TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we're going to hear about a little known, but brutal conflict in a small Southeast Asian nation that our guest Joshua Kurlantzick says had a transformative effect on the CIA. When the U.S. sought to contain the spread of communism in the early 1960s, it turned to the CIA to arm and train local soldiers in the nation of Laos, rather than sending in American troops. The CIA operatives turned to an ethnic group called the Hmong to do the bulk of the fighting. Their initial success led to a wider war in which heavy American bombing took a horrific toll on Laotian civilians.
Kurlantzick says the practice of using CIA personnel to wage a secret war with local combatants proved to be an appealing model for American presidents in later conflicts. As a result, the CIA expanded its role to include paramilitary operations, a role that continues today in fighting terrorism, in which the CIA carries out drone strikes. Joshua Kurlantzick spent years as a journalist writing about Asia for a variety of publications, including The Economist and The New York Times Magazine. He's now a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
He spoke to FRESH AIR's Dave Davies about his book, which tells the tragic story of the Hmong and the war in Laos and explores the changes the conflict made in the CIA. It's called "A Great Place To Have A War: America In Laos And The Birth Of A Military CIA."
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Joshua Kurlantzick, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, the Vietnam war looms pretty large in modern American history and in the consciousness of a lot of Americans. Laos, which was an adjacent country in Southeast Asia, is far less known. Let's go back to, like, 1960, when the American involvement in this part of the world was just ramping up. How was Laos regarded by American policymakers?
JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: In 1960 and early '61, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy viewed Laos, which is a tiny country wedged in central Southeast Asia with very few people and an economy smaller than Los Angeles, as one of the top national security challenges to the United States. It was a major subject of discussion between the two presidents in their own transition period between Eisenhower and Kennedy. And Kennedy actually devoted his first national security press conference to this tiny Laotian nation. Five decades later, this country has pretty much fallen off the map for Americans.
DAVIES: Yeah. It's remarkable. You say Eisenhower told Kennedy, in the transition from one administration to another, it was the most pressing policy issue at the time. The New York Times in 1960 devoted three times the space to Laos than it did to Vietnam.
So this small country drew enormous attention from American policymakers around 1960 because the U.S. was obsessed with the spread of communism. I mean, there was this idea of the domino theory. If one nation becomes communist, the nation next to it could be undermined and fall as well. Why was Laos of particular concern in this regard?
KURLANTZICK: Right. So Laos was kind of positioned perfectly in a way to draw fears. So it was between - Communist forces had already won the civil war in China in 1949. And this was a - even though it was coming for several years, this was an enormous shock to the American foreign policy establishment. And many spent several years after that sort of internally litigating, quote, unquote, "who lost China." Then the Vietnam independence forces defeated France in 1954. And this was a devastating and very surprising blow to the U.S. and France. So the level of fear grew.
And Laos's civil conflict, which had started basically in the '50s, began to get larger and larger, and finally there was a coup in 1960 in Laos by a lower military officer, not necessarily a communist, but one who definitely wanted to change the system. So now you have, in American policy circles - which have already committed to this fear that communism is going to spread west through Asia, possibly into Thailand, maybe even into India and Indonesia - there is this fear that now Laos is going to turn communist.
There were even plans on the table in the early part of the Kennedy administration for a massive U.S. conventional forces invasion of this country, which is a very, very small country. Kennedy ultimately put that aside, which is probably to his wisdom, but it shows to you the really high level of concern that was taken by this country.
DAVIES: Right. All you have to do is look at a map. When I looked at a map, I could just see it. I mean, China is to its north. Vietnam - North Vietnam, which was then under communist control - to its east. It's in a pocket where, if you believe that communism would spread like a virus, it was vulnerable and important. As we're going to discuss, a long and bloody conflict in Laos ensued, which is so little known. Tell us why so little is known about it and what new information has become available which helped in your research.
KURLANTZICK: So in 1961, Eisenhower, and then Kennedy, approved what was originally a small-scale covert CIA program to begin arming and training local fighters in Laos - mostly people from the Hmong ethnic minority group, but others as well. This was the start of an increasingly and dramatically ramped-up U.S. effort. But it was all done in - almost exclusively instead of through the U.S. conventional forces, which, for all of their problems and flaws, tend to have better methods of oversight than the CIA.
So you had for the first time, really, in Laos a war that was mostly managed by and ramped up by the CIA, in collaboration to some extent with the U.S. Embassy in Laos. That in itself led to a very, very high degree of secrecy and lack of oversight. So as the war went on, it was almost a decade before most Americans, even most American congresspeople, would even know much about the basic details of the war.
And even after the war ended, from the U.S. side in 1973 and the actual takeover of Laos by the communist forces in 1975, it was a combination. One, a lot of Americans just kind of forgot about the war in the same way that they wanted to forget about the Vietnam War overall, because it didn't go well for the United States. And only in the last few years, really, has the CIA, to its credit, begun to release a lot more information about the war.
DAVIES: So around in 1960, when the United States began to consider a more active role in the conflict in Laos, the U.S. had a guy on the ground there for years already, a CIA operative named Bill Lair. Tell us about him.
KURLANTZICK: In '60 and early '61, he had already been involved in doing some work in Laos. And he saw that the Laos war was going to get larger. And he believed that the United States had a role to play, but that that role had to be that the CIA and the United States in general should be arming and training local fighters, mostly of the Hmong ethnic group, because they had proven to be the most effective fighters, but that this operation he had kind of sketched out in the back of his mind had to be one in which the U.S. was not at the forefront.
The U.S. was the provider of arms. The U.S. was the trainer, I should say the CIA, mostly. But it was going to be the Hmong Laotians' war. It was going to be their war to protect their land, their war to protect their pretty nascent sense of democracy. But it was going to be the United States behind them, and these sort of local leaders pushing it. And the reason for that is because the more that you identified the U.S. with the war, the more you ran the risk - which had happened before in Vietnam with the French, and has happened many, many times - that the war would be perceived to be an American war. And Bill Lair did not want that. He wanted it to be a Hmong, a Laotian nation war where the U.S. helped.
DAVIES: So Bill Lair had this deep relationship with the Hmong people, these people that lived in these - this rugged territory in central Laos and were prepared to fight. They had a charismatic leader, a guy named Vang Pao. Tell us about him.
KURLANTZICK: He had basically spent his entire life, since his childhood, doing nothing but war. He worked with other older Hmong people when he was just a teenager to help fight off the Japanese who had taken over part of Laos. He had then started fighting with the French against communist forces who had been making incursions into Laos during France's war in the late '90s and early '40s.
And he had amassed significant amount of skill and respect as a fighter. He was really the only Hmong officer the French really respected. And by the time Bill Lair came around and the U.S. was looking for someone to head up this new nascent program where the U.S. would support them, Vang Pao was the natural choice.
DAVIES: Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book is "A Great Place To Have A War." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Joshua Kurlantzick. He's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book about the war in Laos in the 1960s and '70s is called "A Great Place To Have A War."
You write that - this was a time when the CIA was kind of a stepchild in the government. Its budget was small, and when its new agents were trained, they weren't taught military skills particularly. But this was different. There was an opportunity here to start and wage a war. Was this appealing to the people who ran the CIA for their own internal reasons?
KURLANTZICK: The main host of CIA operatives continued to be drawn from a northeastern elite, Ivy League colleges, etc. and were analysts and intelligence agents. And the CIA was nowhere near the actor in U.S. foreign policy as the Department of Defense or the State Department. But with the Laos war, it was kind of a perfect storm of opportunity for the CIA. The CIA's deputy director who said it was a great place to have a war, which is where the title of the book comes from. I don't think it was a great place to have a war, but the CIA did.
The perfect storm was you had a country in Laos that was clearly important to U.S. foreign policy-makers at that time. But the State Department and the Defense Department didn't really know much about the country. They hadn't been that involved. The CIA had been a little bit more involved in the country - playing with elections in the late '50s and other things like that. And then, suddenly, you have this possibility from this extraordinary guy named Bill Lair who knows the area, connects with the Hmong. He's got a plan to train the Hmong. And it all comes together in this way.
And I think senior CIA leadership saw this as - this was a place where the CIA could control policy-making, where they could become more involved in what we called paramilitary activities - essentially military activities, but not the actual conventional war - and where the CIA could radically remake its central sort of being.
DAVIES: Right. So the CIA gathers weight, power and budget in Washington because it takes resources to support a war. And this was appealing to presidents - why?
KURLANTZICK: For some of the same reasons that the twilight war on terror has been appealing to President Obama and probably will be appealing to the next president. In the early '60s, when this Laos war started, the U.S. public had been through not only World War II but Korea, which was a kind of bloody, frozen, stalemate with no clear ending. And there wasn't a great demand among the U.S. public, even though it was the height of the Cold War, for jumping into another conventional war. Although to be fair, the United States did do that a few years later...
DAVIES: In Vietnam, yeah, yeah.
KURLANTZICK: ...But there was - right - but that wasn't a popular war. And there wasn't strong feeling among the U.S. population to get involved in another conventional war. So a war, a conflict, an operation in Laos that could deliver significant goals and basically involve no conventional forces, primarily involved local forces who are cheap also not - it's important to mention that - and some CIA operatives who if they happened to be killed in action or wounded in action, the information about it would probably almost never come out to the U.S. public, if not for years. So this is a politically very enticing choice for U.S. presidents.
DAVIES: So this conflict gets underway. And CIA people come into Laos and start training and directing these military operations with the Hmong and other Laotian ethnic groups. One of the CIA guys you write about is a fellow named Tony Poe - interesting character. Tell us about him.
KURLANTZICK: Well, I think interesting is probably the understatement of the year. So when the Laos conflict began and the CIA became involved, he was tasked to go to Laos and help with training local forces because he was one of the few people in the CIA who had military experience. And that went fine, in a way. He was a good trainer, at least at first. He had a good rapport with his men. And even though the CIA operatives on the ground weren't actually supposed to engage in fighting, he did engage in fighting when his men were attacked, which was of a mixed bag.
On one thing, his bosses were absolutely furious because if he was caught by the North Vietnamese, it would expose this operation which was supposed to be secret. On the other hand, his men respected him for really protecting them. And in one case, he helped them fight off an attack. He was wounded repeatedly. He basically dragged some of his local allies to a spot where a helicopter could pick them up. The helicopter began to fly them out. He demanded the helicopter come back, even though he was riddled with bullets and was passing out, and pick up other people to rescue them. They got them. They flew to Thailand. And finally, he passed out in the helicopter and was eventually operated on and saved. So he was an effective, effective fighter and trainer at first.
DAVIES: Yeah, he was - he did things that you would certainly regard as heroic like in that case - making sure that his Laotian troops were taken care of. He was also pretty ruthless. Tell us about that.
KURLANTZICK: Right, so one of the problems that you have when you have a covert war that goes beyond just a small operation but to an actual full-scale war, but it's not handled by the conventional military, it has virtually no accountability - is you can wind up with operators who go completely rogue and actions that are completely rogue. And it's very, very hard to reign them in.
So after a few years of being in Laos - now we're talking about by the mid-'60s - Tony Poe had begun to deteriorate. He was basically an alcoholic. He spent his day from the morning drinking, and he'd become increasingly paranoid. He was worried that the - not only his enemies - but the U.S. Embassy was out to get him.
And eventually, he was moved to this place in a more rural part of Laos where he was still doing training programs. But there he developed into - as close as one can think - kind of the local version of the Marlon Brando character in "Apocalypse Now."
DAVIES: Colonel Kurtz, sure. Yeah.
KURLANTZICK: Yeah. So he was holed up in this kind of jungle-infested house in northern Laos. He had a group of fighters who he had trained, but they had become increasingly loyal to him as kind of a private military. He was becoming increasingly disdainful of any of the orders given to him by (laughter) the U.S. Embassy and his bosses. And he also was engaging in practices way, way, way beyond the norm of battlefield behavior. So that included - his men captured some doctors who they believed to be North Vietnamese - so he basically buried them and executed them.
To inspire his men, he had the heads of some communists cut off. And then he would fly in low-level planes and toss them out of the planes onto communist battalions to try to scare them. To encourage his men to be more aggressive, he put out a bounty for them to cut off the ears of people they captured. And then to show the U.S. Embassy - for whatever reason, I don't know, but I guess that he was getting a lot of kills - he started mailing some of these ears to the U.S. Embassy.
Yeah. So you had basically someone who was literally - and he would admit this later - going insane with a private army around him operating totally outside the rules of war, but with a significant faction of fighters loyal to him in this part of Laos. And that's just one anecdote of, sort of, how it went out of control.
DAVIES: As this war got underway, you know - this CIA operative, Bill Lair, and the Hmong fighters he had trained - had some success in harassing the North Vietnamese and the communist forces with small battles and guerrilla attacks and inflicted some damage on them. But there was an appetite for a bigger, wider war. Why?
KURLANTZICK: The appetite for the bigger, wider war was a combination of the Hmong leader, Vang Pao, who I think always saw himself as more than a guerrilla leader. He saw himself as the general who could potentially deliver Laos' freedom. And a new kind of wave of CIA folks who saw the war really differently. Some of this new CIA bosses in Laos - and also to some extent the U.S. Ambassador in Laos - saw this as a potential for more than just a guerrilla operation, but a much larger mass of war. But a war that really served U.S. objectives, although the Hmong didn't realize this, much more than Hmong or Laotian objectives.
DAVIES: And the U.S. objectives being to - what? - tie up North Vietnamese units so that they wouldn't be in Vietnam fighting Americans?
KURLANTZICK: Vang Pao and the Hmongs' objective was to keep their country basically, and at the beginning, that seemed to jibe with U.S. objectives. But by the middle of the '60s, the U.S. objective was more basically kill as many North Vietnamese as possible. Up the body count of the North Vietnamese and Laos any way possible, no matter what the local loss is. One North Vietnamese soldier killed in Laos is one less North Vietnamese soldier who will be fighting in South Vietnam.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview Dave Davies recorded with Joshua Kurlantzick, author of the new book "A Great Place To Have A War: America In Laos And The Birth Of A Military CIA." After a break, they'll continue the interview. David Edelstein will review the new biopic "The Founder," and Kevin Whitehead will review the new album by the trio, BassDrumBone. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview Dave Davies recorded about how the CIA became militarized with Joshua Kurlantzick author of the new book "A Great Place To Have A War." It focuses on the CIA's covert anti-communist operation in the Southeast Asian country Laos, which began in 1961 and was code named Operation Momentum. This covert CIA operation was led by Bill Lair.
DAVIES: So, initially, you had guys like Bill Lair who had spent a lot of time in Laos, knew the country, knew its people, working on a relatively small scale. There was a secret CIA airline ferrying people and weapons around. When the war really got roaring, what did it look like then?
KURLANTZICK: When the war got roaring by the mid-'60s, it turned from - of small-scale operation into really the largest and remains the largest covert operation in U.S. history, a massive undertaking that involved a covert operation that has never been matched before.
So it involved a vast expansion in U.S. assistance in terms of aid drops all over the country, fastly ramping up Vang Pao's forces into the tens of the thousands and a huge increase in bombing runs all over the country for a variety of reasons, some frankly, unfortunately, for no real reason at all. It involved a growing number of real conventional battles using the Hmong forces, and it involved a massive recruitment effort for pilots, U.S. contractors, Thai commandos/mercenaries and a transformation into this enormous conflict.
DAVIES: What was the scale of the bombing in Laos and what was the impact on the civilian population?
KURLANTZICK: Well, the bombing went on in the early '70s, and the scale of the bombing was immense. United States dropped more bombs eventually on Laos which is a tiny, tiny country then on Germany and Japan combined in the Second World War. It would be decades before the unexploded ordinance buried in the ground of Laos will ever be removed.
The bombing utterly decimated generations of people in parts of the country. It was by far the largest - on a per capita basis - the largest bombing operation in the history of the world.
DAVIES: So for all of the violence, for all the fighting, how did the war end for the U.S. and for the Hmong people?
KURLANTZICK: The war ended for the U.S. because under the Nixon administration, they ramped up the bombing and the war at first, but with the idea that the U.S. was going to get out of Indochina. And Nixon and Kissinger made a deal with North Vietnam, a peace deal, and that deal covered Vietnam.
And the Nixon administration didn't really bother to utilize the Laotian leaders in it at all. After the deal was signed at Paris, Kissinger and other officials came to Laos and basically said, hey, we signed this deal, and we're going to be downgrading your assistance and pretty much cutting you off from the war effort. So you're going to have to sign your own deal with North Vietnam. Make the best that you can do.
It was a pretty serious abandonment. And even Henry Kissinger who, you know, I don't think is known for his voicing of regrets often did write in his autobiography that he regretted the way that Laos was treated. He regretted that he had to come to Laos and basically tell them that the U.S. was going to abandon them.
DAVIES: The communist forces took over the country. What became of the Hmong people who had made this commitment to help the U.S. and had sacrificed so much?
KURLANTZICK: So after the U.S. basically wound down assistance in '73, there was two more years in which the anti-communist forces, including the Hmong, fought one after another after another of series of basically Alamo, Alamo the sequel, Alamo three, Alamo four, etc.
And they tried to hold off the communist forces, but it just wasn't possible. And in 1975 just as Cambodia and Vietnam fell, Laos fell to the communist regime. And then there was immediately an exodus of many Hmong, not just Vang Pao and those around him, but many Hmong civilians who were worried with good reason that they were going to be targeted for retribution. So the U.S. government helped Vang Pao and a few of his allies to flee, but then after that there was no plan.
Some CIA pilots and contractors on their own initiative basically operating against what they'd been told did their best to fly as many Hmong out of the country as possible, but still tens of thousands of Hmong were just - and other noncommunist Laotians were just left adrift. And they fled across the Mekong River. They fled into camps in Thailand and eventually years later made their way to the U.S. where they still have a huge, huge amount of problems as an immigrant group that has adapted to the U.S.
DAVIES: You know, you write that after the war ended in Laos, there was an American embassy there, but the State Department kind of forgot about it. It was not regarded as any place that you wanted to be, and the experience wasn't valued. It was very different in the CIA. Tell us about that.
KURLANTZICK: Yeah. I mean, it was an amazing transformation in the State Department. You had a kind of Laos industry of diplomats and consultants and etc. And then it was all poof - gone like overnight. In the CIA, there wasn't a lot of CIA folks who were in Laos after '75, but having worked in Laos was now good on the CV because Laos was the place where the CIA gained power, had shown it could manage a paramilitary war, had boosted its budget.
And people who had been in Laos went on to new operations in Central America in the '80s - in Afghanistan in the '80s when the United States was assisting fighters against the Soviet-backed government. And even into the early days of post-2001 Afghanistan. And also within the CIA, there was internal assessments after the war which showed and sort of distilled the line that this had been a great success for the CIA.
DAVIES: Yeah. This is interesting. I mean, by what measure would this be a success? I mean, there was incredible suffering among the civilians and the country, and the side we were backing lost. Why was it a success?
KURLANTZICK: Well, the top-line argument would be that even though there were significant losses and the communist forces eventually prevailed, the CIA operation in the country did its job of serving as a kind of meat grinder for North Vietnamese troops. And without it, it's possible that Vietnam and Laos would have fallen earlier. So that's one argument that's made in the CIA's retrospectives that I obtained.
DAVIES: You have a remarkable quote from an Air Force general named Heinie Aderholt who says what would have happened if we hadn't gone into Laos? Probably would have been 10,000 more Americans killed in South Vietnam because we had 10 divisions of first-line North Vietnamese soldiers tied up there. It's easier to lose your Hmong people than to lose Americans. It doesn't make as bad publicity at home. Pretty cynical (laughter).
KURLANTZICK: Yeah. That is the most succinct explanation of why from a CIA perspective - on the top-line perspective it was a success. He didn't say that it was - also happened to be a boon for the CIA's bureaucratic power, but certainly the first part captures that idea of success.
DAVIES: And has it changed the CIA itself internally?
KURLANTZICK: Certainly. The premise after 9/11 is using the CIA as - and to some extent in the last few years Special Forces - as the tip of a spear in conflicts all over the globe. So that involves a number of different aspects - training and arming local fighters like in Afghanistan, like in - to some extent in Syria, war by remote - bombing back then droning today - and basically personal manhunting.
DAVIES: We do have a new president now. What will his relationship be like with the intelligence community? There's obviously been a lot of conflict during the transition. What do you - what are you expecting his relationship with the CIA and other intelligence agencies to be like?
KURLANTZICK: Well, I think the interesting thing about the weeks now of alleged leaking and leaking back, etc. with the CIA, it's totally obfuscated the reality of what I think is likely to happen in the actual on-the-ground usage of CIA, CIA paramilitaries and joint special - and Special Forces. The new president and his top folks have been basically on the warpath against the CIA and the Office of the director of national intelligence about high-level things. They want them to have less oversight. They want to reduce their power. They're angry about these reports about alleged Russian meddling in the election.
So it would lead you to think that, oh, these folks are going to come into office - they're going to obliterate the power of the CIA, they're going to obliterate the intelligence agencies. But in reality, I think that's not likely to happen at all. It may be that analysts and leaders in Washington and CIA have somewhat reduced powers, but the security team around the new president, including his national security adviser, they want to actually increase the pace and the scope of a global war against what they see as militant Islamist groups. And to do that, they want to put more power back into the field, empower Special Forces in the field, empower CIA paramilitary operatives in the field, allow them to work with less oversight, give them more power to conduct operations.
So in reality, even though there's all this talk about their relationship with the CIA out in the field, the CIA and others in joint special operations are likely to be even more empowered and to be acting more.
DAVIES: Well, Joshua Kurlantzick, thanks so much for speaking with us.
KURLANTZICK: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Joshua Kurlantzick is the author of the new book "A Great Place To Have A War." He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies who is also WHYY's senior reporter. After a break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review the new album by the trio BassDrumBone, and David Edelstein will review the new biopic "The Founder." This is FRESH AIR.