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Brutal Sideshows: Associated Wars in Laos and Cambodia

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By Jeremy Kuzmarov

Return to the Vietnam War

Fighting on the Vague Frontier: The Secret War in Laos

In 1984, George Orwell envisioned a future in which leaders wage automated war involving “very small numbers of people, mostly highly trained specialists,” who fight on the “vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average man can only guess at.”  His dystopia was realized in Laos during the Indochina War, a forerunner to the Global War on Terror, where the U.S. trained tribal proxies among the Hmong to fight against the pro-communist Pathet Lao from the late 1950s until 1975 while dropping over 2.1 million tons of bombs that killed, maimed, and displaced thousands of civilians.  The facts came to light in Fred Branfman’s 1972 book Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War, one of the few books written from the viewpoint of the Indochina peasants.[1]

Fred Branfman was an educational adviser in Laos in 1969 who interviewed refugees from US bombing and helped reveal the secret war.  Shown here in his Washington office with photos of bombing victims in 1972 (George Tames, New York Times)

Branfman was a 27-year old International Voluntary Service (IVS) worker who taught agricultural principles in a southern Lao village.  Lacking the paternalism and cold warrior mentality of many of his contemporaries, Branfman had integrated well into the culture, learned the Lao language and became particularly close to the village elder, Paw Thou Douang whom he later discovered was the local representative of the Pathet Lao.  After coming into contact with refugees in the north, he was shocked to hear their stories of seeing relatives burned and buried alive, their livestock killed, and their homes and pagodas demolished.  Many had been bombed for five years straight, and survived by living in caves and holes, and farming their fields at night.

Seeking to find out where the bombing was coming from, Branfman infiltrated the top-secret Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai base which housed giant super-computers in a heavily fortified underground bunker that received signals from electronic sensor and radar devices and were used to select the targets for bombing.  The atmosphere inside, Branfman said, resembled a stock-market exchange, where self-confidant military officers ordered attacks on Laotian rice farmers without much second thought, never hearing the victims anguish.[2]  “If the Nazi activities represented a kind of apex to an age of inhumanity, American atrocities in Laos are clearly of a different order,” Branfman wrote.  “Not so much inhuman as a-human. The people of Na Nga and Nong Sa were not the object of anyone’s passion.  They simply weren’t considered.  What is most striking about American bombing in Laos is the lack of animosity felt by the killers to their victims. Most of the Americans involved have little if any knowledge of Laos or its people. Those who do rather like them.”[3]

Illustration drawn by a Laotian child refugee who experienced American bombing during the Secret War in Laos, from Branfman’s Voices from the Plains of Jars (1972)

Military planners and “defense intellectuals” saw Laos as a testing ground for new forms of counterinsurgency and automated warfare the Pentagon had been developing, unencumbered by media or congressional scrutiny.  A State Department official said: “This is [the] end of nowhere.  We can do anything we want here because Washington doesn’t seem to know that it exists.”[4]  While USAID provided rice drops in the effort to win “hearts and minds,” the military pioneered computer-directed bombing along with drone surveillance and dropped over 270 million cluster bombs, 80 million of which did not detonate.[5] The CIA molded its own Hmong army as a means of minimizing U.S. casualties and evading diplomatic treaties.  CIA operative Heine Aderholt noted: “it’s easier to lose your Hmong people than to lose Americans.  It doesn’t make as bad publicity at home.”[6]  These strategies helped to delay the victory of the Pathet Lao revolutionary forces by over a decade, while providing a template for the automated warfare of the 21st century.

The U.S. intervention in Laos as in Cambodia was designed to prevent communist affiliated factions from taking power following the end of the French empire in Indochina.  During the first Indochina War (1946-1954) against the French, the Lao nationalist movement split between pro- and anti-communist factions, with the United States backing the latter.  A young woman explained why the revolutionary movement attracted her and so many of her friends:
As a young girl, I had found the past had not been very good, for men had mistreated and made fun of women as the weaker sex.  But after the Neo Lao party began to administer the region…it became very different… under the Neo Lao things changed psychologically, such as their teaching that women should be as brave as men…. the Neo Lao said that women should have the same education as men, and they gave us equal privileges and did not allow anyone to make fun of us… And the old associations were changed into new ones.  For example, most of the new teachers and doctors trained were women.  And they changed the lives of the very poor… For they shared the land of those who had many rice fields with those who had none.[7]
The Geneva Accords signed in July 1954 assigned the Pathet Lao temporary control over the northern provinces of Sam Neua and Phong Saly until scheduled elections in 1955, and called for integration of Pathet Lao units into the Laotian armed forces.[8]  Laos was to remain a neutral state, which meant it was prohibited from joining military alliances or seeking military aid.  As in Vietnam, U.S. officials had no intention of honoring the international agreements.  The U.S. established a foreign aid program in 1955 to build up an anticommunist regime, initiated covert action in 1958; and in 1960, began training Hmong guerrilla irregulars to fight the pro-communist Pathet Lao and tie down North Vietnamese units operating in Laos.  In 1964, under the Operation Steel Tiger, the U.S. Air Force began bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail which passed through Laos, and under Operation Barrel Roll, targeted the material infrastructure in areas held by the Pathet Lao in northern Laos.  These efforts helped delay, but could not prevent, the victory of the revolutionary forces who took over the country by 1975.
In May 1958 parliamentary elections, the political arm of the Pathet Lao, the Neo Lao Hak Xat (Laotian Patriotic Front) encompassing a wide coalition of leftists, won nine of twenty-one contested seats.  The U.S. State Department acknowledged at the time of the election that the Patriotic Front was a “well organized and disciplined legal political party” and “thoroughly pro-democratic and pro-Laotian at heart.”  A coalition government was subsequently formed led by Prince Souphanouvong.  His half-brother, Souvanna Phouma, became head of state and supported the integration of Pathet Lao units into the U.S. trained and financed Royal Lao Army (RLA).

CIA secret air base in Laos

Disappointed by the election results, the State Department and CIA proceeded to subvert the coalition government.  As Ambassador Graham Parsons candidly stated in congressional hearings in 1959, “I struggled for 16 months to prevent a coalition.”[9]  The CIA financed and helped plan a series of coup d’états that brought to power General Phoumi Nosavan, a cousin of Thai dictator Marshal Sarit Thanarat who used his power to amass a fortune of $137 million through control of casinos, a pork monopoly, and the traffic in gold and opium.[10]  Elections in April 1960 were crudely rigged in Phoumi’s favor, with “innumerable examples” of bribery, voter fraud, and intimidation.  A U.S. embassy officer reported that he had seen CIA agents distribute bagsful of money to village headmen.  The Pathet Lao recorded 1,927 votes, a figure arbitrarily derived from the year in which CIA agent Stuart Methven was born.  CIA director Allen Dulles considered the fraud a “youthful prank.”[11]  Prince Souphanouvong was condemned to death for treason, though he won over his guards and escaped on the eve of his executions during a rainstorm.[12]

The U.S. government claimed that North Vietnam had invaded the country in violation of the Geneva neutrality pledge (which the U.S. itself had repeatedly violated), a line the press swallowed.  A United Nations investigation concluded, however, that while North Vietnam had provided material assistance, “there was no conclusive proof that North Vietnamese Army units had crossed the border,” which would have been impossible anyway during the rainy season. After the war ended in 1975, Thai influence was far greater than the Vietnamese, confirming that the official reason for the U.S. being in Laos, as Fred Branfman put it in his memoir, was “nonsense.”[13]
After being forced underground, the Pathet Lao forces, composed principally of troops from the Thai-speaking Lao Loum majority and some disaffected minorities (such as the Hmong and Khmu) took to the mountains and recaptured much of the Plain of Jars, consisting of Sam Neua and Phong Saly provinces.  They received assistance from the North Vietnamese, though the U.S. embassy reported – after a comprehensive effort to accumulate evidence through photos, documents, and eyewitnesses – that some of the “allegations of Vietminh activity” in Laos were “obviously exaggerated.”[14]  Special Forces under the code name Erawan in 1960 began training native forces in counter-guerrilla warfare as secret monies were dispensed to secure political loyalties.[15]  Led by famed World War II jungle warfare experts such as Arthur “Bull” Simons and George Morton, a veteran of the Korean and Greek civil war, the Green Berets disguised their presence by wearing modified jungle boots whose cleated soles were replaced by tire rubber so the prints resembled those of Ho Chi Minh’s sandals.[16]  Scorched earth tactics, black operations, and forced relocation programs designed to isolate the guerrillas from their base were adopted, along with aerial reconnaissance missions that were exposed after the Pathet Lao shot one of the planes down, killing seven members on board.[17]
In June 1962, the Kennedy administration signed a new set of Geneva Accords, which called for an end to foreign interference in the country and formation of a coalition government.  The U.S. embassy helped to bring back into power Souvanna Phouma, pressuring him to reconcile with the right-wing Generals rather than the Pathet Lao.[18]  The U.S. violated the Geneva agreements by sponsoring South Vietnamese espionage and commando missions into Pathet Lao controlled territory in Savannakhet, which were carried out by French army veterans trained by American instructors at Nha Trang, and by continuously stationing military advisers in Laos under civilian cover.  Hanoi, to be sure, also violated the agreement by having its technicians and advisers in the country.[19]

Richard Holm, CIA, with Hmong leader

Also in 1962, the CIA began to build up a clandestine army among the Hmong which was designed to get around the “woeful performance” of the regular army, as CIA station Chief Douglas Blaufarb noted, and to circumvent the Geneva Accords’ prohibition on direct military assistance.[20]  Negotiating without incurring any formal diplomatic obligations, the U.S. embassy sought to exploit splits between the Ly and Lo clans among the Hmong who had migrated to Laos in the 18th century.  Lo Faydang was a founding member of the Pathet Lao, while his French educated-cousin, Touby Lyfoung, who had viewed collaboration as a means of obtaining more rights for his people, initiated resistance activities in the communist-controlled provinces of Sam Neua and Phong Saly.  Touby was succeeded as Hmong chief by Gen. Vang Pao, for whom alliance with the U.S. provided guns and food which would enable him to solidify his power and protect the Hmong’s poppy fields, a key source of their livelihood.

A skilled commander respected by his men though capable of considerable brutality, Washington’s “little guerrilla General,” as Vang Pao was called, had served in the RLA in charge of a school for noncommissioned officers near Phonasavan and had fought like Touby with the French against the Vietminh, receiving the Legion of Honor.  Because of an intimate knowledge of the jungle terrain and effective intelligence, his troops proved difficult to subdue deep inside Pathet Lao–controlled territory and were used for covert forays into North Vietnam.[21]

From 1964 to the end of the war in 1975, American Special Forces trained and supplied Vang Pao’s men from the CIA’s Jungle Base at Long Tieng under USAID cover. Chinese Guomindang,  Thai Police Aerial Reconnaissance Units (PARU) and other CIA-backed tribal militias provided further combat support, making it “possible for a rather large program to be handled by very few Americans.”[22]

Laotian Gen. Vang Pao calling in air strikes from the Long Cheng Command Post in January 1972 (Bettmann Archives)

Vang Pao’s principal liaison, Vint Lawrence, was a Princeton graduate who liked to read Nietsche and Tolstoy.  He provided a striking contrast to Anthony Poshepny (Tony Poe), a hard-drinking veteran of the Pacific War who issued bounties for cutting off enemy ears and sustained more than a dozen wounds in firefights undertaken in violation of orders to stay out of combat.  Lawrence noted that “Tony Poe was the Kurtz [reference to Apocalypse Now character] and I was the anti-Kurtz.”[23]

Like OSS (Office of Strategic Services) operations with the Kachin ethnic minority in Burma during World War II and its French precursor Operation X, the “secret war” in Laos was funded in part through the opium trade. Victor Marchetti, a fourteen-year CIA veteran, observed:  “We were officially spending $27 million a year on the war in Laos.  The war was costing ten times that amount.  It was no secret how they were doing it: they financed it with drugs.  They gave [CIA station Chief Theodore] Shackley a medal for it.”[24]

Craters left by U.S. bombs

Military operations in Laos coincided with the dropping of over 1.7 million tons of bombs along the Ho Chi Minh Trail under the operation Steel Tiger and 321,000 on the northern Plain of Jars under the operation Barrel Roll.  Monteagle Stearns, deputy chief of mission in Laos from 1969 to 1972 told Congress that the U.S. had rapidly escalated its bombing after President Johnson had ordered a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam in November 1968.  “We had all those planes sitting around and couldn’t just let them stay there with nothing to do.”[25]

Hmong commando units helped to prepare lists of targets for Barrel Roll approved by the ambassador.  They also carried out some of the bombing after being trained by U.S. Air Force personnel under a program designed to create a “secret air force with which to fight a secret war.”[26]  Countless villages were leveled and thousands of rice farmers were wounded or killed as part of the “scientific destruction of enemy held areas,” as journalist French journalist Jacques Decornoy described it.  One spring day in 1969, 500 villagers hiding in a cave near the town of Muong Kham were buried alive after it was struck by a Hughes Sidewinder missile.  Over a quarter of the population was forced to flee to refugee camps, where malnutrition and disease were rampant.[27]

One woman proclaimed her life had become like that of a “hunted animal desperately trying to escape their hunters…. Human beings, whose parents carefully brought them into the world and carefully raised them with overflowing love, these human beings would die from a single blast.”  Another refugee lamented, “What terrible sadness, so many loved ones killed, because of the huge bombs the airplanes rained down upon us, so many loved ones forced to leave their native villages, leaving behind spacious rice-fields and gardens now turned to dust.”[28]

Of all the ordinance dropped on Laos, cluster bombs have had the most lasting lethal effect

After he had infiltrated the main air base at Nakhon Thanom, Branfman interviewed pilots who told him that only one of ten bombs hit near a military target and that, as in Korea, they dumped unused ordinance on villages.  In a testament to the banality of evil, Branfman found that most airmen wanted to pad their kill ratios and then enjoy the nightlife, thinking little of the Lao people being devastated below.[29]  Much of northeastern Laos was turned into a “wasteland” reminiscent of “the pocked, churned earth in storm-hit areas of the North African desert,” according to the journalist T. D. Allman.  Branfman wrote that “after a recorded history of 700 years, civilized society had ceased to exist…. a new type of warfare had been developed fought not by men but machines and which could erase distant and unseen societies clandestinely, unknown to and even unsuspected by the world outside.”[30]

For all the devastation, the bombing did little to diminish the revolutionary movement, whose cadres hid deep in the forest and made use of effective spying networks.[31]  The Pathet Lao won the war in 1975 and have ruled Laos ever since.  G. McMurtrie Godley, the U.S. ambassador from 1969-1973, acknowledged that “we used the Meo [Hmong]. The rationale then which I believed in, was that they tied down three first rate North Vietnamese divisions that otherwise would have been used against our men in South Vietnam…. It was a dirty business.”[32]

New York Times reporter Anthony Lewis characterized the bombing of Laos as the “most appalling episode of lawless cruelty in American history.”[33]  When Ambassador William Sullivan, known as “Field Marshall” for his role in micro-managing the war, testified before a Senate subcommittee on refugees in April 1971, he lied by stating that the official policy was to avoid targeting civilians.  Senator Edward Kennedy had previously issued a staff report which concluded that the United States has undertaken a large-scale air war over Laos to destroy the physical and social infrastructure in Pathet Lao held areas…. Throughout all this there has been a policy of … secrecy…. The bombing has taken and is taking a heavy toll among civilians.” Rather the indicting Sullivan for perjury, however, Kennedy simply stated “I don’t believe you,” with no follow-up.[34]
With impunity for their actions, executive branch officials would continue with their lawless behavior over the coming decades.  Alfred W. McCoy points out in a foreword to a new edition of Voices From the Plain of Jars that the war in Laos “forged the future strategy for U.S. global force projection….American soldiers would no longer fight and die on the ground as they had in Vietnam but Washington would, in future wars, engage in automated warfare using airpower to take and hold ground by sheer force of aerial bombardment.”[35]

Bomblets inside one cluster bomb

Laotian civilians continue to suffer.  More than 50,000 have been killed or maimed since the war ended from undetonated bomblets that explode when kids pick them up thinking they are toys, or farmers think they are rocks.[36]  According to the U.S.-based non-governmental organization, Legacies of War, less than 1% of the unexploded ordnance has been cleared in more than four decades since the bombing stopped.  “Each year there are now just under 50 new casualties in Laos, down from 310 in 2008. Close to 60% of the accidents result in death, and 40% of the victims are children.“[37]

On September 6, 2016, President Barack Obama arrived in in Vientiane, Laos, for a three-day U.S.-ASEAN summit – the first sitting president to visit Laos.  Speaking to an audience of over one thousand, Obama acknowledged that the United States had dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War.  “Villages and entire valleys were obliterated,” said Obama, “Countless civilians were killed.  That conflict was another reminder that, whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a wrenching toll, especially on innocent men, women and children.” [38]

Hidden bomblet still waiting to explode

Obama pledged $90 million in bomb clearance assistance.  “The remnants of war continue to shatter lives here in Laos,” Obama said. “Many of the bombs dropped never exploded.  Over the years, thousands of Laotians have been killed or injured, farmers tending fields, children playing.  The wounds, a missing leg or arm, last a lifetime.  That’s why I’ve dramatically increased or funding to remove these unexploded bombs.”  Efforts to find the bombs will be aided by the Pentagon, who will supply records of where they were dropped.[39]

Obama’s pledge and recognition of the harm done by U.S. bombs is significant.  However, Obama stopped short of addressing American intentions or assuming responsibility for all the deaths, insinuating that the harm was just part of war, a kind of terrible lava flow from an erupting volcano beyond human control.  The purpose of Obama’s visit to Laos also belied his appeal to end the scourge of war, as the main intent was to reaffirm America’s commitment to the “Asia pivot strategy,” whose centerpiece is an expanded military presence that threatens a new arms race with China and perhaps new proxy wars.

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 Unleashing a “Decade of Genocide”:  The Sideshow in Cambodia

The devastation in Laos was replicated in Cambodia, another sideshow of the Vietnam War where ferocious air-power killed and maimed tens of thousands while again, inadvertently helping to empower the forces the U.S. was bent on suppressing.  In the fall of 2000, President Bill Clinton released extensive Air Force data which showed that the United States dropped far more ordinance on Cambodia than was previously thought; 2,756,941 tons, dropped in 230,516 sorties, with 3,580 of the sites being listed as “unknown targets.”  The database shows that the bombings began in 1965, four years earlier than was previously thought, in support of Special Forces incursions targeting alleged NLF sanctuaries; and designed to overthrow Prince Norodom Sihanouk who leaned towards the non-aligned and communist bloc and was popular among the peasantry.[40]  These attacks were accompanied by defoliation by Agent Orange of Cambodian rubber plantations, the chief source of Cambodia’s export revenue.[41]

Beginning in the late 1950s, CIA Special Forces organized ethnic Khmer Serei under Son Ngoc Thanh, Cambodia’s premier under the Japanese, to overthrow Sihanouk, dressing up soldiers as Vietcong and carrying out atrocities as a means of inciting hatred against communism.  The 1966 Operation Cherry used Hoa Hao (a religious sect in Vietnam) irregulars to try and assassinate Prince Sihanouk whom the CIA considered “hyper-nationalist and naïve to the dangers of communism.”[42]

Much of the U.S. bombing of Cambodia originated from the Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base (Thailand)

In March 1970, while visiting China, the Prince was deposed in a coup led by Prime Minister Lon Nol, an admirer of Indonesia’s General Suharto who led a genocidal campaign against communists that killed upwards of 500,000 people in 1965.  Lon signed an oil exploration agreement with Unocal and Chevron following years of unauthorized geomagnetic exploration of off-shore waters by the U.S. Navy under the cover of a UN mission.  The coup was backed by U.S. military intelligence and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as well as Japan.  Having installed him as a new ruler, the CIA ironically concluded that Nol, whose neo-Khmer philosophy combined vague political and economic theories, possessed “personal ambition restrained neither by good political judgment nor moral scruples.”  Ambassador Emory Swank came to believe by 1973 that his rule was inept and unsustainable; a conclusion that led to Swank’s firing by Henry Kissinger.[43]

Following the coup that deposed Sihanouk, the Nixon administration signed a $185 military aid agreement and extended arms shipments to Lon Nol through a CIA airline, Continental Air Services.  The CIA and psychological warfare experts from Indonesia were sent in to help administer a xenophobic anticommunist campaign against Vietnamese modeled after the campaign that wiped out the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).  Nol’s brother, Lon Non, ran terrorist militias and a “dirty jobs” unit in the police financed through narcotics, which contributed to the bloodbath.[44]
On April 30, 1970, President Nixon declared to a television audience that the American military troops, accompanied by the South Vietnamese Army, was about to invade Cambodia in order to  disrupt the North Vietnamese supply lines and bomb and destroy Vietcong base camps that were backing up operations in South Vietnam.[45]  These campaigns were supported by covert B-52 bombing attacks launched under the code-name Breakfast, whose goal was to flush out Khmer Rouge guerillas and their NLF and NVA comrades, whom the Khmer Rouge later turned against.[46]
Influenced by Maoist ideology, the Khmer Rouge had been founded by a group of school-teachers, led by Saloth Sar (Pol Pot), who sought to restore the glory of the ancient Khmer empire and delink Cambodia’s economy from the world capitalist system while collectivizing agriculture.  Khieu Sampan and Hou Youn served briefly in Sihanouk’s Cabinet, though the Khmer Rouge were subjected to repression and had limited public support until after the 1970 coup, when they allied with ethnic minorities, including Brao mountaineers, Tapouons, Jarais and Chams and brought Sihanouk back from exile.[47]  (Sihanouk knew the Khmer Rouge would dismiss him after the war, but as a nationalist sought the defeat of the Lon Nol regime).  Scores of people, most of whom knew nothing about Marxist or Maoist ideology, began supporting the Khmer Rouge to “fight Americans and the corruption of their puppet dictator Lon Nol….who [spent American aid money] on lavish parties and fancy prostitutes.”[48]

Nixon’s secret bombing campaign further tipped the political tide in favor of the Khmer Rouge, whose troops displayed greater motivation and discipline than Lon Nol’s forces and the ARVN.[49]  Chhit Do, a former Khmer Rouge official, explained bombing affected people:

the ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came.  Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days.  Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told.  It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children to go off with them…. Sometimes when the bombs fell and hit little children, their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.[50]

Kissinger claimed in his memoir that the U.S. bombing targeted military bases unpopulated by civilians near the border.  However, declassified White House tapes reveal that Nixon told Kissinger to “go in there and I mean really go in…. I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them.”  Kissinger told his deputy, Gen. Alexander Haig, that “[Nixon] wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia…. Anything that flies on anything that moves.”[51]

U.S. bombing near the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, July 25, 1973

“Methodical” devastation was subsequently heaped across the Cambodian countryside, with thousands of civilians killed and hundreds of villages leveled. The usual mix of napalm and Willie Peter was deployed, some on runs by Cambodian pilots trained at Bien Hoa.  As a reflection of public anger, at least one downed American pilot was nailed to a cross with his feet to the ground, dying in agony.  Journalist William Shawcross reported in 1973 that Cambodian “refugees [were] swarming into the capital from [bomb] target areas,” with “dozens of villages, both east and southwest of Phnom Penh destroyed and as much as half their population killed or maimed.”[52]  The area of the temples of Angkor was hit almost daily, including the South Side of Angkor Wat with bas reliefs which told the story of the ancient Khmers who built the temple – masterpieces of art.[53]

By 1975, the Khmer Rouge had succeeded in driving out the United States and its proxies.  Tens of thousands, including Vietnamese blamed for the country’s devastation, were sent to death camps or forced into rural collectives by the new rulers.  Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan wrote that “civilian casualties [from the bombing] drove an enraged population into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide.”[54]  Randolph Harrison, a junior officer involved in Operation Daniel Boone into Cambodia testified before Congress in 1973 that” if B-52s hit enemy forces, its effect was devastating; but if it did not, the effect was the same thing as taking a beehive the size of a basketball and poking it with a stick.”[55]
U.S. officials took no responsibility for creating the conditions that led to the Cambodian genocide.  Indeed, many Cold Warriors felt vindicated in America’s presumed noble intentions in Southeast Asia by pointing to the desperate escape of “boat people” from Vietnam and the genocide of the communist Khmer Rouge regime, which killed between 1.5 and 3 million of its own people from 1975 to 1979.  Yet it was not the United States that ended the genocide.  Rather, it was the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which invaded Cambodia in December 1978, overthrew the regime the next month, and put an end to the methodical massacre.
The tragedy did not end there, however, as ten years of civil war followed, with the Soviet Union and China taking different sides.  According to Cambodia expert Ben Kiernan:
China, the United States, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), all supported Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in various ways.  The Great Powers opposed attempts to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice…. The Khmer Rouge held on to the Cambodian seat in the United Nations, representing their victims for another fifteen years even though they were openly accountable for their crimes…. Thus the Khmer Rouge flag flew over New York until 1992.[56]
The story of the American war in Cambodia would no doubt be better remembered in the United States had it been established as one of the reasons for President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.  The historian Greg Grandin points out that “the very first impeachment resolution against Nixon” introduced in the House by Massachusetts Representative Robert Drinan in July 1973 “focused not on the Watergate break-in, but on the illegal war in Cambodia.”  One year later, however, the House Judiciary Committee decided, by a 26-12 vote, not to pursue a fourth impeachment charge against Nixon.  Nixon’s resignation is thus attributed to his lying about a burglary at the Watergate apartments, the lesser of more serious crimes.[57]
As in Laos, unexploded ordnance from the war as well as landmines from other wars in the 1970s and 1980s continue to injure and kill.  According to the state-run Cambodian Mine Action Authority, the remnants of mines, rockets, and bombs dating back to the 1960s “have killed or injured more than 64,000 Cambodians since the Khmer Rouge fell from power in 1979.”[58]

Hun Sen, Cambodian prime minister

In an ironic twist in early 2017, the Trump administration demanded repayment of an old loan to Cambodia, an amount that has grown to more than half a billion dollars, according to the New York Times.  In February, Prime Minister Hun Sen responded, “Oh, America and U.S. President Donald Trump, how can this be?  You attacked us and demand that we give money.”  The United States, notes the Times, “dropped 500,000 tons of explosives on eastern Cambodia…. Rice farmers fled the fighting and the bombs in large numbers, abandoning their fields for Phnom Penh, the capital.  As food shortage ensued, the United States – which was backing the anti-Communist government led by Lon Nol – lent the country $274 million to buy American rice, wheat, oil and cotton.”  The American ambassador, William Heidt, told Cambodian journalists that the U.S. wanted to “work out a deal that works for both sides” but that completely canceling the debt was not an option.[59]

*          *          *

[1] Fred Branfman, ed., Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War, 2nd ed., with essays and drawings by Laotian villagers, foreword by Alfred W. McCoy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), p. 8.

[2] Interview with Fred Branfman by Jeremy Kuzmarov, Tulsa, Oklahoma, March 5, 2014.  The features of the top-secret base are also described in Robert Corman, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (Boston: Little & Brown, 2002).

[3] Fred Branfman, “The New Totalitarianism,” Liberation, February-March-April, 1971, pp. 1-2.

[4] Len E. Ackland, “No Place for Neutralism: The Eisenhower Administration and Laos,” in Laos: War and Revolution, ed. Nina S. Adams and Alfred W. McCoy (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 139–40; Charles A. Stevenson, The End of Nowhere: American Policy toward Laos since 1954 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), pp. 1, 29.

[5] Secret War in Laos,” Legacies of War,

[6] Branfman, Voices From the Plain of Jars, p. 8

[7] Quoted in Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), p. 482.

[8] Internal Security Police Program, NSC 1290-d, Laos, February 19, 1957, OCB, box 40, folder Laos; Department of State, Memo of Conversation, January 13, 1958, RG 59 Records of the Department of State, Laos, National Archives College Park Maryland; and Frederic C. Benson, “Genesis of the Hmong-American Alliance ,1949-1962,” Hmong Studies Journal 16 (2015), p. 9.

[9] Quoted in Noam Chomsky, At War with Asia (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2005), p. 154.

[10] See Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, rev ed. (New York: Lawrence Hills Books, 1991); and Jeremy Kuzmarov, Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012), ch. 6.

[11] Thomas L. Ahern Jr. , Undercover Armies: Undercover Armies: CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos, 1961–1973(Washington, DC: CIA, Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2006), pp. 10,11; Stuart E. Methven, Laughter in the Shadows: A CIA Memoir (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008), p. 77; Arthur J. Dommen, Conflict in Laos: The Politics of Neutralization, rev. ed. (New York: Praeger, 1971), p. 134; Seth Jacobs, The Universe Unraveling (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), p. 79.  Methven claims that the figure was 3,927 votes, derived from his birth date, September 3, 1927.  Later elections were rigged by James Lilley, a Yale graduate nicknamed by Ambassador William Sullivan “Mr. Tammany Hall.”  James Lilley, China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage and Diplomacy in Asia (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), p. 120.

[12] Wilfred Burchett, The Furtive War: The United States in Vietnam and Laos (New York: International Publishers, 1963), pp. 175–76; Philippe Devillers, “The Laotian Conflict in Perspective,” in Adams and McCoy, Laos: War and Revolution, pp. 44–45; and Martin Stuart-Fox, A History of Laos (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 111–12.

[13] William Lederer, A Nation of Sheep (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1967), pp. 12–13; Bernard B. Fall, Anatomy of a Crisis: The Laotian Crisis of 1960-1961 (New York: Doubleday, 1969), p. 137; Mervyn Brown, War in Shangri-la: A Memoir of Civil War in Laos (London: I.B. Tauris, 2001), p. 25; Peter Dale Scott, American War Machine: Deep Politics, the CIA Global Drug Connection, and the Road to Afghanistan (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010), p. 99; and “Question of Vietminh Presence,” American embassy, Vientiane, to Secretary of State, February 10, 1964, LBJL, NSF, box 265

[14] American embassy to Secretary of State, “Question of Vietminh Presence,” February 10, 1964, LBJL, NSF, Laos, box 266.

[15] Victor B. Anthony and Richard R. Sexton, “The U.S. Air Force in Southeast Asia: The War in Northern Laos,” 1954–1973, AFHRA, 1993,” p. 35; Oudone Sananikone, The Royal Lao Army and U.S. Army Advice and Support (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center for Military History, 1981), p. 77.

[16] Keith W. Nolan, Into Laos: The Story of Dewey Canyon III, Lam Son 719, Vietnam 1971 (San Francisco: Presidio, 1986), pp. 1-2; and Kenneth Conboy, with James Morrison Shadow War: The CIAs Secret War in Laos (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1995).

[17] Conboy and Morrison, Shadow War; and Gary Rust, So Much to Lose: JFK and American Policy in Laos (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), 20.

[18] See Kuzmarov, Modernizing Repression, ch. 6. On Kennedy policy, see also Rust, So Much to Lose.

[19] “Comment Les Imperialistes Americains Ont Perpetré L’Aggression et Sabote la Paix et La Neutralité du Laos au Lendemain de la Signature des Accords de Genève de 1962 Sur le Laos,” Neo Lao Haksat, Committée Centrale, Janvier, 1965, British National Archives, Kew Gardens, London, FO 371 1802 71.

[20] McCoy, The Politics of Heroin; and Douglas S. Blaufarb, Organizing and Managing Unconventional War in Laos, 1962–1970 (McLean, Va.: Human Resources Research Organization, 1972).

[21] Alfred W. McCoy, “The Secret War in Laos, 1955-1975,” in Marilyn B. Young and Robert Buzzanco, eds., A Companion to the Vietnam War (UK: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 283-315; Mai Na M. Lee, Dreams of the Hmong Kingdom: The Quest for Legitimation in French Indochina, 1850-1960 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015); and Frederic C. Benson, “Genesis of the Hmong-American Alliance, 1949-1962: Aspirations, Expectations and Commitment During an Era of Uncertainty,” Hmong Studies Journal 16 (2015).

[22] Col. Michael E. Haas, Apollo’s Warriors: U.S. Air Force Special Operations During the Cold War (Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Air University Press, 1997).

[23] Randall B. Woods, Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA (New York: Basic Books, 2013), p. 228; Fred Branfman, “The President’s Secret Army: A Case Study – The CIA in Laos, 1962-1972” in Robert Borosage and John Marks, eds., The CIA File (New York: Viking, 1976); and Ahern Jr., Undercover Armies.  See also Dan Schanche, Mister Pop (New York: David McKay, 1970), for a profile of another CIA clandestine warrior who dispensed refugee relief aid and also took up arms as a Hmong guerrilla.

[24] Ahern, Undercover Armies, p. 458; McCoy, The Politics of Heroin, p. 318; Joseph J. Trento, Prelude to Terror: The Rogue CIA and the Legacy of America’s Private Intelligence Network (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2005), p. 38; Bertil Lintner, Blood Brothers: The Criminal Underworld of Asia (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2002), p. 248; and Conboy, Shadow War, p. 68.

[25] Branfman, Voices From the Plain of Jars.

[26] Col. Michael E. Haas, Apollo’s Warriors: U.S. Air Force Special Operations During the Cold War (Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Air University Press, 1997). While American pilots were given a party and medals at end of their year tour, the locals flew into their deaths, with sixteen of the nineteen Hmong pilots dying, including Lee Lue, one of the war’s most skilled aviators.

[27] Noam Chomsky, Introduction to Adams and McCoy, Laos: War and Revolution, p. xviii; Branfman, Voices from the Plain of Jars, p. 23; Decornoy quoted in Noam Chomsky, “After Pinkville,” in At War with Asia (New York: Vintage Books, 1969), p. 96; and Branfman, Unpublished Memoirs, p. 888.

[28] Branfman, Voices from the Plain of Jars, pp. 38–39.

[29] Fred Branfman, “A Visit to a Refugee Camp,” Liberation, March 1972; Branfman, Voices from the Plain of Jars rev ed., pp. 16, 17; and Branfman, Unpublished Memoirs, p. 248.

[30] T. D. Allman, “Ruined Town a Vignette of War in Laos,” New York Times, October 17, 1969; T. D. Allman, “The War in Laos: Plain Facts,” Far Eastern Economic Review, January 8, 1972, p. 16; Fred Branfman, “A Lake of Blood,” New York Times, April 7, 1971; and Branfman, Voices from the Plain of Jars, p. 4.

[31] Ahern, Unconventional Armies, p. 181; Branfman, Voices from the Plain of Jars, pp. 48–49, 81; Wilfred G. Burchett, The Second Indochina War: Cambodia and Laos (New York: International Publishers, 1970); and Garrett, “Subversion and Revolution in Laos,” p. 97.

[32] Roger Warner, Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos (London: Steerforth, 1998), p. 380.  See also, Robert Shaplen, Time Out of Hand: Revolution and Reaction in Southeast Asia (New York: Harper & Row, 1969); Ahern, Unconventional Armies; and McCoy, The Politics of Heroin.

[33] Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, The Political Economy of Human Rights, vol. 1; Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (Boston: South End Press, 1979), p. 240; and Anthony Lewis, “Another Senate Test,” New York Times, July 9, 1973, p. 33.

[34] Recounted by Branfman in Voices From the Plain of Jars; and “Ambassador William Sullivan, Testimony before the US Senate Subcommittee on Refugees, April 22, 1971.

[35] McCoy, foreword, in Voices from the Plain of Jars, 2nded, p. xv.

[36] See Karen J. Coates, with photos by Jerry Redfern, Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos (Things Asian Press, 2013).

[37] “Secret War in Laos,” Legacies of War,  This website offers a detailed description of leftover ordnance in Laos.

[38] Jeremy Kuzmarov, “Thanks Obama, For Acknowledging Lao War Victims, But Stop Creating More War Victims,” The Huffington Post, September 12, 2016,

[39] Elise Labott, “Obama announces $90 million to clear Laos’ unexploded bombs,” CNN, September 6, 2016,

[40] Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, “Bombs Over Cambodia: New Information Reveals that Cambodia was Bombed far More Heavily Than Previously Believed,” The Walrus, October 2006,

[41] Peter Dale Scott, “Cambodia and Oil” in The War Conspiracy: JFK, 9/11/, and the Deep Politics of War (Delaware: Skyhorse, 2013), 223; “A Report on Herbicide Damage to Rubber and Fruit Trees in Cambodia,” June 2, 1969, RG 472, Military Assistance Command Vietnam, NA, box 197.

[42] Scott, The War Conspiracy, 224; Burchett, The Second Indochina War; Daniel Marvin, Expendable Elite: One Soldier’s Journey into Covert Warfare (Walterville, OR: Trine Day, 2003); Kenton Clymer, Troubled Relations: The US and Cambodia Since 1870 (DeKalb: North Illinois University Press, 2007); “Memo for the Executive Officer,” July 20, 1955, Operations Coordinating Board, Records of the National Security Council Staff, Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene Kansas, Box 17 .

[43] Scott, The War Conspiracy, 228; Kenneth Conboy, The Cambodian Wars: Clashing Armies and CIA Covert Operations (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013), p. 40; Greg Grandin, Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2015), p. 63; Wilfred P. Deac, Road to the Killing Fields: The Cambodian War of 1970-1975 (College Station: Texas A & M Press, 1997), pp. 152, 180.

[44] Scott, The War Conspiracy; Noam Chomsky, At War with Asia (New York: Pantheon, 1970), 137, 152;Conboy, The Cambodian Wars, pp. 39, 56; Deac, Road to the Killing Fields, p. 82. The deputy of one of Nol’s key associates, Lim Sasaath, was caught smuggling heroin from Laos into Cambodia.

[45] See William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia (New York; Pocket Books, 1979).

[46] Benedict Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Communism in Cambodia, 1930-1975, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

[47] See François Ponchaud, Cambodia: Year Zero, transl. Nancy Amphoux (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1977), pp. 155-165, 167; Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power; and Clymer, Troubled Relations.

[48] Andre Vltchek, “Cambodia and Western Fabrication of History,” August 1, 2014, Vltchek quoting Khmer Rouge soldier San Reoung who was 17 at the time.

[49] Conboy, The Cambodian Wars, p. 56. Deac, Road to the Killing Fields, pp. 86, 163.

[50] Owen and Kiernan, “Bombs Over Cambodia.”

[51] Owen and Kiernan, “Bombs Over Cambodia;” and Henry A. Kissinger, White House Years (London: George Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1979), p. 254.

[52] Shawcross, Sideshow; Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power, p. 350; Malcolm Caldwell with Lek Tan, Cambodia in the Southeast Asia War (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970); Noam Chomsky, At War with Asia: Essays on Indochina (New York: Vintage, 1970); Richard Wood, Call Sign Rustic: The Secret Air War Over Cambodia, 1970-1973 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 2002); Grandin, Kissinger’s Shadow, p. 137; and Deac, Road to the Killing Field, p. 86.

[53] “Report from Cambodia: Thiounn Prasith,” in Frank Browning and Dorothy Foreman, eds., The Wasted Nations: Report of the Enquiry of the International Commission of Enquiry Into the United States Crimes in Indochina (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 242.  Hospitals were also targeted.

[54] Owen and Kiernan, “Bombs Over Cambodia.”  See Kimmo Kiljunen, ed. Kampuchea: Decade of the Genocide: Report of a Finnish Inquiry Commission (London: Zed Books, 1984); and Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology (Boston: South End Press, 1979).

[55] Quoted in Donald J. Mrozek, “The Limits of Innovation: Aspects of Airpower in Vietnam,” Air University Review, January-February 1985, p. 67.

[56] Ben Kiernan, “Cambodia’s Twisted path to Justice,” The History Place, 1999,  See also, Kenneth Conboy, The Cambodian Wars: Clashing Armies and CIA Covert Operations (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013).

[57] Grandin, Kissinger’s Shadow, pp. 137, 139.

[58] Ouch Sony and Zsombor Peter, “Casualties from UXO Drop in 2015,” The Cambodian Daily, February 1, 2016,

[59] Julia Wallace, “Cambodia, Appealing War-Era Debt, Tells U.S.: You Owe Us,” New York Times, April 3, 2007, p. A4.