US in Indochina: the ‘Secret War’ in Laos that haunts the nation to this day

For over two decades, the US covertly engaged in a civil war in Laos to ensure the containment of communism in southeast Asia at a time, where Cold War tensions were high in Vietnam, and later in Cambodia. The nation was a theatre for a secret proxy war, as North Vietnam operated throughout the country in the early 1950s, working together with the local communist movement, the Pathet Lao, while later the US went on to support right-wing groups, most notably, with the Royal Lao Government. The war still leaves a significant and damaging legacy in the nation, most notably with the extensive unexploded ordinates throughout the nation, coming as a consequence of US bombing, targeting the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

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The Geneva Conference in  1954 with North Vietnamese delegates in the foreground; despite the resulting Geneva Accords, there was little to prevent the countries in Indochina, including Laos, from developing into a Cold War hot-spot in the near future (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Following the end of the First Indochina War and French occupation in 1954, Laos had little opportunity to recover despite the Geneva Accords granting the nation independence. Both internal and external tensions at the time started to emerge, which was troublesome for the vulnerable nation. Leftist (the communist Pathet Lao), rightist groups (the Royal Lao Government) and Neutralists grappled for power within the country, while, the rise of the Cold War meant that the Indochina region, including Laos, would undoubtedly be a hotspot for both sides, mainly with the US (supported royalists) and North Vietnam (aided the Pathet Lao) . The internal tensions resulted in the escalation of the civil war in 1960 with the Neutralists’ coup of the existing government, which led to a counter-coup from the Royal Lao Government. The collapse of their original plans led Neutralists to split up, with many allying with the Pathet Lao, while others went to support the royalists. With these two sides, the foundation of the war over the next decade and a half was set, even despite a ceasefire being officially established with the 1962 Geneva Accords (which was later ignored)[1]. Most critically, the divide between the left and right allowed for the emergence of increased external influence, much notably with the US and North Vietnam.

One of the most significant, if not the most crucial impact of the war, was the widespread damage caused by US bombing, which mainly targeted the Ho Chi Minh Trail and looked to weaken the Pathet Lao. Their bombing campaign, lasting 9 years, from 1964 to 1973, resulted in over two million tonnes of ordnance being dropped over the landlocked nation. To put that into a larger context, it made Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world, based on a per person basis. The legacy it leaves today is still disastrous, especially with the issue of unexploded ordnance, which include a range of explosive weaponry (such as mines) that can instantly kill individuals or cause severe injuries, that often remain out of sight. Rather shockingly, less than 1% of such ordnance has been cleared, even despite it being four decades since the US stopped such bombing runs. As a consequence, regular casualties occur amongst the Laotian people on a daily basis nowadays [2].

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Hmong guerrilla troops in 1961; the ethnic (Source: Kenneth Conboy, War in Laos 1954-1975)

The fragmentation of the Laotian people as a result of the civil war, and especially from CIA involvement, is a similarly harmful ramification of the disruption caused to the small nation. With US interference in the war, the CIA initiated an operation, training a local army of Hmong tribesmen to fight against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao. According to Douglas Flaubarb, a former CIA operations officer, who managed the Hmong army, described it as a “17000-man irregular force”. The effective guerilla tactics utilised by the Hmong soldiers was similar to that used by North Vietnamese forces and were successful when facing their communist enemies, the Lao People’s Liberation Army (LPLA) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), especially when aided by American air support. Similarly, local Meo tribesmen were trained by the CIA as part of their operations to support the royalists in the war [3]. Such actions by the CIA undoubtedly created great divisions amongst the Laotian people during the war, destroying any kind of unity that remained. With the conflict gradually shifting in favour towards the communist forces (LPLA & NVA), especially following the withdrawal of US forces with the Paris Peace Accord in 1973, and with the eventual communist victory in 1975, there was an emergence of a new refugee crisis. Over 10% of the population left after the end of the war, with the Hmong accounting for much of this group (about one third). Many were lucky enough to be resettled in the US, but most fled over the border to Thailand. Persecution was widespread following the war with the communist government in Laos, especially with those supported the royalists and the US. Decades following the war, this fragmentation of the population has had its effects, most notably with the emergence of a large presence of Hmong in the US. The damage to the Lao people from the war was still felt in the early 2000s, where there was still estimated to be thousands of illegal Hmong refugees in Thailand [4].

The aftermath of the conflict in Laos has undoubtedly been devastating and clearly is still seen today. Even despite extensive funding from the US, the unexploded ordnance remains a major issue that threatens the lives of the Lao people and the polarisation of the population as a result of the war has left ethnic groups such as the Hmong, either being persecuted by the socialist government or fleeing permanently to other nations. Thus, today and in the near future, the legacy of the conflict will continue to influence the direction of Laos.


1. ^ RAND CORP SANTA MONICA CA,. (1972). Organizing and Managing Unconventional War in Laos, 1962-1970. Advanced Research Projects Agency.
2. ^  Secret War in Laos | Legacies of War. Legaciesofwar.org. Retrieved 10 February 2017, from http://legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/
3. ^ RAND CORP SANTA MONICA CA,. (1972). Organizing and Managing Unconventional War in Laos, 1962-1970. Advanced Research Projects Agency.
4. ^ Yang, K. (2001). The Hmong in America: Twenty-Five Years after the U.S. Secret War in Laos. Journal Of Asian American Studies, 4(2).

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