The US “secret war” in Laos, 1964-1973

President Obama's visit to Laos casts light on a forgotten war

by Ken Sehested

       Earlier this week, 5 September 2016, President Barack Obama became the first US president to visit the nation of Laos in Southeast Asia. "Given our history here, I believe that the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal," he said.

        As a result, two important things happened.

        First, media attention was directed to the “secret war” waged by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1964-1973, part of a larger war (legally it was considered a “police action”) centered on the war in Vietnam and the secret bombing of Cambodia ordered by President Nixon in an expansion of the war.

        Even though the bombing of Laos was made public in 1971, few citizens have ever heard of it. Fewer still know that, on a per-capita basis, Laos was the most bombed country in history: a total of 580,000 US strikes, on average one plane load of bombs every eight minutes, around the clock, for nine years.

        The second important thing that happened with the President’s visit was his announcement of a $90 million contribution from the US, spread over the next three years, to clear unexploded ordinance (UXO).

        Some 50,000 civilians have been killed or maimed (20,000 since the end of that war) by UXO.

        Below are several other pieces of the savage story.

        § “Acknowledging the history of war is a way that we make future wars less likely.” —President Obama, speaking 7 September during his visit to the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) Visitor Centre in Vientiane, Laos

        § Laos, along with Cambodia and Vietnam, were French colonies from the second half of the 19th century through 1953-54.

        § “Cluster bombs” were among the 2.2 million tons of ordinance dropped on Laos. The most commonly used cluster bombs carries 670 “bomblets,” about the size of a tennis ball, and each of these contain 300 metal fragments.

        § It’s estimated that 20-30% of the 260 million bomblets failed to explode. Less than 1% of these have been cleared.

        § Ten of the 18 Laotian provinces have been described as “severely contaminated” by UXO, making vast tracts of land unavailable for farming—in a country where 80% of the population are farmers.

        § 98% of the victims of cluster bombs were civilians; 40% of those, children.

        § The CIA’s secret war in Laos was aimed at halting North Vietnamese troop and weapons transfer into South Vietnam, along with supporting the Laotian monarchy against the Pathet Lao insurgency.

        § At one point the CIA airport in the Long Tieng region of Laos was considered the busiest airport in the world, with 400 flights per day. (You may remember the 1990 American action comedy film, Air America, directed by Roger Spottiswoode, starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. The movie doesn't get many facts right, but it is based on actual history.)

        § During Obama’s speech in Laos he mentioned Channapha Khamvongsa, the Laos-American director of Legacies of War, the premier US-based education and advocacy group working to address the impact of conflict in Laos during the Vietnam War-era. (Want to get personally involved? They are always looking for volunteers, especially to host their National Traveling Exhibition in cities across the country.)

        § Article 22, a Brooklyn-based company founded in 2010, sells jewelry made from scrap bomb casings that fell on Laos and Vietnam during the war —Daily Capital, “From Laos With Love: Vietnam Bombs Become Jewelry

        § “Despite the international ban on cluster bombs, more than 150 financial institutions have invested $28 billion in companies that produce them, according to a new report released Thursday [16 June 2016]. Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and Wells Fargo are among the 158 banks, pension funds, and other firms listed in the "Hall of Shame" compiled by the Netherlands-based organization PAX, a member of the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC). Of the top 10 overall investors, the US is home to eight. Japan and China round out the last two.” —Nadia Prupis, Common Dreams

        § In December 2008 representatives from nearly 100 governments gathered to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a comprehensive ban on the production, transfer, export and use of cluster munitions. To date, 119 nations have signed—the US, Russia, China being among the key holdouts.

        § In June of this year legislation outlawing transfer of US cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia (which has used them in its ongoing attacks in Yemen) failed in the US House of Representatives.

        § Between 1993 and 2016, the US contributed on average $4.9 million per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the US spent $13.3 million per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.

        § Good news.Last Remaining Cluster Bomb Maker in the US Ceases Production After Critical Report.” —Sam Sacks,

        § Watch this visually-stunning, animated video (1:37) of US bombing missions in Laos.

        § “US bombs still maim as Obama prepares to visit Laos,” Agence France-Presse (1:55 video).

        § Watch this inspiring video (8:09) produced by the Mennonite Central Committee on 30 years of work clearing cluster bombs in Vietnam and Laos.

        § “In his diary in March 1969, [President Richard] Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, noted that the final decision to carpet bomb Cambodia [also a secret war, lasting four years] ‘was made at a meeting in the Oval Office Sunday afternoon, after the church service.’”

Sources for the above information include
Legacies of War, the premier US-based education and advocacy group working to address the impact of conflict in Laos during the Vietnam War-era
        •"Laos: Barack Obama regrets ‘biggest bombing in history,’” BBC News
        •“Laos: Thousands suffering from the deadly aftermath of US bomb campaign,” Matteo Fagotto, The Guardian
        •“Obama pays tribute to victims of US bombing during the ‘secret war’ in Laos,” Christi Parsons, Los Angeles Times
        •“The Bombing of Laos: By the Numbers,” Sarah Kolinovsky, ABC News
        •Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, an initiative providing research for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Cluster Munition Coalition.

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