A history of the CIA’s involvement in the Laos war and the effect it had on the structure and evolution of the organization and its future role in foreign conflicts.
The longest covert war in American history was fought in Laos, from roughly 1961 to 1975. While no American troops fought on the ground, the CIA led a massive anti-communist campaign against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao, a pro-communist Laotian group. Kurlantzick (Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, 2013, etc.), a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes the evolution of the CIA’s entanglement in Laos. President Dwight Eisenhower, writes the author, viewed Laos as “a nation where the United States could make a stand to prevent communism from spreading west out of China and North Vietnam into Thailand and India and beyond.” By the end of the decade, it cost the U.S. upward of $500 million per year in 1970 dollars, and tens of thousands of lives were lost—Lao, Hmong, Vietnamese, and Thai among them. Since the U.S. government “had little desire to send American troops to fight more foreign wars,” the CIA took the reins, launching air strikes, managing battle strategy, and providing advisers to Vang Pao, the brutal Hmong leader whose forces were instrumental in fighting against the communists. According to Kurlantzick, the CIA was eager to expand its role, and the Laos war allowed it to “become a paramilitary organization whose primary purpose was killing and war fighting.” In his well-researched argument, the author relies on extensive materials prepared by other historians as well as first-person interviews with relevant characters (including Vang Pao) and recently declassified documents. The book is dense with information and might be difficult for lay readers unfamiliar with the Indochina wars, but it’s an important demonstration of the U.S.’s ongoing, not-so-secret hand in world affairs.
Kurlantzick’s comprehensive account provides new insights into the CIA’s objectives in the Laos war and the way that they were incorporated into its broader mission.