deal of equipment: lots of small arms, seven howitzers, 49 recoilless rifles, 52 mortars, and plenty of ammunition.


Podcast footnote:  For 1968, I have estimates on the size of the forces in Laos.  By this time there were about 40,000 North Vietnamese regular army troops, divided between keeping the Ho Chi Minh Trail open, and helping some 35,000 Pathet Lao forces.  The Royal Lao Army, (still entirely paid for and equipped by the US), numbered 60,000; Vang Pao’s CIA-trained Hmong guerrillas were half that number, and Kong Le’s neutralists numbered 10,000.  End footnote.

The Battle of Nam Bac wasn’t the only communist victory in 1968.  On Phou Pha Thi, a 5,600-foot-high mountain in northeastern Laos, the US Air Force had set up a tactical air navigation system in 1966.  The mountain is located 100 miles south of Dien Bien Phu, 160 miles west of Hanoi, and just 25 miles west of the Pathet Lao capital, Sam Neua; no buildings had been on the mountain previously because the local Hmong and Yao tribesmen thought the place was a home for spirits.  The new installation was a radar station and radio transmitter, used to guide American fighters and bombers to their targets in North Vietnam, and it was code-named Lima Site 85.  At the foot of the mountain, a 700-foot airstrip was built so that everything needed could be flown in.  Finally, opium poppies were grown near the mountain, and were a major source of revenue for the Hmong; however, we don’t know if General Vang Pao and the CIA were actually involved in the local drug traffic.

Of course all this was a violation of the 1962 cease-fire, but Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma allowed it on condition that the site not be manned by US military personnel.  Therefore the Americans working here were temporarily released from military service, so they could pretend to be civilian technicians; the soldiers guarding the facility were Hmong and members of the Thai Border Patrol Police.  I found a declassified report which stated that between November 1967 and March 1968, Lima Site 85 guided 427 sorties against North Vietnam, and 1,472 sorties for Operation Barrel Roll.

Naturally the other side couldn’t ignore the installation after they found out about it, and before the end of 1967, American reconnaissance aircraft detected the North Vietnamese building paved roads heading for Phou Pha Thi.  The Pathet Lao overran a nearby village in December, but the Hmong drove them out again.  Then in January 1968, the North Vietnamese staged a rare attack on the site by air.  I will read a description of the air raid from a book by Jane Hamilton-Merritt, Tragic Mountains:  the Hmongs, the Americans, and the Secret War for Laos, 1942–1992.  Quote:

“On 12 January, CIA spotters reported a four-aircraft formation flying in the direction of Lima Site 85.  They were Soviet-made Antonov An-2 biplanes.  Two aircraft continued towards Lima Site 85, while the others turned away.  The Vietnam People’s Air Force, in one of its few air attacks during the conflict, tried to destroy the radar at Lima Site 85.  The An-2s flew over Phou Pha Thi, and their crewmen dropped 120 mm mortar shells through the aircraft’s floor and then strafed their targets with 57 mm rockets mounted on the wing pods.  As they repeatedly attacked the facility, ground fire heavily damaged one AN-2, and it crashed into a mountainside.  By now, CIA officers and US controllers at Lima Site 85 had managed to contact an Air America helicopter, which was faster than the Soviet-made biplanes.  The Huey pilot Captain Ted Moore sighted the remaining An-2, and promptly gave chase.  As he pulled alongside, flight mechanic Glenn Woods armed with an AK-47 assault rifle opened fire and caused the biplane to crash into a ridge.

The remaining An-2s had observed the attack from a distance and managed to escape without damage. Four Hmongs, two men and two women, had been killed by the communist attack. The TSQ-81 radar and associated equipment were undamaged.”

End quote.

Over the course of February, North Vietnamese forces assembled in the vicinity of Phou Pha Thi.   On Februray 18, the Hmong ambushed a small party of North Vietnamese five miles southeast of the site.  Among those killed was an officer who carried a notebook with plans for an attack on Phou Pha Thi.  The notebook said three North Vietnamese battalions and one Pathet Lao battalion would take part; the exact location of the installation was also given.  Now that the Americans knew the North Vietnamese were coming to get them, they requested more arms to defend the installation; this request was denied, out of fear that it would blow the cover of the American personnel.  Although a CIA report said that Lima Site 85 would not hold out past March 10th, the officers on the site were confident that the enemy couldn’t scale the mountain’s cliffs,

The North Vietnamese had completely surrounded the mountain by March 9, and they launched their assault on March 10, led by a 33-man platoon that had received special training in mountain fighting.  Against expectations, they went up the cliffs, and on the early morning of March 11 they reached the buildings on top and began attacking with grenades.  Helicopters were belatedly called in to evacuate the Americans, but twelve of the nineteen Americans were killed; this was the greatest loss of Air Force personnel in any Laotian battle.  Years later the North Vietnamese reported killing 42 enemies in the battle, mostly Hmong and Thais.  By the middle of the day, the site was completely overrun; the Americans now decided they needed to destroy the radar so that the enemy could not use it, and also destroy any intelligence the North Vietnamese could gather.  During the next seven days, 95 sorties were flown against the site, which also obliterated any American remains that were left on the mountaintop.


All right, that will do it for today.  I want to apologize for getting behind schedule, when it came to recording this episode.  For some reason, whenever I played back what I had recorded, it just didn’t sound right, and by the time my self-imposed deadline arrived for putting it up, the recording was too long to edit easily.  It makes me wonder how the more long-winded podcasters get their recordings done in the time they have.  I will also admit that after all the time and episodes I have spent on the war in Laos, I was getting impatient to return to the war in Vietnam.  As it turns out, the original script sounds better when divided in two, so I will need one more episode to make it to the 1973 cease-fire, and Vietnam will have to wait until the last episode scheduled for this year.  The good news is that I think I can get the next episode done quickly, since a lot of the footage I recorded for today will go into that episode instead.  On that note, join me next time for the fourth (and I promise the last) episode on the Laotian Civil War!

Recently I decided that it’s nearly time to record another question and answer episode.  It won’t be coming up right away, I plan to do it after the new year begins, which means it will be Episode 81 or later.  In the meantime, think of some questions you would like to ask me, anything having to do with Southeast Asia.  To get the questions to me, post them on the podcast’s Facebook page, or email them to me, at berosus@gmail.com.  That’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S, @gmail.com.

Unfortunately, the podcast has not received any donations since the previous episode went online.  If you are getting anything from this podcast, I am asking you to support it with a donation; for most of its existence, the podcast has been listener-supported.  It doesn’t have to be a lot; I know money has to be stretched during the upcoming holiday season, and a lot of small donations will be just as good – maybe even better – than a few large donations.  The easiest way to do it is to make a secure donation through Paypal.  Just go 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.”  Recently I added the Paypal button to the top of my personal blog, so you can make a donation there, too.  Blubrry 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/.  My 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.  If you can’t use Paypal, send me an email and I’ll give you a snail mail address to send a check to.  There, have we covered all bases?

If you listen to or download the episodes anywhere besides Blubrry, you can also help by writing a review and giving the podcast some stars, the more the merrier!  And I mentioned a minute ago that Facebook has a History of Southeast Asia Podcast page, so “like” it if you are on Facebook and haven’t done so already.  That way you will see the related content I share, and announcements, like the one I posted about this episode being a bit late.  When you’re in the real world, don’t forget to tell the people you know about the show:  family, friends, anyone who works a boring job, or anyone planning to go on a long trip.  Take it from me, podcasts are a great way to pass the time!  Finally, if you’re in the United States, I want to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!  That’s all for now.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 77: What Buddhism is All About



Today the podcast has another special episode, prompted because a donor to the podcast asked three questions that I should have answered two or three years ago. May you find the answers enlightening (pun intended). You may want to go back and re-listen to the early episodes that discussed Buddhism’s impact on Southeast Asia, especially Episodes 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7, after hearing this.



Episode 77:  What Buddhism Is All About

Greetings, dear listeners!  If you listened to the previous episode, I hope you had a good time getting spooked by it.  If this is your first time here, we’re glad to have you!  Originally, for this episode I was going to return to the topic that filled Episodes 71 through 75, the Second Indochina War.  You were probably expecting that, if you saw the picture I recently shared on the podcast’s Facebook page; the picture showed a Buddhist monk in Laos, with two unexploded bombs that the Americans dropped on his country, fifty years ago.

Then I got a donation from Jouke C. (I hope I’m pronouncing that right).  Jouke, of course this episode is dedicated to you, more so than with previous dedications, because of the three questions you asked in the email that came with the donation.  I should have answered those questions long ago, so I am going to devote this episode to answering them now.  Better late than never, as the saying goes!

I’ll take care of the easiest question first.  Jouke asked if there were horses in the Philippines before the Spanish conquest.  In the previous episode, when I was talking about a horselike monster called the Tikbalang, I said no, but it turns out I was wrong; I spoke too soon.  Today I looked it up, and found that Pangasinan, the pre-Spanish kingdom in northern Luzon, had horses; they got them from one of their trading partners, either Japan or Ming dynasty China.

Even so, I don’t think there were enough horses, either among the natives or among the Spaniards, to make a difference in the battles, the way they made a difference in the Spanish conquest of Latin America.  Take it from me; I live in Kentucky, and my home town calls itself the “Horse Capital of the World”; I see horses when I go out of town.  Horses don’t do well in tropical climates, and as you know, all of Southeast Asia is tropical.  For that reason, I think the first encounter most of Southeast Asia had with horses came in the late thirteenth century, when the greatest horsemen of the Middle Ages, the Mongols, raided Burma, Chiangmai in northern Thailand, Vietnam and Java.  However, we have also noted in the past that the mountains of northern Luzon are relatively cool, compared with the rest of the Philippines, and that would have allowed the people of Pangasinan to raise their own horses.  The shortage of horses in the rest of Southeast Asia is one of the reasons why Southeast Asians continued to use war elephants until the late 1800s, though elephants are less reliable than horses in a battle.


And now, for the biggest question.  Jouke also asked what are the differences between the two main sects of Buddhism, Mahayana and Therevada.  Three years ago, I thought about doing a whole episode on how Buddhism got started, because it would tie in with what I said in the earliest episodes about how Buddhism was introduced by missionaries from India, but then I decided it was a more appropriate subject for a podcast on Indian history.  Now here is the episode I cut out for the sake of saving time; you may want to call it Episode 2.5!

The Man Who Woke Up

From a spiritual point of view, the sixth century B.C., the years between 600 and 500 B.C., were a remarkable time.  Almost every ancient civilization in those days produced great thinkers and religious leaders.  In the Middle East, this was the time of three great Old Testament prophets – Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel – plus some lesser prophets like Haggai and Zechariah.  Meanwhile in Greece, the first philosophers appeared, men like Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Xenophanes and Pythagoras.  Persia had Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism, and China produced its two greatest philosophers, Confucius and Laozi.  Egypt had a famous priest at this time named Udjahorresne, but he isn’t known for any revolutionary theology.  However, this was when Egyptians started carrying animal worship to its logical conclusion by mummifying thousands of animals.  They continued this practice all the way into the Greco-Roman era, because by then it was “the Egyptian thing to do.”  Even Native Americans may have taken part in this intellectual activity.  Of course we have no written records on what was happening in the Americas this far back, but the oldest of the North American mound-building cultures, the Adena culture, got started around 600 B.C., in what are now Ohio and the surrounding states.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we find out someday that a great “medicine man” told his people to start building mounds.

Finally, India had the founders of two major religions: Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, and Siddartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha.  Jainism would never become popular outside of India, but Buddhism would find powerful patrons that would spread its teachings extensively until it became the most important religion of the Far East.  Therefore I will begin by telling the Buddha’s life story.

Siddhartha Gautama was born in 563 B.C., to a minor prince or raja in the foothills of the Himalayas.  According to the legends that have grown up around the facts, he was a promising son from the start.  Before his birth a wise man predicted that if he kept his mind on worldly matters, he would grow up to become the world’s greatest king, but if he saw the real misery of the world, he would become the world’s greatest teacher instead.  Siddhartha’s father definitely wanted him to become a king, so he sheltered the child from all sickness and decay, surrounding him with youth and beauty constantly.

As Siddhartha grew to manhood, it seemed that his father got his wish.  When he was not in school learning the skills of war or the traditions of his culture, he went on tiger hunts.  Back in the palace were more delights: a garden full of mango trees, and a sizeable harem that would be his on the day he became raja.  Before long he also had a beautiful wife named Yasodhara.  However, not long after the wedding came four incidents that would change the prince’s life completely.

According to legend, Siddhartha was riding with his charioteer, Channa, in the sheltered precinct, and he discovered a broken-down old man whom the guards had somehow overlooked.  Siddhartha asked Channa what that creature was and learned that people grow old.  Not long afterward, on another ride, the prince saw a man covered with sores and shivering with fever, and learned that people get sick.  The third sign he saw, a corpse being carried on a litter to the cremation ground, taught him that people die.  But the fourth sign gave the unhappy prince hope; he saw a cheerful holy man who had nothing but a yellow robe and a bowl for begging.  With that he knew what he had to do to find real peace in the world.

The palace was no longer a pleasant place for him; the next time he went to his father’s harem, he saw the kingdom’s most beautiful women as they would one day appear, with grey hair and wrinkles.  Soon after, his wife gave birth to a son, but he felt no pride.  That night, he said goodbye to them while they slept and rode away in his chariot with Channa.  When they were well beyond the palace grounds, he got out of the chariot, removed his clothes and cut off all his hair, and said goodbye to Channa as well.  Now that he was separated from everything that had ever belonged to him, he was ready to begin a new life.

The young ex-prince began his quest by learning the Uphanishads an important set of Hindu scriptures, from a guru he met.  That failed to satisfy him, so he went with five other seekers into the forest to practice the most extreme asceticism possible.  Siddhartha outdid them all, eating only one grain of rice a day, and continuing this discipline until he could feel his spine whenever he rubbed his stomach.  Yet self-torture did not teach him the meaning of life, so after five years of this, he gave up and went to a village to beg for food.  His companions were appalled to see him eating and drinking again with enjoyment.  They called him a reprobate and left him.

Siddhartha, now 35 years old, wandered to Magadha, the most important kingdom on the Ganges River, and there he sat under a great tree that is now called the Bodhi (tree of wisdom).  For seven weeks he stayed there, vowing not to move until he discovered the cure for suffering.  After rejecting the evil spirits that offered him greater powers and pleasures than the ones he enjoyed as a youth, he descended into a trance that was somewhere between life and death, a perfect realm he would call Nirvana.  When he woke up he became the Buddha, meaning the Enlightened One.  Afterwards, as he tried to explain to others what had happened to him, he met again the five ascetics who had spurned him.  They sensed at once the change that had come over him, and to them the Buddha preached his first sermon.

The Buddha’s message was that there are four absolute truths:

1. Suffering is inevitable in this life.
2. Desire is the cause of suffering.
3. Suffering ends when desire is forsaken.
4. The cure for desire is the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path, simply put, is eight rules to live by.  It is symbolized by a wheel with eight spokes.  Here are the rules:

1. Hold the right views.
2. Have the right aspirations.
3. Use the right speech.
4. Show the right conduct.
5. Pursue the right livelihood.
6. Expend the right effort.
7. Maintain the right attitude.
8. Practice the right meditation.

The Buddha believed in the doctrine of karma, but his goal was not to get ahead in the next life.  To him, the ultimate goal of following the Eightfold Path was to get to Nirvana, which literally meant "the blowing out," like the blowing out of a candle.  Once I heard Nirvana described as, quote, “the state of perfect nothingness.”  Unquote.  By reaching Nirvana, one could escape the whole sorrowful cycle of human existence through oblivion.

As the Buddha grew older, he gained many followers who strove to live by his example.  He also gained the attention of Bimbisara, Magadha’s first important king.  According to one story, the Buddha was visiting Bimbisara when a priest approached the king and told him to sacrifice fifty of his finest goats, assuring him that if he did so, both his prayers and offerings would go, quote,  "directly to Heaven."  Unquote.  The Buddha asked the priest if his father was still alive.  The priest answered that he was, and the Buddha inquired, quote, "Then why not sacrifice him?"  Unquote.  Delighted at this turn of events, Bimbisara kept the goats and banished the priest.  With the traditional power of the Brahmans broken, the kingdom of Magadha had made an important step toward becoming an empire.

As you can see, Buddhism first presented itself as a moderate alternative to Hinduism, a creed that demanded less from its followers than Hinduism did.  Likewise, the Buddha died moderately, in a way you wouldn’t expect a holy man to go.  He lived to the age of eighty, and one day in 483 B.C., he overdosed on a meal of spoiled pork.  It would be more than two hundred years after that before a Magadhan king converted to Buddhism.  You have probably heard of that king; I mentioned him in Episode 2 – Asoka.  Still, even in the early years, Magadha’s tolerance of the new creed allowed its fortunes to grow along with those of the kingdom.  From Asoka onward, missionaries would go forth to make converts in all the lands surrounding India.


The Great Buddhist Split

Now what caused the division of Buddhism into separate sects?  To answer that question we need to fast-forward, to the first century A.D..  Around the year 60, a nomadic tribe in Afghanistan broke camp and moved south, into the Indian subcontinent.  China called them the Yuezhi, and most Western history texts call them the Tocharians.  They settled down in the upper Indus valley, changed their name to the Kushanas, and founded an empire named Kushan, which grew to encompass Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even the upper half of the Ganges valley.  The greatest Kushan king was named Kanishka, and we think he ruled during the years 78 to 102, but we aren’t sure; all of Kushan’s dates are uncertain.  Anyway, under Kanishka, Kushan’s rule stretched from the Caspian Sea to Khotan in what is now northwest China, and as far east as Varanasi in India.  Kushan’s capital was Purushapura, modern Peshawar in northern Pakistan, and it became a center for commerce and religion.  The famous Silk Road, the great trade route between China and the Roman Empire, passed through the northern part of the realm, allowing Kushan to make a profit from the traffic on it; Kushana merchants could also sail down the Indus to the Arabian Sea, and they sold their wares as far west as Egypt.  Thus, the Eurasian landmass was dominated by four empires as the first century ended:  the Roman Empire, the Parthian Empire in Iraq and Iran, Kushan, and China.  Romans, Parthians, Indians and Chinese could all be found in Kushan, pausing here as they traveled from one country to another.  On top of all that, Kanishka was a great patron of Buddhism; while he was king, Buddhism was both reformed and introduced to China.

For a long time, perhaps as far back as the reign of Asoka, Buddhists had argued over how they should teach their creed.  Some believed that it was asking too much to make everyone get to Nirvana on his own.  Their solution was to introduce the idea of the Bodhisattva, a saint who has achieved the ethical perfection needed to enter Nirvana, but has instead chosen to stay on earth and save as many ordinary people as possible.  Under Kanishka’s leadership, the revisionists held a council in Kashmir, where over a six month period they hammered out an elaborate theology to explain what they believed.  They called their doctrine Mahayana, meaning "Greater Vehicle," because as they saw it, "Why should salvation be portrayed as a small raft that can only carry a few, when it is really a big ship with space for everyone?"  The Buddhist fellowship in Sri Lanka boycotted the Kashmir council and promoted a conservative doctrine that followed the original teachings as much as possible.  Followers of this doctrine called it Therevada, meaning "The Way of the Elders," while Mahayanists called it Hinayana, the "Lesser Vehicle."

Two more differing creeds that claim to be the same religion would be hard to find.  Indeed, Protestants and Catholics in Europe, and Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East, have fought wars over smaller differences than these.  The only thing Mahayana and Therevada have in common is that both accept the Buddha’s four truths and the Eightfold Path.  The differences between Mahayana and Therevada Buddhism are summarized as follows:

1. The view of God and the Afterlife: Therevada talks so little about God that it can be called an atheistic creed.  Therevadists say that God, if he exists, is irrelevant–as a being of the universe He/She/It is subject to the same law of Karma as humanity.  Mahayanists on the other hand teach that piety is a virtue, and Mahayana easily combines with other religions.  For example, the Japanese combine Mahayana Buddhism with Shinto, while the Chinese combine it with Confucianism and Daoism.  Often Mahayana sects bring in a vision of Heaven and Hell, replacing the Buddha’s formless Nirvana.

2. Ritual: Therevada cares little for metaphysics and ritual; prayer is limited to meditation.  Mahayana has a place for ritual and petitionary prayer.

3. Man’s Role:  Therevada teaches that man is an individual, who must achieve salvation on his own.  Mahayana teaches that man is not alone, and he is in this world to help others.

4. Ideals:  Therevada’s ideal is the arhat, a monk who steers for the goal of Nirvana without letting anything get in the way.  The Mahayana ideal is the Bodhisattva, one who vows not to leave this world until, quote, "the grass itself be enlightened."  Unquote.  Therevada’s highest virtue is wisdom, Mahayana rates compassion as the most important quality to have.

Podcast Footnote:  The best explanation I have heard of the differences between the two sects comes in the form of a story told by Mahayanists.  Here it is.  Once upon a time there were four men wandering in a desert, desperately seeking food, water and shelter.  Eventually one of them came to a place that was surrounded by a long wall.  The wall was crumbling in a few spots, and he found a spot where he could climb it.  From the top of the wall he looked into the enclosure, and there was a beautiful garden, with all kinds of fruit, springs of water, and other wonderful things.  The man shouted with joy and jumped into the garden.  Later on the second man found the wall and climbed it, and so did the third man; both of them were also delighted, and they jumped into the garden, too.  When the fourth man discovered this oasis with a wall around it, he climbed the wall as well.  But at the top of the wall, after he saw the garden, he said, “Wait a minute.  There are other people in the desert, who would like to find a place like this.”  So instead of jumping in, he climbed down, and went back into the desert; his goal now was to tell other people about this place.  According to the Mahayanist storyteller, the first three men are the kind of monks who manage to reach Nirvana without help, while the fourth man is a Bodhisattva, who feels he cannot enjoy that pleasure until he has shared it with everyone else.  End footnote.

Mahayana Buddhism is a greater vehicle when it comes to its geographical spread; today it is the most widely practiced religion in China, Tibet, Bhutan, Mongolia, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam.  The form of Mahayana followed in Tibet, Mongolia and Siberia combines Mahayana teaching with mystical practices called Tantra, and is called Lamaism, because its monks are called Lamas.  Therevada is found in a much smaller area:  Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.  Except for Sri Lanka, all of those countries are in the area I define as Southeast Asia.  Longtime listeners will also remember that in Episodes 20 and 27, I told about two Siamese kings who felt the clergy had strayed off the straight, narrow path taught by the Buddha, and they made reforms to get the clergy back on track.  For that reason, modern-day Thais will claim that Thailand has replaced Sri Lanka as Therevada’s headquarters.


The Way of the Ancestors

The last question I was asked called for information about animism in Southeast Asia.  This will be the toughest to answer, because the beliefs and customs we call “animism” vary from one locality to the next, starting with the names and jobs of the gods.  The one constant is that followers of animism believe there are supernatural spirits all around them:  in plants and animals, in the air, in large objects like lakes and volcanoes, and so forth.

None of the majority ethnic groups in Southeast Asia practice animism today; all of them have adopted a major religion from another part of the world, usually Buddhism, Christianity or Islam.  Hinduism used to be popular as well, as we saw in the early episodes of the podcast, but today it is restricted to Bali and the cities where Indian communities exist.  The current practitioners of animism are minority tribes, of which these are the most famous:

1. In Laos: The Rmeet and the Katu.
2. In Malaysia: The Chewong.
3. In the Philippines: The Ifugao.
4. Indonesia has several animist tribes scattered across Borneo and the eastern islands.  I will just give you the names of the tribes for now: Kelabit, Bentian, Toraja, Bugis, Sasak, Bima, Nage, Alor, Hualu, Banda Eli.
5. Finally, most of the people of East Timor were converted to Catholicism in the twentieth century, but you can still find animism practiced by three of their tribes: the Atoni, Makassi, and Naueti.

Podcast footnote:  Forty years ago, I watched a thirteen-part British documentary about world religions, called The Long Search.  Each episode went to a different place in the world, to look at religious practices there; for example, the show on Islam went to Egypt, and the show on Protestant Christianity went to the United States.  For an example of animism, the producers of that documentary went to eastern Indonesia, and introduced a tribe living on the island of Sulawesi, the Torajas.  I found the Toraja episode on YouTube, and posted a link to it on the podcast’s Blubrry and Facebook pages.  Unfortunately, the second half of the video is dubbed over in Italian; hopefully those who watch the whole thing can understand what’s going on.  Because of the work of Dutch missionaries, most of the Torajas converted to Christianity in the first half of the twentieth century, and because this is Indonesia, the world’s largest Moslem country, a few have converted to Islam, but a core group in the tribe still practice the old-time animism, which they call “the Way of the Ancestors.”  It involves water buffalo sacrifices and an elaborate cult honoring the dead.  End footnote.

Throughout the region, animistic customs have remained whenever another religion moved in; the natives were not willing to give up everything they did or believed in previously.  To give one example, today the Philippines is mostly Catholic, but their festivals combine Christian symbols with pre-Christian ones; in that sense, the Catholic Church in the Philippines is like the Catholic Church in Latin America.  In Cambodia, many believe that the ruins of Angkor Wat are protected by a powerful guardian spirit called a Neakta, and that shamans can call on similar spirits to cure illnesses or social problems.  In Thailand, the many shrines outside  buildings, near villages, next to trees and along the roadside are what’s left of that country’s pre-Buddhist heritage.  These were built to pay homage to local spirits that inhabit specific geographical areas; I told you in the previous episode about a shrine set up in Bangkok to keep a specific ghost from haunting the neighborhood.  Visitors will go to the shrines with prayer requests, and leave offerings of food, flowers and drinks.  In Myanmar, much of the population believes in spirits called nats; they employ shamans to deal with the nats, and give offerings or hold festivals to them; these practices are lumped together under the name “Burmese folk religion.”  And all around there are customs of animist origin that cannot be traced to any particular deity or spirit, like shadow puppet plays, the placing of a hexagonal mirror on top of a door to keep evil spirits away, or the Javanese custom of sacrificing a goat and burying it in the foundation of a new building.

The only places where the animist practices are in danger of disappearing completely are those places where radical Islam has gotten popular in recent years, like the Aceh district on Sumatra, and the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines.  I mentioned in Episode 11 that when Islam was introduced to Southeast Asia, it left elements of the old Hindu-Buddhist-Animist culture intact.  As the author Fareed Zakaria explained it in his book The Future of Freedom, most Moslems in the past, quote, "practiced a kind of village Islam that adapted itself to local cultures and to normal human desires.  Pluralistic and tolerant, these villages often worshiped saints, went to shrines, sang religious hymns and cherished art–all technically disallowed in Islam."  End quote.  More recently, however, Moslems in Southeast Asia have learned about the Middle East’s more "universalist" interpretation of the Koran, promoted by Saudi Arabia, Iran, and terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda.  Wherever fundamentalist Islam is introduced, anything not approved by the Koran is in danger of being plowed under.  Zakaria called this, quote, "Islam of the high church as opposed to Islam of the street fair."  End quote.

Animism has made news in Malaysia recently because of a local shaman who can’t seem to get enough attention, Raja Bomoh Sedunia.  When Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared in 2014, Rajah Bomoh Sedunia and his male assistant came to Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and they conducted rituals to help those searching for the missing plane.  For the ritual, they looked into an old-fashioned fish trap with a pair of bamboo binoculars, and declared that a race of supernatural beings called the Orang-Orang Bunian were hiding the plane in the air over the Philippines, the South China Sea, and an unidentified third location.  A few days later, Raja Bomoh came back to the airport with four assistants, three men and one woman, to perform a second ritual.  This time, Raja Bomoh knocked two coconuts together with his hands while shouting the Arabic phrase “Allahu akbar!”, meaning “God is greater!”  Then, his three male assistants sat on what he called a "magic carpet" and used a number of "magical artifacts" such as a walking stick and a basket, to finish the ritual; he claimed that all this was done to weaken the spirits’ hold on the plane.  As you might expect, this caused Malaysians to giggle, and the whole affair was ridiculed by the Chinese, who had an interest in this because most of the missing passengers on the flight were Chinese citizens.

And that wasn’t the shaman’s last appearance!  In 2017, also at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Kim Jong-nam, the elder brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, was fatally poisoned through exposure to a VX nerve agent.  Raja Bomoh Sedunia showed up outside the morgue of the hospital where Kim Jong-nam’s body was held.  Here he performed another ritual, looking though his bamboo binoculars again and saying a five-minute prayer.  Here is his explanation, quote, “The ritual this time is to protect Malaysia from any threat or attacks from other countries especially North Korea.”  End quote.


Cut!  That’s a wrap; we’ll go with that.  It has been just over a year since I did a question & answer episode; maybe it is time to do another one.  Start thinking about what questions you would like to ask, anything having to do with Southeast Asia’s past, and I’ll start planning to do the question & answer episode in a few months.  But first, I should get back to the Second Indochina War narrative that dominated Episodes 71 through 75.  So if you have been following the podcast’s story of the mid-twentieth century war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, next time we will definitely return to it!


And while you are thinking of questions to ask, consider also making a donation to support this podcast.  Currently the podcast doesn’t have a sponsor; the whole show is a labor of love on my part.  Any questions you ask with the donation will probably have to wait for question & answer episode, but you will get your first name mentioned here right after the donation arrives.  The easiest way to make a donation is through Paypal.  I have placed donation buttons on Blubrry, the website which hosts the podcast, and on my personal blog, Xenohistorian.wordpress.com.  The URL for Blubrry is spelled 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, where you click on the gold button.  As for my blog, the button is near the top of the page, and the URL is spelled 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.  And I know about Paypal not accepting Singapore dollars, so if you can’t use Paypal, let me know by email and I’ll give you my surface mail address so you can send me a check.  My email address is Berosus@gmail.com, that’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S at gmail.com.  Okay, have I given you enough to spellings to remember?

Do you listen to the show on another website or app besides Blubrry?  If so, another way you can help is by writing a review wherever you listen!  If you write a review, people will read it, and maybe some of them will join the family of listeners.  If you’re on Facebook, visit the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page, and “like” it if you haven’t already.  And even in the real world you can spread the word, by telling others about this show.  Alright, I’ll let you go now to do other things.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!