Episode 97: Indonesia Under Sukarno




Today’s episode begins a series of episodes on the recent history of Southeast Asia.  We will start by looking at Indonesia from 1950 to 1967, when Sukarno was the country’s first president.





This episode is dedicated to Jonathan M., and Louis E., for the donations they made to the podcast.  Jonathan, you said in your email that you are currently in Albania.  I remember the bad old days when Enver Hoxha ran Albania, and was amazed that a real-life version of the dictatorship from the novel “1984" could exist.  Nowadays I hear that the country is friendly to tourists, and it doesn’t cost much to visit, so a future trip there is on my bucket list.  And Louis, you have donated twice before, but it is always good to see you again!  May both of you continue to go against the flow of the world, and continue to prosper in these crazy times.  All right, let’s get today’s show started.  Play the opening music!

Episode 97:  Indonesia Under Sukarno

Greetings, dear listeners!  Unless you just discovered this podcast and are listening to it for the first time, you will notice a change with this episode.  For most of the past thirty-three episodes, those numbered 64 through 96, the topic has been the two Indochina wars fought in the mid-twentieth century, in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  And before that, I spent most of Episodes 36 through 58 telling World War II stories.  Therefore I said this podcast will attract three kinds of history buffs:  those interested in Asian history, those interested in military history, and those interested in American history.  I said “American history,” because the United States was heavily involved in both World War II and Indochina.  Now that we’re done with the big wars, this podcast will go back to just being an Asian history podcast.  Let’s see if any of the military and American history buffs stick around to hear the end of the Southeast Asian story.

This episode marks the beginning of the final era in our narrative, what I am calling “Recent History.”  For each of the eleven countries in the region, we will be looking at events that have occurred in them over the past few decades; there’s a good chance you were alive when they took place.

Now where were we with each country, the last time we talked about them?  With Burma, nowadays called Myanmar, we broke off when independence came, in 1948.  For Indonesia, we got as far as 1950.  In the case of Malaya, the Philippines and Thailand, we reached 1957.  With the three countries that used to be French colonies – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – we made it to 1975.  And finally, we need to talk about how Singapore, Brunei, and East Timor became independent, how Sarawak and Sabah merged with Malaya to create Malaysia, and how Indonesia acquired western New Guinea.  Yes, all that will fill several episodes to come.  Are you ready to get started on it?

For this phase of the narrative, I have decided to start with Indonesia.  One reason for that is because it has been a long time since we last talked about the Indonesian islands.  The last time was in Episode 60, more than a year and a half ago in real time.  The other reason is because Indonesia and Burma were important players in the Nonaligned Movement, and here I will be telling Indonesia’s role in getting the movement started.

If you are looking for previous episodes on Indonesian history, to refresh your memory on how the archipelago got to where it is now, I introduced the ancestors of today’s Indonesians in Episode 2, covered the kingdoms of medieval Indonesia in Episode 6, and explained how Islam became established as the main religion in Episode 11.  Then we covered the period of Dutch rule in Episodes 17, 22, and 33.  In Episode 33 I also introduced the Indonesian nationalists, especially Sukarno.  For World War II battles, go to Episodes 39 and 58.  And finally, we took care of the Indonesian struggle for independence in Episode 60.  Pause this episode here if you need to listen to any of those, or if you want to move on now, let’s go!

To refresh your memory, during World War II the Indonesian islands, which the Netherlands called “the Dutch East Indies,” were occupied by Japan, and the Japanese still controlled most of the archipelago when the war ended.  Then came the Indonesian War of Independence, which was an on-and-off conflict between 1945 and 1949, where three rounds of fighting were interrupted by periods of negotiations.  During the battles, the returning Dutch usually prevailed over the Indonesian nationalists, but it was the negotiations that mattered the most, because foreign powers like the United States put strong diplomatic pressure on the Dutch to negotiate in good faith.  As a result, the Dutch granted independence to most of the colony in December 1949, only keeping the western half of New Guinea.  At first, independence followed the Dutch plan, where instead of having just one government, the Indonesians were organized into a confederation of sixteen states, called the United States of Indonesia.  Sukarno, the leading nationalist, found himself in charge of just the largest state, on Java and Sumatra.  This arrangement led to more conflict, this time between Indonesians, so eight months later, in August 1950, Sukarno got rid of the confederation, and replaced it with a unitary government, based on Java and called the Republic of Indonesia.  The new system has lasted for the seventy years since then, with just minor changes.

Okay, now that we’re caught up, let’s continue the narrative!



The Indonesians were not quite used to the idea of being one nation when independence came. Before the Dutch arrived, the only king who ruled the whole archipelago was Hayam Wuruk of Majapahit, in the fourteenth century.  Then the Dutch colonial adventure lumped together dozens of tribes, with diverse languages, religions, and political opinions.  The limited amount of unity that was shown while they were fighting the Dutch disappeared with independence, to be replaced by petty bickering between the political factions.  Divisions were caused by regional differences in language, customs, morals, religion, the influence of Christianity and Marxism, and fears on the Outer Islands of political domination by the Javanese.

Another problem was the sorry state of the war-ravaged economy.  The population was growing but food production was low and the export economy was damaged, because many plantations had been destroyed during the war.  There was still the oil industry – we saw in previous episodes how important Indonesian oil is – but one of the terms of independence was that the Indonesians restore the concessions the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation had before the war.  This meant that most of the profits from Indonesian oil went to foreigners.  Inflation was running wild, and smuggling was costing the new government badly needed foreign currency.  Adding to the economic troubles were the facts that the literacy rate was low, and there was a shortage of skilled workers; this made an economic recovery more difficult.

The good news was that by now, there were some native-run oil companies.  In 1947, former nationalist freedom fighters had created more than one oil company on Sumatra, of which the most important were Permiri and PTMN.
Between December 1949 and March 1957 there were seven coalition governments, each trying (not very successfully) to maintain internal security and develop the economy.  During these years Sukarno sat above it all as a figurehead leader.  The political chaos forced the postponing of the first elections until 1955.  When the elections took place, there were two rounds of voting, on September 29 and December 15, and twenty-nine political parties participated.  The first round created a new legislature, the 257-member People’s Representative Council, to replace the provisional legislature that had existed since independence.  The second round created the 514-member Constitutional Assembly, to write a permanent constitution.  In both rounds, Sukarno’s party, the Indonesian Nationalist Party, the PNI, did best; the other parties that got more than 10% of the vote were the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, and two Islamic parties, the mainstream Masyumi, and the more fundamentalist Nahdatul Ulama.  However, no party won even 25 percent of the seats in either race, and that was a good sign that more trouble was on the way.  For example, the talks over the new constitution deadlocked over the issue of whether the constitution would include Islamic law.


Into this confusion Sukarno stepped in, bringing order and increasing his personal power at the same time.  He started with reforms in the economy, and with foreign policy ventures.  With the economy, Sukarno directed it in a socialist direction, away from Western capitalists.  To give the people a sense of national identity, he built grand buildings and monuments.  The most impressive of these monuments are the National Monument, and the Masjid Istiqlal.  The National Monument is a 433-ft. tower in the middle of Jakarta, which looks like a cross between the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, and the Space Needle in Seattle.  The Masjid Istiqlal, which means “Independence Mosque,” is the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, and the sixth largest mosque in the world.  Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, the mosque could hold 200,000 worshipers, when all the rooms and open spaces were used; I don’t know how many it can hold now, when social distancing is practiced.  Construction on both monuments started in 1961, and they weren’t finished until the mid-1970s, long after Sukarno’s presidency ended.  Unfortunately, Sukarno could not create a viable economic system to lift Indonesia out of poverty; the monuments did not give the people the things they needed the most, like food or spare parts.  Because he never changed his political gears from revolution to rebuilding, his monuments became substitutes for real development.

Under Sukarno, Indonesia followed a course of stormy nationalism.  He regularly gave captivating speeches, the type you would expect to hear from a romantic revolutionary.  In these speeches, he declared that Asia had been humiliated by the West, and that Indonesia was still threatened by the remnants of Western imperialism.  The three greatest threats he saw came from the British, because they created a new nation, Malaysia, from their nearest colonies; the Dutch because they continued to occupy western New Guinea; and the Americans because of their military bases in the Philippines.

During a 1945 speech, Sukarno announced five moral guidelines for governing Indonesia, which he called the Pancasila.  Those guidelines were nationalism, internationalism, consent, social justice, and belief in God.  Now he simplified his ideology to a cluster of slogans and abbreviations that anyone could remember:  continuing revolution, Manipol (Political Manifesto), Ampera (the Message of the People’s Suffering), Nasakom (the unity of nationalism, religion, and communism), and others.  Western music, dancing, and institutions like the Boy Scouts were replaced with Indonesian substitutes.  At the same time Sukarno was one of the world’s more visible leaders, traveling around the world on costly junkets, and living like a rajah, one of the monarchs from the times before the Dutch came to Indonesia.  In the rest of the world at this time, the main conflict was the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and Sukarno gave a voice to the new nations that did not want to take sides in the Cold War.  In 1955 he hosted the leaders of 29 African and Asian nations at a conference in the city of Bandung on Java, and this event, which promoted the doctrine of neutralism, started the Nonaligned or Third World Movement.  Seven years later he sponsored a series of Asian sporting events as an alternative to the "imperialist-controlled" Olympics.  But all this was done with no concern over whether the country could afford these expenses.  To pay his bills Sukarno printed new money constantly, and abolished many subsidies, leading to massive increases in the cost of public transportation, electricity, water and postage. Economic plans failed miserably and inflation ran at an annual rate as high as 600%.

Because Western-style democracy was not working well for Indonesia, Sukarno declared that it would only lead to anarchy.  In its place he offered what he called "Guided Democracy," where a president with considerable power would be balanced by a national council of advisors that represented not only political parties but various professions:  workers, peasants, the intelligentsia, businessmen, religious organizations, the armed forces, youth and women’s groups, and so forth.  What Sukarno imagined here was a national version of the government by consensus that had always been practiced on the village level.  Although the political parties were not abolished, democracy as we know it would not return to Indonesia until 1998.

To make his “Guided Democracy” work, Sukarno had to please as many people as possible.  This included the communists; by the early 1960s, the PKI had more than one million members, making it the third largest Communist Party in the world, after those of the Soviet Union and China.  However, the army was fiercely anti-communist, because many of its commanding officers had been trained in the United States; they even called themselves “the sons of Eisenhower.”  When it was suggested that the PKI be excluded from the government, Sukarno declared, quote, "I can’t and won’t ride a three-legged horse."  Unquote.  Therefore he juggled three political balls constantly:  the military, his own party, the PNI, and the communists; his talents allowed him to do this for years, but disaster struck when those three factions finally became unbalanced.

Not everyone approved of Sukarno’s policies.  The export-producing Outer Islands felt the Jakarta government discriminated in favor of densely-populated Java.  In December 1956 the vice president, Muhammed Hatta, announced his retirement, largely because he saw Sukarno’s shift to “Guided Democracy” as a blatant power grab.  His retirement came as a shock, because he came from the west coast of Sumatra, and the people of the Outer Islands saw Hatta as their main representative in a Javanese-dominated government.  December 1956 also saw several local army commanders on Sumatra and Sulawesi launch revolts, their goal being to establish a government that cared for them, not the communists.  The rebels on Sulawesi called themselves Permesta, meaning Universal Struggle Charter, while the rebels on Sumatra set up a government called the PRRI, or Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia.  The US Central Intelligence Agency sent airplanes to assist the rebels, until one of their pilots, Allan Pope, was shot down and held prisoner for four years; that blew the CIA’s cover!  Finally, there was more than one unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Sukarno.

The defense minister, General Abdul Haris Nasution, put down the rebellions in early 1958, though guerrilla activity continued for three more years.  Next, Sukarno proposed bringing back the revolutionary constitution of 1945, because it gave the president special powers to deal with emergencies like this.  He urged this course in a speech to the Constitutional Assembly.  When the Assembly failed to produce the two-thirds majority needed to approve this change in constitutions, Sukarno introduced it by presidential decree on July 5, 1959, a move that probably wasn’t legal.  In 1960 the elected parliament, the People’s Representative Council, was dissolved and replaced by another parliamentary body that was appointed by, and subject to the will of, the president.  Incidentally, this move brought the military into the government for the first time.  The Supreme Advisory Council, another non-elected body, became the chief policy-making body.  Then in 1963 Sukarno proclaimed himself president-for-life.


Indonesia has shown a remarkable aggressive streak in a world that considers international cooperation better than international competition.  This was first displayed in 1957, when Sukarno got tired of waiting for the Dutch to get out of western New Guinea, and launched his own campaign to take it.  He ordered a 24-hour strike against Dutch-owned businesses in Indonesia, banned Dutch publications, prohibited the landing of planes from the Dutch airline, KLM, at Indonesian airports, and nationalized the holdings of 246 Dutch companies, including Royal Dutch Shell; this led to a mass exodus of 40,000 Dutch citizens, who had stayed in Indonesia after independence.  A military agreement with the Soviet Union in 1960 made warships and warplanes available, and he used them to land paratroopers on New Guinea.  To defuse the situation, the United Nations took control of the Dutch half of the huge island in 1961, and handed it over to Indonesia one year later.

The Indonesian government renamed western New Guinea, calling it West Irian or Irian Jaya, and it considers the matter settled permanently.  The natives, called West Papuans, disagree, and there has been an independence movement among them since the mid-1960s.  I am thinking of recording a special episode about western New Guinea in the new future; watch for it!

What’s more, it looks like giving western New Guinea to Indonesia wasn’t enough to satisfy Jakarta.  Maps were published that changed the name of the Indian Ocean to the "Indonesian Ocean," called Papua New Guinea "East Irian," and even renamed Australia "South Irian," to the dismay of the Australians.

When Britain created the nation of Malaysia, Indonesia refused to recognize it.  We have noted in previous episodes that ethnic Malays and Indonesians are related, and have cultures so similar that it can be difficult to tell them apart, so there was some talk about uniting Malaysia with Indonesia to form a “Greater Indonesia.”  Sukarno denounced Malaysia as a British puppet state, and called its existence an act of neo-colonialism.  This led to a three-year guerrilla war from 1963 to 1966, called the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation, the Borneo confrontation, or to use the Indonesian/Malay name, Konfrontasi.  We will talk more about this conflict in the upcoming episode about Malaysia.  Then when Malaysia joined the United Nations Security Council in 1964, Indonesia became the first (and only) nation to resign from the UN.  The same expansionist tendency appeared once more after Sukarno left office, when Indonesia conquered Portuguese Timor in 1975.  That is also a subject for a future episode.


Podcast footnote: The United States didn’t like Sukarno very much.  Washington felt that Sukarno was too friendly to communists, and in the darkest years of the Cold War, the Americans did not believe that a neutral foreign policy was possible; the attitude was “You’re either with us or against us.”  The Bandung conference was denounced as a communist meeting, largely because the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, was one of the most visible guests attending it.  For the 1955 elections, the CIA gave $1 million to the Masyumi Party, hoping it would come out ahead of the PNI.  The money was wasted; both the PNI and PKI did better than Masyumi, and the CIA never found out how the money was spent.

Later on, Sukarno was seen more than once with an attractive blonde flight attendant who turned out to be a Russian spy.  There are reports that when Sukarno visited Moscow, he had an orgy with a group of Russian flight attendants, and the KGB filmed it.  According to Tim Lister, a CNN reporter, the Russians later tried to blackmail him with the movie, but Sukarno did not react the way they expected.  Quote:  “When the Russians later confronted him with a film of the lurid encounter, Sukarno was apparently delighted.  Legend has it he even asked for extra copies.”  End quote.

Instead of learning from the Russian failure, the CIA also tried it, seeing character assassination as a legitimate trick.  They made a pornographic movie that supposedly showed Sukarno having sex with a blonde woman, and called it “Happy Days.”  However, the actor playing Sukarno did not look enough like the president to be convincing, and after they shot some footage of the actor wearing a Sukarno mask, the CIA dropped the whole idea.  “Happy Days” never appeared in cinemas, and it is not known if any copies of the film exist today.  And Ayyyy!, the movie had nothing to do with the TV show “Happy Days,” which starred Ron Howard and Henry Winkler.  End footnote.

Speaking of women in his life, Sukarno openly supported polygamy.  Because Islam allows a man to have up to four wives, Sukarno had four “official” wives, and maintained a “de facto” marriage with a fifth wife.  And Sukarno once bragged to a U.S. diplomat that he was, quote, “a very physical man who needed sex every day.”  Unquote.  According to Peter Arnett, in his book Live From the Battlefield, when Sukarno came to Washington to meet with another famous womanizer, US President John F. Kennedy, he shocked his hosts by demanding that they provide him with prostitutes.  Over the course of the 1960s, his playboy lifestyle gave him a collection of diseases, causing him to age rapidly.  In 1965 Sukarno faltered in the middle of a speech and had to be helped from the platform, before the eyes of shocked thousands.  Both the military and Western nations became concerned that the communists were preparing to seize power, should Sukarno die at this time.  There were violent clashes in 1964, between communists and the army in central and east Java, and on Bali.  The military began seeking an alliance with Islamist leaders, who also disliked the communists because communists are atheists on principle.  Tensions increased further in April 1965 when the Communist Party leader called for arming the peasants, and Sukarno agreed with him.  Thus, there was a feeling by everyone that time was running out.


On the night of September 30, 1965, a group of junior army officers kidnaped six generals, murdered them, and threw their bodies down a well.  Led by Colonel Untung Syamsuri of the palace guard and backed by elements of the armed forces, the insurgents took up positions around the presidential palace and seized the national radio station.  At dawn the coup leaders, who called themselves the 30th September Movement, announced they had seized power to prevent a military coup against the president.  Next, they announced the dissolution of parliament and the creation of a "Revolutionary Council."  Sukarno, significantly enough, had spent the predawn hours at a nearby air force base, making friendly small talk with the men who killed his generals.  The leader of the Communist Party, Dipa Nusantara Aidit, was also there.

Two top-ranked officers managed to escape death. Defense Minister Nasution fled a hail of bullets that killed his daughter, then he scaled a wall and took refuge in the Iraqi embassy.  The other was General Suharto, the commander of the army’s strategic reserves.  Like many Javans, Suharto used only one name.  Anyway, he either was lucky enough or smart enough to be away from his house when the killers assigned to him arrived.  Now he took command of the armed forces, launching a counter-coup against the conspirators.  Within 24 hours he had broken the 30th September Movement and gained control of Jakarta.  Although the 30th September Movement seized control of two other cities, Yogyakarta and Surakarta, on the same day, they had concentrated most of their efforts on Jakarta, so when Suharto took back the capital, it meant the coup had failed.  On October 3 the bodies of the murdered generals were found, and two days later they were buried in a public ceremony led by Suharto.

The communists insisted that the violence was an internal affair of the army, they were not involved in it, and they knew nothing about the coup before it happened.  Nobody else believed that, and the army and civilians launched a vendetta of unmatched proportions against the communists.  Estimates of the number killed in the slaughter range from 80,000 to more than a million, with half a million as the most likely figure.  The violence mainly took place on Sumatra, Java and Bali, where countless innocents were caught in the army or mob attacks; rivers in central and eastern Java were said to have been dammed by bloated corpses.  The innocent victims included ethnic Chinese Indonesians, whether they supported the Nationalist government on Taiwan, or the Communist government in Beijing.  Also, there may have been as many as 250,000 people arrested and sent without trial to prison camps, for alleged involvement in the coup.  In Episodes 33 and 60, I told you about the Indonesian Communist Party getting crushed, when it staged revolts in the 1920s and 1940s; now in the 1960s, it went down for the third and last time.

We will probably never know who organized the coup, or what it sought to achieve.  After it was over, the army put forth the official story, which was that the Communist Party plotted the coup, and used disgruntled army officers to carry it out.  Then there was the theory we heard from the Communists, that it was an internal army affair, led by younger officers against the older leadership.  Still other theories suggest that the CIA planned the coup, because of what happened to the Communists in the aftermath, or that British intelligence did it to stop the war with Malaysia.


Sukarno tried to save himself with his old act of balancing leftist and rightist factions.  After the coup he formed a new cabinet, dismissing Nasution and hiring a number of communist sympathizers.  That made Sukarno look pro-communist to many.  Nasution refused to step down, and student protests increased.  On March 11, 1966, while Sukarno was meeting with his cabinet in one of Jakarta’s presidential palaces, troops surrounded the building.  Sukarno and two of his ministers tried to escape by taking a helicopter to another presidential palace, but three pro-Suharto generals went to this palace as well, and they got Sukarno to sign a document that transferred his powers to Suharto.  We do not know who wrote the document, or whether Sukarno had been forced to sign it at gunpoint; anyway, it meant that Suharto was the acting president now.  The first things Suharto did in that position were to purge the government and the army of Sukarno loyalists and to begin impeachment proceedings against Sukarno on the grounds of communism, economic negligence, and "moral degradation"; the latter was a reference to all the women Sukarno kept around.  During the next few months, the PKI was officially banned, the Konfrontasi with Malaysia was ended with a treaty, Sukarno’s political prisoners were released, and Indonesia quietly rejoined the organizations Sukarno had pulled out of: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations.

Sukarno was stripped of his president-for-life title on March 12, 1967, and one year later, in March 1968, Suharto was elected to take his place.  Suharto would run the country for more than thirty years.  As for Sukarno, he was kept under house arrest in the palace where he had signed over his powers.  Two of my sources claim that he was not allowed to have proper medical care, and that led to his death from kidney failure, on June 21, 1970.

During Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, many Moslems go on pilgrimages to places associated with Mohammed, his family and descendants, and other Moslem saints.  This custom is called ziyarat.  In recent years, Sukarno’s grave on east Java has become one of the holy places they visit.  What’s more, some Indonesians think the grave is just as important as the graves of the Wali Songo, the nine saints who spread Islam in Indonesia.  I don’t know how this happened, inasmuch as Sukarno’s career was completely political; there was nothing religious about it.  I will finish by saying that many of the problems Sukarno faced are still afflicting Indonesia today, and his oldest daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was the country’s fifth president, serving from 2001 until 2004.


Well, I trust you found that interesting!  Now we are out of time, so we will continue Indonesia’s recent history in another episode.  It won’t be the next episode, though; we need to catch up on the other countries of Southeast Asia first, and I have chosen Burma for our next stop.  Join me next time, as we look at the wild and weird things that have happened in Burma, even before its name was changed to Myanmar!

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Speaking of the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page, if you are on Facebook and haven’t “liked” the page yet, now is the time to do so.  And be sure to tell anyone you meet who enjoys podcasts about the show.  Finally, write a review if you get the podcast from a podcatcher that allows it!  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 96: The Second Indochina War, Part 23



This episode is the longest for the podcast yet, because it wraps up the narrative that has continued since Episode 71.  Yes, today you will hear how the Second Indochina War ended, in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos!  So this is also the last episode of what I called "the Unofficial Vietnam War Podcast."  For those of you who were listening when the podcast started covering the Vietnam War, thank you for sticking with it to the end.





This episode is dedicated to Jouke C., Alexei K., Louis C., and Guy H., for making donations to the podcast.  Three of you have donated before; thanks to all of you for stepping up when donations were down!  For some reason, the Dog Days of August are normally a slow time for donations to podcasts.  What’s more, Jouke’s previous donation came in last year, so you now qualify to have the coveted water buffalo icon next to your name, on the Podcast Hall of Fame page!  Where I live, summer won’t end for another three weeks, but the air is cooler already.  A new season is a time for new beginnings, new opportunities.  May all of you likewise prosper as new opportunities come your way.

Episode 96: The Second Indochina War, Part 23

or, Endgame

Greetings, dear listeners, and welcome to the last episode of the Unofficial Vietnam War Podcast!  Last year, when this podcast started covering the Second Indochina War, better known to Americans as the Vietnam War, I proposed another name for this podcast, the Unofficial Vietnam War Podcast, because there was at least one other podcast claiming to be the official Vietnam War podcast.  Now it has taken 23 episodes, and a year of research and recording in real time, but with this episode we have come to the end of the line.  As far as I know, this is the first podcast, official or otherwise, to cover the Second Indochina War completely, from beginning to end.

I sure hope you have listened to the other episodes in this series already.  If not, you are walking in on the end of the story!  For the whole series, listen to Episodes 71 through 95, except for 76, 77, and 85, which covered other subjects.  If you are just interested in the war in Laos, go to Episodes 74, 75, 78 and 79.  Or if you want to hear about the war in Cambodia, go to Episodes 91, 92 and part of 95.  The rest of the episodes cover the war in Vietnam.  Perhaps you are planning to go on a road trip soon; podcasts are a great way to pass the time!  Now for those of you who are ready to wrap up this whole war narrative, let’s go!


Last time we stopped in December 1974.  To refresh your memory, a cease-fire for the war in Vietnam was signed in January 1973, but neither the North or South Vietnamese were interested in observing it.  I told you that the North Vietnamese built a highway and an oil pipeline through the territory they had captured in 1972, allowing them to move their troops and tanks to Loc Ninh, the nearest town to Saigon under communist control.  On the other side, the South Vietnamese army, ARVN, meaning the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, won a number of small battles in 1973 and early 1974, but afterwards, inflation and corruption caused it to come apart.

Tran Van Tra, the Viet Cong commander at Loc Ninh, felt in the summer of 1974 that the time to act was approaching.  If communist forces attacked vigorously during the next two dry seasons, they could capture Saigon and win the war by the middle of 1976.  In October he went to Hanoi and proposed this to the Politburo, as the top council is called in communist countries.  Now that Le Duc Tho was done negotiating peace with Henry Kissinger, he had gone back to his previous job of managing North Vietnam’s policy for the South, and he didn’t want to make a gamble yet; he thought it was better to continue building up the North Vietnamese armed forces until 1976.  Likewise, the North Vietnamese army commander, Van Tien Dung, only wanted small-scale actions for now, feeling that it wasn’t time to go for the big prize yet.

It was Le Duan, still the most aggressive of the North Vietnamese leaders, who agreed with Tran Van Tra.  He gave Tra permission to launch a small, experimental campaign in Phuoc Long, a province near Saigon.  This would test the relative strengths of the North and South Vietnamese armies, and it would test the Americans’ willingness to retaliate.  In the previous episode, we heard that US President Richard Nixon promised the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, that there would be "severe retaliatory action" if North Vietnam violated the cease-fire.  And if the campaign succeeded, it would put communist forces within striking distance of Saigon.

The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong began attacking in Phuoc Long on December 13, 1974.  The defending garrison tried as well as it could to fight back, but it was outnumbered two to one.  On January 6, 1975, the red-and-blue Viet Cong flag was raised in Phuoc Binh, the capital.  This was the first provincial capital taken since 1972, when the North Vietnamese captured Quang Tri and lost it again.  The success of this campaign amazed even the winners.  Meanwhile in Saigon, the South Vietnamese leaders were shocked at the US response; Washington protested, and that was all.

There were two big reasons why the Americans responded with words, but not with action.  First, the US Congress had prohibited any further military activity in Southeast Asia, with the Case-Church Amendment.  Second, Nixon wasn’t president anymore.  The Watergate scandal had forced his vice president, Spiro Agnew, to resign in the fall of 1973, and Nixon picked a congressman from Michigan, Gerald Rudolph Ford, to take his place.  Then Nixon was compelled to resign on August 9, 1974, so Ford became the new Number One, the first US president to get the job without being elected, either as president or vice president.  Ford showed he wasn’t going to continue all the policies of his predecessor when he stated during a press conference on January 21, 1975, that the US was unwilling to re-enter the war.

Podcast footnote: When things got really bad for Cambodia and South Vietnam in early 1975, President Ford proposed emergency aid packages for both countries.  For Cambodia, he offered $222 million; for South Vietnam, he first offered $300 million, and later increased the amount to $722 million.  Congress wasn’t in the mood to approve either.  They felt this wouldn’t prevent the final collapse of either government, so rather than throw more money down the toilet, they voted against both aid packages.

I am reminded of a cartoon I saw at the time.  It showed President Ford walking to a street corner and asking the people standing there, “Hey, would any of you like to give aid to Vietnam?”  Nobody in that group is happy to see Ford there.

After the war, many folks on the anti-communist side, from President Thieu to Melvin Laird, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, asserted that the war wouldn’t have ended so badly if Congress hadn’t first cut back, and then cut off the aid.  Looking at the overall trends, I don’t think so myself.  End footnote.


Okay, I mentioned Cambodia in the footnote; what was happening there?  Well, by the beginning of 1975, the government of the Khmer Republic still controlled most of the cities, but the communist movement, the Khmer Rouge, held virtually all of the countryside.  A map of Cambodia at this time would have shown the government-controlled areas as islands in a communist sea, except in the south, where Phnom Penh, the capital, was tenuously connected to South Vietnam by the Mekong River.  The final assault on Phnom Penh began on New Year’s Day of 1975.  This time, learning their lessons from previous sieges, the Khmer Rouge not only cut off access to the city by land, but also by the Mekong River.  In the past, boats traveling on the river during the rainy season were safe, because when it rained, the river was wide enough for them sail out of range of Khmer Rouge guns – that’s why the Khmer Rouge now attacked during the dry season.  They attacked Neak Luong, the most important town on the river between Phnom Penh and Saigon, on January 12.  The last convoy carrying rice and other supplies arrived in Phnom Penh on January 27; when they tried to go back to Saigon, the boats were destroyed by mines in the river.

Simultaneous attacks around the perimeter of Phnom Penh pinned down Republican forces, while other Khmer Rouge units overran fire bases controlling the vital lower Mekong resupply route.  Thus, the only way in and out of Phnom Penh was by air, and aircraft ran the risk of being hit by enemy gunfire.  In addition, Phnom Penh and other cities were subjected to daily rocket attacks, causing thousands of civilian casualties.  A US-funded airlift of ammunition and rice ended when Congress refused to send any more aid to Cambodia.  After that, everyone knew the capital – and the Khmer Republic – were doomed.  Food was so scarce and prices were so high that according to historian Michael Vickery, an estimated 8,000 residents of Phnom Penh starved to death in March 1975.


Wait a minute; did you say you heard something going on in Vietnam?  Let’s have a look.  Yes, while we were talking about Cambodia, the North Vietnamese launched their 1975 offensive.  During the Phuoc Long campaign, the Politburo met in Hanoi to plan their next major campaign.  The premier, Pham Van Dong, was now sixty-eight years old, and had been struggling against foreigners for the past half century, his whole adult life.  He reassured the other leaders, telling them that even if the United States responded to their campaign with renewed bombing, it would not stop them.  It would take a full-scale intervention of US ground troops to keep them from winning, and that wasn’t happening.  As Pham Van Dong put it, quote, "They won’t come back even if we offered them candy."  Unquote.

The Politburo approved the use of 20 divisions for this invasion of the South, and like Tran Van Tra, they predicted it would take more than a year, until some time in 1976, before they won the ultimate victory.  As it turned out, though, South Vietnam collapsed in only 55 days.  In the previous episode, I said that in 1973, the troops of ARVN outnumbered their North Vietnamese and Viet Cong opponents by 4 to 1.  Well, after two years of desertions, and shortages of money and equipment, South Vietnam no longer had the advantage.  On February 5, 1975, General Van Tien Dung secretly crossed into South Vietnam to personally lead the final offensive.  He would have 18 North Vietnamese divisions, with 5 in reserve, moving against 6 ARVN divisions. 

The final offensive, which the North Vietnamese called “Campaign 275” at first, began in the Central Highlands, with the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) 4th Corps maneuvering between the cities of Pleiku and Ban Me Thuot, picking off individual units in the ARVN formation from March 3 onward.  The local ARVN general, Pham Van Phu, ignored intelligence which showed that enemy units had entered the district; he believed the maneuvers were diversions, and that Pleiku would be their first target.  Instead, on March 10, 25,000 North Vietnamese soldiers struck at Ban Me Thuot.  The battle began with a heavy artillery bombardment of the city, followed by an assault with tanks.  Half of the defending 4,000 ARVN soldiers surrendered or deserted, and the rest fled with their families, allowing the North Vietnamese to capture Ban Me Thuot the next day.

With the fall of Ban Me Thuot, the quagmire that had characterized most of the Vietnam War suddenly turned into a runaway train.  Thieu had been counting on the United States to retaliate, or continue sending aid.  Since the Americans did neither, ARVN was stretched too thin.  Accordingly, Thieu gave the order to abandon the Highlands region.  He thought it might be possible for ARVN forces to regroup along the coast, and launch a campaign from there to take back Ban Me Thuot.  This would have been difficult to pull off under good conditions, and now it proved impossible; most ARVN soldiers were more interested in rescuing themselves and their families than they were in following orders.

The second half of March saw a mass exodus.  Realizing that the soldiers were abandoning the area, around 400,000 civilians joined them, in the retreat southward and to the coast, clogging the roads and bringing general chaos.  The North Vietnamese forces quickly took Pleiku and Kontum, and pursued and shelled the disorganized retreat.  South Vietnamese would call this rout "the convoy of tears," or “the road of blood and tears.”  Most of the civilians never made it to the relative safety of Saigon and the Mekong delta region.  The North Vietnamese also captured vast amounts of American-made equipment, from ammunition to artillery and jeeps, which the ARVN soldiers left behind as they fled.  In fact, so much equipment was abandoned, that one US official made a sour comment about future aid shipments.  Quote: “We might as well send all this stuff to Hanoi.  Then it won’t get damaged.”  Unquote.

Besides pushing to the coast from the Central Highlands, North Vietnamese forces also advanced south from the Demilitarized Zone, into the area called the I Corps Tactical Zone.  Here Thieu gave contradictory instructions; the troops of the I Corps didn’t know whether they should withdraw, or fight to the last man.  As a result, the I Corps became demoralized, and disintegrated.  The North Vietnamese took Quang Tri City on March 19, and Tam Ky on March 24.  The fall of Tam Ky cut off Hue and Da Nang, two of the most important cities, from the rest of South Vietnam.  Hue was the next to go, falling on March 25 after a three-day siege.  Hordes of refugees, both soldiers and civilians, now crowded into Da Nang.  35,000 North Vietnamese soldiers surrounded Da Nang and began to shell it on March 28, and the city descended into anarchy.  After the war one of South Vietnam’s top generals, Cao Van Viên, described the situation in Da Nang this way, in his book The Final Collapse.  Quote:  "Hunger, looting, and crimes were widespread. Traffic was impossible…the mass stranded in the city was estimated at approximately one and one-half million."  End Quote.

Because Thieu said nothing about whether Da Nang should be evacuated, the I Corps commander, General Ngo Quang Truong, gave orders for an evacuation to begin on March 29.  The idea was to rescue as many people as possible, by taking them to Vung Tau, the nearest port to Saigon on the South Vietnamese coast.  You have probably heard of the battle of Dunkirk, where during World War II, thousands of British, French and Belgian troops were evacuated after the Nazis surrounded them on the French coast, allowing them to fight another day.  Well, there was nothing heroic about the evacuation of Da Nang.  The ships could not reach the docks during low tide, prompting thousands of evacuees to rush into the sea.  Hundreds of them drowned, and thousands more were killed by enemy artillery.  Some soldiers shot civilians to make room for themselves on the boats.  With almost no one trying to defend Da Nang, the North Vietnamese entered the city on March 30, putting an end to the evacuation.  16,000 soldiers and 75,000 civilians managed to escape, but at least 70,000 more soldiers were left behind, and thus captured.

Realizing that South Vietnam was collapsing faster than they predicted, North Vietnamese leaders met again in late March, and decided to accelerate their offensive.  Now, instead of going for total victory in 1976, they ordered General Dung to achieve it before the rainy season started in May 1975.  Hopefully he would do it by May 19; this date would have been the 85th birthday of the late Ho Chi Minh.  They also gave a new name for the push on Saigon; henceforth it would be called the “Ho Chi Minh Campaign.”  Van Tien Dung and Tran Van Tra moved their headquarters to Loc Ninh, the town near Saigon at the end of the North Vietnamese-built road, to direct the campaign, and Le Duc Tho drove to Loc Ninh on a motorcycle, to act as Hanoi’s overseer.


Over in Cambodia, the war ended in the middle of April, so let’s return to Cambodia and hear the final stage of it.  Neak Luong fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 1.  A tearful president, Lon Nol, left Cambodia with his family on the same day.  Because he had done such a bad job running the country, many Cambodians wished he had left months earlier.  One of the few friends he had left was Indonesian President Suharto, and Lon Nol accepted an invitation to take a vacation with Suharto on Bali.  Later, Lon Nol moved on to Hawaii.  He would spend the rest of his life in the United States, dying in California in 1985.  Back in Phnom Penh, the president of the Senate, Saukam Khoy, became the next president of the Khmer Republic.  He would only hold that job for eleven days.

I told you in the previous episode about the Khmer Rouge committing atrocities in the areas they controlled.  60,000 refugees from the Khmer Rouge zones brought eyewitness accounts of the killings and living conditions to the outside world.  One reason for the brutal policies of the Khmer Rouge was that they were led by men who had been hunted by the authorities since the 1950s and 60s, when Prince Norodom Sihanouk was in charge and did not permit opposition movements or freedom of the press.  As Henri Locard, an historian who lived in Phnom Penh in the 1960s, explained, quote, “Just imagine the mentality of people who had been pursued by police for 20 years.”  Unquote.

The stories of atrocities convinced US officials that there would be a bloodbath if the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, and they prepared for an evacuation of Americans in the capital.  The plan was called Operation Eagle Pull, and it used helicopters to carry evacuees to a squadron of US ships in the Gulf of Thailand.  They also planned to bring 400 friendly Cambodians with them, but as it worked out, they brought out 3,600.  Here is how the US ambassador, John Gunther Dean, explained it.  Quote:  “We took gardeners, houseboys, Koreans working for our mission, Cambodian generals or ministers, or educated Cambodians.  In short, we took people whose lives would be endangered when the Khmer Rouge came to power.”  Unquote.

Surprisingly, few Cambodian leaders went with the evacuation, though they must have known they were dead meat if they fell into enemy hands.  About the only one who left was Saukam Khoy, who took off on April 12 without telling his fellow leaders.  Like Lon Nol, Khoy would spend his last days in California.  Prime Minister Long Boret, Prince Sirik Matak, and Lon Nol’s brother, Lon Non, all chose to take their chances with the Khmer Rouge.  Another who refused to go was Cambodia’s first native bishop, Joseph Chhmar Salas, though several dozen Catholic monks and nuns left, at the insistence of Ambassador Dean.  Long Boret thought he could make a deal with the Khmer Rouge, because some of them had gone to the same high school as he did.  Sirik Matak thought only cowards should leave.  He put his refusal in writing, in a letter to Dean.  Quote:

<Read Sirik Matak quote>

End Quote.

It only took one day for Operation Eagle Pull to remove everyone who wanted to leave Cambodia.  With acting President Khoy gone, a seven-member Supreme Committee, headed by Lieutenant-General Sak Sutsakhan, took charge over the collapsing Khmer Republic.  We met Sutsakhan in Episode 92; he was a former defense minister under Sihanouk, and most recently he commanded the Khmer Special Forces.  On April 17, Khmer Rouge soldiers entered Phnom Penh, and Sutsakhan escaped with his family, on one of the last Khmer Air Force helicopters to leave.  That left Long Boret as the Khmer Republic’s last head of state.  Here is how the American historian Arnold Isaacs described the last two days of the war in Phnom Penh.  Quote:

When Phnom Penh awoke on the 16th, even the hard-line members of the Supreme Committee saw at last that further resistance was impossible … [and] agreed to … the immediate transfer of power to the revolutionaries.  They asked only that there be no reprisals against officials and soldiers of the Phnom Penh regime.

As dawn broke on the 17th, the dispirited group returned to Long Boret’s house, where they finally received [the Khmer Rouge’s] reply to the previous day’s peace offer.  It was a flat, frightening rejection.  Not only would the liberation forces accept no arranged handover of power, but the membership of the Supreme Committee had been added to the seven original “traitors” on the Khmer Rouge death list.

Stunned, members of the government walked out of the prime minister’s residence and dispersed, leaving a ‘strange calmness,’ General Sak later recalled.  Only he and Long Boret were still there when an army officer arrived to report that a few helicopters were preparing to leave from the Olympic Stadium.  The two leaders, each in his official car, reached the stadium shortly after eight o’clock and boarded one of the helicopters waiting there.  A few minutes later, however, Long Boret’s wife, two children, and his sister, along with some family friends, arrived at the landing zone, and he stepped down to join them on another helicopter.  With him went his close friend, Information Minister Thong Lim Huong.

General Sak, with his wife and children, took off at eight-thirty.  From the air, as they rose over the city, they could see the prime minister’s party switching to still a third waiting helicopter.  Whether both craft were mechanically unflyable or failed to take off for some other reason is not known.  But Long Boret never left Phnom Penh.  He was seen under arrest that afternoon, and shortly afterward was executed.”

End quote.

The people of Phnom Penh welcomed the Khmer Rouge as they marched into the city, relieved that with their arrival, the war was over.  The Khmer Rouge soldiers did not respond in kind, most of them were uneducated, battle-hardened teenagers loaded with weapons, and they showed no emotion.  When the leaders of the Khmer Republic were captured, they were taken to the Cercle Sportif, a sports club with tennis courts and a swimming pool that the French had built many years earlier, and were promptly executed there.  Captured soldiers were also executed at the sports club.  Sirik Matak took refuge in the French Embassy for three or four days, but the Khmer Rouge forced the embassy to hand him over, and then executed him as well.

Podcast footnote: From 1975 to 1991, the United States did not have an embassy in Cambodia, because the US government recognized neither the Khmer Rouge nor the pro-Vietnamese government which came after them.  When diplomatic relations were restored, and it was time to build a new US embassy, the Cercle Sportif was torn down to make room for it.  End footnote.

Lon Nol’s brother, Lon Non, should have been spared.  At some point in the 1940s he attended a new college in Kompong Cham, which was ironically called Norodom Sihanouk College, and there his best friend was a classmate named Saloth Sar.  Saloth Sar was introduced to us in Episode 91, but since 1963 he has gone by another name, Pol Pot.  Alas, Pol Pot did not come to Phnom Penh at this time; he was not ready to reveal himself as the real leader of the Khmer Rouge.  Too bad for Lon Non; he was  killed as quickly as the others who ran the Khmer Republic.

After the fall of Phnom Penh, the other government-controlled cities quickly surrendered.  The last place taken by the Khmer Rouge was Preah Vihear, a Hindu temple built by the Khmers in the early eleventh century.  This thousand-year-old temple is located on top of a mountain on Cambodia’s northern border.  Before the war, Thailand and Cambodia both claimed the site until 1962, when the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that the temple belongs to Cambodia.  Some of Lon Nol’s soldiers barricaded themselves here, and one of them said, quote, "This is the Khmer Republic. It is very small now."  Unquote.  Because of Preah Vihear’s location on high ground, they held out until May 22, 1975, five weeks after Phnom Penh fell.  And that is how the Cambodian Civil War ended.  But for those Cambodians who did not get out of the country, the worst part of their ordeal was only beginning.


Okay, now that we’re done with Cambodia, let’s wrap up the war in Vietnam.  Once Da Nang fell to the North Vietnamese, the remaining towns on the coast controlled by the Saigon government quickly followed.  Arnold Isaacs described this by saying they, quote, "fell like a row of porcelain vases sliding off a shelf."  Unquote.  Quang Ngãi was taken on March 24, Qui Nhon and Nha Trang on April 1, and Cam Ranh Bay on April 3.  With that the whole northern half of South Vietnam, the I and II Corps Tactical Zones, was in communist hands.  It wasn’t until the North Vietnamese reached Xuan Loc, a town 38 miles northeast of Saigon, that ARVN put up any resistance.  Xuan Loc was on the last defensive line before Saigon, and President Thieu ordered the ARVN 18th Infantry Division to hold the town at all costs, which it did.  At Xuan Loc the ARVN 18th Division had 12,000 troops, pitted against 20,000 troops from North Vietnam’s 4th Army Corps, and both sides had reinforcements available nearby.  For twelve days, from April 9 to April 21, the ARVN 18th Division beat off all attacks from the North Vietnamese, and inflicted more than 5,000 casualties.  Many of the casualties were caused by South Vietnamese aircraft, dropping cluster bombs.  The 18th Division only withdrew from Xuan Loc when it received new orders – to fall back and take part in the defense of Saigon itself.  This was the last major battle of the Vietnam War, and the South Vietnamese Army’s last stand.

The battle of Xuan Loc also marked the end of President Thieu’s career.  The US ambassador, Graham Martin, met with Thieu on April 20, and because it was unlikely that Thieu could ever negotiate with the communists, Martin urged him to resign for the good of the country.  A bitter, tearful Thieu gave his resignation on April 21, 1975, with a 90 minute rambling speech on TV to the people of South Vietnam.  Thieu read from the letter sent by Nixon in 1972, pledging "severe retaliatory action" if South Vietnam was threatened.  Then he condemned the Paris Peace Accords, Henry Kissinger and the US.  Quote:  "The United States has not respected its promises. It is inhumane. It is untrustworthy. It is irresponsible."  Unquote.

Five days later, Thieu boarded a C-118 cargo plane provided by the US Central Intelligence Agency, taking with him his wife, their two children, and fifteen tons of belongings.  He also wanted to take sixteen tons of gold, but for reasons I couldn’t find in my sources, the gold was left behind, and sometime after the war, the Vietnamese gave it to the Soviet Union, presumably as payment for all the equipment the Soviets gave them.  Washington advised Thieu that it wasn’t safe for him to come to the United States at this time, so he first went to Taiwan, then to Britain.  When he finally slipped into the United States, sometime in the early 1990s, no one was paying attention.  He settled in Foxborough, Massachusetts, lived there quietly, and died of a stroke in 2001.

Back in Saigon, Thieu was succeeded by his vice president, Tran Van Huong.  We have seen him before; Tran Van Huong was prime minister for three months in late 1964-early 1965.  When we first met him, he was 61 years old, and I called him decrepit; now he was 71, so what I said about him before was even more true!  Huong would stay in office for just one week.

From Xuan Loc, the North Vietnamese Army advanced to Bien Hoa, where 60 percent of ARVN’s ammunition was stored, and then went on to Saigon.  By April 27, Saigon was encircled.  There were 30,000 South Vietnamese soldiers in the city, but they were leaderless.  Many of them ditched their uniforms, so they would not be recognized as enemy soldiers when the communists arrived.  The North Vietnamese began firing rockets into the city, and the city experienced a wave of chaos and widespread looting.  On the next day, Tran Van Huong resigned and handed over power to another former head of state, General Duong Van Minh, also known as “Big Minh.”  Then Huong tried to hide, but was captured by the communists, and placed under house arrest.  He would die in his home in 1982.


We saw Duong Van Minh in Episode 80, when he ran South Vietnam from November 1963 to February 1964.  His second reign would be even shorter – two days.  The first thing “Big Minh” tried to do was call for a cease-fire, but his appeal was ignored.

On April 29, the North Vietnamese began to shell Tan Son Nhut air base, Saigon’s airport.    This meant it was unsafe for aircraft to take off or land here; in addition, South Vietnamese civilians broke in and looted the base.  Two Marines were killed in the bombardment of the compound gate, Corporal Charles McMahon and Lance Corporal Darwin Lee Judge.  While these were the last Americans to be killed in Vietnam, they would not be the last casualties of the war.  That dubious honor goes to the Americans killed in the Mayaguez Incident, which we will cover later in this episode.

No doubt about it; it was time for the Americans to get out of Saigon, and take their Vietnamese friends with them.  However, this would not be as easy as Operation Eagle Pull in Cambodia.  To start with, far more people needed to be evacuated.  There were six thousand Americans, plus a hundred thousand Vietnamese who worked for them; the Vietnamese would be subject to persecution by the communists if they did not leave.  Add the families of the Vietnamese workers, and the number who needed to go was nearly one million.  The other challenge was that there was far less time to carry out the evacuation.  A similar number of people had to get out of North Vietnam when the First Indochina War ended in 1954, but they almost a year to do it.  At first the Americans saw four ways to leave Saigon: by boat, by military planes, by civilian planes, and by helicopters.  Well, there was an evacuation by ship from the port of Vung Tau, and it went much like the evacuation from Da Nang; although 60,000 South Vietnamese got out, thousands more had to be left behind.  The Saigon River connected Saigon with the sea, but now with the city surrounded, it was no longer safe for boats to use that river, and the shelling of Tan Son Nhut ruled out escape by airplane.  That left the helicopters, which could land in several parts of Saigon, including the US Embassy courtyard.  On April 29, President Ford ordered the evacuation by helicopter, which was called Operation Frequent Wind.

The embassy was secured by a wall and US Marines in full combat gear.  They were needed, because frantic civilians tried to break into the compound, when they learned what was happening.  When it was Ambassador Martin’s turn to go, he brought his wife and the embassy flag.  The Americans, and those Vietnamese lucky enough to be allowed in the helicopters, were taken to three aircraft carriers in the South China Sea.  Many South Vietnamese pilots also landed on the carriers, flying American-made helicopters.  After they were used, the helicopters, which cost $250,000 each, were pushed into the sea to make room for more refugees.

Podcast footnote: The most famous photo taken from the last days of the war shows a helicopter on the roof of the US Embassy, with people lined up, waiting to board it.  To Americans that picture became a humiliating symbol of how the Vietnam War ended.  For the past two and a half years, I have used that picture as album art.  With MP3 files, you can insert a picture; usually it’s the cover of the album the file came from, if it is a music track.  I have done that with the recordings of this podcast; if you download the files, as opposed to listening to streaming audio, you can see the album art in a viewer like Windows Explorer.  For the episodes I recorded in 2016 and 2017, Episodes 0 to 35, the photo showed the temple of Angkor Wat.  Since the beginning of 2018, that is, Episodes 36 through 96, the album art has been the famous photo of the embassy evacuation.  This is the last time I will use that photo; the photo I plan to use for the rest of this podcast series is a view of modern-day Singapore.  Look for it!  End footnote.

During the last days of the war, about 130,000 Vietnamese refugees managed to get out with the Americans.  They were eventually settled in the United States, creating the communities of Vietnamese-Americans that exist to this day.  For example, in previous episodes I told you about the “Little Saigon” neighborhood in my former home town, Orlando, Florida.  The largest community formed in California, as you might expect.  I told you about the two presidents of the Khmer Republic, Lon Nol and Saukam Khoy, going to California; so did Duong Van Minh, after he was allowed to emigrate from Vietnam in 1983.  Nguyen Cao Ky, the former vice president, went to California, but returned to Vietnam in 2004.  Those who did not get out of Vietnam would try again later, beginning the exodus of "boat people" that continued for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s.

The last Americans to leave the US Embassy were ten Marines.  They took off at 8:35 AM, on April 30, 1975.  Their departure marked the end of the United States presence in Vietnam.  North Vietnamese troops poured into Saigon on the same morning, and they encountered little resistance.  At 10:24, Duong Van Minh went on the radio, announced an unconditional surrender, and ordered what remained of the South Vietnamese armed forces to cease fighting.  At 11 AM, North Vietnamese tanks arrived at the presidential palace, and knocked down the gates; soldiers then rushed in to raise the red-and-blue Viet Cong flag.  Minh and an improvised “Cabinet” were waiting for them in a reception room on the palace’s second floor.  Ironically, the highest ranking officer among the soldiers, was not the commander of an army unit, but Colonel Bui Tin, deputy editor of Quan Doi Nhan Dan, the North Vietnamese army newspaper.  Here he not only got to report the surrender of the South Vietnamese government to the newspaper – he also accepted the surrender from Minh.  Here is the exchange of words between Bui Tin and Minh:

Minh: “The revolution is here. You are here.  We have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you.”

Bui Tin: “There is no question of your transferring power.  Your power has crumbled.  You cannot give up what you do not have.”

Then there was a burst of gunfire outside, causing some of the Cabinet ministers to duck.  Bui Tin reassured them with a short speech.  Quote:

“Our men are merely celebrating.  You have nothing to fear.  Between Vietnamese, there are no victors and no vanquished.  Only the Americans have been beaten.  If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy.  The war for our country is over.”

End quote.

That afternoon, Minh went on the radio again, and announced, quote,"I declare the Saigon government is completely dissolved at all levels."  Unquote.  With that, the Vietnam War was over.  And the result–Vietnam united under communist rule–was exactly the same as what many thought would happen, if the 1956 elections had taken place.  Once the war ended, the first thing the communists did was to give Saigon a new name – Ho Chi Minh City.


One more story needs to be told, to complete our narrative about the war in Vietnam and Cambodia.  Three and a half weeks after the fall of Phnom Penh, an American container ship, the SS Mayaguez, traveled on a routine voyage from Hong Kong to Thailand.  On May 12, 1975, as the Mayaguez sailed past islands in the Gulf of Thailand which belonged to Cambodia, swift boats carrying Khmer Rouge soldiers first fired at the ship, then boarded and captured it.  They accused the 40-member Mayaguez crew of sailing too close to Cambodian territory, in Cambodian waters, and forced the ship to sail to one of the previously mentioned islands, Koh Tang Island.

The Mayaguez managed to get off SOS and Mayday messages by radio, so Washington heard about the capture soon enough.  This was just seven years after the Pueblo Incident, where North Korea captured an American spy ship, and President Ford definitely did not want a long, drawn-out crisis like that during his watch.  Naturally ships and aircraft were diverted to the Gulf of Thailand; Ford sent quite a few, feeling that in this case, too much force was better than too little.  A battalion of Marines was airlifted from Okinawa to the nearest base in Thailand, in order to carry out the rescue.  Ford and his advisors decided to conduct three actions simultaneously: use a destroyer escort, the USS Harold Holt, to board and seize the Mayaguez; use the Marines to take Koh Tang Island; and use the Air Force to launch air strikes against the port of Kompong Som, which was where the Khmer Rouge boats came from.  All of these actions would take place on the morning of May 15.

The Mayaguez was recovered first, but the crew wasn’t aboard; only the cargo was there, untouched.  Then when 175 Marines landed on Koh Tang Island, they found between 150 and 200 Khmer Rouge soldiers waiting for them.  Three of the eight helicopters used were shot down, killing 23, and two more were damaged.  Although the Marines killed between 13 and 25 of the enemy, the battle on the island did not go well for them; they lost 15.  In the middle of the battle, a fishing boat carrying white flags approached, and was intercepted by another destroyer, the USS Henry B. Wilson.  The fishing boat carried all 40 members of the Mayaguez crew, unharmed.  It turned out the crew had been taken to another island, where the captain was briefly interrogated, and they were all released when the captain agreed to contact the US armed forces, and tell them to call off the planes bombing Kompong Som.  With the ship and crew back in US hands, it was time to withdraw the Marines.  By the morning of May 16, all the Marines had left Koh Tang Island, except for three who were reported missing; those three were later captured and killed.

The final score was that the United States had sacrificed 41 lives to rescue 40 lives and the ship, making it a costly victory.  At the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, the last 41 names on the memorial wall are the names of the servicemen killed in the Mayaguez Incident.  And because the Khmer Rouge had already freed the ship and the crew, the action by the Marines turned out to be unnecessary.  Still, a victory is a victory, and immediately after the fall of Saigon, the United States looked and felt like a helpless giant.  This affair showed the world that the United States would pay whatever price was needed to protect its citizens and preserve its national honor.  Thus, for most Americans the rescue was one of the few pieces of good news they got in that turbulent year.  For Gerald Ford it was the high point of his presidency.  Immediately afterwards, public opinion polls gave him a 51% approval rating.  Never before, and never again, was Ford this popular.


Okay, did you think I was going to skip Laos, the third country in Indochina?  No way will I do that!  The last time we talked about the civil war in Laos was in Episode 79.  To refresh your memory, shortly after the Vietnam cease-fire was signed, a cease-fire was signed for Laos as well, in February 1973.  Unlike what happened in Vietnam, the Laotian people sincerely tried to keep the agreement.  For most of the next two years, Laos was quiet.  After nearly fourteen years of fighting, the communist faction, the Pathet Lao, controlled about 80 percent of the country, leaving only the Mekong River valley to the government.  The Mekong valley held two-thirds of the country’s three million people, and included the two capitals:  Luang Prabang, the royal capital, and Vientiane, the administrative capital.  And in early 1974 they formed a coalition government, the third attempted so far, where the Cabinet had five communist, five rightist, and two neutralist members.  The Pathet Lao leader, Souphanouvong, the “Red Prince,” became president of an advisory body called the National Political Council.  The prime minister, Souvanna Phouma, suffered a heart attack in 1974, and though he recovered, he was away in France for part of the year, and after he returned he announced he would retire in 1976.

The Pathet Lao still schemed to take over everything in Laos that they did not have already, but because of the cease-fire, they looked for a non-violent way to do it.  Accordingly, in May 1974 Souphanouvong introduced an 18-point plan for "National Reconstruction," and it was unanimously approved, which showed that he was now the most powerful member of the government.  Non-communists could accept the plan because it promised free elections, democratic rights and respect for religion, and constructive economic policies.  But press censorship was introduced in the name of "national unity," and that made it more difficult for non-communists to organize politically in response to the creeping Pathet Lao takeover.  In January 1975 all public meetings and demonstrations were banned.  Seeing how the overall trend was headed toward communism, important businessmen and politicians, as well as foreigners, began to move their assets, and in some cases themselves, out of the country.  Unlike Vietnam and Cambodia, there was no organized evacuation, except for the Hmong tribe, which I will talk about shortly.  Some of those leaving went to France or the United States; most simply crossed the Mekong River into Thailand.

At some point during the final North Vietnamese drive on Saigon, Hanoi told the Pathet Lao it was time to seize power in Laos.  Therefore the Pathet Lao began advancing into the Mekong valley in late April.   Demonstrations broke out in Vientiane, denouncing the rightists; when the war ended in neighboring Vietnam, the rightist ministers and senior Royal Lao Army commanders resigned and fled the country.  A Pathet Lao minister became the new defense minister, and he made sure the Army did not resist Pathet Lao troops.  Therefore, in most places the Pathet Lao took over without firing a shot.

The only place where there was much resistance was Long Tieng, the secret CIA base and the largest Hmong community in Laos.  We saw previously that the Hmong enthusiastically supported US activities in Laos, and the Royal Laotian Army had one Hmong general, Vang Pao.  Unlike the other generals, Vang Pao was a true alpha male leader.  One of my sources described Laos as a country where fighters were few and fighting leaders almost non-existent, so the Americans who worked with Vang Pao liked him, and the Hmong saw him as a living legend, their equivalent of George Washington.  By May 1975, US officials realized they needed to evacuate Long Tieng, but the only Americans left in Laos were a few embassy personnel and a CIA officer, Jerry Daniels, in Long Tieng.  Daniels only had one airplane, with a Hmong pilot, and he managed to find three more planes with pilots to take evacuees to Udon Thani, a US air base in Thailand.  From May 10 to May 14, the aircraft managed to take out between 1,000 and 3,000 Hmong, mostly Hmong military leaders and CIA employees.  Vang Pao and Jerry Daniels were the last to go.  Vang Pao reluctantly boarded a helicopter and told the people still on the tarmac, quote, "Farewell, my brothers, I can do nothing more for you, I would only be a torment for you."  Unquote.  At least 10,000 Hmong guerillas and refugees were clustered around the airfield, expecting the aircraft to return and pick them up, but they soon realized that none would come.  The shelling of Long Tieng by the Pathet Lao began on the afternoon of the same day, May 14.  Over the next ten years, a large part of the Hmong community got out of Laos in the only way available to them, by hiking overland to Thailand; many did not survive that journey.  And those who made it to Thailand found out that their troubles were not over; many were repatriated against their will, and some only managed to stay by going into hiding, as “illegal immigrants.”  As for Vang Pao, he will never come back, but we’re not done with him; expect to see him once more in a future episode.

Taking their time, Pathet Lao forces moved into the towns of southern Laos in May, Luang Prabang in June, and Vientiane in August.  For a few months it looked like they would honor the promises made in the 1974 plan.  Neutralists were allowed to remain in the coalition government, there were no arrests or show-trials, and private property was respected.  Diplomatic relations with the United States were maintained, though US aid to Laos had been cut off.  But then at the beginning of December, the communists had a sudden change of heart.  There was a meeting between the Cabinet and the National Political Council, where Souphanouvong demanded immediate change.  Nobody opposed him, so on December 2, Souvanna Phouma resigned as prime minister, and King Savang Vatthana abdicated, ending the 600-year-old Laotian monarchy.  So if you want a date to mark the end of the Second Indochina War, December 2, 1975 will do, because that is when Laos got the government that still rules today.

In place of the monarchy and the coalition, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was proclaimed, with Souphanouvong as the first President.  Kaysone Phomvihane, the real Pathet Lao leader, introduced himself to the world and became the first prime minister; now he would be the real ruler of the country.  There was no more talk about elections or political freedoms; non-communist newspapers were closed, and thousands of government workers, soldiers and policemen were sent to “re-education camps” in remote parts of the country, where many died and some were kept for as long as ten years.  This created a new wave of refugees.  Many of the country’s educated class, which had been willing to work under the new rulers, changed their minds and left.  By 1977 ten percent of the population had fled, since it was easier to escape from Laos than it was to escape from Vietnam and Cambodia.

Souphanouvong was merciful to most of the defeated leaders from the other factions, since they were in fact his relatives. However, the king, queen and crown prince went to a re-education camp, where they were forced to grow their own rice.  Eventually the king died in captivity, and the communists considered his death so unimportant that they did not record when it happened; my sources give estimated dates of his death ranging from 1978 to 1984.  Souvanna Phouma was Souphanouvong’s half-brother, as we noted in a previous episode, and he was allowed to serve as an advisor for the last years of his life, after he learned communist ways.


How about that, we’re done!  This episode turned out to be the longest in this podcast yet.  I did not want to leave out any details relevant to the Vietnam War story, but I also wanted to get the war over with in just one episode.

We may be done with the war, but this isn’t the end of the podcast.  Across all of Southeast Asia, our narrative has so far covered the history of Burma up to 1948, Indonesia to 1950, and gotten as far as 1957 with Malaya, the Philippines and Thailand.  We have to finish their stories, of course!  In addition, I haven’t told you yet how Singapore, Brunei and East Timor became independent; we can’t leave them out, can we?  And at some point I have to tell you what happened in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam after 1975.  Finally, our centennial, Episode 100, is just around the corner; I promised something special for that!  So join me as we begin a series of episodes to finish our historical narrative, which I am tentatively calling “Recent History.”

You heard at the beginning of the episode that four donations came in, since the previous episode went up.  That’s the largest number of donations yet, in a two-week period.  If you would like to join the trend, you can make a one-time donation through Paypal, by clicking on the gold button that says “Donate!”, on the Blubrry.com page where you got this episode, and that will take you to the Paypal page for donations.  The Blubrry page also has a link to the podcast’s Patreon page, where you can pledge to give a small amount at the beginning of every month.  Just before I recorded this, a new Patron signed up at the Uparat level.  That’s the tenth Patron so far; we glad to have you onboard!

Thank you also for the reviews you write, and for liking the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook.  And I hope you’re telling your family, friends and acquaintances about the show, though I have no way of measuring the results from word-of-mouth advertising.  Now it’s time to go, so thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 95: The Second Indochina War, Part 22



The previous episode of this podcast was a bit on the short side, so to make up for it, this episode is twice as long!  Today we look at Vietnam and Cambodia, in 1973 and 1974.  A cease-fire is signed for Vietnam in early 1973, which ends active American involvement in that country, but it fails to end the fighting.  As for Cambodia, it takes two to make peace, and the communist Khmer Rouge don’t even want to talk about it, so the Cambodian Civil War was a fight to the finish, with American bombers involved until August 1973.  Tune in and listen to the action!




Episode 95: The Second Indochina War, Part 22

or, The Phony Peace

Greetings, dear listeners!  I hope you’re all safe, happy and healthy, especially if you are listening to this in 2020, the year for all kinds of crazy events!  The latest strange news story I have heard is that China has sent strange packets of seeds to random addresses in the United States.  Attempts to identify the seeds have not found any potentially invasive species, and as far I know, they don’t carry toxins, diseases or radiation, but those who received the seeds have been warned not to plant them.  Whose idea was it to send mysterious seeds in the first place?  If it is an act of war on China’s part, it has about as much chance of getting results as the Japanese attempt to send balloons carrying bombs across the Pacific Ocean, during World War II.  Myself, I think we should send the seeds to that vault near the North Pole, where an attempt is being made to store seeds from every species of plant in the world.

All right, what do mysterious seeds have to do with a podcast on Southeast Asian history?  Nothing, really.  I’m just trying to break the ice before we dive into today’s topic.  For more than twenty episodes, that topic has been the Second Indochina War, or as Americans call it, the Vietnam War.  The United States, after years of heavy fighting in the lands that used to be called French Indochina, withdrew from the conflict in the early 1970s, and the war finally ended in 1975.  At least two of my sources tie the Second Indochina War with the First Indochina War, the previous conflict in and around Vietnam between the Viet Minh and the French, and they call it an Asian thirty years war.  With us, in the last episode we got to the end of 1972 in the narrative, so for this episode and the next, we are going to wrap things up, talking about how the conflict turned out.  Today we are going to cover events in Vietnam and Cambodia, during 1973 and 1974.  As for the third country in Indochina, Laos, we won’t be talking about it here; in Episode 79 we already talked about what was happening in Laos at this time.

I picked “The Phony Peace” as the second title for this episode because peace agreements were signed in Vietnam and Laos in 1973, but the agreement for Vietnam failed to halt the fighting.  If you’re familiar with the story of World War II, you will know that near the beginning of the war, there was a period where France and Britain were technically at war with Germany, but there was no fighting between them in Europe, no repetition of the infamous “Western Front” from World War I.  The fighting that did take place was restricted to naval battles in the Atlantic, between the British and German fleets.   There were three reasons for this:

1. The German Army had been highly successful when it invaded Poland in September 1939, but it was not yet ready for a similar campaign in Western Europe.
2. Neither Britain nor France wanted to make the first aggressive move.
3. Only the Russians thought starting a war in the winter was a good idea.  In fact, they invaded Finland during this time, and we call that conflict “the Winter War.”

The British called this pre-combat situation “the Phony War.”  Germans coined the term Sitzkrieg, meaning “sit-down war,” to describe it, comparing the Blitzkrieg in Poland with the Sitzkrieg in the west.  It ended on April 9, 1940, when the Germans began their Western Front campaign by invading Denmark and Norway.

Now fast-forward 33 years.  In Vietnam peace was declared in 1973, but not much was done to make it work; peace did not break out in the Mekong Delta, the Central Highlands, or anywhere else where it mattered.  Thus, we have the opposite situation to “the Phony War” in early 1940, a phony peace.

If you are new to this podcast, and haven’t listened to the other episodes on the Second Indochina War, what are you waiting for?  I already said that this story is almost over.  If you are watching a movie, play or TV show, I think you will agree that the worst time to walk into the story is at the end.  At a minimum, you will want to ask someone else what you missed.  That is how I felt about the war in Vietnam, in the real world.  That conflict began before I was born, so when I grew old enough to learn where Vietnam was, and that soldiers from my country were fighting over there, nothing about that war made any sense to me until I could read about what had happened previously, especially how the war got started.  Therefore, if you are just joining us, the other episodes you need to listen to are 71 through 94, except for 76, 77, and 85, which covered special topics.  That is your listening assignment, go for it!  The rest of you, come with me!



Let’s begin with a quick recap of the events covered in the previous episode.

In the spring of 1972 North Vietnam launched its second major offensive in South Vietnam, this time with mainly conventional forces.  Like the Tet offensive, this assault eventually ran out of steam, but before it did, between 10% and 25% of South Vietnam’s land and 15% of its people were captured.  The main battle was fought over the northernmost provincial capital, Quang Tri, which the communists held for four and a half months before ARVN forces retook it.  The last American soldiers were leaving Vietnam at this time, so the United States did not get involved in the fighting.

At the same time, the United States was improving relations with China and the Soviet Union.  The Vietnam War kept getting in the way of the agreements they were signing, so Washington, Moscow and Beijing all looked for ways to make the war go away.

The peace talks had been stuck for years on issues that neither side would compromise on, like whether the North Vietnamese should withdraw to their side of the Demilitarized Zone, the role of Nguyen Van Thieu and the Viet Cong in the postwar government, etc.  Now the major powers increased pressure on both Hanoi and Saigon for a diplomatic solution. China and the USSR refused North Vietnamese requests for more aid, and the US threatened to cut off aid to Thieu unless he made peace as well.  The real breakthrough came when both sides agreed to a partial settlement; in effect what they said was, "Just stop the fighting now and we’ll take care of the rest later."

Alright, that was where everything stood as 1972 ended.  Now the narrative can continue.


We saw in the last two episodes that the peace talks were led by the US national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, and by North’s Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho.  They resumed negotiations in Paris on January 8, 1973, and all remaining differences between them were resolved by the next day, which also happened to be the sixtieth birthday of the US president, Richard Nixon.  South Vietnam still had to come on board, so again Nixon threatened the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, with a total cut-off of American aid to South Vietnam.  As Nixon said, quote, “You must decide now whether you desire to continue our alliance or whether you want me to seek a settlement with the enemy which serves US interests alone.”  Unquote.  Because Thieu now had no choice, he unwillingly accepted the peace agreement.  Thieu realized that he could not, quote, “allow myself the luxury of resisting America.”  Unquote.  Still, he felt that the terms of the peace agreement were "tantamount to surrender" for South Vietnam, because they allowed North Vietnamese troops to remain in the South.

The Paris Peace Accords were signed by four parties – the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the Viet Cong – on January 27, 1973.  There were scarcely any differences between the final agreement and the agreement reached the previous October, so North Vietnam’s withdrawal from the peace talks, and the massive US bombing campaign in response, Operation Linebacker II, had both been rather pointless.  Later on Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were both awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts, but Tho refused to accept it.

Podcast footnote: One of my books called the award given to Kissinger the worst Nobel Peace Prize mistake, because his involvement was combined with a bombing campaign to make the North Vietnamese come back to the conference table.  In the previous episode I gave you a quote about the bombing from one of Kissinger’s aides, John Negroponte, and here it is again.  Quote:  “We bombed them into accepting our concessions.”

Unquote:  Personally I think the worst Nobel mistake came twenty years later, when Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat received the Peace Prize for signing the Oslo Accords with Israel, because he never renounced terrorism and he never granted diplomatic recognition to the state of Israel, but that was long after the writing of the book I mentioned.  Tom Lehrer, the comedy piano player, said in 1973, quote:  “Political satire became obsolete when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.”  End quote.  Tom Lehrer composed and sang silly songs like “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”; look up that song on YouTube if you haven’t heard it.  Lehrer retired from songwriting in the same year, but as far as I know, his retirement had nothing to do with Kissinger or Vietnam.  End footnote.

According to the terms of the Peace Accords, the United States agreed to immediately halt all military activities and withdraw all remaining military personnel within 60 days.  The North Vietnamese agreed to an immediate cease-fire and the release of all American prisoners within 60 days.  In return, South Vietnam would release the 30,000 Viet Cong prisoners it held at the end of 1972.  An estimated 145,000 North Vietnamese soldiers presently in South Vietnam were allowed to stay there.  Vietnam remained divided as well.  South Vietnam was now considered to be one country with two governments, one led by President Thieu, the other led by the Viet Cong, pending future reconciliation.  Presumably free and democratic elections would be held to end that division.

Two more noteworthy things happened on January 27, 1973.  First, a US Army officer, Lt. Col. William B. Nolde, was killed by shellfire at An Loc, a provincial capital near Saigon, eleven hours before the cease-fire went into effect.  Although he would not be the last American to die in Vietnam, he was the last official American combat casualty of the war.

The other event was an announcement from Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, that the military draft was ending, in favor of voluntary enlistment.  In the 47 years since then, all American servicemen have been volunteers.  Over the years, some have expressed concern that relying on an all-volunteer force would not work, and that in a desperate situation, the United States would return to the draft.  I can think of one reason why the volunteer force worked – military equipment is too expensive to give it to just anybody.  The Vietnam War was probably the last conflict where an American recruiter would accept anyone who could walk and breathe.  You may remember when I told you in a previous episode about how recruiters willingly accepted men of below-average intelligence.  Since the war, the price of ironmongery has jumped by leaps and bounds so that the typical tank costs millions of dollars, jet fighters and bombers cost at least hundreds of millions, and an aircraft carrier costs so much in construction and maintenance, that choosing its home port can decide whether a portside community will see prosperity or unemployment.  In the age of electronic warfare, weapons are getting fewer in number as they grow increasingly sophisticated, and that means only the most competent, best trained personnel will be retained to use them.  To keep military budgets affordable, the United States and several other nations have "downsized" their armed forces.  We are now in a situation where the largest armies are fielded by the nations least able to equip them; North Korea is one present-day example.


Americans would not consider the war over until all US servicemen were home or accounted for; that included the POWS, or Prisoners of War.  There were 591 known American POWs held in Hanoi, and their return, called Operation Homecoming, began on February 12.  These were about the only American servicemen who received a hero’s welcome.  The last known American POW, Captain Robert White, was released on April 1. Meanwhile, in compliance with the cease-fire terms, most of the remaining US military personnel were withdrawn from South Vietnam by March 29; at this point, President Nixon declared, quote, "the day we have all worked and prayed for has finally come."  Unquote.  The only servicemen left were 200 Marines, to guard the US Embassy and consular offices.  Thousands of diplomats, contractors, and agents from the Central Intelligence Agency also stayed behind, because they had non-military jobs to do and the cease-fire terms said nothing about them.

From the American point of view, that is how the Vietnam War ended.  Before the Americans went into Afghanistan, in the early 21st century, this was the longest war they had fought in.  And here’s a spoiler alert: Vietnam was the first war the Americans would lose, though they did not know it at this date.  During 15 years of military involvement, more than 2 million Americans served in Vietnam, with 500,000 seeing actual combat.  47,244 were killed in action, including 8,000 airmen.  There were also 10,446 non-combat deaths, so the total number of Americans who died in Vietnam was nearly 58,000.  153,329 were seriously wounded, including 10,000 amputees.  Finally, the US government had spent $160 billion on Vietnam in one form or another; in today’s money that would be $794 billion.

More than 2,400 Americans were unaccounted for in 1973.  These were called MIAs, or Missing In Action.  Most of them were airmen flying missions over North Vietnam or Laos; presumably their aircraft crashed or were shot down, and their bodies were never found.  As you might expect, rumors went around that some of them had been captured alive by the Communists, and were never repatriated.  For the rest of the twentieth century, there were mysterious reports of white people sighted in the jungles of Vietnam and Laos, who may have been MIAs.  A number of searches have been conducted since the war ended to find the remains of missing Americans, and that has removed one third of the MIAs from the list.  The most recent year I have figures for is 2015; as of then, there were still 1,627 US servicemen unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.

For the other side, in 1974 the North Vietnamese defense minister, Vo Nguyen Giap, reported that there were 330,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers missing in action.  After the war, the United States put pressure on the Vietnamese to report on what happened to the missing Americans.  Dr. Le Cao Dai, who ran a mobile field hospital during the war, reported that after his fellow soldiers were killed in heavy bombing raids, sometimes only bits of clothing were found, so he responded, quote, "It’s crazy for the Americans to keep asking us to find their men.  We lost several times more than the Americans did.  In any war there are many people who disappear.  They just disappear."  Unquote.  And when human remains were found, there were not always dog tags, dental records, or DNA samples available to identify them.  For that reason, Dai also said, quote:  "Maybe the time has already passed to search for the missing.  In my opinion, it’s a waste of money, a waste of time, to keep looking for them. Best to just build a memorial."  Unquote.

Speaking of memorials, South Vietnamese soldiers are not included in the 330,000 missing that I mentioned a minute ago.  ARVN’s MIAs are considered traitors by Hanoi, so they are uncelebrated and not even counted; no memorial built in present-day Vietnam is for them.  After the war an attempt was made to bulldoze cemeteries that held Saigon’s war dead; the South Vietnamese cemeteries that stand today are abandoned and overgrown with weeds.


The cease-fire agreement had serious flaws from the start.  I already mentioned the biggest problem: letting North Vietnam keep 145,000 troops in South Vietnam.  In the area they controlled, the North Vietnamese built a paved road, going from Quang Tri Province to Loc Ninh, the town near Saigon that they captured in 1972.  I don’t know if this road reached the Demilitarized Zone; if it did, it would have been a better way to transport people and vehicles than the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which as we saw ran through eastern Laos and Cambodia.  They even managed to build an oil pipeline, following the same route.  There was also talk about capturing Tay Ninh, an important town between Saigon and the Cambodian border, and making it the new Viet Cong capital.

To monitor the peace, a multinational organization was set up, called the International Commission of Control and Supervision, or ICCS.  This consisted of military and civilian workers from four nations: Canada, Poland, Hungary, and Indonesia.  For those of you who don’t remember the Cold War, Poland and Hungary had communist governments at the time; two communist and two non-communist nations were chosen, to make sure the organization was balanced politically.  Each nation had 290 personnel working for the organization.  On the surface the ICCS looked like a United Nations peacekeeping force, but without armed soldiers, it could not enforce anything, it could only watch what others were doing.  Thus, when it observed violations of the cease-fire terms, it proved to be an ineffective organization.  Near the end of May 1973, the Canadians announced that they were withdrawing from the ICCS, because they had come to supervise a cease-fire but were instead observing a war; Iran took Canada’s place.  The other countries, as well as the ICCS itself, stuck around until the war ended in 1975.

Podcast footnote: I am old enough to remember the Iranian Revolution of 1979.  For those of you who aren’t old enough, it may sound strange to hear that Iran was not a rogue nation, but a responsible country monitoring the cease-fire in Vietnam.  Well, under the last Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran had a modern, secular society.  In terms of foreign policy it was pro-Western, and Iran was a very important ally to the United States.  Washington kept the Shah friendly by giving or selling to him everything he wanted, but that’s a subject for a podcast about the Middle East.  In fact, Iran’s pro-American policy before the revolution is the main reason why Iran has been anti-American since the revolution.  End footnote.

Unfortunately, neither North or South Vietnam tried very hard to keep the peace, and violations of the agreement occurred daily, as both sides tried to grab as much land as possible, in order to strengthen their position.  On January 31, just four days after the agreement was signed, American military advisors reported, quote, "Ceasefire or no, operations are continuing much as before." Unquote.  The same advisors reported that ARVN had used the cease-fire to gain the initiative.  Quote:  "With the support of daily air strikes and heavy artillery barrages they [the South Vietnamese military forces] have finally begun to roll the VC back."  Unquote.

Back in Episode 68, we covered the 1954 Geneva Accord, which ended the First Indochina War and divided Vietnam into northern and southern states.  I mentioned that the main accomplishment of the 1954 agreement was that it got the French out of Vietnam, and now history repeated itself; the main accomplishment of the 1973 agreement was that it removed the Americans as players.  Both cease-fires imposed partial solutions; once a military solution was reached, a political solution was expected to come and bring about real peace, and when it did not come, a renewal of the war became inevitable.


South Vietnam’s President Thieu flew to California in April 1973; he met with Nixon in the US president’s estate at San Clemente, before going on to Washington, DC.  Nixon reassured Thieu by renewing his earlier secret pledge, to respond militarily if North Vietnam violates the peace agreement.  Aside from that, however, the Americans lost interest in Vietnam, and it seemed that they were trying to forget they had ever been involved there.  News organizations cut back on the number of reporters they had in Saigon, and I remember that for a year and a half, from the summer of 1973 to the beginning of 1975, I only saw a few stories in the news from all of Indochina.  For Vietnam, I was vaguely aware that the war was still taking place on a reduced scale, and South Vietnam wasn’t winning.  Most Americans were now paying attention to other things:  double-digit inflation, high unemployment, a new war between Arabs and Israelis in the Middle East, the energy crisis caused by that war, and most of all, the Watergate scandal.  I can’t talk about Watergate here, that’s way beyond the scope of this podcast, so if you are not familiar with what happened there, I hope you can find another podcast which covers it.  Or maybe watch the movie about it, “All the President’s Men.”

Podcast footnote: At the time, I lived fifty miles from Cape Canaveral, America’s space port, so my main interest in the news back then was our progress in space exploration, especially the missions on Skylab, the first American space station.  While reading the news, I remember a cartoon in Time Magazine, which showed President Nixon in a rowboat on the open sea.  In front of Nixon is a shark named “Vietnam,” and he looks relieved as the shark swims away, but he doesn’t see a whale named “Watergate,” coming up behind him.  End footnote.

<Play Nixon sound clip>

On June 19, 1973, the US Congress passed the Case-Church Amendment, which prohibited any further US military involvement in Southeast Asia.  In both the House and the Senate, more than two thirds of the members approved it, meaning the amendment had a veto-proof majority, so Nixon couldn’t stop it.  The date it would go into effect was August 15, 1973, because B-52 bombers were currently carrying out missions over Cambodia – more about that later in this episode.  For the North Vietnamese, the amendment was a signal to them that the next time they attacked the South Vietnamese, the Americans would not be there.  A few days later, on June 24, Graham Martin, the former US ambassador to Thailand under President Johnson, became the new US ambassador to South Vietnam.  We will see him again in the next episode, because he was also the last ambassador to South Vietnam.

South Vietnamese forces were at their strongest in 1973.  920,000 men were serving under ARVN, meaning they outnumbered their opponents 4 to 1, and they had been generously supplied with American-made materiel, including artillery and tanks.  By contrast, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong hadn’t recovered from their 1972 offensive.  Over the course of 1973, the South Vietnamese launched small-scale campaigns to take back key sectors, especially in the Mekong delta.  The last of ARVN’s counter-attacks was the battle of Svay Rieng.  Here from April 27 to May 2, 1974, the South Vietnamese crossed the Cambodian border, advanced 10 miles into Cambodia, and reported killing 1,200 enemy troops and capturing 65, while losing less than a hundred of their own.

Thieu’s plan was to keep on striking the enemy for two years, until the next election, scheduled for 1975, took place.  As long as he could keep on winning militarily, he was sure to win politically as well.  Then, from a position of strength, he would renounce the cease-fire as a worthless agreement, and launch a campaign to crush communism in South Vietnam once and for all.  Communists south of the 17th Parallel would find themselves in a situation very much like what they had suffered in the mid-to-late 1950s, when former President Ngo Dinh Diem almost destroyed them completely.  In response, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong postponed their offensive strategy until the rainy season ended, in late 1973, and ordered their units to only attack where the odds were overwhelmingly in their favor.

However, South Vietnam’s winning streak couldn’t last.  Economic problems appeared first.  Many of Saigon’s residents had worked service jobs, to meet the needs of the Americans stationed among them.  These included secretaries, maids, prostitutes, cabdrivers, and shoeshine boys.  Now that the Americans were gone, those jobs weren’t needed anymore.  In addition, the worldwide increase in oil prices during 1973 and 1974 triggered a wave of inflation.  The result was high prices and unemployment at the same time, which guaranteed trouble on the political and military fronts.

Besides the crumbling economy, South Vietnam had another problem which we have heard about previously – corruption.   To re-use a phrase popular in present-day American politics, no South Vietnamese leader “drained the swamp.”  Now military commanders stole much of the money from the payrolls of their troops.  And the stolen money was not replaced.  Nixon was forced to resign in August 1974, because Congress was planning to impeach him over Watergate.  One of Nixon’s last acts as president was to sign into law a bill that put a ceiling on aid to South Vietnam – $1 billion over the next eleven months.  Even so, for Congress this was too much, and when Congress voted on the next appropriation, in September 1974, they approved sending $700 million, not $1 billion.  And only about two fifths of that money, $280 million, made it to Vietnam.  A Pentagon study conducted later on reported that some of the funds were used to buy equipment that wasn’t shipped before the war ended, and some of the funds were simply unspent in the time left.

Because they were poorly equipped and rarely paid, the readiness and the morale of the South Vietnamese armed forces dropped like a stone.  By the end of 1974, the number of desertions reached as high as 20,000 per month.  South Vietnamese aircraft lost their pilots and ground crews, while jeeps and other ground vehicles did not have spare parts.  Fuel and ammunition were in short supply everywhere; ARVN troops were rationed one grenade and 85 bullets a month.

On that happy note (sarcasm intended), let’s go see what was happening in Cambodia at the same time.



If you need to refresh your memory, the other episodes where I talked about the war in Cambodia are Episodes 91 and 92.  We saw that France terminated its protectorate over Cambodia in 1953, and for the next seventeen years, Cambodia was ruled by a constitutional monarchy, where the monarch was either King Norodom Suramarit, or his son, Prince Norodom Sihanouk.  Gradually the government came undone, and then in 1970 the National Assembly voted to depose Sihanouk.  In his place, the Khmer Republic was proclaimed, and whereas Sihanouk tried to follow a neutral foreign policy, the new leaders, mostly military men, were openly right-wing, pro-Western and anti-communist.  Since a communist movement, the Khmer Rouge, was already active in the eastern part of the country, the war between communists and anti-communists in Vietnam now spread into Cambodia as well.  The Americans and South Vietnamese even fought the communists in Cambodia, for a few months in 1970.

If you had been in Cambodia at this time, you probably would have expected the government to do well; for one thing, government forces outnumbered those of the Khmer Rouge.  But as we noted previously, the army of the Khmer Republic was undertrained, and morale was poor.  Even worse, the government was run by people who were corrupt and incompetent.  I did not tell you this last time, but whenever the president, Lon Nol, needed to make an important decision, he consulted mystics and astrologers.  While kings of the ancient world regularly did that, it is not an appropriate practice for the leaders of today.  In a future episode, I will tell you about a modern Burmese leader who listened to astrologers, and the crazy things he did because of them.

Anyway, the Khmer Rouge also had help from the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, who fought on their side for the first half of the Cambodian Civil War.  They made rapid gains in 1970, and while there were some stalemates during the fighting in 1971 and 1972, the communists were never in danger of losing.  By the beginning of 1973, the Vietnamese were gone, since they were not needed anymore, and the Khmer Rouge controlled nearly 60% of Cambodia’s territory (mostly rural areas) and 25% of its population.

The first major operation that the Khmer Rouge conducted on its own was at Romeas, about 45 miles northwest of Phnom Penh.  Here on January 6, 1973, two Khmer Rouge battalions surrounded and besieged a government battalion.  With American help, more government troops came to the rescue, broke the siege, and entered Romeas on January 23.

On January 29, two days after the peace accord for Vietnam was signed, Lon Nol tried to do the same thing for Cambodia.  The government ordered a suspension of all offensive operations, in the hope that this gesture would lead to a Cambodian cease-fire and negotiations, but the Khmer Rouge weren’t having any of it.  On February 3, the Khmer Rouge cut Route 4, the highway link between Phnom Penh and the country’s only deep-water port, Kompong Som, present-day Sihanoukville.  Henceforth, the principal way to send supplies to Phnom Penh would be the Mekong River.  For the next two years, ships from Saigon carrying vital supplies like fuel oil would come under heavy fire as they went up the river, in successful but costly attempts to breach the communist blockade of the capital.  Realizing that there wouldn’t be any peace in Cambodia, the United States resumed bombing of military targets in Cambodia on February 9, using mainly B-52s, which were also nicknamed BUFFs, “Big Ugly Fat Fellows.”

<B-52 sound clip>

We saw in Episode 92 that the American bombing campaign over Cambodia was called Operation Freedom Deal.  Later on, officers in the US Seventh Air Force argued that their bombing prevented the fall of Phnom Penh in 1973, by killing 16,000 of 25,500 Khmer Rouge fighters besieging the city.  The Lon Nol government made peace overtures again in May and July, and these proposals were likewise rejected.  Instead, for 1973 the Khmer Rouge launched an offensive during the rainy season, something they hadn’t done previously.  The war in Cambodia would be a fight to the finish, with no cease-fire to interrupt it like the cease-fires in Vietnam and Laos.

Podcast footnote: Prince Sihanouk, now the figurehead leader of the Khmer Rouge, might have accepted some sort of peace agreement.  Indeed, his government had taken part in the Geneva conference of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War.  However, he was apparently talked out of it by the other Khmer Rouge leaders, when he met with them in Hanoi in early February.  Then, in the middle of the month, Henry Kissinger visited Beijing; coming fresh from the signing of the Vietnam cease-fire, Kissinger probably would have wanted a similar peace arrangement for Cambodia, but Sihanouk wasn’t there; instead the prince made a trip to Hainan, China’s big island in the South China Sea.  Sihanouk again refused to meet with Kissinger when the American negotiator, now the US Secretary of State, visited Beijing a second time in November.  End footnote.

On March 17, President Lon Nol declared a state of emergency, because an aircraft piloted by Captain So Potra (a son-in-law of Prince Sihanouk), bombed the presidential palace, killing 47 people.  Afterwards, known political opponents of Lon Nol were arrested, together with members of the former royal family, and all newspapers and magazines not controlled by the government were shut down for three months.

On the other side, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary asserted their domination over the Vietnamese-trained communists in the Khmer Rouge, purging many of them from the movement.  They also got rid of Prince Sihanouk’s non-communist supporters, who had joined because Sihanouk was with them.  And speaking of Sihanouk, I mentioned in Episode 92 that Sihanouk made his only visit to Cambodia during the war in April 1973.  It was a guided tour of the areas the Khmer Rouge had “liberated.” and concerts were held in his honor in the provincial capitals he visited.  Sihanouk claimed he attended a rally near the ruins of Angkor, Cambodia’s great medieval capital, but the only evidence we have of that are some photos of himself and his wife at Angkor, and it has been suggested they were either taken at another location, or were faked, with the photo retouching tricks used before Photoshop was invented.  Despite this, Sihanouk knew he wasn’t the one in charge, and he seems to have been glad to go back to China at the end of the tour.  In June he told Oriana Fallaci, the famous Italian reporter, quote, “When they no longer need me, they will spit me out like a cherry pit.”  End quote.

The real Khmer Rouge leadership was kept secret from outsiders; in the areas they controlled, the leaders were called Angka, which simply means “Organization,” or Angka Loeu, the “Organization on High.”  Pol Pot and his henchmen believed that Cambodia needed to go through a total social revolution, and that everything that had come before them was anathema and must be destroyed.

The Khmer Rouge began to implement their program for the country after the North Vietnamese troops withdrew, because now there was nobody around to restrain them.  Soon reports of brutal Khmer Rouge policies made their way to Phnom Penh as refugees arrived.  They told stories about the forced relocations of entire villages, of the summary execution of any who disobeyed or even asked questions, the forbidding of religious practices, monks getting defrocked or murdered, and even the abolishment of traditional sexual and marital customs.  War was one thing; the casual way in which the Khmer Rouge killed anyone who disagreed with them, so out of character for Cambodians, was quite another.  At the end of 1973, Sihanouk spoke with the French diplomat Etienne Manac’h.  Comparing the Khmer Rouge with communists in eastern Europe, he said that after the war, Cambodia would not follow a moderate form of socialism like what was practiced in Yugoslavia; Stalinist Albania would be the model.


By April 1973, the situation on the ground had gotten so bad for government forces, that American bomber crews were given permission to strike at targets where civilians were likely to be hit.  In the six months from February to August, 257,465 tons of bombs – nearly 100,000 more tons than were dropped on Japan during World War II – fell on Cambodia.  At one point, B-52 sorties reached 81 a day, compared to the Vietnam maximum of 60.  Near the end of the air raids, Seventh Air Force commander General John W. Vogt, Jr. observed, quote, “The enemy began to pull back.  He had suffered such heavy casualties…that he could no longer sustain the offensive.”  Unquote.  When somebody confronted Lon Nol about the army’s shortcomings, his reassuring answer was, quote, “Calm down.  The Americans are killing a thousand of our enemy every week.”  Unquote.

Unfortunately, Communists were not the only casualties.  The worst “friendly fire” incident happened at Neak Luong, the Route 1 ferry town on the Mekong between Phnom Penh and Vietnam.  Here before dawn on August 6, a B-52 mistakenly dropped its load – thirty tons of high explosive bombs – along a mile-long path that hit the local hospital and marketplace, killing 137 and wounding 268.

In the United States, Congress turned its attention to the bombing in May.  Members of Congress were furious to learn that air raids had secretly been conducted over Cambodia since 1969; previously they thought the raids had begun when US ground troops went into the country in 1970.  They voted to cut off funds for continued bombing of Cambodia at the end of June, but President Nixon vetoed this legislation.  Then a compromise was worked out, where all bombing had to end on August 15, 1973.  Afterwards, the only missions US aircraft were allowed to engage in were reconnaissance and the delivery of aid packages.  Estimates of the total number of casualties from the bombings vary widely, from 30,000 to 500,000 killed.  And we know that many of the war’s two million refugees became refugees because their homes were destroyed by the bombs.

For the last months of 1973, the main battles were fought along Route 4, the previously mentioned road linking Phnom Penh with Kompong Som, and at Kompong Cham.  Indeed, aside from the sieges of Phnom Penh, the heaviest fighting of the Cambodian Civil War took place at Kompong Cham.  Kompong Cham is located on the Mekong, 75 miles upstream from Phnom Penh, and is Cambodia’s third largest city, after Phnom Penh and Battambang.  The Khmer Rouge occupied half of Kompong Cham in early September, and neutralized a nearby airstrip.  The city was taken back by an operation called “Castor 21,” which involved navy SEALs and the army’s elite unit, the Khmer Special Forces.  The resulting battle lasted nine days and produced an estimated 8,000 casualties, before government forces triumphed in Kompong Cham.  This is one of the few times when Lon Nol had anything to crow about, so we’ll let him celebrate a victory here.


In December 1973 the Khmer Rouge insurgents launched another assault on the capital.  They attacked on the northwest and south sides of the city, using captured American 105mm howitzers to bombard it.  At the same time, radio messages were broadcast into the city, urging residents to evacuate and head for the quote-unquote "liberated areas."  Although the bombardment caused nearly 400 civilian deaths, and communist troops came within 3 miles of the Phnom Penh airport, the civilian population did not panic, and in February a government counteroffensive forced the insurgents to withdraw.  There were three reasons why the government defense had succeeded:

1.  Khmer Rouge forces were poorly coordinated.
2.  The government forces had great firepower, generously supplied by the Americans, of course.
3.  The Mekong River, then and now Cambodia’s most important line of transportation, was kept open at all times.

Even so, 1974 began with the Khmer Rouge controlling 85 percent of Cambodia.  About all that was left to the government were Kompong Cham and the Mekong River below it, a narrow corridor from Phnom Penh to the Thai border, and the coast along the Gulf of Thailand.

In March 1974, the Khmer Rouge captured Udong.  This town was Cambodia’s capital from 1618 until 1865, when  the French moved the capital to Phnom Penh, 24 miles away.  After taking the old capital, the Khmer Rouge dispersed its 20,000 inhabitants into the countryside, and executed the teachers and civil servants.  There were also reports in the same year of them massacring the inhabitants of Sar Sarsdam, a small village in Siem Reap Province, and of Ang Snuol, a town west of Phnom Penh.  This proved to be a trial-run for the atrocities that would be committed as soon as the war ended.  Donald Kirk, an author and correspondent, described the Khmer Rouge behavior as a "sweeping, almost cosmic policy" of indiscriminate terror, and compared it with the Viet Cong using "a modicum of care and precision" when they applied terror in South Vietnam; for instance, the Viet Cong limited their killings to landlords and South Vietnamese officials.  Government forces took back Udong in July, but the atrocity stories were considered to be anticommunist propaganda by many, if not most foreign journalists and other observers, and thus were dismissed.  Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge captured the roads between the government-controlled cities, in preparation for the sieges that would take place in the following year.


All right, I’ve talked enough for today!  We are up to December 1974 in the narrative, and if we go any further, we will be getting into the final campaigns of the war, which I am saving for the next episode.  Join me next time as we wrap up the Second Indochina War, learning how it all turned out in the end.  It’s all coming soon, to a podcast near you.

Another thing is coming up soon – the podcast’s centennial!  Because this is Episode 95 of the podcast, the Big 100 is only five episodes away.  With podcasts, lasting long enough to record 100 episodes is a big deal; it shows dedication and commitment, for a start.  Since I missed celebrating the podcast’s 4-year anniversary, I definitely don’t want to miss celebrating the 100th episode.  But what shall we do to celebrate?  If you have any ideas, drop me a line by email or on the podcast’s Facebook page.

Unfortunately no donations have come in since the previous episode was uploaded.  This podcast is entirely listener-supported, so if you enjoyed this episode and have the means to support it, consider making a donation through Paypal.  Just click on the gold button that says “Donate!”, on the Blubrry.com page where you got this episode.  That’s for one-time donations.  Now if you would rather give a small amount, $1 to $10, each month, this podcast has a Patreon page, too, and there is a link to it on the Blubrry page as well.  The good news is that some new Patrons have joined since the last episode; there are nine of them now!  Whatever you can contribute is appreciated.

And that’s not all you can do to support the podcast.  You can also write a review, if you get your podcasts from a website or app besides Blubrry.  Reviews share the love, they let the world know about the great listening material you found.  And if you go on Facebook and haven’t liked the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page yet, “like” it today, so you won’t miss an episode, or the content I share that is related to Southeast Asia.  Finally, tell anyone you know who may like the show.  Unless you’re a complete hermit, I’m sure you will meet someone who would be interested in the show, before I finish recording the next episode.  Now get to it!  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 94: The Second Indochina War, Part 21



This episode of the podcast covers the war in Vietnam, also called the Second Indochina War, during 1972.  North Vietnam launches a major offensive that is eventually defeated, thanks to American air power, but they are able to grab ten percent of South Vietnam’s territory, and keep their soldiers in it afterwards.  Meanwhile, the peace talks continue.  The United States and North Vietnam finally reach an agreement, but the talks are interrupted by two major US bombing campaigns against North Vietnam, leading many to think that peace was forced upon the North Vietnamese.  What will that mean when the cease-fire is signed in the following year?




This episode is dedicated to Brian E., and Michael S. W., both of whom made donations to the podcast recently.  Unfortunately, Brian’s donation arrived on the day when the previous episode went online, so I couldn’t mention it until now.  I also remember that Brian made a donation last year, so on the Podcast Hall of Fame page, he now has the coveted water buffalo icon next to his name!  Now in the real world, we are entering the dog days of August, one of the dullest times of the year.  With all of the quote-unquote “interesting” events that have happened recently, I will turn the famous Chinese curse into a blessing – may you live in uninteresting times.  Okay, are we all ready for today’s show?  Roll the music, then!

Episode 94: The Second Indochina War, Part 21

or, The Easter Offensive

Greetings, dear listeners!  As I record this, it is the middle of summer in 2020, and whoever is in charge of this world hasn’t run out of ideas to make this a crazy year.  One of the latest schemes was to send clouds of dust from the Sahara Desert across the Atlantic, to the United States, and because that didn’t mess up anything, now I’m hearing about a coin shortage; what caused THAT?  Fortunately we can still temporarily escape the troubles of today by reading a book, watching a TV show or movie, or – you guessed it – listening to a podcast.  Lately this podcast has been covering the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War, so you won’t be going to a happier time if you keep on listening to this episode.  You may even conclude that life was worse during the war years than it is today!  Oh well, we can’t talk about golden ages all the time; in human history they are few and far between.  In the case of Vietnam, the golden age had to happen before the French invaded the country, in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Or maybe the golden age is still to come, with the current economic growth going on in Ho Chi Minh City.

Anyway, today we are going to look at events of the war in Vietnam, during 1972.  These are events I remember; I was a teenager at the time.  I also remember that 1972 was an exceptionally busy year.  Besides Vietnam, we had the Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 missions, the last two manned flights to the moon so far, a presidential election, the Winter Olympic Games in Sapporo, Japan, and the Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany; the latter were marred by the murder of Israeli athletes by terrorists.  And if you were there like me, you will remember more; how about the great music from that year, for example?


I have to keep saying this, because there are probably first-time listeners every time a new episode goes online.  If this is your first time with us, note that this is the twenty-first episode in our series on the Second Indochina War.  Unless you were there in 1972, you will need to listen to the other episodes to understand what is going on in this one.  Those are Episodes 71 through 93, except for 76, 77, and 85.  And you might want to listen to the five episodes on the First Indochina War, 64 to 68, to learn how the stage was set for the war the Americans got involved in.  Or maybe you will want to learn how the French got involved in Vietnam first: Episodes 19, 25, 26, 34 and 35.  Oh heck, just go to the oldest episodes in the podcast and start listening there, if you haven’t already.  Now I’m sounding like a podcaster who has been asked to explain what caused World War I:

“It all started in 1914 . . . you see, in 1908 . . . wait, in 1882 . . . hold on, in 1867 . . . no, but first, back in 1815 . . . actually, let’s start with Napoleon.”

Okay, if you haven’t listened to the other episodes in this series, you know your assignment.  Hit the pause button now, and go take care of that.  The rest of you, let’s move on with the show.




As 1972 began, the Nixon administration had diplomacy on its mind.  On January 25, President Richard Nixon announced an eight point peace plan for Vietnam, and also revealed that his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, had been secretly negotiating with the North Vietnamese.  While Saigon approved of the plan, Hanoi rejected it.  Then in February, Nixon made his historic trip to China, meeting with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and opening up diplomatic relations between the Americans and communist Chinese.  This was followed up with a trip to Moscow in May, where Nixon met with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and began talks to limit the number of missiles the United States and Soviet Union could have.

Back in Vietnam, Nixon’s trips caused great concern in both Saigon and Hanoi.  Nguyen Van Thieu said South Vietnam was like a mistress that had grown old and ugly in the eyes of the Americans, and now that the Americans had discovered China, they wanted a new Asian mistress.  North Vietnam depended on the Soviets for up-to-date weapons and on China for rice; now they feared that their wartime allies might agree to an unfavorable settlement of the war, in order to improve relations with the United States.  Sure enough, the Soviets and the Chinese now began telling Hanoi that it was time to end the war.

Instead, the North Vietnamese military commander, Vo Nguyen Giap, launched an all-out attempt to conquer as much South Vietnamese territory as possible.  This offensive began on March 30, 1972, Easter weekend on Western calendars, so it is now called the Easter Offensive by Americans.  Giap felt the time to act was now, because if he waited, Soviet and Chinese military aid would be reduced, and South Vietnam would get stronger.


Whereas the Tet Offensive of 1968 was a guerrilla campaign, with the Viet Cong attacking more than a hundred targets at the same time, this time the North Vietnamese were waging a purely conventional war, committing 120,000 soldiers (mostly North Vietnamese regulars, plus what remained of the Viet Cong), accompanied by heavy artillery and more than three hundred tanks.  In the words of author Michael Herr, quote, “People’s Army, my ass.”  Unquote.  Those soldiers were organized into fourteen divisions, and they went after three targets.  Six divisions crossed the Demilitarized Zone first, into Quang Tri Province.  By May 1 they had taken Quang Tri, the northernmost provincial capital, and began to threaten Hue, Vietnam’s nineteenth-century capital.  Next, three divisions sneaked across the Cambodian border to take the town of Loc Ninh, and attack An Loc, a provincial capital just 60 miles north-northwest of Saigon.  A communist victory here would threaten the South Vietnamese capital for sure.  For the third target, three more divisions invaded the Central Highlands, and attacked the city of Kontum.  Nearby, in the coastal province of Binh Dinh, the North Vietnamese seized three district capitals, after the local ARVN general didn’t try very hard to defend them.  There were forty thousand South Koreans stationed in Binh Dinh, but instead of showing their usual ferocity, they had been ordered to stay out of the fight, because the war was winding down.  If the rest of the province had been taken, South Vietnam would have been cut in two.  Finally, two divisions entered the Mekong delta from Cambodia; although they did not take part in any battles, they captured much of that fertile, rice-growing land.  South Vietnam would call the offensive “the summer of flames.”

The Americans and South Vietnamese had been expecting a North Vietnamese offensive in 1972, but did not know where it would take place, or the size of the force involved.  US and South Vietnamese commanders had not paid attention to intelligence that could have told them more, so when the offensive began, they were taken by surprise.  In that way they failed to follow one of the most important rules of warfare – "never underestimate your enemy."

You will remember that most of the battles in the Tet Offensive were won quickly by American and South Vietnamese troops fighting together.  That wouldn’t happen now, because there weren’t enough Americans left to fight.  Of the 70,000 Americans left in Vietnam, only 6,000 were combat troops.  Nor would more any more troops go to Vietnam.  The demonstrations in American cities made sure of that, and Congress would be reluctant to send military aid after the rest of the troops came home.  Remember what I said in a previous episode, about how the Americans won every battle in Vietnam, while they lost the war in the United States.  ARVN was now on its own.


Except in the air.  Air power had always been the most important advantage the Americans had in Indochina.  With the pullout of American soldiers from Vietnam, aircraft had been pulled out as well, so in early 1972 there were eight hundred combat aircraft left; most of them were based in South Vietnam and Thailand, plus two US Navy carrier air wings.  Now in response to the new crisis, Washington sent four more carriers to the waters around Vietnam by the end of May; with them went four hundred Air Force fighters, and most importantly, more than two hundred B-52s.

As early as April 2, the US 7th Fleet began targeting North Vietnamese troops massed around the Demilitarized Zone with air strikes and naval gunfire.  Then on April 4, President Nixon authorized a massive bombing campaign targeting all North Vietnamese troops invading South Vietnam, along with the first B-52 air strikes against North Vietnam since 1968.  Nixon was privately heard saying, quote, "The bastards have never been bombed like they’re going to bombed this time."  Unquote.  The US Army used AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships, equipped with new TOW wire-guided antitank missiles and 2.75-inch rockets, to blast North Vietnamese tanks and troops at An Loc and at Kontum.  The US Navy and Air Force sent B-52s, A-6s, A-7s, F-4s, and A-37s against enemy forces outside An Loc, and A-1s from the South Vietnamese Air Force struck them as well.  The North Vietnamese troops and tanks attacked in the type of massed formations that had worked so well in World War II, but without control of the air, massed formations are easy targets.  Through April and May, An Loc remained under siege sustained by constant air support and aerial resupply, which enabled the defenders to repulse one North Vietnamese assault after another.  The American commander at An Loc, Brigadier General James Hollingsworth, refused to consider a proposal by the Red Cross that the two sides should declare a temporary cease-fire at An Loc to treat the wounded, and when speaking to reporters about the enemy, he said he intended to, quote, "kill them all before they get back to Cambodia."  Unquote.  By the end of May, after suffering an estimated twenty-five thousand casualties, the North Vietnamese called off their attempt to take the city.

On the Central Highlands front, the North Vietnamese got off to a good start, taking the South Vietnamese bases at Tan Canh and Dak To by April 25.  Kontum was the next target, and again US airplanes and attack helicopters flew in to save the day.  Here the battle lasted from May 13 to June 9, before the North Vietnamese called off their attack.  Because most of the American ground troops were gone from this sector, a retired lieutenant colonel, John Paul Vann, who was working here as an advisor, became a civilian commander for US forces in the battle.  However, at the end of the battle, Vann was killed when his helicopter crashed into a hillside; later the North Vietnamese claimed to have shot him down.  He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

But wait!  There’s more!  In mid-April another round of protests erupted in the United States, this time against the bombing of North Vietnam, and on May 9, US planes began Operation Linebacker I by dropping mines in Haiphong harbor, to prevent the delivery of supplies to North Vietnam by Soviet ships.  US warplanes also struck railroad bridges, rail yards, oil tanks and munitions dumps.  This hampered North Vietnam’s ability to supply the troops engaged in the Easter Offensive; on June 1, Hanoi admitted Operation Linebacker I was causing severe disruptions.  And as if to make that point, South Vietnamese troops began a counter-offensive on June 28 to retake Quang Tri Province, aided by more US Navy gunfire and B-52 bombardments.  This was followed up with a major counter-offensive on July 19, to take back the Communist-held part of Binh Dinh Province.  Finally, on September 16, 1972, Quang Tri City was recovered by South Vietnamese troops, ending the offensive.


One more time, North Vietnam had suffered the most casualties.  Estimates of the North Vietnamese dead usually put the figure at 100,000, with 60,000 wounded and anywhere from 250 to 700 tanks and armored personnel carriers destroyed.  The Viet Cong General Tran Van Tra, writing about the offensive ten years later, stated, quote:  "Our troops were exhausted and their units in disarray.  We had not been able to make up losses.  We were short of manpower as well as food and ammunition."  End quote.  Before the offensive, North Vietnamese forces had not really controlled any South Vietnamese territory; now after the offensive, they held 10 percent of South Vietnam’s countryside, in the four northernmost provinces, the Central Highlands, and the Mekong delta.  This would give North Vietnam a position of strength at the peace talks in Paris.  Even so, North Vietnam considered the campaign a defeat, and replaced its commander.  Although Vo Nguyen Giap would remain defense minister, another general, Van Tien Dung, would act as the actual leader of the army for the rest of the war.  For the South Vietnamese, around 10,000 were killed, 33,000 were wounded, and 3,500 were missing.  300 Americans were killed, and 134 planes were shot down, meaning that more Americans would join the prisoners of war being held in North Vietnam.

The Easter Offensive showed that South Vietnamese troops could fight – but only to a point.  By 1972, thanks to US aid, ARVN was one of the best-equipped armies in the world.  But could they continue to make a stand, without the Americans?  At the end of June, President Nixon recalled the MACV commander in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, replacing him with Abrams’ deputy general, Frederick Weyand.  Weyand would be the last American commander in Vietnam.  And on August 23, 1972, the last US combat troops departed from Vietnam.  For those keeping track, 759 Americans had been killed in Vietnam in 1972.  The only Americans left were Army advisors and administrators, to assist South Vietnam’s armed forces, and of course, the prisoners of war.  The next time North Vietnam attacked, ARVN would not have anyone to help them.

In Paris, the crucial breakthrough in the peace talks came on October 8, 1972.  Previously, the North Vietnamese had insisted that any end to the fighting must come with the removal of South Vietnamese President Thieu from office, and the dismantling of his government.  But they had also been hoping to defeat the Americans in a big showdown battle, the way they had beaten the French at Dienbienphu.  Now they realized that battle wasn’t going to happen, so getting rid of the Americans peacefully had become more important than getting rid of Thieu.  Therefore, Le Duc Tho dropped the demands regarding South Vietnam.  In return, Kissinger agreed that North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam could remain there, after the fighting stopped.  Kissinger’s staff members privately expressed concerns over allowing North Vietnamese troops to remain in the South, and Kissinger replied, quote, "I want to end this war before the election."  Unquote.  To one member of his staff, John Negroponte, Kissinger asked, quote, “What do you want us to do?  Stay there forever?”  Unquote.  It was less than a month before the 1972 US presidential election, and Nixon was running against South Dakota Senator George McGovern, who campaigned on a promise to end the war immediately.  Although the polls showed Nixon well ahead of McGovern, Nixon would welcome all the help he could get.


Because of the progress at the conference table, Operation Linebacker I ended on October 22.  US warplanes had flown 40,000 sorties and dropped more than 125,000 tons of bombs during the campaign.  On the same day, Kissinger visited President Thieu in Saigon to discuss the peace proposal.  Thieu didn’t like it.  There was nothing in the peace proposal for him; he could only lose if it went into effect.  He publicly denounced it, and an angry Kissinger reported this to President Nixon, who then threatened Thieu with a total cut-off of all American aid, but Thieu did not back down.

Podcast footnote: I remember a cartoon in my local newspaper at that time, which showed a dove representing peace, perched on a windowsill, while Kissinger and Thieu are standing just inside the window.  Kissinger is offering the dove birdseed, and Thieu is trying to scare the dove away with a broom.  End footnote.

Radio Hanoi revealed the terms of the peace proposal on October 26, and accused the U.S. of attempting to sabotage the settlement.  Washington didn’t care what the North Vietnamese said.  At the White House on the same day, Henry Kissinger held a press briefing and declared, quote, "We believe that peace is at hand. We believe that an agreement is in sight."  Unquote.  The news that the Vietnam War was about to end, guaranteed Nixon would be re-elected.  Election Day came a week and a half later, and Nixon won by a landslide, securing 61 percent of the popular vote, and carrying every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

But there were more bumps ahead, on the road to peace.  Now that the Americans and North Vietnamese had reached an agreement, they needed to bring in the South Vietnamese.  Accordingly, President Nixon sent a letter to President Thieu on November 14, secretly pledging "to take swift and severe retaliatory action" if North Vietnam violates the proposed peace treaty.  Thieu replied with a list of 69 changes to the agreement, which Kissinger passed on to Le Duc Tho.  Of course the North Vietnamese did not find all of the changes on the list acceptable; the Paris peace talks broke down in mid-December, and Le Duc Tho returned to Hanoi to consult his bosses.  Nixon sent an ultimatum to North Vietnam, demanding that serious negotiations must resume within 72 hours – or else.  Hanoi did not respond, so Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker II, eleven days and nights of maximum force bombing against military targets in North Vietnam by B-52 bombers.

Operation Linebacker II began on December 18, and ended on December 29; although the bombers took Christmas Day off, Americans still called these raids “Christmas bombings.”  This turned out to be the most intensive bombing campaign of the entire war, with over 100,000 bombs dropped on Hanoi and Haiphong.  Needless to say, the bombings were widely denounced by American politicians, the media, and various world leaders, including the Pope.  North Vietnam reported 1,318 civilian deaths in Hanoi, and 305 in Haiphong, and released filmed footage of civilian casualties; that added fuel to the outrage.  In addition, by launching 1,200 SAM missiles, North Vietnam shot down fifteen of the 121 B-52s participating, and the North Vietnamese had a few downed B-52 pilots make public statements against the bombing.  In the middle of it all, on December 26, North Vietnam agreed to resume peace negotiations within five days after an end to the bombing.  As John Negroponte later put it, quote, “We bombed them into accepting our concessions.”  Unquote.  When the bombing ended, it was mainly because the Americans had run out of targets to hit and the North Vietnamese had run out of missiles.


All right, that brings us to the end of 1972, so we are at a good point to break off for today.  At this point, we are on the verge of a peace agreement in Vietnam.  Back in Episode 79, I told you that in 1973, cease-fires went into effect for both Vietnam and Laos.  How well will they work?  Join me next time to find out!

If you are enjoying the podcast, please consider supporting it financially.  You can make a one-time donation through Paypal, or a small monthly donation through Patreon.  Go to the page on Blubrry.com hosting this episode, and there you will find links to Paypal, Patreon, and the Podcast Hall of Fame page.  If you make a Paypal donation, your first name will be added to the Podcast Hall of Fame page.  Meanwhile on the Patreon page, you can pledge to contribute $1, $3, $5, or $10 at the beginning of each month.

If you cannot afford to send a donation, you can still help the podcast, by writing a review, liking the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook, and by telling your family and friends about the show.  That’s all, I have to run now.  Like I’ve been saying, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 93: The Second Indochina War, Part 20



Better late than never, as the saying goes!  Sorry for the delays.  This episode covers the war in Vietnam during 1970 and 1971.  Also covered are events in the United States at the same time that affected the war:  more antiwar protests, and the publication of the Pentagon Papers.





This episode is dedicated to Ben G., Willem P., and Alejandro F., for the donations they made to the podcast.  This time the donations were particularly generous.  I don’t know if that was in response to the announcement I made at the beginning of July, about the need to cut back on the time I was spending recording and editing, but I am always thankful, even when the donations are small.  Since today’s episode is focused on war stories, may all of you continue to live in peace and prosperity, even in these crazy times.  And speaking of war stories, let’s get on with the show!

Episode 93: The Second Indochina War, Part 20

or, Vietnamization Continues

Greetings, dear listeners!  If you are a regular listener, you will remember that for the past three episodes, I have been promoting the Intelligent Speech Conference, an online conference of 40 producers of educational podcasts.  That took place last Saturday, June 27, 2020, and I certainly had a great time, meeting podcasters I have been listening to for as long as five years.  The presentation I gave went well, too; afterwards all the feedback I got for it was positive.  I have been informed that the videos made of the presentations will be made available to speakers like myself, but I don’t know how that will work yet.  Maybe I will upload my video on YouTube, for the benefit of those who missed it.  Go to the podcast’s Facebook page to keep up to date on that.

Alright, what’s in store for today’s show?  Today we are resuming the narrative for the part of the Second Indochina War that took place in Vietnam.  You probably know this conflict better as the Vietnam War if you are in the United States, or the American War if you are in Vietnam.  We broke off the Vietnam narrative in Episode 89, when we reached the end of 1969.  So that’s the episode you need to listen to, in order to understand what’s going on in this one.  Or if this is the first episode you have listened to in this podcast, in order to catch up on the Second Indochina War, you will need to listen to Episodes 71 through 92, except for 76, 77, and 85.

If you’re still here, I will assume you already listened to the other episodes, and are ready for this one.  To the Batmobile, let’s go!




1970 and 1971 were relatively quiet years in Vietnam, compared with what had happened there over the past decade.  To be sure, there were still clashes, and some soldiers on both sides would be killed, but the fighting was on a small scale – no major campaigns were launched by any of the four armies active in Vietnam: MACV, the American force, ARVN, the Army of South Vietnam, PAVN, the Army of North Vietnam, and the National Liberation Front, better known as the Viet Cong.  During these years, most of the action was not in South Vietnam, but in Cambodia and Laos.  Go to the previous episode, Episode 92, for the events in Cambodia at this time, while Episode 79 covered the events in Laos.  Now why did the four players hold back in Vietnam?

If you listened to Episode 89, you know why the Americans didn’t want to act – they were winding down their own involvement, and turning over the war’s responsibilities to the South Vietnamese, so they could go home.  The South Vietnamese had been training for this, through a program called “Vietnamization,” but they were not confident yet, and thus showed little initiative where the Americans were not around to back them up.  By contrast, the North Vietnamese were confident, but they were not ready to act yet.  And in the episode on the Tet Offensive, we saw how the Viet Cong had suffered losses so severe that they would not recover for the rest of the war, so instead of acting on their own, they followed the lead of the North Vietnamese.

We noted previously that the United States had gotten five of its allies to send troops to fight alongside them in Vietnam.  Of these, South Korea made the largest commitment, and because they had fought communists at home, in the Korean War, the Koreans hated communists, and they fought so hard here that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong learned to fear them.  Still, at the peak of their involvement, the South Koreans had 50,000 troops in South Vietnam, about one tenth the number of US servicemen in the peak year, 1969.  Now all five allies were following the American lead, and reducing their involvement, too.  The Philippines had already withdrawn its troops in December 1969, while Australia, New Zealand and Thailand pulled their troops out by 1972.  The last ally to go was – you guessed it – South Korea; they had a few soldiers in South Vietnam until early 1973.

One theater with events related to the war was not in Southeast Asia at all, but in the United States.  We will get to those events shortly.  Finally, there was Paris, France, where peace talks between the United States and North Vietnam had been deadlocked since 1968.  One sticking point was that the communists refused to recognize the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government, while the South Vietnamese wouldn’t recognize the legitimacy of the Viet Cong.  This impasse was resolved by only naming North Vietnam and the United States as participating parties; Viet Cong officials could join the North Vietnam team without being recognized as Viet Cong, while South Vietnamese delegates joined the US team.  Aside from that, the only real change was that during the Johnson presidency, the issue of several hundred Americans being held prisoner in North Vietnam was largely ignored, but Richard Nixon’s negotiators now made it a priority to demand the release of those prisoners.  A former foreign minister, Xuan Thuy, continued to lead the talks on the North Vietnamese side, while after Nixon became president, the chief American negotiator was always a former ambassador, first Henry Cabot Lodge, and later David Bruce.

Meanwhile, to break the deadlock, Nixon gave his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, a special mission.  While the official peace talks continued, Kissinger would meet secretly with another North Vietnamese official, Le Duc Tho.  In Episode 89 I mentioned a four-man team running North Vietnam after Ho Chi Minh’s death; since Tho was not part of that team, he ranked as the Number Five member of the Hanoi Politburo.  They had their first meeting on August 4, 1969, and a steady series of secret negotiations between them began on February 12, 1970.  Here is how Stanley Karnow, Time-Life’s Vietnam War correspondent, described Tho.  Quote: “Le Duc Tho, a gray, austere, aloof man then in his late fifties, had none of the charm of Ho Chi Minh, the flair of Vo Nguyen Giap, or the warmth of Pham Van Dong.” End quote.

Le Duc Tho was born in the Red River Delta in 1911, the son of a worker in the French colonial government of Vietnam, so he got to attend French schools, and then became a nationalist upon graduation.  When Ho Chi Minh founded the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930, Tho was a charter member.  For this, the French imprisoned him twice, from 1930 to 1936 and again from 1939 to 1944.  This included time on Poulo Condore Island, the French prison island in the South China Sea; now it’s called Con Son Island.  Between prison sentences, Tho spent most of his time running or hiding from the police.  After World War II ended, he joined the Viet Minh, and for the First Indochina War, he was in the southernmost part of Vietnam, serving as Deputy Secretary, Head of the Organization Department of Cochinchina Committee Party.  With the partition of Vietnam in 1954, Tho had to move to the North, but after the Second Indochina War began, Tho was the senior party member overseeing the communist insurgency in the South.  This meant he sneaked into the South from time to time, to supervise the development of the Viet Cong movement; this time, when he hid in jungles or villages, it was to escape the Americans.  After the war, he did not talk about what he did in the war, aside from the peace talks, and refused to be interviewed.  He died of cancer in 1990, and today we know less about him than about other North Vietnamese leaders.

At the peace talks, Tho saw negotiations as another form of protracted guerrilla warfare.  Thus, he would drag out the talks by haggling over the smallest details.  Still, Kissinger developed a perverse kind of respect for him.  Quote: “I don’t look back on our meetings with any great joy, yet he was a person of substance and discipline who defended the position he represented with dedication.”  Unquote.  Despite the lack of progress, Kissinger and Tho would keep meeting for secret talks, on and off, for nearly three years.  The North Vietnamese liked having a place where they could meet with a senior US official, and not have the South Vietnamese getting in the way, while Kissinger was free from the supervision of Secretary of State William Rogers and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird.  Indeed, those two Cabinet members did not know about the secret peace talks until a year after they started.  Don’t worry, they didn’t miss anything!  On October 7, during a TV speech, President Nixon proposed a “standstill” cease-fire in which all troops would stop shooting and remain in place, to wait for a formal peace agreement.  Hanoi did not respond; they weren’t ready yet to cease hostilities in any way.  We will come back to the peace talks when the secret talks became known to the public, in 1972.


Meanwhile, Nixon announced on April 20, 1970, that another 150,000 Americans would leave Vietnam within a year.  But then just ten days later, Nixon stunned Americans with another announcement, that US troops and South Vietnamese forces would be going into Cambodia to fight North Vietnamese troops there.  We covered this action in the previous episode of this podcast; Nixon said the purpose of it was, quote, “…not for the purpose of expanding the war into Cambodia but for the purpose of ending the war in Vietnam and winning the just peace we desire.”  Unquote.  Many Americans didn’t see the Cambodian incursion this way; they saw it as a step in the wrong direction.  A tidal wave of protests followed from politicians, the press, students, professors, clergy members, business leaders, and many average Americans against Nixon and the Vietnam War.

As before, college campuses became hotbeds for antiwar protests.  The worst clash was in Ohio, at Kent State University, where on May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen shot student protestors, killing four and wounding nine.  In response to this, more than 400 colleges and universities across the United States shut down.  In Washington, nearly 100,000 protesters surrounded various government buildings, including the White House and historical monuments.  Still, a Gallup poll taken at the time showed that most Americans felt the National Guard wasn’t responsible for the violence; they had acted in self-defense.  This encouraged Nixon to feel that by and large, the American people were on his side; he called them the “silent majority.”

On June 22, 1970, American usage of jungle defoliants in Vietnam was halted, after studies were published showing that chemicals like Agent Orange can cause birth defects.  Then two days later, the US Congress repealed the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  The president would no longer be given a quote-unquote “blank check” by Congress to do whatever he pleased in a war zone.  President Nixon pushed back by claiming he had the authority to continue the war to protect American soldiers in Vietnam.  Still, the US troops in Cambodia were pulled out by the end of June.  In December, the Cooper-Church amendment was added to the US defense appropriations bill, forbidding the use of any more US ground forces in Laos or Cambodia.

Here I will share with you what Stanley Karnow wrote about Nixon’s situation in mid-1970, from his book, Vietnam: A History.

<play Karnow quote>

In Vietnam, the last big battle between Americans and North Vietnamese was the battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord.  By now, because of troop pullouts, the only American division left in full strength was the famous 101st Airborne Division.  To regain the initiative against the enemy, the commander of the 101st, General Ben Harrison, was put in charge of an operation codenamed “Texas Star.”  The plan was to go into the A Shau valley, and use helicopters to rebuild an abandoned firebase on four hilltops, Fire Support Base Ripcord.  We mentioned the A Shau valley in previous episodes; located just west of the important city of Hue, this was the site of some other battles.  Once completed, the firebase would be used as an outpost for a planned offensive by the Marines, to search and destroy North Vietnamese supply lines in the mountains overlooking the valley.

While the 101st Airborne Division was at work, the enemy was gathering intelligence.  From the middle of March until the end of June, the North Vietnamese used mortars, anti-aircraft guns and small arms to launch sporadic attacks, and they silently moved as many as 25,000 NVA troops into the A Shau Valley.  The main battle began on July 1, 1970, and lasted until July 23.  During that time, the firebase was bombarded with mortars, as 30,000 North Vietnamese, a force almost ten times the size of the 101st Division, tried to take the firebase.  It was only the high ground and the bravery of its defenders that kept the enemy from overrunning Fire Support Base Ripcord.

The final death toll of the battle was 138 Americans killed and 3 missing in action, versus 422 North Vietnamese killed and six captured.  Among the dead was 1st Lt. Bob Kalsu, rookie of the year for the Buffalo Bills in 1968; he was the only active pro football player to die in Vietnam.  Another killed in action here was Weiland Norris, brother of the actor Chuck Norris.  I know what you’re thinking, Chuck Norris should have been there to save the day!  Three Medals of Honor and six Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded to those who took part in the battle.  Afterwards, ARVN troops replaced American troops at the northern border of South Vietnam.  The Americans supported ARVN’s move with B-52 raids on the Demilitarized Zone.

Next came a campaign called Operation Jefferson Glenn.  This was the last US offensive in Vietnam, and the last operation involving the Marines.  Begun on September 5, 1970, it involved the 101st Airborne Division, the 1st Brigade of the 5th Infantry Division, and the South Vietnamese 1st Division.  Based in Thua Thien, the province containing Hue, the purposes of the operation were to locate and destroy enemy rocket belts around Hue and Da Nang, and to strengthen the defenses of Hue, Da Nang, and Quang Tri.  It went on for thirteen months, until October 6, 1971.  On the American and South Vietnamese side, the casualty count was 60 killed, 291 wounded, 1 missing, while 2,026 enemy combatants were reported killed in action; of course this was called another victory for anti-communist forces.  Finally, it is worth noting that shortly after Operation Jefferson Glenn was finished, the 101st Airborne began preparations to depart South Vietnam, and returned to the United States in March 1972.

For 1970, American troop levels dropped from 428,000 at the year’s beginning to 280,000 by year’s end.  6,173 Americans were killed in action for that year.



February and March of 1971 saw the most ambitious venture ever attempted by ARVN – an invasion of Laos from the area of the Demilitarized Zone.  We looked at this operation, called Lam Son 719, in Episode 79.  The objective was to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, North Vietnam’s supply line to its forces in the South.  Unfortunately the operation was bungled from the start.  As Henry Kissinger later described it, quote, “the operation, conceived in doubt and assailed by skepticism, proceeded in confusion.”  Unquote.  American strategists estimated that sixty thousand soldiers would have been needed for the operation to succeed, but Saigon committed an inexperienced force only half as large.  Naturally the prime minister of Laos, Prince Souvanna Phouma, protested at this violation of his country’s sovereignty, and the combatants simply ignored him.  The ARVN troops took an abandoned Laotian town, Tchepone, and then the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, ordered them to turn back before they reached the Trail, so the operation was a failure.  The Americans could not send ground troops to accompany the South Vietnamese, but they could provide air support, and lost more than one hundred helicopters by the end of the operation.

Afterwards, an upbeat President Nixon declared that, quote, “Vietnamization has succeeded,” unquote, but the failed offensive indicated true Vietnamization of the war might be difficult to achieve.  As a result, ARVN would never go on the offensive again.  The one bit of good news was that the North Vietnamese had to postpone their next campaign in South Vietnam until 1972, because they lost so many men and supplies in Laos.

The last US Marine combat units departed from Vietnam at the end of April 1971.  However, those who thought the troops weren’t leaving fast enough continued to hold anti-war demonstrations.  In the past, Nixon dismissed the protesters as, quote, “bums blowing up campuses.”  Unquote.  But he couldn’t do it for one group of servicemen called Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who began a week of protests on April 19.  Their main demonstration was in Washington, DC, of course, where the high point came the next day, with the appearance of one of the organization’s leaders, Navy Lieutenant John Kerry, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

<play first Kerry quote>

It was hard to argue with what Kerry said here.  However, earlier in the same speech, he also claimed the troops had committed a number of atrocities:

<play second Kerry quote>

Did you listen to Episode 90, where I discussed the My Lai Massacre?  Here Kerry was making it sound like My Lai-style events were the rule, not the exception.  After the war Kerry went into politics, becoming a senator from Massachusetts, the Democratic candidate for president in 2004, and a Secretary of State, and a lot of veterans have hated him for what he said, arguing that it not only hurt them, but it was also used in communist propaganda.  On April 21, more than 50 veterans marched to The Pentagon, and tried to give themselves up as war criminals.  A Pentagon spokesman took their names and turned them away.  The fact that the veterans were never prosecuted shows that no American leaders took Kerry’s atrocity claims seriously.

On April 23, another group of veterans, including Kerry, went to the Capitol building to return the medals and ribbons they had been awarded for their service, and when a fence was set up to keep them out, they tossed their medals over the fence.  The police were ordered not to arrest any of these demonstrators, because they were widely respected by the American people.  As Pat Buchanan, a White House spokesman, put it at the time, quote, “The Crazies will be in town soon enough, and if we want a confrontation, let’s have it with them.”  Unquote.  Right on cue, another mass demonstration, numbering 200,000 and led by hippies, took place in Washington after the veterans were done.  Here more than 7,000 protestors were arrested, for shutting down traffic in Washington on May Day 1971.  This was the largest mass arrest in US history, according to the historian L. A. Kauffman.  Public opinion polls taken after the demonstration showed that most Americans approved of the police getting tough on these protesters.  Meanwhile, membership in Vietnam Veterans Against the War peaked that year, at around 25,000.  Membership shrank when American servicemen came home from Vietnam, but the organization is still around today, with about 2,000 members demonstrating against war in general.


On the morning of June 13, 1971, President Nixon picked up the latest edition of The New York Times.  The president’s daughter, Tricia Nixon, had gotten married the day before, and on the front page, next to the story about the wedding, was another article, entitled Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces Three Decades of Growing US Involvement.  The article was written by Neil Sheehan; you may remember him from Episode 73, when he was the first reporter to call the battle of Ap Bac a defeat for the Americans.  This was the first excerpt published from the “Pentagon Papers,” a Defense Department archive of the paperwork involved in decisions concerning Vietnam, made by previous White House administrations.  Dated from 1945 to 1967, these papers had been collected by Robert MacNamara, the former Secretary of Defense, so that a future history text could cover how the United States got involved in Vietnam, and they were supposed to be kept secret.  The Pentagon Papers did not make Nixon look bad, because they talked about things done by the presidents before him, but Henry Kissinger pointed out that some day the Times might also get its hands on papers discussing Nixon’s activities, so publication of these classified documents infuriated Nixon.

Completed in January 1969, just before Nixon took office, and bound into 47 volumes, the Pentagon Papers were 3,000 pages of narrative combined with 4,000 pages of supporting documents.  One of those involved in the project was Daniel Ellsberg, an ex-Marine who had worked as a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation and at the Department of Defense.  Ellsberg had originally supported US involvement in Indochina, but later came to oppose the war, feeling it was unwinnable.  When Sheehan found out about the papers, he persuaded Ellsberg to photocopy some of them and give the copies to the Times.  That was the source of the upcoming articles revealing the most damning information on US policy, including the Kennedy administration’s approval of the coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, and the fact that bombing raids had been carried out over Laos and Cambodia, long before they were reported in the news.

The New York Times published three articles in the series by June 15, when Nixon attempted to stop further publication by obtaining a federal court injunction against the Times, arguing that publication was detrimental to national security.  Instead, The Washington Post began its own publication of the Pentagon Papers; Ellsberg had also given them copies of the documents.  The legal case quickly went to the Supreme Court, which saw this as a First Amendment issue, and at the end of June it ruled 6-3 in favor of the New York Times and Washington Post, since the information in the papers did not threaten what the United States was doing in Indochina now.

That should have been the end of the matter, but the White House went on to press legal charges against Ellsberg, which took until 1973 to be dismissed.  As for the Pentagon Papers themselves, they were declassified on June 13, 2011, the 40th anniversary of the first article taken from them, so they are all available for public viewing today.  In response to the Pentagon Papers affair, two Nixon aides, John Ehrlichman and Charles Colson, established a group called the “White House Plumbers,” to investigate Daniel Ellsberg and to “plug” future news leaks.  Colson also compiled an “enemies list” featuring the names of 200 prominent Americans considered to be anti-Nixon.  One year later, in June 1972, all this would lead to the “Plumbers” breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters, starting the Watergate scandal and eventually causing the downfall of the Nixon presidency, but those are topics for another podcast.

Now let’s go back to South Vietnam, where it was time for new elections.  Parliamentary elections were held first, on August 29.  Then the presidential election took place on October 2, 1971.  Nguyen Van Thieu was worried that the Army’s poor performance in Laos, from earlier in the year, would hurt his chances for re-election, but that fear was groundless.  The two candidates who initially challenged him were the vice president, Nguyen Cao Ky, and General Duong Van Minh.  We met both Ky and Minh in earlier episodes of the podcast.  Thieu and Ky stopped getting along after they had been elected together in 1967, and now they were fierce rivals, while Minh simply wanted to end the war through a peace settlement with North Vietnam.  Thieu found a technicality that disqualified Ky from running, and Minh, knowing that he would lose, dropped out of the race, so when their names were taken off the ballot, Thieu was the only candidate left.  South Vietnamese who opposed Thieu called this a “one-man election.”  Thieu was re-elected easily, with 94 percent of the vote, a much better performance than the one he gave for the 1967 election.  However, there was a new vice president; Ky’s replacement was Tran Van Huong, who had been prime minister in late 1964-early 1965.  Huong was 67 years old, making him twenty years older than Thieu, and nobody expected him to give any trouble.  Little did anyone know, this would be South Vietnam’s last election.

On December 26, 1971, President Nixon ordered the initiation of Operation Proud Deep Alpha, an intensive five-day bombing campaign against military targets in North Vietnam just north of the Demilitarized Zone, citing violations of the agreements surrounding the 1968 bombing halt.  1971 ended with 156,800 American troops left in Vietnam.  2,357 Americans had been killed in action that year.  At the same time, almost ten times as many South Vietnamese troops had been killed, and this was cited as more evidence that the Vietnamization program was working.


And that’s all for now.    I honestly thought we would get to cover 1972 in this episode, but here we are at the end of 1971, and have run out of time already!  After all, we want enough information in each episode to feel that we thoroughly understand the subject matter, and I told you in the past that it’s easier to do several short episodes, than one that takes multiple hours to finish.  Currently I estimate we will need three more episodes to finish the Second Indochina War narrative.  So join me next time as we continue our coverage of the war into 1972.  We are in the home stretch on this story, that’s for sure!

Podcast update: Remember at the beginning of the episode, when I said I was going to upload my presentation from the Intelligent Speech Conference to YouTube?  And then I would post a link to the video from the podcast Facebook page?  Well, all that has been done already!  Several days passed from the time I recorded the beginning of the episode, until I recorded the part you’re hearing now, and the first part sounded good enough that I didn’t want to record it again.  I think I will also post a link on the Blubrry.com page hosting this episode.  Watch and enjoy!  End update.

If you are enjoying the podcast, please consider supporting it financially.  You can make a one-time donation through Paypal, or a small monthly donation through Patreon.  Go to the page on Blubrry.com hosting this episode, and there you will find links to Paypal, Patreon, and the Podcast Hall of Fame page.  If you make a Paypal donation, your first name will be added to the Podcast Hall of Fame page.  Meanwhile on the Patreon page, the number of Patrons has risen to nine, which includes one new $10/month contributor, Willem P. again.  Way to go, Willem!  If you cannot afford to send a donation, you can still help the podcast, by writing a review, liking the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook, and by telling your family and friends about the show.  Finally, if you made it to the end of this episode, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 92: The Second Indochina War, Part 19



Today the podcast looks at the first half of the Cambodian Civil War, the phase of the Second Indochina War in Cambodia, from 1970 to 1972.  Also, if you like educational podcasts besides this one, you won’t want to miss a conference coming up on June 27, 2020!  Details about that are given at the end of this episode.




This episode is dedicated to Torsten J., and Russell I., for making donations to the podcast.  I never know when donations will come in, but they are always appreciated.  Where I live, summer is about to begin, so thank you for starting the season on a positive note.  Also, I am getting ready to take part in the 2020 Intelligent Speech Conference, eleven days from the time I record this.  Listen to the end of the episode to hear more about that.  May your summer be a happy, healthy and prosperous one, wherever you happen to be.  And now let’s begin the show.

Episode 92: The Second Indochina War, Part 19

or, The Cambodian Civil War

Greetings, dear listeners, and as I have been saying lately, I hope you’re all safe, happy and healthy!   If you’re listening to this sometime after 2020, you should be all right, unless the year you are in has found a way to act even crazier than 2020.  At the point when I am recording this, I think I will remember 2020 as the strangest year of my life.  And I’m not young; I have already seen quite a bit of wild stuff pass under the bridge.  So far in this year, we have had a war scare with Iran, Australia on fire, the Trump impeachment, the death of basketball star Kobe Bryant, rumors that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was dead, the Corona virus pandemic, the quarantine and economic crash caused by the pandemic, murder hornets, riots in American cities, and where I live, an out-of-season freeze.  What next, will a monster like Godzilla come out of the sea?  Or will aliens come out of the sky and show themselves, proving once and for all that UFOs are real?  If only we could bring back the guy who used to do the ShamWow commercials; then every two weeks he would say, “But wait!  There’s more!”  If you are in the future and have access to a time machine, take my advice: DO NOT go to 2020!

But I’m not recording this to tell you about my troubles.  I’m here to give you your latest installment of Southeast Asian history, which for the previous eighteen episodes meant I was talking about the Second Indochina War.  If you’re American, you remember that conflict as the Vietnam War, or if you’re Vietnamese, you remember it as the American War.  In the latest episode, I set the stage for the phase of the war in Cambodia, by covering Cambodian history from 1953 to 1970.  You can call that both a catchup episode and a table-setting episode.  We saw the King and head of state, Norodom Sihanouk, play a balancing act to keep the country neutral, and to keep the right-wing and left-wing factions from becoming too strong.  If you want to compare Sihanouk with a juggler, in the 1950s and early 60s he managed to keep all the balls in the air, but afterwards his balancing act failed.  In a left-leaning moment, he allowed the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong into the country; then, when the communists became a threat to him, he invited the Americans in, and looked the other way when they began bombing raids.  Because of these flip-flops, he managed to alienate both the political Right and the Left.  That led to the so-called 1970 Coup, where the National Assembly voted on March 18 to remove Sihanouk as head of state.  In place of the monarchy came a right-wing government, which renamed Cambodia the Khmer Republic.  Lon Nol, the former commander of the armed forces and Sihanouk’s most recent prime minister, became the new Number One person in charge.  I broke off the episode there, just before the Cambodian war began.

Podcast footnote:  I was wrong when I said last time that the National Assembly voted unanimously to get rid of Sihanouk.  One of my sources, the Time-Life book “Fighting For Time,” by Samuel Lipsman and Edward Doyle, said that the vote was 86-3.  With a lopsided result like that, though, the vote might as well have been unanimous.  End footnote.

Finally, I introduced the Cambodian communist movement, which was only a small group of revolutionaries until 1970.  Like the Pathet Lao in Laos, they initially tended to follow the lead of North Vietnam, but in the 1960s the Soviet Union and Red China were not getting along anymore, so when a second generation of Cambodian communists appeared, led by the mysterious Pol Pot, they distrusted both the Soviets and the Vietnamese, and aligned themselves with the Chinese instead.  By the end of the 1960s they had been given a name by Sihanouk which everyone would use from here on – the Khmer Rouge, or “Red Khmers.”  Sihanouk opposed them at first, but after he was ousted from power he fled to China, where he was persuaded to join the Khmer Rouge as its symbolic leader.

All right, the stage is set for the war.  If you want more details, go back to Episode 91 and listen to it again.  Or if you haven’t listened to Episode 91 yet, listen to it anyway, and then come back here.  I prefer to start stories from the beginning.

All right, you’re back.  Good.  Now we can resume the narrative.  Roll-em, boys!



Initially, opinions on Sihanouk and his ouster depended on whether a Cambodian lived in the country or in the city.  We noted in the previous episode that Cambodia’s peasants still saw him as a god-king, like Jayavarman VII and the other ancient kings of Angkor, while those people in the cities, who had enjoyed a modern education, knew that other countries had different governments, and thus didn’t think Sihanouk was so great.  As a result, the urban population approved of the 1970 coup.  So did the military, because they wanted a share of the money and equipment the Americans were dumping on Thailand and South Vietnam.  The peasants, however, demanded that Sihanouk be reinstated.

From China, Sihanouk made a public appeal on March 23 for Cambodians to revolt against the government.  This sparked some demonstrations and riots.  The worst unrest happened in the city of Kampong Cham, where the governor’s palace was stormed and several officials, including two National Assembly deputies, were killed by the crowd.  Lon Nol sent his youngest brother, Lon Nil, to Kampong Cham to monitor the situation, because Lon Nil owned some rubber plantations around there.  But shortly after he left the local airport, Lon Nil was attacked by a mob of workers from a rubber plantation, and beaten to death in the town marketplace.  But that wasn’t all they did to Lon Nil; the mob also tore out his liver, took it to a Chinese restaurant, and had it cooked, sliced and served to them, and they ate it.

<Ewww!  That’s disgusting!>

Next, around 40,000 peasants began to march on the capital; they were dispersed, with many casualties, by units of the armed forces.  At this point, the Cambodian army had 30,000 poorly-equipped men, so Lon Nol called for 10,000 volunteers to enlist.  The response was enthusiastic; soon the military was swamped with more than 70,000 recruits.

Now we have some new acronyms to learn, that were coined at the beginning of the war.  These are confusing, so I won’t expect you to get them all right, the first time you hear them.  The Cambodian government troops were renamed the Khmer National Armed Forces.  In French this is Forces Armées Nationales Khmères, and the initials are F-A-N-K, or FANK.

On the other side, Sihanouk first called his government-in-exile the National United Front of Kampuchea.  In French this is Front uni national du Kampuchéa, and the initials are F-U-N-K, or  FUNK.  Sihanouk felt Lon Nol had betrayed him, and said, quote, "I had chosen not to be with either the Americans or the communists, because I considered that there were two dangers, American imperialism and Asian communism.  It was Lon Nol who obliged me to choose between them."  Unquote.

The North Vietnamese premier, Pham Van Dong, flew to Beijing when he heard that Sihanouk was there, and he did most of the persuading to make Sihanouk join the communists.  Pol Pot was also visiting Beijing at the time, but he and Sihanouk did not meet each other.  On May 5, the coalition Sihanouk led was given a new name: GRUNK, G-R-U-N-K.  This stands for the Gouvernement royal d’union nationale du Kampuchéa, Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea in English.  So there are the acronyms for you.  FANK for Lon Nol’s army, and either FUNK or GRUNK for Sihanouk’s government.  Got that?

Sihanouk appointed one of his most loyal supporters, Penn Nouth, to be his new prime minister.  All the other posts in the coalition government went to the Khmer Rouge.  I mentioned a few key members of the Khmer Rouge in the previous episode, and here are the positions they got.  Khieu Samphan became deputy prime minister, minister of defense, and commander in chief of the GRUNK armed forces, though the actual military operations were directed by Pol Pot.  Hu Nim became minister of information, and Hou Yuon got several responsibilities as minister of the interior, communal reforms, and cooperatives.  Ieng Sary handled diplomacy, so you can call him the foreign minister if you like.  Pol Pot took no official position; he would remain invisible to everyone outside the Khmer Rouge.  After this, the communists who weren’t in Cambodia returned.  As for Sihanouk, during the Cambodian Civil War the prince was only in Cambodia once; in early 1973 he visited the quote-unquote "liberated areas" of the country, including Angkor Wat.  The rest of the time, he stayed in either Beijing, China, or Pyongyang, North Korea.

For the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk was most useful as a recruiter.  His call for a revolt against the Lon Nol government motivated many peasants to join the Khmer Rouge.  So did widespread bombardment by American planes, and Sihanouk’s field trip to Cambodia.  Between 1970 and 1973, the size of the Khmer Rouge force grew from 6,000 to 50,000 regular troops.  There were also twice as many irregular fighters, waging a guerrilla war against the government.

As you can see from the numbers I quoted, the government started out with an advantage, and for the whole war, the government had more soldiers than the Khmer Rouge did.  But bigger is not always better, and the government army, FANK, was always outclassed in training and leadership.
  All the way to the end, they had too many recruits to train.  Indeed, the United States trained 86 of the battalions for them, approximately 43,000 men, in South Vietnam; that program ended in 1973, when the Vietnam cease-fire agreement ended active American involvement in the war.  And the FANK troops faced not only the Khmer Rouge but also PAVN, the army of North Vietnam, and the NLF, better known as the Viet Cong; all three of those opponents were tough and rigidly indoctrinated.  To compound the problems of FANK, families followed their soldier-Dads into battle zones, and pre-teen children were enlisted.  Finally, the officers leading FANK were corrupt, incompetent, and had little military experience.  Many of the soldiers, and even some entire units, existed only on paper.  Commanding officers got in the habit of exaggerating the number of the troops they had, so they could pocket the pay of the non-existent troops.  Also, the sale of arms and ammunition on the black market (or to the enemy) was commonplace, and as with South Vietnam, much of the aid sent from the United States was stolen.  Thus, while individual soldiers and some government units fought bravely, they were always at a disadvantage.  Near the end of the war, in 1974 and 1975, FANK claimed to have 250,000 men, but the real number was probably 180,000, due to desertions and payroll padding by the officers.

At the war’s onset, the Khmer Rouge were based in Ratanakiri and Stung Treng, the two provinces in the northeast corner of the country.  Their remote location meant that government control over those provinces was always weak, and because they were on the border of both Vietnam and Laos, the North Vietnamese had access.  Seventeen to twenty-one minority tribes live here; some are related to the Khmers, and others are descended from the Chams, the people from the ancient kingdom of Champa, in present-day central Vietnam.  City-dwelling Cambodians collectively call the tribes Khmer Loeu, meaning upland Khmers.  Even today, the tribes keep to themselves; they have no political unit larger than the village, and are underrepresented in the Cambodian government.  Pol Pot had lived in this area since 1963, and he was inspired by the primitive lifestyle of the Khmer Loeu; no modern state or organized religion bothered them.  Because of that, his ultimate goal would be to make sure all Cambodians lived the same way as the Khmer Loeu did; we will see in a future episode how that turned out!


It was the North Vietnamese who made the first military move.  The Number Two man in the Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea, went to the North Vietnamese and asked for help in fighting Cambodia’s new government.  The North Vietnamese did not want a pro-US Cambodia threatening them, and they trusted Nuon Chea more than the other senior Khmer Rouge leaders, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, so they negotiated the terms of North Vietnamese intervention with him.  The North Vietnamese invasion was launched on March 29, 1970.  Their main goal was to protect the military camps they already had in Cambodia, along the South Vietnamese border.  For that reason, they also moved the camps from border areas to locations deep in Cambodian territory.  The Viet Cong headquarters was moved as well.  In previous episodes I mentioned that one of the American objectives in Vietnam was to capture the Viet Cong headquarters, which was called the Central Office for South Vietnam, or COSVN.  The Americans failed to even locate the COSVN, because the Viet Cong had moved their headquarters to Cambodia for safekeeping.  Now when the communist offensive captured Kratié, a provincial capital in eastern Cambodia, the Viet Cong established a new command center there.

One consequence of the North Vietnamese invasion was that the Cambodian people turned against the 400,000 ethnic Vietnamese living in the country.  Lon Nol thought he could use the Vietnamese as hostages against North Vietnamese and Viet Cong activities, and the military began to round them up for the detention camps.  But now that the locations of the detainees were known, Khmer civilians, with the aid of soldiers, came and killed the Vietnamese.  On April 15, 800 Vietnamese men were executed at the village of Churi Changwar, and their bodies were dumped into the Mekong, where they floated into South Vietnam.  One of the most disturbing parts of the affair was that no Cambodians – not even the Buddhist clergy – denounced the killings.  Lon Nol issued an apology to the South Vietnamese government, while explaining that the massacre was likely to happen under any circumstances.  Quote:  "It was difficult to distinguish between Vietnamese citizens who were Viet Cong and those who were not.  So it is quite normal that the reaction of Cambodian troops, who feel themselves betrayed, is difficult to control."  End quote.

Of course, with communists openly on the offensive in Cambodia, it wouldn’t be long before the Americans got involved as well.  To make sure US intervention would happen, Lon Nol requested military aid from the United States on April 14.  On April 29, 1970, nearly 59,000 South Vietnamese soldiers crossed the border into Cambodia.  They were joined two days later, on May 1, by 50,000 American soldiers.  Their goals were to defeat the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces in Cambodia, which then numbered 40,000, and capture or destroy their bases near the border, including COSVN, the Viet Cong headquarters.  The Allies were also thinking of the “Vietnamization” program, in which the Americans were turning the responsibilities of fighting the war over to ARVN, the South Vietnamese army; success here would make the case that Vietnamization was working.  During the next three months, the US Army and ARVN conducted thirteen major operations.  Together they captured and destroyed large amounts of enemy supplies, but the communists had already moved most of their materiel to their new campsites in Cambodia’s interior.  And again, they did not find the Viet Cong headquarters.  What’s more, they did not prevent the overrunning of Cambodian army positions by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units.  Nor were there any big battles, because the North Vietnamese evaded their opponents.

Speaking of which, by the end of June 1970, three months after the North Vietnamese invasion began, the communists had swept FANK from the entire northeastern third of the country.  In other areas, important cities like Kampong Cham had been isolated, and North Vietnamese forces got within fifteen miles of Phnom Penh, the national capital, before they were turned back.  After they took an area, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would turn it over to the Khmer Rouge.  Meanwhile in the south and southwest, the Khmer Rouge were able to capture some parts of the countryside by themselves.  Later on, when the Khmer Rouge no longer got along with any Vietnamese faction, they would be reluctant to admit they had help at this stage, but it is clear that without North Vietnamese and Viet Cong assistance, the war would have dragged on much longer than it did.

We saw in Episodes 89 and 91 that American bombing missions had been carried out over Cambodia since the spring of 1969.  However, they had been limited to targets within 30 miles of the South Vietnamese border.  Since the enemy wasn’t camped in that zone anymore, the original operation, Operation Menu, was ended, and on May 19, Operation Freedom Deal took its place.  Now targets anywhere in the eastern half of Cambodia were fair game, and the operation would continue until August 1973.

Eventually the Americans and South Vietnamese declared their joint campaign a success, and the Americans withdrew from Cambodia by July 22.  However, the South Vietnamese stayed behind, to help Cambodian government forces.  South Vietnamese casualties were 809 dead, 3,486 wounded, while American casualties were 338 dead, 1,525 wounded.  Communist casualties were reported at 12,354 dead, 1,177 captured, but these figures were disputed by the CIA, who claimed that the total included dead civilians as well as combatants.  As with the firefights in Vietnam, the Americans proclaimed  victory because there were more casualties on the other side, and because of all the supplies they captured.  US President Richard Nixon called the campaign, quote, "the most successful military operation of the entire war."  Unquote.  General Creighton Abrams, the commander of American forces in Vietnam, agreed, saying that the incursion had bought time for the pacification of the South Vietnamese countryside.  As he put it, now US and ARVN forces would not have to worry about any attack from Cambodia during 1971 and 1972, and a “decent interval" had been obtained for the final American withdrawal from Vietnam.  However, one South Vietnamese brigadier general, Tran Dinh Tho, was more skeptical.  After the war he wrote, quote, "Despite its spectacular results…it must be recognized that the Cambodian incursion proved, in the long run, to pose little more than a temporary disruption of North Vietnam’s march toward domination of all of Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam."  End quote.

The end result of the Cambodian incursion was a tactical victory for the United States and South Vietnam, but a strategic victory for North Vietnam and its allies.  While the communists had lost some firefights, their losses in men and supplies could be replaced, and in the long run their plans had not been disrupted – only the timeline had been set back.  With the Americans on the way out, there would be another day for their opponents.  Over in the United States, the Cambodian incursion led to a new round of social unrest, with events like the Kent State massacre.  Opponents of the war said the United States was going the wrong way, spreading the war to another country instead of getting out of Vietnam.  Expect to hear more about the protests in the next episode.


The North Vietnamese advance slowed down in July 1970, and halted in August; this was the rainy season on the Southeast Asian mainland, after all.  At this point, the government army command had a plan of their own.  If they could take back large areas of rice-growing land, it would be a big morale-booster for the army.  The operation was named Operation Chenla; later it would be called Operation Chenla I because a second operation like it was launched later.  Long-time listeners will remember that Chenla was the name of the first Khmer state, that existed from 550 to 795 A.D.; we covered it in Episode 7 of this podcast.  For this operation, FANK committed a dozen infantry battalions, supported by armor and artillery; there would also be limited ground and air support from ARVN and the South Vietnamese Air Force.

Operation Chenla I began in late August.  Government forces first converged on Route 6, catching the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong by surprise; by early September, they had driven the enemy away from both the road and the rice paddies around Kampong Cham.  Then, while resettling refugees and raising a local militia to defend the retaken area, they set out to clear Route 7, between the towns of Skoun and Kampong Thom.  However, they could not keep the liberated stretch of Route 6 open for long, and counter-attacks by the North Vietnamese 9th Division along Route 7, in the last months of 1970, meant that the only community recovered there was the village of Tang Kauk.

Operation Chenla I had to be called off because on the night of January 21 and 22, 1971, about a hundred North Vietnamese commandos sneaked through the defense perimeter surrounding Phnom Penh’s airport, Pochentong Airbase.  They succeeded in destroying almost all of the Khmer Republic’s air force on the ground, including all the MIG fighters.  Other raids at the same time were made on the naval base at Phnom Penh, and on several villages near the capital.  Lon Nol responded by extending the current “State of Emergency” for another six months, and recalled some Cambodian Army units from Tang Kauk to protect Phnom Penh.  On February 8, Lon Nol, who wasn’t in very good health to begin with, suffered a serious stroke and was flown to a hospital in Hawaii.  He spent the next two months recuperating abroad, while Prince Sirik Matak ran the show as acting prime minister.  Even after he returned, Lon Nol was often seen in a wheelchair.

Podcast footnote: Lon Nol is the only head of state I can think of whose name is a palindrome.  Whether you spell Lon Nol forward or backward, the name looks the same.  End footnote.

When Lon Nol returned to Phnom Penh on April 12, 1971, he had another plan to take the offensive against the enemy.  Called Operation Chenla II, it would reopen Route 6 and secure the road between Kampong Cham and the isolated garrison at Kampong Thom.  By summer, the Cambodian army numbered more than 100,000 men, and generous US aid had replaced the destroyed planes of the air force with up-to-date aircraft.  This time ten infantry battalions were organized into three brigade groups, again supported by armor and artillery and the US Air Force; they were going against two North Vietnamese divisions believed to be in central Cambodia.

Operation Chenla II was launched on August 20, 1971, and again the communists were taken by surprise.  Over the next fifteen days, all of Route 6 was reopened.  But during the rest of September and early October, as the FANK units tried to consolidate their new gains, they came under attack from enemy guerrilla units.  The men grew tired, and casualties were heavy; that caused morale to slip.  Moreover, they could not find any large North Vietnamese or Viet Cong forces, to engage in a set-piece battle.  Lon Nol decided they had been destroyed by US air raids, so on October 25 he declared that the first phase of Operation Chenla II was completed, and it had been a big  success.  Next he proclaimed two days of celebration, which included beer and opium for the troops.  Afterwards the plan was to carry out the second phase of Chenla II: pacification of the civilian population.  However, the troops were now too drunk or too stoned to worry about the civilians, who like the enemy forces, were nowhere to be found.

When the North Vietnamese evacuated the area around Route 6, they took the local civilians with them.  They struck back on the night of October 26-27, while the government-proclaimed holiday was going on.  Sappers blew up the main bridge connecting Route 6 with Phnom Penh, making it impossible for FANK forces to retreat in that direction, or to be reinforced from there.  And the rest of the 9th PAVN Division launched an all-out assault on Route 6 from a rubber plantation, catching the FANK troops quite unprepared.  The FANK units were cut to pieces, and their command post at Rumlong fell on November 13.  After that, the other government army outposts were taken one by one.  With the capture of the last one on December 3, Operation Chenla II came to an end.  No doubt about it, Chenla II was a decisive communist victory.  A general on the government side, Sak Sutsakhan, said this about the casualties.  Quote: “There was never an exact count, but the estimate was on the order of ten battalions of personnel and equipment lost plus the equipment of an additional ten battalions.”  Unquote.  On the other side, Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan boasted, quote, “Of about 20,000 Lon Nol troops thrown into this operation, we killed, wounded or captured over 12,000.  Not a single battalion escaped without severe losses.”  Unquote.  For the rest of the war, the Cambodian government concentrated its efforts on defending the cities and the lower Mekong River

Over the course of 1972, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong pulled out of Cambodia.  Their troops were more needed back in Vietnam, because of campaigns like the 1972 spring offensive.  The South Vietnamese withdrew for the same reason; they needed to defend themselves from North Vietnamese attacks.  Thus, from 1973 onward, the Khmer Rouge fought on their own.


So what ideas did the Lon Nol regime have for 1972, besides defense?  They decided to take back Cambodia’s most important national symbol, Angkor Wat, which the Communists had captured in June 1970.  This complex, covering 72 acres, had been undergoing restoration work, led by a French archaeologist, at the time of the capture.  During the next year and a half, there had been a few stray shell hits, and the communists chiseled off some of the temple carvings and sold them on foreign art markets, to finance their other activities, but otherwise both sides had left the ruins alone.  But then in January 1972 the French archaeologist was expelled, and his Cambodian workers were arrested; 20 were executed, quote, “for providing information to the Central Intelligence Agency.”  Unquote.

Operation Angkor Chey, meaning “Operation Angkor Victory,” got started on January 29, 1972, with skirmishes on the road between the ruins and Siem Reap, the nearest town.  Advancing slowly, government units reached the dikes and moat marking the boundary of the Angkor Wat temple, but then on February 21, their advance stalled.  Another attempt was made in May, after FANK received intelligence that the Khmer Rouge units in the Angkor ruins were leaving.  During the night of May 17-18, Angkor Chey troops slipped in and after a brief firefight, captured the Phnom Bakheng temple, but when they approached Angkor Wat the following night, communist cross-fire decimated them, and heavy fire from trenches and concrete bunkers forced them back.  Cambodian and American planes dropped napalm and high explosives as close as 600 feet from the grand temple, taking out two former tourist hotels about half a mile to the south, but the end result of the fighting was another stalemate.

By now attention had shifted to the other side of the country, to the stretch of the Mekong River between Phnom Penh and the South Vietnamese border, and to Route 5, the main road in the same area.  Prey Veng, the capital of the province in the area, and Neak Luong, a ferry-crossing town, were both shelled on March 20.  This was followed by a bombardment of Phnom Penh itself, and more attacks on Prey Veng and Neak Luong that took place all through April.  Five FANK battalions were hastily pulled out of a US training camp in South Vietnam to hold onto the Mekong corridor, which now provided the only access to Phnom Penh by land or water that did not go through communist-controlled areas.  On the coast, where the Cambodian-South Vietnamese border meets the sea, FANK and ARVN forces defended the town of Kampong Trach, but the 1st North Vietnamese Division managed to take it on April 30; that gave the communists a Cambodian seaport.

Podcast footnote:  During the war, refugees crowded into Phnom Penh, until the capital’s population tripled, going from half a million in 1965 to one and a half million near the war’s end in 1975.  Incredibly, for most of the war, life in Phnom Penh went on as usual.  Even luxury goods remained available for those who could afford them.  End footnote.

Meanwhile in the capital, political reforms were the order of the day.  In March 1972 the National Assembly was renamed the Constituent Assembly, and on April 30 it approved a revised constitution.  On June 4 came a round of ballot box stuffing that was called an election, and Lon Nol, who previously held the positions of prime minister and defense minister, was elected president with 55 percent of the vote.  Lon Nol’s political party, the Socio-Republican Party, won all the seats in the Constituent Assembly as well.  Seeing these results and the political factionalism that followed, General Sutsakhan stated, quote:  "The seeds of democratization, which had been thrown into the wind with such goodwill by the Khmer leaders, returned for the Khmer Republic nothing but a poor harvest."  Unquote.  One example of the factionalism involved Prince Sirik Matak; other senior members of the government didn’t want to work alongside a member of the royal family.  During the rest of the year, the prince’s power was gradually undermined by Lon Nol’s brother, Lon Non; he resigned after Lon Non organized a series of demonstrations against him, and he was kept under effective house arrest for several months after that.

Podcast footnote: I mentioned earlier that the Khmer Republic had a problem with corruption for all of its existence.  Lon Non was the most corrupt of its leaders, and the way he gathered both money and power reminds me of Ngo Dinh Nhu, the brother of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.  If you don’t remember Nhu, go listen to Episode 73 of this podcast again.  End footnote.

June saw two more rocket attacks launched on Phnom Penh, and two elite FANK battalions near Neak Luong were ambushed on June 25; of the 600 troops attacked in the ambush, only thirteen made it back to friendly lines.  In response, Operation Sorya I, a joint FANK-ARVN action, was launched on July 4.  Here the objectives were to clear Route 1, the highway running between Phnom Penh and Saigon, and to seize Kampong Trabek, a town on Route 1.  They succeeded in taking Kampong Trabek on July 24, but on August 6, elements of two North Vietnamese divisions struck in that area.  Leading this drive were tanks, the first time North Vietnamese tanks had been used in Cambodia; they severed Route 1 and isolated five battalions on it.

FANK and ARVN followed up Operation Sorya I with Operation Sorya II, to rescue the trapped battalions and to finish clearing Route 1.  This got underway on August 11, and ARVN units reached the battalions ten days later.  But the highway remained cut off to the east, and the communists retook Kampong Trabek on September 8, even though reinforcements arrived from Phnom Penh, led by the president’s brother, Lon Non.  October 7 saw 100 or so North Vietnamese commandos take advantage of a Buddhist festival to sneak into the capital and wreak havok, destroying a bridge and wrecking seven armored personnel carriers with plastic explosive, among other things.  There was a six-hour firefight when government forces caught up with them, which damaged the nearby French Embassy.  After it was over, FANK admitted 23 of its own dead to the enemy’s 83.


We are up to the end of 1972, and have run out of time for today.  I think I will cover the Cambodian events of 1973 and 1974 in the same episode that covers events in Vietnam in those years.  When cease-fire agreements were signed for Vietnam and Laos, the Khmer Rouge controlled between 50 and 60 percent of Cambodian territory.  What happens now?  Will the cease-fires inspire the Cambodian factions to make peace, too?  We will get to that eventually, but first we should go back to Vietnam and see what was happening there, while the Cambodian Civil War was raging.  Join me for that!

And while you’re at it, consider making a donation to the podcast, if you can afford to do so.  You can make a one-time donation through Paypal, or a small monthly donation through Patreon.  Go to the page on Blubrry.com hosting this episode, and there you will find links to both Paypal and Patreon.  If you make a Paypal donation, your first name will be added to the Podcast Hall of Fame page, next to Torsten and Russell.  I am thinking of putting all three links, to Paypal, Patreon and the Hall of Fame page, on the podcast’s Facebook page, for those who haven’t seen them yet.  And if you cannot afford to send a donation, you can still help the podcast, by writing a review, liking the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook, and by telling your family and friends about the show.  Again, thank you in advance for your support.

Finally, I want to reach out once more and tell you about the Intelligent Speech Conference, which is scheduled for Saturday, June 27, 2020, a little more than a week and a half after I uploaded this episode.  It will be a virtual conference, so you don’t have to travel in real life; just have a broadband Internet connection available.  Here from 10 AM to 6 PM Eastern Time in the US, you will meet 40 podcasters who are doing educational podcasts.  Currently I am scheduled to give a presentation between 3:15 and 3:55 PM Eastern Time; that’s 7:15 to 7:55 PM Universal Time if you are outside the United States.  To hear us all, the admission will only cost ten US dollars if you get your ticket before June 19, after which the cost increases to fifteen US dollars.  Tune in to hear all of us, and here is the trailer one more time:

<Play Roifield’s trailer>

Like I say at the end of each episode, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 91: The Second Indochina War, Part 18



After thirteen episodes about the Second Indochina War in Vietnam, and four episodes about the same war in Laos, it is time for the podcast to shift our attention to Cambodia.  This episode covers Cambodian history from 1953, when independence from France was achieved, to 1970, when the Indochina War spilled across its borders.  The first reign of Norodom Sihanouk is covered, and we meet the Khmer Rouge.


This episode is dedicated to Seamus P. and Louis E., who each made a donation to the podcast.  As with the others who have given in this difficult time, I want to thank you for keeping the lights on here, figuratively speaking.  What’s more, both of you have donated before.  I added Louis’ name to the Podcast Hall of Fame Page with a mention of that.  And since Seamus’ first donation came in last year, he has now received the Coveted Water Buffalo icon next to his name on the page!  To both of you, may the plans you have made for this year work out successfully, no matter what strange event happens next.  And now, if you are ready to begin today’s narrative, so am I.

Episode 91: The Second Indochina War, Part 18

or, Spillover Into Cambodia

Greetings, dear listeners!  You can tell from the title that we are in a long-running series on the Second Indochina War, a conflict better known as the Vietnam War by Americans, and the American War by Vietnamese.  It took twenty episodes to cover World War II in and around Southeast Asia, and now it looks like we will need more episodes than that to finish the Indochina conflicts.  Of the previous episodes, five covered the initial war between local communists and France, the colonial power that claimed all of Indochina, thirteen covered Vietnam between 1955 and 1969, and the other four covered Laos up to 1974.  That leaves one part of Indochina we haven’t talked about lately.  Which country is that?


Did I hear one of you say “Cambodia?”  You go to the head of the class!  In fact, since civilization has existed in Cambodia for at least two thousand years, it is surprising we haven’t said more about the place.  The only episode we had that was just about Cambodia was Episode 7, where we covered the rise and fall of the Angkor Empire, Southeast Asia’s most impressive nation during the Middle Ages.  At the empire’s peak, the Khmers dominated not only Cambodia, but also Laos, and much of present-day Vietnam and Thailand.  Those glory days ended in 1431, when a raid from the Thais sacked Angkor, the glorious Khmer capital.  After that, the two big neighbors of of the Khmers, Siam and Vietnam, put the squeeze on Cambodia.  Both of those powers wanted Cambodia because it contained the lower Mekong River basin, the best place in all of Southeast Asia for growing rice.  Vietnam ended up taking away the Mekong River delta in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, so that rich land, which once was part of Cambodia, is now the southernmost part of present-day Vietnam.

Podcast footnote:  In Episode 3, I mentioned that Cambodia’s seaport in ancient times was called Oc Eo.  Then in Episode 19, I gave you the name of Cambodia’s medieval seaport, Prey Nokor.  Both of those ports were taken by the Vietnamese, and Prey Nokor was called Saigon until 1975, when it became Ho Chi Minh City.  That left one deep-water port for Cambodia.  The traditional name of it is Kompong Som, but since the 1950s it has usually been called Sihanoukville.  Whereas the other ports had access to the South China Sea, via the Mekong River delta, Sihanoukville is on the shore of the Gulf of Thailand.  End footnote.

By the nineteenth century, the Khmer kings had to buy off Siam and Vietnam, paying both of them tribute to keep their armies away.  Then the French arrived on the scene in 1863 and declared Cambodia a protectorate of theirs, adding Cambodia to the colony they were building in Vietnam.  Although this sounds bad for the Khmers, it also saved them from being absorbed into either the Vietnamese or the Thai state.  If it wasn’t for the French colonial period, from 1863 to 1953, there might be no Cambodian nation today.  Instead, the Khmers would be one more of Southeast Asia’s many ethnic minorities, living in an expanded Thailand or Vietnam.  You can compare the fate of the Khmers with that of the Chams, who had a kingdom of their own in ancient and medieval times, but now are a minority group of a few hundred thousand people, divided between Vietnam and Cambodia.

The French did not rule Cambodia as harshly as they ruled Vietnam.  Because Cambodia was officially a protectorate, rather than an outright colony, the French allowed the Khmers to have their own king.  However, the French also decided which member of the Cambodian royal family could be king, to keep the territory pacified.  Thus, when the throne became vacant in 1941, the heir to it was a prince named Norodom Suramarit, but the French passed over him and instead crowned Suramarit’s eighteen-year-old son, Norodom Sihanouk, who they figured would be more pliable.  Before World War II there was no nationalist movement like the one that developed in Vietnam, so the French did not launch cruel reprisals against the Khmer people in order to keep themselves in charge.

There were no battles in Cambodia during World War II.  The Khmers found themselves ruled distantly, first by the Vichy French, then by the Japanese.  After the war France regained control, and that was when the first Cambodian nationalists appeared.  The early nationalists can be classified in three groups, according to political ideology: right-wing, left-wing, and monarchist.  The right-wing nationalists called themselves the Khmer Serei, meaning Free Khmer, and they were anti-monarchy, anti-French, and anti-communist, meaning they probably would have set up a Western-style republic if they had gotten the chance.  Many of their members were ethnic Khmers who came not from Cambodia, but from southern Vietnam; they called themselves the Khmer Krom, and besides supporting the platform of the Khmer Serei, they also wanted to return the Mekong delta to Cambodian rule.  The Khmer Serei leader was Son Ngoc Thanh, who had briefly been prime minister in 1945.

In the long run, though, the left-wing nationalists were more important.  They formed a coalition of six groups, which were collectively called first the Khmer Issarak, meaning pro-independence Khmers, and later the United Issarak Front, or UIF.  Four of the six groups were communist, and at least half of the UIF members were monks, showing that the Buddhist clergy favored independence.  Because of the current war in Vietnam between the French and the communist Viet Minh movement, the Viet Minh crossed the border into Cambodia a few times to clash with the French.

Communism in Indochina got started in Vietnam first, so when communist groups appeared in Cambodia, they were founded with Vietnamese help, and like the Pathet Lao, the communist movement in Laos, the early Cambodian communists did whatever the Viet Minh told them to do.  The most important of these groups called itself the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party, KPRP for short.  By 1952 they claimed to occupy one sixth of Cambodian territory, and by 1954, they claimed half of it.  I don’t believe these claims myself, because there were no battles in Cambodia as big as the battles in Vietnam or even in Laos, and the number of Cambodian leftists was small – they probably had no more than three thousand members.  For the Geneva peace conference that ended the First Indochina War, the Viet Minh promised the communists in Laos and Cambodia that they would be allowed to participate, but that did not happen, and when the cease-fire agreement was signed, the Cambodian communists got nothing.  Zero, nada, zilch.  As a result, after this the Cambodian communists trusted their Vietnamese backers a lot less, and would eventually break with them completely.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Cambodian people wanted to be ruled by the traditional royal family, so they rooted not for the Khmer Serei or the leftists, but for those nationalists who wanted to keep the monarchy.  Eventually King Sihanouk joined them, and by 1953 he had single-handedly persuaded the French to end the protectorate, thereby restoring Cambodia’s independence.


Okay, that’s a summary of what we have said about Cambodia in past episodes.  If you want more details, I suggest you go back and re-listen to Episodes 34, 64, and 67.  For this episode we are going to cover the years when Sihanouk was first in charge, from 1953 to 1970, and that will bring us to the beginning of the all-out war that broke out in 1970.  Let’s play a bit of Cambodian music, and then begin today’s narrative!


One of my sources summarized Cambodian history as “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

<theme music>

All right, we got the idea!  The good time was the age of the Angkor Empire, which I said was back in Episode 7.  Then the bad time set in, beginning when the empire started its decline in the 13th century, and going on until the mid-twentieth century.  You can call the first decade after French rule ended, 1953 to 1963, another good time, because as we shall soon see, Cambodia was independent and neutral.  After that came another bad time, as Cambodia was sucked into the Second Indochina War.  The years from 1970 to 1993 were definitely ugly; first there was a brutal civil war, then the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, and finally the Third Indochina War between Cambodia and Vietnam.  Cambodia has been making a slow recovery since the ugly time ended.  Both the ugly time and the time of recovery are material for future podcast episodes.

Cambodia’s neutral period was not only a time of peace, but also a time of prosperity.  King Sihanouk made the expansion of education a priority; before independence, there was only one high school in the whole country.  Phnom Penh grew to become a modern capital city, the ancient temples of Angkor became the most popular tourist attraction in Southeast Asia, and Sihanouk played host to the world leaders who came to visit.  For a peek at Cambodia during this time, I recommend you check out the October 1964 issue of National Geographic Magazine; the featured article’s title is Cambodia, Indochina’s Neutral Corner, because it emphasized how Cambodia was peaceful while war raged in neighboring Vietnam and Laos.

Before long, Sihanouk grew concerned that the pomp of royal ceremony was taking up too much of his time, and that the constitution restricted what he could do as king.  Because of this, in March 1955 he abdicated, giving the throne to his passed-over father, Norodom Suramarit.  This was an excellent move, because it showed Sihanouk honored his father, which is always important in Far Eastern countries.  Then he proclaimed himself prime minister, which allowed him to keep most of the political power, while Suramarit now took care of the ceremonial duties that he used to do.  In the tradition of the French Revolution, Sihanouk stopped calling himself the “Royal Crusader,” switching his title to “Citizen Sihanouk,” and vowing he would never return to the throne.

Next, parliamentary elections were held.  Originally scheduled for June 1955, they were postponed until September.  A year earlier, Sihanouk had founded his own political party, which he called the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, meaning the People’s Socialist Community, though there was nothing socialist about it.  When the voting took place, the Sangkum won all 91 seats in the National Assembly.  The leading left-wing party, the Pracheachon Party, got 4 percent of the votes, but no seats were assigned to it.  Naturally it and the other parties claimed there had been voter fraud and intimidation, and Sihanouk admitted to this in 1958.  In that year new elections were held.  Sihanouk published three articles about communism in Cambodia, which emphasized the dependence of Cambodian communists on North Vietnam, a declaration that was sure to make communists look bad in the eyes of the Vietnamese-hating Khmers.  After that it was easy to link the country’s leftist opposition with the communists, and again the Sangkum Party won all the available seats.  It was the same story for the next election, held in 1962; the Sangkum Party won all the seats for a third time.

In 1959 Sieu Heng, the leader of the Cambodian communist party’s rural faction, defected to the government and provided the security forces with the information they needed to destroy as much as 90 percent of that faction.  The leader of the communist networks in the cities, Tou Samouth, now became leader of the whole party, but only a few hundred communists remained active in the country as the 1950s came to an end.

King Norodom Suramarit died in 1960, at the age of 64.  This meant Norodom Sihanouk was technically king again, but instead of taking the throne back, he left it vacant, so the outside world continued to call him Prince Sihanouk.  In 1963, Sihanouk forced the National Assembly to approve a constitutional amendment that made him head of state with no fixed term of office.  This allowed him to continue holding power in a constitutional monarchy, without requiring him to perform the ceremonial duties that would have been expected if he was king.  Thirty more years would pass before he claimed the throne for a second time.


When it came to foreign policy, Sihanouk played a dangerous game to keep his country out of war.  He wanted the United States to pay the cost of his army, because the Americans were already sending military aid to South Vietnam and Thailand, and that would help to defend Cambodia against communism.  But as we have seen, South Vietnam and Thailand were also Cambodia’s historical enemies, and the greatest threat to Cambodia’s existence.  Therefore he declared Cambodia neutral and refused to accept any more US aid.   He also nationalized several industries, including the rice trade.

Sihanouk never could get along with the Khmer Serei movement, because, as we saw, they were anti-monarchist.  Son Ngoc Thanh, the Khmer Serei leader, formed an anti-Sihanouk militia.  From 1956 onward this militia received aid from the US Central Intelligence Agency, since in those days the United States would back any group that declared itself anti-Communist.  In 1961, Sihanouk severed diplomatic relations with Bangkok because of “Thai support” provided to the Khmer Serei.  After that, the militia was only active in the jungles near the Vietnamese border, since Thailand did not support them anymore.  Most of all, Sihanouk was annoyed by Khmer Serei propaganda against him and the royal family, which was broadcast into Cambodia from radio stations in South Vietnam.

Over the course of his rule, Sihanouk may have executed as many as 1,000 Khmer Serei suspects.  The most notorious example came when Preap In, a Khmer Serei activist, offered to go to the National Assembly and negotiate directly with Sihanouk.  Preap In was promised safe passage from Vietnam to Cambodia by his uncle in November 1963.  Instead he was arrested, displayed in a cage at the National Assembly, subjected to a military trial, and shot by a firing squad.  This execution was filmed as a fifteen-minute newsreel, and shown in all Cambodian cinemas for a month, an event which remained in the memories of Cambodians for many years.

The Khmer Serei failed to win over many new members; most Cambodians with a conservative point of view joined the Sangkum Party instead.  In early 1969, five hundred Khmer Serei soldiers based in South Vietnam defected, and joined the Cambodian army.  Today there are two theories on why they did this.  One theory suggests that Son Ngoc Thanh ordered them to infiltrate the armed forces, the other proposes that the CIA sent them to take part in the 1970 coup against Sihanouk.  We will hear more about that shortly.

By May 1965 Sihanouk was convinced that the United States was plotting against him and his family, so he broke diplomatic relations with Washington.  Since Cambodia needed to get along with somebody, Sihanouk looked to the Soviet Union and Communist China for economic and military aid.  Then, to improve relations with North Vietnam, he allowed the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong to set up campsites on Cambodian territory, for use in their war against South Vietnam and the United States, and he agreed to let ships from communist countries deliver supplies for those camps at the port of Sihanoukville.  Soon the communists built a network of trails connecting Sihanoukville to their camps and to the Ho Chi Minh Trail; this came to be known as the “Sihanouk Trail.”

Sihanouk’s initial response to the camps and the trails was to simply ignore them.  Pretending that nothing was going on seemed like the best way to avoid antagonizing the North Vietnamese, while at the same time he hoped that the Americans would not expand their military operations beyond Thailand, South Vietnam and Laos.  The way he saw it, someday the groups allied with the People’s Republic of China, and not those with the United States, would win the Indochina War, and that, quote, “our interests are best served by dealing with the camp that one day will dominate the whole of Asia – and coming to terms before its victory – in order to obtain the best terms possible.”  Unquote.

The rapid growth of the communist presence in Cambodia prompted Sihanouk to change his position again.  In 1966 he told his pro-American minister of defense, General Lon Nol, that he had the prince’s permission to crack down on leftist activities, discrediting the left-wing political parties by accusing them of subversion and subservience to Hanoi.  Long-time listeners will remember that Lon Nol had been Sihanouk’s right-hand man in the early 1950s, when he was working to gain independence from the French.  Naturally this alienated Cambodian students, many of whom were educated abroad.  In response, Sihanouk began calling his leftist opponents Khmer Rouge, which is French for “Red Khmers”; that name would stick!


Since I just said the name “Khmer Rouge,” this is a good place to introduce the man who would become its most important leader – Saloth Sar, better known by his nom de guerre, Pol Pot.  Saloth Sar was born in Kampong Thom, a province in central Cambodia, as the eighth of nine children.  My sources give a birth date of May 19, meaning he shared the same birthday with Ho Chi Minh, but they disagree on whether the year of birth was 1925 or 1928 – that shows how mysterious he was.  Although his family lived in a small fishing village, they did well by Cambodian standards.  An older sister was a concubine of King Sisowath Monivong, Sihanouk’s grandfather, and a brother was a court official.  So not only did his siblings earn decent salaries, but the family received gifts from the king’s court.  The family house was one of the largest in the village; they owned fifty acres of rice paddies, and they hired their poor neighbors to help with the planting and harvesting work.

When he was six years old, Saloth Sar was sent to a monastery in Phnom Penh; here he served as a novice monk for eighteen months, learned Buddhist teachings and learned to read and write in the Khmer language.  In 1935, presumably when he was ten, he began to attend a Catholic primary school.  Not being a gifted student, he was held back for two years and finally finished in 1941.  Here he learned about Christianity and how to read in French.  In the same year a new middle school was founded at Kampong Cham, and he became a boarding student there in 1942.  While attending that school, he met Khieu Samphan, born in 1931, and Hu Nim, born in 1932; they would become future partners of his in the Khmer Rouge.  Next, in 1945 he began attending the country’s only high school in Phnom Penh, while living with a married brother.  It was here that he met his future wife, Khieu Ponnary; they would get married in 1956.  Unfortunately he could not stay at the high school long enough to finish, because he failed an exam in 1948, and transferred to a vocational school.  There he met another future associate, a Khmer born in Vietnam named Ieng Sary, and then he secured a scholarship at an engineering school in Paris, which he went to in 1949.

My sources disagree on what Saloth Sar studied in Paris; they suggest he majored in radio electronics, printing and typesetting, or civil engineering.  According to a Jesuit priest, Father François Ponchaud, he also developed a taste for the classics of French literature, especially the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the writings of Karl Marx.  He and Ieng Sary joined the French Communist Party, and with other Cambodian students they formed a Marxist study group, called Le Cercle Marxiste, or the Marxist Circle.  However, he flunked out after failing too many exams, and returned to Cambodia in 1953.  As it turned out, though, that was a plus for his career as a revolutionary; because he didn’t have a degree, nobody could call him an intellectual living in a high tower.

So far Saloth Sar and his classmates had little, if any contact with the handful of communists that were already in Cambodia.  They joined these communists after coming home, but Saloth Sar felt that they were too dependent on the Viet Minh.  From 1956 to 1963, Saloth Sar led a double life.  By day he was a professor at Chamraon Vichea, a private college in Phnom Penh, where he taught French literature and was much liked by his students; by night he plotted to replace the monarchy with a communist government.

Meanwhile, Prince Sihanouk began cracking down on leftist political movements.  Liberals were upset at him because the government was full of corruption, some of it uncomfortably close to the royal family.  In addition, the economic growth since independence had led to extreme wealth inequality; while city dwellers were getting rich, life for the rural population had hardly changed at all.  When the Pracheachon Party’s newspapers attacked Sihanouk in 1959, he immediately shut them down, asserting they were run from Hanoi.  Then in 1962 Sihanouk got rid of the Pracheachon by arresting fifteen of its leaders, and he complained that the communists in northeastern Cambodia had set up a “spy network” directed by North Vietnam.  Also in 1962, the Cambodian communist leader, Tou Samouth, simply disappeared.  He may have been the victim of Sihanouk’s police, but an alternate theory suggests that Saloth Sar, who was now the number three man in the party, had him eliminated.  By 1963 all of the older party members were dead or arrested, allowing Saloth Sar to become the new Khmer Rouge leader.

To avoid being the next communist arrested, Saloth Sar disappeared without a trace.  He changed his name to Pol Pot, which doesn’t mean anything in Cambodian; he just liked the way it sounded.  Next, Pol Pot fled into the jungle, and cut all ties to everyone outside the Khmer Rouge who knew him, so his friends, relatives and students had no idea what happened, and assumed he was dead.  About fifteen years later, they would find out he was the monstrous dictator who had taken over their country, but that’s a subject for a future episode!

Podcast footnote: I was a teacher from 2001 to 2006; I taught a computer course at the largest community college in Orlando, Florida.  During those five years, I only missed three days of classes.  The first time I missed class, I had car trouble; the second time, I had jury duty; the third time, I needed to go on a trip out of town and could not change the date.  Here is what you need to learn from the story of Pol Pot:  if you are a student and your teacher is absent from school quite often, you have a good reason to be concerned!  End footnote.


Despite the suppression of radical dissent, Sihanouk lost the support of Cambodia’s conservatives as well, because of the previously mentioned communist presence in the country, and because of his failure to fix the now-deteriorating economy, caused by the loss of rice exports; much of the country’s rice had been smuggled to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.  Now only the peasants, who saw Sihanouk as a god-king, continued to support him.

One more parliamentary election took place in 1966.  As in the previous elections, the Sangkum Party won all the seats in the National Assembly, but this time, more than one candidate in the party could run for each seat.  A lot of the candidates were not hand-picked by Sihanouk, and many of those didn’t like him.  In fact, Sihanouk publicly spoke out against four candidates, and because Sihanouk’s attacks made them famous, all four won their elections easily.  Through manipulation and harassment (and to Sihanouk’s surprise), 59 of the 82 seats ended up going to conservative members of the party.  Now that they were entrenched, the rightists chose Lon Nol as the next prime minister, and for deputy prime minister, they named Prince Sirik Matak, an ultraconservative cousin of Sihanouk and a long-time enemy of his.  On the other side of the political aisle, three communists, Khieu Samphan, Hou Yuon, and Hu Nim, managed to get elected to the National Assembly because they were members of the Sangkum Party, too.

Sihanouk’s political balancing act was coming undone.  One of the first things Lon Nol did as prime minister was to fix the ailing economy, by halting the illegal sale of rice to the communists.  Soldiers were dispatched to the rice-growing areas to collect the harvests at gunpoint, and they paid only the government price, which was far lower than the black market price.  There was unrest, especially in Battambang province.  Battambang is in the northwest, against the border of Thailand; it grows more rice than any other province, and in the 1960s it was home to many large landowners, with a great discrepancy in wealth between these landowners and the local peasants.  On March 11, 1967, while Sihanouk was in France, a rebellion broke out in Samlaut, a district in Battambang, when enraged villagers attacked a rice collection brigade.  By the evening of that day, the villagers defeated guards from two other posts and executed a mayor.  With the probable encouragement of local communists, the insurrection quickly spread to eleven of the country’s eighteen provinces.  Lon Nol, acting in the prince’s absence (but with his approval), responded by declaring martial law.  Hundreds of peasants were killed and whole villages were laid waste in the repression that followed.  One of my sources reported trucks carrying severed heads drove from Battambang to Phnom Penh, so that Lon Nol would know his orders were being followed.

After returning to Cambodia, Sihanouk changed his political position again, deciding that the leftists were now the greatest threat.  He personally ordered the arrest of five leftist deputies, whom he accused of being leaders of the rebellion.  Three were Khmer Rouge members, and two of them, Khieu Samphan and Hou Yuon, immediately escaped, joining Pol Pot in the jungles of the northeast.  The third Khmer Rouge member, Hu Nim, tried to keep his government job, but after repeated warnings from Sihanouk, he also departed by the end of the year.  Sihanouk also ordered the arrest of Chinese middlemen involved in the illegal rice trade; that move raised government revenues and pleased the conservatives.  However, at the end of April Lon Nol resigned.  We don’t know the reason for his resignation, but rumor has it he suffered from some form of injury during the rebellion.  The prince responded to the resignation by appointing new leftists to government positions, to balance the conservatives.

In May and June, the military acted even more brutal, with Royal Cambodian Air Force aircraft bombing villages and jungle hide-outs, while the army burned down villages and massacred their inhabitants.  With that done, Sihanouk declared that the Samlaut Rebellion, also called the Battambang Revolt, was over.

When I was doing the research for this episode, two of my sources claimed that the Cambodian Civil War of the early 1970s began with the 1967 Samlaut Rebellion.  I don’t agree with that assertion, but you can imagine the uprising as a dress rehearsal for the war to come, because Lon Nol led the fighting on one side, and the communists were at least partially involved on the other side.  One tragic consequence of the rebellion is that thousands of peasants escaped the fighting by fleeing into the jungle, where Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were waiting to welcome them as new recruits for the Khmer Rouge.  Another consequence was the peasants were reluctant to support the government afterwards; for them the name of Lon Nol became associated with ruthless repression.


The Khmer Rouge launched several small-scale uprisings in January 1968.  The objective of these was not to gain territory but to capture weapons and spread propaganda, since they did not yet have enough troops to take on government forces – at this time, they numbered between 4,000 and 5,000.  The propaganda campaign won them more recruits, allowing them to launch bigger uprisings in February.  The armed forces managed to crush these uprisings by April.

Of course defeating the rebels would have been easier if the prince had the support of a strong, anti-communist power, so he took a new look at his foreign policy.  His attempts to build good relations with China had been for nothing.  The Chinese were too busy with the Cultural Revolution to take an active role in the outside world at this time; moreover, they did not restrain the North Vietnamese, and they were now the principal backers of the Khmer Rouge.  In a 1967 interview with Stanley Karnow, then a Washington Post Vietnam War correspondent, Sihanouk let it be known that he would grant Americans the right of “hot pursuit” against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in Cambodia–as long as no Cambodians were harmed.  In November 1968 he welcomed Lon Nol back into his cabinet as defense minister.  Then on May 11, 1969, the prince welcomed the restoration of normal diplomatic relations with the US and created a new “Government of National Salvation,“ with Lon Nol as prime minister.

US President Lyndon Johnson was reluctant to spread the war into Cambodia.  The only US troops that went in during his presidency were called “Daniel Boone squads,” covert teams of volunteers and mercenaries, wearing either black peasant pajamas or unidentifiable uniforms, going on intelligence-gathering or sabotage missions.  And no, I don’t think John Kerry was one of them.  During the 2004 US presidential election, the senator who kept reminding us that he was once in Vietnam claimed that Richard Nixon sent him on a secret mission into Cambodia in 1968, which is absurd because Nixon wasn’t president yet.  Anyway, after Nixon succeeded Johnson, Washington became more interested in Cambodia.  The first action by Nixon was a campaign to bomb military targets with B-52 raids; we covered that in Episode 88.  The bombing campaign was called Operation Menu, and it consisted of six small operations, directed against base areas near the Cambodia-South Vietnam border, from March 18, 1969 to May 26, 1970.  The whole operation was kept a tight secret, because the world would be outraged to learn that the Americans were bombing a neutral country.  The North Vietnamese kept quiet about it, too, because if they spoke up, it would be a confession that they had troops involved in illegal activities in Cambodia.

Unfortunately there were some civilians living in the areas targeted by the B-52s, so there must have been civilian casualties from the start.  Although Sihanouk did not approve of any bombing, and North Vietnam did not give aid to the Khmer Rouge between 1967 and 1969, the prince found that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong made convenient scapegoats, because they were a larger, more dangerous force than the Khmer Rouge, and getting them out of Cambodia would solve several problems for both the prince and the Americans.  Therefore he did not break the secret about the bombing, either, and his troops gave the Americans intelligence on the enemy bases.

Sihanouk’s political flip-flops had made him a royal pain in the neck, and one of my sources asserts that he neglected Cambodia’s internal affairs by spending too much time on his hobby – film-making.  In January 1970 the prince visited France for medical treatment, which meant a lengthy stay on the Riviera.  The prince was still away in March, when anti-Vietnamese riots broke out; mobs sacked the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong legations in Phnom Penh, and killed innocent Vietnamese civilians who happened to be living in the country.  Lon Nol had been left in charge, and he decided this was the time to crush the communists.  He closed Sihanoukville to North Vietnamese shipping, and he told the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong that they had 72 hours to get out of the country.  Since they couldn’t possibly comply with this ultimatum, you may consider it a declaration of war from Lon Nol.

What happened next is called the 1970 Cambodia Coup in most history texts, but it wasn’t a coup so much as an impeachment.  There was no fighting in the streets, no executions – the whole affair was bloodless.  On March 18, 1970, the National Assembly voted unanimously to invoke an article of the constitution that let them remove the head of state from office.  Lon Nol remained acting prime minister, his brother Lon Non played a strong role as Minister of Interior, and Sirik Matak was still deputy prime minister.  They kept In Tam, the president of the National Assembly, in that job; In Tam turned out to be the most experienced and politically mature of the senior members in the new, right-wing government.  There have been allegations that the CIA was involved in the coup, but no evidence of that has ever been found.  Still, Washington approved of the results, just as it approved of the coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.

The new leaders moved to abolish the monarchy.  They dropped the country’s official name, the Kingdom of Cambodia, and for a few months they called it État au Cambodge, which is French for “State of Cambodia.”  Then in October 1970 they proclaimed the Khmer Republic, which would have a president instead of a monarch as the head of state.  Prince Sihanouk was tried and sentenced to death in absentia, a move which ensured he would not be coming back from his trip anytime soon.  The prince had once seen Bao Dai, the last Vietnamese emperor, languishing in exile in France, and he did not want the same fate for himself.  Confused and hurt, he went to China, and the Chinese and North Vietnamese persuaded him to form a coalition government with his former enemies, the Khmer Rouge, with himself as its figurehead leader.


The stage is now set for the Cambodian phase of the Second Indochina War, also known as the Cambodian Civil War.  Prince Sihanouk, Lon Nol, the Americans and the Khmer Rouge are all in place.  However, we have run out of time today, so that conflict will be covered in the next episode.  You can expect to see the next episode in the middle of June, real-time; join me again then.  Or as Adam West used to say in the old Batman TV series:

<Bat-time clip>

Do you like podcasts?  Of course you do.  If you are listening to this in June 2020, a podcasters’ conference, called the Intelligent Speech Conference, is coming up on June 27.  It is hosted by Roifield Brown, a highly successful podcaster in his own right, and it will be held online, so you don’t need to travel to attend – all you need is a broadband Internet connection.  The format for the discussions is still being worked on as I record this, so here is the trailer promoting it again.  I plan to record one more episode before the conference takes place; expect me to have more details next time.

<Play Roifield’s trailer>

Like every successful history podcast, this one is a labor of love, but it needs money to keep running in cyberspace, too.  If you can afford to support the podcast at this time, please consider making a donation, either a one-time donation through Paypal, or a monthly donation through Patreon.  Go to the page on Blubrry.com hosting this episode, and there you will find links to both Paypal and Patreon.  If you make a Paypal donation, you will have your first name mentioned on the Podcast Hall of Fame page, and at the beginning of the next episode recorded after the donation arrives over here.  Thank you in advance for your support.

And that’s not all you can do to support the show.  You can also write a review, at most of the places where you get your podcasts, and that review can attract new listeners, even years from now.  And on Facebook, I have set up the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page, for sharing new episodes and anything related to the show.  The page has gotten several new “Likes” since the last episode; thanks for sharing the love!  And if you are no longer under quarantine from the Corona virus, spread the word, by telling your family, friends, and any history buffs you meet that you listen to the show!  Until we meet again, stay safe, happy and healthy, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 90: The Second Indochina War, Part 17



Here is the second episode for May 2020, and this one is a hair-raiser for sure!  Today we cover one of the Vietnam War’s most notorious events, the My Lai Massacre.




This episode is dedicated to Jeremy D., for making a generous donation to the podcast.  The past couple months, in fact the whole time since the Corona virus lockdowns began, has been a dry spell for podcast donations, so thank you especially for contributing at this time.  I have also appreciated your comments on the podcast’s Facebook page.  Naturally I added your first name to the podcast’s Hall of Fame page as well.  To everyone else listening to this, if you want to support the podcast too, stay tuned for instructions on how to do that at the end of the show.  Now I know you’re all here to listen to this episode’s content, so let’s roll out the opening music!

Episode 90: The Second Indochina War, Part 17

or, The My Lai Massacre

Greetings, dear listeners!  This episode was recorded during the Corona virus panic of 2020.  It looks like the worst of the virus and the lockdown are behind us now, so I hope you are safe, healthy and happy as you listen to this.  And I am glad you have chosen to devote some time to listening.  If the virus has forced you to work at home, your commute has been cut down from an hour or so to 15 seconds, but rest assured, podcasters have not stopped talking into microphones.  After all, the virus can’t travel from a microphone, to the recorded MP3 file, to your listening device, to you, so you’re as safe as always when listening to your favorite podcasts.  In my case, I did not have a day job in the days right before the Corona virus trouble started, and I still don’t have one now, so I can make the case that my life hasn’t changed as much as yours, in recent months.

For today, we will begin with an announcement.  The podcast is now available on Spotify!  Last week, I finally got around to signing up for a Spotify account.  Previously, I wasn’t inclined to do so because I already had enough to listen to from other music-playing websites, like Pandora and Soundcloud.  Still, it came to my attention that while Spotify carried podcasts, this show wasn’t one of them.  Therefore I submitted the podcast’s RSS feed, and now when you go to Spotify and type "History of Southeast Asia Podcast" into their search box, this show comes up.  Happy listening!

Normally I like to record cheerful podcasts.  You probably know that because I try to drop at least one music clip and a joke or two into each recording.  However, it is hard to stay cheerful when your topic is the Vietnam War; that may be one of the reasons why there wasn’t much recorded in the podcast universe about the war, before I tried it.  The other reason is that the war is still a controversial, emotion-gripping subject, forty-five years after it ended.  And today’s topic is so grim, I decided to make it a separate episode, rather than talk about it as a footnote in the main narrative.

Atrocities committed are a regular feature of war stories; for that matter, war itself is an atrocity.  Here in the United States, when you hear about war atrocities, they are usually committed by the enemy; you can’t tell the story of World War II, for instance, without talking about the atrocities committed by the Germans and the Japanese.  Atrocities committed by our side, like the bombing of Dresden in February 1945, are rarely mentioned, and usually we didn’t hear about them until long after the war.  Well, today we are talking about an incident where American soldiers, without an excuse, went into a South Vietnamese village and shot 300 to 500 of its residents in cold blood.  And there was no way the Americans could claim they were lured into doing this by their communist opponents, because, as we will find out, the communists they were looking for weren’t there.  When the news media revealed the massacre, we were shocked; in our eyes, the Americans were always supposed to be the good guys.  This was not only the most notorious atrocity in the Vietnam War, but also one of the worst wartime atrocities committed by Americans anywhere.

A major reason for the massacre was fear of the unknown.  When Americans fought in the Philippines during World War II, most of the Filipino peasants were on their side.  I told you about some American soldiers who hid from the Japanese on Mindanao, the big southern island, and they liked their Filipino companions so much, that they chose to stay there, after the war ended and the Philippines became independent.  But as we have seen in this podcast, Vietnam wasn’t like that.  When Americans entered a village in Vietnam, they never knew which of the local residents were friendly, or if the village was loaded with booby traps.  Those peasants who sympathized with the Viet Cong did not wear the characteristic black pajama uniforms, nor did they fly the red-and-blue Viet Cong flag.  What usually happened was that in their search for enemies, traps and contraband weapons, the soldiers learned to shoot first and ask questions later.  As a result, they treated the peasants so brutally, that if they weren’t previously with the Viet Cong, they would join them after the Americans moved on.

I will let you know up front, I don’t plan to dwell much on the killing and raping.  I want to keep this a family-friendly podcast, so if you’re looking for gratuitous violence and sex, you won’t find that here.  I will give you just the facts, as Jack Webb used to say on his TV show. 

<“Just the facts, M’aam”>

When we are done you will probably agree with me that justice was denied for the victims.  I wish I could say there was a happy ending to this story.  If there was a hero on the day of the massacre, it was Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot who used his flying machine to prevent further deaths.  And speaking of stories, let’s begin.  Our previous episode stopped at the end of 1969, so let’s rewind almost two years, to the beginning of the My Lai affair.

Oh, and one more thing.  Did you hear in the title that this is Part 17 in our series on the Second Indochina War?  If you missed the other episodes and are not familiar with this conflict, the previous episodes are 71 through 89 in this podcast, except for 76, 77, and 85, which covered special topics.  Go listen to them and then get onboard for today’s narrative; we’ll wait for you.



It all started during the Tet Offensive in early 1968.  If you want to hear the background to the massacre, we covered Tet in Episode 87 of this podcast.

My Lai was one of six hamlets that make up Son My, a village in Quang Ngai Province, on the northern coast of South Vietnam.  It was roughly seven miles northeast of Quang Ngai city, and a hundred miles southeast of Da Nang, in an area American soldiers nicknamed “Pinkville” because it was colored pink on military maps, meaning it was a highly populated area.  The name Pinkville was also appropriate because this area was a hotbed of Viet Cong activity, and the color pink is a lighter form of red.  Bombs and herbicides like Agent Orange had already been dropped here, but as in other battles of the war, the communists came back later, making it necessary to attack them again.

In January 1968, three companies of American troops were assigned to an airborne, search and destroy mission.  Their objective was to destroy the 48th Viet Cong Battalion, which was operating very successfully in Quang Ngai Province.  US military intelligence assumed the battalion had dispersed and its members were hiding in the six hamlets of Son My.  Incidentally, military maps named the hamlets My Lai 1 through 6, though My Lai was actually the name for only one of them.  The company sent to the village was Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division of the US Army.  It had only recently arrived from the United States, in December 1967, but it had already lost 28 of its members to death or injuries, and thus was down to 105 men.

On March 15, the day before they went into My Lai, Charlie Company’s commander, Captain Ernest Medina, told his men that they would finally be given the opportunity to fight the enemy that had eluded them for over a month.  Medina believed that civilians had already left the area for Quang Ngai city, so he directed that anyone found in My Lai should be treated as a Viet Cong fighter or sympathizer.  Therefore the soldiers were free to fire at everything and everybody.  Moreover, the troops of Charlie Company were ordered to destroy crops and buildings and to kill livestock.  Coming from a family of animal lovers, I find the last order especially outrageous, adding insult to injury, so to speak.

First, the village was bombarded by artillery, between 7 and 7:30 AM on March 16.  This was supposed to clear a landing area for Charlie Company’s helicopters, but it forced those villagers who were leaving to come back to My Lai in search of cover.  Next, Charlie Company’s 1st Platoon, led by Lieutenant William Calley, was inserted just to the west of a hamlet known locally as Xom Lang, but marked as My Lai 4 on maps.  However, the Viet Cong weren’t there.  In reality, the 48th Viet Cong Battalion was in the western Quang Ngai highlands, more than 40 miles away.  Nor were there mines or booby traps in the hamlet.  What the soldiers found were women, children and old men; many of them were getting breakfast ready.  No military-age males were present.

The soldiers of Charlie Company rounded up the villagers into groups, and searched their huts for weapons.  Only a few weapons were found, but Calley ordered his men to shoot the villagers anyway.  Most of the villagers, including the children, were machine-gunned at close range.  Many of the women were raped before they were killed, and some of the bodies were mutilated.  At 9:00 AM Calley ordered the execution of as many as 150 civilians who had been herded into an irrigation ditch.  In addition, the soldiers killed the animals they found – cattle, pigs, chickens and ducks – and set the huts on fire.

As the massacre was taking place, a scout helicopter was flying at low altitude overhead.  The pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, saw what was happening, marked the locations of wounded civilians with smoke grenades, and radioed for troops on the ground to go those positions and give medical aid.  After refueling, Thompson returned to My Lai only to see that the wounded civilians had already been killed.  Spotting a squad of American soldiers converging on more than a dozen women and children, Thompson landed his helicopter between the two groups.  He then ordered his door gunner, Larry Colburn, and his crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, to fire on the Americans if they continued to attack the civilians.  After a tense confrontation with the officer leading the soldiers, Second Lieutenant Stephen Brooks, the Americans broke off their chase.  Shortly thereafter, Thompson and his crew called for other helicopters to join them in evacuating the survivors, very likely saving them from serious bodily harm or death.  In 1998 Thompson, Colburn, and Andreotta (posthumously) were awarded the Soldier’s Medal for acts of extraordinary bravery not involving contact with the enemy.

By 11:00 AM it was all over.  Medina arrived on the scene, ordered Charlie Company to break for lunch, and informed his superiors that the operation had been successful, with scores of Viet Cong killed.  The only American casualty was a soldier who shot himself in the foot while trying to clear a jammed weapon.


The massacre at My Lai was only the first act in this story that was uncalled for; the outside world was also outraged by the cover-up that followed.  The first mention of the operation in and around My Lai came later on March 16, when an official press briefing, the "Five O’Clock Follies", included this passage.  Quote:  "In an action today, Americal Division forces killed 128 enemy near Quang Ngai City.  Helicopter gunships and artillery missions supported the ground elements throughout the day."  End quote.  When the official report of the battle of My Lai was released, on March 28, 1968, it stated that 69 Viet Cong soldiers were killed, and said nothing about civilian causalities.  In other words, it was seen as another battlefield success.

Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who had saved the day at My Lai, reported when he returned to base that he had witnessed the widespread killing of civilians.  Among those he told about the killings, were his aviation unit’s commanding officer, Major Fredric Watke, and the division artillery chaplain, Captain Carl E. Creswell.  Watke passed Thompson’s report to Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker, Calley’s battalion commander, and Chaplain Creswell relayed what Thompson had told him to his superior chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Lewis.  That was as far as the story got; Colonel Barker was killed in a helicopter crash the following June, and neither of the chaplains reported the war crime to higher headquarters, though they were required to do so.  The official response to Thompson’s report came on April 24, when Colonel Oran Henderson, commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade, concluded that 20 civilians had been accidentally killed at My Lai, either in the opening artillery barrage or in crossfire between American and Viet Cong forces, and he declared that Thompson’s report was false.  After that, Thompson found himself assigned to dangerous missions without sufficient air cover; he was shot down five times, breaking his back in the final crash.

And that was all that was heard for more than a year.  Back in August 1967, seven months before the massacre, then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had ordered an investigation of the media’s coverage of alleged atrocities committed in South Vietnam.  This produced a 200-page report, entitled "Alleged Atrocities by U.S. Military Forces in South Vietnam," and the report’s conclusion was that many American troops did not fully understand the Geneva Conventions.  For the US government, that was the last word on the matter, and nothing else involving human rights in Vietnam was done for the rest of 1967 and 1968.  That is why I did not talk about My Lai in either of the podcast episodes covering the war in 1968 – most people did not hear of My Lai until 1969 was nearly over.

It was the persistence of another soldier, Ronald Ridenhour, that revealed what really happened at My Lai.  Ridenhour was a member of the 11th Brigade who had not been present at the Quang Ngai operation, and several days later, he and his pilot, Warrant Officer Gilbert Honda, flew over My Lai.  They saw a scene of complete destruction, and at one point, they hovered over a dead Vietnamese woman with a patch of the 11th Brigade on her body.  Over the next few months Ridenhour talked with members of Charlie Company, and learned from them that something "rather dark and bloody did indeed occur" at My Lai.  At the end of 1968 he was discharged from the Army, but after returning to the United States he remained disturbed by what he had heard.  Therefore he began a campaign to bring the events to light.  In March 1969 he wrote letters to President Richard Nixon, the Pentagon, the State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff and twenty-three congressmen.  In the letters he included the name of Michael Bernhardt, an eyewitness who agreed to testify.

Three congressmen responded to Ridenhour’s letters: Representative Morris Udall of Arizona, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, and Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts.  Udall urged the House Armed Services Committee to call on Pentagon officials to conduct an investigation.  Ridenhour, Medina, Thompson, and Calley were among those interviewed, and the US Army brought murder charges against Lt. William Calley on September 5, 1969.  Acting on a tip, Seymour Hersh, an investigative journalist, contacted Calley’s defense team.  It was Hersh who broke the story of the massacre on November 12, 1969.  His Pulitzer Prize-winning account of “point-blank murder” at My Lai appeared in newspapers, along with photos of the dead victims, shocking the world.  From there, the My Lai story quickly became front-page news and an international scandal.


The wheels of justice turn slowly, as the saying goes, and that was the case here.  On November 24, 1969, Lt. Gen. W. R. Peers was directed by the Secretary of the Army to review, quote, “possible supression or witholding of information by persons involved in the incident."  Unquote.  After more than 26,000 pages of testimony from 403 witnesses were gathered, the Peers inquiry recommended that charges should be brought against 28 officers and two non-commissioned officers involved in a cover-up of the massacre. 

The conclusion of Peers’ inquiry was that there had been massive command failures all the way up the chain of command.  Among the factors cited were poor training in the Law of War and Rules of Engagement, a virulent anti-Vietnamese institutional culture in the 23rd Infantry Division, poor discipline and poor leadership at all levels, excessive fear of the enemy, and poor communications.  What it didn’t mention was that the Army’s leadership training and selection process had declined so seriously that a man like Calley, who had never held a permanent job and had flunked out of a junior college, could receive a commission.

The Peers report also found that the brigade commander, Col. Oran Henderson, and the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Frank Barker, had substantial knowledge of the war crime, but did nothing about it.  As a result, Army lawyers decided that only 14 officers should be charged with crimes.  Meanwhile, a separate investigation by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division concluded that there was evidence to charge 30 soldiers with the crimes of murder, rape, sodomy, and mutilation.  Seventeen men had left the Army by this time, and charges against them were dropped.  In the end only fourteen men were charged with crimes related to what happened at My Lai.

The US Army brought murder charges against Captain Ernest Medina on March 31, 1970, a little more than two years after the massacre.  Charges were also brought against Colonel Oran Henderson, for failing to carry out a thorough investigation of the killings, failing to report possible war crimes to his division commander, Major General Samuel Koster, and lying to a Pentagon inquiry.  The military trial of Lt. William Calley, held at Fort Benning, Georgia, began on November 12, 1970, fourteen months after he had first been charged.  Subsequent testimony pointed to Lt. Col. Frank Barker as the one who first gave the order to kill the villagers, but since he was already dead, he did not stand trial.

In all the trials that followed, the defendants were successfully able to argue that they simply had been following the orders given to them on March 16, 1968.  Most of them were eventually acquitted, including Medina and Henderson.  The only exception was Calley, because witnesses had seen him shooting villagers.  On March 29, 1971, Calley was found guilty of the murder of 22 My Lai civilians.  At first, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor; however, the sentence was later reduced to 20 years, then 10 years.  Many Americans at the time believed that Calley had been made a scapegoat.  For that reason, Calley was paroled on November 19, 1974.  He had served only three and a half years, and that time was under house arrest, not in prison.  Thus, he is alive and free as I record this episode.

General Koster, who flat-out lied to the investigators, was removed from his choice assignment as Superintendant of cadets at West Point.  He was reduced one rank to Brigadier General, stripped of his Distinguished Service Medal, given a formal reprimand, and had his commission revoked as "services no longer required," which gave him an OTH, "Other Than Honorable" discharge, with loss of pension and veterans’ benefits.  Most of the other officers who had been charged, and some that were not, found their promotion prospects reduced to zero, received reprimands, had major decorations rescinded, or some combination of the three.  Eight enlisted men who had been prominent in the massacre were expelled from the Army with OTH discharges.

In 1976, one year after the war ended, a memorial was raised at My Lai.  Over time the site grew to include a museum, gardens, and commemorative statues.  There are also stelae, stone slabs,  indicating the locations of mass burial sites, and a memorial wall lists the names of the known victims.  The hamlet itself has been partially rebuilt, to show how it looked before the day of the massacre.

The actual number killed was never established.  It was officially declared at no less than 175, and my sources give numbers ranging from 347 to 504.  An official US army investigation came up with the figure of 347, while 504 is the number of names listed on the My Lai memorial wall.

I mentioned in previous episodes that morale among American soldiers slipped, when they realized they were not going to win the war.  Now the revelations of the My Lai massacre caused morale to plummet even further, as GIs wondered what other atrocities their superiors were hiding.  In the United States, the brutality of the My Lai massacre and the efforts made by higher-ranking officers to cover it up increased both the anti-war sentiment and the bitter feelings regarding the continuing US military presence in Vietnam.


Whew, I wish I could end this story on a happy note, but that’s the way it was.  Join me next time as we look at a new front that opened in the Indochina War at the end of the 1960s – in Cambodia.  It has been a long time since I had much to say about Cambodia, since Episode 67, in fact, so the next episode will be the time to catch up on that country.

Also, I have a special announcement.  Six weeks from the day when I upload this, on June 27, 2020, there will be a podcasters’ convention, called the Intelligent Speech Conference.  Last year it was held in New York City.  This year, because of the Corona virus lockdown, it is being held online, so you won’t have to travel to attend it.  I was invited to be one of the speakers in the panel discussions, so I am filling out the paperwork now.  Here is the first trailer promoting it, to give you the details so far:

<Play Roifield’s trailer>

If you want to attend, virtually that is, start making plans.

Almost every episode of this podcast has been recorded without commercials; nor does it receive a government grant or an endowment from an institution.  Therefore the show depends on listener support to keep the narrative running.  If you are enjoying these episodes and can afford to support the show, I hope you will do so.  To make a one-time donation, go to Paypal.  I placed the gold Paypal donation button on each page of Blubrry.com that hosts an episode of the show.  The URL to go to is spelled https://blubrry.com/hoseasia/.  One-time donors also get their first names added to the podcast’s Hall of Fame page.  Or if you would rather donate a small amount each month, visit my Patreon page and sign up to become a Patron.  The URL for my Patreon page is https://www.patreon.com/HistoryofSoutheastAsia .  Since the previous episode went up, we have lost one Patron but gained two more, so the number of Patrons is now 7.

Of course, if you are hurting for money during the current crisis, because your income has been reduced or cut off completely, wait for better times to donate; I’ll understand.  As my local weatherman likes to say every time he makes a forecast, every day we move forward is a day closer to a return to our ordinary world.  Take care of each other; we’ve got this!

I will finish with a few words on what else you can do to support the show, while you are waiting for the next episode.  You probably won’t be able to do this if you get this podcast from Blubrry, but if you get it anywhere else, write a review!  That way others will know what you discovered, and maybe they will be encouraged to listen, too.  And if you’re on Facebook, visit the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page, so you can see what else is going on that’s podcast-related.  Finally, I would like you to tell your family and friends about the show, but if you’re still shut-in, we can wait until you are ready to go out again.  In the meantime, thank you for listening, stay healthy and happy, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 89: The Second Indochina War, Part 16



A new month has begun, and you know what that means — it’s time for a new podcast episode!  This episode covers events in the Second Indochina War, also called the Vietnam War, in 1969.  In the United States there is a new president, Richard M. Nixon, and he starts the process of removing the Americans from the war, while on the streets of American cities, antiwar protests reach their peak.  And over in North Vietnam, we say goodbye to Ho Chi Minh, who has been an important character in the narrative since Episode 35.




Episode 89: The Second Indochina War, Part 16

or, Now It’s Nixon’s War

Greetings, dear listeners!  If this is the first time you listened to this podcast, I’m glad you’re here, or if you have listened to it before, welcome back!  I recorded this during the Corona virus pandemic of 2020, so if you are listening around that time, I also hope you are staying safe, whether you are at home, or out working at one of the jobs the government considers quote-unquote “essential.”  Along that line, listening to podcasts is one of the safer things you can do right now; recently I heard another podcaster call them “staycasts.”

Now here’s a great suggestion I saw on Facebook the other day.  If you are one of those staying home, don’t say, “I can’t go out because of the virus.”  That sounds weak, whiny and boring.  The blood of our mighty ancestors may be running thin with this generation, but I for one don’t need another reminder of it.  Try this instead:  “I’ve sworn an oath of solitude until the pestilence is purged from the lands.”  Sounds more valiant and heroic, right?  Something a Viking would say.  People might even think you are carrying a sword, like one of the real or mythological heroes of the past.

You can probably tell from this episode’s title that we have been covering the Second Indochina War, also called the Vietnam War in the United States, for a long time.  If you are getting tired of this narrative, rest assured, we are more than halfway through the war, and after the events of this episode, an end to it will be in sight.  In the past, I tried to give a quick summary of the events from previous episodes before resuming the narrative.  The story has gotten so long that I won’t do that today; instead I will just give you the numbers of the episodes you need to listen to, if you haven’t caught them already.

Episodes 64 through 68 covered the First Indochina War, the previous conflict that set the stage for the one we are looking at now.

Episodes 71 through 73 looked at the early events of the Second Indochina War in Vietnam, up to the end of 1963.

Episodes 74, 75, 78 and 79 covered the part of the Second Indochina War in Laos.  The episodes in the middle, 76 and 77, were about special topics unrelated to the war narrative.

And all of the episodes from 80 to 88, except for 85, have been about the Second Indochina War in Vietnam, from 1964 to 1968.  If you haven’t listened to all of those episodes already, I recommend you go back and hear them now.

Okay, since you’re still here, I will assume you are ready to move on with the story, so let’s go!



Well, we now have a new group in charge in Washington.  In the previous episode, we saw Lyndon Johnson’s presidency come to an end, and Richard Milhous Nixon won the election to succeed him.  Nixon made a reference to the war in his inaugural address when he declared, quote,”…the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.  This honor now beckons America…”  Unquote.  After Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all had their turns at it, Nixon was the fifth President who would have to cope with Vietnam; we saw in the previous episode that he had successfully campaigned by promising, quote, “peace with honor.”  Unquote.

But there would have to be still more fighting before peace could come.  I mentioned in a previous episode that the Vietnam War is more difficult to follow than a straight conventional conflict like World War II.  Whereas World War II’s main events were set-point battles and large-scale amphibious assaults against enemy-held beaches, Vietnam featured one named operation after another, endless patrols, and search and destroy missions that all blended together, because the outcome was usually the same: most of the casualties suffered were on the communist side, but the Americans and their allies usually failed to follow up on their “victories.”  That being said, here’s the first operation for 1969.

On January 18, 1969, even before Nixon took office, Operation Dewey Canyon, the last major operation by US Marines, began in the Da Krong and A Shau valleys.  Da Krong was in Quang Tri province, near the Marine bases just south of the Demilitarized Zone, while A Shau was west of the city of Hue.  These valleys had been abandoned by American forces a year earlier, and since then had become a major North Vietnamese supply line for communist forces in South Vietnam.  A successful campaign here would starve the North Vietnamese Army of much needed ammunition and men.  Operation Dewey Canyon consisted of 3 phases that would end with the re-occupation of the valleys.

Leading the way were 2,200 Marines from the 9th Marine Regiment, and the 2nd Battalion from the 12th Marine Regiment.  Supporting actions by the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and the South Vietnamese Army 2nd Regiment were run east of the operations area to keep communist reinforcements out of the valleys.  Phase 1, from January 18th-25th, succeeded in establishing the fire bases around the objective.  Phase 2, from January 31st-February 5th, involved aggressive patrolling around the fire bases in an effort to engage the North Vietnamese Army.  After several clashes with the North Vietnamese and enduring the shelling of Firebase Cunningham on February 2nd, the Marines set up two more fire bases.  Phase 3, the longest phase of the operation, lasted from February 11th until March 18th, and involved a raid on the North Vietnamese Army supply chain infrastructure in Laos.  It ended with the Marines pulling back into South Vietnam.  The Marines reported 130 of their own killed and 932 wounded throughout the campaign.  As for the North Vietnamese, 1,617 of their bodies were found; again the number of wounded is unknown.

Though Operation Dewey Canyon was a tactical victory for the Marines, it failed to cut the North Vietnamese Army’s supply line.  Nevertheless, there was little more that the Marines could do. Washington had given in to the pressure of public opinion, and would now start replacing the American troops involved in the war with South Vietnamese soldiers.  One officer, 1st Lieutenant Archie Biggers, was awarded the Silver Star for his valor in Operation Dewey Canyon, and the entire 9th Marine Regiment was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.

Nixon called his policy for the war “Vietnamization,” and it’s easy to explain.  Here American military forces would withdraw gradually, and South Vietnamese armed forces would take over responsibility for national defense.  So far the South Vietnamese army, called ARVN, for Army of the Republic of Vietnam, had not proven it could fight and win when left alone, and both Nixon and the American commander in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, knew it would take time to build up and train South Vietnam’s armed forces.  Those of you who listened to the First Indochina War episodes may remember that the French had recruited the first ARVN troops, with the goal of creating an army that was pro-French and anti-communist.  The French called this policy jaunissement, meaning “yellowing,” and yes, the term was as racist as you’re probably thinking.  It didn’t work then; will “Vietnamization” work now, or will we have an example of history repeating itself?

The trickiest part of Vietnamization was that the Americans had to time their withdrawal correctly.  If the pullout took too long, increased casualties, antiwar protests in the United States, and foreign pressure would force Washington to withdraw more quickly, before South Vietnamese forces were ready to stand up to both a hostile neighboring state and a domestic insurgency.  On the other hand, if the Americans got out too soon, the result would be the same – an easy Communist victory.  Thus, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong did not make it easy for the Americans to leave.

For that reason, North Vietnamese regular forces and Viet Cong guerrillas launched a new offensive on February 23, 1969.  We sometimes call it Mini-Tet or Tet 1969, because it resembled a small-scale version of the Tet Offensive from a year earlier.  Whereas Tet was an all-out effort to win the war, by capturing cities, Mini-Tet was a coordinated series of 125 sapper attacks and 400 artillery or rocket bombardments against military targets across South Vietnam.  Because the Viet Cong never recovered from the losses it had suffered in 1968, this time the objective was to make the Americans’ lives miserable, and hopefully persuade them to quit the war sooner.  Intelligence operatives had traced large movements along the Ho Chí Minh trail in January and early February, so General Abrams knew the enemy was planning a surprise attack somewhere, and was ready for it.  As a result, the Americans and South Vietnamese defeated this offensive, too, but the campaign was costly: more than 1,140 Americans and 1,500 South Vietnamese were killed during three weeks of fighting.  One of the bloodiest attacks came on February 25, when the North Vietnamese raided Fire Support Bases Neville and Russell, two Marine camps near the Demilitarized Zone; 36 Marines were killed here.  In response, US troops went on the offensive in the Demilitarized Zone on March 15, the first time they entered the DMZ that year.

Nixon’s response to Mini-Tet was to issue a threat on March 4, to resume bombing North Vietnam.  He didn’t carry out this threat until 1972, but he did something else at this time and did not warn anyone about it first.  Over the past few years, the North Vietnamese had built an extension of the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Cambodia, with base camps for communist troops.  The Cambodian prince, Norodom Sihanouk, knew about the trail and the camps, but ignored them because he didn’t want the Indochina War to spill over into the last part of Indochina that was technically at peace.  However, now Nixon decided that attacks on Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia would help to protect South Vietnam from Northern aggression, and buy time to build up the South Vietnamese military.  Therefore on March 17, he secretly authorized Operation Menu, a year-long series of air strikes by B-52 bombers on the part of Cambodia adjacent to South Vietnam.  He got away with this for two months, but then in May The New York Times broke the news of the secret bombing of Cambodia.  What happened in Cambodia, at this time and afterwards, will be the topic of a future episode.  For now I will say that it intensified the antiwar movement in the United States.  And later, Nixon regretted that he had bombed the wrong targets in 1969.  Long after he left the White House, Nixon wrote that his failure to respond to the Mini-Tet offensive with a massive bombing of North Vietnam had been the greatest mistake of his presidency.

Another consequence of The New York Times breaking the story of the Cambodian bombing was that Nixon ordered FBI wiretaps on the telephones of four journalists, along with 13 government officials, to determine the source of the news leak.  Later on Nixon would spy on his perceived enemies again.  In that sense, we can say that if the Vietnam War had not happened during Nixon’s watch, there would have been no Watergate, either.


US troop levels in Vietnam reached their all-time peak at the end of April 1969, with 543,482 American servicemen stationed there.  The last troops to arrive had been ordered to come over before Nixon became president.  By now 33,641 Americans had been killed in Vietnam, a total greater than for the whole Korean War.

So what would the last arrivals do, now that American leaders had decided they were not going to win the war?  One possible assignment for them was Operation Apache Snow, a joint operation by the US Army and ARVN, to eliminate North Vietnamese units in the previously mentioned A Shau Valley.  A little over a mile from the Laotian border was a 3,000-foot-high mountain that the North Vietnamese had heavily fortified, so the US command, MACV, ordered its capture first.  The North Vietnamese called this high point Dong Ap Bia, meaning “the mountain of the crouching beast.”  The Americans at first called it simply Hill 937, but the battle that followed became a proverbial meat grinder, so the site has been called Hamburger Hill since then.  As 19-year-old Sergeant James Spears explained it to a reporter, quote, “Have you ever been inside a hamburger machine? We just got cut to pieces by extremely accurate machine gun fire.”  Unquote.

With an American paratroop unit, the 101st Airborne, going first, it was thought that Hamburger Hill would be taken in a matter of hours.  Instead, the battle lasted for ten days, from May 10 to May 20, and it took eleven assaults, supported by air and artillery bombardments, before the North Vietnamese were persuaded to withdraw into Laos.  Bad weather was another factor; May is the beginning of the rainy season for the Southeast Asian mainland.  Before the battle, this area looked like a typical Southeast Asian highland, covered with jungle.  Afterwards it looked more like a barren moonscape; Meredith Lair, an associate professor of history at George Mason University, compared it with the devastated battlefields on the Western Front during World War I.

31 South Vietnamese and 72 Americans were killed in the battle for Hamburger Hill, while 630 North Vietnamese bodies were found afterwards.  Chalk up another victory for the South Vietnamese and Americans–wait a minute!  On June 5, just two weeks after the hill was taken, the troops were ordered to abandon it by their commander.  After the Allies left, the North Vietnamese returned and recovered the hill unopposed.

The costly assault on Hamburger Hill, and its confused aftermath, provoked a political outcry back in the US that American lives were being wasted in Vietnam.  Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy called the assault, quote, “senseless and irresponsible.”  Unquote.  The battle also eroded what support remained for the war.  Thus, it was the beginning of the end for America in Vietnam;  Washington now ordered General Abrams to avoid clashes like this in the future.  ‘Hamburger Hill’ was the last major search and destroy mission by US troops during the war; small unit actions were used after this.

A long period of decline in morale and discipline began among American troops, who no longer knew what they were doing there.

<Play “The Walk” clip>

This was especially the case for the draftees, who had been sent to Vietnam against their will.  Many turned against their officers, when ordered to do actions they considered suicidal.  Reporters called these attacks “fragging,” because some mutinous soldiers did it by throwing fragmentation grenades into the tents of said officers, a tactic that left no fingerprints.  Drug usage became a serious problem, as nearly 50 percent experimented with marijuana, opium, or heroin, drugs that were easy to find on the streets of Saigon. American military hospitals later became deluged with drug-related cases; as the war wound down for the Americans, the hospitals had more drug abuse casualties than casualties from the war.

On the other side, the North Vietnamese changed their fighting strategy, too.  At this point they knew they did not have to beat the Americans, they just had to outlast them.  And we have seen in this podcast that nobody can outlast an enemy like the Vietnamese can.  Hanoi was confident that if they waited until the Americans were gone, the next time they pushed, the Saigon regime would crumble.  Indeed, it probably would have happened in early 1965, had the Americans not intervened.


Because peace talks to end the war had begun under the Johnson administration, Nixon had another way to get the Americans out; if they could reach an agreement before the US troop withdrawal was complete, he would be able to bring the boys home sooner.  On the first day of 1969, Nixon appointed Henry Cabot Lodge, who had twice been the ambassador to South Vietnam, as chief of the American negotiating team in Paris.  Then on January 25, the talks resumed.  This time the United States and North Vietnam were not the only parties involved; delegates from South Vietnam and the Viet Cong were in attendance, too.

Although Nixon had matured politically since the days when he was vice president in the Eisenhower administration, he remembered that Eisenhower also negotiated while fighting was going on, during the Korean War, and Eisenhower kept the talks moving by hinting he would resort to using nuclear weapons if he did not like how things were going.  At first the Paris talks made no progress, just as they had failed to move in 1968, so Nixon considered using the nuclear threat.  Here is how he explained it to his White House Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman.  Quote:

<Insert Haldeman quote.>


Fortunately Nixon did not issue the nuclear threat, or carry it out.  If he had, we probably wouldn’t be here.  Instead, he kept calm for now.  On May 14, he gave his first TV speech on Vietnam, where he presented a peace plan in which America and North Vietnam would simultaneously pull out of South Vietnam over the next year.  The offer was rejected by Hanoi.  Next, on June 8, Nixon met with the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, on Midway Island, a tiny coral atoll in the middle of the North Pacific, known mainly for the World War II battle fought there.  Nixon informed Thieu that US troop levels would soon be sharply reduced, and at the press briefing after the meeting, he announced the withdrawal of 25,000 men, as the first step of the “Vietnamization” policy.

The first withdrawal of American troops took place on July 8, 1969, when 800 men from the 9th Infantry Division were sent home.  The phased troop withdrawal occurred in 14 stages, lasting from July 1969 through November 1972.  President Thieu was nervous as the first American troops left, but since he had no choice in the matter, he let them go.  Three weeks later, on July 30, Nixon came to South Vietnam, to meet with Thieu again and to visit American soldiers.  This was Nixon’s only trip to Vietnam during his presidency.

When nothing else broke the deadlock in the peace talks, Nixon decided to play a special ace that he had up his sleeve.  Here is where I will introduce Nixon’s most important negotiator, Henry Alfred Kissinger.  Kissinger was born to a Jewish family in Germany in 1923.  Those of you familiar with European history will recognize this as the time of the Weimar Republic, the unsuccessful, unpopular government that ran Germany after World War I.  Ten years later, the Weimar Republic was replaced by the Third Reich, definitely a bad time and place to be a Jew.  It was during the 1930s that Kissinger developed his negotiation skills, by talking Aryan bully boys out of beating him up.  Then in 1938 his family escaped Nazi persecution completely, by emigrating to the United States.  When World War II broke out he was drafted into the infantry, and there he was spotted by another German immigrant, Fritz Kraemer, who recruited him for the US military administration that would run part of Germany after the war.  Kissinger did so well in this job that Kraemer next suggested he attend Harvard when he returned to the United States; he did so, and there he met another mentor, William Yandell Elliott, a professor of government who named him head of a summer seminar for promising foreign-born Americans.  This made him a member of the Harvard faculty, while he was still a student.  He graduated summa cum laude, won an award for his doctoral dissertation, and on Elliott’s suggestion, joined both the National Security Council and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Kissinger wanted most to become one of the shapers of US foreign policy.  He was ready to do that in the 1960s, but the Democrats in charge weren’t interested in him; they had enough eggheads working for them already.  Instead, Kissinger became a foreign policy advisor to Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican candidate for president, and between elections he continued to teach at Harvard.  For the 1968 election, Nixon was his least favorite candidate.  Shortly before Nixon won the Republican nomination, Kissinger called him, quote, “the most dangerous, of all the men running, to have as president.”  Unquote.  Here he was expressing the typical opinion of a Harvard professor, but when it began to look like Nixon would get elected, his ambition became more important.  He made contacts with members of Nixon’s staff, and after the election, when Nixon offered him the position of National Security Advisor, he accepted.  As he took the job, Kissinger confidently said, quote, “We will not make the same old mistakes.  We will make our own.”  Unquote, and remember that line!

Podcast footnote: You would think Nixon would have picked a foreign policy expert like Henry Kissinger to be Secretary of State, but he did not trust the State Department.  Instead, his first choice for Secretary of State was William P. Rogers, a lawyer who had been Eisenhower’s Attorney General.  Rogers knew nothing about foreign affairs and wasn’t interested in them; Nixon knew that as long as Rogers was in charge of the State Department, it would not give him any trouble.  It wasn’t until 1973, after Nixon’s second term as president began, that Kissinger replaced Rogers as Secretary of State.  End footnote.

The first assignment Nixon gave to Kissinger regarding Vietnam was to conduct secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese.  The official peace talks in Paris had been going on for a year by now, and had not accomplished anything; they were too public, too exposed to media scrutiny, and too politicized.  Therefore, on August 4, 1969, Kissinger went to his first secret meeting with Xuan Thuy, the chief negotiator for the North Vietnamese, while the official peace talks continued openly.  The place for this meeting was the apartment of Jean Sainteny, an elder statesman.  I probably should have mentioned Sainteny in a previous episode, so I will mention him now.  He was the highest-ranked French official in Indochina at the end of World War II, so he was the one who accepted the Japanese surrender on behalf of France, and when Ho Chi Minh negotiated with France in early 1946 concerning Indochina’s future, Sainteny led the French negotiating team.  We will have to leave Kissinger for now; progress will not happen here until after 1969.  Indeed, on December 20, a frustrated Henry Cabot Lodge quit his job at the official Paris peace talks.  What all the peace talks produced will be a subject for another episode.


Meanwhile, Nixon tried one more idea.  In July he personally wrote a letter to Ho Chi Minh, urging that all parties “move forward at the conference table” to settle “this tragic war.”  This letter was passed from Henry Kissinger to Jean Sainteny, because Sainteny remained a friend of Ho after the 1946 negotiations ended, and Sainteny made sure the letter was delivered to Hanoi.  Nixon also asked Sainteny to deliver an ultimatum to North Vietnam’s government; if there wasn’t real progress towards peace by November 1, the first anniversary of former President Johnson’s halt to the bombing, he would resort, quote, “to measures of great consequence and force.”  Unquote.  Ho’s reply to the letter reached Washington on August 31, and all it did was repeat the lines North Vietnam had given previously, the main one being that the South Vietnamese government must be replaced with a coalition government that included the Viet Cong as part of it.

We now believe Ho Chi Minh did not write that letter; he may not have even seen the letter from Nixon.  By 1969 he was 79 years old, and he started suffering from heart failure early in the year.  In August he became so sick that he stopped working in his office.  Then on the morning of September 2, he died.  As communist governments tend to do, Hanoi waited a day before announcing his death; by then rumors of his passing were already circulating.  Once the news was out, there was widespread mourning all over North Vietnam for the man they called “Uncle Ho.”

The day of Ho’s death also happened to be the 24th anniversary of the date when he declared Vietnam’s independence.  Now in the same city square of Hanoi where Ho made that speech, Le Duan, the current leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party, publicly read the last will of Ho Chi Minh, urging the North Vietnamese to fight on, quote, “until the last Yankee has gone.”  Unquote.  Ho Chi Minh has been an important player in our podcast narrative since Episode 35 – that’s more than two years ago in real time – and here we say goodbye to him.

Ho stated in his will that he wished to be cremated, but instead his associates gave him the “Lenin treatment.”  Experts were brought in from Moscow, who had kept the body of Vladimir Lenin preserved since his death in 1924, and they embalmed Ho, too.  Then a grand mausoleum, looking like the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, was built in the middle of Hanoi; if you go there today you can see Ho’s 130-year-old body in a glass case.

From a practical standpoint, few changes came with Ho’s death, because as we noted before, he delegated his powers to others at the beginning of the 1960s, while keeping the ceremonial job of president for the last years of his life.  Most of the power went to Pham Van Dong, the premier and his closest follower, and to Le Duan.  Meanwhile, Vo Nguyen Giap continued to lead the armed forces.  Finally, Truong Chinh, Le Duan’s predecessor as Party boss, stuck around in an advisory role.  This four-man team would run North Vietnam for the rest of the war, and after the war they would manage a reunited Vietnam until the mid-1980s.

To replace Ho Chi Minh as president, Ton Duc Thang, another veteran Communist Party member, took that job.  At the age of 81, Thang was even older than Ho.  He came from the Mekong delta, the southernmost part of Vietnam, and his presence at meetings with Ho Chi Minh was a message to everyone that Ho never gave up on his dream of reuniting the North and the South.  Thang would serve as a figurehead president until his death in 1980.  Then the office of president was abolished; Vietnam has not had a president since 1980.

Aside from Ho, none of the individuals I mentioned ever gained a following, nor was a cult of personality allowed to spring up for any of them.  In present-day Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh is the only political leader for which statues and portraits are permitted.


In the United States, President Nixon followed up on the first troop withdrawal from Vietnam, with orders for the withdrawal of 35,000 more on September 16, along with an order to reduce the number of draft calls.  Then on December 15, he ordered the withdrawal of an additional 50,000 troops.  Most Americans at this time felt he was doing the right thing; a public opinion poll taken in October reported that 71 percent of Americans approved of Nixon’s Vietnam policy.

Still, for the antiwar movement, the troop pullouts were not coming fast enough: American soldiers were still dying in Vietnam, even if there weren’t any big battles in the second half of 1969.  On October 15, they staged the biggest mass demonstration in US history, called the “Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam,” Moratorium Day for short.  In 200 towns and cities across the country, more than two million people took part in religious services, school seminars, street rallies and meetings; the one common denominator among them were the black armbands they wore, to pay tribute to the Americans that had been killed in the war.  The largest events were in New York City and Washington DC, involving a quarter million protestors each, and in Boston, where another hundred thousand took part.  Some soldiers who had fought in Vietnam went to the events, and they were not viewed as enemies of the movement — in fact, many were actually part of it.  This was followed up with the “Mobilization” peace demonstration on November 15, a massive march in Washington where half a million people participated, making it the largest single protest event ever held in the United States.

Previously, North Vietnam did not say anything to the antiwar movement, but these demonstrations were too big to ignore.  Premier Pham Van Dong wrote a letter to the protest organizers, saying, quote, “…may your fall offensive succeed splendidly.”  Unquote.  The letter infuriated American conservatives, including Vice President Spiro Agnew, who called the protesters Communist “dupes” comprised of, quote, “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”  Unquote.

President Nixon delivered his response in the form of a major TV speech on November 3, asking for support from, quote, “the great silent majority of my fellow Americans,” unquote.  As he put it, quote, “…the more divided we are at home, the less likely the enemy is to negotiate at Paris…North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States.  Only Americans can do that.”  Unquote.  A majority of Americans viewed this speech favorably; a poll taken afterwards gave Nixon a 68 percent approval rating.

By the end of 1969, America’s fighting strength in Vietnam had been reduced by 115,000 men, meaning there were 428,000 troops still on the scene.  40,024 Americans have now been killed in Vietnam since the start of the war.  To take their place, South Vietnam drafted more men to serve in ARVN, in accordance with the “Vietnamization” program.

Okay, that takes care of another year in our timeline of the Second Indochina War.  However, we won’t be moving on to 1970 right away.  There were two special events in 1968-1969 I have barely mentioned so far: the My Lai Massacre and the spread of the war into Cambodia.  We are going to need at least one, more likely two episodes, to cover them, so join me for that next time.  And then we won’t need too many episodes after that to finish up this war series.


Unfortunately there have not been any donations to the show since the previous episode was released.  That’s not a total surprise, due to people’s incomes going down during the Corona virus crisis.  Still, don’t forget that this podcast is completely listener-supported.  It currently does not have a sponsor; nor does it receive an endowment from an institution, or a grant from a government.  If you are enjoying these episodes and can afford to support the show, please consider doing so.  There are two ways to make a financial contribution.  The first way is by making a secure donation through Paypal.  Go to the Blubrry.com page for any episode of this podcast, and click on the gold button that says “Donate.”  For the pages of the episodes recorded in 2020, you will see links to the Podcast’s Hall of Fame page and to my Patreon page, next to the gold button.  Those who donate will get their first name or initial added to the Hall of Fame page; and thus be remembered for as long as this podcast is available online.  If you donated before 2020, make another donation this year and you will get the coveted Water Buffalo icon placed next to your name, on the Hall of Fame page!

The second way to donate is through Patreon.  Patreon is a website that allows you to support an artist by making a small contribution at the beginning of each month.  Here you can pledge to give $1, $3, $5, or $10.  Click on the Patreon link next to the Paypal button, or put this URL in your browser:  https://www.patreon.com/HistoryofSoutheastAsia .  Patreon is spelled P-A-T-R-E-O-N, and “History of Southeast Asia” is all one word; no spaces.  Since the last episode, one new patron has joined, so now there are six.  Thank you for joining, you’re all great people!

And let’s not forget the ways to promote the podcast that don’t cost anything.  First, write a review, if you get the podcast from a host that allows listener comments; most of them do.  If you go on Facebook, “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast Facebook page, so you won’t miss news related to the podcast, and news about Southeast Asia in general.  Finally, there’s word of mouth advertising, an old-fashioned way to spread the word about the podcast, but still probably the best.  Some communities are starting to reopen from the Corona Virus lockdown as I record this, so if your quarantine hasn’t ended, you’ll have to use social media to tell others what you’re listening to.  Speaking of which, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 88: The Second Indochina War, Part 15



If you can read this, it’s time to download/listen to another episode in the History of Southeast Asia Podcast!  Last time, we came to the Tet Offensive, which many consider the climax of the Second Indochina War.  However, we still have a long way to go before the Vietnam story is finished.  Today’s episode covers events in the rest of 1968, in Vietnam and the United States.




This episode is dedicated to Louis E. and Louis C., for donating to the podcast.  Thanks to both of you for keeping the lights on, at a time when so many people can’t go out to work.  Both of your names have been added to the podcast’s new Hall of Fame page, of course.  And since Louis C. donated last year, he has now qualified for the coveted water buffalo icon!  Both of you are among those who can keep your heads when most other people are losing theirs.  May both of you also be among the few who can prosper in these troubled times.

Episode 88: The Second Indochina War, Part 15

or, Should the Americans Stay or Should They Go?


Greetings, dear listeners!  Actually, the correct question about American involvement in this episode is, “Should they win or should they quit?”  Anyway, if you are listening in the spring of 2020, around the time I recorded this episode, you are probably staying home most of the time, to avoid the Corona virus, while outside it seems that the world has gone crazy.  For example, if you walk into a bank, now you’re expected to wear a mask.  Who’d have thought that would happen?

Are you looking for something to do that won’t infect you with the virus, or violate the new rules on “social distancing?”  Then you’ve come to the right place!  Podcasts are still a safe form of information, entertainment, or just a good way to pass the time.  Now I have heard that listenership to podcasts is down, and I’m not sure why; maybe people who are used to listening to them elsewhere have forgotten about them while at home.  And some podcasters have cut back on the amount of recording they are doing, due to the need to make money or simply stay alive in this troubled time.  Well don’t worry listeners, the History of Southeast Asia Podcast is alive and well!  Because I wasn’t working a day job when the trouble started, this podcast is as active as ever.

Unless this is the first time you have listened to this show, you know that for several episodes we have been covering the wars that occurred in Indochina during the mid-twentieth century.  “Indochina” is the name usually given to the part of Southeast Asia that France conquered in the nineteenth century, when several Western nations went overseas to build colonial empires for themselves.  Today Indochina is three countries: Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.  The First Indochina War, which we covered in Episodes 64 through 68, finished with the expulsion of the French and independence for all three countries, but it also led to Vietnam’s division, into communist North Vietnam and anti-communist South Vietnam.  Because of that, most of the fighting which came after 1954 took place in Vietnam; here in the United States we call it the Vietnam War.

In the previous episode, we reached the Tet Offensive in early 1968.  Many consider this the climax of the war; although the Americans and their South Vietnamese partners won the battles, scenes of death and destruction from those battles also convinced the American people that they could not win the war.  Now Americans would look for a way to quit their involvement in the war, preferably through a negotiated settlement with North Vietnam.

After the climax of a story comes the denouement, and the denouement for this story is not a short one.  Americans will remain active in Vietnam for almost five more years, and the war will continue for two years after that.  And the number of American servicemen in Vietnam will increase, before it starts to decrease.  Here are the previous episodes in this podcast’s Second Indochina War series, in case you missed any:

Episodes 71 through 73 covered Vietnam from 1954 to 1963, telling how the war got started there.

Then we went to one of the countries next door, Laos.  Episodes 74 and 75 covered the war breaking out in that country, up until 1964.

For Episodes 76 and 77 we took a break from the narrative, covering special topics instead.  After that we returned to the war in Laos for Episodes 78 and 79.  That brought the Laotian narrative up to the year 1974, so the only thing left to talk about concerning the war in Laos is to tell how it ended.  I’m saving that for an episode where we cover how the war ended in all of Indochina.

Next, we went back to Vietnam, where it was time for the Americans to get involved completely.  We did that with Episodes 80 through 84, had another special episode with 85, and then continued the story with Episodes 86 and 87.  That brought us up to April 1968.

Now if you haven’t listened to all of the episodes I just mentioned, you know what your assignment is.  Go download or listen to those episodes, from wherever you got this one, and then come back here.  As for those of you who are ready to move on in the narrative, move on out!



For the United States, 1968 was one of the most turbulent years in its history.  To start with, there had been racial unrest for the past few years, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4 sparked a new round of riots in more than 100 American cities.  And protests against the Vietnam War grew more frequent, and got worse every year; now the idea among Americans that the Tet Offensive had been a defeat added fuel to the fire.

In New York City, students at Columbia University had been protesting the University’s plan to build a new gymnasium since late March.  The gym was to be built at the edge of the community of Harlem, on land that had been recreational space for Harlem’s residents.  Since this was public land, the university promised this would be a gym for everyone, but when the building plans were revealed, the only part of the gym that would be open to the public was the basement, and the public had to go through a back door to get to it; the rest of the gym was only for students and faculty.  Harlem residents, who didn’t want the gym in the first place, considered this both an insult and an act of segregation; they called the back door the “gym crow door,” with “Jim” spelled G-Y-M.

At first the protests were on the site where the gym would be built, Morningside Park, and the protesters came from the Student Afro-American Society, or SAS, a black student organization.  Soon they were joined by the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, an anti-war group made up mostly of white students.  Then on April 23, when the New York Police Department drove them away from the gym’s proposed site, 150 SAS and SDS students moved to the center of campus, and rushed into Hamilton Hall, the building holding Columbia’s administrative offices and some classrooms.  They took over the building and took Henry Coleman, the acting dean, as a hostage, holding him for one day before letting him leave unharmed.

Over the next few days, a total of five buildings were occupied.  Some students held counterprotests, calling for university life to return to normal.  There was also a fallout between the two groups leading the protests; the SDS was more interested in opposing the war than advocating civil rights, and soon the SAS ordered the SDS to leave Hamilton Hall.  Attempts to negotiate and mediate followed, with the administration agreeing to suspend work on the gym, but it refused amnesty for the protesters.  Then on April 30, police moved in and cleared the buildings, arresting 712 students. More than 100 students, four faculty members and a dozen police were injured by the time it was over.  Students called a strike, and the campus shut down for the rest of the semester.  The project to build the gym was also canceled, so you can say the SAS won eventually.

Meanwhile in the rest of the United States, hundreds of thousands of Americans took part in demonstrations in seventeen cities on April 27, because that day happened to be a Saturday.  Most of the demonstrations were against the war, and some were against racism as well.  The largest demonstration was in New York City, where more than 100,000 people marched in four separate parades to protest the war.  By contrast, a May Day parade, held in another part of the city on the same day, was intended to show support for America and the troops, but it only attracted a crowd of 2,700.  The other cities with demonstrations included Albany, NY, Austin, TX, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Cleveland, Boston, Seattle, and Portland, OR.

We saw in the previous episode that on the last day of March 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for president again.  By the end of May, the Democratic presidential campaign had turned into a race between three candidates, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Minnesota Senator Eugene J. McCarthy.  Kennedy and McCarthy were against the war, while Humphrey either called for continuing the war or beginning peace talks; in other words, Humphrey wanted to continue whatever Johnson was doing.  On June 4, Kennedy won the primary elections in California and South Dakota, while McCarthy won in New Jersey; this meant Kennedy was now the candidate most likely to get the nomination.  But then the next day, he was shot and mortally wounded in Los Angeles.  With Kennedy gone, his supporters either switched to McCarthy, or went to a new candidate, South Dakota Senator George McGovern.  The Democratic Convention for 1968 was probably the most violent in American history.  15,000 protesters came to Chicago to disrupt the convention; opposing them were 12,000 police, 6,000 Army troops, 6,000 National Guardsmen, and 1,000 intelligence agents.  Revulsion against the protesters prompted the convention delegates to nominate the Democratic candidate the protesters liked the least, Humphrey.

To complete the election picture for 1968, the Republicans also nominated their most recent vice president, Richard M. Nixon.  He consistently promised to end the war under his watch if elected, but many old-timers remembered he had been fiercely anti-communist in the 1940s and 1950s, and now they feared he would get violent if peace talks did not go the way he wanted.  But the most conservative candidate running was not Nixon; it was Alabama Governor George Wallace.  Wallace entered the race as a third party candidate, and while he was mainly interested in domestic issues, he showed he wanted to wage the war aggressively, by picking a fighting general, Curtis LeMay, for his vice presidential candidate.  However, Wallace also promised to get out of the war immediately, if he could not find a way to win after 90 days in office.


Now let’s get back to what was happening in Vietnam.  The North Vietnamese wanted to infiltrate the South by blazing a trail straight across the Demilitarized Zone, but as we saw in the last two episodes, several bases manned by US Marines on the south side of the DMZ blocked their way.  In late April they tried to take out Dong Ha, the base which held the 3rd Marine Division headquarters, meaning it was the most important base in the area.  Near Dong Ha was an abandoned village named Dai Do, so the resulting battle is called either Dai Do or Dong Ha.  Leading the communists were two regiments from North Vietnam’s elite 320th Division, a force numbering between 6,000 and 10,000 men; some 600 guerrillas came with them as well.  ARVN, the South Vietnamese Army, had two battalions of the 2nd Regiment, 1st Infantry Division patrolling around the mouth of the Cua Viet River, but it failed to catch the enemy sneaking past them, nor did they catch the enemy building bunkers around Dai Do.  The North and South Vietnamese had their first clash on April 29, about four and a half miles north of Dong Ha.  The next day, a North Vietnamese unit at the junction of the Bo Dieu and Cua Viet Rivers fired on a US Navy patrol boat, forcing it to return to Dong Ha.

The nearest American unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Marines, was sent to investigate.  This unit had been nicknamed the “Magnificent Bastards” for the previous battles they participated in, and because they were now understrength, a platoon from the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion, which included two T-48 medium tanks, was sent with them.  A platoon from the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, was sent separately, as well an Army unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 21st Infantry, and some boats from a Navy assault group.  This meant the American force had a strength of 250 men, and they were going against an enemy force 24 to 40 times larger.

At Dai Do and Dong Huan, another abandoned village, the Marines ran into heavy enemy fire.  The leader of the “Magnificent Bastards,” Lieutenant Colonel William “Wild Bill” Weise, launched an attack to clear the area.  But Weise soon found out he was heavily outnumbered, and the Marines were forced to fall back to defensive positions north of the Cua Viet River.  Still, he had stopped the enemy advance, and it was the North Vietnamese turn to retreat when the Army battalion arrived and occupied Nhi Ha, a village to the northeast.  On May 3, the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Marines joined the battle, only to find out the North Vietnamese had fled.

The battle of Dai Do counts as a victory, because if the “Magnificent Bastards” and their partners had failed to stop their opponents, the North Vietnamese would have gone on to take Dong Ha and maybe even Quang Tri, thereby undermining all Allied defenses along the DMZ.  However, the cost was high.  The Marines suffered 81 casualties and another 297 seriously wounded; among the wounded was Colonel Weise, who received a Navy Cross for his leadership under fire.  The Army battalion at Nhi Ha sustained 29 deaths and 130 wounded.  But the enemy suffered even greater losses; they left 1,568 bodies on the battlefield.

I mentioned in the previous episode that North Vietnam gave up its plan to invade South Vietnam with a conventional force in 1968, because of the heavy losses it and the Viet Cong suffered in the Tet Offensive.  However, they also dropped the idea because they could not break through the defenses along the DMZ.  They could still infiltrate the South by sending troops and supply trucks down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but that road was unsuitable for tanks.  The North Vietnamese Army  will wait four years, until 1972, before trying again; by then most of the Americans will be gone.  And (spoiler alert!) it will actually take seven years, until 1975, for the conventional invasion to succeed.

Another major battle, the battle of Kham Duc, took place a few days later, and about 120 miles to the south.  During the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese 2nd Division had tried unsuccessfully to take Da Nang, and after it was driven off, it moved southwest, into Quang Nam Province.  The Americans knew where the 2nd Division was, but they did not know its intentions.  This prompted the American commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, to upgrade the defenses at Kham Duc, a Special Forces camp located ten miles from the border of Laos.  An isolated base, Kham Duc had been established in 1963 to monitor North Vietnamese infiltration.  260 South Vietnamese troops were flown in, as well as 125 engineers to lengthen the runway on the air strip, clear underbrush that the enemy could hide in, and build a perimeter defense.  Unlike Khe Sanh, the remote base attacked in the previous episode, Kham Duc looked like an easy target, because it was surrounded by jungle-covered high ground and it lacked supporting artillery.  The North Vietnamese were so confident they could take the base that they brought along a film crew, to record the “devastating defeat of American forces at Kham Duc”; such a victory would put them in a position of strength before the peace talks began.  A Viet Cong battalion, from the VC 1st Regiment, also took part in the assault on Kham Duc.

Near Kham Duc was an outpost named Ngok Tavak, defended by a multinational crew of Americans, South Vietnamese, and hill tribesmen or Montagnards.  Three Australian officers led this garrison, and the commander among them was Captain John White.  In early May, an artillery platoon of 43 Marines, with a Navy hospital corpsman and two 105 mm howitzers, were sent to strengthen Ngok Tavak.  This prompted the North Vietnamese to attack Ngok Tavak first, with a mortar bombardment before dawn on May 10. 

Captain White had made one Montagnard unit camp outside the perimeter, because it contained Viet Cong agents and he did not trust it.  Now when the battle began, this unit came to the entrance, called out, quote, “Don’t shoot, friendly,” unquote, and then they threw explosive-filled satchels, killing several Marines inside the garrison and knocking the howitzers out of commission.  Next, North Vietnamese with flamethrowers surged forward and lit a vehicle on fire.  An AC-47 helicopter gunship saved the day when it arrived overhead and fired its three multi-barrel machine guns on the attackers. The North Vietnamese tried to use tear gas, but the wind blew it back onto their own positions.  Half the attackers then withdrew, turning their attention to Kham Duc, leaving only the Viet Cong force to deal with Ngok Tavak’s remaining defenders.

Marine helicopters brought reinforcements from Kham Duc, but rocket-propelled grenades hit two of them on the landing zone, ruining both the helicopters and the landing zone.  White had 70 wounded that his men could not carry out on foot, so he called for a medevac helicopter to pick them up.  5th Special Forces headquarters ordered White to hold out for more reinforcements, but he knew that was impossible.  The outpost was surrounded, and water and ammunition were running short.  Therefore White called for napalm strikes on the pathway of the main attack and broke out with his surviving troops—83 Montagnards, three Australians, five Special Forces and 14 Marines—running along the burning pathway.  Marine helicopters picked up the escapees and took them to Kham Duc that evening.  The attack on Ngok Tavak killed 16 Americans and wounded 23.  Among the Montagnards, 30 were killed or wounded and 64 were missing, including those who deserted.

By the end of May 10, the US Air Force had flown in 628 more men and two howitzers to Kham Duc, which was now encircled by the North Vietnamese division.  The North Vietnamese in turn managed to score a direct hit on one of the howitzers, killing two and wounding 35.  More reinforcements were sent in on May 11, but at the same time, the top American generals in Vietnam took a look at the situation, and they recommended to General Westmoreland that the camp at Kham Duc be “relocated,” because of its poor defensive position.  At first the generals decided to undertake a three-day evacuation, starting on May 12, but when the enemy captured all seven outposts surrounding the base, orders were changed to a one-day evacuation.

Most of the airlifting would be done with the big cargo carrier among helicopters, the CH-47 Chinook.  However, one Chinook was shot down when it was just above the runway, and though the crew escaped, this burning wreck had to be cleared off the runway before any planes could land or take off.  Moments after the runway was cleared, a C-130 cargo plane landed under heavy fire, which shot out one tire and damaged the wing fuel tanks.  The pilot, Lt. Colonel Daryl Cole, was airlifting in supplies; he had not heard that the mission had been changed to an evacuation, and now a horde of hysterical Vietnamese civilians, the families of the Montagnard soldiers, swarmed aboard.  The C-130 could not take off, thanks to the combined weight of the cargo and passengers and the damage it had suffered.  After the families were removed, and two hours of repair work was done on the plane, it was able to take off again; this time the only passengers were three members of the Air Force Combat Control Team, whose radio equipment had been destroyed.  However, when this plane reached Cam Ranh Bay, the Combat Control Team was ordered to return to Kham Duc to manage the evacuation of everyone else.  By the time they arrived, the evacuation was all but done.  The pilot of the C-123 plane that was supposed to evacuate the three men did not see them, and had to leave before his plane came under enemy fire, but as he took off, a crew member spotted the Combat Control Team on the ground, so they alerted the next C-123 coming in.  Although the camp was now being over-run by the North Vietnamese, and two C-130s had already been shot down, the pilot of this C-123, Lt. Colonel Joe M. Jackson, landed on the air strip under intense fire, gathered all three controllers, and took off.  For this rescue, Jackson would be awarded the Medal of Honor.


While the battle of Kham Duc was happening, Hanoi announced that it was ready to talk with the Americans.  Negotiations began in Paris on May 13.  The American team was led by William Averell Harriman, a statesman with an impressive resume; among other things, he had been a governor of New York, a former ambassador, a former Secretary of Commerce, and most recently the Under-secretary of State for Political Affairs.  For the other side, the chief negotiator was Xuan Thuy, who had been North Vietnam’s foreign minister from 1963 to 1965.  When he attended the Geneva conference on Laos in 1961 and 62, an American diplomat described him as, quote, "a top-drawer negotiator, a dreadful fellow to face across the table day after day."  Unquote.

Unfortunately, the initial talks got nowhere.  The United States insisted that all North Vietnamese troops be withdrawn from South Vietnam, while Hanoi declared it had no troops below the 17th Parallel.  Hanoi also insisted that, before serious negotiations could begin, the United States would have to halt all bombing raids over Vietnam, and it called for a coalition government in South Vietnam, which would make the Viet Cong partners of the Saigon regime.  Because of the stubbornness on both sides, it would take nearly five years for the peace talks to produce an agreement.  Most of the time, all sides simply restated their positions and refused to make any concessions.  For a while in 1968 the negotiators even argued over whether the table they used for their meetings would be rectangular, which would represent two sides, or round, which would make everyone look equal; in the end they went with a round table.

Meanwhile, President Johnson decided it was time to put a new general in charge of the war.  Westmoreland’s pursuit of a war of attrition increased the body count all around, but now he had been in command for four years and looked no closer to winning than when he started.  Looking back with hindsight, it appears clear to me that Johnson and Westmoreland should have known better.  We saw in Episode 68 that the last French commander in Vietnam, General Henri Navarre, tried to win with a war of attrition, and that led to the disaster at Dienbienphu.  Anyway, Johnson recalled Westmoreland to Washington in June, promoting him to Chief of Staff of the Army.  To take his place in Vietnam, Johnson made Westmoreland’s deputy, General Creighton W. Abrams, the new commander. 

Whereas Westmoreland was a “fuss and feathers” general, who was immaculately groomed and always spoke with optimism when he made a public appearance, Abrams was not inclined to hold press conferences; when he did, he was gruff and sometimes disheveled.  He inspired the troops with his competence, plain talk and combat record.  During World War II, he was a tank commander under George Patton, and a hero of the Battle of the Bulge; he received two Distinguished Service Crosses, America’s second-highest award for valor, and Patton called him the best tank commander in the US Army.  For those reasons, the tank used by the US Army today, the M-1 Abrams, is named after him.  The troops serving under Abrams considered him a soldier’s soldier.  And while Westmoreland was fond of search-and-destroy missions, which got the troops out quickly after the fighting was done, Abrams believed it was more important to secure populated areas and win over the hearts of the civilians.  Thus, he would be the ideal general to have when the Americans began to turn over the whole war effort to ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

The first important operation to take place under Abrams was the Phoenix Program, which began on July 1.  The Vietnamese name for it was Phung Hoang, meaning “All Seeing Bird.”  Formulated and paid for by the US Central Intelligence Agency, this was a program where American, South Vietnamese and Australian forces would work together to destroy the Viet Cong infrastructure across South Vietnam, using infiltration, torture, capture, counter-terrorism, interrogation, and assassination.  Previously, the South Vietnamese government had set up several intelligence agencies to locate and root out Viet Cong agents, and they ended up competing with each other for power and money.  The American solution to this problem was to centralize all anti-Viet Cong activities that weren’t being carried out by the armed forces under one program, and to put a department of MACV, the US military command in Vietnam, in charge of the program.  This department was called Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, CORDS for short.  The head of CORDS, Robert Komer, did more than anyone else to get the Phoenix Program approved by his superiors, including President Johnson, but it was most active and successful under William E. Colby, the CIA executive who replaced Komer in 1968.  According to its own figures, in 1969 alone the Phoenix Program “neutralized” 19,534 Viet Cong members; 6,187 of them were killed, while the rest were either captured or persuaded to switch sides.

South Vietnamese paramilitary forces in the Phoenix Program were organized into special police units called Provincial Reconnaissance Units, or PRUs.  Created, trained, equipped, and managed by the CIA, the PRUs worked in secret, so all kinds of stories were made up about them, and while the PRUs were declared counter-terror units, we may never know what they really did.

Unfortunately, Americans involved in the Phoenix Program described it as being like agencies in the South Vietnamese government and army; full of inefficiency, corruption, and abuse.  South Vietnamese officials resisted working together, stole much of the US aid assigned to the program, and were so easy to bribe that 70 percent of the Viet Cong suspects captured were able to buy their freedom.  Even worse, the program assigned monthly quotas to villages, and village officials would meet those quotas by announcing that anyone killed in a local skirmish was a Viet Cong member.  Sometimes they would round up innocent peasants, with the intention of declaring them all Viet Cong and turning them over to the police, but then released those who could pay them off.  And other times they would torture suspected peasants, when the only evidence against them came from jealous neighbors.

In the United States, the Phoenix Program generated huge controversy when reports leaked out of alleged assassinations of suspected Viet Cong operatives, by South Vietnamese trained by the US.  Antiwar activists, who got part of their information from North Vietnamese propaganda, denounced the Phoenix Program as “mass murder.”  This eventually led to Congressional hearings in 1971, and the termination of the program in the same year.  When he testified before Congress about this, Colby stated, quote, "The Phoenix program was not a program of assassination.  The Phoenix program was a part of the overall pacification program."  Unquote.  Colby declared that 20,587 Viet Cong had been killed, quote, "mostly in combat situations…by regular or paramilitary forces."  Unquote.  No more than 14 percent of the Viet Cong victims had been killed by PRUs.

In fact, despite its shortcomings and excesses, the Phoenix Program turned out to be one of the most successful things the Americans tried in Vietnam.  After the war, communist leaders admitted that it had eliminated around sixty thousand authentic Viet Cong members.  Madame Nguyen Thi Dinh, a veteran Viet Cong leader, told Time-Life correspondent Stanley Karnow in an interview that the Phoenix Program had been, quote, “very dangerous,” unquote, and added, quote, “We never feared a division of troops, but the infiltration of a couple of guys into our ranks created tremendous difficulties for us.”  Unquote.  A deputy commander of the Viet Cong, General Tran Do, described the Phoenix Program as, quote, "extremely destructive."  Unquote.  Colonel Bui Tin, a North Vietnamese officer we will hear from again at the end of the war, called it a “devious and cruel” operation that cost, quote, “the lives of thousands of our cadres.”  Unquote.  The former VC minister of justice wrote in his memoirs, quote: "In some locations… Phoenix was dangerously effective.  In Hau Nghia Province, for example, …the [VCI] infrastructure was virtually eliminated."  End quote.

Finally, Nguyen Co Thach, a senior North Vietnamese diplomat during the war, and a foreign minister after the war, stated, quote, "We had many weaknesses in the South because of Phoenix.  In some provinces, 95 percent of the communist cadre had been assassinated or compromised by the Phoenix operation."  Unquote.  He further stated that Phoenix had, quote, "wiped out many of our bases."  Unquote.  That action alone caused many North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to flee across the border, to their secret bases in Cambodia.  Afterwards, the Viet Cong was no longer able to operate effectively.  When North Vietnam launched the Easter Offensive in 1972, and the Ho Chi Minh Campaign in 1975, the Viet Cong were only minor participants.


To keep the South Vietnamese government informed of what was happening at the peace talks, President Johnson met once more with President Nguyen Van Thieu and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, in Honolulu, Hawaii on July 19, 1968.  In October the US and South Vietnamese navies launched Operation Sealord, the largest combined naval operation of the war.  Here more than 1,200 American and South Vietnamese Navy gunboats and warships targeted North Vietnamese supply lines, along the coast of Cambodia and in the Mekong River delta.  They also successfully disrupted communist supply camps in the delta and along other waterways during the two-year operation.

Because the peace talks were deadlocked, Johnson came under pressure to make a concession to the North Vietnamese, because real progress towards peace would help Hubert Humphrey win the presidential election in November.  On October 31, Johnson gave in; he announced a complete halt to the US bombing of North Vietnam, thereby ending the bombing campaign, Operation Rolling Thunder.  During the three and a half years that Operation Rolling Thunder went on, US planes had dropped a million tons of bombs on North Vietnam, the equivalent of 800 tons per day, with little actual success in halting the flow of soldiers and supplies into the South or in damaging North Vietnamese morale.  In fact, the opposite happened as the North Vietnamese patriotically rallied around their Communist leaders during the onslaught.  Bombing campaigns almost never break morale.  The only case I can think of where one did was during the Kosovo phase of the Yugoslav Civil War, when US planes bombed Serbia for ten weeks in 1999.  Anyway, by the time Operation Rolling Thunder ended, many towns south of Hanoi had been leveled, with a US estimate of 52,000 civilian deaths.  In return, using sophisticated, Soviet-made air defense equipment, the North Vietnamese managed to shoot down 922 US fighters and bombers.

The concession did not work as planned.  On Election Day, Republican Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey, to become the next president.  I will finish today’s narrative with a disclaimer.  Most of my sources claim that Nixon won by pulling a trick with the peace talks, the first of a series of “October surprises” that Republicans and Democrats have accused each other of doing since then.  Supposedly Nixon did it with the help of Anna Chennault, one of his supporters and the widow of General Claire Chennault, the leader of the Flying Tigers squadron during World War II.  I mentioned General Chennault in Episode 64, when Ho Chi Minh had a meeting with him.  Anna was a personal friend of South Vietnamese President Thieu, and so the story goes, she passed him secret messages from Nixon, urging him to stay out of the peace talks because if he did so, Nixon would give him a better deal after he became president.  Thus, Thieu did not participate in the talks, and Nixon went to the White House.

Later on, at least by the time of the Watergate scandal, Nixon would look like the type of scoundrel who would undermine a peace agreement to get elected, but the truth of the matter is that in 1968, there was no peace agreement to scuttle.  Nobody at this date – not Johnson, Humphrey, Nixon, Thieu, or the North Vietnamese leaders, would have accepted a peace agreement, unless it was completely on their terms.  Thieu had no intention of participating if the Viet Cong were going to be there, and the North Vietnamese Communist Party Boss, Le Duan, only would have accepted an agreement that called for a complete withdrawal of American forces and a dismantling of the Saigon government.  Of course the Americans in charge at this point would not accept an agreement like that, since the purpose of American involvement in Vietnam for nearly twenty years had been to support a non-communist government in Saigon.

Lien-Hang Nguyen, a professor at the University of Kentucky, and author of the book Hanoi’s War,is an expert on North Vietnam’s foreign ministry records, and in a 2015 interview, she stated that Le Duan, quote, “wasn’t ready to negotiate seriously until the summer of 1972,” unquote.  It took the defeat of the Easter Offensive to convince him that North Vietnam could not win, as long as the Americans were around.  Still, he gained an advantage by demanding unacceptable terms in 1968.  When Nixon took office, he would find himself stuck with a bombing halt hindering his war effort, and peace talks that had no chance of success.

Okay, that brings us to the end of 1968.  Lately I have ended each year of the Second Indochina War with a series of numbers to tell you how the war was going.  For 1968, the year ended with 495,000 American troops – almost half a million! – in Vietnam.  This was the most expensive year in the war for the Americans; they spent $77.4 billion, which is worth $569 billion in 2020 dollars – almost half of what was spent on the entire war.  1968 was also the bloodiest year for the Americans and their allies.  More than 1,000 Americans were killed each month, for a year-end total of 14,000 – almost half of the 30,000 American deaths suffered to date.  The South Vietnamese suffered nearly twice as many losses; 27,915 ARVN soldiers were killed.  For the other side, it was estimated that around two hundred thousand communists were killed, roughly five of them for every American and South Vietnamese soldier lost.

An estimated 150,000 soldiers from North Vietnam infiltrated the South via the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1968.  Although the US conducted up to 200 air strikes against the trail each day, up to 10,000 North Vietnamese trucks were driving on it at any given time.  And we saw with Operation Sealord that North Vietnamese soldiers and supplies were now sneaking in by way of Cambodia, too, but I couldn’t find any figures on how much got to the Viet Cong that way.


I think you will agree with me when I say this about 1968:  “That was certainly a busy year, wasn’t it?”  Not only did it take two whole episodes to cover wartime events in 1968, there were plenty of other events unrelated to the war, from the Olympics in Grenoble, France and Mexico City, to Apollo 8, the first manned flight to the moon.  Twenty years later, Time Magazine printed a special issue all about memories from 1968, entitled “The Year That Shaped a Generation.”  So join me next time when we move on to 1969 and see a new administration take over the American side of the war.  What will they do that is different?  We will say goodbye to one of the key players on the North Vietnamese side as well, though that won’t affect them as much as the change in presidents will affect the United States.

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