Laos and the Vietnam War

M151 jeeps and M113 APC of South Vietnamese 1st Armored Brigade on Route 9 in Laos, Operation Lam Son 719, 1971
M151 jeeps and M113 APC of South Vietnamese 1st Armored Brigade on Route 9 in Laos, Operation Lam Son 719, 1971.

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Background on the War in Laos

The War in Laos was both an independent conflict and also intimately related to the war in neighboring Vietnam, with many sides and complexities, going through multiple confusing phases conducted at least partially in secret. It was a multi-sided civil conflict involving nationalist, neutralist, pro-Western, and Communist forces. North Vietnam was directly involved while the U.S. played a covert role in support of anti-Communist forces. The Soviet Union and Communist China aided the Communist forces. Within the small borders of Laos, there were separate battle zones in 1) northern Laos where the Royal Laotian Army (FAR) and Hmong guerrillas, trained and supported by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with American air support, battled Pathet Lao guerrillas and North Vietnamese Army regulars, and 2) southeastern Laos where the North Vietnamese controlled the border area to secure their operation of the Ho Chi Minh Trail network funneling men and supplies to the war in South Vietnam. Pathet Lao guerrillas, with NVA support, fought FAR units for control of the country in other areas of Laos as well.

At the end of World War II, in September 1945, an independent government was formed in Laos, but in 1946 French troops reoccupied the country, conferring limited autonomy on the unified Kingdom of Laos within the French Union. The Geneva Accords of 1954, that ended the First Indochina War with the French, divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel and also confirmed the status of Laos as an independent state with its capital at Vientiane on the Mekong River. The pro-Communist Pathet Lao remained in the northern provinces and the French were allowed to maintain a small military presence in the country to train the FAR. While the U.S. could not intervene openly, Laotian independence under a non-Communist government was the Cold War policy of the United States, to keep the geographically strategic country from being the first domino to fall, fearing that Cambodia or Thailand would be next followed by Communist domination of all Southeast Asia.

In 1957 Prince Souvanna Phouma formed a coalition government, including some Communist Pathet Lao personalities, but it collapsed the following year, when rightist politicians took over. The Geneva Accords blocked any direct involvement, but in support of U.S. policy, military and economic aid was sent to Laos followed in 1957 by CIA involvement in secret missions. When the Communist insurgency resumed in northern Laos in 1959, the CIA's Air America and Special Forces teams helped FAR with supply, logistics and training. In 1960, the U.S. supplied Laotian right-wing Gen. Phoumi Nosavan while the Soviet Union began backing his Communist opponents. To ensure victory of the anti-Communists forces, the CIA trained and equipped thousands of Hmong tribesmen to fight in the northern provinces of Laos, the key area for control of the country. On 29 March 1961, UH-34 pilot Clarence J. Abadie became the first U.S. combat death in Laos.

Looking for a way to avoid a full-scale confrontation in Laos, the U.S. and the Soviet Union began a new Geneva Conference to negotiate a settlement in Laos. On 23 July 1962, a formal "Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos" was signed in Geneva and the U.S. withdrew its 666 military advisers and support staff. Soviet advisors left Laos as well, but reports soon came that 6,000 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops had not left and were expanding their control with attacks throughout the country. The CIA resumed support of anti-Communist forces and expanded that support from late 1962 to early 1964. Then, in March 1964, full-scale fighting broke out in Laos when North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces attacked across the Plain of Jars. By mid-May, the Communists had taken control of the strategic region, bringing an end to the shaky coalition government. U.S. Navy and Air Force reconnaissance flights over the combat areas were supported by CIA Air America search and rescue as the fighting expanded to include areas of northwest N. Vietnam in early 1965.

The Secret War in Laos

Aerial reconnaissance photo of North Vietnamese trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos
Aerial reconnaissance photo of North Vietnamese trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.

The so-called "Secret War in Laos" began in 1965 when the low intensity conflict was replaced by major military operations. There was no secret -- the war was frequently reported in the press and Congress was kept well informed. While the use of combat troops escalated in neighboring Vietnam, it was considered more effective to use CIA-backed operations in Laos under the control of the US Ambassador in Vientiane.

The early years of the Laos war were fought seasonally during the dry period from October to May, when the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao went on the offensive. In 1968 the North Vietnamese introduced major new combat forces into Laos to take control of the year's dry season offensive. By mid-March, they had captured a strategic valley north of Luang Prabang, successfully assaulted a key navigational facility that was used by the US Air Force for bombing North Vietnam, and threatened to push the Hmong out of their mountaintop strongholds surrounding the Plain of Jars. Although the offensive ended with the onset of the monsoon in May, the Hmong suffered heavy and irreplaceable losses. U.S. air sorties ramped up to compensate, reaching a rate of 300 per day in 1969.

A successful drive against the NVA/PL in 1969 reclaimed the whole Plain of Jars for the first time since 1960, and destroyed or captured large quantities of military equipment, including tanks. But the victory was reversed in January 1970, with a drive by two new NVA divisions that quickly regained all the lost ground and threatened the major Hmong base at Long Tieng. For the first time, B-52s were used against the NVA/PL in Laos to save the Hmong force, causing tremendous destruction in the Plain of Jars. Again in 1971, the Hmong, now assisted by growing numbers of Thai volunteer battalions (trained and paid by the CIA) had a successful monsoon season offensive that captured the Plain of Jars in July and established a network of artillery strongpoints, manned by Thai gunners. But, repeating the history, in December 1971 and early 1972, the North Vietnamese launched their own offensive and again recaptured the lost ground and threatened the main Hmong base at Long Tieng. The years of war had worn down the Hmong while the Royal Lao Army was not an effective fighting force -- a Communist victory was near.

Lam Son 719: The Vietnamese Invasion of Laos - 1971

By late 1970, after extensive destruction of enemy supplies during the Cambodian incursions, enemy logistical and troop movements along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos increased dramatically. This fact and the impending withdrawal of U.S. air support prompted the South Vietnamese Army to attack into Laos and strike the enemy trail network at a junction near Tchepone. The planners believed that the operation, if successful, could prevent a major enemy offensive for at least another year and take some pressure off the Cambodian Army to the south.

This operation, Lam Son 719, commenced 30 January 1971 with the occupation of Khe Sanh and the establishment of fire-support bases on the Vietnam side of the border. American ground forces supported Lam Son 719, but they were required to remain in South Vietnam. The American task force, part of Operation Dewey Canyon II, had the mission of establishing logistical bases, keeping Route 9 open to the Laotian border, and covering the withdrawal of the South Vietnamese.

On 8 February, preceded by B52 raids and artillery bombardment, S. Vietnamese troops crossed into Laos. The initial advance was successful, but momentum was soon lost to weather and ARVN indecisiveness. NVA resistance stiffened and focused on the main route of advance along Route 9. The S. Vietnamese general in charge of the operation tried to change tactics toward direct air-assault on the objective, flying two ARVN battalions in 120 UH-1Hs on 6 March from Khe Sanh to Tchepone in the largest helicopter assault of the war. The assault, assisted by B52 bombings around the town, was successful and the main operational goal was nominally achieved. However, the position was not secure and NVA attacks soon drove the S. Vietnamese into a retreat back across the Vietnam border under heavy fire. The operation officially ended on 6 April 1971 although B52 raids continued for months afterward.

Lam Son 719 suffered from insufficient coordination: conflicting orders were issued, the limited amount of armor was misused, unit leadership broke down, and the strength of the enemy was either overlooked or disregarded. The North Vietnamese knew of the attack beforehand and placed artillery, mortars, and antiaircraft weapons in the area of operations in advance of the ARVN arrival.

Some good did come from Lam Son 719. As hoped, it helped to delay major enemy operations for the remainder of 1971. The operation allowed the South Vietnamese forces to use U.S. aviation and artillery support without the assistance of American advisers, and thus paved the way for the South Vietnamese Army's complete operational control of U.S. aviation and artillery in midsummer of 1971.

There was no clearcut victory. Both sides in Lam Son 719 lost heavily in men and equipment, with NVA dead estimated at 19,000 and ARVN at 1,500. The S. Vietnamese forces involved saw the operation turn into a bloody rout and morale sank, but the political leaders took the operation as an encouraging sign of increasing ARVN maturity.

End of the Road in Laos

On 27 January 1973, the Paris agreement was signed, providing for the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. The following month, on 21 February 1973, a cease-fire agreement was signed in Vientiane, leading to the formation of a coalition government for Laos. B52s were sent again to bomb south of the Plain of Jars to counter Communist violations of the February agreement, but these were the last USAF missions over Laos. The CIA continued to assist the anti-Communist forces, but without massive U.S. aid and support the 60,000 North Vietnamese troops in Laos and their Pathet Lao allies made steady progress. The non-Communist members of the government fled to Thailand and many of the Hmong were airlifted out as the end approached. On 3 June 1974, the last Air America aircraft crossed the border from Laos into Thailand ending U.S. involvement in Laos. In December 1975, after the fall of Vietnam, the Pathet Lao proclaimed the founding of the Communist Lao People's Democratic Republic, a government that presided over the slaughter of the remaining Hmong and other opponents of their rise to power.

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