The Secret War That Transformed the CIA
Joshua Kurlantzick, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA (Simon & Schuster, 2017)
If you work at it, you can make a case that Americans fought on the right side in Vietnam. There is an argument — not conclusive, but defensible — that with all its faults, the anti-Communist side offered South Vietnam’s people a freer and more prosperous future than they would face if the Communists won. That didn’t mean war was a wise choice or that its goal justified the death and destruction it caused. But Americans looking for some moral comfort could at least tell themselves that they were fighting for a better outcome for the Vietnamese.
By contrast, it is harder to find anything morally defensible in American actions in Laos and Cambodia. U.S. operations in those countries, including among the heaviest bombing in military history, were conducted to support American objectives in Vietnam rather than for any achievable benefit for its smaller, weaker neighbors. That was also the reason for U.S. air support and military aid that kept weak, ineptly led local Laotian and Cambodian ground forces in the field long after it was clear they had no chance of winning against their stronger North Vietnamese enemies. Exactly the same can be said about the Vietnamese Communists, who intervened in Laos and Cambodia for the identical purpose: to support their war in Vietnam. In those “sideshow” conflicts (as the British writer William Shawcross called the Cambodian war) Americans and Vietnamese both pursued their own goals with little regard for the grievous price being paid by the Laotian and Cambodian people.
In A Great Place to Have a War, a new history of the largely clandestine American effort in Laos, Joshua Kurlantzick quotes from a passage that starkly captures the moral blindness of U.S. policy in that war. It’s from a now-declassified retrospective written by CIA historians years after the war ended. Kurlantzick only used part of the quote, but the full version makes the issue even clearer:
In the opinion of many officers in the CIA Clandestine Services, the paramilitary programs that the Agency operated in Laos between 1963-71 were the most successful ever mounted. Small in numbers of personnel and even smaller in relative dollar costs, the CIA Laos operations shone in contrast to the ponderous operations of the US military forces in Vietnam.
Think about that. A war that was won by the enemy, leaving America’s principal allies to flee or live under a particularly harsh Communist dictatorship, was… successful? A low cost in dollars and personnel? True only if you choose to ignore the devastating casualties among the tribesmen (and boys) who made up the Americans’ principal fighting force, and came out of the war with their land and way of life irretrievably lost. It is hard to imagine how anyone could think of Laos as a victory, but apparently that’s what it is in the CIA’s institutional memory. In former agency director Richard Helms’s memoir, the chapter on Laos is titled “The War We Won.” This characterization is possible only if Laotian lives and the fate of their country counted for nothing at all.
America’s involvement in Laos began in the 1950s, when the United States started providing conventional military assistance to government forces fighting Laotian Communist insurgents who were backed by North Vietnam. Despite U.S. aid, the government army proved ineffective. Early in 1961, the Americans turned to a different strategy, arming and directing an irregular force of Hmong tribesmen (then commonly called Meo), a mountain tribe living in the Plain of Jars region in northern Laos. That plan was conceived and organized by Bill Lair, a CIA officer who had been based in Thailand for many years and knew the region well. The guerrillas were commanded by a Hmong officer in the Laotian army named Vang Pao.
The year after the CIA’s initial contacts with the Hmong, a Laos peace agreement was signed in Geneva, establishing a new and officially neutral coalition government. Despite the agreement, the fighting did not end, and CIA support for Vang Pao’s guerrilla movement continued to grow. Meanwhile, U.S. involvement in Vietnam was also deepening, turning to open war in early 1965 with a full-scale bombing campaign against North Vietnam and the commitment of U.S. ground forces in South Vietnam. From then on events in Vietnam, not any goals for Laos, were decisive in determining the course of the Laos war.
Four personalities figure prominently in Kurlantzick’s account of those events. In addition to Bill Lair and Vang Pao, they are Tony Poe, a soldier-of-fortune archetype who ran missions by Laotian guerrillas in the field, and William Sullivan, the career diplomat who was the U.S. ambassador in Laos and effectively commanded the secret U.S. war during his tenure between 1965 and 1969. Kurlantzick conducted first-hand interviews with three of the four, all except Sullivan.
Along with their own stories, the four protagonists stand for broader themes. Bill Lair, who tried unsuccessfully to stop his superiors from pushing the Hmong guerrillas past the point of no survival, stood for the kind of honorable commitment that America ultimately did not represent in Laos. Tony Poe, a man of violence with little or no moral restraint, was in Laos to fight a war, not to be a spy or pursue any political goal. As Kurlantzick points out, he can be seen as a symbol of the CIA’s shift from intelligence-gathering to paramilitary operations. Bill Sullivan, both as ambassador and then as a member of Henry Kissinger’s negotiating team in the American-Vietnamese peace talks in Paris, exemplifies the cynicism of U.S. policy, which for years backed a war that destroyed Laoian lives and society to serve American interests and then walked away, without visible twinges of conscience, when those interests changed. Vang Pao could stand in for other American clients who were too dependent on U.S. power (and too concerned with keeping their own) to find a different path when American needs diverged from theirs.
Kurlantzick also examines that war’s lasting consequences for the agency and the nature of America’s involvement in foreign conflicts. Laos, he writes, was the CIA’s “template” for large-scale clandestine warfare in Afghanistan and Central America in the 1980s (with Laos veterans often in key roles in paramilitary operations in both regions) and then in numerous places after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, as the CIA assumed a major combat role in the war-on-terror era.
That evolution came about, Kurlantzick argues, because the Laos operation had gratifying results for both the agency and its political masters, even if the war ended in defeat. For the CIA, Laos meant bigger payrolls and richer budgets and stronger influence in national policy discussions — all standard bureaucratic goals in the Washington power game (which may explain why Richard Helms called it a victory). The fact that the war was lost was irrelevant. The Laos model was enticing for U.S. political leaders too: a way to wield power at less cost in money and American lives with poor foreigners doing almost all the bleeding and dying, largely hidden from congressional scrutiny and “almost totally unwatched by the media” or other nosy critics. What, as they say, was there for a president not to like?
A Great Place to Have a War adds illuminating details to the historical record and gives useful insights on the CIA’s militarization and its meaning for today’s world. At the same time, though, it is sometimes fuzzy and occasionally wrong on the facts and meaning of events in the wider war outside Laos.
The book’s treatment of the air war is one example. Even while its tone about the bombing is critical, it does not do justice to the real story of the overall U.S. air campaign and how little priority the Americans put on the consequences for Laos. Writing about the massive escalation of bombing in Laos in 1968 and 1969 — a tenfold increase, from 20 or 30 strikes a day to 300 or more — Kurlantzick notes that there were no additional targets to justify the skyrocketing number of missions. But he nowhere explains that the escalation had nothing to do with supporting the Laotian government or its troops. The only reason ten times as many more bombers flew over Laos was that President Johnson halted bombing in North Vietnam in 1968, so the airpower no longer used in North Vietnam was diverted to Laos. (As a classified Pentagon study put it “probably the best analogy would be a fire hose, running under full pressure most of the time and pointed with the same intensity at whichever area is allowed.”)
Throughout the air campaign, the essential U.S. objective was to strike North Vietnamese targets on the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, a mission having nothing to do with the ground war in Laos. Strikes supporting the Hmong guerrillas or other Laotian forces did not really reflect a military strategy other than keeping them in the field to tie down North Vietnamese troops. That goal served American purposes, not theirs. The Lao were expendable. That is a central point of Kurlantzick’s thesis that could have been made more strongly if the context — here and elsewhere — had been more accurately and clearly explained.
Even with some bits of bad history, though, A Great Place to Have a War is a valuable work, especially in its examination of the CIA’s evolution since the Laos war and the implications of that change for U.S. actions overseas and for American policymaking at home. Kurlantzick raises important issues: Who should wage America’s wars? Who agrees on when and where to fight them, and who controls how they are fought? And ultimately, when wars are fought by proxy and in secret, what does that mean for American institutions and American character? Those questions are critical now, not just for a war fought two generations in the past. Indeed, in today’s world the answers matter a great deal more than they did then.
Arnold R. Isaacs was a war correspondent in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from 1972 to 1975. He wrote Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia and co-authored Pawns of War, a history of the Lao and Cambodian conflicts. He is also the author of Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy and From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani Americans and Afghan Americans in Post-9/11 America.