from Asia Unbound

How the Laos War Transformed the CIA

January 24, 2017

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United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions


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: