The United States is a changed country with the inauguration last month of Donald Trump as its President, and his rewrite of the superpower’s rules of international engagement is still a work in progress. But it is worth recalling some of the stops on his predecessor Barack Obama’s global itinerary. Obama never did make it to Iran, but he signalled substantive efforts at reconciliation in other countries that had been frozen out of Washington’s engagement, such as Cuba, Myanmar, and Laos. Each of those was a historic visit. Indeed, it was in the Laotian capital, Vientiane, last September that he came close to apologising for American actions of the past. In town for the summit of Association of Southeast Asian Nations, he said, “Given our history here, I believe that the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal.”
Obama noted that the U.S. had dropped more bombs in Laos during the 1960s and early ’70s than it had in Japan and Germany combined during the Second World War. He pledged to double the U.S.’s financial commitment to $30 million a year for the clean-up of unexploded bombs in the country. The mismatch in those two facts — the enormous damage wrought on landlocked Laos and the recompense offered all these decades later — is staggering, but perhaps what’s more staggering yet is how forgotten that long episode of America’s Cold War in Southeast Asia is. Those of us devoted to crime fiction have got a sense of it in recent years through Colin Cotterill’s Siri Paiboun books, set in the 1970s after the U.S. shipped out of the region after the fall of Saigon without a second glance, at least in public, at its own mistakes, and their long-lasting consequences.
A new book just out, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA by Joshua Kurlantzick, provides a history of the “secret war” America waged in Laos in the purported effort to contain communism. Writes Kurlantzick: “President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his staff, attuned to the domino theory of one country after the next falling to communism, 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.”
In fact, notes Kurlantzick, Eisenhower told John F. Kennedy, who had been elected to succeed him as U.S. President, that Laos “was the most pressing foreign policy issue in the world”. By then the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) had gained approval for Operation Momentum, to arm Laos’s Hmong tribesmen against the Pathet Lao backed by North Vietnam. It would expand into an ambitious CIA paramilitary operation, a “covert war”, “the first such secret, CIA-run war in American history”. Kurlantzick’s holding theme is how the Laos war changed the CIA, giving the agency a template for future interventions, ranging from operations in Central America and Afghanistan to the drone warfare that had expanded so vastly on Obama’s watch.
Kurlantzick, who had previously examined American choices in Southeast Asia in a biography of Jim Thompson ( The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War ), counts the consequences for Laos. By 1975, he notes, 200,000 Laotians had died, a figure that was 10% of Laos’s total population at the start of the war. Some of the descriptions are chilling to read: “In the most heavily bombed part of the country — a high, strategically located plateau in the middle of Laos, called the Plain of Jars — the American bombing runs never paused.” Of the 150,000 residents in these parts, only 9,000 survived the war.
Many of the CIA men who participated in the war went on to lead its military efforts in other parts of the globe. But two of the dramatis personae, a CIA operative called Bill Lair and Vang Pao, an anti-communist Hmong leader, would end up disillusioned men. There is a particularly intriguing reference early in the book, where Vang Pao recalls a commitment that the Hmong would not be abandoned by the Americans “no matter what”, but Lair would later say he did not recollect statements attributed to him. In any case, there was no CIA commitment on paper.