Episode 78: The Second Indochina War, Part 6



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



Episode 78:  The Second Indochina War, Part 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

End quote.

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

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


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

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

Unfortunately, the podcast has not received any donations since the previous episode went online.  If you are getting anything from this podcast, I am asking you to support it with a donation; for most of its existence, the podcast has been listener-supported.  It doesn’t have to be a lot; I know money has to be stretched during the upcoming holiday season, and a lot of small donations will be just as good – maybe even better – than a few large donations.  The easiest way to do it is to make a secure donation through Paypal.  Just go to the Paypal link at the bottom of the Blubrry.com page hosting any History of Southeast Asia Podcast episode.  Go below whatever content I have shared, and click on the gold button that says, “Donate.”  Recently I added the Paypal button to the top of my personal blog, so you can make a donation there, too.  Blubrry is spelled like “blueberry” without the “Es,” so the URL or Internet address is http://www.B-L-U-B-R-R-Y.com/H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A/.  My blog URL is Xenohistorian.wordpress.com.  That’s http://, no WWWs, and then X-E-N-O-H-I-S-T-O-R-I-A-N-dot-W-O-R-D-P-R-E-S-S.com.  If you can’t use Paypal, send me an email and I’ll give you a snail mail address to send a check to.  There, have we covered all bases?

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


Episode 77: What Buddhism is All About



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



Episode 77:  What Buddhism Is All About

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

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

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

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


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

The Man Who Woke Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Great Buddhist Split

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Way of the Ancestors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


And while you are thinking of questions to ask, consider also making a donation to support this podcast.  Currently the podcast doesn’t have a sponsor; the whole show is a labor of love on my part.  Any questions you ask with the donation will probably have to wait for question & answer episode, but you will get your first name mentioned here right after the donation arrives.  The easiest way to make a donation is through Paypal.  I have placed donation buttons on Blubrry, the website which hosts the podcast, and on my personal blog, Xenohistorian.wordpress.com.  The URL for Blubrry is spelled http://www.B-L-U-B-R-R-Y.com/H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A/; once you are there, click on any episode’s page and scroll to the bottom, where you click on the gold button.  As for my blog, the button is near the top of the page, and the URL is spelled http://, no WWWs, and then X-E-N-O-H-I-S-T-O-R-I-A-N-dot-W-O-R-D-P-R-E-S-S.com.  And I know about Paypal not accepting Singapore dollars, so if you can’t use Paypal, let me know by email and I’ll give you my surface mail address so you can send me a check.  My email address is Berosus@gmail.com, that’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S at gmail.com.  Okay, have I given you enough to spellings to remember?

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


Episode 76: Monsters of Southeast Asia



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



<Creepy sound effects>

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


Episode 76:  Monsters of Southeast Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End Quote.

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

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

<Tina Turner sound clip>

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


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

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

Myanmar, formerly Burma

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

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


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

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


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

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

<Troglodyte sound clip>

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

<Ghostbusters sound clip>

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Philippines

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<Creatures of the Night sound clip>

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


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

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

<Evil laugh>


Episode 75: The Second Indochina War, Part 5




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



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

Episode 75:  The Second Indochina War, Part 5

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


How to Finance the American Civil War


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


Finding New Ways into the People’s Pockets

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

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

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

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

Episode 74: The Second Indochina War, Part 4


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



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

Episode 74:  The Second Indochina War, Part 4

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End quote.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Episode 73: The Second Indochina War, Part 3



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



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

Episode 73: The Second Indochina War, Part 3

or, The Fall of Ngo Dinh Diem

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

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

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

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

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

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

<helicopter sound effect>

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<Simon quote>

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

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


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

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

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

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

<Madame Nhu>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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