CIA activities in Laos

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

CIA activities in Laos started in the 1950s. In 1959, U.S. Special Forces began to train some Laotian soldiers in unconventional warfare techniques as early as the fall of 1959 under the code name Erawan.[1] Under this code name, General Vang Pao, who served the royal Lao family, recruited and trained his Hmong soldiers. The Hmong were targeted as allies because after President Kennedy took power, he refused to send more American soldiers to battle in Southeast Asia. Instead, he called the CIA to use its tribal forces in Laos and "make every possible effort to launch guerrilla operations in North Vietnam' with its Asian recruits." General Vang Pao then recruited and trained his Hmong soldiers to ally with the CIA and fight against North Vietnam.[2]

The CIA organized the Hmong tribe to fight against the North Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao. The Pathet Lao were the communists in Laos. The CIA-backed Hmong guerrillas used Air America to "drop 46 million pounds of foodstuffs....transport tens of thousands of troops, conduct a highly successful photoreconnaissance program, and engage in numerous clandestine missions using night-vision glasses and state-of-the-art electronic equipment."[3] This was the largest paramilitary operation in which the CIA participated, spanning 13 years. The CIA was responsible for directing natives of Laos to fight the North Vietnamese. Although such efforts were ultimately a failure, the CIA nonetheless still boasted of helping the people of Laos combat the communist threat.[3]

Along with its humanitarian efforts, the CIA also conducted a massive bombing effort in Laos from 1964-1973. 580,000 bombing missions took place over the nine-year campaign, but it is not known how many of them were dropped by the United States Air Force and how many were dropped by the CIA.[4] By the summer of 1970 the CIA owned airline Air America had two dozen twin-engine transports, two dozen STOL aircraft and 30 helicopters dedicated to the operations in Laos. This airline employed more than 300 pilots, copilots, flight mechanics, and airfreight specialists flying out of Laos and Thailand.[5] Although the bombing campaign was eventually disclosed to the American public formally in 1969, stories about the Laos bombing effort were published prior to that in The New York Times.[3] Even after the United States government made the war public, the American people were in the dark as to how large scale the bombing campaign was.


Politics of Laos and the CIA[edit]

A 1962 Time Magazine article about Laos makes some points that help illustrate the context of the overt and covert actions of all sides in Laos before the Vietnam War.[6] One of the first points the article makes is that a Laotian national identity, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, was a rare thing (since Laos had been a territory of Thailand and part of the vast French-controlled Indochina for generations). Communist groups and those from outside, including the French colonial administration and the Central Intelligence Agency, often exploited power vacuums that existed within the region.

Though it has a king, a government and an army and can be found on a map, Laos does not really exist. Many of its estimated 2,000,000 people would be astonished to be called Laotians, since they know themselves to be Meo or Black Thai or Khalom tribesmen among other small ethnic groups that resided in the countryside. It is a land without a railroad, a single paved highway or a newspaper. Its chief cash crop was opium.

Laos was dreamed up by French Diplomat Jean Chauvel, who in 1946 was France's Secretary-General of Foreign Affairs. At the time, post World War II France was trying to reassert its authority over its colonies in Indo-China. The rebellious inhabitants had no desire to return to their prewar status as colonial subjects. In place of original Indo-China, consisting of various kingdoms and principalities, Paris put together three new autonomous states within the French Union: Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. Drawing lines on a map, Chauvel created Laos by merging the rival kingdoms of Luangprabang, whose monarch became King of Laos, with Champassak, whose pretender was consoled by being made permanent Inspector General of the new state.

French influence did not survive long after the 1954 defeat at Dien Bien Phu. When the French declared Laos independent, it did not have cohesive government: two Laotian provinces were run by the communist Pathet Lao under Prince Souphanouvong. His halfbrother, Prince Souvanna Phouma, was chosen Premier in 1956, and Souphanouvong and his provinces under the fledgling central government. A subsequent national election increased communist strength in the National Assembly to nine of the 21 seats, which aroused the ire of the US government, which distrusted Souvanna Phouma, "both as a neutralist and a compromiser with the Reds."[6] Regime change to the right-wing General Phoumi Nosavan came not from a coup, but from stopping US economic aid, which was the responsibility, subordinate to the White House, of the US Agency for International Development. The new dictator invited U.S. military advisors, who came with both US Defense Department and CIA personnel.

CIA operations in Laos, proprietary airlines[edit]

According to William M. Leary, a University of Georgia historian who analyzed Laotian operations for the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, CIA-led covert action in Laos was the largest paramilitary operation in the history of the Agency.[7]

In 1950, the CIA—which supported but did not command covert action (until 1952) -- determined that it could best meet its support responsibilities with a proprietary airline under its clandestine control. "In August 1950, the Agency secretly purchased the assets of Civil Air Transport (CAT), an airline that had been started in China after World War II by Gen. Claire L. Chennault and Whiting Willauer. CAT would continue to fly commercial routes throughout Asia, acting in every way as a privately owned commercial airline. At the same time, under the corporate guise of CAT Incorporated, it provided airplanes and crews for secret intelligence operations. During the Korean War, for example, it made more than 100 hazardous overflights of mainland China, airdropping agents and supplies."[citation needed]

Allegations of CIA drug trafficking[edit]

As a Ph.D candidate in Southeast Asian history at Yale University, Alfred McCoy testified before the United States Senate Committee on Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee on June 2, 1972 and "accused American officials of condoning and even cooperating with corrupt elements in Southeast Asia's illegal drug trade out of political and military considerations."[8] One of his major charges was that South Vietnam's President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, Vice President Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, and Prime Minister Trần Thiện Khiêm led a narcotics ring with ties to the Corsican mafia, the Trafficante crime family in Florida, and other high level military officials in South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.[8] Those implicated by McCoy included Laotian Generals Ouane Rattikone and Vang Pao and South Vietnamese Generals Đăng Văn Quang and Ngô Dzu.[8] He told the subcommittee that these military officials facilitated the distribution of heroin to American troops in Vietnam and addicts in the United States.[8] According to McCoy, the Central Intelligence Agency chartered Air America aircraft and helicopters in northern Laos to transport opium harvested by their "tribal mercenaries".[8] He also accused United States Ambassador to Laos G. McMurtrie Godley of blocking the assignment of Bureau of Narcotics officials to Laos in order to maintain the Laotian government's cooperation in military and political matters.[8] McCoy reiterated similar charges in his 1972 book The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia published by Harper and Row.[9] He stated that the Central Intelligence Agency was knowingly involved in the production of heroin in the Golden Triangle of Burma, Thailand, and Laos.[9]

The United States Department of State responded to the initial allegations stating that they were "unable to find any evidence to substantiate them, much less proof."[8] Subsequent investigations by the Inspector General of the CIA,[10] United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs,[11] and United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (i.e. the Church Committee) [12] also found the charges to be unsubstantiated.

McCoy's allegations were later cited in Christopher Robbins' 1979 book Air America which in turn was the basis for a film of the same name released in 1990.[7] According to Leary, a University of Georgia historian who analyzed Laotian operations for the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, the film Air America was responsible for Air America's poor public image.[7] He stated that his two decades of research found that Air America was not involved in drug trafficking, but that the CIA was aware of drug trafficking on the part of the Laotians.[7] According to Leary, "The CIA's main focus in Laos remained on fighting the war, not on policing the drug trade."[7]

Laos 1953[edit]

In April 1953, the French colonial forces in Indochina requested US air transport "to fly tanks and heavy equipment to their hard-pressed forces in Laos. "Having such equipment," the French emphasized, "might mean the difference between holding and losing Laos."

At this point, the CAT role evolved from clandestine to covert. The Eisenhower Administration, unwilling to give overt support, decided to use CAT to fulfill the French request, in Operation SQUAW. The US Air Force provided CAT with "sterile" (i.e., with American military identification removed) C-119 transports, capable of carrying the heavy loads required by the French. CAT personnel were unfamiliar with the C-119, and the Air Force held a short but intense training course for them at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. On May 5, they flew six of the transports, repainted with French insignia, to Gia Lam airbase, outside Hanoi, and parachuted supplies and equipment to French forces in Laos until July 16.[7]

SQUAW began the next day. It continued until July 16, with CAT pilots making numerous airdrops to French troops in Laos.

Laos (and Vietnam) 1954[edit]

Again, the French asked for help, in supporting their isolated base at Dien Bien Phu. CAT contracted with the French, in January 1954, to provide 24 pilots to fly 12 C-119 aircraft, to be maintained by USAF ground crews at Hanoi's Cat Bi airfield, to support Dien Bien Phu. Flights started in March, as the Viet Minh began their assault, and continued until Dien Bien Phu fell on May 7. Two CAT pilots were killed and one wounded.

CAT operations continued after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. The C-119s supported isolated French outposts, and CAT also provided 12 C-46 transports to evacuate civilians from North to South Vietnam.

CAT also carried members of the CIA's Saigon Military Mission[13] (see Vietnam 1954) north of the 17th parallel, in a futile attempt to set up stay-behind networks.

Laos was declared neutral but due to its location, effectively functioned as a microcosm of the war. Per the Domino theory, the United States declared Laos as a buffer state, due to it bordering North Vietnam and China.

Laos 1955[edit]

In January 1955, the US created the United States Operations Mission (USOM) in Vientiane, Laos, to provide foreign aid. By the end of the year, a Programs Evaluation Office (PEO), staffed by retired military personnel or military officers covertly seconded to the CIA. The PEO was a covert equivalent to a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), organized within USOM to handle military aid, which was not usually within the scope of USOM. The CIA was involved with the PEO until US military involvement was acknowledged and a MAAG established.

In July 1955, USOM officials learned that a rice failure threatened famine in several provinces in Laos. Because a number of these areas were in remote, mountainous regions, airdrops would be the only feasible means to delivering essential supplies of rice and salt. Three CAT C-46s arrived at the northeastern railhead of Udon Thani, Thailand, on September 11, to begin the airlift. By the end of the month, CAT had flown more than 200 missions to 25 reception areas, delivering 1,000 tons of emergency food. Conducted smoothly and efficiently, this airdrop relief operation marked the beginning of CAT's--and later Air America's--support of US assistance programs in Laos.[7]

Laos 1957[edit]

A new CAT contract was signed in 1957, and Bruce Blevins flew a C-47 to Vientiane, to service the US Embassy. When he flew elsewhere in the country, conditions were technologically underdeveloped; Vientiane had the only control tower, radio navigational aid, and non-dirt runway in Laos. The US, again covertly, increased its level of support.

Furthermore, a 1957 cable from American intelligence officials in Laos to Washington noted the inability for the Communist Pathet Lao and Royal Laotian Guard to come to a peaceful resolution. The cable states that in late 1957 agreements were signed between the two groups in an effort to cease civil conflict. While the agreement was also intended to result in the assimilation of the PL into the larger Laotian society, the CIA had gained intelligence that the PL did not intend to abandon it's "radical" ideology and desire to overthrow the democratic government headed by the RLG. The CIA believed that the PL desired instead to establish a Communist government via subversive political and covert actions as opposed to overt military actions. Nevertheless, the CIA feared that the PL was more than willing to revert to the overt use of force if their new tactics were unsuccessful.

An example of this subversion is demonstrated in the cable stating, "PL propagandists and terrorists continued to visit the villages telling the villagers to refuse to obey RLG officials, and that the PL would soon take over all power and punish those who opposed them, and that the refusal of the people to support the PL would mean a renewal of the civil war."[14]

Laos 1958[edit]

By 1958, an October CIA memorandum acknowledged that the agency had been given the responsibility for covert operations within Laos. The State Department recognized the CIA's cover operations and suggested the development of overt operations. Additionally the State Department outlined a document that would cover all hypothetical situations in Chile, and hinted that the CIA may now be considering taking action for one of those hypothetical operations. The Memorandum asks the Chief of the Far East Division to consider the role of the CIA in Laos and how valid their suggestions for operations are. This memorandum reveals that there was a well-thought out plot for Laotian concerns and US interests in Laos, not merely a simple military reaction. However, the actual plans are redacted from the document, as well as the names of those involved. Though this could suggest something more nefarious was planned, it could be a diplomatic choice in not angering a nation long after the fact with considerations never acted upon.[15]

As the civil war became more intense, CAT C-47s and C-46s passed more frequently over Vientiane to fulfill urgent airdrop requests. Blevins was also kept busy, landing throughout the country and making numerous airdrops to isolated FAR posts. He developed an especially close relationship with a CIA case officer who had arrived in October 1958 and who was assigned to support neutralist Capt. Kong Le's parachute battalion, a Laotian officer who would rise to the highest ranks.[7]

Laos 1959[edit]

Victor B. Anthony and Richard R. Sexton, two Air Force historians, prepared a 400-page document called The War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973, based on two separate manuscripts. In this document, it shows that as early as 1959, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had conceived a plan for U.S. military intervention in Laos, which is two years earlier than previously thought. In early fall 1959, the U.S. Special Forces initiated training some of the Laotian soldiers in unconventional warfare tactics under the codename Erawan.[16] This occurred due to the US being unable to integrate the Patheo Lao communist army with the royal army.[17] Air America—the name changed on March 26, 1959, primarily to avoid confusion about the air proprietary's operations in Japan 16—provided essential transportation for the expanding American effort in Laos.[7]

Air America—the name changed on March 26, 1959, primarily to avoid confusion about the air proprietary's operations in Japan 16—provided essential transportation for the expanding American effort in Laos.[7]

Since the Laotian government wanted US assistance to remain secret in the Laotian Civil War against the Pathet Lao, the CIA established a unit from the United States Army Special Forces who arrived on the CIA proprietary airline Air America, wearing civilian clothes and having no obvious US connection. These soldiers led Meo and Hmong tribesmen against Communist forces. The covert program was called Operation Hotfoot. At the US Embassy, BG John Heintges was called the head of the "Program Evaluation Office."[18]

CIA directed Air America in August 1959 to train two helicopter pilots. Originally posited as a short-term requirement, this operation would be the beginning of a major rotary-wing operation in Laos.

During the summer of 1959, US Special Forces Group code-named Hotfoot under the command of Lt. Col. Arthur "Bull" Simons entered Laos. There were twelve Mobile Training Teams that took up duties in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Savannekhet and Pakse. CIA officials in Laos had requested additional air transport resources.

When the fighting broke out in Laos at the end of 1959, Vang Pao had concerns that the Hmong were likely to suffer reprisals from communists. With assistance from a US Special Forces team, he began to organize a Hmong stay-behind force.

December 1959, Vang Pao had to either fight the Communists or leave the country and if the United States supplied the weapons, Vang Pao said that he would fight and could raise an army of 10,000.[3]

This previously mentioned activity in 1959 was caused by the inability to integrate the Pathet Lao communist military into the Royal Loation Armed forces, which also caused a civil war, in which the CIA ordered the Air Force to deploy a squadron of B-47 bombers to the Clark Air Force Base, so that they could possibly be used to interfere or destroy Pathet Lao communications to the North Vietnamese.[19]

Laos 1960[edit]

From 1960 through 1961 the CIA had a mission code-named Erawan, in which US Special Forces trained Laotion soldiers in unconventional warfare to be used against the enemy.[19]

Eventually, four CAT pilots were trained on US Air Force H-19A helicopters in Japan and the Philippines. The CAT contingent did not reach Laos until March 1960. Due to the operating limitations of the H-19s, the underpowered helicopters could fly only at lower elevations in the country. "Generally, they were used to carry CIA case officers to meetings in outlying areas and to distribute leaflets during elections. By June 1960, it had become clear that helicopters would form a permanent part of Air America's operations in Laos."[7]

Air America hired four experienced US Marine Corps helicopter pilots who obtained their discharges in Okinawa to fly the H-19s. Later in the year, the CIA arranged for the Marine Corps to transfer four UH-34 helicopters to Air America to replace the H-19s.

Also in 1960, a national election was held of dubious integrity. "Phoumi's group gained a sweeping majority. On the surface, a relatively tough U.S. policy of containing Communism seemed to be an overwhelming success... $250 million in U.S. economic and military aid had too heady an effect on the Laotian government, which was soon reeling with corruption. Promised reforms never materialized, and practically no funds reached the peasants and forest tribes. The Communist Pathet Lao guerrilla bands began raiding in the north. Red Prince Souphanouvong not only walked out of jail, but took most of his prison guards with him."[6]

In August 1960, Kong Le, who had formed a friendship with a CIA officer in 1958, still returned neutralist Souvanna Phouma to power with a military coup. Phoumi Nosavan, who had much closer CIA relations, took refuge in his base in Savannakhet, in southern Laos.

The US encouraged Phoumi Nosavan, in December, to attack Kong Le's battalion in Vientiane.

Kong Le retreated to the strategic Plaine des Jarres, joining forces with the Pathet Lao. The Soviet Union poured in supplies by air, and Communist North Viet Nam contributed tough guerrilla cadres. When Phoumi's army advanced, it was badly beaten in a series of noisy but largely bloodless battles. Phoumi got a breathing space when, in the spring of 1961, the government eagerly agreed to a ceasefire.[6]

From 1960 to 1975 The CIA ran a clandestine sideshow to the Vietnam war in Laos. Long Cheng was a secret air base built by the CIA during the Vietnam war. This base was so secretive that not even Congress was aware of its existence. Long Cheng was unmarked, un-mapped and known only by a select few. It became the CIA Headquarter during the Vietnam war, and was so active that more than four hundred flights flew to and from Long Cheng on a daily basis. The secret operations in Laos grew into the largest CIA operation in history. Laos was used as a pawn for its strategic positioning between its neighboring countries from which the United States could launch military attacks. Laos has been reported as the most intensely bombed country in the history of Air Strike War. More bombs were dropped in the "Plain of Jars" than anywhere else in the world. Before the war started, more than 50 thousand people lived there, many of whom belonged to the Hmong tribe. When fighter jets could not reach their targets, they would unload bombs on Laos because of the inability to land with bombs on board. For a period of nine years the US Air Force conducted Air Strike missions against Laos every eight minutes... The worst bombings were around Long Cheng and Sam Thong.

In 1971 three journalists made it to Laos, uncovered the secret air base and attempted to expose Long Cheng to the public. Their discovery, however, did not make the front page news. US citizens were told that the US military was conducting a humanitarian mission in Laos. The media fabricated stories about the US building hospitals and providing development aid to Laos. While secret Air strikes were taken place in the provinces of Laos, Americans in the capital of Laos were unaware of the situation. The US Spent four hundred fifty four million dollar in aid to the capital of Laos and built this façade in order to keep their covert operations in motion. Finally in 1975 the CIA evacuated Laos after the Communist Pathet won the civil war.

Laos 1961[edit]

In January 1961, John F. Kennedy became president while at the same time the CIA paramilitary forces were deeply involved in making arrangements for the Bay of Pigs in Cuba which was to occur three months later. Thus, the CIA was unable to adequately supply air support for the Air Force Project code-named Mill Pond.[16] This was due to the resources they thought they'd have available not being available as they were being used to deal with the Cuban missile exile.[17]

According to Time,

In an effort to force him to accept a coalition government, the U.S. stopped paying Laos $3 million a month in economic aid, but there has never been any skimping in U.S. equipment and the training of Phoumi's Royal Laotian Army. The grim truth—as shown again last month at Nam Tha—is that Phoumi's men simply will not fight. Some observers suggest Phoumi actually wanted his army to collapse in order to force U.S. intervention—perhaps relying on President Kennedy's March 1961 telecast, when he said that a Red takeover in Laos would "quite obviously affect the security of the U.S."

American visibility increased in 1961, possibly as a signal to Phoumi. The covert advisory group was acknowledged, and called the White Star organization, commanded by Arthur D. Simons[20] In addition to operating against the Pathet Lao, the White Star teams harassed the North Vietnamese on the Ho Chi Minh trail, which had been formed in May 1959 under the North Vietnamese Army's 559th Transportation Group, whose unit number reflected its creation date.[21] Many of the White Star personnel moved into the Studies and Observation Group, which operated from South Vietnam but ran cross-border operations into North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. By the middle of 1961, the LAAF, who had always struggled with morale, skill, and equipment, were aided by the USAF. American pilots trained the LAAF in terms of flight techniques. Some of them spoke French, but even the ones who could not demonstrated leadership qualities that earned respect from the Laotian pilots. Thoug the T-6, the LAAF fighter pilot, lacked armor and was not permitted to carry bombs, their training made the pilots more nimble in the air, as well as enhanced their morale.[22]

In 1961 there was a meeting in Vienna between President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that both supported a neutral and independent Laos through a joint statement. As this meeting took a place negotiators in Geneva got together to work out a settlement to the problem.[5]

Laos 1962[edit]

The CIA-organized group of Hmong tribesmen fighting in the Vietnam War are known as the "Secret Army", and their participation was called the Secret War, where the Secret War is meant to denote the Laotian Civil War (1960–1975) and the Laotian front of the Vietnam War.

On July 23, 1962, a formal "Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos" was signed in Geneva. This neutrality provided for a coalition government and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country by October 7. After this declaration was signed the U.S. pulled out 666 military advisors and support staff, and Air America stopped dropping weapons to the Hmong. The U.S. followed the guidelines of this declaration and only allowed the CIA to retain only two men in Laos to monitor Communist compliance with the agreement.[5][23]

CIA offices soon found that the North Vietnamese Army had failed to remove 7000 troops, who were expanding Northern Vietnamese positions in Laos. CIA reports from officers in the hills were soon pleading for arms so that the Hmong could defend themselves against the NVA onslaught. These requests were granted by Secretary of State Averell Harriman on an individual basis going forward.[24]

On August 17, 1962, five American prisoners released by the Pathet Lao, as well as several members of NSBC in Laos, estimated the North Vietnamese Forces in Laos to be around 10,000. A document released by the CIA, makes note that Souvanna Phouma had possibly made a deal with Souphanouvong to keep the Vietnamese and Chinese communists presence secret, if they leave Laos.[25]

Laos 1964[edit]

In 1964 the Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF) began to receive increased support from the United States. Counterinsurgency training, assisting cooperations, and logistical support were some of the types of aids provided at this time.[26] The RLAF saw an additional endowment of resources from the US after a failed right-wing attempted coup catalyzed a resurrection of Pathet Lao onslaughts on rightists and neutralists in the Plaines des Jarres. Full-scale fighting broke out in Laos in March 1964 when North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces attacked across the PDJ. In mid-May the communists had taken control of the strategic region.[5] Ordnance was also released shortly thereafter so the RLAF could strike Communists.[26] Over a dozen T-28s were given to the RLAF for air strikes. MAP-financed C-47s were also distributed to RLAF at this time. The United States' goals in Laos were to provide intelligence and assess the extent of the communist infestation in Southeast Asia. Towards the middle of the summer of 1964, the US' involvement in Laos had relieved many military issues.[26]

In May 1964, the U.S. Air Force began flying reconnaissance missions over the Laotian panhandle to obtain target information on men and materiel being moved into South Vietnam over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The problem addressed by the Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) of May 25 was to determine if there was a set of actions that would cause the Democratic (i.e., North) Republic of Vietnam (DRV) to reduce activities in the Republic (i.e., South) of Vietnam (RVN), and to respect the 1962 Geneva agreements on Laos. It assumed primarily air and naval action, without attacks on population centers or the use of nuclear weapons. The DRV, China, and USSR would be told that US intentions were limited.

On June 24, 1964, the U.S. government had formally endorsed Operation Triangle. This allowed the escorting fighters to hit an enemy activity detected during such flights and opened the door to armed recon missions. the U.S. army and Air Force personnel were allowed to serve as advisors to the Laotian troops.[27]

Many of the US endorsed operations in Laos were successful and this incentivized more involvement. Various proposals were put in motion requesting quicker mission approvals and more lenient rules of engagement. However, none of these proposals were approved and involvement in Laos remained limited.[26]

It was projected that the DRV would wait on military action while stirring diplomatic opinion against the US. In the absence of US forces in Laos, however, it was judged capable of taking control of the country. While the DRV could resist a RVN ground attack, its air defenses were primitive and it would be unlikely to accept Chinese assistance, other than perhaps antiaircraft guns but not fighters. The estimate did suggest that a campaign against the North would have to be quick and intense, not the gradual escalation that actually was used.[28]

Laos 1965[edit]

The year 1965 marked the beginning of major military activity in what became known as the secret war in Laos. Although the full extent of the conflict was not revealed to the US public until 1969-70, the war was not all that secret. News of the fighting frequently found its way into the pages of The Bangkok Post, The New York Times, and other newspapers. Congress was kept well informed. As former CIA Director Richard Helms has pointed out, the Appropriations subcommittees that provided the funds for the war were briefed regularly. Also, Senator Stuart Symington and other Congressmen visited Laos and gave every indication of approving what was happening. They believed, Helms noted, that "It was a much cheaper and better way to fight a war in Southeast Asia than to commit American troops."[3]

The CIA was largely responsible for conducting military operations in Laos, but the US Ambassador was the man in charge. The secret war in Laos, author Charles Stevenson has emphasized, "was William Sullivan's war." Ambassador from December 1964 to March 1969, Sullivan insisted on an efficient, closely controlled country team. "There wasn't a bag of rice dropped in Laos that he didn't know about," observed Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy. Sullivan imposed two conditions upon his subordinates. First, the thin fiction of the Geneva accords had to be maintained to avoid possible embarrassment to the Lao and Soviet Governments; military operations, therefore, had to be carried out in relative secrecy. Second, no regular US ground troops were to become involved. In general, Ambassador Sullivan and his successor, G. McMurtrie Godley, successfully carried out this policy.[3]

In January 1964, the CIA began training Lao and Thai counterinsurgents in Thailand. This was because the previous Geneva agreements did not allow for training to take place in Laos. The hope was for these counterinsurgents to be able to fight back if and when Vietcong forces should move offensively through Laos. During 1964 the RLAF - Royal Laotian Air Force - were loaned a total of 33 T-28 bombers for use in the fighting.[29]

USAF-Navy combat sorties from July through November ranged from about 1,000 to 1,500 per month. In November, because of a perceived rise in communist activity, Gen. Westmoreland increased his required number of sorties to 4,500 per month, but because of bad weather and some diversion of the effort, achieved 2,700.[30]

An Air America combat rescue mission in May 1965 resulted in the most serious accidental air strike incident to date, even though Ambassador William Sullivan thought that the contractor was more likely to avoid incidents than the Air Force.[31]

On Christmas, 1965, President Johnson promised a bombing halt on Vietnam. This "halt" turned out to be a redirection at Laos, conducted by the U.S. Air Force.[19] McNamara sent a report to President Johnson that had 12 favors. Johnson urged for there to be another air strike against North Vietnam. The president approved for the first time, an approval of air strike against the North Vietnam and Viet Cong who were making their way into Laos. A year-end CIA-DIA analysis of the air attacks on the North since they began on February 7, 1965 indicated that they had inflicted about $28.5 million worth of damage. The North's economy, however, showed no sign of disintegration.[30]

Laos 1968[edit]

By 1968, the CIA had a well-established system for conducting the U.S. war in Laos. The CIA led a ground campaign and established requirements to which the United States Air Force responded. However, according to the United States Air Force history; differences between the military and the CIA reduced the effectiveness of U.S. operations in Laos.

However, the fall of Nam Bac caused much discord in northwestern Laos: "as the Americans feared, the loss of Nam Bac shattered FAR morale and virtually erased these forces as a factor in the war."[32] More importantly, the fall of Nam Bac caused the CIA's intelligence gathering in the region to be quite insignificant, and the CIA withdrew much of its personnel in the region: "the fall of Nam Bac also crippled CIA intelligence collection in northwestern Laos."[33] Intelligence analysts also continued to wonder about Chinese objectives in the region, and there did not seem to be a conclusive decision on what exactly the Chinese were doing in the region at the time.[34]

Due to reasons of secrecy, the CIA refused to share its plans with the Air Force. Additionally, the CIA had a narrowed view of interests and underestimated the potential usefulness of the Air Force's air power which further alienated the Air Force from providing assistance to the CIA's efforts.[16]

Laos 1969[edit]

A memorandum from November 12, from Kissinger to Nixon reviewed the procedure for attacks in Laos.[35] Kissinger raised several questions in response to a CIA memorandum on Vang Pao's offensive in the Plain of Jars... A joint response from the CIA and the Departments of Defense and State said:

  • U.S. ability to control (including veto) a Lao operation is to all practical purposes complete because U.S. matériel and air support are vital.
  • In practice, most operations are conceived by commanders of individual Military Regions in close conjunction with U.S. Military Attachés, or in the case of Vang Pao and the other irregulars, with the local CIA Area Chief.
  • In brief, the following U.S. clearance procedures are followed:
  • The cognizant U.S. military attaché or CIA Area Chief forwards the request to U.S. Country Team, consisting of Ambassador, DCM, Military Attachés and CIA Station Chief.
  • Vang Pao's operations are also cleared by the CIA base at Udom, Thailand which assesses the Agency's ability to provide necessary support.
  • The Ambassador requests authorization from State for politically sensitive operations or activities exceeding established operating procedures and refers requests for air support to MACV. In order to combat Northern Vietnamese advancements the United States bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail along with North Vietnamese troop concentrations in northern Laos. Through the United States Air Force there was an effort that took place to upgrade air operations located in northern Laos. The U.S. Air Force introduced airborne radio direction finding. The EC-47 aircraft could monitor and locate enemy radio transmissions. Colonel Duskin convinced Robert A. Hurwitz that the OV-1 Mohawk could enhance intelligence collections during Barrel Roll which provided night time reconnaissance.

The 1969 communist offensive spurred improvements in the Royal Laotian Air Force as well. Laotian T-28 plane counts jumped from 235 to 1367 in five months. The increase in plane production called for a need of more pilots to be trained. Also, "hampered by monsoon rains, among the heaviest ever seen, ABOUT FACE got under way on 6 August 1969. Eight battalions moved on the Plain of Jars while two more battalions and several hundred Hmong militia approached the road between Ban Ban and Nong Pet. Not to be confused with NangHet, on the Vietnamese border. The significance of Nang Petlay in its location west of Ban Ban at the intersection of Route 7, leading directly into the Plain of Jars, and Route 71, which bypassed the plain to the north. The weather posed more of an obstacle than the communists, who to the attackers' astonished delight abandoned without a fight not only their defensive positions but also major supply dumps. Despite suspected leaks of Vang Pao's intentions, the government forces had achieved complete tactical surprise, and the overextended enemy simply melted away."[2] Even where the enemy had time to react, he stood by and watched the irregulars advance. On 20 August, two SGU battalions, one Hmong and the other a Lao unit from Pakse, walked up Phou Nok Kok, the mountain commanding Route 7 between Ban Ban and 'Nong Pet. The communists did not respond until two days later, and then not in sufficient strength to threaten SGU positions on the heights. By then well dug in, the irregulars on Phou Nok Kok became the core of the effort to deny Route 7 to the enemy.' By the 25'" the enemy had abandoned any effort to reclaim Phou Nok Kok. On 27 August, Vang Pao's irregulars marched onto the plain itself, taking the southern salient and capturing a PT-76 tank, an artillery piece, and a truck. By this time, the Pakse SGU had cut Route 7, and its troops were patrolling the road west of Ban Ban. The station applauded the irregulars' success, but wanted credit to go where credit was due: "Extremely effective airstrikes have been the key factor in guerrilla successes thus far. Heavily committed in the Muong Soui sector, to the west, and now challenged east of the plain, the North Vietnamese had contributed to Vang Pao's advance onto the plain by entrusting its defense largely to the Pathet Lao." [2]

Laos 1970s[edit]

On February 12, 1970, "the communists attacked irregular units on the Plain of Jars, and Sou vanna Phouma, presumably encouraged by Ambassador Godley, formally requested B-52 support. Nixon granted it, and on the night of 17 February, three bombers hit the advancing North Vietnamese. Photographs and ground observation revealed grievous enemy losses, despite the time for preparation afforded them by information leaked through insecure FAR radio communications."[2]

On April 21, 1972 the CIA was ordered to give up control of Air America and related companies. Air America would only remain until the end of the war in the Southeast Asia.[5] On April 24, 1971 Air America vice president for flight operations sent a message warning all crew members that the there had been an appalling number of deaths and serious injuries.[24] According to him, they were performing under most difficult environmental conditions in the world. He warned them they should exercise extreme caution when conducting flight operations in Laos.[24] The Air America's vice president was sending this message when they were supposed to be giving up control. On June 3, 1974, the last Air America aircraft crossed the border from Laos into Thailand.[5]

In 1973, there was a report stating that "distrustful as always of FAR security practice, Vang Pao insisted that all forces committed to the new operation (dubbed ABOUT FACE) of Hmong SGUs, most of which were trying to fend off the North Vietnamese on the periphery of the Plain of Jars. Fully in sympathy with Vang Pao's aversion to including FAR even assuming regular troops were available-Clyde McAvoy introduced an innovation that would become standard' practice until the February 1973 cease-fire." [2]


Although the economy of Laos has gradually improved since the United States supplemented it during the Vietnam War, Laos still features the ravages of war and poverty for its war-time generation. Just 9% of the country's present population is over the age of fifty-five, indicating the heavy loss of life through war, starvation and exile. In contrast, neighboring Thailand features roughly 21% of its country over the age of fifty-five.[36]

US bombing inflicted a large number of casualties during the Laotian Civil War. However, the US State Department's analysis has determined that about 30% of all bombs dropped on Laos failed to detonate. Since 1975, according to a nationwide survey, an estimated 20,000 people in Laos have fallen victim to unexploded ordnance, with 60% of cases resulting in death.[37][38][39] Others sharply criticize the United States for the way it abandoned thousands of Hmong fighters and their families at Long Tieng. Despite these criticisms, the loss of life could have even been worse if not for some ingenuity on behalf of General Heinie Alderholt and the CIAs Jerry Daniels, who worked to secure a C-130 to evacuate as many Hmong from the airstrip as possible. Daniels later recalled the ordeal, "All was in turmoil...We took off at 10:47 and this ended the CIA based at Long Tieng." Although around 3,000 of the Hmong were able to reach safety through United States transportation, tens of thousands were to remain, many of whom would end up in exile or refugee camps - their previous way of life, as CIA officer Dick Holm described, "has been destroyed."[40]

The aftermath has resulted in a continuing question of whether the United States is responsible for providing more reparations to the people of Laos, not only for their fighting through CIA-led units, but also for the bombing raids that killed so many. Many continue to sharply criticize the events of the war in Laos, particularly the CIA-backed inclusion of fourteen-year-olds into the Hmong guerilla units. As one particular youth stated, "I'm not enjoying the war, because I want to study and I want to know more, but the pressure pushes me to be a soldier."[41]

In 2014, the United States gave the people of Laos $12 million to clear bombs from the war. As Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) stated, "The tragic legacy of cluster munitions in Laos is one that all Americans should care about. I hope the additional funds in fiscal year 2014 will become part of a multi-year program to finally overcome this cruel history and enable the Laotian people to rebuild their lives."[42]

As of 2015, only 1% of the bombed areas in Laos have been cleared for un-exploded bombs.[43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Fighting the war in Southeast Asia".
  2. ^ a b c d e Ahern, Thomas L. Jr. "Undercover Armies: CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos 1961-1973" (PDF). Central Intelligence Agency. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Leary, William M. (2008). "CIA Air Operations in Laos, 1955-1974". Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved July 16, 2016. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  4. ^ Eberle, Marc (February 9, 2015). "YouTube". The Most Secret Place on Earth: The CIA's Covert War in Laos. Retrieved July 15, 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d e f "CIA Air Operations in Laos, 1955-1974 — Central Intelligence Agency". Retrieved March 20, 2017. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  6. ^ a b c d "LAOS: Four Phases to Nonexistence". Time. June 8, 1962.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Leary, William M., Supporting the "Secret War": CIA Air Operations in Laos, 1955-1974, Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency
  8. ^ a b c d e f g "Heroin Charges Aired". Daytona Beach Morning Journal. XLVII (131). Daytona Beach Florida. AP. June 3, 1972. p. 6. Retrieved July 18, 2015.
  9. ^ a b "Heroin, U.S. tie probed". Boca Raton News. 17 (218). Boca Raton, Florida. UPI. October 1, 1972. p. 9B. Retrieved July 18, 2015.
  10. ^ Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (April 26, 1976). Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Book 1. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. pp. 227–228. Retrieved May 23, 2017.
  11. ^ United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs (January 11, 1973). The U.S. Heroin Problem and Southeast Asia: Report of a Staff Survey Team of the Committee of Foreign Affairs. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. pp. 10, 30, 61. Retrieved May 23, 2017.
  12. ^ Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities 1976, pp. 205, 227.
  13. ^ "Document 95, Lansdale Team's Report on Covert Saigon Mission in 1954 and 1955,". The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 1. pp. 573–83.
  14. ^ "Transmittal of Study of Communist Subversion in Laos."
  15. ^ "Hypothetical Situation in Laos" (PDF). CIA Reading Room. Retrieved January 30, 2017.
  16. ^ a b c National Security Archive. "Fighting the War in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973". The National Security Archive. Retrieved July 15, 2016.
  17. ^ a b
  18. ^ Holman, Victor (1995), Seminole Negro Indianss, Macabebes, and Civilian Irregulars: Models for the Future Employment of Indigenous Forces (PDF), US Army Command and General Staff College, archived from the original (PDF) on February 27, 2008
  19. ^ a b c Fighting the War in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973
  20. ^ Arthur D. (Bull) Simons, archived from the original on April 8, 2005
  21. ^ Shultz, Richard H. (2000), The Secret War Against Hanoi: The Untold Story of Spies, Saboteurs, and Covert Warriors in North Vietnam, HarperCollins
  22. ^ "The War in Northern Laos" (PDF). p. 57.
  23. ^ Prados, John. "FIGHTING THE WAR IN SOUTHEAST ASIA, 1961-1973". The National Security Archive. Retrieved July 15, 2016.
  24. ^ a b c
  25. ^
  26. ^ a b c d
  27. ^ "The Pace Quickens: Summer 1964" (PDF). Retrieved March 23, 2017.
  28. ^ Central Intelligence Agency (May 25, 1964). "SNIE 50-2-64 Probable Consequences of Certain US Actions with Respect to Vietnam and Laos" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on February 27, 2008.
  29. ^ "USAF plans and policies in South Vietnam and Loas, 1964" (PDF). 1964. Archived (PDF) from the original on March 23, 2017. Retrieved March 23, 2017.
  30. ^ a b Van Staaven, Jacob. "USAF PLANS AND OPERATIONS IN SOUTHEAST ASIA 1965" (PDF). The National Security Archive. Retrieved July 15, 2016.
  31. ^ "Fighting the War in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973". Retrieved July 15, 2016.
  32. ^ "PART II: THE QUIET WAR, 1964-1968 (U)" (PDF). National Security Archive. Retrieved 31 March 2017.
  33. ^ "PART II: THE QUIET WAR, 1964-1968" (PDF). National Security Archive. Retrieved 31 March 2017.
  34. ^ "PART II: THE QUIET WAR, 1964-1968" (PDF). National Security Archive. Retrieved 31 March 2017.
  35. ^ Planning of Military Operations in Laos (PDF), Foreign Relations of the United States, Nixon-Ford Administrations. Volume VI. Foreign Relations, 1969-1976. Vietnam, January 1969-July 1970, United States Department of State, November 12, 1969, FRUS Document 146, archived from the original (PDF) on April 9, 2008
  36. ^ "CIA World Fact Book: Laos," accessed July 12, 2016,
  37. ^ "New Case for US Reparations in Laos," Asia Times Online, accessed July 12, 2016,
  38. ^ "Cluster Bomb Fact Sheet | Legacies of War". Retrieved November 3, 2016.
  39. ^ Wright, Rebecca (September 6, 2016). "What 80 million unexploded US bombs did to Laos". CNN. Retrieved November 4, 2016.
  40. ^ Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes (New York: Anchor Books, 2007), 399-400.
  41. ^ The Most Secret Place on Earth, DVD, directed by Marc Eberle (2009; Germany; Zweitausendeins).
  42. ^ "PRESS RELEASE: U.S. Funding for UXO Clearance Reaches Historic High," Legacies of War, accessed July 12, 2016,
  43. ^ Fagotto, Matteo (January 31, 2015). "The Guardian". Retrieved July 15, 2013.