The history of a US war crime
By Allen Myers
Here’s a non-trivial question for trivia night organisers: In the late 1960s, what was the world’s busiest airport? Stumped? Here’s a hint: What was the most bombed country, per capita, in the history of warfare? If you answered “Vietnam”, you’re getting close, but not quite there. Until 1975, the CIA ran the world’s busiest airport at Long Cheng, on the edge of the Plain of Jars in Laos. More than 400 flights a day took off to bomb communist Pathet Lao troops — and just about anything else that moved.
The US clandestine war against Laos killed hundreds of thousands of villagers and created 700,000 refugees — from a population at the time of only around 3 million. In the words of Alfred McCoy, author of The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1972): “If the US is guilty of war crimes, not just mad minutes of soldiers in Vietnam breaking down under stress, but systemic crimes by commanders, that war crime was the bombing of northern Laos. We destroyed a whole civilisation, we wiped it off the map. We incinerated, atomised human remains in this air war .”
The history of this huge war crime is the subject of a new documentary film, The Most Secret Place on Earth: The CIA’s covert war in Laos. It will not be released until later this year, but in August filmmaker Marc Eberle gave previews of the still not completely edited documentary in Phnom Penh and Bangkok. Audiences in both cities were impressed by the wealth of the material and the skill with which it was presented.
The CIA’s “covert operations” — war crimes — in Laos began at least as early as 1954, when French imperialism was forced to withdraw from Indochina after its defeat by communist-led Vietnamese national liberation fighters at Dien Bien Phu. Under the peace treaty signed at Geneva, Laos was to be a “neutral” state. But within a few months, Washington was paying for all of the Laotian government’s military spending. From 1955, Laos received more US aid money per capita than any other country. A large part of these funds financed various forms of corruption, including the undermining of the neutralist prime minister for the benefit of right-wing generals.
In 1956, the US State Department announced a “humanitarian aid mission” in Laos. An airline called Air America — revealed in 1970 to be wholly owned by the CIA — went through Laos creating 400 landing strips to which small planes could deliver “aid”. Sometimes it was food, sometimes, as explained by one of the pilots, it was “hard rice” (ammunition) or troops.
By 1960, US interference had brought about open civil war. At this time, the CIA made contact with Vang Pao, a former sergeant in the French colonial army and a leader of the Hmong ethnic group. Through Vang Pao, the CIA converted the Hmong into an army to fight the Pathet Lao. It built a large airstrip in the valley at Long Cheng and began using the surrounding area for military training of the Hmong. It kept its own profile low initially by employing Thai soldiers to do the training. To provide cover for all the air activity around Long Cheng, the CIA built a “humanitarian aid” hospital in an adjacent valley.
In 1962, the CIA sent its Hmong army to fight the Pathet Lao for control of the strategic Plain of Jars, a battle that ebbed and flowed until 1975. Air America pilots provided bombing support to the Hmong, but as the Hmong casualties increased, bombing became the chief focus of the war. The Hmong soldiers became little more than bait — sent out to provoke the Pathet Lao into action so that the US could bomb them.
As the US war stepped up in neighbouring Vietnam, the US Air Force joined in the bombing of Laos, pilots falsifying their flight logs to conceal what was going on. In 1966, Long Cheng’s runway was paved. Around it, the CIA had built a city, which in that year had a population of 50,000, making it the second largest city in Laos. The bombing spread, especially to the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos. B-52 carpet-bombing raids would devastate an area a kilometre wide and three kilometres long. Over a nine-year period, there was a US bombing sortie against Laos on average every eight minutes.
The opium connection
The Hmong, between the loss of young men in battle and the indiscriminate bombing of the countryside, were soon unable to grow enough rice to feed themselves. This cemented the control of Vang Pao, to whom the CIA gave control of the rice it supplied. Villages that resisted Vang Pao’s demand for more cannon fodder would have their food supply cut off. Those Hmong still able to farm turned to growing opium poppies.
Disruption of traditional trade by the war left Air America as the only means of transport for the opium crop, which was shipped to Long Cheng. According to McCoy, interviewed in the film, several credible Hmong sources told him that the opium was processed into heroin at Long Cheng before being shipped out on behalf of Vang Pao and his fellow officers. A lot of it went directly to southern Vietnam, where in 1970 one-third of US soldiers were heroin addicts.
In his 1972 book, McCoy concluded that “American diplomats and secret agents have been involved in the narcotics traffic at three levels: (1) coincidental complicity by allying with groups actively engaged in the drug traffic; (2) abetting the traffic by covering up for known heroin traffickers and condoning their involvement; (3) and active engagement in the transport of opium and heroin. It is ironic, to say the least, that America’s heroin plague is of its own making.”
The CIA has long denied that Air America transported heroin out of Laos. Thus, in a letter printed in the November 22, 1990 New York Review of Books, William Colby, the CIA’s Far East division chief in 1962-68 and CIA director in 1973-76, protested against such allegations. In a reply printed in the same issue of the NYRB, Jonathan Mirsky, east Asia editor of the London Times, noted that an article cited by Colby “to exonerate the agency and ‘the good people of the Hmong’, says that opium was the Hmong people’s ‘cash crop’ and that the Americans ‘inevitably became embroiled in the complex world of the Laotian narcotics business’. The CIA’s ‘client generals’ says the article, energetically traded in heroin, and the CIA ‘turned a blind eye’. Since the suppliers, the Hmong, were also CIA clients, what I said is hardly ‘a canard about the good people of the Hmong’ or about the CIA.
“From his conversation with me, at his request, in Washington in 1981, Colby knows that one of his ex-agents told me at length about the heroin trade in Laos. The agent, who had lived with Vang Pao for several years, told me that ‘the general’ stored a great quantity of opium under his house, as ‘insurance’ in case the CIA abandoned him, and that he, the ex-agent, had seen opium put on Air America planes.”
Marc Eberle has combined a wealth of documentary footage with telling interviews of those involved in the events, including CIA agents and pilots. This is a film not to be missed.
[Allen Myers was a GI during the US war in Indochina. In October 1968 and April 1969, he was acquitted by courts-martial of charges brought against him by the US Army brass for distributing anti-war material to fellow GIs at Fort Dix, New Jersey.]