Michael Sex­ton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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)

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