Book Review: A Great Place to Have a War

By Bertil Lintner 30 January 2017

There was not supposed to be any war in Laos. According to the 1962 Geneva Agreement, Laos would remain neutral in the Indochina conflict. No less than 14 countries pledged to honor the accord, among them the United States, North Vietnam and China.

But, as the war in Vietnam gained momentum in the 1960s, there was no way Laos could stay out of the conflict—so all sides decided to violate the agreement. China provided material support to communist Pathet Lao forces in the north, North Vietnam sent “military advisers” to support their Lao comrades, and weapons and military personnel flowed down the Ho Chi Minh trail, which went from North Vietnam down to Cambodia and South Vietnam. The United States, too, became involved, but as a signatory to the Geneva Agreement, had to do so clandestinely. The war in Laos became a “secret war”—where the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) rather than regular US army sent operatives to carry out Washington’s policies.

Joshua Kurlantzick’s detailed account of that war centers on four personalities who ran the secret war: William Lair, the CIA operative whose idea it was to provide assistance to the non-communist forces in Laos; William Sullivan, US ambassador to Laos from 1964-1969; Vang Pao, a leader of the Hmong hilltribe who provided most the fighters to the CIA’s “secret army”—and Anthony Poshepny, better known as Tony Poe, the highly controversial special forces officer who trained the Hmong guerrillas.

The four men could not have been more different. Lair was an experienced intelligence operative, who, prior to his assignment in Laos, had helped trained the Thai police and established a unit called the Police Aerial Resupply Unit, or PARU, which also became involved in the Lao war. Lair and his Thai comrades-in-arms were instrumental in raising a 30,000-strong Hmong army. Their commander, Vang Pao, was the only Hmong who held the rank of general in the Royal Lao Army—but his loyalty, and that of the units he commanded, was to the CIA rather than the Lao government.

Tony Poe was involved with the Tibetan resistance in the late 1950s, and claims to have helped the Dalai Lama escape to India in 1959. In Laos, he became known for paying Hmong soldiers to bring the ears of killed Pathet Lao fighters. But he also clashed with Vang Pao, accusing him of using CIA assistance to enrich himself through the opium trade. Poe was forced to leave Laos in 1973, and settled in Thailand before he moved to the United States with his Hmong wife and their children in the 1990s. Poe is supposed to have been the model for the rogue US Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando in the movie “Apocalypse Now.” But, as Kurlantzick points out: “Only much later—decades later—would Poe realize that the bosses at the agency hadn’t really been against him at all, after they gave him the highest prizes and turned much of the CIA into the kind of paramilitary operation he would have loved.”

William “Bill” Sullivan, on the other hand, was a career diplomat from the US State Department, who within months of his arrival in 1964, made it clear to the CIA that “no one should go around the ambassador. The agency also recognized that Sullivan didn’t just have to be briefed—he was going to make as many decisions about the operation as the CIA would.”

Kurlantzick weaves this complex yarn together beautifully. Based on declassified CIA records and extensive interviews with survivors of the war in Laos, his book is an excellent read and feels more authentic than a book on a similar theme published more than twenty years ago: Roger Warner’s Backfire: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos and Its Link to the War in Vietnam.

But it is doubtful whether the war in Laos could be called, as the heading of one of the chapters in Kurlantzick’s book states, “The CIA’s First War.” The CIA—and Poe—was involved not only in Tibet in the 1950s but also in a failed uprising against Sukarno in Indonesia. And before that, the CIA provided extensive military support, including sending field operatives, to the nationalist Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) forces that had retreated across the border to northeastern Burma after their defeat in the Chinese civil war in 1949. US support for the KMT resulted in deep suspicions in Burmese military circles of the West’s intentions—and duplicity, as Washington maintained cordial relations with the country’s government at the same time as it supplied forces that were fighting against it with military hardware. Assistance to the KMT was funneled through a CIA front company in Bangkok, Overseas Southeast Asia Supply, or SEA Supply for short, with which both Poe and Lair were associated before they were sent to lead the secret war in Laos.

But, it should be said that those secret operations were relatively minor undertakings compared with the war in Laos. And, in the words of Robert Amory, CIA deputy director from 1953 to 1962, the operatives who went to Laos thought it “was a great place to have a war.” And it did give birth to what Kurlantzick describes as “a militarized CIA…with massive, growing paramilitary capabilities [which] has become a permanent part of the American government.”

It remains, however, to be seen how the new US President, Donald Trump, is going to handle America’s intelligence agencies. So far, he has been at loggerheads with them — so perhaps even Trump should read Kurlantzick’s book in order to get a better understanding of how the CIA exercises power from behind the scenes.