"Laos is far from America, but the world is small . . .
the security of all Southeast Asia will be endangered
if Laos loses its neutral independence."
President John F. Kennedy
23 March 1961
Beginning in 1962, the CIA become involved in a "secret war" in Laos against the Communist forces there. The CIA recruited, and trained a private army of at least 30, 000 Meo and other Laotian tribesmen. This group was known as L'Armee Clandestine. Pilots hired by the CIA flew supply and bombing missions in CIA owned airplanes in support of this secret army. Expenditures by the U. S. to assist this army amounted to at least $300 million a year. Forty or fifty CIA officers ran this operation, aided by several hundred contract personnel.
In the remote, jungle-covered mountains of Southeast Asia, there exists a small kingdom little bigger than the state of Utah with the mystical name "The Land of One Million Elephants and a White Parasol." The population is gentle and courteous to a fault with strangers, despite centuries of colonial dominance by foreigners, or farangs as they are called in the native language [eg, "Ferengi" of Star Trek fame]. And when the French farangs reluctantly relinquished control of their colonies in Southeast Asia in 1954, the people of the newly independent kingdom hoped to avoid the continued regional violence by pursuing an ideologically "neutralist" policy that reflected their inoffensive culture . . . and political naiveté. Six short years later, their country would begin a decade-long trial by fire that ended with their hopes smashed in a hail of violence that eclipsed their worst nightmares.
Bordered by Communist China and North Vietnam to the north and east, and pro-Western South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand to the south and west, Laos was, in cold war terms, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. With the bloody precedent established by Joseph Stalin in post-World War II Eastern Europe, the US had come to believe in the "domino theory," in which the fall of one country to Communist subversion inevitably meant its neighbor was next on the list of Communist targets.
While the US did not sign the Geneva Agreements of 1954 that ushered France out of the colonial business in Indochina, it did agree to respect the terms of the agreements . . . as long as the signatory countries did likewise. As for Laos, a number of provisions in the agreements made clear the international intent to keep the kingdom politically neutral in the East-West cold war. Most significantly, the agreements called for the permanent removal of all foreign troops (with the exception of a small French training mission) from Laotian soil.
Dubious from the start of Russian, Chinese, and North Vietnamese sincerity to respect Laotian neutrality, the Eisenhower administration decided to bolster American influence in Laos with a substantial influx of foreign aid. By the end of 1957, the US was spending more on foreign aid per capita to Laos than to any other nation in the world. But money wasn't enough. Substituting Communist guns for Yankee dollars, both Russia and China airlifted war materiel directly into Laos to support the Pathet Lao.
Within a year of the Geneva Agreements, the Royal Lao Government (RLG) was discreetly but actively lobbying the US government for military aid to combat the growing Pathet Lao advances and fill the financial gap left by the French decision to cease funding the FAL. In January 1955, the US responded.
Fierce hill tribesmen proud of their independence, the Hmong (pronounced "mong," the "H" being silent) were led by their premier chieftain, Vang Pao, a major in the FAL. Living in scattered villages throughout northern Laos, the Hmong were perfectly situated to detect and delay the Pathet Lao attempting to infiltrate the Plaine des Jarres (Plain of Jars), commonly called PDJ. The Plaine des Jarres receives its unusual name from the hundreds of large jars that litter the plateau. Cut out of stone by unknown inhabitants of the area, their background remains an unsolved mystery.
In July 1959, the civilian-clad US Army brigadier general running the effort received approval to secretly bring in 107 US Army Special Forces soldiers to train regular government's Armées du Laos (Lao Armed Forces, or FAL) units in unconventional warfare. The Special Forces worked low-profile in civilian clothes under PEO cover to avoid conspicuous violation of the 1954 Geneva Agreements forbidding foreign military forces in Laos. But if anyone was fooled, it wasn't the North Vietnamese.
United States support of Souvanna Phouma's government in the face of continuing North Vietnamese aggression did not constitute, technically speaking, a violation of the terms of the 1962 Geneva Protocol, as Radio Hanoi and Radio Pathet Lao charged. It did not involve Laos in a military alliance, and there were no United States military bases or ground troops in Laos. Supply flights to RLG outposts were flown by civilian companies under charter to Souvanna Phouma's government. United States military pilots in civilian clothes, their names deleted from Department of Defense rosters, flew forward air control missions over Laos.
United States pilots killed or captured in Laos often were officially described as lost "in Southeast Asia." CIA advisers assisted the guerrilla units of General Vang Pao's Hmong army, which, along with irregular forces in the south, was supplied with rice, arms, and pay by CIA operatives based at Udon Thani in Thailand. The total number of CIA personnel involved in this effort never exceeded 225 and included some fifty case officers.
On the periphery of the plenary sessions at Geneva, Harriman and his deputy, William H. Sullivan, had arrived at an informal understanding with Soviet deputy foreign minister Georgi M. Pushkin to the effect that as long as the United States did not technically violate the Geneva Protocol the Soviet Union would not feel compelled, out of consideration of its ally in Hanoi, to respond to United States activities in Laos. The official curtain of secrecy associated with this arrangement gave rise later to statements in Congress that the United States was engaged in a "secret war" in Laos, a perspective that obscured the Ho Chi Minh government of responsibility for its support of the communist-dominated resistance movement in Laos since 1945.
From the start there were always two wars in Laos. The "little" but more devastating war to Laotians was the US-led Hmong war against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese. The larger one was the multibillion dollar effort by the US to close down North Vietnam's primary supply route to South Vietnam, a network of roads later made world famous as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
On 21 March 1961 "Project Mill Pond" was approved. The strike aircraft selected for Project Mill Pond was one USI had considerable and successful experience in previous cold war operations: the World War II-era B-26 Invader. Some of the Mill Pond aircraft were painted all black while others remained flat-metal silver. But all the bombers were totally devoid of any national insignia, or even the standard serial numbers painted on all vertical stabilizers. Flown from Kadena AB to Thailand were 12 B-26s and two RB-26 reconnaissance variants.
Just as the B-26s were "sanitized" with their removal from the Air Force inventory, the Air Force pilots selected to fly them were similarly sanitized. This meant going through all the official and formal steps of resigning from active military duty. The process of being sanitized, or "sheepdipped" as it is widely called in the special operations community, allows the US government to deny any involvement or knowledge of his activities should he be killed or captured by the Communists.
The 1962 Geneva Agreements, essentially a repeat of the 1954 agreements, called for the expulsion of all foreign troops already in Laos by 7 October of that year. The week before the deadline, the United States publicly removed its 666 military personnel through checkpoints manned by the United Nations International Control Commission (ICC) observers; the North Vietnamese evacuated exactly 40,2 leaving behind an estimated 10,000 more. Thereafter, US military forces were not overtly involved in Laos.
Sentiment ran deep in the US State and Defense Departments that the North Vietnamese had been making a mockery of the agreements from the start. It was under these circumstances that a national security rationale based on realpolitik evolved in Washington that public support for the agreements could not be allowed to block a military response to North Vietnam's aggression. In 1962, the Agency began supplying and directing Laotian government troops and irregular forces that were resisting the advances of the Pathet Lao, the Laotian communist party.
By the mid-1960s, this irregular force had grown to approximately 40,000 Laotian tribesmen. The USAF unconventional warfare effort in Thailand and Laos from 1961 to early 1965 was dedicated primarily to supporting Vang Pao's anti-Communist Hmong forces in the northern sectors of Laos. From 1964 forward, brutal combat between the lightly armed Hmong guerrillas and their Communist foes became continuous as both sides seesawed back and forth across northeastern Laos and the strategically located Plaine des Jarres, north of the Laotian capital of Vientiane.
Inside Washington, an elaborate process evolved in which the United States publicly denied having a combat role in Laos. Once committed to this stance, however, it was a charade that would grow to incredible complexity in the following years. This "smoke and mirrors" deception continued with nothing being what it appeared to public eyes. President John F. Kennedy, directed USAF's Tactical Air Command to establish a counterinsurgency (COIN) unit so secret that even the name of the program was classified. It was called "Jungle Jim."
During the 1960s, the Agency regularly briefed the CIA subcommittees oncovert operations as part of the ongoing war effort in Southeast Asia. The sub-committees worried, as did Agency managers, about the demands these operations were placing on the Agency's overall resources. In 1968, for example, despite the Johnson administration's insistence that the Agency fund an expansion of its program to improve social, medical, and economic conditionsin the South Vietnamese countryside, the leaders of the SAC and HAC sub-committees cut off Agency funds, leaving continued funding a matter for the Pentagon to decide.
The agency responsible for covert operations against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos was the euphemistically named Studies and Observations Group (SOG). Formed in 1964 under a special office in the Pentagon, SOG was initially expected to take over the clandestine agent program that the Central Intelligence Agency had been running for several years against North Vietnam. When the ground war in the South heated up in 1965, however, officials decided that the group could be helpful in Laos. In September the Johnson administration authorized Operation SHINING BRASS (later renamed PRAIRIE FIRE), allowing teams of Special Forces and South Vietnamese to cross the border in secret to conduct reconnaissance and bomb-damage assessment in order to improve the accuracy of the air campaign against the trail. In 1967 SOG's mission expanded to include sabotage. All operations were limited to a strip along the border extending no more than twenty kilometers into Laos.
Later operations expanding into Cambodia were code-named DANIEL BOONE, later SALEM HOUSE. Between 1965 and late 1970, SHINING BRASS / PRAIRIE FIRE / SALEM HOUSE / DANIEL BOONE launched more than 1,600 missions into the enemy base and trail complex, providing a useful supplement to aerial and electronic intelligence but not tying down several North Vietnamese divisions as advocates of the program maintained. SOG was still running operations in Laos when the allies launched their cross-border offensive in 1971.
From the very beginning, the Agency sought to bring Congress into these activities. Its subcommittees were briefed, and their approval obtained to finance the paramilitary program. In addition, Agency records reflect that the SFRC was briefed - in all, more than 50 senators received information about the Laotian program over the course of its existence. The Agency also went sofar as to arrange several visits to Laos for one supportive senator, Stuart Symington, and in 1967 permitted the head of its Laotian operations to brief the entire SASC on the status of the program.
By 1970, however, as public support for the Vietnam War waned, Congressional backing for the Agency's paramilitary program in Laos also diminished. At this point, the tide had turned against the Laotian government forces, and Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops controlled much of the country. To bolster the government forces, the Agency introduced into the country paid Thai troops that it had trained, supplied, and directed. The additional costs ofintroducing these troops worried the leaders of the SAC and HAC subcommittees, not only because of the impact on the Agency's overall budget, but because they provided ammunition to the antiwar members of Congress, who were charging that the Nixon administration was financing the war in South Vietnam through the CIA to avoid public and congressional scrutiny.
In early 1971, South Vietnamese forces invaded Laos for the first time, precipitating renewed congressional interest in the ongoing CIA role there. At the end of February, DCI Helms appeared before the SFRC to provide a statusreport. Later in the year, Congress approved an amendment establishing abudgetary ceiling for US expenditures in Laos. CIA was not mentioned per se, but in August, 1971, the SFRC published a sanitized staff report that acknowledged in so many words the Agency's long involvement in the country. It was at this point that Senator Symington, who had been briefed on the Laotian program for many years, publicly disclosed the program, solemnly labeling it"a secret war."
John Stennis, who now chaired the SASC, reacted to Symington's comment by characterizing the Agency's performance in Laos as "splendid," but he provided ammunition to the Agency's critics when he added, "You have to make up your mind that you are going to have an intelligence agency and protect it as such and shut your eyes some and take what is coming." Once the Agency's long involvement in Laos had been publicly disclosed, however, the prevailing sentiment on the CIA subcommittees was that it was now time for the Agency to disengage, leading DCI Helms to recommend to the Nixon administration that its involvement be brought to an orderly end. After the 1973 peace agreements were signed, the CIA terminated its operations in Laos.
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