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A Special Supplement: A Visit to Laos

This was, of course, a factor in the support for the Pathet Lao revealed by the 1958 elections and subsequently. As Dommen points out in his book Conflict in Laos, the Pathet Lao needed no propaganda to turn the rural population against the townspeople; indeed the enormous corruption and graft associated with the aid program sickened many city dwellers as well. In 1962 the US therefore decided to channel more funds to the countryside and to do this through an American-controlled apparatus so as to reduce corruption. The plan required the presence of Americans in the villages, and IVS filled the breach. As one volunteer puts it, “IVS became a private agency recruiting young, relatively idealistic Americans to engage in politically motivated counter-insurgency programs in Laos.”

Many of the volunteers worked in the Forward Areas Program, which is described as follows in an IVS bulletin:

Forward Area Team operations…[are] composed of one or two IVS men. They move into areas recently secured from the Pathet Lao with basic tools and housing supplies and proceed with the “impact program.” The idea is to help the people in these areas build what they need, whether it be a well, school or dispensary; giving them a concrete example of the Royal Lao Government’s and USAID’s interest in their welfare.

Since there are no USAID personnel in Forward Area field stations, the IVSer, as a representative of USAID, works closely with the Chao Moung [village leader] and the local military commandant.

In later years IVS workers were the only Americans in many rural areas. Some were disturbed at the American Government connection. They felt that they were serving in effect as propaganda agents for the US and the RLG by virtue of their control of USAID commodities, and that they were inadvertently giving military information to the American Government. Even in some urban centers there has been dissatisfaction among volunteers with USAID policy, which is administered in some cases by “retired” military officers.

Since late 1969, IVS workers have been withdrawn to provincial capitals for security reasons (several had been killed), and the scale of the operation was also reduced. Many of the volunteers then joined USAID. In many areas where IVSers formerly worked there is now no American or RLG presence.

It is difficult to avoid concluding that IVS is acting on behalf of the American Government and the RLG in the midst of a civil war. According to an IVS handbook:

IVS…in Laos…is working by virtue of government contracts and its activities must harmonize with US government policies in the broad sense. There is, therefore, an obligation on the part of IVS team members to endeavor to understand the nature of US policy and to avoid actions or statements to outsiders that might impair US policy objectives.

Whether IVS efforts actually help the RLG is open to question; some feel that IVS activities simply reinforce the RLG’s image of incompetence and corruption by showing that the rural assistance program must be implemented by Americans. Nevertheless, the IVS can hardly serve as anything other than an instrument of American foreign policy in Laos.21

Pathet Lao spokesmen have no illusions about the role of IVS. Phoumi Vongvichit writes:

At present Americans of the “Rural Development Service” [of IVS] go to scores of provincial capitals and district centres, towns and villages, in eleven out of a total of sixteen provinces in Laos to supervise the implementation of that program, collect intelligence data and establish political bases in the countryside.22

It would appear that these suspicions are justified.

What is true of IVS applies, far more clearly, to the American aid program and, of course, to the direct involvement of the US through the CIA and the military. From the information available, one must conclude that there has been vast American intervention in the internal affairs of Laos in an effort to defeat the Pathet Lao insurgents and establish the rule of the RLG. This intervention includes heavy bombardment, support for guerrilla activity in Pathet Lao-controlled areas (by the CIA and its civilian air arm, Air America), the operations of the CIA Clandestine Army, military operations of the US-supported and advised RLG army, direct support to RLG administration and other programs, and aid and development programs administered by the Americans sometimes by way of purportedly neutral organizations. To a significant extent, these activities are in violation of the Geneva agreements of 1962.

The American involvement is enormous. The Gross National Product of Laos is estimated at about $150 million a year. In the fiscal year ending in June, 1969, USAID spent about $52 million. In addition, $92 million was spent on direct military assistance. The former US Ambassador, William Sullivan, said this was “much less” than the cost of the American participation in the air war over the northern part of Laos, which is classified.23 The costs of the air war in Southern Laos and the funds expended in CIA operations are also unknown. In addition, there is the matter of support for the Thai troops in Laos. On this the Symington Subcommittee Hearings offer the following clarification:

Mr. Paul [of the Committee staff]: There have been reports in the press that have ranged as high as 5000 new Thai troops in Laos. Is this apocryphal?

Mr. Sullivan: Apocryphal?

Mr. Paul: Are there new Thais?

Mr. Sullivan: [Deleted.]

Mr. Paul: Do you know of any quid pro quo that was given by the Americans in return for the Thai contribution to the Laotian effort?

Mr. Sullivan: Well, I think, as we mentioned earlier, the question of these aircraft that were turned over to the Lao by the Thai, I believe I am correct [deleted] that the United States then replaced those aircraft in the Thai inventory. [Deleted.]24

There is no available information on the cost of the American intervention since 1962, but the following censored excerpt from the Symington Sub-committee Hearings, p. 553, gives some indication of its scale:

Senator Fulbright: As I understand it, the military assistance to Laos has been [deleted] from 1962 to 1970, according to our figures. Nonmilitary, economic assistance to Laos from 1946 through 1968…was $591 million. This is over a billion dollars.

Note that the reference is to the narrowest category of military assistance, which cost only about $90 million in 1969.

The US has penetrated every phase of the existence (as well as the destruction) of Laos. To cite just one relatively innocuous case, consider the role of the US Information Service, the USIS, in “information dissemination” in Laos.25 About half of the programming on the Laotian radio is music. Of the other half, USIS, according to Administration testimony, “prepared or participated in the preparation” of about two-thirds. USIS also participates in the publication of a bimonthly magazine with a circulation of 43,000 (the largest Lao newspaper has a circulation of 3,300). In addition there are films and other printed material, pamphlets and posters, wall newspapers, leaflets for air drops. In most of this “there is not US Government attribution”—i.e., the impression is conveyed that these appear as documents or programs sponsored by the RLG. But the Government witness denied that any of this is done “covertly.” When asked to explain, he answered as follows:

We do not hide our participation. It is not done secretly, and I believe that many people, I think that most people, in the Lao Government, for instance, or in the Lao bureaucracy are very aware of American participation in the preparation of these things.

Thus one could not accuse the US Government of any covert attempt to extend RLG influence over the population (or, as the more skeptical would say, to pretend that the RLG exists).

The official justification for US involvement is that it is necessary to defend Laos against North Vietnamese aggression. I will return to the details of the charges and such facts as have been presented to support them. A certain degree of skepticism, however, arises at once, deriving in part from the record prior to 1962. There is no doubt that during this period outside intervention in Laos was overwhelmingly American. All sources agree that the Americans attempted to subvert the accommodation of 1958 (and succeeded, as noted earlier), and that the North Vietnamese played practically no part in Laotian affairs, nor did the Chinese or Russians, prior to the events of 1960 described earlier.

During the 1960s, of course, the Vietnam war complicated matters. The return of South Vietnamese cadres to South Vietnam from the North is said to have begun in 1959, and involved sections of Southern Laos (the so-called “Ho Chi Minh trail”). The American use of Thailand as a base for the bombardment of Northern Laos and later North Vietnam dates from early 1964, according to American Government sources (American troops were sent to Thailand at the time of the Nam Tha incident of 196226 and have remained there under the US Military Assistance Command-Thailand, established at the time of the landing).

A second source of skepticism was expressed, in a different connection, by Senator Symington in the sub-committee hearings:

We have an over $800 billion gross national product; the Vietnamese [DRV] have practically none. We have 200 million people; the Vietnamese some 17 million. We have been escalating the fighting out there for over 4 years. We have had nearly 300,000 casualties, but are now in the process of acknowledging a stalemate, or a passing over, or some kind of defeat. (p. 591.)

To accept the official American Government position, one must believe that the Vietnamese are supermen, able to overthrow other governments with a flick of the wrist, carrying out aggression throughout Indochina, successfully countering enormous American military and economic power—instead of a small, poor nation that has been subjected to devastating bombardment in which virtually all of its meager industrial resources, not to speak of most of its cities, towns, and communications, have been destroyed.

It is perhaps surprising that these ludicrous charges are so widely believed by Americans. Even self-styled “doves” continually refer to the American war in Indochina as a war against Hanoi. I think it is fair to say that the propaganda achievement of the American Government, in this regard, is probably greater than that of any other use of the Big Lie since the technique was perfected a generation ago.


Since the civil war in Laos was resumed in earnest in 1963, American participation has been veiled in secrecy. The veil was lifted slightly by the Symington Subcommittee Hearings, but these still contain many lies that are not challenged in the published record. To select just the ugliest, William Sullivan, who presented the bulk of the Administration’s case, stated that”it was the policy not to attack populated areas,”27 referring to the period 1968-9 (p. 500). He also testified that as ambassador (until 1969) he approved each air strike. Thus he must surely have known that the policy was precisely to attack and destroy populated areas in the territory controlled by the Pathet Lao. The evidence that the bombing has been directed against farms, villages, and towns, most of which have been totally destroyed in these territories, is incontrovertible.

  1. 21

    This information comes from former IVS workers. I was not able to check other sources or the documents themselves, but I believe it to be fully accurate.

  2. 22

    Vongvichit, op. cit., p. 103.

  3. 23

    Interrogation of William Sullivan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and former Ambassador to Laos by Mr. Paul of the Committee Staff, Hearings of the Symington Subcommittee, pp. 532-33.

  4. 24

    Ibid., p. 516-7.

  5. 25

    Ibid., p. 585f.

  6. 26

    See P.D. Scott, “Laos, Nixon, and the CIA,” and Mirsky and Stonefield, op. cit.

  7. 27

    He continues with this pretense in the Kennedy Subcommittee hearings on refugees, May, 1970: “We established very clear rules putting all villages out of range of American air activity. Before I approved a strike, I insisted on photographic evidence to see the area and the target.” He accepted the estimate of 700 sorties a day. See Murray Kempton, “From the City of Lies.” New York Review, June 4. 1970.

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