There are whole libraries of books on the Vietnam War but nothing like as much has been written about the conflict in Laos that took place during the same period. This work by Joshua Kurlantzick, who is based at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, looks in detail at this comparatively unknown war.
Its origins lay in the immediate aftermath of World War II when the Japanese were forced to surrender the French colony of Laos to its former masters. But France’s empire in Indochina was finished and Laos became an independent state in 1954, together with North and South Vietnam.
For the remainder of the 1950s, however, the new government waged a continuing battle with communist Pathet Lao guerillas and the North Vietnamese troops who supported the insurgents. On the government side, the official Laotian army was supported by the Hmong tribe in the centre and north of the country, along with a number of Thai mercenaries. There was also some assistance from the CIA.
The significance accorded to the conflict in Laos by the Eisenhower administration is illustrated by the fact that, when power changed hands in 1961, Dwight Eisenhower described it to John F. Kennedy as the most important issue facing the new president. This concern was reflected in the CIA’s decision that year to begin providing large-scale funds and supplies to a Hmong army under its commander Vang Pao — a force that reached 20,000 men by 1963.
As noted in A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA, Kennedy had his doubts about this strategy, writing on a memo sent to him in 1961 that Laos was “a most inhospitable area in which to wage a campaign” and “the chances of eradicating the Communist position … are practically nil”.
In July 1964 a decision was taken by the Johnson administration in Washington to bomb the positions of Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops as well as the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran through Laos and allowed North Vietnam to supply its forces in South Vietnam. At about the same time one of this book’s central characters, William Sullivan, arrived in the Laotian capital Vientiane as US ambassador.
Although the CIA continued to supervise the war on a day-to-day basis, Sullivan took a keen interest in every aspect of its operations and no major decisions were made without his agreement. One of those decisions in 1966 was to significantly widen the conflict by initiating conventional ground battles with the enemy, chiefly through use of the Hmong forces.
As Kurlantzick’s book points out, the goal of this exercise was to divert the North Vietnamese contingent from South Vietnam and then sap its strength. There was no particular interest in the present or future condition of Laos — quite similar to the indifference of the Americans, and the Australian government, to South Vietnam except as an obstacle to communist expansion in Southeast Asia.
By 1969 the US bombing sorties had gone from a starting point of 20 a day to 300 a day, although knowledge of the very existence of the war was still confined to a small group in what A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA By Joshua Kurlantzick Simon & Schuster, 325pp, $79.99 (HB), $14.99 (eBook)