WILLY BACH. Australia’s Collaboration in the CIA’s Secret War in Laos

Dec 27, 2016

US forces left Thailand in 1975-76 at the request of Thai authorities. SEATO was disbanded in 1977. Australia’s forward defence doctrine was quietly forgotten.  

The CIA’s Secret War in Laos was but one component of the Indochina War and what we have come to call the Việt Nam War. The war in Laos was already covertly under way in 1954, with the CIA and its partners backing the Royalist forces with weapons, training and payment of salaries. The French defeat at Điện Biên Phủ had alarmed Western powers and former colonialists to a level at which the use of nuclear weapons was considered. Covert, undeclared warfare was a well-practised routine previously employed in Burma, Tibet, Kuomintang China and other covert interventions the US was undertaking at the time in Guatemala, British Guyana and Cuba. Some of these interventions, like the 1954 Iran coup against Mohammad Mossadegh, were joint CIA-MI6 operations. US allies, like Britain and Australia were kept informed as required. British archival records show a long and detailed interest in Laos in this period.

The collaboration of Anglosphere allies, Britain, Australia and New Zealand in Laos from 1954 till 1975 was under the auspices of the SEATO treaty. The Indochina War was regional and affected all neighbouring countries and these allies too, undermining their democratic institutions, as high-level secrecy was essential. The history of this collaboration has been largely ignored or denied, as the hitherto scarce literature showed. Most of the literature about the war has been written by US authors, or focuses on what the US did in the war. The actions of SEATO allies, Britain, Australia and New Zealand have been largely overlooked. This gap in the historical record needs closer examination. Three aspects of this collaboration are examined here.

The first of these is the building of war facilities in Thailand’s North East, principally, the Operation Crown airfield near Leong Nok Tha and the Post Crown Works road networks over the 1962-68 period. This required the rotation of many engineer units and support services from Britain, Australia and New Zealand. This infrastructure was part of the US-led SEATO military build-up in Thailand. Crown was also used for commando incursions into Laos across the Mekong River. Participation in the SEATO alliance included staffing of the SEATO Headquarters in Bangkok; planning of an invasion, occupation and partition of Laos, and severing the Hồ Chí Minh Trail. Planning and participating in major SEATO exercises were designed to rehearse the intended invasion. The plans also involved Britain contributing nuclear weapons. The invasion was eventually abandoned due to the divergent views and limited commitment of SEATO allies, and the US failure to consult them. Peter Edwards described how Australia’s Menzies government took the country to the brink of war: “On three separate occasions – in September 1959, March 1961 and May 1961”. Additionally, 79 Sabre Squadron RAAF Ubon Ratchathani patrolled the air-space and ground perimeter of USAF Ubon Ratchathani.

Secondly, Britain and Australia provided counterinsurgency warfare advisers who worked with special forces, mercenaries, and ethnic minorities to carry out covert warfare. These Anglosphere advisers also provided the US with strategic advice based on Britain’s experience in Kenya and Malaya. These activities included misnamed ‘Hearts and Minds’ projects, which were actually the coercive removal of civilians from their traditional ancestral farming land. They set up strategic hamlets and refugee camps, destroyed food, crops, domestic animals, homes and property, and carried out the interrogation of prisoners. Eventually, advisers from Britain and Australia joined the leadership of the Phoenix Program, which assassinated 20,000 to 30,000 suspected communist sympathisers in South Việt Nam. Britain also trained thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers as well as irregular Thais, Lao and others at the Jungle Warfare School, Kota Tinggi, in Johor, Malaysia.

Thirdly, Anglosphere involvement in the war supplied materials and weapons to the US which included the process of invention and development, and eventually manufacture of defoliants – including Agent Orange – that were of great importance to US counterinsurgency warfare and introduced into the conflict in 1962, long before the Gulf of Tonkin incident. All, with the inclusion of Canada manufactured and tested defoliants. The destruction of food crops was as central to the US Ranch Hand program as the removal of forest canopy to reveal the disposition of their adversaries. Defoliants were used to coerce civilians to vacate their homes and farms, turning these areas into free-fire zones. These weapons situated the users beyond the reach of adversary retaliation. The toxicity and teratogenic nature of these chemicals caused aborted foetuses and unviable deformed babies from an early stage in the war. Eventually the US government was obliged to phase out defoliant use in 1971, beginning with the immediate ending of crop destruction.

The Anglosphere contributions to the war were a whole of government undertaking, not insignificant or piecemeal, but planned for specific niches. There were elements that were part of the ‘big’ conventional war that included massive bombing and invasion plans, as well as the ‘small’ covert unconventional guerrilla counterinsurgency wars in Laos and throughout Indochina that were part of the regional war of resistance to decolonisation. The war, predicated on the fears of the Domino Theory, ended with none of the predicted outcomes. The foreign forces withdrew and the local nationalist-communist victors in Laos, Cambodia, and Việt Nam set about reconstruction with varying degrees of success and largely without assistance from the Anglosphere countries which had invested so heavily in the war. US forces left Thailand in 1975-76 at the request of Thai authorities. SEATO was disbanded in 1977. Australia’s forward defence doctrine was quietly forgotten.

Willy Bach, MPhil, School of History, UQ, Peace Scholar and activist, former British soldier in the CIA’s secret War in Laos.

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