The Secret War: US Terror in Laos

Date: 31 July 2022

Author: Michael C.

Tags: Asia-Pacific, Internationalism

“In the earlier times of my village we had good fortune and there was nothing to cause us fear or danger… In our region like in other regions the same. But in 1965, the airplanes began to come drop bombs on the people of Xieng Khouang… As in this picture, there were people who died in the holes. There were many people who couldn’t get out. All that could be seen were heads, and legs, and hands only. Then there was a man who went to dig them out because his child and wife were buried inside.”

On December 12, 1964, Prince Souvanna Phouma, then Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Laos, signed Operation Barrel Roll. The coalition government which had brought together Pathet Lao, Neutralist, and Royalist forces led by the three Princes, signed in Geneva in 1962, had collapsed. A Neutralist, Souvanna Phouma had been caught between the right-wing Royalists, led by his cousin Prince Boun Oum, who had overthrown the government in 1960; and his half-brother, Prince Souphanouvong, leader of the Pathet Lao. By the end of 1964, the Neutralists themselves were splitting between right-wing “Patriots” supported by the United States, and left-wing forces who sided with the Pathet Lao. American involvement in the region had, very quietly, skirted the Geneva treaty, rendering the situation untenable. 

The war of resistance against the United States had been raging in Vietnam since 1955, during which time the Annamite Strategic Supply Route (“Ho Chi Minh Trail”) had come into use. The route skirted around the mountains into Laos, passing the “demilitarized zone” that divided Vietnam between the liberated north and occupied south and extending southwards to Cambodia. Cooperation and assistance across Indochinese borders dated back to the formation of the Indochina Communist Party (ICP) in 1930, led by one Ho Chi Minh — it would be from the ICP that the Communist Party of Vietnam, as well as the People’s Revolutionary Parties of Laos and Kampuchea, today the ruling Parties of their respective countries, would be formed. Pathet Lao and Lien Viet cooperation specifically had been consistent from the beginning, with Prince Souphanouvong and Cde. Kaysone Phomvihane both meeting with both Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap over the course of their careers. 

Prince Souphanouvong with Cde. Ho Chi Minh, Viet Bac, 1951 

Prince Souphanouvong meeting with General Vo Nguyen Giap to plan the Upper Laos Campaign, 1953 

It would be in these conditions, in stark defiance of the sanctity of human life, that the United States would begin its forgotten terror against the people of Laos. Beginning that day in late 1964, and only finally ending in 1973, as it was finally becoming clear that the peoples of Laos and Vietnam would never cease their struggle for freedom, the United States would unleash hell upon the people of Laos — the most heavily bombed country in human history. The pretext used for this undeclared, and illegal, campaign would be to dislodge Pathet Lao and Vietnamese positions, as well as to support Southern Vietnam and the Royal Lao Government. 

Including bombing raids on the administrative capital of Vientiane and elsewhere, between 1960 and 1975 the United States carried out over 580,000 bombing missions in Laos, dropping over 2,000,000 tons of bombs. It is believed that up to 115,000 Lao people were killed by the United States during its war of aggression; over 90% are believed to have been innocent civilians. 

An estimated 10-30% of the bombs dropped on Laos did not denotate, leaving behind up to 600,000 tons of unexploded ordnance when the United States was finally forced out of the region in 1975. In the years since, over 20,000 more Lao people have been killed by leftover bombs. Upwards of 25% of villages in Laos are still home to unexploded bombs, with the poorest provinces being most effected. The United States predominantly utilized cluster munitions, a kind of bomb that scatters smaller bombs over a broader surface area. The effects of using such munitions are, even as far as military conflicts go, horrendous; 40% of civilian deaths from unexploded American ordnances have been children. Known as “bombies,” the cluster munitions are often mistaken for toys. Around 100 Lao people are killed every year by unexploded US bombs, from a war that was never officially declared.

Each cluster bomb dropped contained around 680 “bombies,” which would disperse over a wide area. 40% of post-war Lao civilians killed by US cluster bombs have been children who mistook them for toys.

In December of 2008, representatives of over 100 countries around the world, including Laos, met in Oslo to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions; an international treaty calling for the end of the use, manufacture, and sale of such munitions. In 2010, Laos hosted the first meeting of State Parties to the convention. Despite being directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people through the use cluster munitions, of which each target was personally reviewed and approved by the US Ambassador to Laos, the United States refuses to sign the convention, claiming that the usage of “smart” cluster munitions is militarily viable, and, despite the thousands killed in Laos since 1975, that such munitions provide “minimal” risk to noncombatants. 

As the first quarter of the 21st century draws to a close, and the crises of the international capitalist hegemony reach a fever pitch, the history of the Lao struggle, the blood debt of imperialism owed to those brave people who dared to struggle for their rights, and the innocents who were mercilessly killed without remorse by the West, should be remembered. The peoples of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia still live with the memory of the forgotten terror unleashed on them by the West all those decades ago — for them, it still lasts to this day. As the forces of imperialism lash out wildly to save themselves from the crises of their own making, they would do well to remember how the freedom-loving people of the world stood against them then, and that they will be willing to do so again if the time comes. The age of imperialism is ending, and the people of the imperialized Nations will not be going back. 

Today, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), most well-known for backing color revolutions, in cooperation with the government of Norway, provides a measly $9 million to the reconstruction effort, such as the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE)’s work to repair the human damage of the US government’s terror campaign, and assisting some 15,000 plus victims of unexploded munitions now living with long-term disabilities, as well as others. In 2016, despite the US government’s continued refusal to sign onto the Cluster Munitions Convention, or do much else to materially support the victims of its campaigns, President Barack Obama traveled to Vientiane, where he apologized to the victims and asserted that the country has a “moral obligation” to its victims. The Lao People’s Democratic Republic has come far, and today stands on the cusp of a new age of Socialist development and construction. With growing and deepening cooperative ties with the People’s Republic of China, Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and Kingdoms of Cambodia and Thailand, the Lao PDR is well positioned as the “crossroads of southeast Asia,” and a golden future appears to lay just around the corner — a future well deserved, and one that many anti-imperialists elsewhere could likely learn very important lessons from.