Winner of the Cornelius Ryan Award 2017 for the Best Nonfiction Book on International Affairs, Overseas Press Club of America
"Over the course of the war, U.S. bombing of Laos would become so intense that it averaged one attack every eight minutes for nearly a decade," observes Joshua Kurlantzick in his new book, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA. Kurlantzick, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for Southeast Asia, mines extensive interviews and recently declassified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) records to give a definitive account of the secret war in the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Laos, which lasted from 1961 to 1973, and was the largest covert operation in U.S. history. The conflict forever changed the CIA from a relatively small spying agency into an organization with vast paramilitary powers.
The book explores how the responsibility for U.S. military conflicts shifted from the uniformed armed services to U.S. intelligence agencies operating with less scrutiny. Kurlantzick asserts that it began in 1961, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved Operation Momentum, a plan to create a proxy army of ethnic Hmong to fight communist forces in Laos, in order to minimize U.S. military involvement and keep the war hidden from the public at home, as well as most of Congress.
Kurlantzick's account follows the war's central characters, including the four instrumental people who led the operation: the CIA operative who came up with the idea; the charismatic general who led the Hmong army in the field; the State Department careerist who took control over the war as it grew; and the wild card paramilitary specialist who trained the Hmong army and is believed to be an inspiration for Marlon Brando's character in Apocalypse Now.
The book reveals that
- by 1970, Operation Momentum was costing $500 million annually, the equivalent to $3.3 billion today;
- the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than on any other country in history;
- 80 percent of all bombing casualties in Laos were civilians; the war killed 10 percent of the population; and
- one third of the bombs dropped on Laos remained unexploded after the war ended in 1975, and those bombs killed 20,000 Laotians in the three decades that followed.
The CIA had previously been a relatively small player in American policy, one that concentrated on intelligence and political work. Although the anticommunist forces supported by the United States were eventually defeated, "within the CIA, the Laos war quickly took on an exalted status, both as an operation that effectively stalled the communist takeover in Southeast Asia and as an operation that remade the agency into a stronger, bigger beast," Kurlantzick writes.
The secret war in Laos created a CIA that fights with real paramilitary forces and weapons as much as it gathers secrets, contends Kurlantzick. The war became a template for CIA proxy wars all over the world, from Central America in the 1980s to today's war on terrorism, where the CIA and Special Forces operate with little oversight.
A Council on Foreign Relations Book
Educators: Access Teaching Notes for A Great Place to Have a War.