Why Laos Has Been Bombed More Than Any Other Country

American bombers dropped more than two million tons of bombs over the country as part of a covert attempt to wrest power from communist forces.

The U.S. bombing of Laos (1964-1973) was part of a covert attempt by the CIA to wrest power from the communist Pathet Lao, a group allied with North Vietnam and the Soviet Union during the Vietnam War.

The officially neutral country became a battleground in the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, with American bombers dropping over two million tons of cluster bombs over Laos—more than all the bombs dropped during WWII combined. Today, Laos is the most heavily bombed nation in history. Here are facts about the so-called secret war in Laos.

Where is Laos?

Laos is a landlocked country bordered by China and Myanmar to the North, Vietnam to the East, Cambodia to the South and Thailand and the Mekong River to the West.

Its proximity to Mao Zedong’s China made it critical to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Domino Theory of keeping communism at bay. “If Laos were lost, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow,” Eisenhower told his National Security Council. On the day of his farewell address in 1961, President Eisenhower approved the CIA’s training of anti-communist forces in the mountains of Laos. Their mission: To disrupt communist supply routes across the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Vietnam.

Eisenhower’s successors in the White House: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, all approved escalating air support for the guerrilla fighters, but not publicly. The 1962 International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos, signed by China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, the United States and 10 other countries, forbid signees from directly invading Laos or establishing military bases there. The secret war in Laos had begun.

History of Laos

Long before the Cold War, Laos had a history of interference from its neighbors. Fa Ngum founded the first recorded Lao state of “Lan Xang,” or “The Kingdom of a Million Elephants,” in 1353. From 1353-1371, Fa Ngum went on to conquer most of today’s Laos and parts of what is now Vietnam and Northeast Thailand, bringing Theravada Buddhism and Khmer culture from the kingdom of Angkor (in today’s Cambodia) with him.

Over the centuries, his conquered neighbors fought back, and the Thai people dominated large swaths of Laos from the late 1700s to the early 1800s. What we know as Laos today was built from an assemblage of different ethnic groups with distinct languages and cultures.

Europeans entered the fray in 1893, when France declared Laos part of French Indochina. To the French, having Laos as a protectorate was a means to control the Mekong River, a valuable trade route through Southeast Asia.

France’s grasp on Laos first slipped in 1945, when the Japanese occupied Laos in the closing days of World War II. When atomic bombs fell on Japan, Laos declared its independence under the short-lived Lao Issara (“Free Laos”) government of Prince Phetsarath in 1945. The French regained power the following year.

Laos achieved full independence in 1954 following the victory of communist Việt Minh leader Ho Chi Minh over the French at the bloody Battle of Điện Biên Phủ. The ensuing Geneva Accords split Vietnam into North and South Vietnam and stipulated that the French relinquish their claims in Southeast Asia. The agreement was not signed by the United States, who feared that in the absence of French influence, Southeast Asia would fall to communist forces.

Laos Civil War and the Pathet Lao

The United States watched closely as the Pathet Lao gained popularity in newly-independent Laos. The Pathet Lao was a communist group founded at Viet Minh headquarters in 1950 during the French war. Largely dependent on Vietnamese aid, their leader was Prince Souphanouvong, the “Red Prince.” Born to a prince of Luang Prabang and a commoner, his education in Vietnam led him to become a disciple of Ho Chi Minh and, later, to lead the opposition against his half-brother, Souvanna Phouma, who was Prime Minister of Laos five different times (from 1951-1954, 1957-1958, in 1960 and again from 1962-1972) and preferred a coalition government balancing the Pathet Lao with more conservative forces.

Phouma’s hold on power was tenuous at best. Under his rule, government troops and the Pathet Lao began to clash in the Northeast along the border of Vietnam. Publicly, President Kennedy announced his support for neutralizing Laos—though what neutralization looked like on paper was far different from what it was in practice.

The CIA’s Secret Army

In 1960, the CIA approached Vang Pao, a major general in the Royal Lao Army and a member of the Hmong minority in Laos, to be the chief of their secret army to push back the communist Pathet Lao. The Hmong made up an ethnic group that had originated in China and lived in the remote mountains of Laos, often in extreme poverty, and had a history of evading authority. They had been at odds with the lowland Lao majority for centuries, and the CIA exploited this history of conflict to their benefit.

Charismatic and prone to pacing while he talked, Vang Pao had experience fighting both the French and the Japanese. His followers praised him for his bravery in fighting alongside his men. The CIA’s Operation Momentum armed and trained the Hmong to take on the Pathet Lao in the growing proxy war.

The U.S. Bombing of Laos

A ground war in Laos with U.S. forces was not on the table. President Kennedy wrote as early as 1961 that, “Laos…is a most inhospitable area in which to wage a campaign. Its geography, topography, and climate are built-in liabilities.” Bombing Laos was seen as a safer means of cutting off communist supply lines into Vietnam before they could be used against American troops.

The U.S. Air Force began bombing targets in Laos in 1964, flying planes like AC-130s and B-52s full of cluster bombs on covert missions based out of Thailand. The United States eventually dropped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years, according to Al Jazeera.

The bombing focused on disrupting communist supply chains on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Sepon (also spelled Xépôn), a village near a former French air base now controlled by North Vietnam. In 1971, Sepon was the target of the failed Operation Lam Son, when the U.S. and South Vietnam attempted to block access to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Dave Burns, a member of the U.S. Air Force’s 16 Special Operations Squadron, flew missions over Laos out of Ubon, Thailand. He recalls, “Sepon was the one place in Laos that we did not want to fly into. The village was at a crossroads of three highways leading in from Vietnam: the Mu Gia Pass, the Ban Karai Pass, and the Barthelme Pass. The highways then headed south to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was highly defended with all sorts of anti-aircraft guns. Going there was a guarantee of being hit or being shot down.”

Air America

Air America was the lifeblood of the CIA’s Laos operation, transporting personnel, food and supplies to and from remote bases. As a former CIA officer explained: “We’d negotiate with the tribal groups. If you don’t make a deal with them, give them aid, the communists will do it, and then they’ll join with the communists.” The CIA set up medical facilities with doctors, started schools and offered protection from rivals.

Air America was also transporting more illicit goods. In the 1979 book Air America by Christopher Robbins, later immortalized in the fictional “Air America” movie starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr., Robbins reports on how opium from Lao poppies was transported on American planes.

Laos Bombing Casualties and Legacy

By 1975, one-tenth of the population of Laos, or 200,000 civilians and members of the military, were dead. Twice as many were wounded. Seven hundred and fifty thousand, a full quarter of the population, had become refugees—including General Vang Pao himself. Declassified documents show that 728 Americans died in Laos, most of whom were working for the CIA. The secret war in Laos, or the Laos Civil War to many who lived through it, set a precedent for a more militarized CIA with the power to engage in covert conflicts around the world.

In Laos, the legacy of U.S. bombs continues to wreak havoc. Since 1964, more than 50,000 Lao have been killed or injured by U.S. bombs, 98 percent of them civilians. An estimated 30 percent of the bombs dropped on Laos failed to explode upon impact, and in the years since the bombing ended, 20,000 people have been killed or maimed by the estimated 80 million bombs left behind.

In 2016, President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos. He pledged an additional $90 million in aid to remove unexploded ordnance on top of the $100 million that had been spent previously. The work of cleaning out unexploded bombs from the soil continues.

Credit to History Channel:


Northeast Thailand and northwest Laos have a long history. People have been living here at least 50,000 years. Farming has been practiced for around 5,000 years and some of the oldest examples of Bronze Age culture were found here. The region is freckled with ancient burial grounds, tanks and weirs. In the A.D. first millennium powerful civilizations with advanced irrigation methods were found here. These died by the second millennium.

The original inhabitants of Laos were Austroasiatic peoples, who lived by hunting and gathering before the advent of agriculture. Skilled at river navigation using canoes, Laotian traders used routes through the mountains, especially rivers, from earliest times. The most important river route was the Mekong because its many tributaries allowed traders to penetrate deep into the hinterland, where they bought products such as cardamom, gum benzoin, sticklac, and many foods. [Source: Library of Congress]

The first modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) arrived in Southeast Asia around 50,000 years ago. Their stone-age technology remained little changed until a new Neolithic culture evolved about 10,000 years ago. Stone tools discovered in Houaphanh and Luang Prabang provinces attest to the presence of prehistoric man in the hunter-gatherer stage in Lao territory from at least 40,000 years ago. The Hoabinhian culture is named after an archaeological site in northern Vietnam. Hoabinhian hunter-gatherers spread throughout much of Southeast Asia, including Laos. Their descendants produced the first pottery in the region, and later bronze metallurgy. In time they supplemented their hunting, fishing and gathering by horticulture and eventually rice cultivation, introduced down the Mekong River valley from southern China.

Agriculturist society seemed to appear during the 4th millennia B.C. as evidence has been found by archeologists. Burial jars and other kinds of sepulchers have revealed a complex society in which bronze objects appeared around 1500 B.C. and iron tools were known since 700 B.C. These people were the ancestors of the present-day upland minorities, collectively known as the Lao Thoeng (Upland Lao), the largest group of which are the Khamu of northern Laos. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The early people that lived in Laos and migrated there belonged mostly to the Austro-Thai ethnolingustic family, particularly in the Thai-Kadai and Hmong-Mien (Miao-Yao) subgroups. Austro-Thai groups occupied a long swath of that extends from Assam area of northeastern India to the Red River valley in southern China and northern Vietnam.

Many aspects of Laotian history are fuzzy and misty. Before establishment of monarchy. Laos was occupied by slash-and-burn hill tribe farmers who live today pretty mush as they did back then. In Luang Prabang Province, archeologist have found large stone drum-shaped objects with engraved motifs similar to this of northern Vietnam’s Dong Son bronze drums, The Dongson culture was active between 500 B.C. and A.D. 100.

Plain of Jars

Plain of Jars (near Phonsavan in Xieng Khoung Province in northeast, central Laos) is one the most unique places in Southeast Asia. Surrounded by dense tropical forests and limestone peaks, this windy, grassy plateau is home to hundreds of one-meter to three-meter urns. The vast majority are carved from sandstone and limestone. A few have been chiseled from red granite. The oldest ones are believed to be 1,500 to 2,000 years old. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Jamie James, Natural History, August 1995]

Thus far 300 jar fields have been discovered, with a total of 3,000 jars. Some of the ones below ground were discovered using sateliite imagery. More site are being found all the time. There may be more than 10,000 of them out there, many hidden in the jungle.

The sites, archeologists say, were cemeteries and the jars were funerary urn to store corpses until they decomposed and the bones were ready for burial or cremation (a practice common the Bronze Age and still done on parts of Laos today) . No skeletons have been found inside the urns but human remains have been found in a few and skeletons have been unearthed nearby. Most of the sites are on grassy knolls, many with impressive views of the surrounding countryside. Sometimes cows graze among the urns.

Nobody is quite sure of what the jars were used for. According to one legend they were built by giants to store grain and make alcohol. Many Laotians believe they were built by a 6th century chief, Khun Jeuam, to make wine for a huge celebration to mark the the victory over an evil king. They say the jars were originally made of sand, sugar came and buffalo skin.

On average, the jars are ten feet high, nine feet wide and weigh between 1,300 and 2,000 pounds. The largest one, known as Jeuam’s “Victory Cup,” weighs seven tons, has a 26-foot circumference and is eight feet tall. The smallest ones are about three feet tall. Many are covered in lichens. At one time it is believed they all had lids but most have been pilfered. Some of the remaining lids are adorned with concentric rings.

The Plain of Jars is located on the XiengKhouang Plateau in north-central Laos. Due to its strategic location, the Plain of Jars played a pivotal role in the Vietnam War and was the site of many ground battles and intense aerial bombardment. Based on the Plain of Jars’ extraordinary heritage, the Lao Government has applied to make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Plain of Jars via Phonsavan is accessible by air from Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Overland travel is possible from northern and central Laos and north-central Vietnam.

Early History in the Plain of Jars Area of Laos

Xieng Khouang Province in Laos and the enigmatic Plain of Jars make up one of the most important sites for studying the late prehistory of mainland Southeast Asia. While the ancient civilization that constructed the jars was flourishing, advances in agricultural production, the manufacturing of metals, and the organization of long-distance overland trade between India and China were also rapidly transforming local society and setting the stage for urbanization across the region. Mortuary practices associated with the jars consisting of both cremation and secondary burial suggest a highly-evolved local tradition of ritual, symbolism and metaphysics which persisted through to the kingdoms of the Angkor Period, long after the arrival of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies into Southeast Asia.

Prehistoric material found at the Plain of Jars is still under study, and apparently spans a considerable period of time, with some dating from as early as 2000 BC. The bulk of the archaeological material, however, as well as the jars themselves appeared much later, dating to the early Iron Age between 500 BC and 500-800 AD. The closet archaeological parallels to the finds at the Plain of Jars appear to be Bronze and Iron Age materials from Dong Son in Viet Nam, Samrong Sen in Cambodia, and the Khorat Plateau in northeast Thailand. There are also similarities with the present-day city of Danang, as well as with sites in the North Cachar Hills of northeastern India where megalithic jar North exist. All of these similar sites date to approximately the same period-roughly 500 BC – 500 AD. Together they form a mosaic picture of a large area of upland Southeast Asia criss-crossed by traders, with the Xieng Khouang Plateau at its centre.

Although little is known about the people that constructed the megalithic stone jars, an account of the area’s history as it relates to the Tai Puan and the lands they settled in Xieng Khouang is recorded in the Pongsawadan Meuang Puan or the Muang Puan Chronicles. The Tai Puan are a Buddhist Tai-Lao ethnic group that migrated from what is today southern China and by the 13th century had formed an independent principality at the Plain of Jars that prospered from the overland trade in metals and forest products.

Lao Arrive in Laos

The Lao people are thought to have originated in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. They are related to other people that either live there now or originated there such as the Dai and settled mostly in river valleys.

The Lao are very similar ethnically to Thais. They speak a similar language and are members of the larger Tai family of ethnic groups. These groups began migrating southward from China in successive waves, beginning over 2,000 years ago. No one is sure exactly when they came or why.

By the A.D. 8th century Tai groups had established themselves in much of northern Southeast Asia, in the process displacing Mon-Khmer people that were already there. Many lived in semi-independent principalities known as “muang” under local lords. This period of history was marked the rise and fall and break up and creation of small kingdoms and shifting alliances. Southern Laos came under the influence of the Khmer Empire.

The early Tai-Lao groups were the ancestors of the present-day upland minorities, collectively known as the Lao Thoeng (Upland Lao), the largest group of which are the Khamu of northern Laos. Other Lao Thoeng tribes live in southern Laos, including the Brao and the Katang. Like their northern cousins, they speak Austro-Asiatic languages, a group which includes Khmer. In fact southern Laos is believed to be the birthplace of the Cambodian people, from where they spread further south to establish the kingdom of Funan by the 2nd century CE. The earliest kingdom in southern Laos was identified in Chinese texts as Chenla, dating from the 5th century. Its capital was close to Champasak, near the later Khmer temple of Wat Phu. A little later Mon people (speaking another Austro-Asiatic language) established kingdoms on the middle Mekong – Sri Gotapura (Sikhottabong in Lao) with its capital near Tha Khaek, and Chanthaburi in the vicinity of
Tai-Lao Migration

Tai peoples probably began migrating out of southern China about the 8th century. They included the Tai-Lao of Laos, the Tai-Syam and Tai-Yuan of central and northern Thailand, and the Tai-Shan of northeast Burma. They are called Tai to distinguish them from the citizens (Thai) of modern Thailand, though the word is the same. All spoke closely related Tai languages, practised wet-rice cultivation along river valleys, and organised themselves into small principalities, known as meuang, each presided over by an hereditary ruler, or chao meuang (lord of the meuang). The Tai-Lao, or Lao for short, moved slowly down the rivers of northern Laos, like the Nam Ou and the Nam Khan, running roughly from northeast to southwest, until they arrived at the Mekong, the Great River. They worshipped the ngeuk, powerful snake deities believed to inhabit these rivers, which if not propitiated could so easily tip frail canoes and drown their occupants. Most Lao peasants still believe that ngeuk exist.

“The early Lao text known as the Nithan (story of) Khun Borom recounts the myth of creation of the Lao peoples, their interaction, and the establishment of the first Lao kingdom in the vicinity of Luang Prabang. The creation myth tells how two great gourds grew at Meuang Thaeng (Dien Bien Phu, now in Vietnam) from inside which sounds could be heard. Divine rulers, known as khun, pierced one of the gourds with a hot poker, and out of the charred hole poured the dark-skinned Lao Thoeng. The khun used a knife to cut a hole in the other gourd, through which escaped the lighter-skinned Tai-Lao (or Lao Loum, Lowland Lao). The gods then sent Khun Borom to rule over both Lao Loum and Lao Thoeng. He had seven sons, whom he sent out to found seven new kingdoms in the regions where Tai peoples settled (in the Tai highlands of Vietnam, the Xishuangbanna of southern China, Shan state in Burma, and in Thailand and Laos). While the youngest son founded the kingdom of Xieng Khuang on the Plain of Jars, the oldest son, Khun Lo, descended the Nam Ou, seized the principality of Meuang Sua from its Lao Thoeng ruler, and named it Xiang Dong Xiang Thong (later renamed Luang Prabang). =

Legend of Khun Borom

Immortalized in a glass mosaic located in the Throne Room of the former Royal Palace in Luang Prabang, the legend of Khun Borom parallels historical accounts of the migration of the Tai people, of which the Lao are considered to be a main branch. According to this popular legend, the heavenly kingdoms were once ruled by powerful Gods, which, as a gesture of goodwill, would occasionally send someone to reign over the lesser earthly realms. [Source: seasite.niu.edu ~ ]

“It was for this purpose that Khun Borom, the son of the Heavenly God Phaya Then, descended to the earthly realm on a royal elephant distinguished by its crossed tusks. Upon landing at an uninhabited place known as Na Noi Oi Nu (small rice field) in the vicinity of Muang Then (City of Gods), believed to be located in present day northwestern Vietnam, Phaya Then provided Khun Borom with an axe and a buffalo as a means to initiate agriculture. Upon traveling to Xieng Dong-Xieng Thong, a former settlement on the present day site of Luang Prabang, the local inhabitants accepted Khun Borom’s offering of the buffalo and agriculture subsequently commenced. ~

The settlement flourished, however, as a result of numerous adverse deeds committed by the inhabitants, the buffalo died and a giant liana (Kheua Khao Kaat) grew from its nostrils. Eventually it grew so high that it reached the sky and blocked out all sunlight to the earthly realm threatening the survival of all life forms. Two deeply loyal servants of Khun Borom, affectionately known as grandfather (Phou Nheu) and grandmother (Nha Nheu), selflessly undertook the heroic deed of chopping down the liana with the axe. Knowing that by undertaking this dangerous task that they would be killed in the process, they requested only that they be remembered for their bravery. Upon chopping the liana down, sunlight streamed into the earthly realm once again and humankind was saved. Phou Nheu and Nha Nheu were subsequently honored as the settlement’s Devata Luang, a tradition of reverence that continues to this day. ~

Power Centers in the Middle Mekong Valley

A number of princely fiefdoms based on wet rice cultivation and associated with the pottery and bronze culture of Ban Chiang developed in the middle Mekong Valley from the first century A.D. These fiefdoms exercised power over their neighbors, in circumstances of generally sparse populations, through expanding and contracting spheres of influence best described by the term mandala. Commerce, marriage contracts, and warfare served to expand a mandala. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *] Thus, a plurality of power centers occupied the middle Mekong Valley in early times. Sikhôttabong was a mandala whose capital was located on the left bank of the Mekong at the mouth of the Xé Bangfai and then moved westward as a result of the expansion of Champa, an Indianized state on the coast of Vietnam founded in 192 A.D. Cham, descendants of Champa, were present at Champasak (Bassac) in the fifth century. The Mon kingdom of Candapuri, the earliest name of present-day Vientiane, (Viangchan) was another mandala. The social structure of Sikhôttabong and Candapuri appears to have been strongly hierarchical, with an aristocracy, a commoner class, and a slave class. The fact that some kings came from the commoner class appears to indicate the presence of some sort of consensus in effecting royal succession. At its peak, another important regional power, Funan, had its mandala incorporate parts of central Laos. The smaller but also important Mon kingdom of Dvaravati (through which Theravada Buddhism reached Laos in the seventh and eighth centuries) was centered in the lower Menam Valley beginning in the fifth century. *

In the seventh century, a northwesterly migration of Thais from their region of origin in northwestern Tonkin brought to the Ta-li region in what is present-day Yunnan, China, a successor state to the Ai Lao kingdom. This new kingdom, Nan-chao, expanded its power by controlling major trading routes, notably the southern Silk Road. Culturally, this polyethnic, hierarchical, and militarized state was to have a great influence on later societies in Indochina, transmitting the Tantric Buddhism of Bengal to Laos, Thailand, and the Shan state, and possibly Cambodia, and the political ideology of the maharaja (protector of Buddhism). Nan-chao was organized administratively into ten prefectures called kien. This term seems to be the origin of place-names keng (for example, Kengtung), chiang (for example, Chiang Mai), and xiang (for example, Xiangkhoang). Moreover, the population and army of Nan-chao were organized in units of 100, 1,000, and 10,000, a form later found in Indochina. Also, the title chao (prince), appears to have been of Nan-chao origin. Another branch of this same migration began at the headwaters of the Nam Ou and followed it downstream to Louangphrabang and continued on through Xaignabouri to Chiang Mai. *

As a result of the expansion and contraction of mandala, places of importance were known by more than one name. Muang Sua was the name of Louangphrabang following its conquest in 698 A.D. by a Thai prince, Khun Lo, who seized his opportunity when Nan-chao was engaged elsewhere. Khun Lo had been awarded the town by his father, Khun Borom, who is associated with the Lao legend of the creation of the world, which the Lao share with the Shan and other peoples of the region. Khun Lo established a dynasty whose fifteen rulers reigned over an independent Muang Sua for the better part of a century. *

In the second half of the eighth century, Nan-chao intervened frequently in the affairs of the principalities of the middle Mekong Valley, resulting in the occupation of Muang Sua in 709. Nan-chao princes or administrators replaced the aristocracy of Thai overlords. Dates of the occupation are not known, but it probably ended well before the northward expansion of the Khmer Empire under Indravarman I (r. 877-89) and extended as far as the territories of Sipsong Panna on the upper Mekong. *

In the meantime, the Khmers founded an outpost at Xay Fong near Vientiane, and Champa expanded again in southern Laos, maintaining its presence on the banks of the Mekong until 1070. Canthaphanit, the local ruler of Xay Fong, moved north to Muang Sua and was accepted peacefully as ruler after the departure of the Nan-chao administrators. Canthaphanit and his son had long reigns, during which the town became known by the Thai name Xieng Dong Xieng Thong. The dynasty eventually became involved in the squabbles of a number of principalities. Khun Cuang, a warlike ruler who may have been a Kammu (alternate spellings include Khamu and Khmu) tribesman, extended his territory as a result of the warring of these principalities and probably ruled from 1128 to 1169. Under Khun Cuang, a single family ruled over a far-flung territory and reinstituted the Siamese administrative system of the seventh century. Muang Sua next became the Kingdom of Sri Sattanak, a name connected with the legend of the naga (mythical snake or water dragon) who was said to have dug the Mekong riverbed. At this time, Theravada Buddhism was subsumed by Mahayana Buddhism. Muang Sua experienced a brief period of Khmer suzerainty under Jayavarman VII from 1185 to 1191. By 1180 the Sipsong Panna had regained their independence from the Khmers, however, and in 1238 an internal uprising in the Khmer outpost of Sukhodaya expelled the Khmer overlords. *

The Champasak area of southern Laos was part of Funan and Chenli empires between A.D. 1st century and 9th century and then was part of the Khmer Angkor empire from A.D. 10th century to 13th century. When Angkor declined it was absorbed into the Lao kingdom.