Consequences of America’s Secret War
Published/Last edited or updated: 4th August, 2018
During the 1960’s, while international news outlets intensely covered the Vietnam War, the world ignored the fact that an illegal war was raging in neighbouring Laos.
History in a nutshell
Though Laos was guaranteed neutrality in 1962 at the second Geneva Convention, the country would soon become engulfed by the conflict between the US/South Vietnam and North Vietnam. Civil war had emerged within Laos between the North Vietnam-backed communist Pathet Lao and the US-backed Royalists and neutralists. The US began a clandestine CIA operation as part of their containment strategy against communism.
They recruited and trained the Hmong, a hilltribe group who saw communism as a threat to their autonomy, independence and land, including their heartland Xieng Khouang. The US built secret military installations with airstrips known as Lima Sites throughout the country. “Private” airline Air America was actually covertly owned by the US government, and one of their objectives was to transport the Hmong’s traditional crop, poppies. Opium and heroin were sold overseas to raise funds for the war. Plenty of it ended up in American G.I.’s fighting in Vietnam.
While tens of thousands of Hmong boys and men fought guerrilla warfare and suffered heavy casualties on the ground, the US unleashed an intense aerial bombardment campaign. Southern Laos was bombed to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the network used by North Vietnam to move supplies, artillery, munitions and troops, while areas in northern Laos like Xieng Khouang and Sam Neua were Pathet Lao and NVA strongholds. Laos was also used as a dumping ground: aircrafts could only safely land when empty of explosives. Even if the original target could not be properly attacked, bombs were unleashed regardlessly—often dumped in Laos as the bombers returned to bases in Northeast Thailand.
The end of the war and UXO legacy
All was lost. Saigon had fallen, the Americans had abandoned them, the Pathet Lao were advancing. On May 14, 1975, General Vang Pao boarded an aircraft in Long Tieng (Chieng). For the last few days, the CIA airbase in Xieng Khouang—“the most secret place on earth” that became the symbol of the American operation—had been flooded with Hmong civilians scrambling to get on an aircraft evacuation. When Vang Pao was airlifted out, it was the end. Tens of thousands of Hmong began the treacherous journey to flee the country on foot. Many would not make it.
By the time the Secret War ended, 200,000 Laotians or a 10th of the population was dead. Of this, upwards of 30,000 were Hmong. The American death toll was 728. From 1964 to 1973, more than two million tons of bombs were dropped, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita. This works out to be an average of one bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years.
Of the ordnances, most were cluster bombs, a single bomb shell containing hundreds of tennis ball-sized “bombies”: 270 million bombies were dropped in Laos and 30% of them did not detonate. Of all the provinces, Xieng Khouang was one of the most bombed and today, unexploded ordnances (UXO) maim and kill people farming their land, walking through the forest or simply making a cooking fire. Children are especially susceptible because a bombie looks like a toy ball.
Phonsavan is one of the best places in Laos where travellers can learn about the UXO problem and the work being done. Several groups are involved in survivor support, education/awareness and demining, slowly chipping away at a near insurmountable task. Don’t be surprised to see demining teams working in the field and signs indicating a plot of land has been cleared and how many UXO were removed.
At Xiengkhouang Quality of Life Association’s visitor centre, the current year’s UXO survivors are listed on a chalk board. From 74-year old Mee Ya, who sustained injuries to her leg, thigh and chest, to two-year old Kayalao, who was playing and now has injuries to both eyes. The facts are presented plainly in black and white, with space where the names of future victims will be added. According to QLA, in Xieng Khouang in 2017, there were 21 survivors and one death. In 2016 there were 25 survivors and two deaths.
Injury is not only physically painful to the victim, it is an enormous burden on a family. There are medical expenses, the person can no longer work on the farm or help earn income. Established in 2011, QLA supports victims of UXO, helps them find a livelihood and advocates for their inclusion in the community.
Visitors to their centre on Phonsavan’s main street can read profiles of some UXO survivors, watch a documentary, spend time with books in the reading room, buy handicraft made by survivors or donate.
MAG (Mines Advisory Group) is one of the organisations clearing UXO in Xieng Khouang. The visitor centre, also on the main street and refreshed in 2018, gives information on bombs and UXOs, their devastating effects and the de-mining process. There is a photo exhibition and film screenings of “Bomb Harvest” (53 minutes) and “Surviving the Peace” (23 minutes).
When in Phonsavan, visiting both centres and watching the films are a must.
War related sights in Phonsavan
Travellers will see the literal impact of bombs when visiting Plain of Jars Site 1. Interspersed between the stone jars in the 25-hectare site are fox holes, trenches, anti-aircraft positions on top of the cave and bomb craters, including one that was caused by a 2000 pound bomb. The Plain of Jars was strategically important during the Secret War and 127 UXO were cleared from Site 1 alone. The visitor centre has informative displays on the war and the UXO problem.
Five kilometres west of Site 3 is Ban Naphia, famously known as “the spoon village”. With initial training by Swiss NGO Helvetas, families in the village recycle scrap metal, including metal from safely defused bombs, turning them into spoons, “bomb bracelets”, key chains and jewellery. Drop in to see them churn out spoons in their simple home workshop and to buy unique souvenirs. It’s most active in the morning. As you approach the village, the road splits. Both ways will lead to workshops: the road on the right leads to a cluster of homes with a number of workshops but we like veering left and visiting the workshop across from the school.
A day trip to Muang Kham, 52 kilometres northeast of Phonsavan, reveals several war-related sights. On 24 November 1968, a US fighter plane fired rockets into Tham Piew Cave, used by farmers from the surrounding villages for shelter. The first three missed, but the fourth hit, a massacre killing all 374 men, women and children inside.
Ban Nakhampheng is en route to Muang Kham. The Hmong village uses scrap bomb shell casings for everything from fencing and fire pits, to vegetable planters and foundation pillars of storage sheds. Spend 20-30 minutes walking around the village trying to spot the bombs. Sometimes they are so well integrated they are easily missed. About 11 kilometres from Ban Nakhampheng is a vast bomb crater field in Ban Khai.
West of Phonsavan, Muang Soui and Phou Khout hold a significant place in war history. Muang Soui (now known as Nong Tang) was intensely fought over by all players: the communist Pathet Lao and the People’s Army of Vietnam against the neutralists, the Royal Lao Army and the US CIA-backed operation that included Hmong fighters. The location of Lima Site 108 runway is still obvious today. Nearby Tham Pha Buddha Cave was used as a hospital and shelter during the war.
Phou Khout mountain and ridgeline overlooked Muang Soui valley. If interested in its significance, read up on Operation Triangle (1964), Operation Off Balance (1969) and Kou Kiet/Operation About Face (1969).
The turnoff for Phou Khout is on Route 7, 43 kilometres from Phonsavan, about five kilometres shy of Nong Tang. It’s possible to drive up to the peak for a spectacular view and hopefully en route, the abandoned wreck of a PT-76 Russian tank will still be lying on the roadside.
A final note: The Hmong and their involvement in the war remains a sensitive subject. There are rumours of continued persecution, oppression and “cleansing” by the Lao army. The subject is taboo and should be avoided.
A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA by Joshua Kurlantzick. Our review here.
The Ravens by Christopher Robbins
Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992 by Jane Hamilton-Merritt
New York Times: Heirs of the ‘Secret War’ in Laos
MAG: Main Road, Phonsavan; https://www.maginternational.org/mag/en/blog/mag-in-laos/; Mo–Su: 10:00–20:00.
Xiengkhouang Quality of Life Association: Main Road, Phonsavsan; http://qlalaos.org Mo–Fr: 08:00–20:00 Sa–Su: 12:00–20:00.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.