at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

America’s Secret War in Laos


How The U.S. War In Laos Was Key To The ‘Birth Of A Military CIA’

A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA
Joshua Kurlantzick

The untold story of how America’s secret war in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s 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 foreve

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Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam
Lawrence Freedman

In his thousand-day presidency, John F. Kennedy led America through one of its most difficult and potentially explosive eras. With the Cold War at its height and the threat of communist advances in Europe and the Third World, Kennedy had the unenviable task of maintaining U.S. solidarity without leading the western world into a nuclear catastrophe.
In Kennedy’s Wars, noted historian Lawrence Freedman draws on the best of Cold War scholarship and newly released government documents to illuminate Kennedy’s approach to war and his efforts for peace. He recreates insightfully the political and intellectual milieu of the foreign policy establishment during Kennedy’s era with vivid profiles of his top advisors–Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, Robert Kennedy–and influential figures such as Dean Acheson and Walt Rostow. Tracing the evolution of traditional liberalism into the Cold War liberalism of Kennedy’s cabinet, Freedman evaluates their responses to the tensions in Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. He gives each conflict individual attention, showing how foreign policy decisions came to be defined for each new crisis in the light of those that had gone before. The book follows Kennedy as he wrestles with the succession of major conflicts–taking advice, weighing the risks of inadvertently escalating the Cold War into outright military confrontation, exploring diplomatic options, and forming strategic judgments that would eventually prevent a major war during his presidency.

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The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos
Seth Jacobs

During the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, Laos was positioned to become a major front in the Cold War. Yet American policymakers ultimately chose to resist communism in neighboring South Vietnam instead. Two generations of historians have explained this decision by citing logistical considerations. Laos’s landlocked, mountainous terrain, they hold, made the kingdom an unpropitious place to fight, while South Vietnam—possessing a long coastline, navigable rivers, and all-weather roads—better accommodated America’s military forces. The Universe Unraveling is a provocative reinterpretation of U.S.-Laos relations in the years leading up to the Vietnam War. Seth Jacobs argues that Laos boasted several advantages over South Vietnam as a battlefield, notably its thousand-mile border with Thailand, whose leader was willing to allow Washington to use his nation as a base from which to attack the communist Pathet Lao.

More significant in determining U.S. policy in Southeast Asia than strategic appraisals of the Laotian landscape were cultural perceptions of the Lao people. Jacobs contends that U.S. policy toward Laos under Eisenhower and Kennedy cannot be understood apart from the traits Americans ascribed to their Lao allies. Drawing on diplomatic correspondence and the work of iconic figures like “celebrity saint” Tom Dooley, Jacobs finds that the characteristics American statesmen and the American media attributed to the Lao—laziness, immaturity, and cowardice—differed from the traits assigned the South Vietnamese, making Lao chances of withstanding communist aggression appear dubious. The Universe Unraveling combines diplomatic, cultural, and military history to provide a new perspective on how prejudice can shape policy decisions and even the course of history.

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Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992
Jane Hamilton-Merritt

Jane Hamilton-Merritt, Nobel-nominated scholar and photojournalist, has followed the plight of the Hmong and the war in Indochina since the 1960s. The staunchest of allies, the Hmong sided with the Americans against the North Vietnamese and were foot soldiers in the brutal secret war for Laos. Since the war, abandoned by their American allies, the Hmong have been subjected to a campaign of genocide by the North Vietnamese, including the use of chemical weapons. Tragic Mountains moves from the big picture of international diplomacy and power politics to the small villages and heroic engagements in the Lao jungle. It is a story of courage, brutality, heroism, betrayal, resilience, and hope.

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