I am an Air Force Vietnam combat veteran, but my most significant combat missions were flown over Laos. On Saturday evening, September 27, I had the honor of speaking to the Royal Lao Airborne at an annual banquet in Greenville, South Carolina, celebrating their recent and past achievements.
In 1967, I was a navigator-copilot assigned to the 606th Air Commando Squadron in Nakhon Phanom (NKP), a Royal Thai Airbase. The 606th flew the A-26K, twin prop attack bomber, which was proving highly successful at night armed reconnaissance, especially destroying North Vietnamese trucks supplying the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) via the Ho Chi Minh Trail through eastern Laos in its invasion of South Vietnam. NKP was just a few miles west of the Mekong River, which separates Thailand from Laos. The 606th was one of several squadrons at NKP flying various combat and combat support aircraft involved in Air Commando missions.
One evening a few weeks after arriving at NKP, we taxied by an Air Commando C-119 “Flying Boxcar” loading a couple of squads of very competent looking, well-equipped Asian troops wearing maroon berets. We were told that they were Royal Laotian Rangers trained by U.S Army Rangers and Green Berets. They looked determined as they were briefed by an Army Ranger sergeant. They were likely headed to a drop into incredibly dangerous places in North Vietnamese or Communist Pathet Lao held territory. Laotian Rangers and special aircraft in our Air Commando Wing were frequently tied to CIA missions of highly clandestine nature.
Some A-26 missions carried a an additional Lao or Hmong radio operator to communicate with friendly Royal Lao or Hmong forces on the ground or to coordinate an attack on NVA or Pathet Lao troops.
On one occasion we were directed by friendly Laotian forces in strafing and bombing jungle-concealed Pathet Lao forces, reportedly several hundred strong, not far from NKP. The same friendly Laotian forces later reported heavy Pathet Lao casualties in that location. I don’t rejoice in the killing of enemies, but I must say that the recent atrocities committed by the so-called radical Islamists of the Islamic State or ISIS in Iraq and Syria do not approach the inhumanity of Pathet Lao terrorism and torture, some of which was inflicted on U.S. Navy and Air force crews captured in Laos. The survival of such fanatical terrorists is a mortal danger to all mankind.
According to President Richard Nixon, U.S. failure to enforce the 1962 Geneva Treaty that guaranteed independence and neutrality for Laos and its Royal government was the second biggest mistake in the Vietnam War.
French-Indo China consisted of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Following French withdrawal from Indo-China after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (near the Laotian border) in 1954, Vietnam was divided at the 17th Parallel into the (Communist) People’s Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam and the Republic of (South) Vietnam. Cambodia was given independence in 1953, although not uncontested by Communist Khmer Rouge forces. Laos was involved in a three-way civil war between Royal Lao, Communist, and rightist factions.
On July 23, 1962, a treaty agreed to by the Royal Government of Laos and signed by fourteen nations agreed that Laos would be an independent and neutral nation, further requiring the withdrawal of all foreign forces and prohibiting the introduction of future foreign bases and forces. This was signed by the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Poland, India, Canada, the UK, and France. The U.S. withdrew its several hundred advisors, but the North Vietnamese did not withdraw more than 7,000 troops engaged in building the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was already being used to supply Communist insurgents in South Vietnam.
President Eisenhower had advised President Kennedy in 1961 that under no circumstances should any North Vietnamese troops be allowed to remain in Laos. According to Eisenhower, Laos was the key domino in Southeast Asia. Occupation or infiltration by Communist forces would threaten South Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. Kennedy agreed at first with Eisenhower and made strong statements to that effect. Yet the North Vietnamese never left northern Laos and built up its forces to between 70,000 and 85,000 men. Neither Kennedy nor President Johnson ever made even a formal protest that North Vietnam was in gross violation of the 1962 Geneva Treaty, much less backing a protest with immediate and resolute power. Subsequently, the NVA moved 500,000 troops and enormous amounts of weapons, munitions, and war materials down the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War.
A virtually universal rule of contract law is that if one party substantially violates a contract, the other party is no longer obligated to fulfill their part. Yet the U.S. maintained the fiction that the 1962 Treaty still restricted American or Allied ground troops from cutting off enemy supply lines in Laos.
Under the Johnson Administration, the U.S. used only restricted airpower to interdict this massive movement of war materials and troops, in effect leaving Laos and Cambodia as enemy sanctuaries from which the NVA could attack at will but be free from Allied ground attack. Instead of having a 40 mile border to defend, South Vietnamese, American, and other Allied troops had to defend 640 miles of border.
Who can even calculate the expense in lives, years, and economic resources that our failure to confront North Vietnam’s treachery cost us? Why this costly fiction? Although Kennedy stood strong at first, Khrushchev’s constant bullying tactics may have made him vulnerable to the usual bad liberal advice to appease tyrants. In Johnson’s case, he wanted to keep the whole war in Southeast Asia as secret and far from public concern as possible. This was a terrible leadership mistake in itself. He and Secretary of Defense McNamara certainly did not want to be seen by the liberal press as expanding the war into Laos. Domestic politics trumped wiser leadership and national security policy.