The Long Shadow of Secret Warfare


Pathet Lao soldiers in Vientiane, Laos, 1973.

by Hunter Marston

A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military C.I.A.
by Joshua Kurlantzick,
Simon & Schuster, 2017, 336 pp.

The CIA has seen its future, wrote the New York Times: ‘Not as the long-term jailers of America’s enemies [or as a spying outfit] but as a military organization that could erase them.’  (253)

Joshua Kurlantzick’s gripping new history of the United States’ secret war in Laos traces the rise of the Central Intelligence Agency’s paramilitary capabilities to the little-known and devastating conflict that ravaged this quiet jungle country in Southeast Asia beginning in the early 1960s.

Kurlantzick tells the story of the secret war in Laos through the stories of four individuals who shaped the conflict on the ground. There’s Bill Lair, the young CIA operative stationed in Laos with the noblest of intentions: to defend a peace-loving people from the scourge of communism, which North Vietnam threatened. There’s Vang Pao, the gallant leader of the Hmong, who would lead his men into battle, often charging uphill into enemy lines at the front of his soldiers. Then there is Tony Poe, real name Anthony Poshepny, a grizzled, rice-whiskey-guzzling CIA orchestrator in the hills of Northern Laos. And finally there’s Bill Sullivan, the erudite American ambassador to Laos, who with the calculated detachment of a veteran diplomat, oversaw the U.S. escalation of a brutal and widespread bombing campaign throughout the country.

This personality-based account of the CIA’s clandestine war in Laos makes for an eminently readable and thoroughly engaging read. Kurlantzick’s historical undertaking is both prosaic and deeply informative. The extent of original primary-source research it contains makes for an enriching tomb of historical data, and it is packaged in an action-packed, gripping war memoir writing style.

While everyone is aware of the tragic U.S. war in Vietnam, few people, let alone Americans, know about Washington’s destructive involvement in the small, mountainous country that lies adjacent. Nor have we had, until this book, a chance to thoroughly appreciate the gravity and significance of the CIA’s war in Laos. Langley’s secret and shockingly far-ranging operations in Laos lasted throughout the 1960s and into the early 70s, until the United States finally ceased bombing flights following the 1973 Paris peace talks, which Kissinger and Sullivan, under the tutelage of renowned American diplomat Averell Harriman, spearheaded.

The significance of the war lies in the fraught environment in which the Central Intelligence Agency found itself during its formative years during the late 1950s and early 60s. Kurlantzick explains why the CIA “thought that [Laos] was a great place to have a war” (15). If it could prove its value to a skeptical Kennedy (and later Nixon) administration that it could serve as an asset by successfully waging covert warfare, its leaders hoped to expand their agency’s budget and power. While by any objective criteria, the war in Laos was a disaster (the U.S. was forced to withdraw its forces after 1973 and abandon the local Hmong forces it had supported in their fight against communist North Vietnam and the Pathet Lao, amidst massive civilian casualties, shameful human losses, and environmental destruction), that didn’t matter for Langley. They had proven that they could kill enemy soldiers and more or less avoid circumspection from Congress and the public eye.

Despite the unprecedentedly large bombing campaign in Laos (the United States dropped more bombs on the country than in all of World War II combined) and astonishing kill count (according to Kurlantzick, the Laos war killed a tenth of its population), more American casualties in Vietnam, in addition to the wider media coverage of the secret war in Cambodia, obscured the true scope of the Laos war.

To drive the point home, Kurlantzick notes, the United States was spending 28 times as much on bombing Laos as it was on economic and humanitarian aid to the country, even though Laos received more financial assistance per person than “nearly any other country in the world” (184). This new research greatly expands our understanding of U.S. adventurism in Southeast Asia in the Vietnam War era. And it sheds light on the enormous lengths Washington went to in its overzealous quest to quash communist expansion in countries it little understood and over whose people it ran roughshod.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the implications it holds for today. Kurlantzick calls attention to the profound continuities between the CIA’s Laos operation and its modern-day drone warfare over Iraq and the Levant, and its clandestine training program in Syria. It seems the CIA is still up to many of its old tricks – plus some new ones.

The reader can also draw some surprising parallels between a brooding and reactionary President Nixon, with the dispassionate Kissinger at his side, with the administration of President Trump, an avowed human rights agnostic who looks to hard men around the world as exemplary leaders while giving short shrift to U.S. partners abroad and values like human rights or democracy. Moreover, the two share a disdain for the CIA and the press. Trump’s dismissive comments toward the agency today mirror the suspicion with which the incoming Nixon team viewed Langley’s leadership.

Finally, Nixon’s obsession with secrecy and leaks may bear relevance to a fractious White House under Trump, which has already shown a proclivity towards leaking information on policies it finds objectionable (153).

Finally, the dramatic shift of attention away from Laos at the end of the Vietnam War is emblematic of U.S. foreign policy’s short attention span elsewhere and across the years. As losses added up in Afghanistan in the mid-2000s and early 2010s, and the U.S. devoted more blood and treasure to its war in Iraq, public attention moved away from the first and overwhelmingly toward the second. Conversely, one can recall the sudden shift of attention to Southeast Asia, particularly Burma in 2010, following the small, pariah country’s first elections in two decades and the Obama administration’s declaration of its “Rebalance” to Asia.

There are myriad other lessons contained for readers today. Kurlantzick’s work underscores the importance of establishing a clear understanding of U.S. strategic interests and policy goals, as well as deep knowledge of the local cultures and political contexts of countries it invades, prior to going all in on conflicts with hazy objectives or in countries that are peripheral to core national interests.

The enduring legacy of the U.S. intervention in Laos makes this historical narrative an important literary contribution for both policymakers and an informed American public to examine carefully.

About the Author:

Hunter Marston is a Southeast Asia analyst at a think tank in Washington. DC. He completed his MA in Southeast Asia Studies at the University of Washington. He tweets @hmarston4.