Laos, an officially neutral state, became a battleground of the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. From 1964 to 1973, the US Air Surveillance dropped two million tons of ordnance on Laos- more than all the bombs dropped during World War Two combined. The CIA executed 580,000 bombing missions in its secret attempt to support the Royal Lao Government against the Communist Pathet Lao, a force affiliated with North Vietnam and the Soviet Union during the Vietnam War. The United States’ “Secret War” in Laos had a long-lasting effect on Laotian history, hindering Laotians’ health, education, and migration choices even today.
History of Laos & Political Context: Pathet Lao’s Upturn
What is currently known as the country of Laos is the result of an amalgamation of different ethnic groups, each with its own distinct language and culture. The first documented kingdom of Laos, “Lan Xang,” or “The Kingdom of a Million Elephants,” was established by Fa Ngum in 1353. Till 1371, Fa Ngum conquered much of today’s Laos, as well as sections of what is now Vietnam and Northeast Thailand, incorporating Theravada Buddhism and Khmer culture from the kingdom of Angkor (today’s Cambodia) under Laos territory. However, over the centuries, conquered people fought back. From the late 1700s to the early 1800s, Thai people dominated large portions of Laos.
Europe officially entered when France proclaimed Laos as part of France’s Indochina in 1893. This move allowed colonial France to take control of the Mekong River, which was a vital commercial route in Southeast Asia. By the end of World War II, Japan seized Laos, and the French grip over the country was loosened, but not long. After dropping atomic bombs in Japan in 1945, Laos used the opportunity and regained independence under Prince Phetsarath’s Lao Issara (“Free Laos”) regime, but it appeared short-lived. The next year, the French reclaimed power.
Thus, Laos had a long history of intervention from both its neighbors and colonial powers well before the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Ultimately, Laos gained full independence in 1954, right after the communist leader Ho Chi Minh defeated the French army at the brutal battle of Điện Biên Phủ when the Geneva Accords were signed.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
The Geneva Accords (Geneva Peace Conference) can be regarded as an immediate cause of what would happen to Laos later during the Cold War. According to the Geneva Accords, France abandoned its colonial interests in Southeast Asia, and Vietnam was split into North and South Vietnam. The United States did not sign the agreement fearing that without French influence, Southeast Asia would succumb to communist forces.
At the same time, beginning in the 1950s, the communist group Pathet Lao became more active in opposing French interests in Southeast Asia. When Laos was granted independence in 1954, it was ruled by a pro-western government until 1957. The first coalition government was then created and led by Prince Souvanna Phouma. The coalition consisted of neutralists, rightists, and the left-wing Lao Pathet under Prince Souphanouvong. However, disturbances within the country and polarization caused the collapse of the coalition. In addition, the Pathet Lao’s revolutionary interests turned to the Royal Laotian Army after France abandoned its interests in the region, thus contributing to internal conflicts between the feeble political forces. As a result, the Laotian Civil War began following the North Vietnamese invasion of northern Laos in 1959, which coincided with the United States’ engagement in the Vietnam War.
The Laotian Civil War: The Domino Theory in the Cold War and Vietnam War
The Laotian Civil War (1959-1975) can be regarded as a proxy war within the wider aspect of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was waged between the communist Pathet Lao, supported by communists in Northern Vietnam, and the Royal Lao Government, supported by the United States.
After the North Vietnamese invasion of northern Laos in 1959, a neutralist paratrooper captain seized the capital of Laos, Vientiane, in 1960 and sought to create a neutralist administration to put a stop to the conflicts between different political groups. The newly created neutralist administration was overthrown later that year by rightist forces. In response, the neutralists united with the communist insurgents and began to receive the Soviet Union’s backing.
The United States supported the right-wing administration as Laos was viewed primarily through the prism of President Eisenhower’s “Domino Theory,” which asserted that if one nation in the area of interest fell to communism, it may accelerate the fall of others. Furthermore, keeping communism at bay was an ultimate goal during the Cold War for the Americans. As a result, the United States engaged in Laos as part of its regional anti-communist counterinsurgency policy. “If Laos were lost, the whole of Southeast Asia would follow,” Eisenhower warned his National Security Council in 1961.
To achieve this aim, President Eisenhower authorized the CIA’s training of anti-communist soldiers in the Laotian highlands on the day of his farewell address in 1961. Their mission was to impede communist supply routes to Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. North Vietnam had previously constructed a supply line via “neutral” Laotian territory to assist the Viet Cong insurgency against South Vietnam in 1959. During the civil war, the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese continued to use and develop the supply route known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Vietnamese troops were positioned in Laos to secure the road network, and Vietnamese military forces also fought alongside the Pathet Lao in their fight to destabilize Laos’ neutralist government.
As fighting continued, President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, proposed a new settlement agreement to the Soviet Union and other great powers. As a result, a second Geneva Conference was held during 1961-1962. In 1962, new Peace Accords were elaborated in Geneva called The Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos, which provided for the independence of Laos. China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, the United States, and ten other signatories agreed to preserve Laotian neutrality and abstain from intervening directly or indirectly in Laos’ domestic affairs, forming military alliances with IT, or building military bases on Laotian territory. The Laotian government promised to enshrine its pledges in the constitution. The coalition government of pro-American, pro-communist, and neutralist groups remained in force.
Soon after the agreement was signed, the signatories accused each other of breaching the provisions, and the civil war was swiftly renewed. As the fighting persisted, so did American, Thai, and Vietnamese forces’ presence in the Laotian nation.
The CIA’s Secret Mission and Bombings
After signing the second Geneva Peace Agreement, open intervention in Laos to stop the spread of communism was not an option for the United States. So, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) took on the responsibility of keeping communism at bay.
Under the guise of the United States’ development agency – the Agency for International Development (AID) – the CIA assembled a covert army of around 36,000 men from Meo tribes and trained them for civil war. Initially, the CIA attempted to maintain the Laotian monarchy in power. When this proved difficult, the United States backed Lao, Hmong, and Meo rebels battling the Pathet Lao. Vang Pao, a Hmong general, was the most renowned indigenous military commander. He would eventually lead nearly 30,000 of his people into battle. The undeclared conflict of the United States in Laos became known as The Secret War.
The CIA’s approach included forcing the North Vietnamese to redirect soldiers to Laos who would otherwise be fighting Americans in the Vietnam War. The United States was successful in this regard, but at a heavy price. Laos was extensively attacked. A ground war involving US soldiers in Laos was not an option. The CIA saw bombing Laos as a less risky option to cut off the communist supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail before it could be used against American forces in Vietnam War. In 1964, the United States Air Force began attacking targets in Laos, using planes like AC-130s and B-52s loaded with cluster bombs on secret operations stationed in Thailand. The United States launched its first surveillance aerial operation in the same year.
On June 9, President Lyndon B. Johnson approved the bombing of the Plain of Jars in northern Laos as part of Operation Barrel Roll, thus formally starting the Secret War. For nine years, the United States had dropped bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day over the territory of Laos.
By the end of the Laotian Civil War in 1975, one-tenth of Laos population, or 200,000 civilians and military personnel, had been killed. More than 50,000 Lao civilians have been victims of or wounded by cluster bombs since 1964. 98% of them were civilians.
The Secret War started around the time when the United States became highly involved in the Vietnam War. It came to an end in 1975, the same year the Vietnam War ended. The communist Pathet Lao, supported by the North Vietnamese Army, seized Laos two years after the United States withdrew from South Vietnam in 1973. The withdrawal of troops from South Vietnam also eliminated Laos’ and the Hmong’s training teams, military weapons, and financial assistance. This action harmed both the Laotian government and the CIA’s Hmong guerilla army, leaving Pathet Lao victorious. Laos fell to communism.
The Legacy of the United States’ “Secret War” Against Pathet Lao
The United States Secret War in Laos against Pathet Lao in support of the Domino Theory continues to wreak havoc even long after the end of the Cold War. The CIA’s bombings demolished many villages, killed and displaced thousands of civilians during the Secret War.
The wounds of war were not only felt during active military operations. It is evaluated that approximately 30 % of the dropped bombs failed to explode upon contact. Thus, 80 million of the 260 million dropped bombs did not detonate, which left a devastating legacy: many people even today dread cultivating their fields (farmers represent 4/5ths of the Lao population) as the Secret War made an estimated 37 % of the agricultural land hazardous. Locals try to gather the explosives to sell them as scrap materials to buy food. However, incidents happen frequently, and the remaining bombs kill an average of one person per day.
In addition, every year, monsoon rains transfer the bombs to other locations in the country, causing the pollution of other agricultural lands. The national demining organization, UXO Laos, has cleaned less than 1% of the damaged sites. The procedure is dangerous and costly, and Laos remains largely impoverished. According to UXO Laos, it will take another 150 years to clear Laos of bombs and make it a safe place to live.
President Barack Obama was the first sitting US president to visit Laos since the Cold War in 2016, stating that “At the time, the US government did not acknowledge America’s role. It was a secret war, and for years, the American people did not know. Even now, many Americans are not fully aware of this chapter in our history, and it’s important that we remember today.”