Why you should care
Because the bombs are still exploding today.
Democracy or hypocrisy? In this series, “American Hypo-cracy,” OZY looks at America’s lengthy struggle to live up to its lofty ideals by exploring some of the uglier episodes in its past that are often overlooked by the history books. Read more.
Christine Boyle’s store, Queen Design Lao, offers rings, necklaces and pendants to shoppers along Luang Prabang’s quaint peninsula. Most of the trinkets resemble normal jewelry, but the miniature cluster bombs on some chains in the friendly Aussie’s shop are less subtle.
Known as “peace jewelry,” the necklaces sport metal harvested from unexploded bombs, a reminder of how nearly a half-century ago, Laos became the most-bombed country in history during a “secret war” that lasted more than a decade. The American public was kept in the dark as the U.S. Air Force and CIA fought in Vietnam’s neighbor, where reverberations are still felt today in the quiet countryside.
This September, Barack Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit Laos, now that America has started to commit more money to cleaning up the bombs that make large swaths of the 7-million-strong landlocked country dangerous to tread.
You didn’t have to be in Laos for very long … to know what was going on.
Martin Stuart-Fox, former UPI correspondent
Several decades ago, another young president took office with Laos on his mind. The day before John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration, the outgoing president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, urged him to focus on Laos as a way to stop communism’s spread, telling him “Laos [was] the key to the entire area of Southeast Asia.”
The U.S. backed the weak Royal Lao Government, which was battling the communist Pathet Lao. The Americans briefly left after Laos was officially declared neutral by the 1962 Geneva Agreement, which ordered all foreign forces to leave. But as the Vietnam War escalated, Laos became a crucial battleground — and its supposed neutrality was ignored by the North Vietnamese and the Americans. The former used Laos and Cambodia to move supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail as they worked to prevent the U.S. from gaining a strategic foothold in the Plain of Jars area bordering North Vietnam.
Skirmish successes went back and forth, with the CIA-backed local troops — mostly ethnic Hmong people from the mountains under the leadership of the charismatic Vang Pao — trading territory with the Pathet Lao. The Hmong were effective at guerrilla warfare but less skilled when it came to conventional battles, where they suffered heavy casualties.
By 1969, as the North Vietnamese started to increase their ground forces, the U.S. had intensified its bombing campaign but denied doing so because it remained illegal. “It’s extraordinary, really, that official denial went on for as long as it did,” says Martin Stuart-Fox, author of A History of Laos and a United Press International correspondent in the capital city of Vientiane during the early years of the war. “Because the secret war wasn’t really secret, you didn’t have to be in Laos for very long … to know what was going on.” While the press reported on the fighting, President Richard Nixon did not formally acknowledge the presence of U.S. forces until 1970.
The scale was staggering. According to the Lao government’s bomb-cleaning organizers, American planes flew 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, dropping 2 million tons of explosives — more than the Allies dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II.
Stuart-Fox says the overall casualty numbers are still impossible to verify, but were high on both sides. Irregulars from neighboring Thailand and even Hmong children were pulled into the fight. The American-backed forces had some success in the biggest paramilitary operation in CIA history. Notably, at the Battle for Skyline Ridge in 1972, American-backed fighters defeated a much larger Communist force.
Historian William Leary wrote that the CIA deserved its accolades for fighting a far bigger army to a standstill for more than a decade. “As in Vietnam, however, victory on the battlefield did not mean much in the end,” he noted. “It merely delayed the final outcome of the war.”
Starting with a 1973 cease-fire agreement, America started to withdraw — and the Pathet Lao overran the American sympathizers. Vientiane fell in December 1975, a few months after Saigon, and the one-party Communist government remains in power to this day. Many Hmong were purged; some managed to resettle in the U.S., but many who didn’t fight alongside the Americans remain in Laos.
In recent years, amid improving relations between the old foes, the U.S. has increased aid to Laos to help remove the remains of the bombs it dropped. Improved education and clearance measures have slowed the pace, but dozens of people continue to be killed or wounded each year. And in heavily bombed areas, the abundant scrap metal is often used for household purposes or fashioned into jewelry — visible reminders of a little-known conflict.