THE CIA, AIR AMERICA, THE VIETNAM WAR AND U.S. INVOLVEMENT IN THE FIGHTING IN LAOS IN THE 1960s

U.S. INVOLVEMENT IN THE FIGHTING IN LAOS IN THE 1960s

There were two rival royal governments in Laos from the beginning of 1961, the Boun Oum-Phoumi Nosavan government at Vientiane and the Souvanna Phouma government at Khang Khay. The Pathet Lao, protected by the presence of thousands of North Vietnamese troops, constituted a third faction in what became a rightist-Neutralist-leftist division. *

As Kennedy was preparing to take office in 1961, U.S. President Eisenhower recommended that America give military assistance support to Laos if the North Vietnamese intervention there continued. Within two months after take office, Kennedy sent troops to Thailand adjoining Laos as part of the “neutralization” of Laos. He didn’t want to send troops directly to Laos. The CIA and some Special Forces unit secretly however set up shop there. The CIA’s infamous Air America began with four helicopters, delivered in March 1960.

According to Lonely Planet: The new US administration of President John F Kennedy had second thoughts about fighting a war in Laos. In an about-face it decided instead to back Lao neutrality. In May 1961 a new conference on Laos was convened in Geneva. Progress was slow, however, because the three Lao factions could not agree on a political compromise that would allow a second coalition government to be formed. The right under General Phoumi was particularly recalcitrant. It took temporary suspension of US aid and a military defeat in northern Laos to convince the right to cooperate. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

Eventually the ‘three princes’ (Souvanna Phouma for the neutralists, Souphanouvong for the Pathet Lao, and Boun Oum, hereditary prince of Champasak and then leader of the right) agreed to the composition of a second coalition government that balanced equal Pathet Lao and rightist representation (with four each), but left the neutralists with a deciding majority (with 11 positions). Delegates of the 14 participating countries reassembled in Geneva in July 1962 to sign the international agreement guaranteeing Lao neutrality and forbidding the presence of all foreign military personnel. In Laos the new coalition government took office buoyed by popular goodwill and hope. =

Within months, however, cracks began to appear in the façade of the coalition. The problem was the war in Vietnam. Both the North Vietnamese and the Americans were jockeying for strategic advantage, and neither was going to let Lao neutrality get in the way. Despite the terms of the Geneva Agreements, both continued to provide their respective clients with arms and supplies. But no outside power did the same for the neutralists, who found themselves increasingly squeezed between left and right. =

For the Vietnamese, Lao neutrality was designed to maintain existing de facto spheres of military control: the right in the Mekong lowlands; the Pathet Lao in the eastern highlands; with a few neutralist units loyal to Souvanna Phouma in between. Moreover, Hanoi expected the Lao government to turn a blind eye to its use of Lao territory to infiltrate personnel and supplies into South Vietnam along what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail – as Cambodia did. For the Americans, Lao neutrality was designed precisely to prevent such infiltration. For both sides the most strategically important area was the Plain of Jars, and this quickly became the principal battleground. As control of the plain would enable the US to threaten North Vietnam, Hanoi moved to prevent this – first by driving out Kong Le’s neutralists; then by turning their attention to the CIA-trained Hmong ‘secret army’ still supplied by the US in the mountains surrounding the plain. =

Early U.S. Involvement in Laos

As parts it Cold War battle against Communism in Southeast Asia, the United States provided aid to the anti-Communist government in Laos as well as elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The United States propped up the economy and government of Laos. The Americans helped build a few bridges and road and supplied textbooks for schools but most of what they provided had military aims. The first “technicians,” arrived in the 1950s to train the Royal Lao Army and aid Hmong guerillas under Vang Pao.

As Kennedy was preparing to take office, U.S. President Eisenhower recommended that America give military assistance support to Laos if the North Vietnamese intervention there continued. Within two months after take office, Kennedy sent troops to Thailand adjoining Laos as part of the “neutralization” of Laos. He didn’t want to send troops directly to Laos. The CIA and some Special Forces unit secretly however set up shop there. The CIA’s infamous Air America began with four helicopters, delivered in March 1960.

By the time the Vietnam War had started up in the mid 1960s, the United States and Thailand were propping up the right wing government in Vientiane, with Thai mercenaries fighting among the ranks of Laotian army while North Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union were supporting the Pathet Lao, which in turn was helping the Viet Cong in Vietnam and northeast Laos. For a while it looked as if the Cold War Superpower showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union was going to be played out in Laos rather than Vietnam.

Laos was the only country involved in the fighting in the Vietnam War that maintained diplomatic relations with the United States. Laos’s role in the war was always a little bit strange and murky. One journalist called it the "Land of a Million Irrelevants."

United States support of Souvanna Phouma's government in the face of continuing North Vietnamese aggression did not constitute, technically speaking, a violation of the terms of the 1962 Geneva Protocol, as Radio Hanoi and Radio Pathet Lao charged. It did not involve Laos in a military alliance, and there were no United States military bases or ground troops in Laos. Supply flights to RLG outposts were flown by civilian companies under charter to Souvanna Phouma's government. United States military pilots in civilian clothes, their names deleted from Department of Defense rosters, flew forward air control missions over Laos. United States pilots killed or captured in Laos often were officially described as lost "in Southeast Asia." CIA advisers assisted the guerrilla units of General Vang Pao's Hmong army, which, along with irregular forces in the south, was supplied with rice, arms, and pay by CIA operatives based at Udon Thani in Thailand. The total number of CIA personnel involved in this effort never exceeded 225 and included some fifty case officers. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Political and Diplomatic Activity Over Laos in the 1960s

By the end of 1963, as each side denounced the other for violating the Geneva Agreements, the Second Coalition Government had irrevocably broken down. Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma struggled to keep a façade intact, but Pathet Lao ministers had fled Vientiane, and neutralists had been cowered by the assassination of their foreign minister. It was in the interests of all powers, however, to preserve the façade of Lao neutrality, and international diplomatic support was brought to bear for Souvanna Phouma to prevent rightist generals from seizing power in coups mounted in 1964 and 1965. [Source: Lonely Planet]

On the periphery of the plenary sessions at Geneva, Harriman and his deputy, William H. Sullivan, had arrived at an informal understanding with Soviet deputy foreign minister Georgi M. Pushkin to the effect that as long as the United States did not technically violate the Geneva Protocol the Soviet Union would not feel compelled, out of consideration of its ally in Hanoi, to respond to United States activities in Laos. The official curtain of secrecy associated with this arrangement gave rise later to statements in Congress that the United States was engaged in a "secret war" in Laos, a perspective that obscured the Ho Chi Minh government of responsibility for its support of the communist-dominated resistance movement in Laos since 1945. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Souvanna Phouma was having problems of his own because of the peculiar nature of the Cold War in Laos. In April 1964, he visited Hanoi and Beijing. Premier Zhou Enlai reiterated China's support for the 1954 and 1962 Geneva agreements and advised Souvanna Phouma to dissociate the Laos question from the Vietnam question, a difficult task. Hanoi seemed to have succeeded in its strategy of making "one battlefield" out of Indochina--Cambodia, Laos, South Vietnam--and the Ho Chi Minh Trail now extended through Laos and Cambodia. *

After a new tripartite meeting on the embattled Plain of Jars, Souvanna Phouma returned to Vientiane without any result and announced his intention to resign. Two rightist generals took advantage of the situation, staged a coup attempt, and arrested Souvanna Phouma. Only concerted action by Western ambassadors in the capital secured his release. Souvanna Phouma pledged to merge the rightist and Neutralist factions. *

There was further infighting among the generals. In February 1965, General Phoumi, whose business dealings had earned him many enemies on the noncommunist side, left for Thailand. With the formal merger of their faction with the rightists, Neutralist leaders increasingly felt their lives to be in danger. Kong Le eventually took refuge in the Indonesian embassy in Vientiane, leaving Laos soon after for the safety of Paris. He was replaced as commander of Neutralist troops by General Sengsouvanh Souvannarath. *

U.S. Secret War in Vietnam

As the Vietnam war was developing and playing out a parallel war, aimed at weakening the North Vietnamese, was occurring in Laos. This conflict, which became known as the "Secret War,” lasted for roughly 10 years and took the lives of 500 Americans and between 35,000 and 200,000 Laotians. Strategically the war in Laos was seen as a way of diverting PAVN divisions from the Vietnam War without the commitment of significant US forces.

This “Secret War” raged in Laos largely without the world knowing what was going on. The war in Laos, which ran alongside the conflict in Vietnam, was so secret that U.S. participants were not supposed to refer to the country by name. It was conducted in secret until 1969 to maintain the myth that Laos was neutral and was not publically acknowledged. Peter Arnett, who wrote a groundbreaking story about events in Laos in the 1960s, said later, "Laos was a black hole during the war. A lot went on there that we didn't know about."

One of the major objectives of the Secret War once the Vietnam War was in full swing was to disrupt the North Vietnamese supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail—the supply route for weapons and supplies from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. Most of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, went through Laos. The Pathet Lao worked with the North Vietnamese to open up it up. Many of the U.S. B-52s bombing raids in Laos were part of the effort to cripple the Ho Chi Minh supply lines. See Vietnam

The American presence in Laos was limited mainly to a few hundred pilots, trainers and support personnel that didn’t do much fighting other than participate in bombing mission. This was nothing compared to the North Vietnamese presence in Laos. There were tens of thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers and thousands of Pathet Lao members they trained. For a while an entire North Vietnamese division, with 55,000 men and women, was stationed in northern Laos.

Books: Air America by Christopher Robbins; Cover Ops: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos by James E. Parker Jr.; War in Laos 1954-1975 by Kenneth Conboy; The Ravens by Christopher Robbins.

CIA and Special Forces in Vietnam and Laos

The CIA worked with the U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets) and CIA-trained Thai Special Service to establish the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), made up of 50,000 members of various ethnic groups, including the Hmong (mostly in Laos) and Montagnards, Khmer and Nung (mostly in Vietnam). They fought countless skirmishes and battles against Communists in Vietnam and Laos. One of their primary missions was disrupt supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. To this day, according to William M. Leary, a University of Georgia historian who analyzed Laotian operations for the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, CIA-led covert action in Laos was the largest paramilitary operation in the history of the Agency.

The headquarters for the operation in Laos was Long Tieng, a complex of barracks, training facilities and air strip that didn’t appear on any map but was the second largest city in Laos and one of the busiest airports in the world. Many reconnaissance and intelligence missions were run from here. Over 400 other air strips and facilities were scattered around Laos. There were so many that Laos by some counts had more airstrips than paved roads.

As part of their effort to combat Communism, the CIA helped expand the opium trade in Southeast Asia—first in Laos, then in Burma and finally in Vietnam—to help groups fighting Communism raise money and sew instability. See Below and See Opium Under Southeast Asia.

In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama posthumously recognized Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. "Dick" Etchberger for his courage under fire in 1968 during a mission on a remote Laotian mountain that was kept secret for decades because the U.S. wasn't supposed to have troops in the officially neutral Southeast Asian country. Etchberger was awarded the nation's highest military award, the Medal of Honor, after the government declassified his mission.

CIA Air Support of the War in Laos 1954 to 1975

In “The CIA's Airlines: Logistic Air Support of the War in Laos 1954 to 1975", Martin Best wrote: US military personnel usually worked as military advisors but one exception was the provision of Forward Air Controllers (FACs), who flew Cessna O-1 Bird Dog, O-2 Super Skymaster and U-17 spotter planes to mark enemy targets for attack my Royal Lao Air Force (RLAF) T-28 or USAF fighter-bombers based in Thailand or South Vietnam. These FAC pilots were known as “Ravens” after their radio call sign. Most of the Ravens worked out of Long Tieng, but a few were also stationed in Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Pakse. US military personnel transferred to Laos were “sheep dipped” out of the services and employed as civilians assigned to USAID Laos. [Source: “The CIA's Airlines: Logistic Air Support of the War in Laos 1954 to 1975" Martin Best \*\]

The principal logistical base for CIA operations in Laos was at Udorn (aka Udon Thani) in northeast Thailand, across the Mekong River from Laos and Vientiane, but the day-to-day campaign was directed from the US Embassy in Vientiane. Advisors to GM in the various MRs would generally return to Vientiane to debrief each evening and return to the field in the morning with new orders and supplies using air transport provided by the CIA's airlines. The security situation generally did not allow the aircraft or advisors to remain in the field overnight (RON). The headquarters of the USAID Laos operation was in Vientiane with contractors' aircraft being based at Vientiane's Wattay airport (Lima 08), which had runway and control facilities provided by USAID. A USAID civilian hospital was built at Sam Thong (LS20), about 5 kilometer from Long Tieng (LS20A), to care for the refugee population in that area, as well as military casualties that could not be treated at Long Tieng. \*\

USAID Laos responsibilities included the development of agriculture, education, public health, and construction projects, in cooperation with the RLG. The CIA was responsible for military aid within the US mission, which also included representatives of the USIS. The aircraft used by these two airlines were often interchanged, complicating the definition of fleet lists. Aircraft were also “loaned” to the airlines by the US armed forces, devoid of national markings, where overt military support was not politically acceptable. In these circumstances it is difficult to identify which US military aircraft were operated by the US airlines and generally these loans are not recorded in aircraft production lists. \*\

The roles of the US airlines supporting CIA and USAID operations in Laos included: aircraft maintenance and repair; casualty evacuation; communication flights; evacuation and relocation of refugees; insertion, re-supply and extraction of road watch teams and patrols; photo-reconnaissance; psychological warfare; recovery of damaged aircraft; search and rescue; supply of food (“soft rice”) and weapons & ammunition (“hard rice”); surveillance, including signals intelligence and the monitoring of ground sensors; and troop transport. \*\

Communication flights included the regular CASI ‘milk run' from Bangkok to Udorn and Vientiane using C-47 aircraft. The American mission also had two ‘milk run' flights each day from Vientiane to Northern and Southern Laos. The aircraft were Air America C-47s or occasionally C-46s. Heading north they landed at Luang Prabang, Sayaboury and Ban Houai Sai. Going south they stopped at Savannakhet, Pakse, and Attopeu. On the return trips they made the same stops. STOL Helio Courier aircraft were used at the smaller landing strips but these were later replaced by Pilatus Porter aircraft, with DHC Caribou STOL transports handling larger loads to the longer strips. C-46 and C-123B transports were used to drop commodities such as food and ammunition. Helicopters used included the piston Sikorsky H-34 and turbine Bell JetRanger. \*\

There were few roads in the country, and none of them were usable except in the immediate vicinity of the larger towns along the Mekong River. In most areas, roads were non-existent. Where they did exist, lack of maintenance and poor security often precluded their use – particularly in the hinterland, where most of the fighting and displacement of the civil population occurred. A road was eventually built between Vientiane and Long Tieng. During the periods when there was a moratorium on the Rolling Thunder bombing of North Vietnam, extra resources were available to bomb Laos instead. The second Indochina War left Laos with the dubious distinction of being the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of warfare. \*\

Air America

The CIA set up an airline called Air America that was involved n various activities associated with the war: moving fighters, flying reconnaissance missions, dropping and picking up spies and searching for downed aircraft. Describing the Americans who flew for Air America, Christopher Robbins wrote in his book The Ravens (a code name for U.S. pilots), “The pilots in the Other Theater were military men, but flew into battle in civilian clothes: denim cut-offs, T-shirts, cowboy hats and dark glasses...They fought with obsolete aircraft...suffered the highest casualty rate of the Indochina war, as high as 50 percent...Each pilot was obliged to carry a small pill of lethal shellfish toxin, especially created by the CIA, which he had sworn to take if he ever fell into the hands of the enemy.

The Ravens often flew in single-prop Cessnas. Their primary missions was to mark North Vietnamese army positions with phosphorous smoke rockets to guide the bombing missions of the enemy targets. The conventional wings of the military flew F-4 Phantoms, A-7 Corsair IIS and Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, Some 400 pilots died in combat. Another 400 were Missing in Action.

In “The CIA's Airlines: Logistic Air Support of the War in Laos 1954 to 1975", Martin Best wrote: Air America, Inc. was reportedly formed in July 1950 as a 100 percent-owned subsidiary of the Pacific Corporation and undertook worldwide charter and contract operations primarily in the Far East. Air America operated supply-dropping missions in Laos under contract to the USAID. Air America was owned by the CIA and played a leading role in logistic air support of the CIA's forces in Laos from 1959 to 1974. When the US wars in Southeast Asia were over, Air America's surviving aircraft were sold and the company was liquidated. Money ($20 million) raised from the sale of aircraft, e.g. via Omni Aircraft Sales Inc., was returned to the US Treasury. [Source: “The CIA's Airlines: Logistic Air Support of the War in Laos 1954 to 1975" Martin Best /*/]

During the war, Air America flew throughout South Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia, but their main operations were in Laos. Air America provided air support for American objectives in Laos, mainly through USAID. Their main objective was logistical. They supplied General Vang Pao's 45,000-man army in MR II. Probably the biggest part of Air America's mission was support of refugee supply, movement and resettlement. Because no US military planes were permitted to be based inside Laos, Air America came to play an essential role with its helicopters, transports and STOL aircraft. Air America provided the only Air Rescue Service in the area during the early 1960s. /*/

The formal Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos, signed on 23 July 1962, provided for a coalition government and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country by 7 October. The United States pulled out its 666 military advisers and support staff, and Air America stopped dropping weapons to the Hmong. Air America's operations declined sharply in 1963. Restricted to food supply to the Hmong, which averaged 40 tons a month by the summer, the airline laid off people and mothballed aircraft. By May 1963, the number of UH-34s assigned to Udorn had dropped from 18 to 6. Flight hours, which had averaged 2,000 per month before the Geneva Accords, dropped to 600. /*/

By 1966 Air America had almost 6,000 employees. At its peak in 1970, Air America had the largest airline fleet in the world, in terms of numbers of aircraft owned, although a lot of these aircraft were small or helicopters. Air America operated up to 30,000 flights per month by 1970. By the summer of 1970 the airline had some two dozen twin-engine transports, another two dozen STOL aircraft, and some 30 helicopters dedicated to operations in Laos. During 1970, Air America airdropped or landed over 20,000 tons of foodstuffs (mainly rice) in Laos and helicopter flight time reached more than 4,000 hours a month. In Vietnam, Air America served about 12,000 passengers monthly. These included USAID people, missionaries, military personnel, correspondents, government officials and nurses. Up to 40 aircraft were based in Vietnam. /*/

Air America men were among the last to leave when Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam collapsed. Many Air America aircraft were shot down and lost. 243 men were killed in action while working with Air America; 100 AAM personnel died in Laos, including 23 crewmembers that died in flight operations. Eleven AAM crewmembers were lost in the three years 1965, 1966 and 1967, of which five were due to enemy action. Between December 1971 and April 1972, six AAM crewmembers died in Laos. In December alone, 24 aircraft were hit by ground fire and three were shot down. /*/

In 1950, the CIA, which supported but did not command covert action (until 1952), CIA determined that it could best meet its support responsibilities with a proprietary airline under its clandestne control. "In August 1950, the Agency secretly purchased the assets of Civil Air Transport (CAT), an airline that had been started in China after World War II by Gen. Claire L. Chennault and Whiting Willauer. CAT would continue to fly commercial routes throughout Asia, acting in every way as a privately owned commercial airline. At the same time, under the corporate guise of CAT Incorporated, it provided airplanes and crews for secret intelligence operations. During the Korean War, for example, it made more than 100 hazardous overflights of mainland China, airdropping agents and supplies." /*/

Christopher Robbins has written a history of Air America in “Air America: the story of the CIA's secret airlines.”

Vietnam War Air Mission Over Laos

Martin Best wrote in “The CIA's Airlines: Logistic Air Support of the War in Laos 1954 to 1975": “Laos was divided into five Military Regions (MR). MR I was in the northwest, including Luang Prabang and the borders with Burma and China; MR II was in the northeast, including Long Tieng, Sam Neua and Sam Thong; MR III consisted of the central panhandle region, including Savannakhet and much of the Ho Chi Minh trail. MR IV was in the south, including Pakse and the Bolovens Plateau; finally MR V consisted of the neutral zone around Vientiane. [Source:“The CIA's Airlines: Logistic Air Support of the War in Laos 1954 to 1975" by Martin Best <~>]

“When compared to South Vietnam, Laos was a more dangerous place in which to fly. Apart from enemy ground fire there were other problems to contend with. The maps of Laos during the early days were very inaccurate and pilots had to read the ground, watching for landmarks below them to ensure that they did not get lost. Apart from the monsoon season, Laos also had a man-made season when the villagers set fire to their fields in preparation for the year's planting. The whole country became enveloped in a blue smog that reduced visibility to half a mile or less. <~>

“During the Second Indo-China War, approximately three million people populated Laos. Of these, nearly half were lowland Laotians from the Tai linguistic group that migrated from southern China beginning in the 13th century. The vast majority of these lowlanders are peasant farmers and Buddhists. Living along the mountain slopes are the diverse Lao Theung, which account for up to 30 percent of the total population. Descended from the Mon-Khmer ethnic group, the darker Lao Theung have historically been discriminated against by the lowland Laotians. The Lao Theung is fragmented into dozens of tribes that speak mutually unintelligible dialects. On the mountain tops live the Sino-Tibetan hill tribes, comprising 20 percent of the population. The most important of these tribes are the Hmong (Meo) and the Mien (Yao). The Hmong, in particular, are renowned as among the fiercest warriors in Southeast Asia. The geography of Laos is well described in Tragedy in Paradise, which also describes the USAID public health programme from 1963 to 1974.” <~>

Shot Down in a Vietnam War Mission Over Laos

Robert M. Poole and Paul Hul wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Night closed over Laos, where clouds were piling up over the rugged mountain jungle. An American pilot, on a mission to disrupt enemy traffic bound for North Vietnam, was flying into trouble. The artificial horizon on his A-1 Skyraider, a single-prop workhorse of World War II vintage, had suddenly stopped functioning, making it impossible for him to gauge his position among the clouds. [Source: Robert M. Poole and Paul Hu, Smithsonian magazine, August 2006 /~/]

“Dizzy and disoriented, Air Force Capt. Michael J. "Bat" Masterson radioed to a companion flying nearby that he was ejecting. "I'm losing it and getting out," Masterson barked. At this, the wingman, Air Force Maj. Peter W. Brown, began a sharp turn to avoid colliding with Masterson. Halfway through this maneuver, Brown saw an orange fireball light up the jungle. Masterson's plane was down. Brown noted the time and date—6:55 p.m., October 13, 1968. But where was Masterson? /~/

“Brown circled the crash site for more than two hours, searching for some sign of life, until his fuel gauge dipped dangerously low, forcing him to break off and return to home base in Thailand. Other aircraft took over the search at first light, scanning the site for hints of movement. There were none, just the fuselage of a Skyraider drilled into the steep mountainside, a pair of broken wings smoldering nearby, but no Bat Masterson. Had he parachuted to safety? Had he been captured by Pathet Lao troops, the Communists controlling this corner of Laos? Had he ridden his Skyraider into the ground?” /~/

See MIAs

CIA and the Opium Trade in Laos

As part of their effort to combat Communism, the CIA allegedly helped expand the opium trade in Southeast Asia—first in Laos, then in Burma and finally in Vietnam—to help groups fighting Communism raise money and sew instability. There is much controversy about how deeply the CIA was involved in the Southeast Asia drug trade. If the CIA was not involved in the drug trade, it did know about it. As former DCI William Colby acknowledged, the Agency did little about it during the 1960s, but later took action against the traders as drugs became a problem among American troops in Vietnam. The CIA's main focus in Laos remained on fighting the war, not on policing the drug trade. See Opium Under Southeast Asia.

William M. Leary, the University of Georgia historian, wrote: “For more than 13 years, the Agency directed native forces that fought major North Vietnamese units to a standstill.... As Joseph Westermeyer, who spent the years 1965 to 1975 in Laos as a physician, public health worker, and researcher, wrote in Poppies, Pipes, and People: "American-owned airlines never knowingly transported opium in or out of Laos, nor did their American pilots ever profit from its transport. Yet every plane in Laos undoubtedly carried opium at some time, unknown to the pilot and his superiors--just as had virtually every pedicab, every Mekong River sampan, and every missionary jeep between China and the Gulf of Siam."

According to Alfred McCoy, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, the French administration of Indochina had financed its covert operations with the drug trade, and the CIA had simply replaced the French, to finance similar operations. He said he was told by retired general Maurice Belleux, the former head of the French equivalent of the CIA that the French military intelligence had financed all their covert operations from the control of the Indochina drug trade: “The French paratroopers fighting with hill tribes collected the opium and French aircraft would fly the opium down to Saigon and the Sino-Vietnamese mafia that was the instrument of French intelligence would then distribute the opium. The central bank accounts, the sharing of the profits, was all controlled by French military intelligence. He concluded the interview by telling me that it was his information that the CIA had taken over the French assets and were pursuing something of the same policy.

“During the 40 years of the cold war, from the late 1940s to this year, the CIA pursued a policy that I call radical pragmatism. Their mission was to stop communism and in pursuit of that mission they would ally with anyone and do anything to fight communism. During the long years of the cold war the CIA mounted major covert guerilla operations along the Soviet-Chinese border. The CIA recruited as allies people we now call drug lords for their operation against communist China in northeastern Burma in 1950, then from 1965 to 1975 [during the Vietnam war] their operation in northern Laos and throughout the decade of the 1980s, the Afghan operation against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

“Powerful, upland political figures control the societies and economies in these regions and part of that panoply of power is the opium trade. The CIA extended the mantle of their alliance to these drug lords and in every case the drug lords used it to expand a small local trade in opium into a major source of supply for the world markets and the United States. While they were allied with the United States these drug lords were absolutely immune to any kind of investigation. If you're involved in any kind of illicit commodity trade, organized crime activity like drug trafficking, there is only one requisite for success, immunity, and the CIA gave them that. As long as they were allied with the CIA, the local police and then the DEA stayed away from the drug lords.”

Fighting Involving American-Supported Forces in Laos

In “The CIA's Airlines: Logistic Air Support of the War in Laos 1954 to 1975", Martin Best wrote: “Unlike the North Vietnamese, the Lao are peace-loving people and the Royalist and Pathet Lao forces were militarily less than effective. The Americans soon learned to rely on the hilltribes to fight the invading PAVN in much the same way as the French had in Indochina. These forces used guerrilla tactics to oppose the conventional PAVN forces in a mirror image of the Vietcong's war in South Vietnam. Conventional but mercenary forces recruited in Thailand and paid for by the US government supported these Groupement Mobiles (GM). Thai Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU) and CIA advisors were appointed to advise the Lao and hilltribe forces in the various MRs in Laos. The indigenous Hmong guerrilla and militia forces were intent on defending their homeland from their traditional enemy, the North Vietnamese, regardless of US policies or the support of the CIA. The use of the hilltribe forces to fight conventional battles, however, led to the decimation of these untrained and poorly equipped forces and it became necessary to use the Thai mercenary forces to fight set-piece battles against the PAVN. [Source: “The CIA's Airlines: Logistic Air Support of the War in Laos 1954 to 1975" Martin Best /*/]

The early years of the war took on a seasonal pattern. During the dry season the PAVN and PL went on the offensive, applying pressure on the Hmong in northern Laos and on RLG forces throughout the country. During the monsoon season the anti-communists took advantage of the mobility provided by Air America and struck deep into enemy-occupied territory. The character of the war began to change in 1968. The North Vietnamese, impatient with the progress of the PL, introduced major new combat forces into Laos and took control of the year's dry season offensive. /*/

The Pathet Lao and PAVN forces would progressively invade the villages occupied by the hilltribe and Lao populations who would then be displaced as refugees. USAID would then try to resettle the displaced village populations in safer areas where they could plant new crops and build a short landing strip or drop zone for the supply of food until new crops could be harvested. The use of the majority of the male population of the Hmong hill tribes to fight the PL and PAVN meant that there were few able-bodied males left in the villages to provide food for the families. Food was supplied by air using the CIA and USAID's contractors: Arizona Helicopters Inc.; Bird & Sons Inc., which later became Continental Air Services Inc. (CASI), and Air America Inc. (AAM), formed out of Civil Air Transport (CAT) following the death of Major General Claire Chennault, of “Flying Tigers” fame. These US airlines used STOL aircraft to get in and out of small landing sites (LS) in remote area, as well as conventional military transports and numerous helicopters to provide air mobility and supply. /*/

Hmong and the Vietnam War

From 1959 to 1973, the CIA trained Hmong tribesmen to fight against Communist insurgencies in Laos. Many of the first recruits were Hmong guerillas who fought under the charismatic leader Vang Pao and had worked earlier with the French. The Hmong have traditionally occupied the strategic highlands in Laos overlooking North Vietnam and have traditionally been enemies of the lowland Vietnamese. They entered the conflict against Vietnamese first as scouts for the French and later as guerrillas for the Americans.

Under the guidance of the CIA and American special forces the Hmong rescued American pilots, identified targets for American bombs, fought Lao and Vietnamese communist forces, manned strategic mountain and jungle areas used by U.S. forces, disrupted and sabotaged supply lines, gathered critical intelligence and defended navigational sites in Laos that allowed precise, all-weather U.S. air strikes against enemy targets in northern Laos and North Vietnam." .

About 35,000 Hmong were recruited for the war effort. About 30,000 of them were They were key in thwarting attempts by the Vietnamese army to make major inroads into northern Laos and slowing the movement of supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Hmong had problems with helicopters though. American pilots usually kept the motor running when they landed and Hmong who had never seen them before walked right into them. More than twenty Hmong died this way in a twelve year period.

Hmong were called "damned good fighters" by the CIA. They fought bravely against some of the toughest North Vietnamese and Lao troops for 13 years and suffered from casualty rate five times higher than the rate experienced by U.S. soldiers. Over time so many Hmong were killed that by the end of the campaign many of the fighters were Thai troops recruited to take their place. But that time the war had been overtaken by a conventional war and the Hmong had outlived their usefulness.

As many as 20,000 Hmong soldiers died during the Vietnam War. Hmong civilians, who numbered about 300,000 before the war, perished by the tens of thousands.

Rescue of an American Pilot by the Hmong

Marc Kaufman wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “In a mountaintop guardpost near the village of Ban Va in central Laos, Hmong soldiers watched the American pilot eject from his burning plane. It was December 1964, early in the Vietnam War, and the pilot was on a bombing run. The Hmong, part of a secret army backed by the CIA, hoped to reach him before North Vietnamese troops in the area did. [Source: Marc Kaufman, Smithsonian magazine, September 2004]

The leader of this cadre of ragtag Hmong soldiers, Nou Yee Yang, recalls that he and his men walked for hours before reaching a field where they spotted a parachute. They found the pilot hiding in some bushes. “He was sweating and very scared because he didn’t know who we were,” Yang says. Phoumi, the Hmong soldiers said to the pilot, referring to a Laotian leader supported by the United States. The Hmong, who spoke no English, hoped the pilot would recognize the name and understand they were on the American side.

Yang says the airman was still uncertain whether the Hmong soldiers were friend or foe as they led him to another hilltop village. Their American-donated radios weren’t working, so they put the pilot’s helmet on a long stick and waved it to signal U.S. search planes. A U.S. helicopter arrived the next morning. The pilot “was smiling so much and waving his arms goodbye when he left,” Yang recalls, adding that the American presented his rescuers with his pistol as a token of gratitude.

Bill Lair, a CIA official based in Laos at the time, who directed the agency’s operations there, says Hmong soldiers risked their own lives to lead many U.S. pilots to safety. The total number of American airmen rescued by the Hmong was, according to agency spokesman Mark Mansfield, never tallied by the CIA. Yang, now 65, fled Laos after the communist takeover in 1975 and has lived in Milwaukee since 1979. He still speaks no English and has found little work in the United States other than odd jobs. Nonetheless, he says, he feels connected to this country, in part because of that pilot he rescued four decades ago. Yang never did learn the man’s name. “I wish that someday I could meet him again,” he says through an interpreter.

Another Hmong veteran in Milwaukee, Xay Dang Xiong, 61, says he commanded Hmong forces protecting a secret American radar installation on a Laotian mountaintop. Like Yang, Xiong fled Laos in 1975. Today, he works with Lao Family Community, a Hmong social service agency in Milwaukee “When we fought alongside the Americans in Laos, it was called the secret war,” he says. “Hmong people did so many dangerous things to help, but people here still don’t know that. It’s still like a secret.”

Failures and Legacy of the Secret War

As the war in Vietnam escalated and the U.S. strategy switched from small unit to big unit fighting, the CIDG posts became increasingly vulnerable to attacks, especially from North Vietnamese artillery. Large U.S. units could not be expended to help them so Special Forces created battalion-size mobile reaction units made up of ethnic minorities.

Even with their superior firepower the U.S.-supported forced were no match for the North Vietnamese forces that outnumbered and outmaneuvered then. The Americans, Thais and Hmong were forced out of Long Toeng and riven from their other bases. as the war progressed they became increasingly ineffective and on the run. They took heavy casualties and were notorious for breaking Geneva Convention protocols.

When the Hmong (Meo) army was routed by the Pathet Lao in 1968 Thai troops were recruited to take their place. In 1975 when the Pathet Lao took over Laos the U.S. knew it was abandoning the Hmong and realized the penalty they faced if left to the mercy of the Pathet Lao. Vang Pao requested evacuation for his soldiers and their families to safe haven in Thailand. The CIA station at Udon Thani offered to evacuate families of key officers. Vang Pao requested an airlift for 5,000. Facing an ultimatum, Vang Pao and twelve Hmong leaders signed a treaty on May 10 reminding the United States of the pledges made to them and agreeing to leave Laos and never return. In the next days a motley collection of planes piloted by United States volunteers, Hmong, and Lao flew out a few hundred Hmong. Vang Pao himself left on May 14, eluding the Pathet Lao at Vientiane. Though thousands of members of the ‘secret army’ and their families fled Laos, those who remained still resisted communist control. The Hmong insurgency dragged on for another 30 years.

Fighting in Laos in the 1960s

During the 1960s both the North Vietnamese and the US presence increased exponentially. By 1968 an estimated 40,000 North Vietnamese regular army troops were based in Laos to keep the Ho Chi Minh Trail open and support some 35,000 Pathet Lao forces. The Royal Lao Army then numbered 60,000 (entirely paid for and equipped by the US), Vang Pao’s forces were half that number (still under the direction of the CIA), and Kong Le’s neutralists numbered 10,000. Lao forces on both sides were entirely funded by their foreign backers. For five more years this proxy war dragged on, until the ceasefire of 1973. [Source: Lonely Planet]

From 1965 to 1973, the civil war in Laos seesawed back and forth in northern Laos, characterized by short but often very intense engagements. Because of the large areas contested, even North Vietnamese regular divisions in Laos, such as the 316th, were used in small-unit engagements during the dry season to deny control of territory and population to the other side. Population control was particularly important, because that was where recruitment for military training and transport occurred. The Hmong, in particular, suffered. Aside from the casualties, entire villages periodically had to escape the fighting, disrupting crop growing and livestock tending. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

An exception to the rule of small-scale engagements was the major North Vietnamese-Pathet Lao offensive against Vang Pao that began in mid-December 1971 and lasted until the end of April 1972. This battle involved more than twenty North Vietnamese battalions and some 10,000 Hmong irregulars and Royal Lao Army defenders. After blasting the last defensive positions on the Plain of Jars with newly introduced 130-mm guns with a thirty-kilometer range, the North Vietnamese advanced on Longtiang. They captured a number of positions on a ridge dominating the airfield before being driven off with heavy loss of life on both sides. The Hmong halted an attack of T-34 tanks against the airfield by skillfully placing land mines. *

Bombing of Laos During the Vietnam War

In 1964 the US began its air war over Laos, with strafing and bombing of communist positions on the Plain of Jars. As North Vietnamese infiltration picked up along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, bombing was extended the length of Laos. Between 1964 and 1974, the U.S. dropped two million bombs on Laos, more than they dropped worldwide in all of World War II and more than were dropped on Vietnam. Over a half million bombing missions were conducted—the equivalent of one mission every eight minutes for 24 hours a day for eight years. Laos became the world’s most heavily bombed nation per capita, with around a half ton of bombs dropped for every man, woman and child in the country.

According to official figures, the U.S. dropped 2,093,100 tons of bombs on 580,944 sorties. The total cost was $7.2 billion, or $2 million a day for nine years. No-one knows how many people died, but one-third of the population of 2.1 million became internal refugees. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The bombs were dropped mostly by B-52s taking off from air bases in Thailand. Many of the bombs were dropped on targets associated with the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Some were dropped before bombing missions conducted over North Vietnam by planes that flew over Laos on their way from Thailand. The pilots of the planes were given orders to drop all their bombs. Some wanted to spend as little time in North Vietnamese skies as possible and dropped only part of their payload on North Vietnam and dropped the remainder in Laos.

When bombing runs were halted over Vietnam in 1968, missions increased in Laos as more planes were made available. Between 1964 and 1969, 450,000 tons of ordinance was dropped on Laos. After that the amount was increased every year. The bombing reached its peak in 1972, the same year U.S. President Richard Nixon presented the king of Laos with some moon rocks. Large amount defoliates such as Agent Orange were also dropped on Laos. More than 200,000 gallons of the stuff was deposited along the Ho Chi Minh Trail neat Sepon in Laos.

The bombing exacerbated the conflict between the Royalist Vientiane government and the Pathet Lao. The bombing stopped after a cease fire was negotiated in 1973. An estimated 30 percent of the bombs didn’t explode and continued to kill about 200 people a year through the 1990s. See Unexploded Bombs

Surviving the Bombing in Caves in Laos

Much of the population of eastern Laos was displaced by the bombing there. Many members of the Pathet Lao escaped the bombing by seeking refuge in caves. One former soldier later told AP, "I feel like the cave was my comrade in war. Many of my friend died here."

Many Pathet Lao fighters sought refuge in Vieng Xia, an area with 100 limestones caves at the closest point to Hanoi in Laos. In terrain that was virtually impregnable to bombs and attacks from land and air, Pathet Lao sought refuge from the bombing and staged raids on enemy positions. The first bombing was staged there in February 1964. Not all the caves were safe. Some 300 villages were killed Tham Piu Cave where when a cliffside shelter took a direct hit from a U.S. plane.

Some of the bombs left behind house-size craters which the Laotians sometimes converted into fish ponds. The American bombers often targeted clothes lines and smoke from fires. The Laotians therefore would light fires and dry their clothes in far off places where they wanted a fish pond.

Yellow Rain

In the early 1980s, Hmong insurgents claimed that the Lao People's Army (LPA) was using lethal chemical agents against them. The Hmong refugees in Thailand often referred to the chemical agents as "poisons from above;" foreign journalists used the term "yellow rain." The government vehemently denied these charges. The United States Department of State noted in 1992 that "considerable investigative efforts in recent years have revealed no evidence of chemical weapons use" in the post-1983 period. The LPDR again denied these charges. The United States Department of State noted in 1992 that "considerable investigative efforts in recent years have revealed no evidence of chemical weapons use."

Between 1975 and 1982, the U.S government once claimed, over 7,000 people were killed by toxic agents, dubbed yellow rain, purportedly sprayed over Southeast Asia by Soviet planes. Leaves with yellow spots collected by Hmong tribesmen in Laos believed to be evidence of yellow rain were analyzed by Harvard biochemists and determined to be bee excrement. [Source: Cathy Newman, National Geographic, October 1984]

In June 1998, Peter Arnett, CNN and Time magazine ran a story about the American use of Sarin nerve gas on American defectors in Laos in 1970 as part of initiative called Operation Tailwind. "They had just wiped out a village base camp," Arnett wrote, "killing about 100 people that included not only women and children but also some believed to be a group of American GIs who had defected to the enemy." The story ended up being a totally untrue. CNN and Time retracted the story, two CNN producers were fired and Arnett was released about a year later even though he helped put CNN on the map with his reporting in Baghdad.

Decadence in During the Vietnam War

The recreation habits of American GIs had a profound influence on the cultures not only of Vietnam, but also Thailand and Laos. In many ways the association of these countries with sex, prostitution, drugs and decadence can be tied to the American influence during the Vietnam War.

"In 1975, the CIA's Laos was on its last legs," wrote British journalist Donald Wilson, "It was one of America's expensive practical jokes, a motiveless place where nothing was made, everything imported." In The Great Railway Bazaar , written around the same time, Paul Theroux wrote that it was "surprising" Laos "existed at all, and the more I thought of it, the more it seemed like a lower form of life, like the cross-eyed planarian or a squashy amoeba, the sort of creature that can't die even when it is cut to ribbons."

Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar” (1975): “Vientiane is exceptional, but inconvenient. The brothels are cleaner than hotels, marijuana is cheaper than a cold glass of beer. ...When you find beer at midnight and are sitting quietly, wondering what sort of a place this is, the waitress offers to fellate you on the spot, and you still don't know. Your eyes get accustomed to the dark and you see the waitress is naked. Without warning she jumps on the chair, pokes a cigarette into her vagina and lights it, puffing it by contracting her uterine lungs. So many sexual knacks! You could teach these people anything. There are many bars in Vientiane; the decor and the beer are the same in all of them, but the unnatural practices vary. The only English film I could find in Vientiane was a pornographic one. [Extracted from The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) by Paul Theroux]

Vientiane Bar Life During the Vietnam War

During the war Vientiane was more notorious in excesses than Bangkok today. In the book Air America , Christopher Robbins wrote that millions of CIA dollars temporarily turned Vientiane "into a swinging town offering very sort of perversion and diversion."

The most famous bars in Vientiane during the war were the Purple Porpoise, a watering hole for CIA secret warriors, the Green Latrine, Monica's, The Lido, The White Rose and Rendezvous des Amis. The White Rose featured floor shows in which women smoked cigarettes and flung ping balls with their vaginas.

The Rendezvous des Amis, wrote Robbins, was run by a woman known as Madame Lulu who was "a broken-down French woman in her 60s with her hair set in an outrageous bouffant, her face thickly camouflaged in makeup, and a theatrical cigarette holder forever in her hand." The bar specialized in "warm beer and oral sex" with 'every one of Madame Lulu's girls had been personally coached by the grande dame herself" who "combines tawdry elegance with spirited vulgarity."

Other diversions included nightclub called The Spot , run by a pair Corsican gangster-drug dealers, and a five-story casino run by royalist general and U.S. ally, with an opium den with enough room for 150 smokers.

Impact of the End of the Vietnam War on Laos

The turning point for the war in Vietnam was the 1968 Tet Offensive, which brought home to the American people the realisation that the war was unwinnable by military means, and convinced them of the need for a political solution. The effect in Laos, however, was to intensify both the air war and fighting on the Plain of Jars. When bombing was suspended over North Vietnam, the US Air Force concentrated all its efforts on Laos. The Pathet Lao leadership was forced underground, in the caves of Vieng Xai. Though in much of Laos a ‘tacit agreement’ on spheres of control limited fighting between the two sides, on the Plain of Jars the ground war intensified. Instead of being used in guerrilla operations, units of the ‘secret army’ fought large-scale battles, in which they suffered heavy casualties.[Source: Lonely Planet =]

But all the bombing was unable to staunch the flow of North Vietnamese forces down the Ho Chi Minh Trail (or trails). In January 1971 the one attempt by South Vietnamese forces to cut the Trail in southern Laos ended in defeat. The Pathet Lao claimed victory, but North Vietnamese forces did the fighting. Thereafter more of southern Laos fell to the Pathet Lao. By mid-1972, when serious peace moves got underway, some four-fifths of the country was under communist control. =

In peace as in war, what happened in Laos depended on what happened in Vietnam. Not until a ceasefire came into effect in Vietnam in January 1973 could the fighting end in Laos. Then the political wrangling began. Not until September was an agreement reached on the composition of the Third Coalition Government and how it would operate; and it took another six months before security arrangements were in place for it to take office. The government reflected the changed balance of political power. Souvanna Phouma as prime minister was the sole neutralist, with other ministries equally divided between left and right. =

Political Activity Laos in the Late 1960s and Early 1970s

As the Vietnam War was winding down the Pathet Lao was unified, coordinated and following a well-thought-out plan, formulated at the 1972 Second Congress of the Lao (LPRP). By contrast, the political right was fragmented and demoralised by the withdrawal of its US backer. This gave the communists the initiative, which they never lost. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Since 1963 Souvanna Phouma had kept vacant the cabinet seats allotted to the LPF, as he had done in the case of Phoumi's seat as interior minister in his August 30, 1960, government. When the National Assembly rejected his budget in debate in September 1966, he obtained a vote in the King's Council to dissolve the assembly and hold elections for a new assembly the following year. Elections were held again on January 2, 1972; forty-one of the fifty-nine deputies elected were new. The LPF boycotted the elections. The prime minister kept up contact with Souphanouvong in his cave headquarters in Houaphan, occasionally using the ICC and Soviet and North Vietnamese ambassadors as messengers. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Powerless to stop the war and acquiescing in the diplomatic fiction that the 1962 Geneva Agreement was still in effect, Souvanna Phouma endured the revilement of Radio Pathet Lao, which called him traitor, a capitulationist, and a tool of United States aggressors. The war drained Laos's manpower resources and pushed Souvanna Phouma into agreeing to introduce Thai artillery units on the royalist side and also helped to identify him with the rightist faction. As a result of the war, a peak number of 378,800 internally displaced persons were being cared for by the RLG in October 1973. Souvanna Phouma never gave up hope of resuming negotiations when conditions became more favorable. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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