America’s Secret War: Much Omitted During Clinton’s Diplomacy Tour
On 11 July 2012, The Independent’s Andrew Buncombe reported on US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s visit ‘to the scene of one of the darkest episodes of US foreign policy’ – Laos, where she ‘saw first-hand the aftermath of America’s “secret war” in which about two million tons of bombs were dropped on the country’. ‘For its population’, Buncombe explained, ‘it is the most heavily bombed place on earth’ where ‘about 30 per cent of the ordnance remains unexploded’. Such a ratio is undoubtedly alarming, and should raise questions which as yet go unanswered.
To begin, we should ask if such bombing constitutes a war crime. That the ’580,000 bombing raids over Laos’ carried out by the US military between 1964 and 1975 – each bomb of which ‘contain[s] up to 600 smaller bomblets’, and from which ‘an estimated 50,000 people’ have been killed ‘since the end of the war’ (‘many of them children’) – were ‘part of a secret mission to cut off supply routes for North Vietnamese forces’ during the Vietnam war, surely fails to justify the destruction. In his report, Buncombe does not mention, for example, that most of those killed during the raids were innocent and defenceless peasants. T D Allman reported the Plain of Jars in 1971 as ‘empty and ravaged’ by saturation bombing which was ‘used in an attempt to extinguish all human life’1. At the very least, the methods employed in the ‘secret mission’ should raise questions about the motives behind the war as a whole. Of course, no such thoughts are expressed. Needless to say, the notion that the merciless destruction wrought by the United States against Laos and/or Vietnam, may be tantamount to a war crime, does not arise.
Regardless, all of this is forgivable, it seems, because Secretary of State Clinton ‘vowed that Washington would do more to help those still suffering from the legacy of America’s Cold War actions’. Indeed, ‘Reports say the US has already spent around £43m to help Laos clear unexploded bombs and will spend another £9m this year’. The intention in citing these figures appears to be to imply that the US has already made a substantial, perhaps charitable, effort. Certainly, £52m from a superpower which happens to be one of the richest nations in the world is undoubtedly more than enough compensation for nine years of bombing, and anyone who thinks otherwise is obviously ungrateful or insane; most likely both. After all, how much did the two million tons of bombs cost? Reports such as Allman’s (cited above) beg the question as to why vows of ‘help’ by US administration officials are taken at face value. Clearly, the most basic review of US foreign policy indicates that such actions are not necessarily of primary concern.
It is conceded that Clinton ‘is seeking to counter growing Chinese influence in the region . . . [and that she] also discussed . . . investment opportunities’. The ‘four-hour visit to Laos, en route to Cambodia’ was, then, not entirely selfless. Still, it was ‘the first US Secretary of State visit to the South-east Asian nation since 1955’ – a fact which must bring significant comfort to the 50,000 killed and ‘maimed by decades-old ordnance’. Indeed, the visit was not the easiest for Clinton, who described it as a ‘painful reminder of the legacy of the Vietnam war era’. A 20 year old Laotian who lost his sight and both his hands on his 16th birthday, after picking up a cluster bomb which subsequently ‘blew up in his face’, spoke ‘in faltering English’, of ‘So many survivors without help’, adding that ‘Their life is very, very hard’. Is it this difficulty of life for innocent victims of ‘America’s Cold War actions’ which determines the past in Laos to ‘always [be] with us’, as Clinton herself exclaimed? Perhaps it is this same past that discouraged high-ranking US officials from visiting the country over the past 57 years. Maybe they simply could not afford the trip, given the £43m they were to spend up until today? Perhaps it was the 30 per cent of unexploded ordnance which was such a turn off?
We may ask what other ‘secret mission[s]’ were conducted during the Vietnam war by the United States; who else is still ‘suffering from the legacy of America’s Cold War actions’? Let us take Cambodia, another stop on Clinton’s tour. It too was bombed covertly – illegally, from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, slaughtering hundreds of thousands. It has subsequently been argued that the bombing campaign was in a large part responsible for the mass recruitment to the Khmer Rouge. In a study of US Air Force files released some years ago, Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen write:
Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide.
The study demonstrated, not only that the bombing of Cambodia began in 1965 under the Johnson administration, as opposed to 1969, under Nixon, as originally believed, but that the country was subjected to more bombs than the total tonnage of ordnance dropped by the Allies in the Second World War, including the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, it was relentless and indiscriminate. Reporting on the release of transcripts of Henry Kissinger’s telephone conversations during his time in office, the New York Times described how, in one conversation in 1970, whilst Kissinger was National Security Advisor, then-President Richard Nixon ‘became especially angry . . . with what he considered the lackluster bombing campaign . . . in Cambodia’, labeling it, the Washington Post noted ‘a disgraceful performance’ in which the US Air Force was ‘farting around doing nothing’, and ordered an escalation in the campaign. ‘Mr. Kissinger’, explained the NYT, ‘immediately relayed the order: “A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.”‘2 In their study, Kiernan and Owen in fact quote a US official who stated at the time that ‘We [US officials] had been told, as had everybody…that those carpet-bombing attacks by B-52s were totally devastating, that nothing could survive’.
It should be noted that despite the horrifying consequences which continue to devastate Laotian life, ‘the US has not signed an international convention against using such munitions as were used. Recall that these are bombs which ‘contain up to 600 smaller bomblets’, and whose use has killed some 50,000 people, ‘many’ of whom have been children. When, in the 1970s, the US Air Force radio station in Laos was closed, it signed off with the following message: ‘Good-by [sic] and see you next war’.3 It should be noted, also, that the CIA dropped into Laos millions of dollars of forged Pathet Lao currency, whilst the US Information Agency launched a propaganda campaign including radio programs, films, wall newspapers, leaflet drops and a magazine whose circulation was 43,000 – the circulation of the largest newspaper was 3,300.4 The Guardian reported in 1971 that:
ample evidence exists to confirm charges that the Meo villages that do try to find their own way out of the war-even if it is simply by staying neutral and refusing to send their 13-year olds to fight in the CIA army-are immediately denied American rice and transport, and ultimately are bombed by the US Air Force.5
Buncombe’s Independent report ignores not only details of the United States’ ‘secret war’ against Laos, but also the wider historical context – that is, the fate of other countries against which it waged similar destruction. No mention is made, for example, of the extensive drug trafficking networks established during these years – for which Air America served as a front – that provided the CIA with mercenary armies, as well as covert finance, with which to conduct these ‘secret war[s]’; more often than not at the expense of the native societies, who were subsequently left in the hands of enriched, heavily-armed gangsters, drug kingpins, tribal warlords and the like.6 By ignoring facts such as those outlined above, the report effectively rewrites the history of the countries at hand, erasing both the complicity, and responsibility, of the United States in the turbulent and catastrophic events that have left the countries in the state they are now found by officials – decades later, it should be stressed. It is telling that the dramatic and violent crimes mentioned can be so easily sidelined. That such horror can be written off as ‘America’s Cold War actions’, while its actual implications are seemingly unworthy of even cursory comment, should give us pause.
1. Cited in Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, c.1988 (London: Vintage, 1994), p. 258.
2. Citations in:
i) Elizabeth Becker, ‘Kissinger Tapes Describe Crises, War and Stark Photos of Abuse’, New York Times, 2004,
ii) Michael Dobbs, ‘Haig Said Nixon Joked of Nuking Hill: Transcripts of Phone Talks Are Released by Archives, Washington Post, 2004,
3. Cited in William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military & CIA Interventions since World War II (London: Zed Books, 2003), p. 145.
4. Blum, Killing Hope, 2003, pp. 144, 142.
5. Cited in Blum, Killing Hope, 2003, p. 144.
6. See Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, Central America, Colombia (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2003, revision of 1972 edition).
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