Operation Momentum

Exposing the inner workings of the US’ ‘secret war’ in Laos

A Great Place to Have a War takes readers inside the controversial US anti-communist paramilitary campaign that devastated Laos

Joshua Kurlantzick
January 23, 2017
Exposing the inner workings of the US’ ‘secret war’ in Laos
A UXO Laos (Unexploded Ordinance Laos) team carry trip wire to detonate a mortar shell and other UXO's in a field at Sam Syae village near Phonsavan, Xieng Khuang province, northern Laos, Thursday 11 September 2003. The area was a major theatre in the 1964-1973 secret war between the US and Hmong against the Pathet Lao and Vietnamese Communists. On average, a planeload of bombs was dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years. Up to 30% of the bombs did not explode. Photo: EPA/BARBARA WALTON

In the early 1960s, as the conflict in Vietnam between communist and US-backed anti-communist forces gained traction, US intelligence operatives focused their attention on Laos, Vietnam’s sleepy neighbour that, at the time, was populated by 2.2 million people. The “secret war” that was to come – an anti-communist paramilitary operation waged by the CIA with support from the Hmong ethnic minority – would see the US carry out the heaviest bombardment in history.

In A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA, a forthcoming book to be released 24 January by Simon & Schuster, author Joshua Kurlantzick uses recently declassified records and extensive interviews with former CIA operatives to shine new light into this war and the mission behind it, known as Operation Momentum.

In A Great Place to Have a War, Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, profiles four major players in the war: the CIA operative who engineered the operation, the gregarious general who led the Hmong army in the field, the US State Department staffer who took charge of the war as it grew, and the unpredictable paramilitary specialist who trained the Hmong army – and is believed to be the inspiration for Marlon Brando’s character in Apocalypse Now.

Ahead of the book’s launch on Tuesday, Kurlantzick spoke to Southeast Asia Globe about what inspired his research, the stunning scope of the war, and how it sparked the growth of an autonomous CIA in the 21st century, one that continues to wage shadow wars around the world.

What prompted you to write this book and investigate the origins of the CIA? What were the most interesting things you found out?

I was based in Bangkok in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a reporter, and I travelled to Laos a lot at that time – and have since. I became fascinated by how this war had really had an enormous impact on Laos, and yet had been largely forgotten in the US, and so had been kind of part of a pattern of US foreign policy in which countries can become central to policy-making – even tiny countries like Laos – and then there is a 180-degree shift, and those countries are all but ignored. Also, I had done a fair bit of research on the early days of the CIA for one of my previous books, a biography of Jim Thompson, the famous American expatriate in Thailand and former intelligence officer. That research drew me into the early days of the CIA, and then I became fascinated with how the CIA shifted – how it shifted from a small, analytic/spying organisation into one that was much more responsible for paramilitary activities, and one that became, increasingly, one of the most important actors in US foreign policy-making.

Can you tell us a little bit about some of the major characters in this book, their significance, and how you came across them?

All four of the major characters in the book have now passed away. One of them, the former US ambassador to Laos, William Sullivan, I never met. I did, however, speak to many of his former aides and received his personal memoirs; he also wrote several published books about his diplomatic career. Sullivan played a unique role: he was the US ambassador but essentially co-managed a war along with the CIA. I met Vang Pao, the leader of the Hmong forces, about a decade ago, while researching a magazine article… and spoke with him at length about Laos and the Hmong-American community. I spoke with the other two main characters, Bill Lair and Tony Poe, at various times by phone and in person before they passed away; Bill Lair was the CIA operative who conceived of the war effort, and later was disillusioned by it as it morphed from a small-scale effort to assist the Hmong to a massive war that did not really, in his mind, put the priorities and interests of the Hmong and other Laotian anti-Communists first. Lair wound up leaving the operation as it grew in size and he became more disillusioned, and he saw it as too Washington-centred and Washington-dominated. I think he always regretted what had happened in how the war was run.

Can you explain the scope of this war – how big it was and its role within the Vietnam War?

It eventually developed into a war that consumed hundreds of thousands of anti-communist and communist Laotian troops, and lasted for nearly two decades in Laos. Given the size of Laos – it’s tiny – this was a huge war for the country. And at least early in the conflict, in the early 1960s, Laos was a high national security priority for US administrations – it was one of the main foreign policy topics of discussion in the transition period between the Kennedy and Eisenhower administrations. This might seem amazing today, since Laos has totally dropped off the US foreign policy radar, but it was true in the early 1960s. Kennedy devoted his first foreign policy-related press conference to Laos, actually. It was certainly subsumed within the Vietnam War; and, as the war went on, one of the problems was that Washington wanted to use Laos as a theatre to chew up North Vietnamese troops, but in doing so, it often chewed up Laotian anti-communist forces at a rate they could not sustain.

How did the CIA’s war in Laos pave the way for its current ‘shadow wars’ around the world?

The Laos war was really the first conflict in which the CIA (along with the US ambassador in Laos) was given such a control of a conflict – arming local forces, advising them, coordinating bombing efforts, even doing some actual fighting by CIA operatives. The conflict made the CIA a more central actor in the US foreign policy apparatus, and entrenched paramilitary work within the CIA in a way it hadn’t been before. This entrenchment never fully went away, and in the current war on terror, the CIA, along with Special Forces, plays a central role assisting foreign forces, overseeing drone strikes, conducting strikes on the ground in places from Pakistan to Somalia. And all of this is done with relatively little oversight, as happened in Laos; there is far less oversight of the CIA and Special Forces than there is of the conventional US military. This might be good, politically, for an American administration, but it’s highly problematic as a way of conducting low-level wars all over the globe.

How is Laos still dealing with the remnants of this war?

Laos is still really shattered by the remnants of the war, and will be for decades. There remains a vast amount of unexploded bombs in the country, and a significant portion of the country was disabled by the war, and the infrastructure (which was already minimal) was destroyed. The civil war split the country in many ways, and since 1975, the Laotian regime has remained a repressive, one-party state. It isn’t really a communist state, but it’s certainly one of the most repressive states in the world, even though when you visit the country, it does not seem as menacing, outwardly, as a place like North Korea or Eritrea or even Cambodia. But it is. And the war drove a high percentage of the population into exile, becoming refugees; this robbed the country of educated people, and Laos still struggles from that exodus.

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