A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA

A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA

The untold story of how America’s secret war in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s transformed the CIA from a loose collection of spies into a military operation and a key player in American foreign policy.In 1960, President Eisenhower was focused on Laos, a tiny Southeast Asian nation few Americans had ever heard of. Washington feared the country would fall to communism, trigger...

DownloadRead Online
Title:A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA
Author:Joshua Kurlantzick
Rating:
ISBN:1451667868
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:336 pages

A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA Reviews

  • Lori
    Sep 22, 2016

    Loved it! This is a fascinating look at the shadow war in Laos, staged by the CIA, during the Vietnam War. It's an extremely interesting history of the how that war came to be, some of the main people involved in that war, and the rise of the CIA as an organization conducting paramilitary operations, not just spy missions. It also relates the political intrigues of the time, and the fate of Hmong who fought for Laos, and with and for America. Many thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for

    Loved it! This is a fascinating look at the shadow war in Laos, staged by the CIA, during the Vietnam War. It's an extremely interesting history of the how that war came to be, some of the main people involved in that war, and the rise of the CIA as an organization conducting paramilitary operations, not just spy missions. It also relates the political intrigues of the time, and the fate of Hmong who fought for Laos, and with and for America. Many thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for allowing me to read this excellent history. 4.5 stars. Highly recommend!

  • Katie Shuter Rompala
    Jul 13, 2016

    I often find nonfiction books dry and textbooky but this read like a narrative, an extremely sad narrative. It felt well researched and was incredibly informative.

  • David
    Sep 25, 2016

    Thanks to

    and

    for an uncorrected electronic advance review copy, which contains a misrepresentation of fact, described below.

    The following quotation about Ambassador William Sullivan, who plays an important role in the narrative, occurs at Kindle location 706:

    Thanks to

    and

    for an uncorrected electronic advance review copy, which contains a misrepresentation of fact, described below.

    The following quotation about Ambassador William Sullivan, who plays an important role in the narrative, occurs at Kindle location 706:

    Footnote 55 (location 4369) cites “[a]uthor interview with Ralph Boyce, Bangkok, February 2006”.

    I lack the resources to determine exactly when Sullivan was in charge of the American mission in Saigon, but it was certainly before (maybe well before) 1964, when Sullivan became Ambassador to Laos. Boyce, on the other hand, was

    . This means that, when Sullivan was chief of mission in Saigon, Boyce was at most 12 years old, maybe much less, so not in a position to reliably pass judgment on Sullivan's personality.

    I call this a “misrepresentation” rather than a lie, because it seems likely that Boyce knew Sullivan personally, later in their lives. Boyce seems to have served as Special Assistant to Sullivan when Sullivan was the US Ambassador to Iran in 1977. I have no reason to believe that the quote is not exactly what Boyce said about Sullivan.

    However, the placement of the quote, directly after stating that Sullivan had served as chief of mission in Saigon, implies that the statement was made by someone who worked with or knew Sullivan in a professional capacity at that time, which seems not to be the case. The quote cited above should either make it clear that the Boyce knew Sullivan much later in his career, or be left out entirely.

    Perhaps it may seem that I am making a big fuss about nothing, but books of history should be painstakingly accurate. If a non-expert like me can spot a dodgy quote like this one, perhaps there are other occasions of less-than-perfect fidelity to the facts not quite discernible to the average reader.

    This is a book that needs to be above reproach. It is the first comprehensive retelling of the CIA's “Secret War” in Laos since

    by

    (1998), which gets a well-deserved shout-out from Kurlantzick. This new book contains a lot of material from declassified sources and interviews with major players, some now dead, integrated with older material in a fresh synthesis. It purports to make a case about the relevance of the Secret War to CIA activities around the world today. The case is made in a clear and readable manner. If we are lucky, the book could make a dent in the public perception about what the US intelligence community can and should be doing. In spite of the tiny error that I worried to death above, it is certainly well worth reading.

  • David
    Nov 10, 2016

    Very impressive book, though very depressing. Details the rise of the CIA as a war machine during the Vietnam War, which was actually fought to a great extent in Laos. It looks at some of people involved in building the war to epic proportions, and then withdrawing, leaving the country to collapse into yet more suffering.

  • Hunter Marston
    Jan 31, 2017

    Kurlantzick's fresh overview of the Laos War is in many ways completely unprecedented. It was a fascinating historical analysis with a narrative non-fiction voice that gripped the reader from start to finish. Told through the story of four individuals, this is a skillful and novel approach to a complicated chapter of U.S. and Southeast Asian history.

  • Louis
    Feb 09, 2017

    Joshua Kurlantzick’s

    provides a history of the United States’ secret war in Laos. The war had its roots with President Dwight Eisenhower, who believed that Laos, a sparsely populated country, on the periphery of Vietnam was under threat and could precipitate the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia if it fell. The United States involvement increased after President Kennedy took office.

    The CIA had been around f

    Joshua Kurlantzick’s

    provides a history of the United States’ secret war in Laos. The war had its roots with President Dwight Eisenhower, who believed that Laos, a sparsely populated country, on the periphery of Vietnam was under threat and could precipitate the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia if it fell. The United States involvement increased after President Kennedy took office.

    The CIA had been around for a while but played a relatively minor role beyond intelligence, prior to its involvement in Laos. The secret war in Laos marked the evolution of the CIA from an intelligence agency into an almost surrogate military, one which could be used to wage war in secret and without Congressional authorization. One of the more striking features of this book is the degree to which, the United States miscalculated and misunderstood Laos, especially with respect to geopolitics.

    The ultimately tragedy of the secret war in Laos is that there were no real winners. Laos was devastated by the war, with massive casualties for both the military and innocent civilians. Decades after the war ended, there remain an untold number of explosives lurking in the ground, with the continued potential to injure or kill civilians. Furthermore, the key players: Bill Lair, Bill Sullivan, Ving Pao, and Tony Poe have all spent the later part of their lives as broken men, a shell of their former selves. The legacy of America’s secret war in Laos is complicated and perhaps still being written; however, history is not likely to look kindly on it.

  • Rob
    Feb 10, 2017

    A sobering account of America’s engagement in Laos and Southeast Asia from the end of World War II forward. Our CIA secret wars started in Laos, and they continue today with the agency’s drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. It’s a well researched and thorough account. Starting with Eisenhower, the author does a good job explaining the political decisions that were made to try and stop the advancement of communism in Southeast Asia. For military history buffs, a good read.

  • Hugh Heinsohn
    Mar 01, 2017

    Fascinating and well told history of US involvement in Laos. It focuses on the lives of a small group of men who had enormous impact on the country and US policy there. The whole thing started small, but led to the largest bombing campaign since WW2 (we dropped more bombs on Laos than we did on Vietnam and managed to kill 10% of the population.)

    The Hmong people sided with the US and lost pretty much everything when it was all over. The US turned their backs on them once their usefulness was at

    Fascinating and well told history of US involvement in Laos. It focuses on the lives of a small group of men who had enormous impact on the country and US policy there. The whole thing started small, but led to the largest bombing campaign since WW2 (we dropped more bombs on Laos than we did on Vietnam and managed to kill 10% of the population.)

    The Hmong people sided with the US and lost pretty much everything when it was all over. The US turned their backs on them once their usefulness was at an end.

    Basically, US policy in Laos was driven by the desire to tie up North Vietnamese troops and leaders in a sideshow in order to keep US casualties down as the war escalated in the late 60's. It worked, but at a terrible price.

    Well researched and full of information, but also not overlong (only about 300 pages) and very well written.

    Hughly recommended!

  • Kathleen Lawrence
    Feb 17, 2017

    Way back when—in the early 1980s I think—I recall an influx of Hmong refugees arriving in Appleton, Wisconsin. They were extremely poor, mostly illiterate and confused by American culture. I understood at the time that they had fought on behalf of Americans; and we owed them refuge now that the Communists had taken over their country. Little did I know how great a price the Hmong paid on our behalf during the Vietnam War.

    Laos is slightly smaller than Michigan. Between 1963 and 1974, the United S

    Way back when—in the early 1980s I think—I recall an influx of Hmong refugees arriving in Appleton, Wisconsin. They were extremely poor, mostly illiterate and confused by American culture. I understood at the time that they had fought on behalf of Americans; and we owed them refuge now that the Communists had taken over their country. Little did I know how great a price the Hmong paid on our behalf during the Vietnam War.

    Laos is slightly smaller than Michigan. Between 1963 and 1974, the United States dropped two million tons of bombs on the country—more than the total loosed on Germany and Japan during all of World War II; and there are still plenty of unexploded ordinance littering the landscape. Nearly 10 per cent of the population died during the war, as the U.S. sought to disrupt the Viet Cong war machine and cut off its supply line along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

    This era of CIA military involvement presaged the clandestine efforts to fight the Russians by funneling arms and equipment to Afghan fighters through Pakistan, and our current drone war in Pakistan and Yemen. Drug trafficking and corruption tainted American allies in Laos, as it has more recently in Afghanistan.

    Here we are introduced to some of the key players in the Laotian effort to thwart the Communists. There is Bill Lair, a CIA officer with deep knowledge of the languages and culture of Southeast Asia, who becomes disgusted with American policy in Laos. There is Tony Poe, a shockingly brutal CIA paramilitary officer. And lastly, there is Bill Sullivan, the U.S. Ambassador, who views the whole effort from a purely bureaucratic perspective; and General Vang Pao, a psychopathic Hmong fighter. It is Pao’s pleas for more and more air support that led to the U.S. conducting as many as 300 sorties per day during the peak bombing period. This is sad tale, but an important one. Recommend.

  • Steven Z.
    Feb 19, 2017

    The majority of Americans of my generation are aware of the Vietnam War that resulted in the death of 58,315 soldiers and a 153,303 wounded, with the loss of between 1.1 to 3.2 million Vietnamese. Further, they are aware of American bombing of Cambodia and various military incursions that helped bring about Pol Pot and the “Killing Fields,” that resulted in the genocide of over 3 million Cambodians. However, that same generation was probably not aware of the civil war that raged in Laos and the

    The majority of Americans of my generation are aware of the Vietnam War that resulted in the death of 58,315 soldiers and a 153,303 wounded, with the loss of between 1.1 to 3.2 million Vietnamese. Further, they are aware of American bombing of Cambodia and various military incursions that helped bring about Pol Pot and the “Killing Fields,” that resulted in the genocide of over 3 million Cambodians. However, that same generation was probably not aware of the civil war that raged in Laos and the American role in that conflict that witnessed 15-20 air sorties a day against that small Southeast Asian country between 1960 and 1968, that was raised to 300 sorties a day once Richard Nixon took office, resulting in the death of over 200,000 Laotians and 700 Americans.

    By January 1961 Laos appeared to be on the precipice of falling to communism. Bill Lair, a ten year CIA operative flew up to the central highlands to inaugurate a bold plan labeled, Operation Momentum. The plan called for the operation and training of Hmong tribesmen, led by Vang Pao, an anti-communist officer in the Laotian army who would lead these men against the Pathet Lao who were supported by North Vietnam. The civil war in Laos had been raging on and off since the French were vanquished by North Vietnam in 1954, and Laos was declared a neutral country by the Geneva Convention of that year. Even though Laos was a small country the Eisenhower administration, firm believers in the domino theory, and that a pro-western state in Laos could serve as a buffer between Vietnam and Thailand, an American ally. Further, Laos would make it easier for the US to assist South Vietnamese forces that could help bleed Hanoi’s troops as they continued to fight the Vientiane government, and lastly it would block any communist threat to India and Southwest Asia. Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book, A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: AMERICA IN LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA chronicles Operation Momentum and its impact on the region and the implications for American strategy to deal with communism for decades. In addition, it raises the specter of a CIA run war through para military operators, something that continues today.

    Operation Momentum was the first secret covert run war by the CIA in American history. Laos provided the CIA with the opportunity to increase the agency’s powers. According to Kurlantzick, it saw the Laotian situation as an inexpensive war in terms of money and lives to create a template for proxy wars around the world as presidents looked for ways to continue the Cold War without going to Congress for funding or involving American troops. For the CIA, after Laos, paramilitary operations would become an essential part of the agency’s mission.

    Kurlantzick presents a balanced and interesting narrative as he provides the background history that led to the Laotian civil war involving the Royal Laotian Army, smaller armies of different Laotian tribes, Vang Pao’s 30,000 strong Hmong army, North Vietnamese troops, and American bombing and supplying and training of anti-communist forces. As the narrative is developed the reader is introduced to a number of important characters. First of which is Bill Lair, a career CIA operative who believed the key to helping the fight for democracy in Indochina was to allow the Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese to do their own fighting. The US could assist them with equipment and training, but should not be out front and appear to replace the French as a colonial power. Lair and his CIA cohorts were thrilled with the success of Vang Pao’s army in that they finally found an indigenous force that would take it to the communists. Pao was a loose cannon, but Lair knew how to control him. This relationship was successful until Washington decided to expand its operations in Laos and Vietnam under leadership of Ted Shackley who arrived as CIA Laos Station Chief in July 1966. Lair was against an increased ground war with massive bombing as he correctly believed that it would be unsuccessful in interdicting North Vietnam’s supply efforts to South Vietnam through Laos. The author’s presentation of Lair’s story is invaluable in understanding what transpires in Laos until he resigns from the CIA in August 1968. Once Lair resigns no one can control Vang Pao, and his forces who pursue a reckless strategy that has grave consequences.

    Other important figures that Kurlantzick introduces are Tony Poe, a career soldier who trained and recruited Hmong tribesmen going back to 1961. After Lair resigned he developed his own 10,000 man force made up of an amalgam of tribes who he could not hold together because tribal ethnic conflict and as a result were not an effective fighting force. Perhaps the most important character in this drama was Ambassador William Sullivan, an American Foreign Service career officer who was Ambassador to Laos between 1964 and 1969. Sullivan was sent to Laos to organize the war against the Pathet Lao and became the first American ambassador to run a war from his office. Sullivan reigned in the CIA and made all operatives report to him what their plan of action was. He would approve, and even choose targets for the war, something no ambassador had ever done before. If someone did not comply, because of his relationships in Washington, they would be transferred out. Once Shackley came aboard, Sullivan supported an expansion of the war and a massive increase in bombing which was further expanded once Richard Nixon entered the White House, as Nixon had his own realpolitik for Indochina involving Communist China, and the Soviet Union in achieving the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

    Kurlantzick tells a fascinating story that at times reads like fiction. There is some repetition of information, and a few factual errors, i.e.; the Viet Minh did not sign the 1954 Geneva Accords, and according to historian Fredrik Logevall, he misstates the number of American military advisors in Vietnam at the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and he offers no evidence that Kennedy “repeatedly told aides he would not tolerate the loss of South Vietnam during his presidency. (Fredrik Logevall, “Laos: America’s Lesser Known Human Political Disaster in Southeast Asia,” Washington Post, February 2, 2017)

    The most disturbing aspect of the war that Kurlantzick brings out has to do with the surreptitious American bombing of Laos. According to the author by 1969 the United States had dropped more bombs on Laos than it had on Japan during World War II. Further, by “1973, when the bombing campaign ended, America had launched 580,000 bombing runs in Laos. A high percentage of these bombs were antipersonnel or fragmentation bombs—which exploded into hundreds of small, deadly metal pellets on impact—antipersonnel mines, and bombs that caused widespread fires.” (177) Kurlantzick uses the massive bombing of the Plan of Jars during the summer of 1969 to highlight the devastation that resulted in the deaths and maiming of Laotian civilians. The overall bombing campaign killed civilians in disproportionate numbers and what is even more damning was the American policy of dropping excess ordinance over Laos when they could not find targets in North Vietnam and did not want to return to Thai bases with undropped bombs. In addition, Kurlantzick describes how Laos was used as a training site for bomber targeting and the indiscriminate dropping of bombs to be rid of them. America’s disdain for the Laotians can also be seen in the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam as Henry Kissinger and company sacrificed its Laotian allies in order to achieve a semblance of peace with Hanoi. By the time the Americans left Saigon, a similar withdrawal occurred in Vientiane, as by 1973 Washington had washed its hands of its former ally with devastating consequences for the tens of thousands of refugees and the poor people left behind.

    Despite the fact that it appears that Operation Momentum was a failure when the Pathet Lao was victorious, the CIA saw it as an unqualified success. The CIA argued that the operation occupied over 70,000 North Vietnamese troops who might otherwise have fought Americans. Further, it allowed the CIA to develop its war fighting skills to the point where paramilitary operations equaled intelligence gathering as its joint mission. The paramilitary component could be seen during the Reagan years in arming the mujahedin against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and arming and training of the Contras to fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. After 9/11 paramilitary operations seem to have become the center of CIA activities. Today these operations are involved in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Syria, and Pakistan. Whether through drone attacks under the aegis of the war on terror or training and supplying weapons, Operation Momentum created the CIA template for its paramilitary wars in the 21st century.

    Kurlantzick offers a well-researched narrative that helps fill the vacuum of historical monographs pertaining to the war in Laos. Recently, we were reminded of the cost of that war when Barak Obama became the first American president to visit Laos and announced an increased funding to clean up unexploded ordnance that is still plaguing the Laotian countryside. Kurlantzick has written an important book that fills in a number of gaps when one thinks back to the events in Southeast Asia between 1960 and 1975 which sadly younger generations seem to be ignorant of.