Laos 1957-1973

L'Armee Clandestine

excerpted from the book

Killing Hope

by William Blum


For the past two years the US has carried out one of the most sustained bombing campaigns in history against essentially civilian targets in northeastern Laos.... Operating from Thai bases and from aircraft carriers, American jets have destroyed the great majority of villages and towns in the northeast. Severe casualties have been inflicted upon the inhabitants ... Refugees from the Plain of Jars report they were bombed almost daily by American jets last year. They say they spent most of the past two years living in caves or holes.

Far Eastern Economic Review, Hong Kong, 1970


[The Laos operation] is something of which we can be proud as Americans It has involved virtually no American casualties. What we are getting for our money there ... is, I think, to use the old phrase, very cost effective.

U. Alexis Johnson, US Under Secretary of State, 1971


The United States undertook the bombing campaign because its ground war against the Pathet Lao had failed.

The ground war had been carried out because the Pathet Lao were led by people whom the State Department categorized as "communist", no more, no less.

The Pathet Lao (re)turned to warfare because of their experiences in "working within the system".

In 1957 the Pathet Lao ("Lao nation") held two ministerial posts in the coalition "government of national union. This was during John Foster Dulles's era, and if there was anything the fanatic Secretary of State hated more than neutralism it was a coalition with communists. This government featured both. There could be little other reason for the development of the ma)or American intervention into this impoverished and primitive land of peasants. The American ambassador to Laos at the time, J. Graham Parsons, was to admit later: "I struggled for sixteen months to prevent a coalition."

In addition to its demand for inclusion in the coalition government, the Pathet Lao had called for diplomatic relations with the countries of the Soviet bloc and the acceptance of aid from them, as was already the case with Western nations. "Agreement to these conditions," said Washington, "would have given the Communists their most significant gains in Southeast Asia since the partition of Indochina." Others would say that the Pathet Lao's conditions were simply what neutralism is all about.

In May 1958, the Pathet Lao and other leftists, running a campaign based on government corruption and indifference, won 13 of 21 contested seats for the National Assembly and wound up controlling more than one-third of the new legislature. Two months later, however, Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma, a man universally categorized as a neutralist, "resigned" to form a new government which would exclude the Pathet Lao ministers. (He subsequently claimed that he was forced to resign due to continued American opposition to Laotian neutrality; as it happened, one Phoui Sananikone, backed by the US, became premier in the reorganized government.) Then, in January 1959, the non-left majority in the National Assembly voted, in effect, to dissolve the Assembly in order "to counteract communist influence and subversion". The left was now altogether excluded from the government, and the elections scheduled for December were canceled.
If this wasn't enough to disenchant the Pathet Lao or anyone else with the Laotian political process, there was, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the spectacle of a continuous parade of coups and counter-coups, of men overthrown winding up in the new government, and regimes headed by men who had sided with the French in their war against Indochinese Independence, while the Pathet Lao had fought against the colonialists. There were as well government-rigged elections, with the CIA stuffing ballot boxes; different regimes-cum-warlords governing simultaneously from different "capitals", their armies fighting each other, switching allies and enemies when it suited them; hundreds of millions of US dollars pouring into a tiny kingdom which was 99 percent agricultural, with an economy based more on barter than money, the result being "unimaginable bribery, graft, currency manipulation and waste.

The CIA and the State Department alone could take credit for engineering coups, through force, bribery or other pressures, at least once in each of the years 1958, 1959 and 1960, if not in others. "By merely withholding the monthly payment to the troops," wrote Roger Hilsman (whose career encompassed both agencies, perhaps covertly simultaneously), "the United States could create the conditions for toppling any Lao government whose policies it opposed. As it turned out, in fact, the United States used this weapon twice-to bring down the government of one Lao leader and to break the will of another."

The American wheeling and dealing centered around giving power to the CIA's hand picked rightist strongman Phoumi Nosavan, ousting Souvanna Phouma and other neutralists, and jailing Pathet Lao leaders, including the movement's head, Souphanouvong (the half-brother of Souvanna Phouma, both being princes of the royal family). Souphanouvong insisted that neither he nor the Pathet Lao were communist, but were rather "ultra-nationalist''. Crucial to understanding his statements, of course, is the question of exactly what he meant by the term "communist". This is not clear, but neither is it clear what the State Department meant when it referred to him as such. The Pathet Lao were the only sizable group in the country serious about social change, a characteristic which of course tends to induce Washington officials to apply the communist label.


One thing that came through unambiguously ... was the determination of the United States to save Laos from communism and neutralism. To this end, the CIA set about creating its now-famous Armee Clandestine, a process begun by the US Army in the mid 1950s when it organized Meo hill tribesmen (the same ethnic group organized in Vietnam). Over the years, other peoples of Laos were added, reaching at least 30,000 in the mid 1960s, half of them more or less full-time soldiers ... many thousands more from Thailand ... hundreds of other Asians came on board, South Vietnamese, Filipinos, Taiwanese, South Koreans, men who had received expert training from their American mentors in their home countries for other wars, now being recycled ... an army, said the New York Times, "armed, equipped, fed, paid, guided, strategically and tactically, and often transported into and out of action by the United States" ... trained and augmented by the CIA, and by men of every branch of the US military with their multiple specialties, the many pilots of the CIA's Air America, altogether some 2,000 Americans in and over Laos, and thousands more in Asia helping with the logistics. A Secret Army, secret, that is, from the American people and Congress-US military personnel were there under various covers, some as civilians in mufti, having "resigned" from the service for the occasion and been hired by a private company created by the CIA; others served as embassy attaches; CIA pilots were officially under contract to the Agency for International Development (AID). Americans who were killed in Laos were reported to have died in Vietnam ... all this in addition to the "official" government forces, the Royal Laotian Army, greatly expanded and totally paid for by the United States ...

Laos was an American plantation, a CIA playground. During the 1960s, the Agency roamed over much of the land at will, building an airstrip, a hangar, or a base here, a ware house, barracks, or a radar site there; relocating thousands of people, entire villages, whole tribes, to suit strategic military needs; recruiting warriors "through money and/or the threat or use of force and/or promises of independent kingdoms which it had no intention of fulfilling, and then keeping them fighting long beyond the point when they wished to stop;" while the "legendary" pilots of Air America roamed far and wide as well, hard drinking, daredevil flying, death defying, great stories to tell the guys back home, if you survived.

Some of the stories had to do with drugs. Flying opium and heroin all over Indochina to serve the personal and entrepreneurial needs of the CIA's various military and political allies, ultimately turning numerous GIs in Vietnam into addicts. The operation was not a paragon of discretion. Heroin was refined in a laboratory located on the site of CIA headquarters in northern Laos. After a decade of American military intervention, Southeast Asia had become the source of 70 percent of the world's illicit opium and the major supplier of raw materials for America's booming heroin market.'

At the same time, the hearts and minds of the Laotian people, at least of those who could read, were not overlooked. The US Information Agency was there to put out a magazine with a circulation of 43,000; this, in a country where the circulation of the largest newspaper was 3,300; there were as well USIA wall newspapers, films, leaflet drops, and radio programs.


The nature and extent of North Vietnam's aid to the Pathet Lao before this period difficult to ascertain from Western sources, because such charges typically emanated from the Laotian government or the State Department. On a number of occasions, their report of a North Vietnamese military operation in Laos turned out to be a fabrication. William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, in A Nation of Sheep, summarized one of these non-events from the summer of 1959:

'The people of the United States were led to believe that Laos physically had been invaded by foreign Communist troops from across its northern border. Our Secretary of State called the situation grave; our ambassador to the U.N. called for world action; our press carried scare headlines; our senior naval officer implied armed intervention and was seconded by ranking Congressmen ... The entire affair was a fraud. No military invasion of Laos had taken place ... There seemed no doubt that a war embracing thousands of troops, tanks, planes, and mass battles, was raging.

Regardless of how the accounts were worded, this was the picture given the nation.'

It had all been a ploy to induce Congress not to reduce aid for Laos, something seriously being considered because of the pervasive corruption which had been exposed concerning the aid program. The Laotian government and the large American establishment in Laos, each for their own reasons, were not about to let the golden goose slip away that easily.


... in April 1964, the coalition government, such as it was, was overthrown by the right wing, with the CIA's man Phoumi Nosavan emerging as part of a rightist government headed by the perennial survivor Souvanna Phouma to give it a neutralist fig leaf. The Pathet Lao were once again left out in the cold. For them it was the very last straw. The fighting greatly intensified, the skirmishes were now war, and the Pathet Lao offensive soon scored significant advances. Then the American bombing began.

Between 1965 and 1973, more than two million tons of bombs rained down upon the people of Laos, considerably more than the US had dropped on both Germany and Japan during the Second World War, albeit for a shorter period. For the first few years, the bombing was directed primarily at the provinces controlled by the Pathet Lao. Of the bombing Fred Branfman, a former American community worker in Laos, wrote: "village after village was leveled, countless people buried alive by high explosives, or burnt alive by napalm and white phosphorous, or riddled by anti-personnel bomb pellets"... "The United States has undertaken," said a Senate report, "... a large-scale air war over Laos to destroy the physical and social infrastructure of Pathet Lao held areas and to interdict North Vietnamese infiltration ... throughout all this there has been a policy of subterfuge and secrecy ... through such things as saturation bombing and the forced evacuation of population from enemy held or threatened areas-we have helped to create untold agony for hundreds of thousands of villagers."


There was no happy way out for the Laotian people. In October 1971, one could read in The Guardian of London ... although US officials deny it vehemently, ample evidence exists to confirm charges that the Meo villages that do try to find their own way out of the war even if it is simply by staying neutral and refusing to send their 13-year-olds to fight in the CIA army-are immediately denied American rice and transport, and ultimately bombed by the US Air Force.

The fledgling society that the United States was trying to make extinct-the CIA dropped millions of dollars in forged Pathet Lao currency as well, in an attempt to wreck the economy-was one which Fred Branfman described thus:

The Pathet Lao rule over the Plain of Jars begun in May 1964 brought its people into a post colonial era. For the first time they were taught pride in their country and people, instead of admiration for a foreign culture; schooling and massive adult literacy campaigns were conducted in Laotian instead of French; and mild but thorough social revolution-ranging from land reform to greater equality for women-was instituted.

Following on the heels of events in Vietnam, a ceasefire was arrived at in Laos in 1973, and yet another attempt at coalition government was undertaken. (This one lasted until 1975 when, after renewed fighting, the Pathet Lao took over full control of the country.) Laos had become a land of nomads, without villages, without farms; a generation of refugees; hundreds of thousands dead, many more maimed. When the US Air Force closed down its radio station, it signed off with the message: "Good-by and see you next war."

Thus it was that the worst of Washington's fears had come to pass: All of Indochina- Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos-had fallen to the Communists. During the initial period of US involvement in Indochina in the 1950s, John Foster Dulles, Dwight Eisenhower and other American officials regularly issued doomsday pronouncements of the type known as the "Domino Theory", warning that if Indochina should fall, other nations in Asia would topple over as well In one instance, President Eisenhower listed no less than Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Indonesia amongst the anticipated "falling dominos " .

Such warnings were repeated periodically over the next decade by succeeding administrations and other supporters of US policy in Indochina as a key argument in defense of such policy. The fact that these ominous predictions turned out to have no basis in reality did not deter Washington officialdom from promulgating the same dogma up until the 1990s about almost each new world "trouble-spot", testimony to their unshakable faith in the existence and inter-workings of the International Communist Conspiracy.

Killing Hope