Anatomy of a secret conflict
was now the Nixon administration in Washington. In March 1970, Richard Nixon made the first public disclosure of the conflict — but not the level to which it had reached. This statement had little public impact, largely because, unlike in Vietnam, there were no significant American ground forces in Laos, and so no American casualties.
The book details the results of the bombing where it was most heavily concentrated — in the middle of the country on the Plain of Jars, where 150,000 people had lived before 1960 and 9000 remained in 1970.
But the Americans were about to lose interest in Laos. In January 1973 the so-called Paris Peace Accords were signed between North and South Vietnam. Secretary of state Henry Kissinger was the chief US negotiator, although much of the spadework was done by the ubiquitous Sullivan, now back in Washington.
Two years later, South Vietnam was gone. As for Laos, Kissinger forced its government to form a coalition with the Pathet Lao. Events then took the same course as in Vietnam. In August 1975 Pathet Lao troops entered Vientiane, and in December took over the government.
Their enemies were sent to labour camps, especially the Hmong, although 100,000 of them fled to Thailand, where they survived in refugee camps until some were able to get to the US. Vang Po was taken to the US and, somewhat incongruously, installed on a ranch in Montana.
The net result of all this was that by the end of 1975 about 200,000 Laotians had been killed, including 30,000 Hmong — a tenth of the total population.
Twice as many had been wounded by ground fighting and bombing, and about a quarter of the population had been displaced from their towns and villages. One-third of the bombs dropped remained undetonated and continued to kill those who stumbled on them for decades afterwards.
This is an important book that recounts with great clarity — although, disappointingly, without photos or maps — one of the least known conflicts of the postwar years.
It is also another indictment of the foreign policy and military advisers in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations — “the best and the brightest”, as the ironic title of David Halberstam’s 1972 book has it. latest book is On the Edges of History: A Memoir of Law, Books and Politics.
Hmong troops in 1961, the year the US expanded its military involvement in Laos