The Secret War in Laos That Wasn’t a Secret

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By Phillip Jennings

President Obama said this week in Laos that sometimes Americans “feel lazy and think we’re so big we don’t have to really know anything about other people.” 1 He then addressed America’s “secret war” in that country, and proved what he didn’t know. What went on in Laos was hardly a secret, and was not much of a war either, except for those of us who fought it.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower met President-elect John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office prior to passing the reigns of the presidency, he warned the young Prince of the dangers of war in Southeast Asia. In Laos to be exact. Over first months of the tragically short Kennedy administration, the communists – Soviet, Chinese and North Vietnamese — kept their aggressive pressure on the small nation as only communists seem able to do; through killings, kidnappings, thievery and rabid control of all aspects of life.

Kennedy sent U.S. Marines to the southern border of Laos, with a warning to the communists to get out and stay out. The bluff worked, and in July 1962 fourteen nations signed another in a long line of Geneva accords, this one guaranteeing Laotian neutrality. The buck was passed to South Vietnam to become the whipping boy for communist aggression in Indochina.

Kennedy, meanwhile, made a rookie mistake which haunted and inhibited America’s commitment to keep Ho Chi Minh’s brutal troops out of Saigon over the next decade; he ceded the eastern third of “neutral” Laos to the communists. And that strip of jungle and Annamite foothills became the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The trail – actually a superhighway — was built using Laotian slave labor to wage war in South Vietnam. The locals were under constant attack from tens of thousands of North Vietnamese regulars.

After North Vietnamese troops moved into Laos, the Marine helicopters in northern Thailand mysteriously lost their MARINES markings and ended up being flown by civilian (mostly former Marine) pilots in what would become part of a company known as Air America. And in late 1967, I became one of those former Marine pilots who flew the former Marine helicopters in and around Laos for the next three years.

The war in the countryside was brutal, but small and mostly contained. The Americans who trained and led the anti-communist troops were among the gutsiest our country has ever produced. There was less than a thousand of them in-country at any one time. They were primarily CIA (we called them customers) and U.S. Army. They worked alone in the country- side, depending on the locals for everything but air support, which was aptly supplied by Air America, the U.S. Air Force Ravens, and the sometimes available American fighters and bombers for close air support when things got really dicey. This small band of warriors and their local counterparts kept Laos from being overrun by the North Vietnamese divisions until South Vietnam fell and Laos became a domino.

It was tragic that the Laotians were caught in the middle of the North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam. But it is not dismissing the tragedy to point out that the overwhelming majority of American bombs fell on unpopulated areas along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Most of the Laotian population live in the lowlands, and near the Mekong River which was the western border for much of the country. The cities of Houi Sai, Luang Prabang (the Royal Capital), Vientiane, Savannakhet, and to the far south, Pakse, were never bombed, and lay as peacefully in the Indochinese sun when the Americans left as when they had arrived.

Good Soldier Obama rightly commented that the U.S. has a moral obligation to continue, and in fact intensify, the efforts to find and defuse/destroy the unexploded ordnance scattered mostly over the eastern one-third of Laos. This is a noble and necessary effort the Americans who fought there, and most Americans at large, would whole-heartedly support.

Obama did not mention the greater moral obligation the Americans have to the remaining Huang/Meo people who gave up a large percentage of their population fighting the communists in Laos on our behalf, led primarily by the great Lao general, Vang Pao. When the Democrat U.S. congress abandoned the South Vietnamese in 1973, they also abandoned our friends and allies in Laos. The communists then slaughtered, bombed, gassed and exiled them from their native lands. It is to our shame for betraying our friends and allies. I would not have expected Obama to bring this up while he was kow-towing to the existing Laotian communist government, and he met my low expectations.

Yes, there was a war in Laos (I was shot down more than once) and the Laotian and American deaths at the hands of the communists were tragic and often extremely brutal. Was it a secret? Absolutely, unless you read The Bangkok Post, The New York Times, or any one of dozens of newspapers and magazines constantly reporting on the war in Laos. I myself was interviewed for articles in Time and the Wall Street Journal while I was “under cover.”

We fought the good fight in Laos. A small, neutral country was being invaded, and we were providing the barest of support. We were enforcing a Geneva Convention mandate, and worked with the indigenous people who carried the brunt of the fighting, and the casualties. Given what we had, we did a respectable job.

The left at the time could find nothing to protest in what we were doing, but they did anyway. Leftists have an innate desire to blame America for all the world’s evils. It was obvious to me, hearing our President speak about Laos, that he was one of the people who hadn’t taken the time to learn about our history and sacrifice in that very gracious and beautiful land. His speech inferred that the United States inflicted massive airstrikes and ruined cities. He expressed regret about the brutality of bombing a peaceful country. He used all the old clichés and leftist tropes (e.g., more bombs than on Europe in World War Two). He all but apologized for our attempt to defend Laos from the communists. And if he knew the first thing about the war we actually fought, he kept it a secret.

Phillip Jennings is an investment banker and entrepreneur, former United States Marine Corps pilot in Vietnam and Air America pilot in Laos. He was also an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency in Central and South America. He is the author of two novels and one best-selling non-fiction book, and received the Pirates Alley Faulkner Prize for fiction in 1999.

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/07/world/asia/obama-laos-bombs-war.html?_r=0