Reporter and columnist Joshua Kurlantzick has written for publications as diverse as Rolling Stone and the Economist and is the Southeast Asia expert for Washington DC’s Council on Foreign Relations. He brings all his experience to this beautifully written and astutely crafted book on the so-called Secret War. Vietnam looms largest in most views of the Cold War’s proxy wars, but in taking us back to the Southeast Asia of the 1960s, Kurlantzick focuses on the landlocked kingdom of Laos, the country bordering China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma, on what happened there, and on why that is so important in the international crises we face today.
Kurlantzick tells a complex story in a compelling page turner, achieving this with masterful management of detail, from the choice of statistics to the minutiae of life on the battlefield. For example, we discover the United States paid more than 75 per cent of France’s budget to fight its 1946-1954 war to retain its Indochinese colonies.
It was Eisenhower and his “domino theory”, one country after another falling to communism, that made Laos the bulwark to stop communism engulfing Thailand and the Philippines. Eisenhower’s briefings ensured that Kennedy continued the secret CIA training and arming of Hmong tribesmen.
With no oversight and with anti-war activists focusing on Vietnam, the unknown war escalated to include bombing raids, over 300 sorties per day in the 1960s, and two of the biggest battles in the whole of United States involvement in Indochina.
When the war finally ended in 1973, 10 per cent of Laos’s total population had been killed, and Laotians are still dying from antipersonnel bombs left behind.
Kurlantzick has filleted all the declassified documents, and shows how the war has echoes in the present day, with the CIA moving from spying and basic foreign intelligence analysis to full paramilitary activity with covert activities in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.