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Chapter Seven
The War In Laos


IN the 1960s, Americans thought of Laos as remote, exotic and far away ... if they thought about it at all. Bythe time U.S. forces were engaged in an overt conflict in Southeast Asia, that conflict was the Vietnam War and it was on Vietnam that American attention was focused.In a sense, that focus was deceptive, for Laos had been involved in the conflict from the beginning and was to remain so to the end; indeed, in a legalistic sense the overthrow of the Vientiane government of Prince Souvanna Phouma by the Pathet Lao in May of 1975 marks the end of the American phase of the Vietnam War. For diplomatic and political reasons the American government concealed the extent of U.S. involvement in Laos, but it was real nonetheless. In terms of dollars spent, effort expended and tons of ordnance dropped, the air interdiction campaign against communist supply lines along the southern Laos Ho Chi Minh Trail was a major campaign, but it was mounted from bases in Thailand and South Vietnam. More to the point, the toll of American casualties along the Ho Chi Minh Trail was relatively small and was incurred almost entirely among professional military aviators, officers and non- commissioned officers, whose families had long anticipated the knock on the door which meant that aloved one was dead or missing and made little fuss when it came. There were Americans on the ground in Laos as well, but the numbers were even smaller and they too were professionals: Special Forces troopers for a time in the early 60s, Air Force Air Commandos, agents of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sent in to organize, train and advise anti-communist guerrillas and selected units of the Royal Lao Army, civilian aviators flying under CIA contract for various companies, notably Air America, the lineal descendant of Claire Chennault's China-based Civil Air Transport whose men had flown over Dien Bien Phu, and representatives of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and of various non-government humanitarian relief organizations.

The roots of the war in Laos, like that in Vietnam, went back to the Japanese coup de main of 9 March, 1945, but had a different twist. Whereas the Vietnamese welcomed the overthrow of the French colonial regime, French rule had lain lightly on Laos. In the royal capital of Luang Prabang, King Sisavang Vong and Crown Prince Souvang Vatthana had responded to Japanese demands that they reject the French protectorate and establish a pro-Japanese government by ordering a national uprising against the Japanese. Nothing came of the uprising, of course - the Lao were notoriously apolitical - and a Japanese battalion reached Luang Prabang on 5 April after forced marches from Vinh and persuaded the King to change his mind.

Chinese Nationalist troops sent in to receive the Japanese surrender the following autumn dallied in northern Laos - where there were no Japanese - long enough to seize the opium harvest, before moving on. The French reoccupation of Laos was comparatively peaceful and all was relatively quiet until the 1952-53 dry monsoon when the Vietminh offensive into the Tai highlands extended into Laos causing the French high command considerable grief. Luang Prabang nearly fell to an overextended Vietminh column in early May, but a last-ditch French blocking force and the onset of the wet monsoon saved the town for the time being. Up to that point, the war in Laos had been a low priority for both the French and the Vietminh. Militarily the border between Laos and northern Vietnam was a meaningless abstraction and Vietminh cadres had struggled with French advisors and pro-French tribal forces for the control of hearts and minds in the area. In late 1951, the French, belatedly aware of the possibilities of rousing anti-Vietnamese sentiment among tribal groups in the northern highlands, organized the Groupement de Commandos Mixtes Aeroportes (Composite Airborne Commando Grouo). or GCMA. Sianificantiv. the French took this step with the encouragement of the CIA, backed by a small but important unit of American support: two C-47 transports for parachute drops behind enemy lines. Small GCMA teams, volunteers trained in the niceties of guerrilla warfare, were dropped into remote regions to recruit, train and equip anti-communist partisans from among tribal minorities, in particular the Hmong. The GCMA enjoyed considerable success and, even if their efforts in North Vietnam were blotted out by the 1954 Geneva Accords, the partisans in Laos retained their arms and freedom. It was on this fragile base that American advisors began to build when U.S. intervention in Laos became a reality in 1960.

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