The struggle for Indochina lasted three decades and caused massive bloodshed and physical destruction in three countries: Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Vietnam was always the heart of the conflict, the site of the heaviest fighting and dying, the place where first French and then American planners invested the bulk of their resources. So it stands to reason that it’s the fighting in Vietnam that has received the lion’s share of attention from scholars and other authors over the years. That literature is enormous and growing. Still, the disparity is jarring: Next to the mountain of books on Vietnam, there’s barely a molehill on the war as waged in Laos and Cambodia.
All the more welcome, then, to see the appearance of Joshua Kurlantzick’s “A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.” Here we get an informative and well-researched overview of the covert war the United States waged in Laos between 1960 and 1975, one that involved both the recruitment and training of a local anti-communist fighting force led by Hmong tribesmen and the launching of a bombing campaign of awesome size. The U.S. purpose: to tie down the forces of North Vietnam and their Laotian allies the Pathet Lao, and to destroy communist supply lines that moved men and material along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos en route to South Vietnam.
The numbers give a sense of the scope. From 1964 to 1973, the United States dropped some 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos, the equivalent of one planeload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. It made Laos, per capita, the most bombed country in human history. In 1969 alone, the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than it did on Japan during all of World War II. All told, some 200,000 Laotians were killed in the war-about a tenth of the country’s population. Most were civilians. Nor did the end of the fighting in 1975 stop the killing; over the next four decades, unexploded cluster bombs would kill 20,000 Laotians and maim additional thousands.
It was a secret war, run substantially by the CIA, under the code name Operation Momentum. A principal early player was Bill Lair, a clandestine operative who drew up a plan to train and arm the Hmong, one of the largest ethnic minority groups in Laos, to fight the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese. Kurlantzick gives us a compelling portrait of this soft-spoken man “with the bristly buzz cut and the thick Clark Kent glasses who spoke fluent Lao with a Texas accent” – the quintessential quiet American.
Lair believed fervently that anti-communist Laotians could win the struggle for their country as long as they and not Americans led the fighting, and that the United States could avoid the colonialism tag as long as it did not attempt to take over the territory. He pinned his hopes on Vang Pao, an ambitious and ruthless Hmong officer and another central figure in the book. Over time, as senior leaders – including William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador in Vientiane, and Ted Shackley, the CIA station chief – relied more and more on massive use of American airpower, in particular to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Lair grew disillusioned, certain that the bombing was killing civilians and that the Hmong could never achieve lasting military success against the superior training, arms and motivation of the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao.
According to Kurlantzick, Lair’s misgivings fell on deaf ears among his superiors. The aerial bombardment continued to intensify, and Hmong fighters under Vang Pao were sent into increasingly ferocious battles. Upon entering office, President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, while caring little about Laos and its people, believed that stepped-up bombing would be “an effective way to bludgeon North Vietnam and its allies in Laos into agreeing to a peace deal for all of Indochina.” By the end of 1969, American aircraft were conducting approximately 300 sorties per day over Laos. Never mind that there were fewer targets to hit than previously, a great many having already been obliterated. Most of the time, leaders in the Royal Lao government were not consulted in advance of the attacks.
Kurlantzick quotes U.S. diplomat John Gunther Dean regarding the Nixonian approach: “Bombing in Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam, was strong, and he always preferred a strong move. … He always wanted to play the card that he wasn’t like Johnson or Kennedy, and bombing would convince the communists of this.”
The bombing was on occasion willfully random. In early 1970, the book tells us, American pilots routinely released bombs over Laos without locating a particular target, simply because they could not find a suitable target in North Vietnam and did not want to return to their base in Thailand with bombs still on board.
In the end, the shadow war in Laos ended in defeat. The United States ceased the bombing and ultimately cut off financial assistance to its Hmong allies. In 1975, South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos fell to communist forces.
The title of the book, “A Great Place to Have a War,” which seems at first glance misplaced and grotesque, turns out to be wholly apt (and grotesque). For in the minds of many within the CIA, the war in Laos, far from being a failure, was a rousing success, a low-cost way of putting intense pressure on the North Vietnamese. In this way, Kurlantzick argues, Operation Momentum was an archetype for the CIA paramilitary operations of more recent times – “and a new way for the president to unilaterally declare war and then secretly order massive attacks.” Richard Helms, CIA director during the height of the operation, later lauded the agency’s “superb job” in Laos, a sentiment echoed in a classified CIA retrospective. The analysis paid scant attention, Kurlantzick acidly notes, to the war’s effects on Laotians. He quotes William Sullivan, who told an interviewer many years later that the air war over Laos caused him “no personal anguish.”
Contrast this assessment with that by Barack Obama, who in September 2016 became the first sitting president to visit Laos. “Villages and entire valleys were obliterated,” Obama remarked in Vientiane, after announcing a major increase in American funds to clean up unexploded ordnance left behind from the war. “Countless civilians were killed. And that conflict was another reminder that, whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a terrible toll, especially on innocent men, women and children.” The time had come, Obama said, to pull the secret war out of the shadows. Indeed, and Kurlantzick’s book represents an important step in that direction.
Logevall is a professor of international affairs and history at Harvard University.