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How the Laos War Transformed the CIA

by Joshua Kurlantzick
January 24, 2017

Book jacket photography by John Quintero/Getty Images.


From 1961 until the early 1970s, the Central Intelligence Agency undertook, in Laos, what remains the largest covert operation in the history of the United States. Tiny Laos, which had not even existed as a coherent entity twenty years earlier and which had a smaller population than Los Angeles, suddenly was propelled to the center of U.S. foreign policy universe, only to vanish completely from that radar fifteen years later.

Before the Laos war, the Agency was a relatively small player in the policymaking apparatus, and one that did not focus on paramilitary operations. After Laos, the CIA had become a much larger actor in policymaking, and had developed extensive paramilitary expertise.

In my new book, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA, I tell the narrative history of the Laos secret war and how it transformed the CIA and changed U.S. foreign policy–making. I tell the story through the lives of four men central to the secret war: Hmong leader Vang Pao, who led a large portion of the Laotian anticommunist forces; U.S. Ambassador to Laos William Sullivan; the CIA’s primary Laos specialist when the operation was launched, William Lair; and, Tony Poe, a CIA case officer in Laos who went off the grid, built his own brutal private army in the jungle, and is believed to have been the inspiration for Marlon Brando’s Kurtz character in Apocalypse Now. For more on the book, go to:

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by L Nygaard

    In your Fresh Air interview regarding A Great Place to Have A War, you did a fine job describing the disgraceful situation our Hmong allies found themselves in after the U.S. abandoned them, and their move to the U.S. I take issue with your description, however, of the Hmong community having vast problems since immigration, and I wonder whether you have ever visited St Paul. Here, Hmong are my doctors, nurses, dental assistants, my children’s teachers and friends (I would estimate our public montessori elementary is 70% Hmong and the middle school at least 50%, and those are just the two neighborhood magnet schools) our neighbors and co-workers, accountants, our representatives in our government, they run the two Asian grocery stores down the street, the nearby Thai and Pho joints, and the entire Hmong Village which is everything from community center, to medical center, to nail salon, to hundreds of booths of clothes, bubble teas, phos, curries, pickled mustard greens and more. I could go on. In no way do I downplay the US’s abysmal behavior, and the inhuman trials Hmong should never been put through, but I wish you would give credit to what Hmong families are building here, now, for themselves and their community. Thank you.

  • Posted by Bruce Kowal

    I have not read the book, only the description and the favorable reviews on the CFR website. [1] Is there any mention of the role of Henry Kissinger in the book? Kissinger was notorious for the secret bombing of Cambodia, which dragged a non-combatant into the war and triggered the genocide in that unfortunate country. Any connections between bombing of Laos and then Cambodia? [2] Based upon our destruction of Indochina through bombing, it would be nice to take a step back and compare our efforts in Indochina with our similar efforts in the Middle East. Can anything positive be said our ability to influence other nations? Or is our foreign policy, at heart, just bombing. From B-52’s to JDRAM’s. And now, thanks to the cheerful and peppy prescriptions by Kurt Campbell and CFR Staff, we are supposed to take our road show back to Asia and confront China. “Pivot”? Is this parody? Why do we need to be in every one’s face? Can’t we admit that we do a very poor job in preserving the peace. [3] Because CFR funds a lot of projects, how about a project which examines all of the Think Tanks, and observes who is funding them, and consider the foreign policy output. Is there is possible corruption in this? Similarly, those China experts such as Kurt Campbell who get to come up with Big Ideas, and also make money as a consultant. Same for Madeleine Albright, as well as Dr. Kissinger. From the end of Reagan’s Second Term, under both Bushes, then Clinton and Obama, America’s foreign policy has been focused upon the Middle East and has produced nothing except destroyed nations, refugees and more terror. But I am getting off topic, and I apologize. Cambodia should be included in a future CFR study of Indochina. Thank you, Mr. Kurlantzick for producing your book.

  • Posted by john sheridan

    A Great Place To Have A War needs maps and photographs.

  • Posted by Bob Thorne

    Looking forward to reading, “Great place to have a War”
    I arrived in 1962 and was ass’t Station Manger at the airport.
    Spent almost 4 years there and Udorn. Became good friends with Bill Donovan. Yes it was a crazy war, I am sure many books
    in the future will be written about it. This was training grounds for the CIA n making it what it is today. You will never again see such a collection of great Pilots & people as was Air America.
    A movie should have been done about it showing the CIA side and the good side of Air America

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