A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA
The untold story of how America's secret war in Laos in the 1960s transformed the CIA from a loose collection of spies…
While studying the Vietnam War, most readers and students may have noted that Laos was the place where most of North Vietnam’s troops and war material travelled through in their quest to overthrow South Vietnam. Consequently, Laos became the most bombed country in world history as the US military attempted and failed to permanently cut off the communist supply route.
What is not so well known, or studied anywhere as extensively as the war in Vietnam, is that the CIA was also running a secret war in Laos that had little interaction with the US military’s aerial interdiction attempts against the Ho Chi Minh trail. Compared to the hundreds of books and memoirs written about Vietnam, the number of titles written about the CIA campaign in Laos can be counted on one hand in comparison. Joshua Kurlantzick’s 2016 title A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and The Birth of a Military CIA has distinguished itself as an indispensable starting point for breaking down the events and decisions that not only wrecked an impoverished nation that ‘has less outward trade with the rest of the world than Luxembourg does’(page 5), but transformed the CIA from an intelligence gathering and coup enabling agency into a paramilitary outfit capable of covertly running wars in lieu of the US armed forces.
At first glance, Laos at the beginning of the 1960s could not have been a more unlikely place for a war that would cost the lives of nearly 200,000 civilian and military Lao and turn 750,000 into refugees, in addition to thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers and 700 Americans. Its capital, Vientiane, resembled an enlarged village — buffalo often wandered into the offices of government buildings that were no more than two stories high — there also weren’t any resources worth fighting for. The French who had colonized Laos in the 19th century considered it an unpromising holding with nothing to offer them, compared to the lucrative rice, rubber, pepper, tea and coffee resources of Vietnam and Cambodia. They consequently had neglected to create much modern infrastructure or institutions in the landlocked nation, while scorning the native population as indolent and indifferent to the benefits of France’s civilizing aspirations. After World War 2, France proved more willing to grant Laos self rule, as it needed to concentrate its limited post war military resources on combating the pro-independence Viet Minh in Vietnam.
National leaders in America and North Vietnam had other ideas about Laos. In the US, President Eisenhower saw Laos as a buffer against the expansion of communism after the victories of its Mao Ze Dong and Ho Chi Minh in China and Vietnam. Thailand, a conservative monarchist state with no affection for revolutionary politics, also had a keen interest in not seeing its eastern neighbour turn communist. Newly independent and communist North Vietnam saw control of Laos as a strategic supply route for moving supplies and troops towards South Vietnam, which it aimed to overthrow and integrate into a unified nation.
American fears about Laos turned to panic when Kong Le, a paratrooper disillusioned by corruption in the Royal Lao Army (RLA), seized Vientiane in August 1960. Although Kong Le’s takeover didn’t last — his self styled Neutralists were driven out by an American and Thai backed countercoup which left Vientiane in smouldering ruins — Eisenhower’s cabinet still fretted over communists taking advantage of Lao’s instability. The Royal Lao Army (RLA) did not inspire confidence as a credible opponent because it was infested with corrupt officers more interested with building luxury homes and appropriating expensive consumer goods with foreign aid money earmarked for economic aid. This opened the way for Operation MOMENTUM, a CIA plan to arm Hmong hill tribesmen to wage a guerrilla resistance against the communist Pathet Lao (PL) and its North Vietnamese sponsors.
Kurlantzick adroitly brings to life four men who would run the secret war or fight the communists face to face. First was Bill Lair, a CIA officer who spoke fluent Lao in a Texan accent who was the architect of MOMENTUM. A veteran of the Army’s 3rd Armored Division in World War 2, Lair’s previous credentials during a decade of working in South East Asia included training elite Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU) commandos in Thailand. He was responsible for developing contacts amongst the Hmong to determine their willingness to preserve their independence through armed force against the communists. Lair’s networking expeditions into the Lao highlands brought him into contact with the book’s second major player, Vang Pao. Lair had learnt about Vang Pao through French diplomats and intelligence officers as a leader amongst a people who were regarded by their former colonial bosses as good at fighting but lacklustre at command. Vang Pao had been fighting since the age of fourteen, beginning as a messenger during the brief Japanese occupation of Laos in World War 2. When the Viet Minh were using Laos as a refuge during their armed struggle against the returning French colonial authorities, Vang Pao served as a commando raider against the Vietnamese guerrillas’ base camps. Vang Pao and Lair would ratify the alliance between the Hmong’s tribal warriors with a nuclear armed superpower over a baci, a ritual ceremony overseen by shamans in which the participants wrapped strings around their arms as a symbol of unity.
While Lair was the organizer of MOMENTUM and Vang Pao provided the recruits, the secret war needed dozens of American advisors and trainers to carry out the daily job of turning the Hmong into an armed fighting force and supplying them. One such paramilitary advisor was Tony Poe, the third main character of Kurlantzick’s story. An ‘ultimate hard man’ who claimed to always carry a gum shield in anticipation of a brawl, Poe’s résumé either involved violence (he may have killed fifteen Japanese on Iwo Jima) or teaching others how to inflict it (he trained commandos and guerrillas in Korea, Tibet and Indonesia). A man who thrived on recklessness, Poe would frequently lead the Hmong in firefights against the North Vietnamese Army and Pathet Lao (against orders to only train and advise only) and collect the ears of communists his troops had killed as trophies.
Special operations enthusiasts reading about MACV — SOG’s daredevil exploits during the Vietnam War may recognize Bill Sullivan as a stern advocate for limiting how much of Laos could be penetrated by SOG reconnaissance efforts to map the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As the fourth main player in Kurlantzick’s book, Sullivan would distinguish himself as the first ambassador to run a war, having an equal say in the campaign’s direction as the CIA station chief. Sullivan’s restrictions on any US military presence in Laos — on the ground, anyway — stemmed from the need to preserve the fiction of neutrality free of foreign intervention, which North Vietnam was already violating with its growing troop numbers and aid to the Pathet Lao. While Sullivan would end up working closely with the CIA to choose where and when Vang Pao’s army would strike the NVA and how much US assistance was granted, he would exile his US Army advisor to Thailand and relegate him to logistics management.
MOMENTUM and the secret war were by no means the CIA’s first paramilitary training campaign, considering their involvement with proxies in Tibet, Indonesia and funding the ill conceived Bay of Pigs invasion. Kurlantzick tells of how the CIA, which was just fifteen years old at the start of MOMENTUM, was eager to expand its influence in US policy making. It could not challenge the US military’s influence in Europe and Northeast Asia, but found Laos a great place to have a war because the military was concentrating its efforts on Vietnam. The idea of a spy agency running a war in Laos with proxy local armies was attractive to the White House because they could operate without Congressional approval or risk American troops.
Vang Pao’s initial operations against the NVA and PL were promising enough. While the war in South Vietnam is popularly remembered as a guerrilla conflict by Vietnamese peasants bleeding the US military, the Secret War saw the NVA’s soldiers playing the part of the giant being harassed and picked off by Hmong tribesman who sprang violent ambushes on them before disappearing into the Laotian forests with their looted weapons. In contrast to the RLA, whose senior officers enriched themselves from skimming foreign aid while their men got trounced in almost every encounter with the communists, Vang Pao treated his troops fairly and was always keen to the point of recklessness to lend a personal hand to his troops in battle. On one occasion while hosting Sullivan at his Long Cheng base, Vang Pao left his visitor to help a hastily assembled squad fling grenades into an NVA sniper nest before finishing off the survivors with close range gunfire (page 131).
The formula for the Secret War being a ‘light footprint’ unconventional warfare operation was soon to change though. Vang Pao, through avid reading about war and its associated machines, was aware of the potential of artillery and air delivered ordnance and believed he could confront the communists far more efficiently if the Americans agreed to unleash their air forces over Laos. When Lair warned that escalating the war with American air power would place the Hmong on a path to defeat, he was overruled by his superiors at the CIA. By 1966, the Agency had shifted their strategy from guerrilla warfare to a more conventional war where the Hmong, supported by US aerial firepower, would seize ground from the NVA. This in turn would force the communists to divert manpower to Laos rather than South Vietnam, easing the burden on American troops fighting there.
Lair’s dire predictions came true with catastrophic results for the Hmong and Laos. The Hmong exposed themselves to a losing war of attrition when they committed themselves to defending static positions against the might of the North Vietnamese who remorselessly lashed them with human wave rushes, massed artillery barrages and sometimes, tank assaults. Air power savaged the NVA when they were caught in the open, but just as frequently, air strikes made an indecisive impact because the forested, mountainous terrain and inclement weather, combined with the NVA’s superior camouflage discipline and ability to repair their supply roads, made target identification difficult. What certainly occurred was that the countryside was hammered by explosives and napalm from propeller driven RLAF (Royal Lao Air Force) T-28s all the way up to USAF B-52 heavy bombers, at an average rate of one strike every eight minutes over a period of ten years. When President Johnson ordered a bombing halt of North Vietnam in 1968, US aircraft were sent to blow up targets of dubious military value in Laos because, according to any anonymous official, they couldn’t be left to rust (page 179). When the communists eventually won in Indochina in 1975, the Hmong were largely left to their own devices against a vengeful Pathet Lao dominated regime. No more dominoes in Asia fell to communism as Eisenhower and his successors had feared and the US government soon lost interest in Laos. However, many at the CIA would consider the Secret War a success story and consider it a precedent for sponsoring subsequent overseas war efforts in places where America would be reluctant to deploy its own soldiers. The CIA has since funded the Contras in Nicaragua, Afghan insurgents opposing the Soviets, anti-Assad rebels in Syria and overseen a lethal drone campaign in Pakistan and Yemen against Islamic terrorists.
A Great Place to Have a War is certainly an engaging read — its only fault is the absence of maps and photos. Apart from detailing the elevation of an impoverished village nation to Cold War battleground and most bombed country in history, along with the CIA’s diversification from spying to waging war, it tells the story of key individuals who directed that war and their eventual fates. Additionally, the book also tells us why the Secret War did not attract the same level of outrage when it did become public, compared to the protests against the Vietnam War and Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia. A brief explanation on why so few books have been written about the Secret War is also touched upon. It raises questions about the morality of bankrolling local forces to fight wars when your strategic goals coincide — and abandoning them when you lose interest in that goal.