Thompson was in many ways unique, but by the 1950s and early 1960s he would become part of a larger, growing, and much less idealistic machine, one that would expose his naivete -- and punish him for it. As the Cold War grew hot, the United States no longer would back any of these nationalist fighters; America would support France, and then local dictators, in an attempt to fend off communism, infuriating older liberals like Thompson. In Laos, the CIA would make the biggest bet in its history -- not to push democracy, as Thompson wanted, but itself. The agency's secret war in Laos would alter Asia forever, transforming the lives of American operatives and the local hill tribes they worked with. But it would also transform the CIA.
Before the Laos secret war, the agency was a small player in the policymaking apparatus. But by using the war to demonstrate its new importance in policymaking circles, the CIA would make itself far more powerful -- a paramilitary organization rather than a spy agency. Today, the CIA has retained and expanded that paramilitary focus, often leading the war on terror in Afghanistan and other parts of the globe. "Laos made us," one CIA operative told me. "Everything about the power of the CIA, the CIA's global reach, the ability of the CIA [to make war today], not just the Army, to make war -- it came from Laos."
From the Chom Si temple overlooking the town of Luang Prabang, the historic seat of Laos's royal family, the scene in early 1962 looked little different from what it might have decades earlier. On the narrow peninsula jutting out into the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, women in long wraparound phasin dresses sold fresh baguettes each morning. At dusk, makeshift stalls in the market offered spicy raw papaya salad and fried Mekong River catfish. In the royal palace, set back from the three-wheeled rickshaws and bicycles of Luang Prabang's main streets, the king of Laos, Savang Vatthana, still theoretically ruled the country as head of state.
But by the early 1960s, this idyllic little kingdom had become one of the hottest firefights of the Cold War. Strange as it would seem to a visitor to the sleepy country today, for a period in the 1960s, Laos was where Washington would set the future of its foreign policy -- and cement the CIA as a paramilitary organization, a role it would never give up afterward. With communists gaining ground in Vietnam, Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration saw the tiny landlocked country as a bulwark against communism spreading farther west. At a National Security Council meeting, Eisenhower himself warned, "If Laos were lost, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow, and the gateway to India would be opened [to communists]."
Under Eisenhower and then John F. Kennedy, the United States would decisively opt for a covert battle in Laos. The U.S. Embassy there began to expand into what would become, along with bases in northeastern and eastern Thailand, a vast complex of intelligence operations. The United States had sent some small amounts of aid to Laos in the 1950s, but in August 1962 Kennedy authorized a new, and vastly larger, secret U.S. military aid program. (When Kennedy did discuss the country, he deliberately mispronounced the country's name as "LAY-os," rather than the correct "louse" or "laaw," fearing that average Americans would not take seriously a country whose name sounded like a small bug.)
And in Laos, the CIA found a different type of fighting partner, an archetype for the kind of proxy allies it would deploy around the globe in the 1970s, 1980s, and today. In the mountains of northern and central Laos, the Hmong hill tribe -- a rugged ethnic minority group -- hated central authority and had spent nearly 4,000 years fighting outside forces from the Chinese to the Vietnamese. They disdained the Lao communists, whom they feared would deprive them of their traditional way of life and farming. Most Hmong had little interaction with or knowledge of the technological and commercial revolutions changing Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok. Still, they had built a reputation as the most fearsome fighters in Asia. The Hmong, whose name means "free," fought like they had nothing to lose, a trait they seemed to prefer: In the 18th century, during a battle with China, many Hmong fighters first killed their wives and children, so that they could enter the fight against China with nothing holding them back. By the early 1960s, the CIA had begun to build modern airstrips in Laos, and the agency shipped the Hmong army assault rifles, rocket launchers, howitzers, and food. U.S. officials assured the Hmong that Washington would back them until the communists were defeated. After all, Laos was then of the highest priority, and surely nothing short of victory would be acceptable. No word of this emerging, massive war effort was released to Congress or the American press.