A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIAby Joshua Kurlantzick
The untold story of how America’s secret war in Laos in the 1960s transformed the CIA from a loose collection of spies into a military operation and a key player in American foreign policy.
In 1960, President Eisenhower was focused on Laos, a tiny Southeast Asian nation few Americans had ever heard of. Washington feared the country would fall to communism,
The untold story of how America’s secret war in Laos in the 1960s transformed the CIA from a loose collection of spies into a military operation and a key player in American foreign policy.
In 1960, President Eisenhower was focused on Laos, a tiny Southeast Asian nation few Americans had ever heard of. Washington feared the country would fall to communism, triggering a domino effect in the rest of Southeast Asia. So in January 1961, Eisenhower approved the CIA’s Operation Momentum, a plan to create a proxy army of ethnic Hmong to fight communist forces in Laos. While remaining largely hidden from the American public and most of Congress, Momentum became the largest CIA paramilitary operation in the history of the United States. The brutal war, which continued under Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, lasted nearly two decades, killed one-tenth of Laos’s total population, left thousands of unexploded bombs in the ground, and changed the nature of the CIA forever.
Joshua Kurlantzick gives us the definitive account of the Laos war and its central characters, including the four key people who led the operation—the CIA operative who came up with the idea, the Hmong general who led the proxy army in the field, the paramilitary specialist who trained the Hmong, and the State Department careerist who took control over the war as it grew.
The Laos war created a CIA that fights with real soldiers and weapons as much as it gathers secrets. Laos became a template for CIA proxy wars all over the world, from Central America in the 1980s to today’s war on terrorism, where the CIA has taken control with little oversight. Based on extensive interviews and CIA records only recently declassified, A Great Place to Have a War is a riveting, thought-provoking look at how Operation Momentum changed American foreign policy forever.
In this excellent historical analysis, Kurlantzick (State Capitalism), a Southeast Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, relates how the U.S. got involved with Laos, seeing it as a vital piece in the strategy of containing communism in Southeast Asia. The ostensibly secret war the U.S. waged in Laos before and during the war in neighboring Vietnam was hardly a secret at the time. Kurlantzick focuses on the CIA’s Operation Momentum, which clandestinely supported ethnic Hmong fighters who were operating against the communist Pathet Lao. As his subtitle indicates, the CIA’s massive secret war was a “transformative experience,” changing the agency from a gatherer of intelligence into “a paramilitary organization whose primary purpose was killing and war fighting.” Using an effective combination of firsthand reporting and a thorough reading of the best primary and secondary sources, Kurlantzick tells the story primarily through four men: CIA operatives Bill Lair and the colorful Tony Poe, U.S. ambassador William H. Sullivan, and Hmong leader Vang Pao. It’s an instructive tale without a happy ending for any of the main players, and it continues to have relevance in the 21st century. Agent: Heather Schroder, Compass Talent. (Feb.)
The American belief in the domino theory drew attention to the landlocked nation of Laos and destroyed Laotian society with a war that was overshadowed by the tragedy happening in Vietnam. Kurlantzick (senior fellow, Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations; State Capitalism) sheds light on how the CIA developed a shadow war in the 1960s and why that war mushroomed into a calamity. The CIA allied itself with Laotian general Vang Pao and the Hmong people with flawed promises, which ultimately led to the destruction of their homelands and created a refugee crisis, resulting in a large U.S. Hmong population today. Kurlantzick uses the war in Laos as a warning that a militarized CIA operation can spin out of control without oversight. This riveting read belongs in the pantheon of works such as Jane Hamilton-Merritt's Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942–1992 and William M. LeoGrande's Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977–1992. VERDICT Highly recommended for those wanting insight into the Hmong people and Cold War thinking.—Jacob Sherman, John Peace Lib., Univ. of Texas at San Antonio
A history of the CIAs involvement in the Laos war and the effect it had on the structure and evolution of the organization and its future role in foreign conflicts.The longest covert war in American history was fought in Laos, from roughly 1961 to 1975. While no American troops fought on the ground, the CIA led a massive anti-communist campaign against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao, a pro-communist Laotian group. Kurlantzick (Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, 2013, etc.), a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes the evolution of the CIAs entanglement in Laos. President Dwight Eisenhower, writes the author, viewed Laos as a nation where the United States could make a stand to prevent communism from spreading west out of China and North Vietnam into Thailand and India and beyond. By the end of the decade, it cost the U.S. upward of $500 million per year in 1970 dollars, and tens of thousands of lives were lostLao, Hmong, Vietnamese, and Thai among them. Since the U.S. government had little desire to send American troops to fight more foreign wars, the CIA took the reins, launching air strikes, managing battle strategy, and providing advisers to Vang Pao, the brutal Hmong leader whose forces were instrumental in fighting against the communists. According to Kurlantzick, the CIA was eager to expand its role, and the Laos war allowed it to become a paramilitary organization whose primary purpose was killing and war fighting. In his well-researched argument, the author relies on extensive materials prepared by other historians as well as first-person interviews with relevant characters (including Vang Pao) and recently declassified documents. The book is dense with information and might be difficult for lay readers unfamiliar with the Indochina wars, but its an important demonstration of the U.S.s ongoing, not-so-secret hand in world affairs. Kurlantzicks comprehensive account provides new insights into the CIAs objectives in the Laos war and the way that they were incorporated into its broader mission.
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A Great Place to Have a War
BILL LAIR HELD OUT HIS lanky arms, the sleeves of his button-down shirt rolled up to the shoulder. Smoke wafted through the one-room building with mud floors and walls made of corrugated metal and thatch. Besides an open stove in the back of the room and a simple wood table in the middle, there was little other furniture in the building. Lair had been given a low wooden bench to sit on, and he struggled to fold his legs under it. Most of the other people inside the building stood or squatted on the muddy ground.
Lair was surrounded by men and women from the Hmong hill tribe, one of the largest ethnic minority groups in the Southeast Asian nation of Laos, the landlocked country wedged, like a fishhook, among Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, China, and Vietnam. They had come for the baci, the Thai and Laotian ceremony in which people are symbolically bound through the tying of strings around each other’s wrists and forearms. The ceremony had been going on since the late afternoon, and Lair already had at least twenty white strings tied around his arms. His arms would be covered in strings by night. There seemed to be no end to the mass of people crowding through the door of the house and waiting to see the American with the bristly buzz cut and the thick Clark Kent glasses who spoke fluent Lao with a Texas accent. Behind the Texan, women loaded up simple metal plates with pig parts, sticky rice, and fruit, and handed them to Lair, nodding at him to eat. The Hmong women mostly waited to eat until men were finished. Three shamans chanted just behind Lair. Many Hmong believed that when they chanted, the shamans literally entered another world. The men writhed and sang and spat as if possessed.
Vang Pao, a military officer in the anti-communist forces and the leader of this group of Hmong, paced among Lair, the doorway, and the shamans, directing the event. Lair could not see all the people outside the hut, but he estimated that at least five hundred Hmong had come to the baci. Vang Pao’s battlefield successes had helped him ascend from a modest background—his family had not been clan leaders—to become one of the most powerful Hmong men on the anti-communist side. He would soon be the most powerful Hmong leader in Laos.1
Vang Pao claimed to be leading an army of nearly five thousand irregulars against the Vietnamese and Laotian communists. But Lair saw not only young men who might be fighting types but also younger women, children, and older Hmong. Some of the older Hmong men and women had come to the baci dressed in what Lair believed was their finest attire: baggy black trousers, embroidered black vests, and strings of silver ornaments.
It was the winter of 1961. Lair had already lived in Southeast Asia for more than a decade, and he had attended baci ceremonies before. Groups throughout Southeast Asia had bacis all the time. Bacis were held, and strings tied, when new homes were built, when relatives relocated, when babies were born, when men and women were married off, when visitors arrived from far away. A village of Hmong might hold fifteen or twenty baci ceremonies in one month, if many auspicious events occurred at one time.
But this was not a normal baci. Bill Lair had spent his decade in Southeast Asia as a clandestine operative for the Central Intelligence Agency, and he had become known within the agency for his knowledge of the region, his language skills, and his extensive contacts. Behind his shy, aw-shucks demeanor, his plain shirts and plain face, lurked a fierce man who had fought through France and Belgium with an armored division in the Second World War and had devoted his whole life to the CIA. Lair had flown up to the central highlands of Laos, where the Hmong lived on peaks and high mountain plateaus, not just to have strings tied around his wrists—though he understood that ceremony mattered in a place where there was no written language, and oral agreements were the rule. He had flown up, his pilot twisting around high peaks and limestone cliffs and dense forests, to inaugurate a bold plan that the agency would call Operation Momentum.2
Operation Momentum was a plan to arm and train the Hmong under Vang Pao to fight in the growing civil war in Laos, which pitted communist insurgents called the Pathet Lao, backed by North Vietnam, against Laos’s government and its non-communist allies such as Vang Pao and his men. The war in Laos had raged on and off almost from the time Japan surrendered in World War II in 1945, leaving in Southeast Asia former French colonies where local leaders battled to determine the future. France’s loss to the Viet Minh, the Vietnamese independence forces, in 1954 had left Vietnam divided, with the Viet Minh’s leaders in control in the north, and a vacuum of power in Laos. (The Viet Minh was led by communists, but the coalition fighting France for independence also included some non-communist nationalists.) Laos’s weak central government had maintained control of only parts of the country. The civil war in Laos, which had been going on for nearly a decade, had flared up intensely. Conservative and communist Laotian forces now struggled to control Laos, as well as other countries in the region.
And in Washington, Laos increasingly appeared, at least to American officials, to be part of a broader effort by international communist forces to dominate Asia—and the world. It did not seem to matter to American leaders that Laos was so small it had only one major city, Vientiane—the capital, which was basically a muddy village—or that most people in Laos lived on subsistence farming and had little idea of the differences between communism, democracy, and other political systems.
As a French colony, Laos had mostly been ignored by Paris. But President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his staff, attuned to the domino theory of one country after the next falling to communism, saw Laos as a bulwark—a nation where the United States could make a stand to prevent communism from spreading west out of China and North Vietnam into Thailand and India and beyond. A pro-Western Laos would place a state between Vietnam and Thailand, a critical US partner, and would make it easier for the United States to support non-communist forces in Vietnam. In one of the most famous moments of his presidency, at a press conference in April 1954, Eisenhower had publicly enunciated this domino principle as a reason for supporting France’s continued struggle against independence forces in Vietnam.
“You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly,” Eisenhower said. “So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences” if Indochinese countries fell to communism.3 Even after the French loss in Indochina, the Eisenhower administration had made clear the importance of Indochina to US security; a paper issued by the National Security Council in December 1954 stated that it was the United States’ objective to “defeat Communist subversion and influence” in Indochina.4 Over the course of the 1950s, with Vietnam divided and half controlled by a communist party, Eisenhower had come to see Laos as another critical domino. He personally followed reports about Laos day by day during the final year of his presidency.5 He warned his successor, John F. Kennedy, that Laos was the most pressing foreign policy issue in the world. In fact, the day before Kennedy’s inauguration, Eisenhower organized a foreign policy briefing for the president elect, with issues to be addressed in what Eisenhower considered their order of importance to American security. Laos came first—and only after Laos was discussed was the president elect briefed on the looming US-Soviet standoff in Berlin, on Cuba, and on the global strategic nuclear arms race.6
Agency headquarters had approved Lair’s plan to train and arm the Hmong, which he had outlined in an eighteen-page cable, almost instantly upon receiving it in the winter of 1960–61. The White House took a personal interest in the plan for the operation. After the CIA’s Far East division and its director signed off on Lair’s idea, the plan was approved by President Eisenhower’s staff, on one of Eisenhower’s last days in office in January 1961. It helped that Lair had already run a successful CIA training program for Thai commandos in the 1950s. Some of those Thais would join him in running Operation Momentum, and in fighting Laos’s civil war; Bangkok would eventually send thousands of its men to fight in Laos. The CIA leadership had signed off on starting with a training program for a thousand Hmong men and then expanding from there.7 The operation was budgeted at around $5 million US, but by 1962, it would grow to over $11 million. That was only the start for an undertaking that would command $500 million annually by the end of the decade, with Vang Pao controlling a force of over thirty thousand soldiers.8 A budget of $500 million in 1970 dollars was equivalent to $3.1 billion in 2016 dollars, for an operation in a country that today has less outward trade with the rest of the world than Luxembourg does.
Vang Pao had spent his entire adult life fighting: fighting the Japanese, fighting with the French against the Viet Minh, and now fighting with the government against the Pathet Lao and its backers in Hanoi. Like many of the Hmong, he was intensely proud of the group’s freedom. Many Hmong had originally migrated south from China into Southeast Asia, and they traditionally migrated through the mountains, hunting and practicing swidden, or slash and burn, agriculture, and governing their affairs through a kind of communal consensus building. The group repeatedly fought any powers, including the French at first, who tried to control its society. Historian Mai Na M. Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, notes that the Hmong fought for centuries—against the Chinese, the French, and others—to maintain their independence and try to win a state for their people. Although they never gained their own state, they forced these powers to give them a measure of autonomy.9 Like many Hmong, Vang Pao resented any outside control of the hill tribe’s affairs and feared that a government managed by Vietnamese communists would turn Laos into a much more centralized state, starving the Hmong of their freedoms.
Vang Pao had developed a personal animus toward the Vietnamese as well. The long French Indochina War had lasted from 1946 to 1954, as France tried desperately to hold on to its Indochinese colonies. During that war, and then during Laos’s on-and-off civil war, Vang Pao had watched many of his friends, aides, and allies be killed by the Vietnamese and their allies. The fighting in the French Indochina War was fierce; many of the French soldiers came from the Foreign Legion, a force of professional soldiers drawn from all over the globe that was known for its willingness to take enormous casualties. The Viet Minh, meanwhile, were brutal not only toward captured enemy soldiers but also toward civilians. Fighting with the French and then with Laotian anti-communist forces, Vang Pao himself had repeatedly shot, bombed, and stabbed to death Vietnamese troops in Laos.
The Hmong leader had organized the baci to inaugurate Momentum and introduce Lair to clan leaders in the hill tribe. He roamed the muddy house, encouraging everyone to eat and drink more, and talking, rapid-fire, in Lao, in Hmong, and in the French he had learned from French officers. Vang Pao was moving constantly—gesturing, introducing Lair to clan leaders who had come for the baci, telling stories of the French Indochina War, commanding some of his men to find Lair more drinks. He commanded his wives—like many powerful Hmong men, he had multiple wives—to bring food to guests who were not eating at that minute. (Vang Pao had married women from different Hmong clans to unite several clans behind him.) As a musician played the thin Hmong bamboo mouth pipe and stomped his feet on the mud floor, Vang Pao himself tied the final string around Lair’s wrist, binding him metaphorically to the tribe. Vang Pao led Lair toward the shamans, who waved pungent incense candles around their heads and blessed the nascent cooperation.10 Locally brewed rice alcohol flowed liberally. Vang Pao’s men handed balls of sticky rice to Lair, to make sure that the Texan had something in his stomach to absorb all the liquor.
Circles of Hmong men stood together, dancing the slow, hypnotic lamvong, a Laotian folk dance in which people slowly twist their wrists from side to side while swaying together to mournful, minor-key tunes that sound almost like American country and western ballads. Vang Pao laughed and drank and danced the lamvong. But during pauses, he also told other Hmong at the baci, “We will kill all the Vietnamese who come near. Now we can kill many more.”
During a private meeting between Lair and Vang Pao, just before the baci, the two men had gone over the details of the operation: how the Hmong would receive arms and supplies in airdrops; how Vang Pao could help identify places to set up simple airstrips in mountain valleys; how the CIA might handle training programs for capable Hmong soldiers. But Vang Pao also made a request. Here the Hmong leader’s account of the meeting diverges from Lair’s. “I asked Bill Lair to promise me that America would not abandon us [the Hmong] no matter what happened,” Vang Pao said.11 Some Hmong sources claim further that, as the two men decided to start the operation, Lair presented Vang Pao and the Hmong with a written agreement from the American government pledging a kind of alliance, starting with a promise that the United States would soon ship the Hmong five hundred firearms.12 Several of Vang Pao’s aides, who were at the meeting with the Hmong leader, say that Lair told them, “If the Hmong people lose, we [the United States] will find a new place where we can help the Hmong people.”13 American government sources do not corroborate any of these claims, and Lair did not remember making these statements.14
Later, years after the end of the Laos war, Vang Pao would tell anyone who asked him about Laos that, no matter what was said when he agreed to the operation, no matter whether the two sides had made any written agreement, the United States had made a lasting commitment. After all, the US government, over time, would push the Hmong to broaden their battle beyond simply protecting Hmong villages and to help America’s interests in Vietnam. That war did not involve the Hmong directly; yet Vang Pao’s men played a major role by tying down and killing not only the small groups of Pathet Lao communists but also regular North Vietnamese troops who might otherwise have been killing Americans.15
And the United States would unleash a bombing campaign on Laos unlike any other in modern history, bigger even than the bombings of Japan and Germany in the Second World War. This campaign would become central to the Laos operation, though the American bombing sorties, supposedly designed to weaken the North Vietnamese and cut their supply lines through Laos and into South Vietnam, would kill more Laotians than anyone else.16 Over the course of the war, US bombing of Laos would become so intense that it averaged one attack every eight minutes for nearly a decade.17 The country would be left with so much unexploded ordnance that, in the three decades after Laos’s civil war ended in 1975, the leftover bombs would kill or maim twenty thousand Laotians.18
Together, Vang Pao believed, all of these American actions put the United States in the debt of the Hmong, who fought in lieu of American soldiers and suffered as badly under the wanton bombing as other people in Laos did. Many CIA operatives who worked in Laos did believe that the United States had made a significant promise to the Hmong, even if no formal treaty existed. One former CIA station chief in Laos, Hugh Tovar, who oversaw the operation in the early 1970s, admitted that, from the first days that Lair and Vang Pao planned the operation, the United States had done nothing to discourage the Hmong from thinking that America had a lasting obligation to them. “The Hmong committed themselves [to the United States] believing that the United States was fully committed to see them through in the fight,” Tovar wrote.19 “Most Americans [working in the secret war] were viscerally convinced that we were indeed so committed.”20
In the months after that first baci, even before Operation Momentum had grown into a giant undertaking—the biggest in CIA history—Lair and Vang Pao often discussed a contingency plan if the whole war turned bad. If the Hmong losses became unbearable, Vang Pao would take his wives, and his officers, and all the Hmong who had fought with him, and migrate wholesale across the Mekong River, which divides Laos and Thailand. Thai northeasterners often spoke Lao rather than standard Thai, and many had actually come from Laos. Lair even, on several occasions, discussed this option with the station chief in Vientiane, and with the head of the Far East division. Still, no one above him at the agency actually granted permission for this bailout option to ever become reality.21 The CIA men declined to tell Vang Pao that the bailout plan had no formal approval.
The baci for Bill Lair might have seemed like an ancient ritual, taking place in huts with no modern amenities and guided by shamans. But although Laos was geographically remote from Washington, this kingdom with a population smaller than that of Los Angeles now sat at the center of America’s foreign policy universe.
The briefing given John F. Kennedy just before his inauguration in January 1961 was not unique. On multiple occasions during the presidential transition period, Eisenhower took aside the incoming president and warned him about the dangers to America’s position in the world if Laotian and Vietnamese communists took over Laos.22 The growing effort in Vietnam would be threatened, and the United States would look weak throughout Asia if Washington allowed Laos to be taken over and could not protect South Vietnam and Thailand. In fifteen years, this tiny country would be ignored by the United States and the world again. Yet Eisenhower and Kennedy spent considerable parts of their briefings on Laos. Laos was the “cork in the bottle. If Laos fell, then Thailand, the Philippines, and of course Chiang Kai-shek [Taiwan] would go,” Eisenhower said during one of their transition meetings.23 At a National Security Council session near the end of his administration, Eisenhower warned his advisors similarly, saying, “If Laos were lost, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow, and the gateway to India would be opened [to communists].”24
Eisenhower’s fears—his obsessions about Laos, really—reflected a broader worry about the small kingdom among American leaders. It already had become a coveted prize by the 1950s, although the country would not enter the American public’s consciousness until 1960. As far back as the early 1950s, when the Viet Minh had invaded Laos and nearly overrun the country, some American officials had seen how Laos, its long spine running across Southeast Asia, essentially protected the rest of the continent.25 American partners such as Thailand also viewed Laos as an essential buffer against the spread of communism; the Thais would send whole divisions to war in Laos.26 Reflecting American officials’ growing interest in Laos, the New York Times devoted more than three times the newspaper space, in column inches, to Laos in 1960, the year Kennedy was elected, than it did to Vietnam.27 The Times had devoted more space to Laos even though the administration of Eisenhower’s predecessor, Harry S. Truman, had allowed France to try to reclaim its Indochinese colonies after World War II, and the Eisenhower administration had played an essential role in keeping France fighting as long as it did in Vietnam by paying for over 75 percent of the French war effort. “Although it is hard to recall that context today, Vietnam [at the beginning of Kennedy’s term] was a peripheral crisis,” reported the Pentagon Papers, an analysis of the US war in Indochina commissioned internally by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and eventually leaked to the American public. “Even within Southeast Asia, [Vietnam] received far less of the administration’s and the world’s attention than did Laos.”28
After France gave up its attempt to keep its Indochinese empire in 1954, the Eisenhower administration had made a series of decisions that increasingly involved the United States in Vietnam, allowing the South Vietnamese government in 1956 to cancel elections planned for both North and South, and sending military advisors to train the South Vietnamese. The White House did not seem to have made similar commitments in Laos.
Yet Laos had not truly been ignored: in 1959 and 1960 Eisenhower actually spent more time with his National Security Council discussing Laos than he did Vietnam, at least according to declassified records. By the end of the 1950s, the CIA had built up its station in Laos so that it dwarfed the actual foreign service component of the American Embassy in Vientiane. “Already in 1958 . . . they [the CIA] had half the [Laotian] ministers on their payroll,” recalled Christian Chapman, who served as the chief political officer at the US Embassy in Laos.29 The agency also had created its own private front airline, Civil Air Transport, which operated across Asia, including in Laos.30
President Kennedy held the first foreign policy–related press conference of his administration about Laos in March 1961. Indeed, no foreign policy issue consumed more of the initial months of Kennedy’s presidency than Laos, according to Kennedy’s biographer Robert Dallek.31 “It is, I think, important for all Americans to understand this difficult and potentially dangerous problem [in Laos],” Kennedy began at the March press conference. As he spoke, the president stood in front of a map of Laos with menacing—although somewhat factually incorrect—blotches on it that were supposed to represent the Laotian and Vietnamese communists’ expanding territory in the country.32 “[Laos] has been steadily before the administration as the most immediate of the problems that we found upon taking office,” Kennedy declared. “Laos is far away from America, but the world is small . . . [Laos’s] own safety runs with the safety of us all.”33
With Eisenhower and then Kennedy paying so much attention, American analysts would scramble to learn about the tiny kingdom. The US Embassy in Laos began to expand and would become a vast complex. The United States helped broker the 1962 Geneva accords, signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and China (among other countries), which committed all outside powers to respecting Laos’s neutrality and not sending forces into the country. Then all of the signers ignored the accords. The US government maintained the fiction of the accords, however. Washington opted instead for a covert war in Laos, the first such secret, CIA-run war in American history.
Operation Momentum started small, just after that first baci ceremony, in 1961. At the beginning, the war was to have a light footprint: just a few CIA officers training and arming Hmong, bloodying the Vietnamese and Laotian communists with guerilla attacks, and then vanishing. The Hmong would fight for themselves and for their land and freedom, with American training and weapons. In Laos, remembered Richard Secord, a US Air Force officer who served in Momentum on loan to the CIA, “the war . . . was the reverse image of the war in Vietnam. In Laos, we [the anti-communist forces] were the guerillas. The Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese army held some of the towns and most of the roads.”34 (In truth, the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese held roads in Laos in the northeast and east, but not in central and southern Laos until late in the war.) In South Vietnam, the South Vietnamese army and the United States held the roads and the towns but often could not stray more than a mile from the road without risking being attacked by communist forces.
But as Laos became a bigger priority for the agency, the program would balloon in men and budget. More and more Americans would arrive. It would grow into a massive undertaking run by CIA operatives on the ground, and by the agency and its allies in the Lao capital and back in Washington. The United States would build a vast proxy army of hill tribes in Laos—mostly Hmong but also several other ethnic minorities—that would number in the tens of thousands.
Overall, by the end of the war in 1975, some two hundred thousand Laotians, both civilians and military, had perished, including at least thirty thousand Hmong.35 These casualties comprised about one-tenth of the total population of Laos at the beginning of the war. Nearly twice as many Laotians were wounded by ground fighting and by bombing, and 750,000 of them—more than a quarter of Laos’s total population—were refugees. Over seven hundred Americans died, almost all of them CIA operatives, contractors, or US military men working on loan to the CIA, although many of the American deaths would not be revealed to the public for decades.36
In the most heavily bombed part of the country—a high, strategically located plateau in the middle of Laos, called the Plain of Jars, the American bombing runs almost never paused. Of the roughly 150,000 people who lived on the Plain of Jars before the 1960s, only about 9,000 remained at the end of the decade.37 After the war, one-third of the bombs dropped on Laos remained in the ground and undetonated.
The secret war would transform the lives of American operatives and the hill tribes they fought with just as clearly as it would devastate the lives of Laotian civilians. And above all, the war would transform the CIA.
Although the agency had existed for fifteen years before the Laos operation began in earnest, it was a relatively small player in the American policy-making apparatus before the Laos war. The agency concentrated on intelligence and political work, like trying to overthrow foreign governments believed unfriendly to the United States, and not on managing whole wars. But a US government that had assumed global responsibilities in the years after World War II faced an American public that, following the bloody stalemate in the Korean War, which killed some 54,000 Americans while resulting in a shaky cease-fire at the 38th Parallel in Korea, had little desire to send American troops to fight more foreign wars. A secret war, and one that utilized relatively few Americans, was a safer choice politically.
Meanwhile, in 1961 the CIA’s leaders desired a much greater role for the agency, but they could never match the US military’s influence over policy toward Europe or Northeast Asia. Now they saw a unique opportunity to increase the agency’s powers. The CIA found in Laos a country where it already had amassed influence, in the heart of a Cold War battlefield, and which had been largely ignored by the American military. These CIA leaders saw that an inexpensive—in American money and lives, at least—proxy war could be a template for fights in other places around the world, at a time when presidents were looking for ways to continue the Cold War without going through Congress or committing ground troops.
Laos would be a dramatic innovation for the CIA; a transformative experience. The agency had never mounted a significant paramilitary operation before the secret war, let alone one as massive as the Laos operation would become. In fact, no spy agency anywhere in the world had launched such a massive paramilitary operation, including air strikes, such large contingents of forces, and the overall management of battle strategy at times. The Laos war would prove the dividing line for the CIA; afterward, its leadership would see paramilitary operations as an essential part of the agency’s mission, and many other US policy makers would come to accept that the CIA was now as much a part of waging war as the traditional branches of the armed forces.
Indeed, the experience that the CIA gained in paramilitary operations in Laos would serve the agency well, and in many other parts of the globe. Although it mounted other large paramilitary operations after the Laos war, none of these operations employed over a hundred thousand people, even at its height. None involved the massive airpower of the Laos war, either. Laos war veterans would lead future CIA paramilitary operations in the Americas, South Asia, and other regions, as the agency focused increasingly on killing rather than spying. Having Laos experience would be seen within the agency as desirable for paramilitary officers looking to move to other locations around the globe. The shift begun in Laos essentially culminated in the years after September 2001, when the CIA focused intensely on paramilitary operations. By the 2010s, the CIA oversaw targeted killing missions all over the world, ran proxy armies in Africa and Asia, and helped manage its own drone strike program designed to kill members of the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) and other parts of the Middle East.
The CIA now has become such a central part of war fighting that even the other large US government agencies, which during the early era of the Cold War tried tenaciously to block the CIA from gaining more influence in Washington, have largely accepted the CIA’s massively expanded war-making duties—the duties it took on first in Laos. Occasionally, a Cabinet official such as Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense under President George W. Bush, has tried to take back war powers from the CIA, with little success; though Rumsfeld attempted to beef up military intelligence’s ability to conduct operations overseas, the CIA blocked him until it was allowed to oversee the Pentagon’s intelligence operations.38 Rumsfeld relented. The resigned acceptance by heads of other Cabinet agencies of the CIA’s massive, growing paramilitary capabilities is the biggest sign that a militarized CIA has become a permanent part of the American government.
In the early 1960s, most of the CIA leadership was “all for a war in Laos,” recalled Robert Amory Jr., who served as the agency’s deputy director. “They thought that [Laos] was a great place to have a war.”39
Meet the Author
Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He has been a correspondent in Southeast Asia for The Economist, a columnist for Time, the foreign editor of the New Republic, a senior correspondent for the American Prospect, and a contributing writer for Mother Jones. He has written about Asia for publications ranging from Rolling Stone to The New York Times Magazine. He is the winner of the Luce Scholarship and was selected as a finalist for the Osborn Elliot prize, both for journalism in Asia. He is the author of multiple books on Asia, including A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA. For more information on Kurlantzick, visit CFR.org.
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