By PISA Staff Assistant, Leeann Ji
As the battle against communism raged in Vietnam, a lesser-known civil war between the Pathet Lao – a communist movement – and the Royal Lao Government ravaged Laos. The conflict in Vietnam spilled over into Laos as a result of the establishment of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1959 and the partnership between the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese soldiers. In Northern Laos, North Vietnamese forces established a military effort in order to support the Pathet Lao in their attempts to ignite internal rebellion. Seeing the North Vietnamese forces supporting the proliferation of communism into Laos, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) decided to take action by training Laotian tribesmen to create a guerilla force to fight back against the Pathet Lao.
In addition to training this force, the U.S. began a secret bombing campaign of Southeast Laos where the Ho Chi Minh Trail lay. Using the Air America airline in cooperation with Thailand and the Royal Lao Air Force, the CIA delivered supplies and aid to Laotian government forces fighting against the Pathet Lao. When the North Vietnamese established its Group 559, it charged the unit with delivering supplies from North Vietnam to the Viet Cong in the South. This involved movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a trail that has historically existed as a trade route but was redeveloped into a strategic transport path down the eastern side of Laos during the Vietnam War. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) began its bombing campaign on the Trail in an attempt to hinder the progression of North Vietnamese forces into South Vietnam, and as the Pathet Lao began to fight back later in the war, the USAF expanded its bombing campaign into northern Laos to target communist dissidents.
The “secret war” in Laos serves as an example of the U.S. policy of containment during the Cold War. Beginning under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, several successive U.S. administrations became concerned with the proliferation of communism into Southeast Asia. It was believed that if Vietnam came under a communist regime, so would Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and others. Southeast Asia was considered a critical region, and if it “fell” to communism, the U.S. would lose influence there. Nonetheless, the “secret war” in Laos remained hidden from the American public, as Laos was supposed to be a neutral nation (the U.S. government and North Vietnamese forces signed an agreement specifying the neutrality of Laos in 1962).
In fact, between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance during 580,000 bombing missions – equivalent to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes for 24 hours a day for 9 years, and regarded as one of the heaviest bombing campaigns in history. However, about a third of the bombs (Unexploded Ordnance [UXO]) dropped did not explode at the time, and about 250,000 of them were cluster bombs – a cluster of smaller bombs that splinter prior to impact. Unfortunately, many of these unexploded cluster bombs look like toys, and children often make the dire mistake of playing with the small, spherical bombs. Since the end of the U.S. aerial bombardment of Laos, 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO, and 40% of those victims are children. The aftermath of the bombing has also greatly affected farmers, specifically poorer farmers who can only afford to purchase land in bomb-ridden fields. To date, about 1% of UXO in Laos has been destroyed, and since 1993, the U.S. has annually pledged $4.9 million a year to UXO clearance. On his most recent visit to Laos on September 6, 2016, President Barack Obama pledged $90 million in additional aid to UXO clearance in Laos after acknowledging the “secret war” and arguing that the U.S. has “a moral obligation to help Laos heal.”
Moreover, while Vietnam received the bulk of the public’s attention regarding the lingering effects of Agent Orange following the end of the Vietnam War, Laos went largely uncovered by the media as a result of the war’s covert nature. Few specific details and statistics of Agent Orange and its effects in Laos exist due to the CIA’s secrecy surrounding its campaign there, but it is known that at least 537, 495 gallons of the herbicide were unleashed on Laos between 1965 and 1970. Most of these sprayings were concentrated along the eastern part of Laos that borders Vietnam and on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The purposes of spraying Laos with Agent Orange was to both defoliate the countryside and destroy crops, and to this day, the citizens of Laos must live and work with the after effects. Aside from damaged crop fields, other effects of Agent Orange include birth defects and deformities in Laos.
On August 30, 2016, PISA hosted Susan Hammond and Jaquelyn Chagnon from the War Legacies Project, and they spoke about their experiences working with those in Laos affected by Agent Orange long after the conclusion of the war. At PISA, we aim to establish strategic academic partnerships in Asia, but we also firmly believe in bringing to light vital issues that still plague the continent today.