From Spying to Killing

How America’s “secret war” in Laos transformed the CIA.

In July of last year, Congress authorized a Medal of Honor for Sergeant Gary Rose.

Every such honor is extraordinary, of course, but there was something unique about Rose’s, who now leads a quiet life in Alabama: it came more than forty years after the fact. In September 1970, while serving during the Vietnam War as a medic with the Special Forces, Rose bravely cared for fifty-one wounded soldiers, even after a rocket-propelled grenade punched shards of metal into his hand and foot. Rose was put forward for a medal shortly thereafter, but his nomination was shelved, and his service buried, for the next four decades because of where it took place: not in Vietnam, but next door in Laos. In fact, Rose’s would be the first such honor to expressly acknowledge the service of a U.S. soldier on the ground in Laos. (In 2010, President Obama awarded a Medal of Honor posthumously to Air Force Sergeant Richard Etchberger, more than forty-two years after he died, in a separate incident in the hills of Laos.)

A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA by Joshua Kurlantzick Simon & Schuster, 336 pp.

A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA
by Joshua Kurlantzick
Simon & Schuster, 336 pp.

What were servicemen like Rose doing in Laos? And why was their service in this tiny, landlocked nation kept under wraps for so long? As we learn in Joshua Kurlantzick’s A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA, these men were there in part to divert attention from an anticommunist operation, unprecedented in scale, being led by the Central Intelligence Agency elsewhere in the country.

The results of the so-called Secret War in Laos, neither disclosed to the American people nor authorized by their representatives in Congress, were devastating. It lasted more than a decade, leading to the deaths of more than 200,000 Laotians, about one-tenth of the country’s total population. Nearly twice as many were wounded, and almost a million Laotians were made refugees in their own country. Laos became the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. And when all was said and done, after the United States withdrew, a Communist government quickly assumed power, and rules Laos to this day.

While our servicemen performed countless heroic acts during the Vietnam War, Americans now acknowledge that it was a catastrophe for the U.S.—a foreign policy failure as well as a humanitarian disaster. President Obama himself said of Indochina in 2016, “[U]ltimately, Nixon withdrew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter, and authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell. . . . In what way did that strategy promote our interests?”

And yet, as Kurlantzick shows in his timely new book, the CIA does not share this assessment. In fact, an internal CIA report declared the agency’s paramilitary operations in Laos “the most successful ever mounted.” The war in Laos marked a turning point for the CIA, changing forever the agency’s size and power, and therefore the way the U.S. wages war. According to Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, we need look no further than today’s fight against terrorism to discover the enduring legacy of the Secret War in Laos.

When I lived in Laos at the end of the twentieth century, the country barely registered on the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s radar, but in the 1950s, Laos was at its very center. As the Cold War heated up, President Dwight Eisenhower was convinced, as he told his successor, John F. Kennedy, that Laos was the “cork in the bottle. . . . [I]f Laos fell, then Thailand, the Philippines, and, of course, [Taiwan] would go.” Kennedy believed him, and Laos received more attention than any other foreign policy issue during the first months of the new administration—Vietnam itself was deemed “peripheral.”

No sooner had Laos achieved its independence from France in 1954 than its internal affairs were plagued by the unabashed meddling of its neighbors, as well as powers further afield. With a king who had more interest in his antique car collection than the affairs of state, and a ruling class unable to work together for the good of the country, Laos was indeed vulnerable. To prevent the country from falling to Communist forces, supported by North Vietnam, the U.S. considered airlifting nearly 250,000 troops into Laos, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff even discussed launching tactical nuclear weapons. Recognizing, as he put it in May 1961, that “the chances of eradicating the Communist position in Laos . . . are practically nil,” Kennedy ended talk of a ground war there. But while a July 1962 agreement among the Americans, Soviets, Vietnamese, and others guaranteed the neutrality of Laos, the policy of the United States was primarily to ensure that an anticommunist regime remained in power.

With a conventional war off the table, it fell to the CIA to implement a strategy to counter the Laotian Communists and distract and weaken the North Vietnamese. Operation Momentum began in 1961 as a modest effort to recruit, train, and arm guerrilla fighters from the Hmong, one of the largest ethnic minority groups in Laos. Concerned about what a stronger national government under the Communists would mean for the freedom of his people, the Hmong leader, Vang Pao, preferred to fight for a weak, decentralized, non-communist state.

Eventually, the CIA would build a proxy army of hill tribes in Laos that numbered in the tens of thousands. Beginning in 1964, this effort on the ground was supported by a limited bombing campaign. As the anticommunist forces faltered, however, the U.S. air war ramped up. According to Kurlantzick, by January 1968 twenty sorties a day were being flown into Laos from U.S. bases in Thailand; by the end of 1969, there were roughly 300. As a U.S. diplomat put it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that October, “Well, we had all those planes sitting around and couldn’t just let them stay there with nothing to do.” (These figures almost certainly underestimate the frequency of the bombing. Kurlantzick seems to be referring only to CIA missions, which were in addition to official U.S. Air Force mission totals; according to Air Force records, 148,069 sorties were flown into Laos in 1969, or 405 per day.)

As they faced more and stronger North Vietnamese forces in Laos, the CIA-led anticommunists continued to struggle. The Hmong, once so fiercely independent, became wholly reliant on U.S. aid—including rice, dropped from the sky. Even after President Nixon took office with a promise to end the war, the bombing continued. It did not stop until March 1973. The sheer tonnage of cluster bombs that had been dropped on Laos was breathtaking: the equivalent of one planeload every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day, for nine years. Up to 30 percent of these bombs failed to detonate, and they continue to kill and injure Laotian villagers to this day.

While shocking, the history of the Secret War is not new. I first absorbed it after arriving in Laos in the late 1990s, when I managed to get my hands on a copy of Roger Warner’s then recently published Shooting at the Moon. But Kurlantzick’s book benefits from contemporaneous CIA accounts of the operation, which have since been declassified. He also took advantage of an increased willingness by those involved in Operation Momentum to discuss the past, interviewing several key players before they passed away—including Bill Lair, an archetypal “quiet American” who spent the 1950s training Thai paratroopers, and whom Kurlantzick credits with discovering the fighting potential of the Hmong in Laos. He died in 2014.

Among the more colorful figures featured in A Great Place to Have a War is Tony Poe, a former Marine who, a colleague said, liked to “straddle the thin line between life and death.” He arrived in Laos in 1961 to help train the Hmong, and ended up retreating into the jungle with his own private militia, a band of hill tribe fighters loyal to him alone. He allegedly promised his men a bounty for the severed ears of Communists, and even stuck the heads of those he killed on spikes as a warning to his enemies. (Though Francis Ford Coppola denies it, some speculate that Poe was the model for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.) Poe is said to have lost his mind completely as the war effort faltered; he seemed to have regained it by the time Kurlantzick interviewed him in Bangkok before Poe died in 2003.

Upon my return to the U.S. from Laos, I joined the nascent effort to publicize and address the legacy of the Secret War in Laos. What struck me as extraordinary was not that the U.S. effort remained secret for so long. Rather, it was that the war effort continued for so long after it ceased to be secret. The truth about the U.S. bombing campaign was revealed at least as early as April 1968, when it was reported in Le Monde. The U.S. government’s insistence on denying what was plainly true resulted in one of my favorite public exchanges from this period. Senator J. William Fulbright, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, faced with the steadfast stonewalling of the U.S. ambassador to Laos, William Sullivan, at a 1969 hearing, exclaimed, “Doesn’t this ever strike you as sort of an absurdity? [The Vietnamese] are pretending they are not there, and we are pretending we are not there.”

American Fred Branfman, who, like other key characters in A Great Place to Have a War, only recently passed away, played a key role in bringing the U.S. bombing to light. Posted to Vientiane in 1967 with International Voluntary Services, he encountered refugees who had fled to the capital to escape the carnage of the air war. He collected their stories, including simple line drawings showing how their relatives and neighbors had been killed, and how they had hidden in caves for years before fleeing. He published these accounts in Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War, and used it to challenge U.S. officials who insisted, at first, that no bombing was taking place and, then, that it did not target civilian areas—most memorably in an appearance from the gallery during another of Ambassador Sullivan’s updates to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (The voices of the victims Branfman showcased remain among the few we’ve ever heard; I do wish Kurlantzick had supplemented his first-person accounts of CIA swashbuckling with a few words from the people who didn’t understand where the bombs came from, or even what they were.)

Branfman’s surprise appearance before Senator Fulbright’s committee in April 1971 made the NBC Nightly News. And yet, the bombing continued unopposed. The New York Times devoted an entire op-ed page to the bombing, and the story appeared on the CBS Evening News. And yet, it continued. In July 1973, Anthony Lewis wrote in his Times column, “No American should be able to read [Branfman’s] book without weeping at his country’s arrogance.” Yet it remained largely unacknowledged for the next four decades.

The last time I saw Branfman, we shared a beer near the banks of the Mekong during a return visit to Vientiane. He continued to struggle with the enormity of the tragedy he had helped to uncover—and his failure to inspire others to bring it to an end. As he wrote, “I realized that the problem wasn’t that my leaders hated these Lao. They simply did not care.” Ambassador Sullivan confirmed, before passing away in 2013, that the air war in Laos caused him “no personal anguish.” Even antiwar activists, armed with the knowledge of the air war, did not seem sufficiently moved to fight it.

Over time, I’ve come to think of “secrecy,” as it relates to the war in Laos, as something of a matter of choice—less a question of not knowing than not wanting to know.

After finishing Kurlantzick’s book, I pulled my worn copy of Senator Fulbright’s collection of essays from 1966, The Arrogance of Power, off the shelf. At the time, Fulbright was focused on the question of whether or not the U.S. should be policing the world. As powerful as it had become, could the U.S. really “create stability where there is chaos”? As Kurlantzick reveals, the goal of the CIA in Laos was precisely the reverse: to create chaos where stability might have prevailed, if given the chance. In that sense, the effort was a success. “It was a sacred war. A good war,” a former CIA officer remembered.

What makes A Great Place to Have a War such a valuable contribution is Kurlantzick’s account of how the CIA itself was changed by the Secret War. Before Laos, the CIA was a small agency focused on intelligence gathering and analysis. It had never before launched a significant paramilitary operation. Determining how to do so presented the CIA with a unique opportunity to increase its power, budget, and influence. And fighting the Communists by proxy met the executive branch’s need to avoid consulting Congress or committing ground troops, increasingly unacceptable to the American public. While more than 30,000 Hmong were killed over the course of Operation Momentum, 728 Americans died, nearly all CIA operatives, contractors, or military personnel on loan to the CIA. (More than 57,000 Americans died in Vietnam.)

Laos would serve as a template for the proxy fights to come, Kurlantzick writes, an “archetype for agency paramilitary operations—and a new way for the president to unilaterally declare war and then secretly order massive attacks.” While a posting to Laos became career suicide for U.S. diplomats after 1975, wartime experience in Laos was highly valued by those looking to advance within the ranks of the CIA. Tony Poe, who had touched the heart of darkness, unwittingly became the model for the ideal agency man.

Today, the CIA’s paramilitary branch is as important to the agency’s mission as the division responsible for intelligence gathering. A militarized CIA—overseeing targeted killing missions, helping to manage the drone strike program—is now a fixture of the executive branch, accepted by the other pillars of the foreign policy establishment. In 2015, the agency’s senior paramilitary specialist became head of its entire clandestine service.

In September 2016, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president in history to visit Laos. During the visit, the culmination of years of careful cultivation of bilateral ties, including visits by Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Obama announced a major increase in U.S. funds to clean up the unexploded bombs leftover from the Secret War. During a speech in Vientiane, the president recounted the history of the bombing and its toll on the people of Laos. “At the time,” he said, “the U.S. government did not acknowledge America’s role. It was a secret war, and for years, the American people did not know. . . . Today, I stand with you in acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict.”

The next day, he visited a rehabilitation center for victims of unexploded ordnance and then traveled to Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos and a city of stunning beauty. Standing on the grounds of an ancient Buddhist temple, mercifully spared by the U.S. bombing campaign, Obama spoke of turning the page on this dark chapter of America’s history, striking a humble, yet strategic, tone. “When we are able to come here, show respect for [Laotian] culture, recognize our history, and point towards a future in which we can work together,” he said, “we will actually have more influence. We’ll be able to promote our ideals more effectively.”

After decades of denial and avoidance, the U.S. has finally begun to take responsibility for its actions in Laos. The questions raised by the Secret War, however, remain unanswered. Kurlantzick tentatively poses some: “Who should have the power to wage war? How can a secret proxy war be monitored or eventually curtailed? What happens to the entire idea of war when an attack can be launched remotely?” These are the issues Senator Fulbright raised while the war was being fought. They are the same questions with which President Obama wrestled—more openly than his predecessors—as he sought to bring American troops home while keeping up the fight against terrorism. Kurlantzick provides no answers, but his important new book lays the groundwork for a fresh examination. The Secret War in Laos is no longer a secret; its continued influence on American foreign policy shouldn’t be either.

Brett Dakin

Brett Dakin, the author of Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos, has served as chair of Legacies of War, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the Vietnam War–era bombing of Laos, and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.