Sorry I’m early! I finished the next podcast episode ahead of schedule, so I am letting you have it today instead of tomorrow. This episode covers the part of the Second Indochina War in Laos, the Laotian Civil War, from 1968 to 1974. Now all we have left to do with Laos is talk about how the Civil War ended, which I plan to do when we wrap up the Vietnam War as well.
This episode is dedicated to Wallace D., Anthony B., and Gregory L., who made donations to the podcast. To all of you, thank you for ending the dry spell, when it comes to donations. From a financial point of view, a dry spell can never end soon enough. Because I am recording part of this episode on the American Thanksgiving Day, I wish all of you a wonderful holiday season. I also noted that Wallace has donated twice before, so you deserve special recognition. At the end of this episode I will mention an idea I have concerning that. And speaking of episodes, let’s get on with today’s show.
Episode 79: The Second Indochina War, Part 7
or, The Three-Sided Civil War in Laos, Part 4
Greetings, dear listeners! If you have listened to the podcast before, welcome back, and if this is your first time here, welcome to the show! I hope all is well on your end. Myself, I’m feeling better. I must have sounded a bit exasperated in the previous episode, after all the recordings I did to get it right.
Anyway, this is the last episode I plan to do that is just about the Second Indochina War in Laos. I’m not going to give much of a recap this time, because we are entering the home stretch of the story. If you haven’t heard the story so far, and want to catch up to where we’re at, here are the episodes I recommend listening to:
Episodes 64 and 67 talk briefly about Laos during the First Indochina War, when the main conflict was between the Vietnamese communists, then called the Viet Minh, and the armed forces of France. There we learned how Laos became independent, after sixty years as a French colony, and we met the Laotian leaders who would become the main characters in the Laotian Civil War, which was fought on and off from 1953 to 1975. Then the narrative moved on to other topics, especially the Second Indochina War in Vietnam.
Episode 74 covered events in Laos from 1955 to 1962.
Episode 75 looked at what was happening in 1963 and 1964.
And Episode 78 followed the civil war from 1964 to 1968.
Now here are the overall trends to remember. First, the factions. There were three major factions fighting to control Laos: the communists, better known as the Pathet Lao; the rightists, also known as the royalists; and the neutralists. The Pathet Lao were heavily supported by North Vietnam, which was also under communist rule, and North Vietnam was in turn supported by the Soviet Union and Red China. The official leader of the Pathet Lao was a Laotian prince, Souphanouvong, nicknamed “the Red Prince.”
The rightists or royalists were anyone in the royal family, the government, and the armed forces who opposed the spread of communism in Laos. Since this was the Cold War era, naturally the United States backed this faction. So did Thailand, because Laos was on Thailand’s northern and eastern borders, it had been part of Thailand in the 19th century, when the kingdom was called Siam, and because the prime minister of Thailand at this time was a right-wing military dictator. Over the course of the Laotian Civil War, the rightists had more than one leader, but the only one who was very effective was General Vang Pao, the commander of the US-trained Hmong tribesmen.
Most of the royal family belonged to a third faction, the neutralists, who mainly wanted all foreign powers to get out of Laos and leave their country alone. Their leadership wasn’t very effective, either; the commander of the neutralist armed forces, General Kong Le, was forced to flee the country in 1966, and he never came back. The top man among the neutralists was the prime minister, Prince Souvanna Phouma, the “White Prince.” As time went on the neutralists shrank as a faction, with members either moving over to the American camp or to the Pathet Lao. Souvanna Phouma, for instance, went from being totally neutral to pro-American.
Next, remember the ground fighting. From 1964 onward, the war followed a pattern. We have seen in previous episodes that warfare in Southeast Asia depended on the wet and dry seasons of Southeast Asia’s monsoon cycle. During the dry season, which in Laos usually runs from November to May, the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese together launched their attacks. Then during the rainy season, from June to October, the Royal Lao Army, the Hmong guerrillas, and what remained of the neutralist army would stage counter-attacks, to take back as much land from the communists as possible. Most of the fighting took place on and near the Plain of Jars, a strategically important area in the middle of the country. However, the anti-communist forces could not recover everything the communists took, so every year ended with the Pathet Lao controlling more of Laos than they did previously. We should also note that after the cease-fire of 1962 was signed, foreign military personnel were not allowed in the country. Most American servicemen did leave as a result, but a few got around this obstacle by being temporarily released from the Army or Air Force, and working under aliases instead of their real names. As for the North Vietnamese, only a handful left; the rest stayed in the country under disguise, and more North Vietnamese troops sneaked into Laos every year.
Finally, there was the air war. American aircraft, with the help of a few planes from Thailand, flew missions over Laos from bases in Thailand and South Vietnam. They had two principal objectives, to give support to Lao government forces fighting on the ground, and to keep the North Vietnamese from using the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the road they had built in southeastern Laos to get supplies to the communists in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong. The missions were organized under several operations: missions over northern and central Laos were under Operation Barrel Roll, while Operations Steel Tiger and Tiger Hound were for the missions over the south. However, they could not stop activity on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or completely halt the communist advances on the Plain of Jars. The main result of the air war was that Laos became the most heavily bombed country of all time, and even now they are dealing with the problem of removing unexploded bombs, which can kill or seriously injure the unlucky folks who find them.
Okay, when we broke off the narrative last time, it was 1968, one of the peak years for American involvement. Now let’s pick up where we left off, and cover what happened as the Americans started to pull out of Indochina.
By November 1968, it was clear that American bombing missions were not stopping the communist infiltration of South Vietnam. Operations Steel Tiger and Tiger Hound were canceled, as well as the raids on North Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder. In their place came Operation Commando Hunt, a more intense bombing campaign on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Here the thinking was that if the North Vietnamese lost enough personnel and trucks, they would realize it was useless to support the Viet Cong, and maybe they would be willing to talk peace. Unfortunately, Air Force intelligence never knew for sure how much traffic was on the trail, or how much of it they were taking out. If North Vietnam had a breaking point, it was not reached, and the operation was called off on March 29, 1972. Like the other operations, Commando Hunt had not achieved much success.
I mentioned earlier that most of the aircraft used over Laos were based in South Vietnam or Thailand. The main air base in Laos itself was at Long Tieng, in a valley just south of the Plain of Jars. Almost nobody lived here in 1962 when the CIA set up the headquarters on this spot for Vang Pao and his Hmong troops. Then in 1964 a runway was built, and the whole community took off. Soon Long Tieng was the largest Hmong community in the world, with a population of at least 30,000, though it had no sewers and most of it was unpaved. Because the Americans needed to keep their activities secret, the CIA called Long Tieng “Lima Site 98″ or “Lima Site 20A,” and the town did not appear on most maps until after the war. In 2008 a German documentary about Long Tieng was released under the English title,“The Most Secret Place on Earth.”
I will read you a quote describing the place, from a USAID officer, Jim Schill, as quoted by Larry Clinton Thompson, in the work Refugee Workers in the Indochina Exodus, 1975-1982. Quote:
“What a place is Long Tieng. Tribal soldiers dressed in military garb standing next to traditionally dressed Hmong, with Thai mercenaries milling about. And the Americans here are mostly CIA operatives with goofy code names like Hog, Mr. Clean, and Junkyard. The town itself is not much. There’s one paved road running through it and tin shacks on either side with eating shops, food stalls, and living quarters.”
Anyway, in 1969 the seasonal cycle of “communist attacks in the dry season, anti-communist counter-attacks in the rainy season” was broken, because the number of sorties flown by Operation Barrel Roll increased sharply. From 1965 to 1968 there had typically been 10 to 20 sorties a day; in 1969, however, there were as many as 300 sorties on one day. The Royal Lao Army started by launching its annual counter-offensive on the Plain of Jars on March 23, 1969, before the dry season had ended. In response, the North Vietnamese increased their force in Laos to 70,000 men, and with the Pathet Lao they struck back in June; being in the wet season, this was an out-of-time movement for them, too. This time the communist offensive advanced far enough to threaten Long Tieng. The Americans launched hundreds of air strikes, and though many were canceled because of bad weather, they were able to halt the offensive. Thus, Vang Pao could launch a second counter-offensive in August, called “Operation About Face.” For the first time since 1960, the entire Plain of Jars was in government hands. Then the North Vietnamese launched a second offensive of their own in mid-September, which lasted until April 1970 and recovered the Plain of Jars. On February 25, 1970, the Royal Lao government also abandoned Xiengkhouang, the capital of the province containing the Plain of Jars.
By 1970, attempts to keep the air war secret were getting ridiculous, because reports of the fighting in Laos appeared in the news from time to time, and the government in Washington kept denying its involvement. After the election of a new US president, Richard Nixon, in 1968, members of Congress, who knew about the secret all along, began calling for disclosure. One of them was Senator Stuart Symington from Missouri, who had visited the air bases in Thailand and was fully briefed. In 1969 he said, quote, “We have been at war in Laos for years, and it is time the American people knew more of the facts.” Unquote.
President Nixon had to come clean about it in March 1970, when the communists began to put pressure on Long Tieng again. On March 6, he issued a lengthy statement on “the situation in Laos,” in which he acknowledged that US aircraft were flying combat missions in northern Laos and against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Laotian panhandle. However, he incorrectly stated that no Americans stationed in Laos had ever been killed in ground combat. As it turned out, an estimated 27 Americans were killed there in the past year alone. The story of the secret war was now out, but the controversy was far from over. Congress passed the Cooper-Church Amendment in December, which again prohibited US ground troops and advisors from entering Laos.
On May 1, 1970, a combined attack by North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao units took Attopeu, the southernmost provincial capital. Because the Ho Chi Trail ran nearby, this gave the communists a solid grip on the southeast corner of the country. Around the same time, Washington, believing that US objectives in Southeast Asia were being achieved, cut defense spending for the Indochina War effort, and this reduced the number of missions the Air Force could fly against the trail. Throughout 1970, the North Vietnamese moved so many men and trucks on the trail, that US intelligence reports suggested they were getting ready for a major offensive in South Vietnam.
To do something about this, 18,000 men from ARVN, the army of South Vietnam, invaded Laos on February 8, 1971. The invasion force was organized into 18 battalions of infantry (including airborne), four artillery battalions, three armored cavalry squadrons, two engineer battalions and six marine battalions. They were encouraged to go in by the Americans, who for the past two years had been training the South Vietnamese to fight by themselves, without American help. This program was called “Vietnamization” by President Nixon, and it will be covered in a future podcast episode. The Americans felt that a successful operation here would be a big boost to South Vietnamese morale, sort of a “graduation exercise” after the training. Although American troops could not follow the South Vietnamese into Laos, they could clear the Viet Cong away from the point of entry, near Khe Sanh, and provide air support.
The campaign was called Operation Lam Son 719, and its objectives were to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and to destroy two enemy bases near the Demilitarized Zone: Base 604, at the town of Tchepone, and Base 611, between Tchepone and the South Vietnamese border. Both of the bases had supply depots stocked with tons of weapons, ammunition and food. If successful, the South Vietnamese would stay in that part of Laos until May, when the rainy season began. While most of ARVN moved on foot, American helicopters went ahead to drop paratroops and marines at key points. In fact, this was the largest helicopter operation in the whole Indochina War. However, the enemy knew the Americans and South Vietnamese were coming, and were ready for them. The South Vietnamese Army marched on a road named Route 9, which had mountains and a river on the sides, providing several opportunities for ambushes. Ground fighting was not heavy on the first day, but seven helicopters were shot down by enemy fire and several others were damaged. On February 11, ARVN encountered the first serious firefights, near the village of A Loui, and the offensive stalled there. The Americans had urged the army to move quickly, but the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, told the operation’s commanding general, Hoang Xuan Lam, that the safety of the troops was the first priority, and that he should cancel the operation if ARVN suffered 3,000 casualties. Consequently the general gave no orders to the troops for three weeks after the firefights, and the troops would not move again until they heard from him. Meanwhile, as you probably guessed, the communists brought reinforcements into the area, which included tanks, so the next time the South Vietnamese encountered resistance, it was tougher than expected.
Once ARVN resumed its march, President Thieu intervened again. This time he told General Lam to not bother with the enemy bases, just concentrate on taking Tchepone. The Ho Chi Minh Trail ran just west of Tchepone, meaning that ARVN would not reach the trail if they stopped in the town, and there were enemy supply caches in the jungle and mountains surrounding the town, but the civilian population had abandoned the town itself a few years earlier. This meant Tchepone had no real military value; capturing it was just a face-saving move, that would allow the South Vietnamese to claim victory. The battle for Tchepone began on March 3, with the helicopters leading the way by airlifting troops to four landing sites around the town. The enemy resisted with anti-aircraft and artillery fire; the heaviest fighting was at a landing zone called LZ Lolo, where eleven helicopters were shot down and 44 were damaged. It took until March 7 before there were enough troops on the ground to go for the town, and Tchepone was declared secured on March 9.
This was when both President Thieu and General Lam ordered the army to withdraw. With reports of as many as 60,000 North Vietnamese in southern Laos, it was time for ARVN to quit while it was ahead. The North Vietnamese did everything they could to prevent the South Vietnamese from escaping, pursuing them with tanks and other armored vehicles while continuing to pound them with artillery, rockets and mortars. Route 9 became a tangle of disabled and destroyed ARVN tanks and other vehicles. The American helicopters had to be used to evacuate the ARVN troops; the last of them returned to South Vietnam on March 24.
Although Nixon and Thieu called Operation Lam Son 719 a victory, the South Vietnamese had failed to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail; the farthest they had gotten into Laos was 22 miles. Moreover, casualties were high for everybody. ARVN lost 1,529 killed and 5,483 injured, almost 40 percent of their force; in addition, 96 artillery pieces and 71 tanks were destroyed. Thousands of tons of enemy supplies were destroyed, including 1,500 crew-served heavy weapons, 106 tanks, 76 artillery pieces, and more than 4,000 small arms. ARVN claimed it killed 13,345 enemies, while North Vietnam admitted to suffering 2,163 dead and 6,176 wounded. Because of these losses, the next communist offensive in South Vietnam was postponed from 1971 to 1972. The Americans had heavy losses as well: 253 killed, 1,149 wounded, 38 missing, 108 helicopters destroyed, and 544 helicopters damaged (of which 20% turned out to be damaged beyond repair). Eventually the Americans realized that the operation wasn’t a victory after all; this was a bad omen, an early warning that the South Vietnamese would not be able to defend themselves, after the Americans got out of Vietnam.
I will finish the coverage of Operation Lam Son 719 with an excerpt from a Newsweek article, dated March 15, 1971. Like the rest of the American news media, Newsweek Magazine has been accused of being biased against the US war effort in Indochina, but this article was more objective than most at the time. Quote:
“To the modern American cavalryman of the air, the plunge into Laos has been something like an old-time charge on horseback: admirably heroic, stunningly effective-and terribly costly. For four weeks now, American helicopter pilots have flown through some of the heaviest flak in the history of the Indochinese war. One-day alone last week, the Army admitted to losing ten aircraft to the unexpectedly heavy North Vietnamese ground fire, and there were reports from the field that the actual losses had been much worse. As a result, the customary bravado of the American chopper pilot was beginning to wear a bit thin. “Two weeks ago,” said one gunship skipper, “I couldn’t have told you how much time I had left to serve in Vietnam. Now I know that I’ve got 66 days to go, and I’m counting every one.” Another flier added anxiously: “The roles are reversed over there. In Vietnam, you have to hunt for the enemy. But in Laos, man, they hunt for you.”
Despite the risks, it was inevitable that U. S. helicopters should be deeply involved in the Laotian campaign, for more than any other artifact of war, the chopper has become the indelible symbol of the Indochina conflict. Helicopter pilots were among the first Americans killed in the war a decade ago, and, under President Nixon’s Vietnamization program, they will probably be among the last to leave. In the years between, the chopper’s mobility and firepower have added a radically new dimension to warfare, and the daring young American pilots have scooped up their Silver Stars, Distinguished Flying Crosses and Air Medals by the bushel-along with Purple Hearts. In the opinion of many military experts, the helicopter has been the difference between a humiliating U. S. defeat in Vietnam and whatever chance remains of attaining some more satisfactory outcome.”
Elsewhere in southern Laos, the North Vietnamese 968th Infantry Regiment and Pathet Lao forces reclaimed the Tha Teng and Lao Nam areas, and captured the Bolaven Plateau. In the north, the usual government counter-offensive on the Plain of Jars took place during the rainy season, and then in December 1971, the communists launched an offensive of their own. For this, North Vietnam committed the 312th and 316th Infantry Divisions, the 866th, 335th, and 88th Regiments, and nine specialty branch battalions, while the Pathet Lao committed seven battalions. They took the whole Plain of Jars once more, and spent the rest of the dry season digging into defensive positions. The final campaign on the plain, another Royal Lao government counter-attack, lasted from May 21 to November 15, 1972. Here the communists claimed to have killed 1,200 troops and captured 80. By now it no longer mattered who controlled the plain, because the war was winding down in Vietnam, and that caused the war to wind down in Laos as well; US air strikes decreased in Laos, for example, because American planes were now needed more for bombing missions against North Vietnam. At this point, about 80 percent of the country was under Pathet Lao control.
In November 1972, Pathet Lao and Laotian government representatives agreed to meet for peace talks. They could not reach an agreement until a cease-fire was signed for Vietnam, in January 1973, and then the Laotian factions signed their own cease-fire, called the Vientiane Treaty, in Vientiane on February 21, 1973. As with the 1962 cease-fire, the North Vietnamese violated it by keeping their troops in the country, around 50,000 this time. At Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma’s request, US aircraft flew some more missions before they left; the final missions were against targets south of the Plain of Jars on April 17, 1973.
Now the political wrangling began, because the agreement called for the creation of a coalition government, the third since independence. Not until September was an agreement reached on the composition of the Third Coalition Government and how it would operate; then it took another six months, until the spring of 1974, before security arrangements were in place for it to take office. This time the Laotian cabinet had five communist, five rightist, and two neutralist members. One of the neutralists was Souvanna Phouma, who continued on as prime minister. If you remember the previous coalition governments, note the changed balance of political power; in the past the neutralists were the largest faction, now they are the smallest.
In July 1974, Souvanna Phouma suffered a heart attack. It was so severe, that he spent part of the year recuperating in a hospital in France. By now he was 72 years old, and had been prime minister, on and off, for most of the time since 1951. Sensing that his days were numbered, he called for new elections to be held in 1976, and announced he would retire after the elections were finished. We’ll see in a future episode how that worked out.
Yes! We’re almost done covering the Laotian Civil War. The only thing left to do is look at how the war ended, and I’m saving that for a future episode, because it is tied in with the end of the war in Vietnam. And speaking of Vietnam, next time I plan to return to our narrative for that country, so join me for that. So far in Vietnam, the Americans have acted a little like the parent whose kids are making too much noise in the basement, and the parent says, “Don’t make me come down there!” Now it is time for the Americans to “come down there,” so to speak, by sending in the ground forces, thereby completing America’s commitment to winning the conflict. Of course I have to say “conflict” because war was never declared here. Don’t miss it, especially if you are an American or Vietnamese listener.
In case you haven’t heard the announcement, it’s time for another question and answer show! This is when you the listener chooses the topic for an episode, instead of me. Our first question and answer show was Episode 51, from a little over a year ago, so listen to that, to hear how it is done. Basically you ask me questions on anything having to do with Southeast Asia, and I do my best to answer them. For now, think about what you would like to ask, and post your questions on the podcast’s Facebook page, or email them to me, at email@example.com. That’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S, @gmail.com. I don’t know yet when I will do the episode, except that it will be after Episode 81.
Long-time listeners know that I politely ask for donations at the end of each episode, because this is my only compensation for the time, research and work that goes into the podcast, and it makes my wife happy, too! A few times, I have casually talked about a podcast “hall of fame” for donors. Now I am thinking of making a webpage that gives credit to the donors, after seeing another podcaster’s page that does it. If you donate to the podcast, you will get your first name mentioned on the page. Those who donate in more than one year will get a special icon placed next to their name; so far Wallace D. is the first to qualify for that honor.
If you feel this episode was worth your time, and you would like to get on that page, join the “Heroes of the History of Southeast Asia Podcast,” by making a secure donation through Paypal. Go to the Paypal link at the bottom of the Blubrry.com page hosting any History of Southeast Asia Podcast episode. Go below whatever content I have shared, and click on the gold button that says, “Donate.” Blubrry is spelled like “blueberry” without the “Es,” so the URL or Internet address is http://www.B-L-U-B-R-R-Y.com/H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A/. If you can’t use Paypal, send me an email and I’ll give you a snail mail address to send a check to. Finally, I am also thinking of setting up Patreon to receive a small monthly donation, for those who would rather give that way. Stay tuned for more details about that in a future episode.
In the past I have asked you to write a review where you listen to or download your podcasts. One of the latest reviews on iTunes complained about popping sounds and terrible acoustics. I wish I knew where that was coming from, but I don’t hear any of that on this end, either when recording or playing it back to friends. I’ll admit I did have a problem with popping sounds in the earliest days of this podcast, until I tried the solution some other podcasters have done – I put a sock over the microphone. Don’t worry, it’s a clean sock, and I don’t remember ever wearing it. Anyway, thank you for all the iTunes reviews; now do me a favor and leave a few reviews on the other websites and apps offering this show.
Would you like more content related to the show? Then go on Facebook and “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page. There you can see pictures, videos and show announcements. Last but not least, tell everyone you know who might be interested about the show. For those who are curious, I just went on Blubrry to look at where the podcast is being downloaded. Recently I gave you a list of the top ten countries downloading the show; now here are the downloads for the top ten states in the United States. Can I have a drumroll?
2. New York
10. North Carolina
Did you notice that Kentucky is not on the list? All the other states where I have lived are in the top ten, but while I promote the podcast all the time locally, Kentucky ranks Number 27! That means I’ve got work to do, and you can help by sharing word of the podcast with your family, friends, and acquaintances. What the heck, share the podcast with your enemies, too, and maybe they won’t be enemies anymore. Like I was saying, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!