Anatomy of a se­cret con­flict

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Michael Sex­ton’s

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

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