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 86: The Second Indochina War, Part 13



With the previous episode of the podcast, we took a break from the narrative and had a question and answer session.  Now with Episode 86, we resume our ongoing narrative about the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War.  Today we finish looking at the events of 1967, and that will get us ready for the Tet Offensive next time.




This episode is dedicated to Alexei K., for making a donation to the podcast.  Alexei, thank you for doing your part to keep the lights on, figuratively speaking.  We’re probably going to get many new listeners while the Corona virus panic is going on, because it is still safe to listen to podcasts, as I will comment about at the end of the show; thank you for helping those listeners as well.  With spring about to begin in the northern hemisphere, may you enjoy this season to the fullest.  And to anyone else listening to this, I’m glad you’re here.  Now let’s go to the regularly scheduled episode.

Episode 86: The Second Indochina War, Part 13

or, Prologue to Tet

Greetings, dear listeners!  If you have listened to the previous episodes, you know that lately the podcast has been covering the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War in the United States, and the American War in present-day Vietnam.  With Episode 84 we made it as far as the middle of 1967, and then for Episode 85 we took some time out for a question and answer session, where you the listeners decided what I would talk about.  Now it’s time to return to the narrative, and finish the events of 1967!

As you heard a minute ago, this is the thirteen episode in the podcast’s series on the war.  If you haven’t listened to the other twelve episodes yet, what are you waiting for?  Go back to the website or app where you got this episode, and download or listen to the rest!  It will take you some time, but the episodes are free!  By now we have covered too much material to do a quick recap, and I trust you don’t want to start the story in the middle of it.  That would be like watching “Star Wars:  The Empire Strikes Back,” without watching “Star Wars:  A New Hope” first.  Still, there were some interruptions to the sequence of episodes, as I inserted some special episodes, so here is the rest of the series:

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

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

If you made it this far, I assume you’re ready for today’s show.  Let’s go!



In Episode 84, we saw the American strategy for the war:  bring in more soldiers, more guns, more bombs, more ironmongery, until the American advantage in numbers and technology shattered communist forces, the way it had shattered the forces of the Axis during World War II.  By 1967, the American commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, thought he had what he needed to win, and whenever there was a firefight, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong suffered more casualties than the Americans and their allies did, but the Communists showed no signs of giving up.  Nor did they want to talk peace, which would have allowed the Americans to leave without achieving a victory.

Meanwhile in Hanoi, the North Vietnamese leadership, the Politburo, developed its own plans for the war.  This was largely the work of Le Duan, the head of the Communist Party.  Le Duan wanted to launch an offensive so big that it would throw the Americans and the South Vietnamese into “utmost confusion.”  The main goal was to cause the South Vietnamese government to collapse; failing that, the offensive would convince the Americans that the war was unwinnable.  He did not give the offensive a special name, but just called it, quote, “General Offensive, General Uprising.”  Unquote.

There was opposition to the plan, especially from Ho Chi Minh and from Vo Nguyen Giap, the commander of the armed forces.  Both of them felt the war was going their way, and they should not sacrifice the lives of their troops to win the war more quickly.  In the end Le Duan had his way, because his opponents were ill in the summer of 1967, and they had to go abroad for medical treatment they couldn’t get at home.  Giap went to Hungary in July, while Ho Chi Minh was treated in China in September.  Other opponents of Le Duan’s offensive, even some decorated veterans of the war with the French, were locked up in the Hanoi Hilton, the same prison that held captured American pilots.

The initial plan for the offensive consisted of three phases.  The first phase would be a series of attacks against remote outposts, in an effort to lure American and South Vietnamese troops away from South Vietnam’s cities, especially Saigon.  These attacks kept the Americans busy for the rest of 1967, and in that way the North Vietnamese gained the initiative, though the Americans did not know it at the time.  The second phase of the plan, what we call the Tet Offensive today, 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, thereby igniting a “general uprising” to overthrow the government of South Vietnam.  That would set the stage for the third phase, a direct invasion of South Vietnam by troops and tanks coming from North Vietnam.  Above all this, the ultimate goal of the offensive was to win the war while Ho Chi Minh, the founder of Indochinese communism, was alive.  As an unnamed North Vietnamese officer explained it after the war, quote, “Uncle Ho was very old and we had to liberate the south before his death.”  Unquote.


The first battles we will be covering today took place in Quang Tri and Thua Thien, the two northernmost provinces of South Vietnam and the two provinces farthest from Saigon.  US Marines and one of their partners in the war, South Korea, had nine bases between Quang Tri City and the Demilitarized Zone, which were named Dong Ha, Gio Linh, Con Thien, Cam Lo, Camp Carroll, The Rockpile, Khe Sanh, Ca Lu, and Cua Viet.  All of them were near Route 9, a road running from Dong Ha to the Vietnam-Laos border; we mentioned that road in Episode 79, when covering the 1971 South Vietnamese invasion of Laos.

This area had been the site of Operation Hastings in July 1966.  To prevent further communist infiltration across the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone, Operation Prairie was launched here in August.  It lasted until the end of January 1967, with the result being that 226 Marines were killed versus 1,397 North Vietnamese killed.  It was proclaimed a big success, but with hindsight, it was only a success for the short run.  The enemy troops that got away fled across the DMZ to North Vietnam, where they regrouped, re-equipped themselves, and sneaked back into South Vietnam later in 1967.  Thus, the Marines immediately had to follow up Operation Prairie with three operations so similar that they were given almost the same name.  Operation Prairie II went on from February 1 to March 18, Operation Prairie III lasted from March 20 to April 19, and Operation Prairie IV ran from April 20 to May 17, 1967.

In the middle of all this, on April 6, Quang Tri City was attacked by 2,500 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.  They briefly overran and occupied the city, holding it just long enough to break into the Quang Tri provincial jail, where they freed more than 200 prisoners.

Next came the first battle of Khe Sanh, also called the Hill Fights.  I introduced Khe Sanh in Episode 73, when the American base was built here.  Located in the northwest corner of South Vietnam, it is in a hilly area just seven miles from the Vietnamese-Laotian border, and ten miles south of the DMZ.  On April 24, North Vietnamese troops started ambushing Americans in the hills around Khe Sanh, hence the name “Hill Fights.”  Over the next few days, the North Vietnamese also cut Route 9 more than once, between Cam Lo and Khe Sanh, in an effort to isolate the latter.  There were also diversionary mortar, rocket and artillery attacks, on Gio Linh, Camp Carroll, and Dong Ha.  The fighting went on until May 11, when the Marines drove the last of the enemy away.  The casualty count was 940 North Vietnamese killed, 155 Americans killed and 425 Americans wounded.  But we’re not done with Khe Sanh yet; there will be even bloodier battles here later!

Among the Marine bases, the one with the most strategic value was Con Thien, because it was less than two miles below the DMZ, and because it was on top of a hill 525 feet high; this allowed observers to look into much of the DMZ and even into North Vietnam.  On May 8, the thirteenth anniversary of the fall of Dienbienphu, the North Vietnamese tried to take this outpost.  They were driven off by fierce hand-to-hand combat along the base perimeter.  Up until now, Americans had not been allowed in the DMZ, but as a result of the battle of Con Thien, Washington lifted this prohibition.  American and South Vietnamese troops entered the Demilitarized Zone for the first time on May 18, in a series of missions called Operations Hickory, Lam Son 54, Belt Tight, and Beau Charger.  Over the next eight days, they engaged in several firefights with the North Vietnamese, causing heavy losses for both sides.

More assaults on the bases near the DMZ, especially Con Thien, took place for the rest of 1967.  Alas, we don’t have time in this episode to cover all the firefights, or the actions the Marines undertook to hold the bases.  I’ll just give the names of the defensive operations conducted in the area:  Operation Cimarron in June, Operation Buffalo and Operation Hickory II in early July, Operation Kingfisher from mid-July to the end of October, and Operation Kentucky.  Operation Kentucky lasted the longest, from November 1967 to February 1969.  It resulted in 520 Marines killed and 2,698 wounded, while 3,839 North Vietnamese were killed, and 117 were captured.

For the Americans, the worst part of the Con Thien siege was the second half of Operation Kingfisher, from September 11 to October 31.  That period saw a massive long-range artillery duel between North Vietnamese and American guns, as the North Vietnamese fired 42,000 rounds at the Marines, and the Americans responded with 281,000 rounds and B-52 air strikes to lift the siege.

Podcast footnote: I am trying to imagine what more than a quarter million artillery shells would look like.  It reminds me of a World War I photo I saw, where Allied soldiers stood around an enormous pile of shell casings, after an artillery bombardment at the battle of Verdun.  End footnote.

The Marine Corps rotated battalions in and out of Con Thien every thirty days.  The constant shelling and the threat of assaults took a psychological toll on the Marines; they nicknamed the base “Our Turn in the Barrel” and “the Meat Grinder”, while the DMZ came to be called the “Dead Marine Zone.”


On the political front, the US president, Lyndon Johnson, held another meeting with South Vietnam’s prime minister, Nguyen Cao Ky, this time on the island of Guam in March.  Up until now, he had supported the corrupt South Vietnamese government for the same reasons that Washington had supported anti-communist dictators in other parts of the world.  His predecessors had explained that policy with these crude words, quote: “They may be sons of bitches, but they’re our sons of bitches.”  Unquote.

Podcast footnote: We will see the same US policy in action in a future episode, when we look at the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.  Boy, will I have fun telling you that story!  End footnote.

When Johnson met Ky in 1966, he got the impression that Ky wanted to turn South Vietnam into a US-style democracy.  Now, with growing opposition to the war in the United States, Johnson felt such a transformation would solve South Vietnam’s political problems, and it would justify continued support of South Vietnam.  So he told Ky that he wanted to see South Vietnam get a new constitution and hold a truly free election.  He put the request in the form of a personal favor, saying, quote: “My birthday is in late August.  The greatest present you could give me is a national election.”  Unquote.

Work on the constitution was already underway at the time of the meeting.  The main changes from the previous constitution were that it created a bicameral legislature, replaced the prime minister with a vice president, and transferred political power to the president.  The election was scheduled for September 3, 1967.  Nguyen Cao Ky and the latest president, Nguyen Van Thieu, were willing to run together on the same ticket, but they argued over what their roles would be, since both of them wanted to be president under the new system.  Eventually South Vietnam’s generals  reached a compromise, where Thieu would run for president and Ky would run for vice president; to balance them out, Ky was also put in charge of a secret military council that would shape government policy from behind the scenes.

Thieu and Ky did not rig the election, the way Ngo Dinh Diem did in 1955, but the way it was set up wasn’t fair to the other candidates.  Candidates from a civilian background were disqualified if they held pro-communist or neutralist opinions; one of those banned had simply called for a cease-fire.  Also, when campaigning, the candidates had to travel together on a plane loaned to them by the generals.  When the election took place, 80 percent of the voters participated.  As they cast their ballots, their identity cards were punched; that way those who did not vote could be accused of obeying the Viet Cong call to boycott the election.

The Thieu-Ky ticket performed much worse than expected, winning only 35 percent of the vote, and most of those votes came from districts where army officers were managing the election.  Ky later wrote in his memoirs that if he had been the presidential candidate, he would have rigged the election, and won with 60 or 70 percent of the vote.

The candidate who came in second place was a creepy lawyer who no one took seriously, Truong Dinh Dzu.  This character had once put up his wife as collateral for a loan, and after he was qualified as a candidate, he broke the rules by campaigning with a peace dove as his symbol, and promised negotiations with the Viet Cong if elected.  He managed to get 17 percent of the vote, almost half as much as Thieu, and this was seen more as a protest against continued military rule than actual support for his platform.  Thieu promptly had Dzu jailed on charges of illicit currency transactions, a crime much of Saigon’s population had gotten away with, and thus was able to become president without the need for a runoff election.  Afterwards, Thieu got around the attempt to balance power between him and Ky, by finding ways to concentrate authority in his own hands.  Over in Washington, President Johnson could say he had gotten the birthday present he wanted, so US aid continued to go to South Vietnam.


If President Johnson was happy with how things were going in Vietnam, General Westmoreland was not.  In July 1967 he requested an additional 200,000 soldiers to be sent as reinforcements.  475,000 had been assigned to go to Vietnam by the end of 1967, so Westmoreland’s request would have boosted the US total to 675,000.  In the past, President Johnson gave the general whatever he asked for; this time he only agreed to send 45,000 troops.  US involvement in Vietnam has not reached its peak yet, but we’re getting close.

So far in today’s show we have mainly talked about battles near the border between North and South Vietnam.  But that wasn’t the only place that saw fighting in late 1967.  The communists hadn’t given up on the territory directly north and northwest of Saigon, where major battles had been fought in 1966 and early 1967.  At the end of September 1967, the US 1st Infantry Division launched Operation Shenandoah II to secure and repair Highway 13, an important road running from Saigon to the Cambodian border.  There was a small battle in mid-October, when two companies of the 2/28th Infantry stumbled upon a Viet Cong camp at Ong Thanh, and were ambushed by VC snipers.  They succeeded in killing 56 Americans, but the Viet Cong regiment involved also suffered heavy losses and fled to Cambodia.

A more important battle came near the end of October, when the Viet Cong 9th Division gathered near the towns of Loc Ninh and Song Be.  By intercepting radio traffic, South Vietnamese and American troops not only learned about the enemy buildup, but also that the Viet Cong was building a field hospital in the area.  This activity couldn’t be ignored, because US Special Forces had a base at Loc Ninh, and an ally of the Americans, South Korea, had a base at Song Be.  When General Westmoreland heard about these activities, he suspended some operations and ordered his subordinate to plan for a major defensive operation around Loc Ninh and Song Be.  Five days later, on October 27, the Viet Cong attacked Song Be, and were driven off largely by American artillery and armed UH-1B Huey helicopters.  The most effective weapons were artillery rounds with proximity fuses, designed to explode just above the trees; the defenders in their bunkers were safe from the shrapnel these rounds produced, but the Viet Cong, caught in the open, had no protection.  After the battle, 135 enemy bodies were found, while the defenders suffered eight dead and 33 wounded.

Then on October 29 came the attack on Loc Ninh.  At first the advantage was with the Viet Cong; they had two regiments going against 11 Special Forces soldiers, 400 Civilian Irregular Defense Group soldiers, and about 200 South Vietnamese regulars.  But then on November 1 reinforcements arrived, from ARVN, the South Vietnamese army, and from the American 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division.  On November 7, the Viet Cong abandoned the fight, leaving 850 dead, while the defenders in turn had lost 50.

Another place where American troops could be lured away from Saigon was the Central Highlands.  Especially the western part of Kontum province, an area of jungle-covered mountains where the borders of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia meet.  Here in the summer of 1967, Major General William Peers launched Operation Greeley, by bringing in troops from the US 4th Infantry Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade, along with ARVN’s 42nd Infantry Regiment, 22nd Division, and various Airborne units.  They carried out search and destroy missions in July and August, and then they stopped finding North Vietnamese units, and assumed the enemy had withdrawn.  But then in October the North Vietnamese returned, and built the size of their force in the area up to 6,000.  They were back because currently the Ho Chi Minh Trail ended in Kontum province, and they wanted to destroy two Special Forces camps nearby, at Ben Het, about five miles east of the Cambodian border, and at Dak To, some 10 miles east  of Ben Het.

To deal with the North Vietnamese buildup, General Peers directed the 3rd Battalion of the 12th Infantry and the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Infantry to launch Operation MacArthur on November 3.  He was helped by the defection of a North Vietnamese soldier, Sergeant Vu Hong, who provided key information on enemy unit locations and what they were planning.  Around Dak To, the North Vietnamese had prepared elaborate defensive positions on the hills and ridges.  To deal with this, massive artillery and air strikes were launched against each unit, followed by an infantry assault to secure the objective.  Thus, the battle of Dak To was a series of clashes, not just one.  Because of the unforgiving terrain, some of the most difficult fighting in the whole war took place here.  For the Americans and South Vietnamese, the worst incident came on November 12, when rockets and artillery destroyed two C-130 Hercules transports and detonated the base’s ammunition and fuel depots, causing the loss of 1,100 tons of ordnance.  Then came an especially tough clash from November 19 to 23; during those five days the two sides fought over a single hill, called Hill 875.  At the end of November the North Vietnamese withdrew into Laos and Cambodia, and the campaign ended.

Podcast footnote: I said previously in the podcast that I am old enough to remember the Vietnam War.  To be exact, I remember the latter part of it, from 1967 onward.  The oldest event from the war I remember hearing on the news was the battle of Dak To.  Because I was eight years old at the time, Dak To, like Vietnam itself, was only a name to me; it wasn’t until a few years later that I learned what they meant.  “And that’s the way it is,” as Walter Cronkite used to say.  End footnote.

My sources disagreed on the number of casualties at Dak To, except to say that again the communists got the worst of it.  I’ll go with Wikipedia’s numbers here; it states that 361 Americans were killed, and 1,441 were wounded, while among the South Vietnamese, 73 were killed, 290 were wounded, and 18 were missing.  Estimates of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong dead range from 1,000 to 1,664, and the wounded were somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000.  The US military command in Vietnam, MACV, later declared that of the four North Vietnamese regiments that fought at Dak To, three were so badly battered that they did not take part in the Tet Offensive of early 1968.

Three members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Pfc. John A. Barnes III, Pfc. Carlos Lozada, and the unit chaplain, Maj. Charles J. Watters, all posthumously received the Medal of Honor for their actions during the battle.

General Westmoreland gave credit to both air power and the infantry for winning the battle.  Quote:  “Along with the gallantry and tenacity of our soldiers, our tremendously successful air logistic operation was the key to the victory.”  Unquote.

Speaking of Westmoreland, he was only in Vietnam for the first part of the battle of Dak To.  In mid-November President Johnson called him back to America to give some talks concerning the war.  Westmoreland didn’t want to go on a public relations tour, but he obeyed orders.  The trip was carefully planned to avoid putting him in front of critics of the war.  Instead, he attended a White House banquet with members of Congress who had supported the war before, but were wavering now.  Here and at his other stops, Westmoreland gave the perfect optimistic message.  At the Pentagon he said, quote, “The ranks of the Viet Cong are thinning steadily,” unquote, while to the National Press Club he promised, quote, “We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.”  Unquote.  Johnson said the same thing after Westmoreland’s appearance at the White House, when he went on TV and told the American people, quote, “We are inflicting greater losses than we’re taking…We are making progress.”  Unquote.

President Johnson spent the last days of 1967 on a world tour to meet with the leaders of friendly nations.  Going to Australia first, he then made a stop in Vietnam on December 23, where at Cam Ranh Bay he was greeted by a crowd of cheering US servicemen.  To them he gave another upbeat message.  Quote:  “…all the challenges have been met.  The enemy is not beaten, but he knows that he has met his master in the field.”  Unquote.  Then he met briefly with Westmoreland, before moving on to a US base in Thailand.  This was the President’s second and final trip to Vietnam during his presidency.

The battles at Song Be, Loc Ninh and Dak To encouraged Westmoreland and other American military officials to believe that at long last the enemy was trying to use conventional tactics.  Westmoreland said as much during his US tour.  In a Time Magazine interview, General Westmoreland taunted the Viet Cong, saying, quote, “I hope they try something because we are looking for a fight.”  Unquote.

Little did he know that the communists were preparing for that fight.  If Westmoreland felt he had them in the right place, Vo Nguyen Giap felt the same way about the Americans.  Although Giap had lost the so-called “border battles,” he had succeeded in pulling the Americans and their allies out of the cities, and into the countryside.  Now when the upcoming 1968 offensive took place, it would be possible to inflict more damage in the cities.

When our narrative reached the end of 1965 and 1966, I gave some statistics on the war at that date.  Now here are the wartime statistics for the end of 1967.  US troop levels reached 463,000, and there have been 16,000 combat deaths among them so far.  More than a million American soldiers have rotated through Vietnam; draftees did a one-year term before returning to the United States, and most of the Americans going over served in support units, rather than doing combat duty.  An estimated 90,000 soldiers from North Vietnam infiltrated into the South via the Ho Chi Minh trail in 1967.  Overall Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troop strength in South Vietnam is now estimated at up to 300,000 men.


Since were are at the end of a year in our narrative, this is a good place to break off the narrative for today.  For all of this episode I have been leading up to the Tet Offensive, one of the most important events of the Second Indochina War.  Next time we will look at the Tet Offensive, so join me for that.  Some people consider it the turning point of the war; do you agree with that statement?  And if we get far enough, we will also see how the war affected the United States, by bringing down the Johnson presidency.

If you have paid attention to any news stories lately, you have heard that the whole world is panicking over the Corona virus.  As I record this, social events are being canceled or postponed left, right and center, to keep people from being exposed to the virus.  To give two examples, schools are switching to online classes, if possible, and the rest of the basketball season – professional, college and even high school basketball – has been canceled.  I live in a community that is preoccupied with college sports, especially college basketball, so I know this is going to bring a new meaning to the term “March Madness.”

Personally, I’m beginning to think the virus scare is getting blown out of proportion, when I hear people are emptying store shelves of hand sanitizer and toilet paper, and some have stopped drinking Mexican beer, just because it’s named Corona.  I am 61 years old, and during those years I have survived the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation, AIDS, the line-up of the planets in the 1980s, multiple announcements of the coming of the Messiah, mad cow disease, Y2K, anthrax, swine flu, bird flu, SARS, the Mayan calendar business in 2012, Ebola, and Justin Bieber.

Now where can you get learning and entertainment at a time like this?  Online, of course!  As long as you keep your computer or mobile device clean, the only viruses you have to worry about are computer viruses, and you shouldn’t pick up those from any app or website that carries this podcast.  So now is the time, more than ever, to support and promote your favorite podcast!  And I just heard today that while the virus scare is going on, some Internet service providers won’t disconnect people who are behind in paying their bills.  Therefore you should listen and download as much as you like, and don’t worry about how much bandwidth you’re using!

But seriously, if you are getting something out of this podcast and you can afford to support it, please consider making a donation.  Lately the number and amount of the donations has been down, so if you have been waiting for a good time to donate, perhaps that time is now.  Donations are secure and done through Paypal.  Go to the Blubrry.com page for any episode of this podcast, and click on the gold button at the bottom of the page, the one that says “Donate.”  If you have been getting your episodes from iTunes or some other place besides Blubrry, the website is spelled like “blueberry,” but with no “Es.”  So here is the spelling of the URL for the podcast’s homepage:  Https://, no wwws, B-L-U-B-R-R-Y, dot-com, forward slash, H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A, forward slash.  The last letters are a abbreviation of “History of Southeast Asia,” of course.  Thanks in advance for your support.

For those who would rather give a little bit every month, sort of like a subscription, recently I also set up a Patreon page.  Since the last episode we have gained a new patron, bringing the number up to four, and this week, at the suggestion of a listener, I added a fourth tier to the ranks of patrons, for those who want to give $10 a month.  Thanks to all four of you; you’re wonderful people!

In the past I told you to write a review of the podcast on the website or app where you get your podcasts, and to “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook, if you haven’t already.  By all means continue to do that.  I also want you to keep promoting the show by word of mouth.  You may have fewer contacts with other people during the virus scare, but opportunities may still come up.  If you hear someone complain that there is nothing to do, say “I know a great podcast to listen to,” and add your own words after that.  And if you’re on social media more because you’re interacting less in the real world, promote the podcast there when you get the chance.  Okay, that’s all for now.  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.

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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.

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Episode 82: The Second Indochina War, Part 10



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



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

Episode 82: The Second Indochina War, Part 10

or, Escalation

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

<Insert Stanley Karnow quote>

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

<Cavalry sound effect>

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


The Patreon Page Launch


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


Episode 81: The Second Indochina War, Part 9



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



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

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

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

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

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

Episode 81: The Second Indochina War, Part 9

or, “Good Morning Vietnam!”

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

<You ain’t seen nothing yet>

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

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

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

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

<Carabao sound file>

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


Episode 80: The Second Indochina War, Part 8



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



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

Episode 80: The Second Indochina War, Part 8

or, The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

<Carabao grunt>

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


Episode 79: The Second Indochina War, Part 7



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



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

Episode 79:  The Second Indochina War, Part 7

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

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

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

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

Episode 74 covered events in Laos from 1955 to 1962.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

End quote.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End quote.


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

If you feel this episode was worth your time, and you would like to get on that page, join the “Heroes of the History of Southeast Asia Podcast,” by making a secure donation through Paypal.  Go to the Paypal link at the bottom of the Blubrry.com page hosting any History of Southeast Asia Podcast episode.  Go below whatever content I have shared, and click on the gold button that says, “Donate.”  Blubrry is spelled like “blueberry” without the “Es,” so the URL or Internet address is http://www.B-L-U-B-R-R-Y.com/H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A/.  If you can’t use Paypal, send me an email and I’ll give you a snail mail address to send a check to.  Finally, I am also thinking of setting up Patreon to receive a small monthly donation, for those who would rather give that way.  Stay tuned for more details about that in a future episode.

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

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


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


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