The clandestine bombing campaign over Laos and Cambodia conducted by the United States during the Vietnam War was arguably one of the biggest tragedies of the second half of the 20th Century. The relentless bombing missions took a terrible toll on both countries regarding life, property and resources, and many were staged from air bases on Thai soil
By Maxmilian Wechsler
The bombing started in Laos in 1964 under President Lyndon Johnson, unauthorised and unbeknownst to the US Congress. In 1969, at the height of a war that was becoming increasingly unpopular at home, President Richard Nixon greatly expanded the scale and included Cambodia in the campaign. Their rationale was that it was needed to destroy communist supply routes to Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through Laos and Cambodia.
Bombing targets were not confined to the course of the trail, however. They were spread widely across both countries in an unsuccessful attempt to shore up friendly governments against communist insurgencies mounted by the Pathet Lao in Laos and Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Between 1964 and 1973, US aircraft flew missions over virtually every corner of Laos. The US never declared war on Laos, but it became the most heavily bombed country in history. Out of 2,858 days from 1964 to 1974, US planes flew bombing missions over Laos on 2,290 days. About 2.5 million tons of bombs, more than what the US Air Force (USAF) unloaded on Germany and Japan combined during World War II, were dropped on Laos. A UN report calls Laos the most bombed country on the planet per capita, with .84 tons of explosives dropped per person from 1965 to 1974.
According to an article published by The Irish Times on May 13 of this year, the US conducted 580,344 bombing missions over Laos. It’s estimated that adjusting for inflation, the cost of this prolonged shock and awe campaign would be US$3.1 billion. A total of around two million tons of ordnance was dropped, including around 270 million cluster munition bomblets. Of these, around 80 million didn’t detonate upon impact and still pose a serious threat to the civilian population.
Packed with the dozens or hundreds of bomblets per canister, cluster bombs are designed to explode in mid-air, scattering small explosives across a radius of up to several hundred yards. About a third of Laos is contaminated with unexploded ordnance today.
The Landmine and Clustering Munition Monitor estimated in 2013 that cluster munitions and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) were responsible for 50,000 casualties. Of these, about 29,000 people were killed and 21,000 injured. UXO now silently lingers in rice fields, roadways, villages and countryside, hampering the country’s development and ready to claim more victims.
The massive bombing campaign over Laos was not the work of the USAF alone. It was in fact led by the CIA. An unknown, but significant, a number of the 580,344 bombing missions were carried out by an airline known as ‘Air America’ which was wholly owned by the CIA. The aircraft used by the CIA in the secret war included transports, STOL (short take-off and landing) planes and helicopters. CIA and US Special Forces units were also on the ground in Laos during the secret war.
On March 18, 1969, USAF Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-52 bombers began carpet bombing Cambodia on the order of President Nixon. The overall covert operation was code-named ‘Operation Menu’, with various phases named ‘Breakfast’, ‘Lunch’, ‘Dinner’, ‘Snack’, ‘Supper’ and ‘Dessert’.
President Nixon ordered the campaign without consulting Congress and even kept it secret from top military officials. Five members of Congress were informed several months after the start of Operation Menu, but it was kept secret from the American people until The New York Times broke the story in May 1969. Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s National Security Adviser, was reportedly outraged over the leaked information in the story and ordered the FBI to wiretap the phones of top White House aides and reporters to find the source.
More reports of the secret bombing campaign surfaced in the press and records of Congressional proceedings, but it was not until 2000 that official the USAF records of US bombing activity over Indochina from 1964 to 1973 were declassified by President Bill Clinton.
Some sources say that during the first phase of the bombings lasting until April 1970, ‘Operation Breakfast’, the SAC conducted 3,630 sorties and dropped 110,000 tons of bombs and that in the entire four-year campaign the US dropped about 540,000 tons of bombs. In the book Bombs over Cambodia, historians Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen state that, based on their analysis of the declassified documents, 2,756,941 tons of ordnance was dropped during Operation Menu, more than the US dropped on Japan during World War II.
The authors also say that US planes flew 230,516 sorties over 113,716 sites. Estimates of casualties vary widely as well, but it is believed that somewhere between 100,000 and 600,000 civilians died in the bombing and two million became homeless. Some sources say that hundreds of thousands more Cambodians died from the effects of displacement, illness or starvation as a direct result of the bombings.
The carpet bombing of Cambodia lasted until August 1973. It devastated the countryside and the chaos and upheaval it unleashed played a big part in the installation of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of up to two million Cambodians through executions, forced labour and starvation.
According to intelligence gathered by the CIA, US bombing increased the popularity of the Khmer Rouge and gave them a major propaganda weapon to use on their way to victory in 1975. The regime was ousted by Vietnamese forces in 1979.
Thailand and the Secret War
From 1961 to 1975 the Thai government allowed the USAF to deploy combat aircraft at several major Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) bases. Missions were flown mainly out of the Don Muang, Korat, Nakhon Phanom, Takhli, Ubon, Udon and U-tapao bases. Thailand was a member of the now defunct Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), formed in September 1954 under the direction of US President Dwight Eisenhower as an organisation for collective defence, with the express purpose of containing communist aggression in Southeast Asia.
SEATO headquarters were in Bangkok, and the membership also included Australia, Bangladesh, France, New Zealand, Philippines, Pakistan, United Kingdom and the United States. The alliance was formally dissolved in June 1977.
On March 10, 1967, the Bangkok Post broke a story that said US officials had confirmed that American warplanes were using Thai bases to launch bombing raids on North Vietnam. Until then this had been kept the secret with some difficulty. In fact, about 75% of America’s aerial bombardment of Vietnam was staged from Thailand, where 35,000 US military personnel were stationed.
The Bangkok Post reported on January 22, 1968, that US planes lifting off from bases in Thailand were bombing portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. The Thai Prime Minister, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, was quoted as saying the raids were ‘for the defence of our country’. It was the first official admission that the US was using Thai bases and that Laos was being bombed.
The PM also said that US-supplied Hawk missiles had arrived ‘to form part of the defence of Bangkok’ against air raids launched from ‘communist-infested areas by communist planes’. The Thai government believed Pathet Lao-backed hill tribes were infiltrating the country in preparation for the communist takeover of Thailand. The fear that the country would be overrun by communists was widespread in the general population as well, and many people thought US military power was the only way to stop it.
This goes a long way toward explaining why the Thai government was willing to allow the US to use Thai soil for military operations against North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Making the situation even more complicated and worrisome, from 1965 on the Thai government was fighting a guerrilla war with insurgents belonging mainly to the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT). The CPT was active in north eastern, northern and later in southern Thai provinces. American forces were not involved in fighting against the CPT. After Prime Minister General Prem Tinsulanonda signed a declaration of amnesty in April 1980, the insurgency declined dramatically and came to a complete end in 1983.
A British expat who has lived in Thailand since the 1960s recalled standing with other onlookers along a road opposite U-tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield near Sattahip and watching B-52 Stratofortress bombers taking off on bombing raids. “Even after 50 years, I can still vividly remember these giant planes accelerating down the runway and slowly getting airborne. Sometimes it appeared like they wouldn’t make it off the ground, they were lifting so slowly. Obviously, the planes were fully loaded with bombs.
“At night the Americans celebrated at a couple of entertainment areas close to U-tapao called Newlands and Kilo Sip (Kilometre 10). Swan Lake Hotel was also popular with the Americans and busy all night. I am not sure if the pilots and other flight crew were allowed, but the ground staff was there,” recalls the expat.
The Nixon administration tried to prohibit the press from observing the secret war by denying media access on bombing raids outside South Vietnam. Likewise, unsympathetic journalists were kept off RTAF bases and not permitted access to American pilots.
President Nixon reportedly authorized the bombing of Cambodia on his watch at the urging of National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. They both believed it was vital to stopping the flow of communist troops and supplies into Vietnam and ending the war as quickly as possible.
The North Vietnamese proved to be far more resilient than they reckoned, but the secret war probably did help bring the Vietnam War to an earlier close. Leaked news of the bombing sparked intensified anti-war protests in the spring of 1970.
On May 4 students in the US protesting the bombing of Cambodia clashed with Ohio National Guardsmen on the Kent State University campus. After Guardsmen fired into the crowd, killing four students, the already widespread anti-war sentiment in the US became unstoppable. Faced with that reality, President Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973 and essentially handed off South Vietnam to the North Vietnamese.
When President Barack Obama visited Laos last September for the ASEAN Summit held in Vientiane, he said in an obvious reference to the secret war waged by his predecessors: ‘‘Whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a terrible toll.” He offered no apologies, but did say he believes that “given our history here, the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal.”
The president also said rightly that many Americans are unaware of the scale of US bombing in Laos. In the first visit by a sitting US president to Laos, Mr Obama pledged US$90 million for the removal of cluster bombs and other unexploded ordnance (UXO).
From 1993 to 2016 the United States contributed on average $4.9 million a year for UXO clearance in Laos. In contrast, it’s estimated that adjusting for inflation the US government spent about US$17 million per day to bomb Laos.
The BBC quoted Mines Advisory Group country (Laos’) director Simon Rea as saying: “Before the president’s announcement I feared that the UXO operation in Laos would take hundreds of years. Now I am optimistic this can be reduced to decades. The president’s announcement is extremely good news for us, and poor families in rural areas are still blighted by UXO.”