Laos gained “independence” from French imperialists in 1949. France remained in control of the country until 1954 and in control of the military until 1955, when the United States took over. The government of Laos, a constitutional monarchy led by King Savang Vatthana, served as a bulwark against the communist Pathet Lao. Laos thus played a role in US containment policy.
In the early 1960s, the North Vietnamese, in conjunction with the Pathet Loa, controlled the eastern half of Laos along its border, which included the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and used this control to spread communism and to supply the Viet Cong and Viet Minh fighters with food, medicine, and weapons.
In addition to logistical and material support to the government of Laos, the United States, under the direction of President Kennedy, through US military advisers and the CIA, organized the Hmong (or Miao) to fight the Pathet Lao. (General Vang Pao, a former general in the Royal Army of Laos, who led Hmong counterinsurgents, now lives in the United States and made the headlines today for conspiring with Hmong and US military figures to overthrow the current government of Laos.) Later, the US imported 8,000 Thai mercenaries to strengthen rural forces.
While guerrilla warfare raged on the ground, US warplanes bombed suspected Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese-controlled sites in 1964. US operations eliminated few communists, as they knew how to survive the attacks. However, large numbers of civilians were maimed and killed, and more than a million persons were driven from their homes. For eight years, Laos was the most bombed country in the world. And the killing and maiming didn’t end when the bombs stopped falling. Around 30 percent of all ordnance dropped on Laos failed to detonate on impact. Ordinance dropped on or left in Laos include anti-personnel devices (such as mines), artillery munitions, cluster bombs (which release bomblets or what the Laotian people call “bombies”), grenades, mortar shells, and rockets. Thousands have been injured and much land is unusable by this contamination.
At the height of US involvement, the Department of Defense was spending tens times more money on military equipment and operations than the entire Laos national budget. The Hmong, ill-equipped for modern warfare, suffered heavy casualties. The ranks of Pathet Lao swelled, thanks in part to the effect US bombing had on radicalizing the rural population.
The Kennedy administration kept the operations secret. Most politicians and diplomats didn’t even know about it. When US reconnaissance and war planes were shot down over Laos, families were told that their loved ones were the victims of equipment malfunction or inclement weather.
In 1971, with the situation growing desperate for the pro-Western Laotian forces, the US government persuaded the South Vietnamese army to invade. Yet, every act of aggression by the United States was perceived – rightly, in my view – as an act aimed at the Laotian population. Every act of aggression by the United States and its puppet government only served to increase support for the communists.
After nearly a decade of civil war, a ceasefire was negotiated in 1973. Two years later Pathet Lao took over the government. King Savang Vatthana was the last king to rule over the Laotian people. Laos has been a socialist republic ever since.