'A Great Place to Have a War': The CIA's adventure in Laos while Vietnam raged
April 2, 2017 12:00 AM
Council on Foreign Relations
"A Great Place To Have a War," by Joshua Kurlantzick
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Before the United States expended so much blood and treasure in Vietnam, President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed Laos, the rural landlocked country to its west, was crucial to keeping communist dominoes from falling across Southeast Asia.
On one of his last days in office in 1961, Eisenhower signed off on a strategy that would grow to an expense of $500 million annually — $3.1 billion in today’s dollars — by decade’s end. It also brought the deaths of as much as 10 percent of the Laotian population.
"A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: AMERICA IN LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA"
By Joshua Kurlantzick Simon & Schuster ($28).
That many in the Central Intelligence Agency considered the secret operations in Laos a success is but one of the disturbing ironies of Joshua Kurlantzick’s “A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.’’
A senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mr. Kurlantzick tells a story often filled with equal parts uncommon bravery and myopic planning. In the early days, Laos was “the reverse image of the war in Vietnam’’ because “we were the guerrillas,’’ said Richard Secord, a U.S. Air Force officer then on loan to the CIA.
Agents such as Bill Lair, a Texan who’d been a CIA operative in the region for more than a decade by 1961, lived among the Hmong people in the mountains. The Hmong would be considered poor even in one of the poorest countries on Earth, but they were essentially democratic, “the original anarchists, escaping state societies by fleeing for the most rugged terrain possible,’’ Mr. Kurlantzick writes.
The Hmong proved to be willing shock troops for the CIA, fighting both the communist Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese. Advising them early on was Tony Poe, “a big bear of a man’’ and a World War II veteran who fought alongside the Hmong and paid a bounty for the severed ears of communist fighters.
The principal Hmong leader was Vang Pao. He was Poe’s equal in bravery and recklessness and may have surpassed him in brutality. His initial success only encouraged him and the CIA to continue expanding the mission. What began as a way to cut supply lines and divert North Vietnamese attention from their fight with American forces in South Vietnam evolved into major battles and endless bombing runs.
American planes averaged one attack every eight minutes for nearly a decade in Laos and would kill more Laotians than anyone else. U.S. pilots routinely released ordnance there if they were unable to find targets in North Vietnam because they didn’t want to land back in Thailand still carrying bombs.
All this was kept from the American public at the time and is generally a footnote to the Vietnam story even today. But Laos was the place the CIA shifted from intelligence gathering to making war without the bother of going through Congress.
“No spy agency anywhere in the world had launched such a massive paramilitary operation,’’ and many veteran pilots of CIA’s Air America operations in Laos later flew arms and non-lethal aid to the Contras fighting in Nicaragua in the 1980s.
The Hmong undoubtedly saved American lives by keeping some North Vietnamese tied down in Laos, but our secret allies’ years of valiance proved to be the ruination of their way of life. A year after the war ended in 1975, at least 100,000 Hmong were in refugee camps in Thailand. More would follow, and almost all wanted to come to the U.S.
They ultimately were allowed to settle here after prodding from both church activists and CIA veterans. The Hmong population in the U.S., boosted by high fertility rates, has grown to more than 260,000.
In the book’s final chapter we’re told that in 2007, more than 30 years after the war, hundreds if not thousands of Hmong, some young enough to be Vang Pao’s grandsons, were still fighting in the jungles of Laos. They hadn’t a clue that Vietnam had befriended the U.S.
The reader may close the book wondering what today’s foreign operations, even without military boots on the ground, will reap decades hence. The roots of the modern CIA’s commitment to ever more sophisticated targeted killing programs began in Laos, and agency drones over places such as Syria and Yemen haven’t gotten much more public scrutiny than the bombing runs of the 1960s. It could be the American public prefers not to know too much.
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