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Heroin, Laos, & the CIA

In response to:

The War That Will Not End from the August 16, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

In your issue of August 16th, you carried a review by Mr. Jonathan Mirsky of several recent books on the Vietnam War, including my own Lost Victory [“The War That Will Not End”]. While I may have the usual author’s sensitivity to negative comments by a reviewer about his work, I accept most of them without cavil, especially as several merely say that I said “little” about various topics he chooses to criticize, a characterization which is too hard to challenge directly. Free criticism is an essential element of our free society, whether it be accurate or not.

But when he says I “omit an awkward fact” that the Hmong grew opium, that the “center” of the operation of forwarding this as opium to US troops in Vietnam and the US, and that it was carried on CIA’s airline, Air America, I must protest. I clearly said in the book that

The Royal Lao Army never really entered the conflict directly, remaining in the Mekong Valley (where some of their generals—not Vang Pao or his officers, and certainly not the CIA or Air America—profited from the opium trade instead of joining battle). [pp. 198–199]

I have many times denied Mr. Mirsky’s canard about the good people of the Hmong, Air America and the CIA who performed so magnificently in Laos. And to buttress my case, I attach two recent articles on the subject from persons who knew or sought out the truth, reinforcing the conclusions of several past Congressional inquiries into this subject.

Mr. Christopher Robbins wrote a full book about the operations of Air America, not all of which I agree with. In The New York Times of August 28th he protests a recent film resting upon the thesis Mr. Mirsky espouses, that CIA and Air America were using drug money to finance the war in Southeast Asia and condoning the refining and exportation of heroin both to G.I.’s in that part of the world and to the American public. As Mr. Robbins says, “It just isn’t so.”

Mr. Peter Kann, now publisher of The Wall Street Journal but earlier its reporter in Indochina from 1967–1975 (and a good and accurate one), and Mr. Phillip Jennings, an Air America pilot who certainly does and should know the truth, submitted a comment in The Wall Street Journal of August 28th. It also flatly challenges Mr. Mirsky’s theme, stating that “Air America was specifically barred from carrying any drugs for any purposes and during the two years [Mr. Jennings] flew helicopters in Laos, he never heard of those regulations being flouted.”

I leave the remainder of Mr. Mirsky’s criticisms unanswered—my book stands on its own and I have no apologies for it. But on the drug issue he is so wrong, and so libelous of the brave and fine Hmong, Air America and CIA personnel despite all the evidence available to the contrary, that I must protest, lest his thesis become accepted as the “pop-historical” memory of their efforts.

William E. Colby
Washington, DC

Jonathan Mirsky replies:

In my review of William Colby’s book I pointed out that even Orrin DeForest, a former CIA official who worked for Mr. Colby in Vietnam, dismisses as misleading or untrue much of what Colby has to say about the time when DeForest was working for him. (See my exchange with DeForest in the November 8 issue.) In his letter Colby simply ignores DeForest’s book and my quotations from it, and thus leaves DeForest’s very serious charges standing. As for the film to which Colby takes exception and which he alleges rests on some thesis of mine, I have never heard of it. More seriously, and here one is tempted to use the word “canard,” Colby quotes Christopher Robbins’s phrase “It just isn’t so,” as if to denounce something said by me. In fact, “It just isn’t so” follows the sentence summarizing the proposition that the US government “fought in secret in Laos for no other reason than to swell its war coffers with the ill-gotten gains of the heroin trade.” I of course suggested no such thing. This is the sort of disinformation that got the CIA its bad name.

I notice, however, that the same article, offered by Colby to exonerate the agency and “the good people of the Hmong,” says that opium was the Hmong people’s “cash crop” and that the Americans “inevitably became embroiled in the complex world of the Laotian narcotics business.” The CIA’s “client generals” says the article, energetically traded in heroin, and the CIA “turned a blind eye.” Since the suppliers, the Hmong, were also CIA clients, what I said is hardly “a canard about the good people of the Hmong” or about the CIA.

From his conversation with me, at his request, in Washington in 1981, Colby knows that one of his ex-agents told me at length about the heroin trade in Laos. The agent, who had lived with Vang Pao for several years, told me that “the general” stored a great quantity of opium under his house, as “insurance” in case the CIA abandoned him, and that he, the ex-agent, had seen opium put on Air America planes. Within a few days, however, and at Colby’s insistence, he added that the pilots did not know what they were carrying. Colby spoke highly of this ex-agent, and did not dispute what he had told me. He simply underlined that none of these activities were CIA policy. I accepted that there was probably no document likely to be seen by a Senate oversight committee which would stipulate CIA cooperation in the drug traffic.

But the CIA’s involvement in this traffic was widely known in the Sixties and Seventies, and was amply documented in Alfred McCoy’s book The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (Harper and Row, 1972), which I cited in my article, referring in particular to the chapter on the drug trade in Laos. In his letter Colby ignores McCoy’s evidence, which led to this conclusion:

American diplomats and secret agents have been involved in the narcotics traffic at three levels: (1) coincidental complicity by allying with groups actively engaged in the drug traffic; (2) abetting the traffic by covering up for known heroin traffickers and condoning their involvement; (3) and active engagement in the transport of opium and heroin. It is ironic, to say the least, that America’s heroin plague is of its own making. [p. 14]

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