From 1961 to 1975, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) coordinated a proxy war in Laos as a part of America’s larger effort to prevent communism from overrunning all of Southeast Asia. Codenamed “Operation Momentum”, the largely clandestine effort involved arming, training, and providing military assistance to anti-communist forces in Laos led by Hmong tribesmen and their military chief Vang Pao.
As Joshua Kurlantzick points out in his new book A Great Place to Have a War, the effort in Laos, like America’s larger effort in Vietnam, ultimately failed, resulting in Communists taking power in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, while arguably transforming the primary role of the CIA from intelligence gathering to paramilitary operations.
Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that the foundations of the Laotian proxy war (and the larger Vietnam War) were laid by President Eisenhower in the wake of France’s defeat in Indochina in 1954. In December of that year, Eisenhower’s NSC issued a paper stating that the US objective in Indochina was to “defeat Communist subversion and influence” in the region. At a press conference earlier that year, the President explained the “domino theory” whereby communism’s triumph in one of the region’s countries would likely result in the fall of the entire region, and perhaps all of Southeast Asia, to communism. In 1961, Eisenhower warned the incoming Kennedy administration that Laos was the critical domino.
President Kennedy, like Eisenhower, favored the use of covert operations where possible, and by 1962 he authorized $11 million annually for covert warfare in Laos. Kennedy’s NSC in 1963 wrote a memorandum arguing that
[t]he root of the problem in Southeast Asia is the aggressive effort … to establish Communist control in Laos and South Vietnam as a stepping stone to control all Southeast Asia.
Kurlantzick points out that by the end of the decade under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, the US was contributing US$500 million annually to the effort in Laos.
Interestingly, CIA operations in Laos were directed by US Ambassador William Sullivan, who had been a gunnery officer in World War II, but, as Kurlantzick notes, “had no experience directing a war.” Key CIA operatives in Laos included the colorful Tony Poe (real name Anthony Poshepny), a former Marine who served in the southwest Pacific in World War II; James William “Bill” Lair, who served with the Third Armored Division in World War II and later regretted the militarization of the CIA; Desmond Fitzgerald, head of the CIA Far Eastern division; and Theodore Shackley, CIA station chief as of July 1966.
The fighting on the ground against the communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese regulars was done largely by the Hmong under Vang Poe’s leadership, with some assistance by CIA operatives and contractors. The fighting was savage and brutal; atrocities were committed on both sides. Kurlantzick grippingly describes the war’s key battles on the Plain of Jars, Skyline Ridge near Long Cheng, and Sala Phou Khoun. His literary portrait of Vang Pao is one of the highlights of the book.
As the war intensified, the US sent fighter-bombers to assist Hmong ground forces. According to Kurlantzick, by 1973 the US had conducted more than 580,000 bombing runs over Laos. “In 1969 alone,” writes Kurlantzick, “the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than it did on Japan during all of World War II.” Yet, due to lax congressional oversight and media ignorance the American people knew very little about any of this.
The US defeat in Vietnam carried over to Laos. The US pulled out its forces, ended the bombing, and ultimately cut off financial assistance to its Hmong allies. Saigon, Phnom Penh, and the Laotian capital of Vientiane all fell to communist forces in 1975. Those Southeast Asian dominoes fell with terrible consequences for the people, especially those, like the Hmong, who openly sided with the Americans. Kurlantzick notes that the Hmong were singled out for punishment, including being subjected to forced starvation, detention and re-education camps, torture, and forced labor. What is more, the US only attempted to rescue a relatively small number of its Hmong allies, some of whom remained hidden in the jungles of Laos until a few years ago.
Kurlantzick calls the covert war in Laos the CIA’s first war. He notes that in the aftermath of the Indochina War, congressional oversight and reaction to revelations of CIA activities overlooked the extent to which the agency had expanded its paramilitary activities.
Although the US lost the war in Indochina, the CIA considered its proxy war in Laos a success. In the late 1970s and1980s, the agency fought proxy wars in Afghanistan and Central America. In the 1990s, it conducted paramilitary operations in Somalia and the Balkans. Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, writes Kurlantzick, “the agency’s paramilitary operations were enlarged massively, clearly becoming the center of the CIA’s activities.”
The author is troubled by this development which, he writes, blurs the lines between soldiers and spies, and enables the executive branch of the US government to wage war secretly, without congressional and media scrutiny. These are serious concerns, but it is worth noting that proxy war and covert action are as old as warfare itself, are used by great and small powers alike, and show no signs of going away. In the nuclear age, such strategies—what George F. Kennan might have called “Measures Short of All Out War”—may have prevented a global cataclysm.