The Laotian Civil War (1962-1975) was an internal fight between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government in which both the political rightists and leftists received heavy external support for a proxy war from the global Cold War superpowers. The Kingdom of Laos was a covert theater of operations for the other belligerents during the Vietnam War. During the war, the United States dropped more than two million tons of ordnance, mainly cluster bombs, over Laos and made 580,000 bombing missions. The Franco-Lao Treaty of 1953 gave Laos full independence but the following years were marked by a rivalry between the neutralists under Prince Souvanna Phouma, the right wing under Prince Boun Oum of Champassak, and the left-wing, Lao Patriotic Front under Prince Souphanouvong and future Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane. During this period a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to establish viable coalition governments, and a "tri-coalition" government was seated in Vientiane.
The fighting in Laos included significant participation by North Vietnamese, American, and South Vietnamese military forces—fighting directly and through irregular proxies for control over the Laotian Panhandle, which the North Vietnamese Army occupied to use as a supply corridor and staging area for offensives into the South. The North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao emerged victorious in 1975, along with the general communist victory in Indochina that year. One of the poorer countries in South East Asia, the newly independent Laos had no time to establish either a mature political system or a stable economy before civil war began. Civil war alone would have cost lives and damaged infrastructure but in addition, although never officially at war with the Laos, secret United States bombing raids destroyed crops, lives, villages, and towns. Unexploded bombs continued to maim and kill many years after the end of the war. Laos is the most bombed country on earth. The U.S. dropped more bombs on Laos than on Germany and Japan in World War II. The complex internal and external context probably, at the time, made war inevitable. However, The challenge the world faces is to ensure that the tragedy of this and of other wars shame people into working to end all war. Public sentiment around the world has denounced cluster-bombing and a treaty to make this illegal is open for signature.
After the Geneva Conference established Laotian neutrality, North Vietnamese forces continued to operate in southeastern Laos. That year, Laos gained independence from France as a constitutional monarchy. However, North Vietnam established the Ho Chi Minh trail on Laotian territory and supported an indigenous communist rebellion, the Pathet Lao, to help. The Ho Chi Minh trail was designed for North Vietnamese troops to infiltrate the Republic of Vietnam and to aid the National Liberation Front.
To disrupt these operations without direct military involvement, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) responded by training a force of some thirty thousand Laotians, mostly local Hmong tribesmen along with the Mien and Khmu, led by Royal Lao Army General Vang Pao, a Hmong military leader. This army, supported by the CIA proprietary airline Air America, Thailand, and the Royal Lao Air Force, fought the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), the National Liberation Front (NLF), and their Pathet Lao allies to a standstill, greatly aiding U.S. interests in the war in Vietnam. There were repeated attempts from 1954 onward to get the North Vietnamese out of Laos, but regardless of any agreements or concessions, Hanoi had no intention of abandoning the country or its allies. Beyond immediate military necessity, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) viewed Laos as a younger brother needing guidance. In 1968, North Vietnam launched a multi-division attack on the Royal Lao Army. The heavy weapons and scale of the PAVN attack could not be matched by the national army and it was effectively sidelined for several years.
Although the existence of the conflict in Laos was sometimes reported in the U.S., and described in press reports as the CIA's "Secret War in Laos," details were largely unavailable due to official government denials that the war even existed. The denials were seen as necessary considering that the North Vietnamese government and the U.S. had both signed agreements specifying the neutrality of Laos. U.S. involvement was considered necessary because the DRV had effectively conquered a large part of the country and was equally obfuscating its role in Laos. Despite these denials, however, the Civil War was actually the largest U.S. covert operation prior to the Afghan-Soviet War, with areas of Laos controlled by North Vietnam subjected to years of intense American aerial bombardment, representing the heaviest U.S. bombing campaign since World War II and exceeded the number of bombs dropped on Germany and Japan, as well as in the rest of the Vietnam War theater.
On August 9, 1960, Captain Kong Le and his Neutralist battalion were able to seize control of the administrative capital of Vientiane, while Prime Minister Tiao Samsanith, government officials, and military leaders met in the royal capital of Luang Prabang. Immediately, Thailand imposed an embargo on the city of Vientiane. The United States Secretary of State, Christian Herter, made it clear that the United States supported the “legitimate government under the King's direction.” The United States supported the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Tiao Samsanith, even though it was elected illegally. The Neutralist forces at Vientiane organized the Executive Committee of the High Command of the Revolution as the interim government in Laos the following day. The Laotian Civil War began with a coup of the Pro-Western government.
1963 General Vang Pao takes over Sam Neua City with the help of the CIA, bringing much fame to his name in Laos. He becomes a General later in part by his quickness in reclaiming territory around the Plain of Jars for the Royal Lao Government.
In May 1964, the U.S. Air Force began flying reconnaissance missions over the Laotian panhandle to obtain target information on men and material being moved into South Vietnam over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. By this time, the footpaths on the trail had been enlarged to truck roads, with smaller paths for bicycles and walking. The Trail had become the major artery for use by North Vietnam to infiltrate South Vietnam.
In the spring of 1964, Pathet Lao and PAVN troops drove Laotian forces from the Plain of Jars in northern Laos. On June 9, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered an F-100 strike against the enemy in retaliation for the shooting down of another U.S. aircraft. The Plain of Jars activities expanded by December 1964, were named Operation Barrel Roll and were under the control of the U.S. ambassador to Laos who approved all targets before they were attacked.
The U.S. began Operation Steel Tiger over the Laotian panhandle and the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on April 3, 1965, to locate and destroy enemy forces and materiel being moved southward at night into South Vietnam. However, since circumstances made it a highly complex matter in regard to the neutrality of Laos, target approval had to come from Washington. Additionally, the U.S. ambassadors in South Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand were involved in controlling these U.S. air operations
Late in 1965, the communists greatly increased their infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was decided to concentrate airpower upon a small segment of the Trail closest to South Vietnam and used most extensively by the enemy. As a result, Operation Tiger Hound was initiated in December 1965, utilizing aircraft from the Air Force, the United States Navy, and U.S. Marines, the Vietnamese Air Force, and the Royal Laotian Air Force. On December 11, B-52 heavy bombers were called in to this tactical operation, in their first use over Laos.
Steel Tiger operations continued down the length of the panhandle in 1966, with special emphasis upon the Tiger Hound area. Since most of the communist truck traffic was at night, the Air Force developed and began using special equipment to detect the nighttime traffic.
July—Royal Lao Government (RLG) forces seize Nam Bac. Three Infantry Regiments, one independent infantry battalion, and one artillery battalion took Nam Bac and established a defensive line north of Luang Prabang.
On the Plain of Jars, the Pathet Lao advance gradually slowed due to the destruction of its supplies by airpower, and Laotian troops then counter-attacked. By August 1966, they had advanced to within 45 miles of the DRV border. North Vietnam then sent thousands of its regular troops into the battle and once again the Laotians were forced to retreat.
The Communists continued their slow advance across the Plain of Jars in 1967. Laotian victories were few and far between, and by the end of the year, the situation had become critical even with the air support which had been provided by the Royal Laotian Air Force, small as it was.
December—PL and PAVN launched an offensive. The 316th Infantry Division was dispatched to Laos to cooperate with the PL.
U.S., Royal Laotian, and VNAF aircraft continued their attacks on traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. During 1967, B-52s flew 1,718 sorties in this area, almost triple their 1966 record. The major targets were trucks which had to be hunted down and destroyed one-by-one. This seemed to be irrational thinking to many Americans flying these combat missions for these trucks could have been destroyed en masse before, during, or after their unloading from the freighters that had hauled them to North Vietnam if bombing of Haiphong had been permitted.
On January 12, the PL PAVN offensive was kicked off. The Nam Bac region, home of 10,000 people, were enslaved by the PL PAVN.
Throughout 1968, the communists slowly advanced across the northern part of Laos, defeating Laotian forces time and time again, and eventually the U.S base Lima Site 85 was overrun. This success was achieved despite U.S. military advice and assistance. In November, the U.S. launched an air campaign against the Ho Chi Minh Trail because North Vietnam was sending more troops and supplies than ever along this route to South Vietnam. This new operation, named Operation Commando Hunt, continued until 1972.
On March 23, 1969, the Royal Lao Army launched a large attack (Cu Kiet Campaign) against the communists in the Plain of Jars/Xieng Khoang areas, supported by its own air units and the U.S. Air Force. In June, the enemy launched an attack of its own and gained ground, but by August, Laotian forces attacked again and regained what had been lost. In all these operations, the U.S. Air Force flew hundreds of Barrel Roll missions, however, many were canceled because of poor weather.
Pathet Lao forces were supported by PAVN's 174th Vietnamese Volunteer Regiment. By September, the 174th had to fall back to regroup. In mid-September they launched a counterattack and recovered the Plain of Jars. Forces participating in the campaign included the 316th and 312th Infantry Divisions, the 866th Infantry Regiment, the 16th Artillery Regiment, one tank company, six sapper and engineer battalions, one Nghe An Province local force battalion, and ten PL battalions.
On February 11, the offensive (Campaign 139) opened. By the 20th, control of the Plain of Jars was secure. RLG forces withdrew to Muong Xui. On February 25, the RLG abandoned Xieng Khoang city. Xam Thong fell on March 18, and Long Thieng was threatened. On April 25, the campaign ended. After the end of the campaign, the "316th Division, the 866th Regiment, and a number of specialty branch units were ordered to stay behind to work with our Lao friends."
At the beginning of 1970, fresh troops from North Vietnam advanced through northern Laos. The Air Force called in B-52s and, on February 17, they were used to bomb targets in northern Laos. The enemy advance was halted by Laotian reinforcements, and for the remainder of the year it was a "seesaw" military campaign.
May 1—elements of SVN PAVN units (28th and 24A regiments) join with North Vietnamese Army and Pathet Lao to seize Attopeu.
Although communist movements down the Ho Chi Minh Trail grew during the year, the U.S. war effort was reduced because authorities in Washington, believing the U.S. objectives in SEA were being achieved, imposed budget limits. This reduced the number of combat missions the USAF could fly.
Because of significant logistical stockpiling by PAVN in the Laotian Panhandle, South Vietnam launched Operation Lam Son 719, a military thrust on 8 February 1971. Its goals were to cross into Laos toward the city of Tchepone and cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, hopefully thwarting a planned North Vietnamese offensive. Aerial support by the U.S., was massive since no American ground units could participate in the operation. On 25 February, PAVN launched a counterattack, and in the face of heavy opposition, the South Vietnamese force withdrew from Laos after losing approximately half of its men.
Combined offensive to take Plain of Jars. On December 18, PAVN and Pathet Lao forces launch counteroffensive (Campaign Z) to recover the Plain. Volunteer forces included the 312th and 316th Divisions, the 335th and 866th Infantry Regiments, and six artillery and tank battalions. Xam Thong falls and pushes toward Long Thieng.
Lower Laos—the 968th Infantry Regiment and Pathet Lao forces reclaimed the Tha Teng and Lao Nam areas, and liberated the Bolovens Plateau.
During the dry season 1971-72, PL/PAVN forces dug into defensive positions and fought for permanent control of the Plain of Jars. Units participating included the 316th Infantry Division, the 866th, 335th, and 88th Regiments, and nine specialty branch battalions under the command of Senior Colonel Le Linh. Seven PL battalions also participated.
On 21 May RLG forces attempted to seize the Plain. The battle lasted 170 days (until 15 November, 1972). The communists claimed to have killed 1,200 troops and captured 80.
When PAVN launched the Nguyen Hue Offensive (known in the West as the Easter Offensive) into South Vietnam on March 30, Massive U.S. air support was required inside South Vietnam and its air strikes in Laos dropped to their lowest point since 1965.
In northern Laos, the communists made additional gains during the year but failed to overwhelm government forces. In November, the Pathet Lao agreed to meet with Laotian Government representatives to discuss a cease-fire.
The U.S. pulled out of Laos in 1973, as stipulated by the Paris Peace Accord. North Vietnam was not required to remove its forces under the terms of the treaty.
The national government was forced to accept the Pathet Lao into the government. In 1975, Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces began attacking government strongholds. A deal was eventually brokered that gave power to the Pathet Lao to save the government from total destruction.
Once in power, the Pathet Lao economically cut its ties to all its neighbors (including China) with the exception of the DRV and signed a treaty of friendship with Hanoi. The treaty allowed the Vietnamese to station soldiers within Laos and to place advisers throughout the government and economy. For many years after, Laos was effectively ruled by Vietnam.
Under pressure from American conservatives, twenty two years following the end of the Laotian War, on May 15, 1997, the U.S. officially acknowledged its role in the Secret War, erecting a memorial in honor of American and Hmong contributions to U.S. air and ground combat efforts during the conflict. The Laos Memorial is located on the grounds of the Arlington National Cemetery between the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Several years later, following several years of pressure from U.S. conservatives and human rights activists, the U.S. government reversed a long-standing policy of denying immigration rights to Hmong refugees, who had fled Laos for refugee camps in Thailand. In a major victory for the Hmong, tens of thousands of Hmong later were afforded expedited U.S. immigration rights by the U.S. government.
In 2000, however, several films were released showing the Secret Army soldiers with their families still running for their life from the Lao government in the jungles of Laos. The films document ongoing human rights abuses by the Laotian government.
One of the poorer countries in South East Asia, the newly independent Laos did not have time to establish either a mature political system or a stable economy before civil war began. Civil war alone would have been costly in lives as well as damage to infrastructure. In addition, use of Laos to house bases for North Vietnam drew Laos into the Vietnam War as well. Never officially at war with the U.S., secret bombing nonetheless devastated the country and killed thousands of innocent people. Laos is the most "bombed nation on earth." The U.S. dropped more bombs on Laos than it did during World War II on Germany and Japan combined. More than 350,000 people were killed during the war, including 50,000 civilians. Unexploded bombs continued to maim and kill many years after the end of the war. The challenge the world faces is to ensure that the tragedy of this and of other wars shame people into working to end all war. In 2008, a treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions to ban cluster-bombing opened for signatures and Laos had asked all Asian states to "announce their intent to sign." Laos remains a single-party socialist republic.
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