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 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.

Did you hear any ads while listening to this episode?  Of course you didn’t, because this podcast is completely listener-supported!  Nor do I require you to pay in order to listen to some of the episodes, as a few other podcasters have done.  If you are enjoying these episodes, especially if you are stuck at home and looking for things to do, please consider supporting the show.  The easiest way to do it 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, there are also 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 like I said at the beginning of the episode, if you donate in more than one year, you will get the coveted Water Buffalo icon placed next to your name!

If you would rather support the podcast with a small regular donation, go to my new Patreon page!  Here you can pledge to give $1, $3, $5, or $10 at the beginning of each month.  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.  Currently there are five Patrons; will you be Patron Number Six?

<Insert The Prisoner Dialog>

And while you’ve got free time on your hands, write a review of the podcast if you haven’t already, on one of the websites or apps that offers it.  Also check out the History of Southeast Asia Podcast Facebook page, for the additional content I post there.  This week, for example, I shared a news story about a village in Indonesia where young people are dressing up at ghosts, to scare people back indoors during the Corona virus lockdown.  And finally, keep spreading the word about the podcast; do it online if you aren’t going out now.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 87: The Second Indochina War, Part 14


Today is April Fool’s Day and a new podcast episode is available for your listening pleasure.  That’s no joke!  This episode covers what many people consider the climax of the Second Indochina War — the Tet Offensive.  Here the Americans won all the battles, but they may have lost the war here as well.  Also covered are the battle of Khe Sanh, and the beginning of the end of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.



This episode is dedicated to Deren T., for generously donating to the podcast.  This podcast is entirely listener-supported; it has not had a sponsor in more than a year.  Thank you for sticking with us in these difficult times, and that’s no joke, even though today is April Fool’s Day!  May you and your family come out of the Corona virus pandemic stronger than you were previously.

Episode 87: The Second Indochina War, Part 14

or, The Tet Offensive

Greetings, dear listeners!  If you have listened to the other episodes about the First and Second Indochina Wars, I hoped you noticed the overall trends, from the end of World War II to the point where the previous episode broke off, at the end of 1967.  American involvement started during the First Indochina War, when US President Harry Truman decided the United States would pay for the French war effort.  Though the United States spent $3 billion, the French lost.  Then the ink was barely dry on the cease-fire agreement ending the First Indochina War when the Second Indochina War, alias the Vietnam War in the United States and the American War in Vietnam, broke out.  Truman’s successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, responded the same way as Truman, by giving military and financial aid to the faction fighting communism in Vietnam, which now was the South Vietnamese government.  However, that didn’t get results, so the next president, John F. Kennedy, sent military advisors to go with the military aid, and then the commitment to winning the war increased every year, as more money, equipment and advisors were sent.  This didn’t work either, and the South Vietnamese army and government seemed unable, and even not very willing, to defend themselves.

By 1965 the next US president, Lyndon B. Johnson, saw this as a case of “If want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.”  Therefore he committed ground troops to the action.  Again, the new commitment did not change the course of the war, though more and more soldiers were sent every year, and American leaders, both in Washington and in South Vietnam, declared that the Americans and South Vietnamese were winning.  Likewise, the introduction of bombing missions, over North Vietnam and Laos, proved equally ineffective.  By the end of 1967 there were nearly half a million American servicemen in Vietnam, and victory was no closer than before.  It is at this point that today’s narrative begins.

At this point I need to ask the listeners, have you listened to the rest of the episodes about the Second Indochina War?  If not, you need to go to where you got this episode, and listen to the rest of the story. Here are the episodes in the series:

For the part of the war in Vietnam, Episodes 71, 72, 73, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, and 86.

And for the part of the war in Laos, Episodes 74, 75, 78, and 79.  Now go get ‘em!

Oh, are you still here?  Then you must be ready for today’s narrative.  Let’s go!



On the first day of 1968, a radio broadcast from Hanoi featured Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party, reading a poem that called on his people to march to the ultimate victory, when North and South Vietnam would be reunited.  Because of this broadcast, and because other messages sent from Hanoi to Viet Cong units had been intercepted, the Americans and South Vietnamese knew that North Vietnam was planning a major action in the near future, but they did not know any of the details.  The American military commander in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, thought the action would happen sometime in January, and that the North Vietnamese goal was to capture Khe Sanh, the American base in the northwest corner of South Vietnam, near the borders of both North Vietnam and Laos.  We saw the first battle for Khe Sanh in the previous episode, the so-called “Hill Fights”; now between 20,000 and 30,000 North Vietnamese troops gathered in the area, to go against 5,000 US Marines at Khe Sanh.  The Americans knew the North Vietnamese were there; Operation Niagara I, a series of air reconnaissance missions, was launched in January 1968 to locate where the enemy forces were concentrated; extra supplies and artillery rounds were sent to Khe Sanh as well.  Westmoreland also guessed correctly that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would stage attacks in other parts of South Vietnam around the same time, but he incorrectly dismissed these as diversions, intended to draw American attention away from Khe Sanh.

One of the generals under Westmoreland was Frederick Weyand, who had served in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II.  Weyand had disagreed with parts of Westmoreland’s strategy in the past.  Now Weyand’s troops were stationed along the Cambodian border, and because he also expected attacks in places besides Khe Sanh, he requested that his troops be pulled back to the area around Saigon; Westmoreland reluctantly granted the request.  That decision would help a lot, when the troops were needed to defend Saigon during the upcoming offensive; Weyand later earned the nickname “the Savior of Saigon” for moving the troops.  As it turned out, Westmoreland got the enemy strategy backward; the attack on Khe Sanh would be a distraction from the attack on Saigon, not the other way around.

The battle for Khe Sanh began on January 21, 1968, as the North Vietnamese troops around the outpost isolated it, beginning a 77-day siege.  This attracted enormous media attention back in America.  Observers on both sides compared Khe Sanh with the battle of Dien Bien Phu, where in 1954, Vietnamese communists besieged and captured that French outpost, thereby persuading the French to abandon Vietnam completely.  If you don’t remember Dien Bien Phu, go listen to Episode 68 of this podcast for the details.

In Washington the US president, Lyndon Johnson, anxiously told the Joint Chiefs Chairman,  General Earle Wheeler, quote, "I don’t want any damn Dinbinfoo."  Unquote.  Johnson sent Marine reinforcements to Khe Sanh, with special orders to hold the base, while declaring, quote, "…the eyes of the nation and the eyes of the entire world, the eyes of all of history itself, are on that little brave band of defenders who hold the pass at Khe Sanh…"  Unquote.  Then Johnson demanded a guarantee "signed in blood" from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the Marines would succeed.

The aerial portion of Khe Sanh’s defense was called Operation Niagara II.  It got that name because it dropped a “waterfall of bombs” on the enemy.  In all about 2,000 aircraft were used, of which as many as 800 could be in the air at one time.  The airplanes ranged from B-52 bombers to A-1 Skyraiders, one-man fighters; lots of helicopters saw action here, too.  At the peak of the battle, North Vietnamese soldiers were hit around the clock every 90 minutes by groups of three B-52s apiece, which dropped more than 110,000 tons of bombs during the siege.  This would be one of the most concentrated applications of aerial firepower in the history of warfare.  As for artillery, official records report that the Americans fired 142,081 rounds at the North Vietnamese, with some estimating that as many as 200,000 rounds were fired.  Together the Marines and the Air Force destroyed nearly every living thing within one kilometer of the base.  Here is how one American Air Force pilot described the destruction, in the book The Limits of Intervention, by Townsend Hoopes.

(Read quote)

Podcast footnote:  In the previous episode I told you what the North Vietnamese strategy was, for late 1967 and 1968.  Here it is again, to refresh your memory.  It was thought up by the Communist Party boss in Hanoi, Le Duan, and though Vo Nguyen Giap, the military commander, opposed it, he tried his best to carry it out.  The first phase of the plan was to launch a series of attacks against remote outposts, to lure American and South Vietnamese troops away from South Vietnam’s cities, especially Saigon.  These were the so-called “Border Battles,” of which Khe Sanh was the latest one.  The second phase of the plan, what would come to be known as the Tet Offensive, was an attack against the cities themselves by Viet Cong forces aided by North Vietnamese troops, in the hope of “liberating” as many villages, hamlets and towns as possible, which would ignite a "general uprising" to overthrow the government of South Vietnam.  Finally, for the third phase, North Vietnamese troops and tanks would invade South Vietnam, joining the Viet Cong for the final victory.  End footnote.


In Vietnam, the most important day of the year is New’s Years Day, which they call Tet.  Tet is short for Têt Nguyên Ðán, which means "Feast of the First Morning of the First Day."  Like Chinese New Year, it falls on the first day of the year, according to the Chinese lunar calendar.  Because lunar calendars have 354 days, rather than 365 days, the date wanders around on the Gregorian calendar used by most Western nations, but it always takes place sometime in January or February.  For example, in this year, 2020, Tet fell on January 20, and next year it will fall on February 12.

Podcast Footnote: I told you in previous episodes that I used to live in Orlando, Florida, which has a good-sized Vietnamese community.  They own all the shops in one neighborhood on the north side of Orlando, and my wife and I used to go there to get special ingredients for her cooking.  After we moved away, the Vietnamese purchased an additional shopping center on the west side, of which the largest store used to be a Publix supermarket.  The owners of those shops are hardworking folks, who are open almost every day of the year; even if you go there on Christmas Day, you are likely to find them open.  The one holiday the shops are certain to be closed for is Tet.  End footnote.

In 1967 both sides agreed to a truce so they could observe Tet, and they kept it for four days.  Because that had worked out well, they agreed to a Tet truce for 1968 as well.  This time, Tet was scheduled to begin on January 31.  Thus, on January 30, most South Vietnamese soldiers went home for the holiday, while North Vietnamese soldiers below the Demilitarized Zone celebrated in their camps, giving each other gifts and candy.  They celebrated a day early because they would launch a massive attack on the next day, catching their enemies completely off guard.

At 3 AM on the morning of January 31, 1968, 84,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops struck at more than 120 cities, towns, hamlets and bases in South Vietnam.  The targets included 36 of South Vietnam’s 44 provincial capitals.  Most surprising of all was the attack on Saigon, a city supposedly safe from the communists.  Here North Vietnamese units entered Cho Lon, the Chinese neighborhood of Saigon, while the Viet Cong attacked the presidential palace, Tan Son Nhut Airport, the Phu Tho racetrack, and the headquarters of ARVN, the South Vietnamese army.  Seventeen Viet Cong commandos even broke into the US Embassy compound, before American soldiers arrived and killed them.  Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker was asleep at his residence a few blocks away, and when he woke up he was rushed to the home of a subordinate, where he would be safer.  Allen Wendt, a junior economic specialist who was in charge during the night shift, escaped by locking himself in the fortified code room.

There also was a battle for the main radio station in Saigon, where the Viet Cong rammed a car full of dynamite through the gate and then wiped out the platoon guarding the station, catching most of the guards while they were sleeping.  The invaders brought a tape-recorded speech from Ho Chi Minh, which they planned to broadcast, but it never went on the air; the transmitter was located fourteen miles from the station, and the attack triggered a signal at the transmitter that cut off the station.  Then, until the radio station was recovered, South Vietnamese technicians at the transmitter played what music they had:  Viennese waltzes, Beatles hits, and South Vietnamese marching songs.

Around the capital city, 35 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong battalions battled 50 battalions of American and Allied troops.  General Weyand launched a counter-attack at Tan Son Nhut on February 1, that broke the Viet Cong in the neighborhood and saved both the headquarters of ARVN  and MACV, the American military command, from possible capture.

By February 1, the Americans and their allies had prevailed in the rest of Saigon.  There were just a few enemy soldiers left to be rooted out.  The last of them were killed or captured at the Phu Tho racetrack, three weeks later; since Phu Tho was a venue for sporting events, it provided plenty of hiding places.

Naturally, General Westmoreland, President Johnson, and other American commanders declared this a victory.  However, TV crews had filmed the fighting in the US Embassy, as well as bloody scenes from other areas showing American soldiers under fire, dead and wounded.  Their footage was quickly relayed back to the states for broadcast on the evening news programs, giving Americans at home a front row seat to the assaults against their fathers, sons and brothers, ten thousand miles away.

Podcast footnote:  I remember my family got our first color TV in 1968.  Because color TV sets were now becoming common in American homes, viewers saw the Vietnam carnage “in living color,” as we said in those days.  1968 was definitely a busy year, and we saw a lot of its other key events in color as well, from the presidential election to the flight of Apollo 8 around the moon.  End footnote.


For Americans, one of the most gruesome scenes of the war also happened on February 1.  A South Vietnamese general, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, was walking the streets of Saigon, looking for ways to strengthen the city’s defenses.  We first saw Loan in Episode 83, as one of the leaders who put down the Buddhist revolt in 1966.  Now he was the national chief of police.  Near a pagoda, a patrol brought a prisoner to him; this was Nguyen Van Lem, a Viet Cong fighter who was trying to hide by wearing civilian clothing, but was captured anyway.  Loan drew a revolver, and waved away bystanders in the line of fire.  Then he held the pistol to the prisoner’s head, and shot him, in full view of Eddie Addams, an Associated Press photographer, and Vo Suu, an NBC news cameraman.  Adams clicked the shutter of his camera right when Loan pulled the trigger, and that photo, which became the most famous photo taken during the war, appeared on the front page of most American newspapers the next morning.  Vo Suu filmed a video of the execution with his camera, and it appeared on the NBC news.  Võ Suu reported that after the shooting Loan went to a reporter and said, quote, ”These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me.”  Unquote.

The general impression one gets from looking at the picture taken by Adams is that Loan was a cold-blooded killer.  There is more to the story, though.  When he was captured, Lem was accused of  cutting the throats of a South Vietnamese colonel, Nguyen Tuan, his wife, their six children and the colonel’s 80-year-old mother.  And Loan claimed in a later interview that he shot Lem because the prisoner was not wearing a uniform, so the rules of the Geneva Convention about treating captured enemy soldiers did not apply to Lem.

At the end of the war, Loan escaped to the United States.  Settling in Virginia, he opened a restaurant called Les Trois Continents, which served French and Vietnamese food, plus hamburgers and pizza.  The restaurant stopped earning a profit when the public found out who the owner really was.  Loan died in 1998, and Eddie Adams said this about him.  Quote:  "The guy was a hero.  America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him."  Unquote.

And here is what Adams wrote about Loan for Time Magazine.  Quote:

“The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera.  Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world.  People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation.  They are only half-truths.  What the photograph didn’t say was, "What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?"  End quote.

Finally, here is another relevant quote.  It comes from Don Oberdorfer’s 1971 book Tet!; The Turning Point in the Vietnam War.  Quote:

"It says something about this war that the great picture of the Tet Offensive was Eddie Adam’s photograph of a South Vietnamese general shooting a man with his arms tied behind his back, that the most memorable quotation was Peter Arnett’s damning epigram from Ben Tre, ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it’ and that the only Pulitzer Prize specifically awarded for reporting an event of the Tet [sic] offensive was given two years later to Seymour M. Hersh, who never set foot in Vietnam, for exposing the U.S. Army massacre of more than a hundred civilians at My Lai."

End quote.

Two of the references in the last quote need explaining.  You have probably heard of Peter Arnett, because of his controversial coverage of the more recent wars in Iraq, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, while working for CNN and NBC respectively.  Well, at the beginning of his career in the 1960s, he was an Associated Press reporter stationed in Vietnam.  Ben Tre was the capital of a province in the Mekong delta, and like Saigon, Ben Tre came under attack during the Tet Offensive.  In that battle, 328 Viet Cong were killed, but to drive them out, Allied commanders ordered the bombing and shelling of the town, so 528 civilians were killed as well, and more than 5,000 homes were destroyed.  In his report of the battle, Arnett quoted a US major as saying, quote, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” unquote, but he never gave the officer’s name, so we can’t verify if the officer really said it.  Arnett’s quote rapidly spread through the rest of the American media, and was altered into the famous phrase, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”  In this form, the quote became a popular slogan for the anti-war movement.

As for the My Lai massacre, I will have to talk about that another time.  In fact, it deserves its own episode.  A year and a half ago, I listened to another podcast that devoted two episodes to My Lai, each more than two hours long.


While the media concentrated its attention on Saigon, the fiercest battle of the Tet Offensive took place in Hue.  Veteran listeners will remember that Hue had been the capital of a united Vietnam from 1802 to 1884; go to Episodes 25 and 26 to hear what I said about Vietnam in those years.  With a population of 140,000, Hue was the third largest city in South Vietnam, and though it was only about 62 miles from the Demilitarized Zone, this historical city had escaped serious damage from the war – until 1968.  Nevertheless, the communists wanted it; capturing Hue would be a great psychological victory for them.

On January 31, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops stormed the city together; their numbers would eventually grow to 12,000.  Some of them were infiltrators who had joined the Tet holiday crowds; the invaders quickly pushed aside the small ARVN garrisons and occupied the massive old fortress, called simply “the Citadel.”  The only areas they did not capture were the ARVN headquarters, located in the Citadel, and the headquarters of MACV, the American military command, which was in the part of the city south of the Perfume River.  Then they rounded up between 4,000 and 6,000 “enemies of the people”: mostly South Vietnamese government officials, captured South Vietnamese officers, Catholic priests, doctors, teachers and foreigners.  The bodies of 3,000 were later found in mass graves, and the fate of the rest is unknown; they simply disappeared.  Although Western reporters came to Hue after the fighting started, few had anything to say about the executions, and some denied they even happened.

To take back Hue, the Allies committed 11 ARVN battalions, 4 US Army battalions, and 3 US Marine battalions, with the US Air Force backing them up.  This led to the kind of battle conventional armed forces try to avoid, if possible – an urban battle.  They recovered the city slowly, advancing house by house, street by street, aided by American air and artillery strikes.  For the Citadel, there was twenty-six days of nonstop fighting, tank attacks, reinforcements, and more air strikes; by the time it was over, the Citadel had been almost completely destroyed.  And because the Viet Cong were a guerrilla army, the Americans and South Vietnamese did not always recognize the enemy when they were seen – until the enemy shot at them.  An elite South Vietnamese unit, the Black Panther Company, was given the honor of taking back the imperial palace.

The last enemy troops were expelled from Hue by March 2.  Allied losses were 142 Marines killed, 857 Marines wounded, 74 US Army soldiers killed and 507 wounded, and 384 South Vietnamese killed and 1,830 wounded.  The number of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong killed was reported at 5,113.  If you just go by the numbers, it was a great victory for the Americans and South Vietnamese; for every soldier they lost, they killed 8.5 enemy fighters.  But those who saw the media’s coverage of the battle saw a different story.  News stories showed pictures of American soldiers who were filthy, exhausted, wounded, or dead, with hollow-eyed refugees and a city laid waste.  As one reporter put it, quote, "All that was left of Hue was ruins divided by a river."  Unquote.  This coverage undermined efforts by American officials to convince the public that the enemy was demoralized and near collapse, and that the end of the Vietnam War was within sight.



Now let’s go back to the battle that started before the Tet Offensive began, at Khe Sanh.  As it turned out, the American and South Vietnamese forces stationed in and near Khe Sanh enjoyed a much stronger position than the French had at Dien Bien Phu, mainly because of the massive bombing of the surrounding hills.  Moreover, the French only had eight artillery batteries to defend Dien Bien Phu, based directly on the site, while the Americans not only had plenty of mortars and howitzers at Khe Sanh, but also long-range guns that could blast enemy positions from beyond Khe Sanh’s defense perimeter.  So far the operation to defend Khe Sanh had been called Operation Scotland I.  At the end of March, General Westmoreland replaced it with Operation Pegasus, a joint Army, Marine and ARVN ground advance.  This reopened the road to the base, Route 9.  Another Operation, known as the Super Gaggle, ended the resupply crisis by blanketing North Vietnamese positions with massive firepower, tear gas and smoke screens, while helicopters swooped down to drop supplies onto the hill outposts.

Podcast footnote:  We saw in previous episodes that Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese military commander, had learned the lessons of being a general by making mistakes that cost thousands of his own soldiers’ lives.  When Giap heard the first casualty reports from Khe Sanh, the numbers shocked him so much that he personally flew to the front in late January, so he could see the situation for himself.  While there, he almost became one of those casualties – a flight of 36 B-52s dropped 1,000 tons of bombs near his field headquarters.  Giap hadn’t been able to keep his visit secret.  The Americans suspected, after intercepting communist radio traffic, that a V.I.C., a very important communist, was in the area, so Westmoreland ordered a larger than usual air strike in an attempt to get him.  End footnote.

On April 8, North Vietnamese troops withdrew from the area, ending the eleven-week siege of Khe Sanh.  At the base itself, the Americans had suffered 274 killed and 2,541 wounded.  For Operations Scotland I and Pegasus, there were 730 dead, 2,641 wounded, and 7 missing.  ARVN casualties were 229 killed, 436 wounded.  Because this area was on the border of Laos, some royal Laotian troops were involved here, too, but I couldn’t find any casualty figures for them.  Likewise, my sources do not agree on the number of North Vietnamese casualties.  While 1,602 enemy bodies were counted, US officials estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 North Vietnamese were killed in action, while a secret MACV report estimated 5,550 were killed.  The North Vietnamese in turn reported 1,436 wounded before mid-March, and 2,469 killed from January 20 to July 20.  Why did they mention casualties until July, if the battle ended in April?  There was still activity in the area.  In the middle of April, Operation Scotland II was launched, a search-and-destroy mission to get those North Vietnamese who might still be in the vicinity.  It lasted until the end of February 1969; over the course of that operation, 435 Americans and 3,304 North Vietnamese were killed.  Put all of these numbers together, and they mean that for the Americans, Khe Sanh was the bloodiest battle of the whole war.

President Johnson praised the American troops, saying, quote, "…they vividly demonstrated to the enemy the utter futility of his attempts to win a military victory in the South."  Unquote.  However, the perception that Khe Sanh was a victory was shattered in early July as American forces abandoned the base, destroying anything that they could not take with them.  What the North Vietnamese could not destroy in months of fighting, the Americans now destroyed in a matter of hours.  The Marines stationed at Khe Sanh were furious and almost revolted when they heard their new orders; as long as they held the base, they felt their buddies had not died in vain.  Afterwards, to many Americans Khe Sanh would be a symbol of the pointless sacrifice and muddled tactics that would eventually doom US war efforts in Vietnam.  The abandonment also meant that General Westmoreland’s claims that Khe Sanh was indispensable to the US war effort were false.  A North Vietnamese official would label the closing of Khe Sanh air base as America’s "gravest defeat" so far.

For the North Vietnamese, the Tet Offensive was both a military and political failure.  By February 2, all of their attacks had ended, except for those against Saigon, Hue and Khe Sanh.  All of the land captured on the first day of the offensive was recovered.  Even worse, not a single ARVN unit deserted or defected to the other side, and there was no "general uprising" among South Vietnamese peasants against the Saigon government.  After all, most South Vietnamese did not want to live under communism; many of them were refugees who had fled the North when Vietnam was divided in 1954.  After the war, many communist veterans would confess that their worst memories of the war came from the Tet Offensive.

There were three more attacks on Saigon, from February 18 to 19, May 5 to 12, and May 25 to June 18.  Although each was smaller than the Tet attack, they succeeded in leveling half the city.  Late April and May also saw smaller attacks near Da Nang, and in Binh Dinh and Kontum provinces.  Together these attacks are called Mini-Tet, and this time the goal was not to overthrow the Saigon government or gain territory; just create as much chaos as possible.  Because the North Vietnamese Army was now the main force involved on the communist side, rather than the Viet Cong, Mini-Tet was much bloodier than the initial phase of the Tet Offensive.  US casualties across South Vietnam for the month of May 1968 were 2,169 killed, making this the deadliest month of the entire Vietnam War for US forces.  The South Vietnamese also had heavy losses, at 2,054 killed.  Eventually the communists were driven away again and Saigon was secure once more.

While American and South Vietnamese casualties had been heavy, communist casualties were appalling.  Of the 84,000 communists that took part in the Tet Offensive and Mini-Tet, 58,000 were killed, wounded or captured.  Every unit that took part was decimated; some companies only had two or three men left.  The Viet Cong could only count 45,000 fighters left, and during the remaining years of the war, they never recovered to the strength they had before 1968.  As a result, the North Vietnamese Army took over most of the fighting.  Henceforth the war would be more of a conventional conflict than a guerrilla one.  And the third phase of the offensive which Hanoi had been planning, an invasion of South Vietnam with conventional forces, was canceled for the time being.  That wouldn’t happen until 1972.


Tet’s only success for the communists was an unexpected one; it broke the will of the American people and Congress to continue the war indefinitely.  American support for the war had been steadily slipping in 1967, because of mounting casualties, rising taxes to pay for the war, and the feeling that there was no end to it in sight.  After Tet, the general American attitude was that it was a mistake to get involved in Vietnam in the first place, but now that they were there, they should win – or get out.  One of those disillusioned Americans was CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite, the so-called “most trusted man in America."  Cronkite visited Vietnam in February 1968, and came back convinced that the war was unwinnable.  On February 27, Cronkite gave a special report on TV, called "Report from Vietnam:  Who, What, When, Where, Why?"  He finished it with this editorial from his executive producer, Ernest Leiser.  This is a long quote, so bear with me.  Quote:

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.  They may be right, that Hanoi’s winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations.  It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that – negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms.  For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.  This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle.  And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.  To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.  To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism.  To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.  On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations.  But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

End quote.

As the first phase of the Tet Offensive wound down, General Westmoreland requested more soldiers again, this time asking for 206,000.  General Wheeler passed on this request to President Johnson.  Because the number of soldiers available at home was depleted, this would mean calling more than a hundred thousand from the reserves, meaning another draft.  Meanwhile in Washington, Johnson appointed Clark Clifford, a well-known Washington lawyer and an old friend of his, as the new Secretary of Defense.  The first thing Clifford did was conduct an intensive study of the entire situation in Vietnam.  He discovered there was no concept or overall plan anywhere in Washington to win the war, so he reported to Johnson that the United States should not escalate the war anymore.  Quote:  "The time has come to decide where we go from here."  Unquote.

General Westmoreland’s latest request for troops was kept secret until March 10, when The New York Times revealed it with a headline that declared in all caps, quote:


End quote.  I’m not surprised that the Times would do that.  The story gave no details besides what was in the headlines, but the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, denied it anyway.  Nevertheless, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called Rusk to testify, and he was grilled for two days on live TV about the troop request and the overall effectiveness of Johnson’s war strategy.  After all, if both the president and the commanding general called the Tet Offensive a victory, why were so many troops needed?  Johnson sent General Wheeler to meet secretly with Westmoreland in the Philippines on March 23, and here Wheeler gave the president’s answer.  Instead of 206,000 more troops, Westmoreland would only get 13,500.  General Wheeler also instructed Westmoreland to urge the South Vietnamese to expand their own war effort.  For example, the Saigon government had only recently begun to draft eighteen-year-olds for military service, while Americans of the same age had been fighting in Vietnam for nearly three years.


One of the last victims of the Tet Offensive was Johnson’s presidency.  In November 1967 an open opponent of the war effort, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, announced he would run against Johnson as a Democratic candidate for president, and Democrats who wanted to get out of Vietnam began to rally around him.  Then when Johnson heard about Walter Cronkite’s report on Vietnam, he supposedly said, quote, "If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America."  Unquote.  March 12, 1968 saw the first round of voting in the 1968 presidential election, the New Hampshire primary.  With Johnson running for re-election as the incumbent, he should have won easily, but the result was a squeaker; out of 50,000 votes cast, Johnson finished only 300 votes ahead of McCarthy.  This indicated that political support for Johnson was a lot weaker than it had been in the past.  Around the same time, public opinion polls revealed Johnson’s overall approval rating had slipped to 36 percent, while approval of his Vietnam war policy had slipped to 26 percent.  Other polls indicated that Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a brother of the former president, was more popular than Johnson, so on March 16, Kennedy announced he was running for president, too.  Like McCarthy, RFK campaigned on an anti-war platform.  As an advisor to his brother, he had been one of those who helped form President John F. Kennedy’s Vietnam policy, but now he repented of that, saying, quote, "past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation."  Unquote.  Johnson’s advisors began to tell him he was not likely to win if he ran against both McCarthy and Kennedy.

In this time of stress, Johnson turned to the group of advisors he trusted the most.  These were fourteen elder statesmen from the East Coast establishment who together were simply called the “Wise Men.”  Among them were Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, Truman’s United Nations envoy, Arthur Goldberg, the former ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, and three retired generals:  the hero of D-Day, Omar Bradley, Matthew Ridgeway, and Maxwell Taylor.

Clark Clifford convened the “Wise Men” first, for a dinner at the State Department on March 25.  Here he had three experts on Vietnam give a blunt assessment of the situation.  Their conclusion was that because the Saigon government was corrupt and unpopular, and because ARVN was incompetent when left by itself, it would take five, maybe ten years, to achieve real progress.  Everyone listening was shocked – they knew the American people would not want to wage a war for that long.  The next day, the "Wise Men" gathered at the White House for lunch with the President.  Led by Dean Acheson, the man who had persuaded Truman to finance the French armed forces during the First Indochina War, they now called for a US withdrawal from Vietnam, with only four of those present dissenting from that opinion.

Johnson was scheduled to give a televised speech about Vietnam on the night of March 31.  In it, he urged that peace talks begin at once, declaring, quote, "We are prepared to move immediately toward peace through negotiations."  Unquote.  He also announced an end to the bombing of North Vietnam above the 20th Parallel, meaning that Hanoi and Haiphong were no longer targets; the US Air Force would only continue to bomb places less than 210 miles from the Demilitarized Zone.  Most of the speech was written by the president’s speechwriters, but the last words were written by Johnson himself, and those stunned the world.  Johnson ended the speech by announcing that he was ending his campaign for re-election as president.  Quote:

<Insert LBJ quote.>

End Quote.

Deteriorating health, as well as declining popularity, had moved him to make this decision.  Although he would remain in office until his second term ended in January 1969, after his abdication speech he was what observers of American politics call a “lame duck.”  Soon the war in Vietnam would become someone else’s war.


And with that, we’ve run out of time for today.  In fact, we went a few minutes over, compared with how long these episodes usually run.  I don’t need to tell you that we are living in an extraordinary year.  Recently I saw someone mention on Facebook that for the first time in history, we can save the world by sitting on our couches and watching TV – so don’t mess this up!  Heck, both my daughter and her husband are now working from home, thanks to today’s distance technology.  Myself, I plan to keep on recording for the time being.

Like many other folks, my income has dropped since the Corona virus scare hit my community, so if you are getting anything out of this podcast and can afford to give it your financial support, please do so.  This podcast depends on your financial support to keep running, and to justify all the work I put into it.  One way you can support it 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.”  I think of the button as being like the tip jar in a bar or restaurant, for a musician or a specialty chef.  Next to the button, you will also find a link to the Podcast’s Hall of Fame page.  Those who donate will get their first name or initial added to the Hall of Fame page, and if you donate in more than one year, you will get the coveted Walter the Water Buffalo icon placed next to your name!

If you think the podcast is worth more than a one-time donation, you can also become a patron of it.  Recently I set up a Patreon page for that, where you can pledge to give $1, $3, $5, or $10 at the beginning of each month.  Follow the links to it on the Blubrry.com pages for the latest episodes, 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.  Whether you donate through Paypal or Patreon, thank you in advance for your support.

In the past, I requested that you write a review of the podcast, if you listen to it on a website or app which allows reviews.  And I said to “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page if you are a Facebook user.  If you are now stuck at home with free time on your hands, and haven’t done those things already, now is the time to get them done.

<Larry quote>

Thanks, Larry!  I also asked you in the past to tell your family, friends, and even your enemies about the show.  With so many of us under lockdown, you probably will have to hold off on that for now, but rest assured, there will be life after the Corona virus pandemic.  Just ask someone who has recovered from it already, like the wife of the Canadian prime minister.


That’s all for now.  You probably see the events of this episode as the climax of the Vietnam War.  Together the Tet Offensive and the battle of Khe Sanh displayed the incompetence of the Allied high command, the bravery and discipline of American soldiers, especially the Marines, the astonishing technological superiority of the Air Force, the sacrifices the communists endured in order to do better at a later date, and the complete hysteria of much of the Western media, which concentrated its attention on how much the Americans and their allies were suffering, while often ignoring the destruction they inflicted on the other side.  Perhaps the best summary of how Tet was both a victory and a defeat comes from the former South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, Bui Diem.  This quote comes from the 1996 book, The Tet Offensive, by Marc Gilbert and William Head.  Quote:

<Read Bui Diem quote>

End quote.

Join me next time as we cover the events occurring over the rest of 1968, and maybe we’ll get started on the events of 1969 as well. 

I said in the previous episode that listening to podcasts is one of the safest things you can do with the current virus scare.  And I hope you won’t stop listening because you used a mobile device, but now you’re not mobile, you’re cooped up at home!  This podcast sounds just as good from a computer as it does from a cell phone, tablet or MP3 player.  Maybe even better, because you can now listen with large speaders plugged in.  For those of you who just started listening because you are avoiding the Corona virus, we’re glad you joined us, and hope you will be back again.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 85: Question and Answer Session 3



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




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

Episode 85:  Question and Answer Session 3

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Episode 84: The Second Indochina War, Part 12



This episode is a day late, sorry to keep you waiting!  Episode 84 continues our ongoing narrative of the Second Indochina War, better known as the Vietnam War in the United States, and the American War in Vietnam.  Here the battles of early 1967 are covered, and then we look at the growing protest movement against the war, from late 1965 to 1967.



This episode is dedicated to Christian M., who made a donation to the podcast.  Christian, sorry I didn’t report your donation last time; it arrived in the time frame between when I finished recording the episode, and when I uploaded it.  Therefore, here are my belated thanks.  What’s more, because you made a donation last year, you have received the coveted water buffalo icon next to your name, on the podcast Hall of Fame page!  Thank you for your support, may this year be a good year for you, and may many others follow your example!  And now let’s get started for today.

Episode 84: The Second Indochina War, Part 12

or, The Crossover Point Approaches, but for Which Side?

Greetings, dear listeners!  And if you have listened to the podcast before, welcome back!  For most of the northern hemisphere, February is a short and chilly month, so here is a podcast about a part of the world that is always hot, to get your mind off the cold.

This is the twelfth episode in our ongoing series on the second war in Indochina in the twentieth century, which lasted from the late 1950s until 1975.  Most history texts call it the Second Indochina War, but Americans know it as the Vietnam War, while the Vietnamese in turn call it the American War.  And a few times I have half-seriously called this the Unofficial Vietnam War Podcast, partly because there are other podcasts about the Vietnam War, which may have a better claim to being the official Vietnam War Podcast than this one, and partly because I plan to talk about recent history in the rest of Southeast Asia when we get done with the war in Vietnam.

In the previous episode we made it to the end of 1966, concerning the part of the war in Vietnam.  In the past I gave a recap for those who missed the previous episodes, but I won’t do it this time.  We have too much material behind us now, so if you missed what we covered on the Second Indochina War so far, here are the episodes you should listen to.

For the war in Vietnam, Episodes 71, 72, 73, 80, 81, 82 and 83.

And for the war next door in Laos, Episodes 74, 75, 78, and 79.

Now let’s get started with today’s content.



When 1967 began, there were nearly 400,000 American troops in South Vietnam — along with some 850,000 from South Vietnam, South Korea and other allies — and America’s civilian and military leaders were starting to think big.  After two years of troop buildups, the commander of the American troops, General William Westmoreland, announced that the “crossover point” he had been predicting, the point when there would be enough American troops to break the Viet Cong guerrillas and the North Vietnamese troops, would come sometime in 1967.  But while the Americans usually won their battles – the enemy continually suffered more casualties than they did – they could not follow up on their victories, and the communists soon re-occupied the land on which the battles took place.  Let us take a timeout from the narrative and look at what made the war unwinnable for the Americans.

1.  The kind of warfare in Vietnam was quite outside the American experience.  The closest thing to it the Americans had been in was fought in the Philippines seventy years earlier – we covered that war in Episodes 30 and 31 – and most Americans completely forgot about it afterwards, including whatever lessons they might have learned from it.  To repeat what I have said before, the war was not a conventional conflict, with shifting front lines and armies on the move.  Progress here was not measured in territory gained but in the number of casualties inflicted.  In a conventional war, it is possible to escape it by moving to a spot where fighting is not taking place, but in a war without frontiers, the Americans lived under constant danger, no matter where they were – even in Saigon they could be a target.  That is why I haven’t shared any maps lately on the course of this war –a map won’t accurately show the situation until the 1970s, when the war becomes a conventional one.

2.  The enemy was not an obvious villain.  The Viet Cong did not always wear their black pajama uniforms; their ranks included women and even children.  My favorite story of child soldiers in the conflict comes from the testimony of the evangelist Mike Warnke, who was a hospital corpsman stationed with the Marines in Vietnam for three and a half years.  Here is how he tells it:

<Play Mike Warnke quote>

In a nutshell, any civilian could be an enemy, and before long many Americans wondered if they were fighting on the right side.  Americans also found it hard to hate the enemy completely because Ho Chi Minh was not a Stalin or a Hitler; to them he looked more like an Oriental Santa Claus.  Here in Kentucky, he reminded folks of Colonel Sanders; I have seen pictures on the Internet that put photos of Ho Chi Minh and Colonel Sanders together, asking if they were separated at birth.

3. Heat, disease, leeches, and fiendish Viet Cong traps; in the jungle these put almost as many men out of action as the actual firefights did.  And I have heard one report of an American soldier getting eaten by a tiger.  Yes, a tiger!  You don’t learn anything in school about what to do in THAT kind of situation!  An enemy soldier might spare you if he is in the mood, but nature takes no prisoners.

4. The ineffectiveness of bombing.  We saw that for most of the time between 1965 and 1968, American B-52s flew daily bombing missions over North Vietnam.  They would do it again in 1972. Ultimately, like Laos, North Vietnam would get pounded with more bomb tonnage than was dropped everywhere during World War II.  Bombers were only allowed to go after targets in six categories:  power facilities, war support facilities, transportation lines, military complexes, fuel storage, and air defense installations.  Because of those limitations, casualties were limited; civilians were protected by putting them in underground tunnels or by moving them out to the countryside.  The Ho Chi Minh Trail was also bombed, as we saw in the episodes on the Laotian war, but the Viet Cong carried so little gear that their entire force could keep fighting even if only 15 tons of supplies got to them daily.  Whatever could not be manufactured locally was generously given by both Russia and China.  Targets that could have done real harm if hit, like the heavily populated residential neighborhoods of Hanoi, were carefully avoided; US President Lyndon Johnson thought if he hit North Vietnam too hard, it would trigger Chinese or Russian intervention, and that would be the beginning of World War III.  The US never attempted an offensive strategy–like an invasion of North Vietnam to topple Ho Chi Minh’s government–for the same reason.  From the American point of view, the war in Vietnam was always a defensive war.

5. Speaking of aircraft, the North Vietnamese had a surprisingly effective air force.  I say "surprisingly" because the first North Vietnamese squadron was only assembled in 1964, the same year as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, and a year later they won their first battle, one that pitted eight North Vietnamese planes against seventy-nine American ones.  In that encounter, the North Vietnamese pilots were flying hand-me-down Soviet MIGs that were out of date, but still they managed to shoot down two American planes.  Over the course of the war, the North Vietnamese lost 131 planes, while the Americans lost more than 2,000; seventeen North Vietnamese pilots had enough kills to become aces, compared with only three American aces.  This isn’t just beginner’s luck; away from Vietnam, only the American, Soviet and Israeli air forces have done better!  In fact, the Americans were so embarrassed at the North Vietnamese performance that they did not talk about it until long after the war.

6. The role of the US press.  In previous wars the activities of reporters in war zones were heavily restricted, and the main source of war news for Americans at home were newsreels carrying carefully edited, or should I say censored, stories.  For Vietnam many of those restrictions were dropped, and for the first time, stories about the war were brought into Americans’ homes on TV, in living color.  At first the media, like the average American, supported the war effort, but soon many editors were having second thoughts.  In 1967 LIFE Magazine brought the reality of the war home to readers by printing the names and high school photos of the 250 young Americans killed in a single week.  The television news programs also showed a point of view that was not pro-American, by interviewing North Vietnamese/Viet Cong leaders and by showing pictures of wounded Americans and atrocities committed against civilians, like the notorious My Lai massacre.  None of that had happened before; in World War II, for instance, American news networks did not interview Prime Minister Tojo to let him defend the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  The actual effect of all this on American morale has been debated ever since, and you will be hearing more about it in future episodes of this podcast.

7.  General Westmoreland and his superiors in Washington underestimated the breaking point of the communists, and overestimated it on their side.  The Vietnamese had fought wars against China and Champa that had lasted for centuries, and the Communist Party provided the discipline and coercion needed to withstand the more recent wars with France and the United States.  On the other hand, this was the first time the Americans fought a war that lasted longer than a decade, and they did not have the willpower to fight an unpopular war for generations.  They began to realize this when recruiters for the armed forces no longer got enough volunteers to meet the demands for more troops, and started calling up reservists to fill the ranks.  By October 1966, draft calls were bringing in 49,300 soldiers a month, the highest number of draftees since the Korean War.  The typical soldier who was drafted to serve in Vietnam could expect to be there for a year, and his main goal was to stay alive until his assignment was over; many counted out the number of days they had left.  In a boxing match, when you have one fighter who is determined to win, while the other simply wants to keep standing until the match is over, who do you think will win the prize?

Besides conscription, the recruiters also lowered their standards.  This was the idea of the Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, who thought it would be better than abolishing student deferments or calling up reservists.  He optimistically called this “Project 100,000" because he felt this would generate a ton of fresh soldiers without causing a backlash like the one coming from drafting able-bodied young men.  He also figured that superior American technology would allow poor-quality troops to perform about as well as the recruits who met the old standards.

Now the recruiters gave more attention to the men who had been unfit, mentally or medically, to serve previously.  Recruiting efforts targeted small Southern communities, where support for the war was still strong, and urban ghettoes, offering college educations to those who enlisted.  Because of this emphasis, 41 percent of the soldiers recruited were black, at a time when African-Americans made up 12 percent of the US population.  In the past, the military did not take applicants who scored less than 80 on an IQ test, but under Project 100,000, they brought in at least one recruit with an IQ of 62.  Critics of Project 100,000 unkindly called the recruits that came from it The Moron Corps, McNamara’s Folly, and McNamara’s Misfits.

We don’t have exact figures on how many casualties the substandard troops suffered, except to say that they died at higher rates than other Americans serving in Vietnam.  Those who survived the war didn’t have a better standard of living either; after doing their term of service, they had lower incomes and higher rates of divorce than their non-veteran counterparts.  Project 100,000 lasted from October 1966 to December 1971; by the time it ended, it had recruited not 100,000, but 354,000 troops for the war effort.  Therefore it was one of the reasons why the draft was abolished in the early 1970s.  The Vietnam War was the last time in US history when recruiters would accept anyone who could walk and breathe, and members of the US armed forces have all been volunteers since then.

8.  Anti-war protests at home.  We will cover this more later in the episode.  It has been said that the Americans won every battle in Vietnam, but they lost the war in America.

End of timeout.



1967 began with Operation Bolo on January 2.  This was a major air battle, where 28 US Air Force F-4 Phantom jets, pretending to be going on a typical air raid, lured 16 North Vietnamese MiG-21 interceptors into a dogfight over Hanoi that lasted for just twelve minutes, and shot down seven of the MiGs.  The American pilots were led by Colonel Robin Olds, a World War II ace, and they did not lose a single plane.  Four days later, the Air Force launched another ruse, this time mimicking an F-4 reconnaissance flight, and they shot down two more MiG-21s.  As a result, the North Vietnamese only had seven MiG-21s left for service, and this severely limited North Vietnamese air activity for several months.  However, the American pilots were prohibited by Washington from attacking MiG air bases in North Vietnam, presumably because they might kill or injure citizens of the Soviet Union.  You can count this as another victory the Americans did not follow up on.

Do you remember what I said about the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong sneaking back into areas they had been driven away from?  One of those places was between Saigon, Tay Ninh, and the Michelin rubber plantation, an area called the Iron Triangle by Americans.  Because the Saigon River runs through here, and because the Iron Triangle was so close to the capital, it was essential to keep enemy troops out of here.  This was the site of Operation Attleboro in late 1966, and the return of the Viet Cong after the battle required another  search and destroy mission, Operation Cedar Falls, in early 1967.  Lasting from January 8 to 26, this was the largest ground operation in the war so far; it combined 16,000 American and 14,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, to clear the Viet Cong out of the Iron Triangle.  However, the Viet Cong avoided a one-on-one fight either by fleeing across the border into Cambodia, or by hiding in an extensive network of tunnels.  Thus, there was no large scale combat, just small unit actions.  Americans discovered the tunnels and large stockpiles of Viet Cong supplies – enough rice to feed a Viet Cong division for one year – and introduced specially trained volunteers called “tunnel rats” to explore the tunnels.  The tunnel rats found the Viet Cong district headquarters at Cu Chi, where they discovered half a million military documents:  documents on strategy, maps of US bases, records of guerrilla  movements from Cambodia into Vietnam, and lists of South Vietnamese sympathizers.

To make the Iron Triangle useless to the enemy, if and when they came back, once the fighting was over, the entire civilian population in this area was relocated to so-called New Life Villages, their old homes were destroyed, and defoliants like Agent Orange were used to wipe out eleven square miles of jungle.  For the casualty count, 72 Americans and 11 South Vietnamese were killed, while for the enemy, 720 were reported dead, and 218 were captured.  Thus, at a casual glance, Operation Cedar Falls was another American-South Vietnamese victory.  But when you look at the “big picture,” the operation wasn’t as big a success as the senior officers claimed.  First, the Americans did not get the big battle with the enemy they wanted.  Second, as you have learned to expect by now, the Viet Cong would return, and rebuild their sanctuary.  In 1968 they would use the Iron Triangle as a staging ground for attacks on Saigon, during the Tet Offensive.  Third, the Americans came under criticism for destroying the Thanh Dien Forest Preserve, and for their harsh treatment of the local civilians.  Instead of winning over the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, the Americans had driven a bunch of them into the ranks of the Viet Cong.

Podcast footnote:  On January 10, while Operation Cedar Falls was taking place, the United Nations Secretary General, U Thant, said he doubted that Vietnam was essential to the security of the West. Apparently President Johnson was not listening, for he gave his annual State of the Union address to Congress on the same day, and there he again declared, quote, "We will stand firm in Vietnam."  Unquote.  End footnote.

The next attempt to clear out the Iron Triangle came less than four weeks after Operation Cedar Falls.  This was Operation Junction City, and though it used the same number of American and South Vietnamese troops, 30,000, there was much more air support, so this is considered the largest airborne operation of the Vietnam War, and one of the largest US operations in the war.

The declared goal of Operation Junction City was to locate and capture the headquarters of North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam, which the communists called the Central Office of South Vietnam, or COSVN.  Americans expected the headquarters to be in a fixed location, and some imagined it as a "mini-Pentagon," complete with typists, filing cabinets, and staff workers organized in layers of bureaucracy.  Sounds like one of our “cubicle farms” in today’s offices, doesn’t it?  They never found the headquarters, though; its personnel escaped to Cambodia at the beginning of the operation.  After the war, Viet Cong records revealed the headquarters was a small group of people, constantly on the move, often sheltering in makeshift facilities; at one point, American pilots who didn’t know they were there dropped bombs that missed them by a hundred meters or so.

Operation Junction City also lasted much longer than Operation Cedar Falls, from February 22 to May 14, 1967.  It began with the dropping of 845 paratroops, to secure the pieces of land selected as landing zones for the troops brought in by helicopter; this was the only large paratroop assault during the entire war.  Most of the time after that, though, the Allied forces moved without encountering much resistance.  The Viet Cong attacked Americans at the village of Prek Klok twice, on February 28 and March 10; air strikes and artillery drove them away each time.  Then on the night of March 19, the Viet Cong 9th Division attacked Fire Support Base 20, the base of the 5th Cavalry Regiment, a mechanized force.  There had been a battle on this spot in November 1965, the first battle involving American armored vehicles, and it was called the battle of Ap Bau Bang, so this clash became known as the second battle of Ap Bau Bang.  This time the Viet Cong infantry swarmed over the American armored vehicles, and were dispersed by the vehicles shooting on one another, which meant that some of the vehicles were put out of action.  With the help of artillery and air strikes, as well as flares and aerial searchlights to spot their enemies, the Viet Cong were repelled again.  The Americans claimed 227 enemies killed and three captured, while losing 3 and suffering 63 wounded.  Two more attacks on the Americans were staged on March 21 and April 1, and again the Viet Cong 9th Division suffered heavy losses.  After that, the rest of the operation consisted of long and exhaustive searches in the bush and villages, which captured large amounts of enemy materiel and rice, but there were no more large encounters with communists.  For the whole operation, 282 Americans were killed, and 2,728 Viet Cong were counted dead.  In the long run, Junction City was no more effective than the other operations in Tay Ninh province, because the enemy’s Central Office had gotten away.

Before we move on, I would like to mention one of the American officers involved in Operation Junction City, because you have probably heard of him – Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Haig.  In the last clash, the battle of Ap Gu, Haig’s unit, the 1st Battalion of the 26th Infantry Regiment, was pinned down by a Viet Cong unit three times its size.  Haig boarded a helicopter and flew to investigate; his helicopter was shot down, and he led the battalion in two days of bloody hand-to-hand combat, before US artillery and air power saved the day.  For this, General Westmoreland awarded Haig the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second highest medal for valor.  Here is an excerpt from Haig’s official Army citation, explaining what he did to earn the medal.  Quote:

“When two of his companies were engaged by a large hostile force, Colonel Haig landed amid a hail of fire, personally took charge of the units, called for artillery and air fire support and succeeded in soundly defeating the insurgent force … the next day a barrage of 400 rounds was fired by the Viet Cong, but it was ineffective because of the warning and preparations by Colonel Haig.  As the barrage subsided, a force three times larger than his began a series of human wave assaults on the camp.  Heedless of the danger himself, Colonel Haig repeatedly braved intense hostile fire to survey the battlefield.  His personal courage and determination, and his skillful employment of every defense and support tactic possible, inspired his men to fight with previously unimagined power.  Although his force was outnumbered three to one, Colonel Haig succeeded in inflicting 592 casualties on the Viet Cong …

HQ US Army, Vietnam, General Orders No. 2318 (May 22, 1967)”

End Quote.

Afterwards, Haig rose through the ranks to become an advisor to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, vice chief of staff of the Army, the second-highest-ranking position in the Army, White House Chief of Staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces in Europe, and President Ronald Reagan’s first Secretary of State.


Growing Opposition at Home

Back in the United States, the Vietnam War was starting to interfere with President Johnson’s other plans for America, what he called the “Great Society.”  Although as we noted, the “kill ratio” in the battles was way in the Americans’ favor, it was unacceptable for those who thought no American lives should be sacrificed for Vietnam.  And as long as North Vietnam was sending troops into South Vietnam at a higher rate than the US escalation, no number of American troops would be enough.  If the Americans could not win, the best alternative was a negotiated agreement to end the war, and Johnson offered peace talks, but as we have already seen, the North Vietnamese at this stage were not interested.  Because the Americans temporarily stopped bombing North Vietnam whenever Johnson was making peace overtures, the North Vietnamese felt they were being bombed to the conference table.  Leaders like Premier Pham Van Dong made it clear that they would only talk peace if the bombing was stopped permanently, and that whatever agreement is reached must give the Viet Cong a role in the government of South Vietnam.

We saw in previous episodes that a solid majority of Americans supported the war when the first American ground troops went to Vietnam in 1965.  That support eroded steadily, however, when news stories captured the horrors of the war, and reported on various atrocities like the destruction of villages and the use of defoliants.  And the news stories did not show the Americans winning the war, though they won individual battles.  For the American public, the “crossover point” came sometime in 1967; a survey published in October 1967 reported that 46 percent of the people it interviewed regarded the Vietnam War as a mistake, while 44 percent continued to back it.  Also in October, Life Magazine renounced its earlier support of President Johnson’s war policies.  Still, those who saw the war as an exercise in futility felt that a humiliating defeat, like what the French had suffered at Dienbienphu, must be avoided at all costs; the only options were to win or quit.  As one housewife at the time told a pollster, quote, “I want to get out, but I don’t want to give up.”  Unquote. 

We also saw previously that there was some domestic opposition to the war from the start.  As early as August 31, 1965, President Johnson signed a law that made draft card burning a crime, with penalties of a five year prison sentence and a $1,000 fine.  Nevertheless, people burned their draft cards at anti-war rallies.  Some young people also fled to Canada, to avoid getting drafted.

Podcast footnote: Early on in the antiwar movement, the most popular slogan was, "Girls say yes to boys who say no."  I was too young to be looking for a date at that time, so I don’t know if I would have gotten a date by saying “No.”  Oh well . . .  This slogan was dropped after the feminist movement appeared, because some women were offended at the idea of mixing sex and politics this way.  Among the slogans that took its place, the most famous was “Hell no, we won’t go!”  End footnote.

Here I will give a quick list of the main events in the antiwar movement, from 1965 to 1967.  This should give you an idea of how American opinion of the war changed as the 1960s went on:

October 16, 1965 – Anti-war rallies occurred in 40 American cities and in international cities, including London and Rome.

October 30, 1965 – 25,000 marched in Washington.  This was one of the few cases where the demonstrators were for the war, not against it.  They were led by five Medal of Honor recipients.

November 27, 1965 – In Washington, 35,000 anti-war protesters circled the White House, and then marched on to the Washington Monument for a rally.

March 26, 1966 – Anti-war protests were held in New York, Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco.

June 4, 1966 – A three-page anti-war advertisement appeared in The New York Times, signed by 6,400 teachers and professors.

November 7, 1966 – Defense Secretary McNamara is confronted by student protesters during a visit to Harvard University.

January 23, 1967 – Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright published The Arrogance of Power, a book that was critical of American war policy in Vietnam, and called for direct peace talks between the South Vietnamese government and the Viet Cong.  Both Fulbright and Johnson were Democrats from the southern United States, but after Fulbright learned everything he could about Vietnam, he and Johnson were no longer on speaking terms.  Instead, the President denounced Fulbright, Robert Kennedy, and a growing number of critics in Congress as "nervous Nellies" and "sunshine patriots."

February 8-10,1967 – American religious groups stage a nationwide "Fast for Peace."

April 14, 1967 – Former Vice President Richard M. Nixon visited Saigon and stated that anti-war protests back in the U.S. are quote, "prolonging the war."  Unquote.

April 15, 1967 – Nearly 200,000 people took part in anti-war demonstrations, in New York City and San Francisco.  Here the Rev. Martin Luther King declared that the war was undermining President Johnson’s Great Society social reform programs.  Quote:  "…the pursuit of this widened war has narrowed the promised dimensions of the domestic welfare programs, making the poor white and Negro bear the heaviest burdens both at the front and at home."  Unquote.

Podcast Footnote:  When it came to race relations, Dr. King got nearly everything he wanted with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.  Therefore he spent the last years of his life pursuing new goals, and that included opposing the Vietnam War, at a time when most Americans were for it.  The New York Times, The Washington Post, and even King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, thought that speaking out against the war was a bad idea.  King also campaigned for economic equality, meaning better jobs, better housing and better pay for African-Americans, only to find that white Americans were not as receptive to this as they were to social and political equality, especially in the Northern states.  End footnote.

April 24, 1967 – General Westmoreland condemned anti-war demonstrators, saying they give the North Vietnamese soldier, quote,  "hope that he can win politically that which he cannot accomplish militarily." Unquote.  Privately, he warned President Johnson that "the war could go on indefinitely."

May 2, 1967 – The United States is condemned during a mock war crimes tribunal held in Stockholm, Sweden, organized by British philosopher Bertrand Russell.

August 18, 1967 – California Governor Ronald Reagan said the U.S. should get out of Vietnam, because it is difficult to win a war when "too many qualified targets have been put off limits to bombing."

November 29, 1967 – An emotional Robert McNamara announced his resignation as Defense Secretary during a press briefing, stating, quote, "Mr. President…I cannot find words to express what lies in my heart today…"  Unquote.  Behind closed doors, he had begun regularly expressing doubts over Johnson’s war strategy, angering the President.  McNamara became the latest of Johnson’s top aides who resigned over the war; among the others were Bill Moyers, McGeorge Bundy and George Ball.

December 4-7, 1967 – Four days of anti-war protests take place in New York City.  585 protesters are arrested, of which the most famous is Dr. Benjamin Spock, author of a best-selling book on baby care.



Oh my goodness, we are out of time already!  I was planning to finish by chronicling the events in 1967 that led up to 1968’s main battle, the Tet Offensive, but now that will have to wait for another episode.  And it probably won’t be the next episode; I am thinking of running a question-and-answer episode first, to answer the questions you kindly sent me last month.  Whatever the next topic will be, join me again for that, on or near March 1, 2020 if you are listening to the episodes as soon as I upload them.  As for the Tet Offensive, it now looks like I will need two episodes to cover that, but don’t worry, we will continue to make progress.

If you are enjoying the podcast and haven’t supported it yet, now is the time to do so.  This podcast depends on the support of the listeners; that is the main reason why I have been able to keep doing the research and recording that goes into it, for more than three and a half years.  The most visible way to support the podcast is to make a donation, either a one-time donation via Paypal, or a small monthly donation through Patreon.  To make a Paypal donation, go to the Blubrry.com page for any episode of this podcast, and click on the gold button on the page, the one that says “Donate.”  Those who donate this way will get their first names mentioned at the beginning of an episode, as was the case for Christian M. this time, and their first names will be added to the new Podcast Hall of Fame Page.  If you have already donated before 2020, make another donation, and you will get the water buffalo icon added next to your name, meaning you are a very special person.

If you would rather contribute a little bit every month, go to my new Patreon page and sign up as a Patron!  I have posted links to the Patreon page on the Blubrry page hosting this episode, and on the podcast’s Facebook page.  Or type the following URL into your favorite browser:  https://www.patreon.com/HistoryofSoutheastAsia .  Patreon is spelled P-A-T-R-E-O-N, and History of Southeast Asia is spelled like one word, with no spaces.  Three listeners have already signed up; will you be next?

Now here is what else you can do to support the podcast, whether you can afford to donate or not.  You can promote it by word of mouth!  Tell anyone you think may be interested in listening to another podcast.  Do they like Asian history?  American history?  Military history?  As long as the podcast is covering the Vietnam War, all three topics are accounted for!  If you are listening through a podcatcher website or app, rather than through Blubrry.com, write a review so the rest of cyberspace knows about what you found.  Finally, if and when you are on Facebook, “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page, so you won’t miss anything I post that is related to the show.  Got all that?  Of course you got it, and now you know what to do before the next episode is uploaded.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 83: The Second Indochina War, Part 11



Today marks the beginning of a new month, and you know what that means:  a new episode of the History of Southeast Asia Podcast is online for your listening pleasure!  This time we cover events in Vietnam during 1966.  Besides the battles from the Second Indochina War (also known as the Vietnam War), we will look at a Buddhist revolt that has largely been forgotten in the years since then.





Episode 83: The Second Indochina War, Part 11

or, The Lotus Unleashed

Greetings, dear listeners!  If this is your first time here, welcome to our ongoing narrative about the eleven countries between India, China and Australia!  Back in the middle of 2016, we started the podcast in the stone age, and now we are in the mid-twentieth century, 1966 in the case of this episode.  And if you have been here before, welcome back!  You know that for the past few months we have been covering the second major war of the twentieth century, in the former French colony of Indochina, what we now call Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  If you are American, you know this struggle better as the Vietnam War.

I guess we need a bit of a refresher here, on events up to this point.  The First Indochina War, covered in Episodes 64 through 68, ended with the French pulling out after they suffered a disastrous defeat in the battle of Dien Bien Phu.  However, two governments were set up for independent Vietnam, a communist government north of the 17th Parallel, and a non-communist republic south of that line.  From the start, the United States was the principal foreign power backing the government in the south, while the Soviet Union and China predictably gave aid to the government in the north.  Elections were supposed to be held in 1956 to create a new government for all of Vietnam, but they did not take place, and that made a second war inevitable; the Second Indochina War began with a network of communist guerrillas, the Viet Cong, being organized in South Vietnam.  The United States responded to this by sending military aid to South Vietnam.  That did not stop the communists from making gains in the countryside, and when American troops went over with the military equipment as “advisors” in the early 1960s, that did not halt the communist advance, either.  Then in 1964, North Vietnamese troops started sneaking into South Vietnam, and the US president, Lyndon Johnson, used an attack on an American destroyer, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, as an excuse to get US forces involved in Vietnam all the way.  Thus, the first American combat troops arrived in early 1965, but even they weren’t enough to turn back the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong clients, so more American soldiers were called in before the year was done, and still more in 1966.

If you haven’t listened to the previous episodes on the war already, and want to know more about the events I just mentioned, go to Episodes 71, 72, 73, 80, 81 and 82 for the war in Vietnam.  I also covered the phase of the war that took place in Laos at the same time, in Episodes 74, 75, 78 and 79.  There!  Are we now ready to resume the narrative?  If not, go listen to those other episodes and then come back here, I’ll wait.

For those of you still here, I’ll assume you’re caught up to the end of 1965 in Vietnam, and ready to move on.  Let’s roll, boys!


Operation Masher, or Operation White Wing

December 25, 1965 was the beginning of a pause in Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign over North Vietnam.  This was done to encourage North Vietnam to join the United States in peace talks to end the war.  Because of the pause, 1966 started off relatively quiet for the Americans.  However, the North Vietnamese denounced the bombing halt as a "trick" and continued to support Viet Cong terrorist activities in the South, so the bombing resumed on January 31, 1966; the pause had lasted for 37 days.

So what ideas did the American generals come up with for 1966?  Their first idea was the largest search and destroy mission attempted so far in the war.  The American commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, called it Operation Masher at first, but President Johnson thought that name sounded too violent, especially since there was growing opposition to his escalation of the Vietnam War effort, so at his insistence, the name was changed to Operation White Wing.  The operation took place in Binh Dinh, a province on South Vietnam’s central coast that was seen as a communist stronghold.  Besides 6,000 American soldiers from the 1st Cavalry and 4,000 US Marines, nine South Vietnamese battalions and two South Korean battalions took part in the campaign.  It is almost forgotten today, but I mentioned previously that five allies of the United States – South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines – sent troops to fight in Vietnam alongside the Americans.

Eight thousand enemy soldiers were believed to be in Binh Dinh Province, from the 18th and 98th North Vietnamese Regiments and the 1st and 2nd Vietcong Regiments; the operation’s goal was to sweep those communists out of the Bong Son plain, an area covering 450 square miles.  Operation Masher/White Wing began on January 24, 1966, with the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry establishing a temporary command and forward supply base on the south edge of the area of operations.  Incidentally, for this mission the 3rd Brigade was led by Colonel Harold Moore; we met him in the battles covered in the previous episode.  At first there was only sporadic contact between the Allies and the communists.  One of the C-123 transport planes used at this time crashed into the mountains near An Khe, killing all 4 crewmen and 42 passengers on board.  Meanwhile helicopters landed Air Cav troops at several landing zones (LZs) west of Highway 1, on a flat part of the coast that was mostly rice paddies separated by scattered forests and villages. 

The first big clash came on January 28, when 500 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong staged an ambush on Landing Zone 4, just as Huey helicopters were bringing in two companies of infantry.  The communists attacked from bunkers and trenches they had built on two sides of the landing zone, and they did such a good job of concealing these fortifications that American aircraft did not spot them until it was too late.  In addition, light rain and high winds prevented US planes and helicopters from flying over the site, to give aid to the besieged Americans.  Two helicopters, one of them a big CH-47 Chinook, were shot down on that day.  The weather improved on the next day, allowing American forces to come to the rescue with more helicopters and three US battalions.  The G.I.’s on the scene noticed that the entire area was honeycombed with bunkers, trenches and spider holes.  Some of the trenches were so deep and so well constructed with timber supports that they were impervious to bombs, napalm and artillery.  A veteran of World War II said the Vietcong’s fortifications, quote, “…reminded him of those on Tarawa in the North Gilbert Islands.”  Unquote.  The battle went on until February 4.  When it was done, the Americans claimed they had killed 566 enemy soldiers at Landing Zone 4, and in the surrounding area, which included a town named An Thai, while losing 123; this included the 46 lost in the C-123 crash.

While all this was going on, the second phase of the operation began with the insertion of three Project DELTA U.S. Special Forces teams, consisting of 17 personnel, into the An Lao Valley on January 28, for reconnaissance.  They ran into immediate trouble, with seven of them killed and three wounded in a firefight, before the teams were rescued a day later.  It was believed that the North Vietnamese 3rd Division had its headquarters in the An Lao Valley, so a second attempt to enter it was made on February 6.  This time US Marines blocked the northern entrance of the valley, and the South Vietnamese blocked the southern entrance, while three battalions of the 1st Cavalry were landed in the valley.  However, the communists had withdrawn by now, and what the 1st Cavalry found were mainly defensive works and stockpiles of rice.  There were 8,000 peasants living in the valley, though, and when the Americans offered to relocate them to an area that wasn’t under communist control, 4,500 of them left.  As with the “Strategic Hamlet” program in Episode 73, it is questionable how many of the peasants were really willing to leave.

Southwest of the Bong Son plain were seven small river valleys, together called the Kim Son valley, and the Americans went in here next, on February 11.  This turned out to be the longest phase of the operation, lasting for the rest of February.  It began with the deployment of three Air Cav battalions at the valley exits, where they could ambush escaping enemy soldiers.  On the next day they began sweeping up the valleys, the plan being to catch enemy soldiers retreating in that direction.  Nothing happened until February 17, when three companies of the 1st Cavalry located a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft artillery battalion.  In the resulting firefight, the Americans called in B-52 air strikes, which destroyed the Communist artillery pieces and left 227 bodies on the ground after the battle.   Then on the next day, two Air Cav platoons ran into a heavily defended area, and they called in B-52 bombers as well.  By February 22, the Kim Son valley had been secured at a cost of 23 Americans killed in action and, at least 313 enemies killed.  However, the Communists were not done yet; on February 28, about 20 Viet Cong ambushed an American patrol, killing 8 and seizing their weapons.

The final phase of Operation Masher/White Wing took place in the Cay Giap Mountains, five miles east of Bong Son during the first six days of March 1966.  Allied intelligence indicated that a North Vietnamese battalion was hiding here, so an ARVN division surrounded the mountains, while small boats patrolled the adjacent coast, to keep the communists from escaping by sea.  Three battalions of the 1st Cavalry went in after an artillery bombardment of the area; they found 52 enemy bodies, but it turned out most of the enemy had slipped out before the assault.  Throughout the whole campaign, 288 Americans, nearly 100 South Vietnamese and ten South Koreans were killed, against 2,150 enemies confirmed dead.  In addition, 600 enemies were captured and 500 defected.  Therefore Operation Masher/White Wing was called a successful air assault operation, but the communists were never defeated, nor were they forced to surrender.  Only a week after the Allies left Binh Dinh province, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong returned, so more search and destroy operations would be needed in 1966 and 1967.
While Operation Masher/White Wing was going on, Operation Double Eagle was taking place in Quang Ngai, the province adjacent to Binh Dinh.  Here six battalions and two companies of US Marines, accompanied by the South Vietnamese 2nd Division, were up against the North Vietnamese 18th and 95th Regiments, and the Viet Cong 2nd Regiment.  The operation began with an amphibious assault on January 28, which was hampered by bad weather, like the first phase of Operation Masher/White Wing.  Only a few B-52 strikes were carried out, and the helicopters had to wait until February 1 before they could do their part.  After the Marines went in, they found few enemies, so the operation ended on February 17.  It turned out that most of the enemy units had pulled out several days before the operation began.  The score for Operation Double Eagle was 24 Marines dead versus 312 communists killed and 19 captured.  The Marines also captured 18 individual weapons and 868 rounds of ammunition.

Meanwhile in the United States, President Johnson had his first meeting with South Vietnamese leaders, in a conference that lasted from February 5 through the 8th.  We saw in Episode 81 that two generals, Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu, had seized power in 1965; Thieu became South Vietnam’s president, a mostly ceremonial job, and Ky became prime minister, meaning he held most of the power.  Anyway, they came to meet Johnson in Hawaii, which is almost halfway between Southeast Asia and the Eastern United States.  I will let Wikipedia describe what happened at the conference.  Quote:

“In order to shore up liberal American support for the war, which Johnson felt to be wavering, the main theme of the conference was that the war was to promote the social and economic development of South Vietnam.  The war was presented as virtually an extension of Johnson’s Great Society program to end poverty in the United States.  Little of any substance was discussed and instead the conference was almost an infomercial for the Vietnam war.  The conference had no agenda or even much preparation, and for the most part consisted of speeches designed to win over American public opinion.  The key note speech was delivered by Ky in English, was written by his American advisers, where he called for a ‘social revolution’ in South Vietnam that would ensure everyone in South Vietnam ‘respect and dignity, and a chance for himself and his children to live an atmosphere where all is not disappointment, despair and dejection.’  Afterwards, Johnson, who was unaware that the speech had been written by American officials, told Ky: ‘Boy, you speak just like an American.’  Johnson in his speech called for a relentless drive to eradicate the Viet Cong, saying in his Texas twang that he wanted ‘coonskins on the wall.’”

End quote.

The conference ended with Johnson announcing the Declaration of Honolulu, which promised continued American support for South Vietnam during the war, and an economic and social program designed to promote peace and justice in South Vietnam, much like Johnson’s Great Society at home.


The Buddhist Uprising

In South Vietnam, the main event in the spring of 1966 was a Buddhist revolt against the government of Ky and Thieu.  This is an obscure event to Americans; I didn’t even know about it until I started doing the research for this episode.  Because I am in the United States, most of my sources for the Vietnam War tell it from the American point of view, and since the revolt had little, if any, effect on the Americans, those sources don’t mention it.  An exception to that rule is a book called The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam, 1964-1966.  It was written in 2002 by Robert J. Topmiller, right here in my home town of Lexington, Kentucky, so I used the book’s title as a secondary title for this episode.

Before I begin, I need to give you a bit of a geography lesson, so you’ll understand what happened here.  During South Vietnam’s existence, its 44 provinces were organized into four military districts.  Each district was defended by a corps of ARVN, the South Vietnamese army.  The Americans called these districts Corps Tactical Zones, or CTZs.  The five provinces nearest the Demilitarized Zone were part of Zone 1, also called CTZ-I.  This included the cities of Hue and Da Nang.  Zone 2 was the Central Highlands, and the adjacent coast, around Cam Ranh Bay.  Zone 3 contained the provinces around Saigon, and Zone 4 was the Mekong delta.  I have posted a map of South Vietnam, showing the four zones, on the Blubrry.com page hosting this episode and on the podcast’s Facebook page.

In Episode 80, when we met Nguyen Khanh, he was the general commanding the First Corps, the part of ARVN in Zone 1.  You will remember he seized power in Saigon, and ran South Vietnam for most of 1964 and early 1965.  The general who succeeded him as the First Corps commander was Nguyen Chanh Thi.  However, South Vietnam’s Buddhists were now organized politically, to defend themselves against persecution like what they experienced when Ngo Dinh Diem was president – we covered that in Episode 73 – and Zone 1 had become a Buddhist stronghold.  The Buddhists wanted a truly representative government, and were opposed to expansion of the war, and to the rule of the current leader in Saigon, Nguyen Cao Ky.  Because Nguyen Chanh Thi was also a Buddhist, Ky saw him as a potential threat.  Here is what Stanley Karnow, Time-Life’s Southeast Asian correspondent, said about Ky and Thi, in his book, Vietnam: A History.  Quote:  "Both flamboyant characters who wore gaudy uniforms and sported sinister moustaches, the two young officers had been friends, and their rivalry seemed to typify the personal struggles for power that chronically afflicted South Vietnam.  But their dispute mirrored more than individual ambition."  End quote. 

In February 1966 Time Magazine ran an article about Thi claiming that Thi was more dynamic than Ky and could seize power at any time.  It looks like Ky was encouraged to act by this, so on March 10, 1966, with US approval, he fired Thi, put him under house arrest, and announced Thi was going to the United States for treatment of a sinus condition, when in reality he was exiling Thi.  In response, Thi said, quote, "The only sinus condition I have is from the stink of corruption."  Unquote.

Ky thought the dismissal would be a routine affair, but over the next few days Buddhists came out into the streets to protest, first in Hue and then in other cities; the protesters soon came to be known as the Struggle Movement.  The police did little to stop the protests, probably because they sympathized with the protesters.  In Saigon the protests turned into outright battles between students and loyalist police and troops, where the police used clubs and tear gas and the students fought back with bicycle chains, sticks, rocks, homemade spears, glass bottles and at least one hand grenade.  When he realized the protesters were not going to go away quietly, Ky tried to defuse the situation by allowing Thi to return to Da Nang.  Instead, soldiers loyal to Thi seized control of Hue and Da Nang.  The result was that Vietnam now had one civil war going on inside another civil war.  This prompted an unnamed American official to exclaim, quote, “What are we doing here?  We’re fighting to save these people, and they’re fighting each other!”  Unquote.

On April 3, Ky declared he would “liberate” Da Nang, because it was now in communist hands.  I trust you will agree that was an absurd statement, because the Americans still had their bases in Da Nang, and the Buddhists weren’t cooperating with the communists.  In fact, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong stayed out of the rebellion completely.  Later the chief of the North Vietnamese Communist Party, Le Duan, would admit this was an opportunity they had missed.  The US ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, provided American planes and pilots to transport 4,000 South Vietnamese Marines to Da Nang.  Ky personally led this force, only to find that the road going from the US base to the city was blocked by rebel troops with machine guns.  They did not fight because Major General Wood B. Kyle, the commanding officer of the 3rd Marine Division, intervened with a regiment of US Marines, moving them in between the two forces.  Following an afternoon of posturing, Ky flew back to Saigon and his men followed a few days later.  Instead of crushing the rebellion, Ky had “lost face,” which is considered bad by all East Asian cultures.  In Da Nang, the Buddhists were angry that the Americans had chosen Ky’s side instead of them; they burned American jeeps, and held signs demanding peace and an American withdrawal from Vietnam.

A week later, a humiliated Ky announced that he would resign after elections to establish a completely civilian government for South Vietnam, which would take place sometime in the next five months.  This was just what the Struggle Movement wanted to hear, and demonstrations were called off.  In the zone called CTZ-I, the new general commanding the First Corps, Ton That Dinh, went so far as to claim the whole area was back under Saigon’s control.  But in early May Ky went back on his promise, this time declaring that he expected to remain in office for at least another year.  Then he ordered his best general, Cao Van Vien, to lead 2,000 troops in an expedition to take back Da Nang.  Ky sent them off without telling Ambassador Lodge, General Westmoreland, and even his partner, President Thieu.

Landing in Da Nang at dawn on May 15, the pro-Saigon force advanced to the center of the city and captured the local ARVN headquarters.  Twenty rebel soldiers were killed and General Dinh, who feared that the new arrivals had come to kill him, fled to Hue on an American helicopter.  For chickening out, Dinh was dismissed from his position and briefly jailed.  Now Ky put Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan in charge of getting rid of the remaining rebels; two years later, Loan would become infamous, when an NBC camera crew got pictures of him shooting a Viet Cong prisoner in the head.  Fighting in Da Nang went on for the rest of May, with loyalist troops storming Buddhist pagodas, while South Vietnamese warplanes strafed rebel troops occupying the central market.  Over a three-week period, at least ten Buddhist monks and nuns around the country burned themselves to death, in protest of US policies.  Veteran listeners to the podcast will remember that some monks had burned themselves in 1963, to show their opposition to the Saigon government at that time.  As for Thi, the general that all the trouble had started over, he met with Westmoreland and agreed to leave Vietnam for the good of the country; he spent the rest of his life in the United States.

The rebellion had been put down in Da Nang, but Hue was still in revolt.  Here the rebels overran and burned the US Consulate in Hue.  Accordingly, the Americans helped Ky send troops to Hue in early June.  By now the rebel soldiers, seeing that the cause was lost, were negotiating their surrender to Ky’s forces, so the resistance in Hue mainly came from civilians.  By June 19, Vietnam’s nineteenth-century capital was back under government control.  President Johnson was relieved, and Ambassador Lodge praised the Ky government for suppressing the Struggle Movement, calling it, quote, "a solid political victory."  Unquote.  In the whole struggle, about 150 Vietnamese were killed on each side, and another 700 were wounded, while the Americans suffered 23 wounded.  The Buddhists were no longer a political force, and for the rest of the time it existed, South Vietnam would be politically stable; everyone in the country would either be for the Saigon Government, or for the communists.


Other Events in 1966

The main war may have been interrupted in Corps Tactical Zone 1 while the Buddhists were in revolt, but the main war continued in the rest of Vietnam.  For example, on April 13, 1966, the Viet Cong staged a raid on Tan Son Nhut, Saigon’s airport, which caused 140 casualties and destroyed 12 US helicopters and nine other aircraft.  Then, in late June and early July, US Marines in Quang Tri, the northernmost province of South Vietnam, captured two North Vietnamese soldiers, and learned from them that the North Vietnamese were now sneaking across the 17th Parallel, ignoring its other name, the Demilitarized Zone.  To stop this, Operation Hastings was launched on July 15, bringing 8,000 US Marines and 3,000 South Vietnamese to Quang Tri.  Opposing them were between 8,000 and 10,000 North Vietnamese.  When the two sides met, the result was one of the bloodiest, most difficult fights the Marines had experienced, since World War II and the Korean War, thanks in part to the tropical heat and the brutal terrain.  This was also the first time that American aircraft bombed enemy troops in the Demilitarized Zone.  General Lew Walt, one of the American commanders, had this to say about his North Vietnamese opponents.  Quote:  "We found them well-equipped, well-trained and aggressive to the point of fanaticism.  They attacked in massed formations and died by the hundreds.  Their leaders had misjudged the fighting ability of U.S. Marines and ARVN soldiers together; our superiority in artillery and total command of the air.  They had vastly underestimated . . . our mobility."  Unquote.  After nineteen days of fighting, the operation was called off on August 3, because it was believed that the North Vietnamese had all been driven across the Demilitarized Zone into North Vietnam.  Casualties had been heavy for both sides; the Marines had lost 126 killed and 448 wounded, and ARVN had 21 killed and 40 wounded.  For the communists, there were more than 700 confirmed dead and 17 captured.  The Marines and South Vietnamese also made a major haul of enemy equipment, capturing more than 200 weapons, 80,000 documents, and 300,000 rounds of ammunition.  Naturally this was declared a joint victory for the Americans and South Vietnamese.

The next big battle was Operation Attleboro, which was named after Attleboro, Massachusetts, the home town of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.  This was another search-and-destroy mission, and it began on September 14, 1966, with the 196th Brigade patrolling Tay Ninh, the province its base camp was located in, about 50 miles northwest of Saigon.  For the rest of September and October they did not meet enemy soldiers, but they discovered hundreds of tons of rice that the Viet Cong had stored in several caches.

The stage was set for a battle here because of an argument that took place the previous July, in Hanoi.  North Vietnam’s defense minister, Vo Nguyen Giap, criticized General Nguyen Chi Thanh, the Viet Cong commander of the Central Office of South Vietnam, for waging conventional battles against the Americans during the past year, instead of choosing less costly hit and run guerrilla tactics.  We saw in the previous episode what happened when the North Vietnamese had a one-on-one fight with the Americans, at Ia Drang, and it taught Giap that fighting the Americans in this way was suicide.  Thanh, however, was an ideological zealot known for motivating his soldiers with class hatred, and he won the argument by convincing the Politburo that they could only win the war if they killed so many Americans, that the growing antiwar movement in the United States would force Washington to abandon Vietnam.  To do this, Thanh gave orders to the 9th Division, the most reliable and experienced unit in the Viet Cong army, to launch a November offensive in Tay Ninh Province, and destroy "a vital element" of the enemy forces near Saigon.  Senior Colonel Hoang Cam, the 9th Division commander, targeted the US 196th Light Infantry Brigade, an army unit that had just arrived in Vietnam, as the "vital element" to be destroyed.  His plan was to have the 271st Regiment, a unit of 1,500 men, attack the American brigade’s base camp while two battalions of the 272nd Regiment and the local force unit targeted the South Vietnamese home guard unit at Soui Cao, 19 miles southeast of Tay Ninh.  At the same time, the 3rd Battalion of the 272nd Regiment and the 101st North Vietnamese Regiment would attack indigenous forces and a U.S. Special Forces unit at Suoi Da, a camp between the Michelin rubber plantation and the Cambodian border.

The 196th Light Infantry Brigade got its first indication that large enemy units were in the area on November 2, when it bumped into the 101st North Vietnamese Regiment, before the latter reached the Suoi Da camp.  The next day, the brigade encountered an unknown sized Viet Cong force, and because it took two days, November 3 and 4, to drive the force away, they gradually realized this was one of the main enemy units.  In fact, it was the 9th VC Division.  November 4 also saw Soui Cao and the city of Tay Ninh come under attack by mortars, recoilless rifles and automatic weapons, from the 271st and 272nd Regiments; these were driven off as well.

The 196th Regiment was led by Brigadier General Edward Sausurre, a general who was a superb staff officer and an authority on missiles, but he had no experience commanding infantry.  On November 4 Sausurre’s superiors heard about the fighting, and flew in to see for themselves what was happening.  They didn’t like what they saw.  To start with, Sausurre wasn’t in the base camp, but was at Tay Ninh, inspecting damage from the mortar attack.  Worse, he had plans to launch a counterattack, but the plan was overly complicated, and he and the staff disagreed on where all their units were.  Sensing a disaster in the making, the First Division commander, Major General William Depuy, personally took over the operation.  The counterattack was launched on November 6, and lasted until November 25; six battalions were brought in as reinforcements, and organized into the 2nd Brigade Task Force.  Between this force and the 196th Brigade the Americans had 22,000 troops on the scene, and together they swept through the area between Tay Ninh City and the Cambodian border.  In the process they not only drove away the enemy, but also found an enormous weapons cache, at a hidden base camp in the jungle.  When it was all done, the Americans suffered 155 killed, 494 wounded, and 5 missing, while the communists left 1,106 dead on the battlefield and had 44 captured.  For the Americans this was a tremendous triumph.  Two follow-up operations, Cedar Falls and Junction City, were conducted in Tay Ninh Province in 1967, and they ensured the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese would not recover in this area until early 1968.
Meanwhile to the north, the Americans received reports that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had re-established themselves in the Kim Son Valley, one of the areas that had cleared out by Operation Masher/White Wing.  The response to that was Operation Thayer, two days of B-52 air strikes near the valley, followed by the airlifting of five battalions to the highlands surrounding the valley.  The battalions spent the second half of September 1966 going through the valley, hampered by heavy monsoon rains; they only caught a few enemy troops.

The Americans believed the North Vietnamese fled from the Kim Son Valley to the mountains of Binh Dinh Province, near the coastal town of Qui Nhon.  To “find, fix and finish” these intruders, Operation Irving was launched on October 2.  For this five battalions of the 1st US Cavalry Division were used, along with five South Korean and two South Vietnamese battalions, a total of 6,000 men.  Over a 22-day period, each national group searched one of the mountains in the area.  The biggest battle came on the first day, when the Americans found that the North Vietnamese had fortified a village, Hoa Hoi.  However, this was the only place where the Allied forces could find and bring to battle a large number of enemy troops.  They also faced a challenge from the large number of peasants, who were allowed to evacuate so they would not be caught in the crossfire.  The final score at the end of the operation was 681 communists killed and 1,409 captured, while 52 Allied troops were killed, so Operation Irving was declared another success.

When Operation Irving was finished, the 1st US Cavalry Division returned to the Kim Son Valley and two adjacent areas, the Suoi Ca Valley and the nearest part of the coast, for another search and destroy mission, called Operation Thayer II.  This time the operation lasted nearly four months, from October 25, 1966 to February 12, 1967.  The Americans were able to claim victory again, killing a reported 1,757 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, while suffering  242 American dead, and 947 wounded.  However, the main casualties from Operations Thayer, Irving and Thayer II were the local civilians.  About one third of the 875,000 living in Binh Dinh Province lost their homes and were turned into refugees.

On October 25, 1966, President Johnson went to the Philippines and conducted a conference in Manila, with representatives from America’s Vietnam Allies:  Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea and South Vietnam.  Together they pledge to withdraw from Vietnam within six months if North Vietnam will withdraw completely from the South.  However, North Vietnam did not accept this peace proposal, no surprise since it had so far rejected all proposals to end the war.  The next day, Johnson visited US troops at Cam Ranh Bay. This was the first of two visits he made to Vietnam during his presidency.

Finally, just before the end of the year, on December 27, 1966, American planes mounted a large-scale air assault against suspected Viet Cong positions in the Mekong Delta, using napalm and hundreds of tons of bombs.

I gave you a set of figures in the last episode, when we got to the end of 1965, so here are the year-end numbers for 1966.  US troop levels are up to 389,000, more than twice the number from a year before.  The total number of American casualties are 5,008 combat deaths and 30,093 wounded.  More than half of the American causalities were caused by snipers and small-arms fire during Viet Cong ambushes, along with handmade booby traps and mines planted everywhere in the countryside by the Viet Cong.  Among the American Allies, there are now 45,000 South Korean soldiers and 7,000 Australians in Vietnam.  An estimated 89,000 soldiers from North Vietnam infiltrated the South in 1966, using the Ho Chi Minh Trail.


All right, here is a good stopping point.  I hope you enjoyed listening to this episode as much as I enjoyed recording and uploading it.  Join me next time as we continue the narrative into 1967.  I will keep covering what is happening in Vietnam, but it also has been a while since I talked about opposition to the war in the United States, and it is increasing, so I plan to cover that, too.  And then, maybe two episodes after this one, I will do a question-and-answer episode, answering the questions you sent me – thanks again for doing that!

Alas, no donations have come in since the previous episode went online.  If you are enjoying the podcast and want to see it meet the ultimate goal of chronicling Southeast Asian history all the way to the present, please consider giving it your support by making a donation.  One-time donations can be made securely through Paypal.  Just go to the Blubrry.com page for any episode of this podcast, and click on the gold button at the bottom of the page, the one that says “Donate.”  I have also placed the donate button on my personal blog and on the new Hall of Fame page that lists the first names of the donors, and if you donate now, your first name will be mentioned at the beginning of the next episode to be recorded.  Or if you would rather give one dollar or more a month, sign up to become a patron on my new Patreon page!  Links to the Patreon page are present on the Blubrry.com page hosting this episode, and on the podcast’s Facebook page.

I know, not all of you can afford to make a contribution at this time.  That’s why I have never charged anyone for downloading an episode.  Here’s what you can do that’s free:  you can write a review, and let the rest of cyberspace know how much you enjoy the podcast!  And if you go on Facebook, check out the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page; “like” it if you haven’t already, so you won’t miss the content posted on the page.  And last, on those occasions when you venture out in the real world, give the podcast some word-of-mouth advertising by telling other people about the show.  Tell family, friends, even enemies; who knows, your enemies might become friends after listening to the show.  And speaking of listening, thank YOU for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 82: The Second Indochina War, Part 10



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



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

Episode 82: The Second Indochina War, Part 10

or, Escalation

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

<Insert Stanley Karnow quote>

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

<Cavalry sound effect>

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


The Patreon Page Launch


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