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Cover image for A great place to have a war : America in Laos and the birth of a military CIA
A great place to have a war : America in Laos and the birth of a military CIA
Other title(s):
America in Laos and the birth of a military CIA


First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition.
New York ; London ; Toronto : Simon & Schuster, 2017.
Physical Description:
323 pages ; 24 cm
Baci -- The CIA's First war -- Vang Pao, Bill Lair, Tony Poe, and Bill Sullivan -- Laos Before the CIA, and the CIA Before Laos -- The CIA Meets Laos -- Operation Momentum Begins -- Kennedy Expands Momentum -- The Not-So-secret Secret: Keeping a Growing Operation Hidden -- Enter the Bombers -- The Wider War -- Massacre -- Going for Broke -- The Victory and the Loss -- The Secret War Becomes Public -- Defeat and Retreat -- Skyline Ridge -- Final Days -- Laos and the CIA: The Legacy -- Aftermath.
1960. President Eisenhower was focused on Laos, a tiny Southeast Asian nation. Washington feared the country would fall to communism, triggering a domino effect in the rest of Southeast Asia. In January 1961, Eisenhower approved the CIA's Operation Momentum, a plan to create a proxy army of ethnic Hmong to fight communist forces in Laos. Kurlantzick shows how the brutal war lasted nearly two decades, killed one-tenth of Laos's total population, and changed the nature of the CIA forever.

"Sometimes the most astonishing chapters of history are hidden in plain sight. January 1961: Laos, a tiny nation few Americans have heard of, is at risk of falling to communism and triggering a domino effect throughout Southeast Asia. This is what President Eisenhower believed when he approved the CIA's Operation Momentum, creating an army of ethnic Hmong to fight communist forces in Laos on America's behalf. Largely hidden from the American public--and most of Congress--Momentum became the largest CIA paramilitary operation in the history of the United States, a war that lasted through two decades, left the ground littered with thousands of unexploded bombs, and changed American foreign policy forever. In [this book, journalist] Joshua Kurlantzick provides the definitive account of the Laos war, focusing on the four key people who led the operation: the CIA operative whose idea it was, the Hmong general who led the proxy army in the field, the paramilitary specialist who trained the Hmong forces, and the State Department careerist who took control over the war as it grew. Using recently declassified records and extensive interviews, Kurlantzick shows for the first time how the CIA's clandestine adventures in one small, Southeast Asian country became the template for how the United States has conducted war ever since--all the way to today's war on terrorism."--Jacket.
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Call Number
959.7043 Kurlantzick 2017

On Order



The untold story of how America's secret war in Laos in the 1960s transformed the CIA from a loose collection of spies into a military operation and a key player in American foreign policy.

In 1960, President Eisenhower was focused on Laos, a tiny Southeast Asian nation few Americans had ever heard of. Washington feared the country would fall to communism, triggering a domino effect in the rest of Southeast Asia. So in January 1961, Eisenhower approved the CIA's Operation Momentum, a plan to create a proxy army of ethnic Hmong to fight communist forces in Laos. While remaining largely hidden from the American public and most of Congress, Momentum became the largest CIA paramilitary operation in the history of the United States. The brutal war, which continued under Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, lasted nearly two decades, killed one-tenth of Laos's total population, left thousands of unexploded bombs in the ground, and changed the nature of the CIA forever.

Joshua Kurlantzick gives us the definitive account of the Laos war and its central characters, including the four key people who led the operation--the CIA operative who came up with the idea, the Hmong general who led the proxy army in the field, the paramilitary specialist who trained the Hmong, and the State Department careerist who took control over the war as it grew.

The Laos war created a CIA that fights with real soldiers and weapons as much as it gathers secrets. Laos 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 has taken control with little oversight. Based on extensive interviews and CIA records only recently declassified, A Great Place to Have a War is a riveting, thought-provoking look at how Operation Momentum changed American foreign policy forever.

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this excellent historical analysis, Kurlantzick (State Capitalism), a Southeast Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, relates how the U.S. got involved with Laos, seeing it as a vital piece in the strategy of containing communism in Southeast Asia. The ostensibly secret war the U.S. waged in Laos before and during the war in neighboring Vietnam was hardly a secret at the time. Kurlantzick focuses on the CIA's Operation Momentum, which clandestinely supported ethnic Hmong fighters who were operating against the communist Pathet Lao. As his subtitle indicates, the CIA's massive secret war was a "transformative experience," changing the agency from a gatherer of intelligence into "a paramilitary organization whose primary purpose was killing and war fighting." Using an effective combination of firsthand reporting and a thorough reading of the best primary and secondary sources, Kurlantzick tells the story primarily through four men: CIA operatives Bill Lair and the colorful Tony Poe, U.S. ambassador William H. Sullivan, and Hmong leader Vang Pao. It's an instructive tale without a happy ending for any of the main players, and it continues to have relevance in the 21st century. Agent: Heather Schroder, Compass Talent. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Review

A history of the CIAs involvement in the Laos war and the effect it had on the structure and evolution of the organization and its future role in foreign conflicts.The longest covert war in American history was fought in Laos, from roughly 1961 to 1975. While no American troops fought on the ground, the CIA led a massive anti-communist campaign against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao, a pro-communist Laotian group. Kurlantzick (Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, 2013, etc.), a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes the evolution of the CIAs entanglement in Laos. President Dwight Eisenhower, writes the author, viewed Laos as a nation where the United States could make a stand to prevent communism from spreading west out of China and North Vietnam into Thailand and India and beyond. By the end of the decade, it cost the U.S. upward of $500 million per year in 1970 dollars, and tens of thousands of lives were lostLao, Hmong, Vietnamese, and Thai among them. Since the U.S. government had little desire to send American troops to fight more foreign wars, the CIA took the reins, launching air strikes, managing battle strategy, and providing advisers to Vang Pao, the brutal Hmong leader whose forces were instrumental in fighting against the communists. According to Kurlantzick, the CIA was eager to expand its role, and the Laos war allowed it to become a paramilitary organization whose primary purpose was killing and war fighting. In his well-researched argument, the author relies on extensive materials prepared by other historians as well as first-person interviews with relevant characters (including Vang Pao) and recently declassified documents. The book is dense with information and might be difficult for lay readers unfamiliar with the Indochina wars, but its an important demonstration of the U.S.s ongoing, not-so-secret hand in world affairs. Kurlantzicks comprehensive account provides new insights into the CIAs objectives in the Laos war and the way that they were incorporated into its broader mission. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

New York Review of Books Review

SPEAKING LAST SEPTEMBER in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, Barack Obama mentioned a staggering fact: that the United States had between 1963 and 1974 dropped two million tons of bombs on the country, more than the total loosed on Germany and Japan together during World War II. That made Laos, which is slightly smaller than Michigan, the most heavily bombed nation in history, the president said. More than four decades after the end of the war, unexploded ordnance is still killing and maiming Laotians, and Obama announced that he was doubling American funding to remove it. These aging bombs are just one legacy of a brutal war that most Americans recall only vaguely, as an adjunct to the conflict in Vietnam. Joshua Kurlantzick's engrossing book, "A Great Place to Have a War," titled after one old C.I.A. hand's sardonic remark, is a sobering account of the American engagement in Laos and timely reading today. Kurlantzick, an expert on Southeast Asia now at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues persuasively that the so-called secret war in Laos - which eventually was discovered by the press - set a pattern for future conflicts and especially for the Central Intelligence Agency's paramilitary role. "Laos would prove so successful - for presidents and for the C.I.A., that is - that it would become a template for a new type of large, secret war for decades to come," he writes. The era of American military involvement in Southeast Asia prefigured in several ways the wars of the last 15 years. Then, as now, the United States intervened repeatedly in a troubled region to counter a menacing ideology - then Communism, now jihadism - at a huge cost in human lives and spending, and with dismal results. The use of the C.I.A. sometimes allowed the fighting to be hidden from the public, in Laos as in Obama's drone program in Pakistan and Yemen. Drug trafficking and corruption tainted American allies in Laos, as it has more recently in Afghanistan. And disastrous defeats meant moral pressure on the United States to accept as refugees locals who had collaborated with the Americans: then Hmong rebels, today Iraqis who worked as wartime interpreters. The Laos story has been told many times, in memoirs, academic and popular books, and even internal C.I.A. studies that are now public. Kurlantzick has drawn on these accounts, but he has also managed to get interviews with the memorable characters around whom he builds his story. There's a C.I.A. officer with deep knowledge of the languages and cultures of Southeast Asia, Bill Lair, whom he portrays as admirably devoted to doing what was best for Laotians. (Lair ended up so disgusted with what the American war had turned into that he left the C.I.A. and became a long-haul truck driver in Texas.) There's Anthony Poshepny, better known as Tony Poe, an alcoholic C.I.A. paramilitary officer who fought with daring and with shocking brutality in the Laotian jungle, beheading enemies and putting their heads on spikes. There's Bill Sullivan, the United States ambassador, whom Kurlantzick portrays as an ambitious bureaucratic climber with little genuine interest in Laos or Laotians, a sort of prototypical ugly American. And there's Vang Pao, the canny, driven, probably corrupt general of the Hmong, the hill tribe that did most of the fighting against Communist Laotians and their North Vietnamese patrons. Since Kurlantzick interviewed them, all four of his main characters have died, which makes his research over more than a decade even more valuable. IT WAS IN part Vang Pao's relentless demands for air support that eventually led to American bombing on a barely imaginable scale, erasing large swaths of Laos's landscape and killing 10 percent of its population. In his first presidential term, Richard M. Nixon escalated the bombing from about 15 sorties per day to 300 per day. "How many did we kill in Laos?" Nixon asked Henry Kissinger one day in a conversation caught on tape. Kissinger replied: "In the Laotian thing, we killed about 10, 15" - 10,000 or 15,000 people, he meant. The eventual death toll would be 200,000. What made "the Laotian thing" possible was secrecy and deception. C.I.A. officers created a fake headquarters for Vang Pao to receive visiting congressmen and other dignitaries and fool them into believing they were supporting a shoestring, purely Hmong operation. Testifying to the Senate in 1971, Sullivan blatantly lied about the United States' role in Laos, and blithely assured the senators that his appearance was "a very sincere token of an open society." If Kurlantzick's thorough and affecting account is missing anything, it is his own conclusion about exactly where and how the United States went wrong. Was it in January 1961, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned his successor, John F. Kennedy, that Laos was the "cork in the bottle" holding back Communism from the rest of Asia? Was it in the 1950s, when the first C.I.A. officers arrived? Or was it when the bombing began? Even if Kurlantzick doesn't offer an explicit judgment, his book shows how critical it is for American leaders to be cleareyed about their purposes and honest with their public before embarking on a war that will inevitably take on a gruesome momentum of its own. Americans bombed on a barely imaginable scale, killing 10 percent of Laos's population. SCOTT SHANE, a national security reporter for The Times, is the author of "Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone."

Choice Review

Kurlantzick (Council for Foreign Relations) tackles the question of how a small Asian country became the focus of the geopolitical imagination and anxiety of the US. Though the war was largely a secret before being discovered by the press, Kurlantzick successfully shows how American activities in Laos demonstrated what would become a pattern for American conflicts moving forward. At some point during the conflict, the CIA--long regarded as nothing more than an intelligence-gathering agency--became a full-fledged war machine. In today's era of drone warfare, readers can see how Kurlantzick's analysis successfully shows when and how the tides turned. Written in a clear, coherent manner, the book relies heavily on interviews as opposed to archival work, offering a flowing narrative. If anything, Kurlantzick could have integrated more academic research to show the impact and influence of the CIA's decision to become a paramilitary organization. For readers wanting to see why it's important for political leaders to be transparent about their actions and intents, Kurlantzick does not disappoint. Highly recommended for those interested in Southeast Asian history and politics and their impact on the US. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty. --Will Miller, Flagler College

Library Journal Review

The American belief in the domino theory drew attention to the landlocked nation of Laos and destroyed Laotian society with a war that was overshadowed by the tragedy happening in Vietnam. Kurlantzick (senior fellow, Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations; State Capitalism) sheds light on how the CIA developed a shadow war in the 1960s and why that war mushroomed into a calamity. The CIA allied itself with Laotian general Vang Pao and the Hmong people with flawed promises, which ultimately led to the destruction of their homelands and created a refugee crisis, resulting in a large U.S. Hmong population today. Kurlantzick uses the war in Laos as a warning that a militarized CIA operation can spin out of control without oversight. This riveting read belongs in the pantheon of works such as Jane Hamilton-Merritt's Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992 and William M. LeoGrande's Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992. VERDICT Highly recommended for those wanting insight into the Hmong people and Cold War thinking.- Jacob -Sherman, John Peace Lib., Univ. of Texas at San Antonio © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Bacip. 1
Chapter 2 The CIA's First Warp. 16
Chapter 3 Vang Pao, Bill Lair, Tony Poe, and Bill Sullivanp. 21
Chapter 4 Laos Before the CIA, and the CIA Before Laosp. 46
Chapter 5 The CIA Meets Laosp. 69
Chapter 6 Operation Momentum Beginsp. 78
Chapter 7 Kennedy Expands Momentump. 83
Chapter 8 The Not-So-Secret Secret: Keeping a Growing Operation Hiddenp. 101
Chapter 9 Enter the Bombersp. 107
Chapter 10 The Wider Warp. 123
Chapter 11 Massacrep. 134
Chapter 12 Going for Brokep. 147
Chapter 13 The Victory and the Lossp. 157
Chapter 14 The Secret War Becomes Publicp. 173
Chapter 15 Defeat and Retreatp. 189
Chapter 16 Skyline Ridgep. 211
Chapter 17 Final Days 22f
Chapter 18 Laos and the CIA: The Legacyp. 245
Chapter 19 Aftermathp. 256
Acknowledgmentsp. 277
Notesp. 279
Indexp. 311