Another Obama Apology Tour?

tags: Vietnam War, Obama, Laos

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a regular contributor to Commentary. He is completing "The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Experience in Vietnam."

The White House is sensitive to charges that the president is conducting an “apology tour” of the world. And it’s true that on Tuesday the president didn’t actually apologize in Laos for American actions in the 1960s, but he danced right up to the line.

This is what he said:

Over nine years — from 1964 to 1973 — the United States dropped more than two million tons of bombs here in Laos — more than we dropped on Germany and Japan combined during all of World War II.  It made Laos, per person, the most heavily bombed country in history.  As one Laotian said, the ‘bombs fell like rain.’  Villages and entire valleys were obliterated.  The ancient Plain of Jars was devastated.  Countless civilians were killed.  And that conflict was another reminder that, whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a terrible toll, especially on innocent men, women and children.  Today, I stand with you in acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict.

He went on to pledge to double U.S. funding, to $90 million a year, to help Laos defuse bombs dropped during the Vietnam War. The problem is a very real one, as I discovered for myself while visiting Laos’s Plain of Jars a few months ago—a tourist site but one where tourists are still warned to look out for unexploded ordnance. Everything Obama said was factual, and there is nothing wrong with his desire to aid Laos—the U.S. needs as many friends on China’s borders as it can find. But his rhetoric was nevertheless one-sided and disappointing.

What was lacking, above all, was any context. Someone who listened to Obama’s speech and knew nothing of Laos’s history would have been left mystified about why the U.S. dropped bombs “like rain” on that country. Did Americans harbor irrational fear and prejudice of Laotians? Were the Johnson and Nixon administrations motivated by racial prejudice? Perhaps they were simply staffed by psychopaths and war criminals who enjoyed annihilating small countries?


What Obama did not mention was that in 1959, preparatory to its invasion of South Vietnam, North Vietnam invaded Laos in order to establish a major segment of the Ho Chi Minh Trail bringing weapons, supplies, and manpower from North to South. North Vietnam also sponsored and supported with its own troops a Communist insurgency, the Pathet Lao, to overthrow the Royal Government of Laos. The U.S. responded to this Communist aggression—conducted in violation of the Geneva Accords of 1954 and 1962—by providing covert and overt aid to the government of Laos and to Hmong militias who were fighting the Communists. Unlike in South Vietnam, the U.S. did not send combat troops to Laos; instead it relied on the CIA and the Special Forces to fight a “secret war” utilizing Laotians who were determined to resist Communist domination. The most capable American-supported leader was Vang Pao, a Hmong tribesman who was a general in the Lao army. Eventually he led as many as 40,000 guerrillas fighting the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese Army. ...

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