Laos gained its independence from France in 1953. Shortly thereafter, as a part of its ongoing war against communism, the United States began training and supplying the Royal Lao Army.
In the early 1960s, CIA agents had extensive contacts with the Hmong people around the Plain of Jars area. The CIA agents told the Hmong that the North Vietnamese were trying to take their land. The CIA provided weapons and training to the Hmong, and there were reportedly some non-specific promises of autonomy made. In reaction to this propaganda, thousands of Hmong relocated to the south of the Plain of Jars, and a leader emerged in Vang Pao. Under orders from then-President John Kennedy, the Hmong forces were further developed and augmented with Thai forces supported by the United States. There were, however, no US military forces – only CIA.
In the late 1960s, the communist forces were estimated to be approximately 40,000 North Vietnamese forces and 35,000 Pathet Lao forces. The opposing forces were approximately 60,000 Royal Lao Army forces (openly funded by the United States) and another 30,000 of Vang Pao’s forces (secretly funded via the CIA). The number of CIA employees is unknown. These numbers suggest that 165,000 ground forces were fighting in this war that remained a secret to most of the world.
The ground war was fought by Hmong and Thai forces – all supported by the US. The air war was fought by the CIA’s Air America. Subsequent documents have revealed that the CIA’s Air America flew 580,944 sorties in which they dropped 2,093,100 tons of bombs on Laos. Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita any time any where – in a war that was not even known to the US public.
The Tet Offensive in 1968 was a turning point in the Vietnamese War, but it was a turn for the worse in Laos. As bombing was suspended over North Vietnam, it increased over Laos as the US continued to try to stop the supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The guerilla campaign against the North Vietnamese, under the constant support of the CIA, persisted for 12 years.
When a ceasefire was reached in Vietnam in January, 1973, it followed in Laos; however, sporadic fighting continued until 1975. By then, an estimated 12,000 Hmong and Thai troops had been killed and another 30,000 wounded. Boys as young as twelve years old had been fighting. In the end, 120,000 of the estimated 300,000 Hmong population fled Laos, and one third of the overall population were internal refugees.
This war continues to be referred to as a ‘Secret War’ because the US public remained unaware of it until highly censored documents became public in 1970. It is unlikely that the actual cost in dollars and lives will ever be known.
It is also unlikely that the unexploded ordinance (UXO) left from this war will ever be fully cleared. Large areas of eastern Laos remain contaminated by unexploded munitions, mortar shells, white phosphorous canisters land mines, and cluster bombs. Although some UXO is slowly being cleared, and residents are becoming increasingly aware of the problem, there are still 30 to 60 casualties per year, and approximately 40% are children. The legacy of this war goes on.
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