Supporting the “Secret War”
CIA Air Operations in Laos, 1955-1974
William M. Leary
The largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA took place in the small Southeast Asian Kingdom of Laos. For more than 13 years, the Agency directed native forces that fought major North Vietnamese units to a standstill. Although the country eventually fell to the Communists, the CIA remained proud of its accomplishments in Laos. As Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Richard Helms later observed: “This was a major operation for the Agency. . . . It took manpower; it took specially qualified manpower; it was dangerous; it was difficult.” The CIA, he contended, did “a superb job.” 1
Air America, an airline secretly owned by the CIA, was a vital component in the Agency’s operations in Laos. By the summer of 1970, the airline had some two dozen twin-engine transports, another two dozen short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) aircraft, and some 30 helicopters dedicated to operations in Laos. There were more than 300 pilots, copilots, flight mechanics, and air-freight specialists flying out of Laos and Thailand. During 1970, Air America airdropped or landed 46 million pounds of foodstuffs–mainly rice–in Laos. Helicopter flight time reached more than 4,000 hours a month in the same year. Air America crews transported tens of thousands of troops and refugees, flew emergency medevac missions and rescued downed airmen throughout Laos, inserted and extracted road-watch teams, flew nighttime airdrop missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, monitored sensors along infiltration routes, conducted a highly successful photoreconnaissance program, and engaged in numerous clandestine missions using night-vision glasses and state-of-the-art electronic equipment. Without Air America’s presence, the CIA’s effort in Laos could not have been sustained.
A Distorted View
Air America’s public image has fared poorly. The 1990 movie Air America is largely responsible for this. It featured a cynical CIA officer who arranged for the airline to fly opium to the administrative capital of Vientiane for a corrupt Asian general–loosely modeled on Vang Pao, a military leader of the mountain-region-based Hmong ethnic group. The film depicts the CIA man as having the opium processed into heroin in a factory just down the street from the favorite bar of Air America’s pilots. The Asian general, in return, supplied men to fight the war, plus a financial kickback to the CIA. Ultimately, we learn that the Communist versus anti-Communist war in Laos was merely a facade for the real war, which was fought for control of the area’s opium fields.
Air America pilots in this film are portrayed as skilled at landing damaged airplanes, but basically as a wildly unprofessional menagerie of party animals, including a few borderline psychotics. These ill-disciplined airmen are not the villains of the story; they are merely pawns in a drug game that they either disdain or oppose outright.
A Bum Rap
The connection among Air America, the CIA, and the drug trade in Laos lingers in the public mind. The film, according to the credits, was based on Christopher Robbins’s book about the airline, first published in 1979 under the title Air America. 2 Although Robbins later claimed that the movie distorted his book, 3 it closely followed the book’s theme if not its details. Both movie and book contend that the CIA condoned a drug trade conducted by a Laotian client; both agree that Air America provided the essential transportation for the trade; and both portray the pilots sympathetically.
Robbins provides factual details that the movie lacks. Citing Alfred W. McCoy’s 1972 study, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, he relates how Air America helicopters collected the opium harvests of 1970 and 1971, then flew the crop to Vang Pao’s base at Long Tieng in the mountains of northern Laos, where it was turned into heroin at the general’s drug laboratory. 4
My nearly two decades of research indicate that Air America was not involved in the drug trade. As Joseph Westermeyer, who spent the years 1965 to 1975 in Laos as a physician, public health worker, and researcher, wrote in Poppies, Pipes, and People: “American-owned airlines never knowingly transported opium in or out of Laos, nor did their American pilots ever profit from its transport. Yet every plane in Laos undoubtedly carried opium at some time, unknown to the pilot and his superiors–just as had virtually every pedicab, every Mekong River sampan, and every missionary jeep between China and the Gulf of Siam.” 5
If the CIA was not involved in the drug trade, it did know about it. As former DCI William Colby acknowledged, the Agency did little about it during the 1960s, but later took action against the traders as drugs became a problem among American troops in Vietnam. The CIA’s main focus in Laos remained on fighting the war, not on policing the drug trade.