Tag Archives: laos

The Secret War in Laos That Wasn’t a Secret

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.

The Domino Theory

Paul Schmehl, Independent Researcher
Apr 19, 2015

The Domino Theory got its name from President Eisenhower, but he was not the inventor of the concept. When World War II ended, the Soviet Union began to extend its influence over Asia and Eastern Europe. This development prompted Winston Churchill to remark in 1946, in a speech at Westminster College in Fulton Missouri, that

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an ‘iron curtain’ has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.” 1

The British Empire reached its zenith at the start of World War I. Subsequent to that war its influence began to wane. After World War II, Britain was devastated economically and on the verge of bankruptcy. Therefore, Britain granted many of its colonies independence and its influence as a world power subsided. The United States, which had become increasingly more important in world affairs due to its role in World War II, assumed the mantle of a world power.

Beginning in 1919, with the founding of the Soviet Comintern, first Lenin and then Stalin advocated for a worldwide revolution to promote communism. It was Stalin’s belief that the revolution would proceed through Asia and eventually become worldwide. By the end of World War II, there was great deal of instability worldwide, especially in third world countries. The Russians saw that instability as an opportunity to spread communism far and wide.

As the leader of a rising world power, the Truman administration felt the need to articulate a policy to address what Churchill called “the iron curtain”, the disturbing rise of Soviet communism and influence in the world. The Truman administration believed that the growth of communism was a threat to international peace as well as the security of the United States.

In order to resist the growth of communism, a policy of “containment” was devised. Rather than directly confront the Soviet Union (and perhaps provoke World War III), the United States would come to the aid of any country threatened by communist movements. This aid would often be monetary but potentially could involve US military assistance as well. The policy became known as the Truman doctrine.

In a speech before Congress in 1947, Truman articulated this new doctrine.

” I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.

I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid, which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.”2

This policy, though well intentioned, would lead America into some strange alliances, supporting dictators and totalitarian regimes in an effort to stem “the red tide”. It would also lead to the flawed effort often known as the Vietnam War, or, as we prefer to call it, the 2nd Indochina War, because it involved not only Vietnam but Cambodia and Laos as well.

The question for historians is, was Truman correct? If he was, then his policy would make sense. Unchecked, communism might have taken over much of the world, isolating the United States and perhaps eventually even defeating it. To determine whether there was any merit to the belief, one need only look at the words of the Marxists.

Karl Marx articulated the concept of world domination at the close of his Communist Manifesto, published in 1848.

“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE! “3

One might ask, in a practical sense, what did Marx mean by this? Marx explained it clearly and concisely.

“You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.

In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so: that is just what we intend.” 4

How did Marx thing private property could be abolished? Through the only means thought possible to do so – armed revolution to overthrow the existing order.

“In depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.”5

It’s not difficult to see why an American might be troubled by these declarations. After all, the rights of private property have been held in very high esteem in America. In fact America was founded because its people did not take kindly to the government confiscating their property. Furthermore, the idea that the existing society would be overthrown through a violent civil war reminded Americans of their own painful experience in their Civil War.

As others sought to put Marx’s theory into practice, they actively sought the overthrow of weak regimes and worked to undermine the political nature of healthy regimes. In 1901, Vladimir Lenin expressed it thus:

“History has now confronted us with an immediate task which is the most revolutionary of all the immediate tasks confronting the proletariat of any country. The fulfilment of this task, the destruction of the most powerful bulwark, not only of European, but (it may now be said) of Asiatic reaction, would make the Russian proletariat the vanguard of the international revolutionary proletariat. And we have the right to count upon acquiring this honourable title, already earned by our predecessors, the revolutionaries of the seventies, if we succeed in inspiring our movement, which is a thousand times broader and deeper, with the same devoted determination and vigour.”6

In 1920 Russia annexed Armenia and Kazakhstan, and two years later eastern Belarus, Georgia and Azerbaijan. In 1924 Russia annexed Moldavia and Mongolia. Recovering from World War I, the world took little notice. In 1944, while World War II was ongoing, Albania became a communist state.7 The Soviet Union was on the march, expanding into more and more territories.

In 1946 Stalin stated that the primary purpose of his Five Year Plan was “to assure the increasing defensive capacity of the U.S.S.R., and to equip the armed forces of the Soviet Union with the most up-to-date military techniques.”8 Since World War II had recently ended world leaders wondered what the Soviet Union was preparing to defend itself against. Victor Kravchenko, a recent defector from Soviet communism, stated that Stalin was planning on conquering the world.

Another defector, former KGB agent Anatoly Golitsyn, said he defected to

“warn the American Government about the adoption of the current grand strategy for Communism and the political role of the KGB and the use of disinformation and controlled political opposition which the strategy entailed, and…help the West neutralise KGB penetration of their governments.”9

A few years later General Jan Sejna of Czechoslovakia defected. Before his death under suspicious circumstances he testified before a US House committee.

“To understand the events of interest today, it is essential to understand that back then the main mission of all organizations in the Soviet empire was to destroy democracy and bring people everywhere under the yoke of communism.

Two wars dominated our planning.

First, there was the General nuclear war, which was the responsibility of the military. Even civilian construction projects had to be approved by the Defense Council to make certain they all contributed to the war effort.

Second, there was the political and intelligence wars, the world revolutionary war, as it was originally called. This war was also waged according to a very detailed and complex strategic plan. This war involved infiltration of the government and press, sabotage, subversion, deception, narcotics trafficking, organized crime, terrorism, compromise of political and business leaders, and many other activities, all designed to destroy competing social systems. The primary targets were all industrialized countries and the most important enemy was the United States.

I want to point out that in these and other activities, the Soviets ruled their empire with an iron hand. All directions and controls came from Moscow. People undertook independent actions at their own risk, and the penalties were without any regard for human rights or dignity.

I know, because I was there.”10

Is it any wonder then that American political leaders might seek a policy to combat a political philosophy so counter to the one on which our nation was founded?

The seeds for rebellion and communism in Southeast Asia had been planted centuries before by European colonization of several Southeast Asian countries; the British in Malaysia, Burma and Hong Kong, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Spaniards (and later America) in the Philippines and the French in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. By the outbreak of World War II, the communists had already been organizing in Southeast Asia for more than a decade.

As the Japanese swept through the area, communist organizers took advantage of the Japanese occupation to organize armies of resistance, convincing the fighters that they were fighting for their own independence. Behind the scenes they worked assiduously to eliminate, by cooption, subterfuge and assassination, the true nationalist leaders in each country.

At the beginning of World War II Russia annexed, by agreement with Germany, several Eastern European countries, including eastern Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, part of Finland and part of Romania. Shortly after the war the rest of Poland, the rest of Romania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Belarus and eastern Germany all fell to communism and became part of the U.S.S.R. Russia wasn’t done, however. She began fomenting revolutions in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia.

After World War II the new American policy of containment would be severely tested. In 1945 a communist rebellion in the Philippines was put down, only to flare up again in 1971. It is still ongoing today. Around the same time war between the French and the Vietnamese broke out, led by the communist Viet Minh. In 1948 the British faced a communist rebellion in Malaysia that wasn’t put down until 1960, and the US had to create the Berlin Airlift to keep Berlin free from takeover by the Soviet backed East Germans. In 1949 China fell to the communists.

Two of the world’s largest nations were now firmly in the grip of Marx’s utopia and the Soviet sphere of influence was expanding rapidly. A year later, with the full support of China and the Soviet Union, North Korea invaded South Korea. Meanwhile communist “revolutions” were popping up all over, including Southeast Asia.

In 1953 the Cuban revolution broke out. By 1959 Cuba, just 90 miles from the US, was a communist country. In Southeast Asia, communism was on the march in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand. The future of Southeast Asia hung in the balance.

Dwight Eisenhower, the victorious Supreme Allied Commander of World War II, was elected in 1953, as the Korean War was nearing its end. Trouble was brewing all over the world, but particularly in Southeast Asia. In a press conference in 1954, shortly before the fall of Dien Bien Phu, which marked the end of French rule in Cochinchina, Eisenhower spoke of his concerns regarding communism. He was asked, at a press conference, to comment on the strategic importance of Indochina to America.

“You have, of course, both the specific and the general when you talk about such things. First of all, you have the specific value of a locality in its production of materials that the world needs.

Then you have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world.

Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the “falling domino” principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”11

What became known as the domino theory was nothing more than a strategic description of the consequences of not implementing the Truman Doctrine. In other words, if we don’t employ the policy of containment, communism will spread throughout Southeast Asia. This policy would later become the subject of intense ridicule by the antiwar movement, parroting the Marxist propaganda line that communism presented no threat whatsoever, and those who thought it did were delusional or paranoid.

This, of course, was what the communists wanted the world to believe about them. It was not, however, what they themselves believed. Che Quevara, writing at a conference in Havana in 1967, stated:

“Let us sum up our hopes for victory: total destruction of imperialism by eliminating its firmest bulwark: the oppression exercized by the United States of America. To carry out, as a tactical method, the peoples gradual liberation, one by one or in groups: driving the enemy into a difficult fight away from its own territory; dismantling all its sustenance bases, that is, its dependent territories.

This means a long war. And, once more we repeat it, a cruel war. Let no one fool himself at the outstart and let no one hesitate to start out for fear of the consequences it may bring to his people. It is almost our sole hope for victory. We cannot elude the call of this hour. Vietnam is pointing it out with its endless lesson of heroism, its tragic and everyday lesson of struggle and death for the attainment of final victory.

There, the imperialist soldiers endure the discomforts [sic] of those who, used to enjoying the U.S. standard of living, have to live in a hostile land with the insecurity of being unable to move without being aware of walking on enemy territory: death to those who dare take a step out of their fortified encampment. The permanent hostility of the entire population. All this has internal repercussion in the United States; propitiates the resurgence of an element which is being minimized in spite of its vigor by all imperialist forces: class struggle even within its own territory.”12

Referring specifically to Vietnam he wrote:

“How close and bright would the future appear if two, three, many Vietnams flowered on the face of the globe, with their quota of death and their immense tragedies, with their daily heroism, with their repeated blows against imperialism, forcing it to disperse its forces under the lash of the growing hatred of the peoples of the world!”

In 1962, while Vietnam was drawing more and more of the Kennedy Administration’s attention, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. School children all over America were being taught to duck under their desks to avoid a nuclear blast, and the world was breathless with anticipation of a nuclear confrontation between Russia and the US.

With all of these events taking place, and the communists talking of a worldwide revolution, it was hardly inconceivable that the next shoes to drop would be in Southeast Asia. Only a fool would have thought otherwise, and only a communist would argue that it was a ridiculous policy. All of Southeast Asia looked to the US to see how they would react to the threat. Yet just a few years later, the antiwar movement in America would claim that the domino theory was silly, just as the communists wanted them to.

The argument made today is that “the dominos didn’t fall, therefore the theory was wrong”. Very few ever seem to ask the question, why didn’t the dominos fall?

Had Ho succeeded, in 1954, in turning Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos into communist countries (as he did twenty years later), Thailand would have been surrounded by communist countries on its northern and eastern borders as well as part of its southern border. Had the British not succeeded in putting down the communist “revolution” in Malaysia, she would have been completely surrounded on her southern border as well. Had the Philippines fallen, ocean access to all of Southeast Asia would have been in the hands of the communists.

This reality was not lost on the Thais. They asked for, and received, US help. Military and CIA advisors were sent to Thailand to shore up the regime and train the Thai troops. In 1965 fighting broke out in Thailand between communists and the state. However, the communists couldn’t commit the necessary forces to defeat Thailand because they were still needed elsewhere – in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – and they were defeated.

The Thai government formed two groups to combat the communists, the Communist Suppression Operation Command (CSOC) under command of Gen. Saiyud Kherdpol and the Police Aerial Reinforcement Units (PARUs). The CIA worked closely with both, providing training and support as they staved off an invasion of North Vietnamese troops supporting local “guerillas”.13

About the same time the communists in Indonesia attempted a coup. Their attempt was put down by the Indonesian military. An estimated 500,000 people were killed, and the Indonesian Communist Party was effectively destroyed. Had the US not entered Vietnam, these events might have turned out quite differently. In 1965, South Vietnam was on the verge of collapse, thanks in no small part to the foolhardy US support of the Diem coup.

Had Thailand fallen, there would have been nothing to stop the advance of communism throughout Southeast Asia. Had Indonesia also fallen, water access to the Straits of Malacca would have been unavailable to allied forces. However, rather than reinforce the fighting in Thailand or support the coup attempt in Indonesia, the bulk of communist forces were tied up in Vietnam. South Vietnam, with the assistance of her allies, successfully tied up the North Vietnamese sufficiently to buy time for the rest of Southeast Asia to establish stable non-communist governments. Americans, both military and CIA worked in all of these countries assisting to stave off the many communist invasions.

When interviewed by the Washington Post, 14 the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, said, “If the Communists get South Vietnam, there will be no security for other countries in Southeast Asia.”

Indonesia’s longtime Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, wrote in his book, From Third World to First:

“Although American intervention failed in Vietnam, it bought time for the rest of Southeast Asia. In 1965, when the US military moved massively into South Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines faced internal threats from armed communist insurgents and the communist underground was still active in Singapore. Indonesia, in the throes of a failed communist coup, was waging konfrontasi, an undeclared war against Singapore. The Philippines was claiming Sabah in East Malaysia. Standards of living were low and economic growth slow.”15

“America’s action enabled non-communist Southeast Asia to put their own houses in order. By 1975 (when the Vietnam war ended) they were in better shape to stand up to the communists. Had there been no US intervention, the will of these countries to resist them would have melted and Southeast Asia would have most likely gone communist. The prosperous emerging market economies of Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) were nurtured during the Vietnam War years.”16

The evidence shows that not only was the domino theory valid, but that America’s intervention in Vietnam bought the time necessary for democracy to plant seeds in Southeast Asia, effectively stemming the tide of communism with the tragic loss of three countries and millions of lives. Many, many lives were saved due to the failure of communism to spread past Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

None of this excuses America’s shameful abandonment of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to the communist butchers. Had America lived up to her promises, perhaps no dominos would have fallen. (In Cambodia alone, the communists murdered 1.7 million people.17 In Vietnam, an estimated 1 million died as a result of communist suppression after the war. In Russia and China, almost 100 million have died due to communism. Scholars will argue about the precise numbers, but there is no disputing the fact that communism has caused millions and millions of deaths.)18