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American helicopters land at Khe Sanh base, on the Laos border on February 1, 1971. Picture: AFP

ReviewHistory of Laos’ secret war – and the way it transformed the CIA – reveals a sobering legacy

Joshua Kurlantzick’s engaging new history says the secret war in Southeast Asia was the beginning of the modern CIA – no longer merely an intelligence-gathering agency

Kit Gillet
A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA
by Joshua Kurlantzick
Simon & Schuster

America was never officially at war in Laos, but its bombing of the Southeast Asian country in the 1960s and 70s was so intense that it averaged one planeload of bombs dropping every eight minutes for a full decade.

In 1969 alone, the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than it did on Japan during the entire second world war. Few outside of Laos knew then, or even know now, that for years an American-backed war was raging.

The war in Laos was also instrumental in transforming the CIA from a primarily intelligence-gathering agency into a powerful paramilitary force. It was the “first such secret, CIA-run war in American history”, writes Joshua Kurlantzick, in his engaging new book, which looks at this little-known conflict and how it still resonates. “The shift begun in Laos essentially culminated in the years after September 2001, when the CIA focused intensely on paramilitary operations,” he writes.

Author Joshua Kurlantzick.
Running alongside the Vietnam war, the conflict in Laos, which lasted from 1953 to 1975, was nominally a civil war fought between communist forces backed by North Vietnam and Laotian government troops.

Yet, from the early 60s, the CIA was busy training, equipping and supporting local hill tribes, chiefly the Hmong, who were in the vanguard of anti-communist fighting. The CIA helped train an army of tens of thousands, and supported it with weapons, food and intense bombing campaigns. It also planned many of the military operations.

Kurlantzick paints a stark picture of Laos. The capital, Vientiane, was little more than a muddy village, while most Laotians eked out a living as subsistence farmers. Despite this, at the height of the cold war, American leaders 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”, Kurlantzick writes.

At the beginning there was little sign that this war, conducted in a country few in the US had ever heard of, would escalate to the extent it did. When John F. Kennedy became president, in 1961, he was surprised to learn that the US had 700 soldiers and CIA operatives in the country.

In the decade from 1960, the number of CIA contractors in Laos increased by more than 2,000 per cent while the operation’s annual budget would eventually hit the equivalent of US$3.3 billion in today’s money – a huge sum to spend on a war that America wasn’t officially involved in.

Kurlantzick’s book focuses on the characters at the heart of the war – individuals such as the charismatic but increasingly volatile Hmong military leader, Vang Pao; CIA paramilitary trainer Tony Poe, a hard-drinking fighter who would slowly lose his mind as the war progressed and who would often risk death by leading local troops into skirmishes himself; and Bill Lair, a Laos expert at the CIA who would become increasingly sidelined as those with big plans but little understanding took charge.

From left: Ted Shackley, a CIA station chief in Laos (1966); Tony Poe, a CIA paramilitary officer in Laos; and Bill Lair, a Laos expert at the CIA.

Initially, the CIA’s plan was for the Hmong to act as guerillas, appearing out of the jungle to harass communist targets before vanishing. After some success, however, and under US pressure, the Hmong forces turned to more conventional warfare. The Hmong would now “take the war to the North Vietnamese army”, Ted Shackley, the CIA station chief in Laos, said in 1966, wresting areas of Laos from enemy control and holding them, forcing Hanoi to commit more troops to Laos and thereby reducing their fighting strength in Vietnam.

As with many American policies during the war, little thought was given to the allies who would soak up this additional pressure. There were impressive victories but the cost was often great.

A Great Place to Have a War chronicles in stark detail the initial successes, the long, drawn-out and bloody end, and everything in between. It also makes clear the general disregard the American leadership had for the lives of its allies. This becomes all the more apparent after the US signed a peace agreement with North Vietnam in 1975, which essentially cut the Hmong adrift, leaving them to make their own peace or face the enemy alone. Tens of thousands of Hmong would eventually flee the country, most ending up in camps in neighbouring Thailand.

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
Joshua Kurlantzick

What set the war in Laos apart was the role of the CIA, an aspect to which the book devotes considerable time. As Kurlantzick writes, “no spy agency anywhere in the world had launched such a massive paramilitary operation, commanding air strikes, such large contingents of forces, and the overall management of battle strategy at times”.

The CIA was also doing everything it could to keep American involvement in the war hidden from the public at home. Officials insisted, even when questioned by members of Congress or senior presidential staff, that the Laotians were running their own war, and that the Hmong leader was his own man. Even after the war, the CIA refused to declassify reports and cables issued by its clandestine operatives in the country, and for years former Hmong and CIA fighters would not discuss their experiences.

General Vang Pao (eighth from right) with an American adviser and Thai officers near Long Tieng, Laos, circa 1969.
The war left some 200,000 Laotians dead, a 10th of the population, including at least 30,000 Hmong. Unexploded ordnance still kills people today. Yet, the CIA would ultimately claim a victory in Laos because the fighting there engaged an estimated 70,000 North Vietnamese soldiers who would otherwise have been fighting in Vietnam.

Seven-hundred-and-twenty-eight Americans died during the war, almost all of them CIA operatives, contractors or military men loaned out to the agency. Many of those who survived would go on to play roles in proxy wars or coups in Central America and elsewhere. Their successors are now operating in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

“The Laos war would prove the dividing line for the CIA,” writes Kurlantzick. “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.”

It’s a sobering legacy for a war that officially never happened.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Conflict revolution