America's Shadow War in Laos Revisited

The lobby of the CIA headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia. Reuters

Back in 1961, the rumbles of war could be heard in Laos, a former French colony that shared a border with North and South Vietnam and Cambodia. The stocking-shaped, landlocked kingdom was threatened by a communist insurgency led by the Pathet Lao, which was backed by the North Vietnamese—and the U.S. government was preparing to protect the government in Vientiane. Unlike in South Vietnam, however, the American response would be led not by the U.S. military, but by the CIA. Officially, the monarchy would remain "neutral" in the unfolding, Cold War military contest in Indochina. Washington and Hanoi would fight in the shadows.

It is at this point that Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia fellow at at the Council on Foreign Relations, begins his new book, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA. Rather than provide an overview of American activities in Laos, Kurlantzick concentrates on the war and the CIA's program with the Hmong tribal people of northern Laos.

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He describes this program, which he calls Operation Momentum, as a "plan to arm and train the Hmong under Vang Pao to fight in the growing civil war in Laos." Vang Pao, the ethnic Hmong political leader and army general, would lead this program from its bright beginning in 1961 to its bitter end in 1975. Kurlantzick later characterizes the CIA's involvement as a "massive undertaking" that would transform the agency from a mere collector of intelligence and meddler in other governments' affairs into a "central part of war fighting" in the U.S. government. In other words, here was the birth of a military CIA more than 55 years ago. Who knew? Not me. Not then, not now.

Kurlantzick starts his narrative by gravely mischaracterizing Operation Momentum, labelling it a paramilitary operation when it was something quite different. Did he really not know what it was or did he skip that part because it did not fit into his conclusions for the book?

The late Bill Lair, a legendary CIA case officer who has been called the finest counterinsurgency thinker of his time, developed the Operation Momentum concept and brought it to life in conjunction with Vang Pao. The military aspect, self-defense forces in Hmong villages, aimed to provide security for the villagers from Lao communist troops, the Pathet Lao. Hmong units were lightly armed, and only a few had any offensive capability. The rest would stay in place to protect their homes.

The core of Operation Momentum was nation building at its most basic level, the village. Economic development, training, education, health care and medicines, lessons in civics, all done in close cooperation between the CIA and the U.S. Agency for International Development, the former working out of Vang Pao's base at Long Tieng, the latter across Skyline Ridge at Sam Thong. All the key figures—Vang Pao, Lair, USAID's Edgar "Pop" Buell—recognized that the Hmong and other tribes in northern Laos could not survive over time without integrating into Lao society and Vientiane's body politic, and they placed great emphasis on this theme. Kurlantzick does mention the importance of this belief to the principals, but he ignores all other aspects of Operation Momentum not related to military activity. There is no mention of USAID's role, no meaningful discussion of the importance of Air America in supporting the program, military or otherwise. In a country with virtually no road infrastructure, air transport was essential.

Operation Momentum grew rapidly. Hmong villagers gladly signed on in return for weapons to defend themselves and rice, dropped from Air America cargo planes, to feed their families. I believe that at least 30,000 Hmong men were armed and trained, possibly more. But they lived in small villages scattered throughout north Laos and were in no sense a cohesive force.

The program was making progress, but then the Vietnam war changed when the U.S. greatly increased its participation, including air attacks by its planes on the enemy in Laos. Per Washington's wishes, Hmong from self-defense posts left their homes to join combat units, becoming part of the Lao national army. Vang Pao, a warrior by trade, was the leader. Lair was not at all happy, and by 1968 his creation was well on its way to destruction, his role in Laos at an end.

Vang Pao and his men fought valiantly and won some pitched battles with North Vietnamese army divisions, but they were unable to sustain any advantages and were eventually subdued. The rest of this part of the story has been well covered before.

How Kurlantzick could use this sequence of events as the basis for the birth of a militarized CIA is beyond me. He cuts one piece of Operatum Momentum from the whole, labels that swatch as something it wasn't and then serves up an ending based on a falsehood. I am not questioning the idea that the CIA is too active militarily these days, but nothing that Kurlantzick presents as evidence convinces me that the events of half a century ago in Laos had anything to do with today's CIA.

Kurlantzick is on fairly firm ground when he stays with Operation Momentum as a military program, and his information on U.S. policy machinations concerning Laos is sound enough, although not anything new. Most of the rest of the time he strikes me as being lost, uncertain, hesitant, inconsistent and inaccurate. His account lacks authenticity. Mistakes are common. Familiarity with how the U.S. operates overseas––clandestinely or not—is skimpy. And his knowledge of how the CIA works at any level is all but absent.

As big as any of his errors is dubbing William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Laos between 1964 and 1969, the commander of Operation Momentum. It's simply not true. The State Department does not run CIA operations. He assigns the same role to Sullivan's predecessor, Leonard Unger.

Kurlantzick is generally fair in his remarks on the CIA, and resists reciting the usual criticisms about its participation in the Vietnam war. That's refreshing. He does treat Anthony Poshepny (better known as Tony Poe) unfairly, however. Early on he describes with considerable accuracy acts of great courage by Poe after being severely wounded in an enemy attack in Laos. Then later he demeans Poe in several ways and cites various stories of horrific actions attributed to Poe, some dating back before his time in Laos. Exaggerations about him are piled on exaggerations, making him seem a monster. Poe was no saint, no question there, and he drank heavily at times. He was barely lucid when I last saw him in 1996, and he certainly was not better off when Kurlantzick interviewed him in 2001. The real Poe was a true warrior, courageous, dedicated, dependable, and he deserves better treatment than Kurlantzick gives him. I know of no colleagues who would say otherwise.

Colin Thompson is a former CIA clandestine services officer whose 28 years of duty included tours of duty in Laos and other countries, in Soviet counterintelligence and other operations in Washington, D.C.