Clinton's Laos Visit is an Opportunity to Shed Light on the Devastation of Vietnam


Jeremy Kuzmarov is assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa. He is the author of "The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs" (Massachusetts, 2009) and most recently "Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century."

The visit of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to Laos this past week, the first of an American official in over four decades, has raised badly needed attention on one of the darkest episodes of American history, the clandestine bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War. Clinton made the trip to Laos as part of the U.S. “pivot” strategy in Southeast Asia, pledging $9 million in support of bomb clearance initiatives. For many years the U.S. refused to pay any reparations to Laos for war damage or accept any responsibility for civilian casualties and environmental devastation. During Clinton’s stay, she met with victims of the U.S.-led secret war such as Phongsavath Souliyalat, who lost his eyesight and both hands to a previously undetonated cluster bomb on his sixteenth birthday just a few years ago. “So many survivors are without help. Their life is very, very hard,” Souliyalat reportedly told her.

From 1964-1973, the United States Air Force dropped over 2.1 million tons of bombs, including white phosphorus, predominantly along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and on the northern Plain of Jars, with the aim of interdicting supply routes and breaking enemy morale. Laos became enmeshed in the Vietnam War because of the ties between the Communist Pathet Lao and Vietnamese revolutionary movement. The Pathet Lao were driven underground after they had won a majority of seats in the 1958 elections, with the U.S. claiming that the North Vietnamese had invaded Laos to justify the escalation of the war. The CIA created a secret anticommunist army among the Hmong and the Pentagon ran the air war from bases in Thailand. On the Plain of Jars, countless villages were leveled and thousands of civilians were wounded or killed as part of an explicit strategy designed to destroy the “material basis of the civilian society” in Pathet Lao controlled zones. Their livestock and cattle depleted, peasants survived by living in underground caves and farming their fields at night. Over a quarter of the population was forced to flee to refugee camps, where malnutrition and disease were rampant. Expressing himself in verse, one 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 ricefields and gardens now turned to dust.”

By the end of the war, much of the northeastern part of the countryside had been 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. Fred Branfman, an International Voluntary Service employee, whose book Voices from the Plain of Jars is one of the few written from the perspective of the Lao peasants, characterized it as a “lake of blood” where “after a recorded history of 700 years, civilized society had ceased to exist.” He added that “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.”

For all the devastation, the bombing attacks did little to diminish the strength of the revolutionary movement, whose cadres hid deep in the forest and made use of effective spying networks. The CIA’s clandestine army, meanwhile, was decimated and was forced to recruit child soldiers for a “one-way helicopter ride to death,” as Allman characterized it. CIA operative Edgar “Pop” Buell told correspondent Robert Shaplen: “Here were these little kids in their camouflage uniforms . . . [who] looked real neat. ... But V.P and I knew better. They were too young and they weren’t trained and in a few weeks 90 percent of them will be killed.”

At the end of the war, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis characterized the secret bombing campaign in Laos as “the most appalling episode of lawless cruelty in American history.” Since that time, however, it has been predominantly forgotten in American society and written out of the history books. John L. Gaddis’ triumphalist history of the Cold War, for example, does not bother discussing it. And while the Vietnam War has been the subject of countless monographs, many historians have neglected to consider the viewpoint of the Indochinese peasants, focusing more on Washington politics. Some authors continue to demonize the revolutionary movement and completely whitewash the U.S. war record. This is most apparent in the so-called revisionist histories written by authors such as Lewis Sorley and Mark Moyar, who have close ties to the US military establishment.

With the exception of Alfred W. McCoy’s writings, the few books that have been published on Laos are of varying quality and generally do little justice to the victims of U.S. bombing campaigns. Timothy Castle’s book, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam, provides important information and recounts the author’s flying over the Plain of Jars in 1990 and seeing massive bombing scars still visible. However, Castle writes that “the steady stream of Vietnamese trucks that I saw…were a quick reminder of why the area had been such an important target,” -- ignoring documentation which shows that Vietnamese involvement in Laos was constantly exaggerated by U.S. policymakers and escalated sharply only after the bombing attacks had began. Jeremi Suri’s much acclaimed biography of Henry Kissinger, meanwhile, gives Kissinger a complete pass, claiming that he was in no way responsible for mass killings that resulted from policies he deceptively implemented. Suri ignores Kissinger’s central role in the bombing attacks in Laos, paralleling Cambodia. Branfman and another IVS volunteer, Walter Haney, pleaded with Kissinger to halt the bombing as a result of their near-genocidal consequences; a plea which Kissinger refused to consider (a member of his staff responded in cold, bureaucratic language that the North Vietnamese were the aggressors in the war, and U.S. bombing was defensive).

The above works contribute to amnesia surrounding the Vietnam War and absolve U.S. policymakers of any responsibility for its devastation. They in turn help to reinforce nationalist myths surrounding America’s supposedly virtuous foreign policy intentions, turn attention away from the plight of the victims and contribute to a political climate where more wars can be fought and more bombing or drone attacks ordered. Although Clinton’s recent visit is the product of efforts to cultivate new allies to undermine the Chinese, it has had the effect of casting attention on bombing attacks from a generation ago, which have resulted in the killing or maiming of an estimated 20,000 Laotian people since the Vietnam War ended. Clinton’s visit in turn provides an opportunity for historians to rectify past failures and contribute to a more meaningful and honest public debate about the Vietnam War and its consequences.

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