Strategically important thanks to its long, unprotected borders with Vietnam and China, Laos was caught up in the global struggle between communism and the West. From the early 1960s through to the mid-70s, the country was the hidden arena for a “Secret War” that most of the world knew little or nothing about.
Under the Geneva Accord of 1962, Laos was officially recognised as a neutral state in which no foreign military personnel might be stationed, but in practice this was ignored by all sides. The greatest violator of Lao neutrality was North Vietnam. The Communists had used northeastern Laos as a springboard for attacks on the French during the First Indochina War and never subsequently withdrew. By 1970 an entire North Vietnamese division – the 316th – was deployed in Laos, fielding a total of more than 75,000 troops. Other areas of eastern Laos, too, were criss-crossed with a network of hidden tracks comprising the notorious “Ho Chi Minh Trail” for resupplying Communist units in Cambodia and South Vietnam.
Communist China, too, maintained an area of special interest in the far northwest of Laos at this time, arming and supplying leftist opponents of the Royal Lao government in Vientiane, not least to offset the predominance of Vietnamese influence over their Pathet Lao allies. This policy reached its zenith during the 1960s and early 1970s, when the People’s Liberation Army built a network of roads throughout Phongsali and Luang Nam Tha, reaching as far south as Pakbeng in Udomxai province. This road-building programme owed its origins to an agreement reached betwee Chou En-lai and the Lao premier, Prince Souvanna Phouma, at Beijing in January 1962. By the mid-1960s, however, Vientiane could only watch helplessly as the Chinese, without consultation, built roads throughout the far northwest. At the height of the programme as many as 10,000 labourers toiled under the protection of Chinese armed sentries and anti-aircraft units.
Meanwhile the USA was equally active. Although it was legally prohibited from intervening in support of the royalist forces, US “technicians” appeared in Laos as early as 1959, when they began training the Royal Lao army and building up a Hmong hill-tribe army under the leadership of Vang Pao. By 1962 this US-equipped secret army had reached a strength of around 10,000, centred on Vang Pao’s headquarters at Long Tien in the Plain of Jars. So secret was this US involvement that the name Laos was never used in official communications – the country was known simply as “The Other Theatre”, and Long Tien as “Alternate”.
As Laos was torn apart by civil war, involving Vietnamese, Chinese and US-backed forces, the USA resorted increasingly to air power in an attempt to defeat the leftist forces. By 1973 nearly 600,000 sorties had been flown over the country, dropping an average of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. In the end, almost 2 million tonnes of bombs had been dropped on Laos – about half a tonne of explosives for every person in the country. And every year, around 300 people are killed or maimed by the lethally hidden remaining bombs.
And yet it was to no avail. The Hmong secret army and Royal Lao forces were consistently outmanoeuvred by the North Vietnamese and their Pathet Lao surrogates. The single most expensive covert paramilitary operation ever conducted by the USA ended in failure with the Communist takeover of Vientiane in December 1975. And yet, despite the bombing, bloodshed and years of brutality on both sides, the US Embassy was shut for a total of just one day.
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