Laos during the Vietnam War

map of laos
A map of modern day Laos, showing its location west of Vietnam

The Vietnam War did not remain within the borders of Vietnam. The conflict expanded into neighbouring countries like Laos and Cambodia, where North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong soldiers moved and operated, at times pursued by South Vietnamese and American forces. These interventions had a profound impact on the development of Laos and Cambodia. One significant outcome was the rise and expansion of nationalist-communist groups. Like the Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians had endured generations of colonial exploitation, foreign meddling and unwanted conflict. Vietnam’s nationalist and communist movement inspired the rise of the Pathet Lao in Laos and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. These groups would shape the destinies of their countries.

Laos is a landlocked country, sandwiched between China (north), Cambodia (south), Vietnam (east) and Thailand (west). Much of northern Laos is mountainous, difficult to cross and thinly populated. The majority of Laos’ agricultural and livestock production takes place in the country’s south or along the Mekong River, which forms Laos’ western border. Prior to the 19th century, Laos was a jigsaw of regional kingdoms and ethnicities, rather than a single state or homogenous society. Its history, trade and culture were shaped by its more powerful neighbours. Like Vietnam, Laos fell under French colonial control in the late 19th century. Laos lacked the natural resources, labour force and coastline of its neighbouring regions, however, so was never a profitable colony. As a consequence, it was not as closely administered or developed as Vietnam. French colonial authority was concentrated in southern Laos; even at the height of the colonial period, there were no more than a few hundred French officials in Laos.

Pathet Lao founder Prince Souphanouvong (left) with Ho Chi Minh

World War II helped stimulate Laotian nationalism, which rose in response to an aggressive Thailand and occupation by Japanese forces. Laos was not much affected by the war until early 1945, when Japanese troops took control of the Vichy French colonial regime and forced the Lao king, Sisavangvong, to declare independence. The French reasserted control of Laos in 1946, implementing a constitutional monarchy while working to improve infrastructure, particularly in transport and education. Despite these advances, this period was marked by frustration with foreign interference in Laotian affairs. One nationalist group, the Lao Freedom Front, was formed by Prince Souphanouvong, an admirer of Ho Chi Minh. In 1950 Souphanouvong and his colleagues formed the Pathet Lao (‘Lao Nation’), in effect a Laotian branch of the Viet Minh. In 1953 the Pathet Lao initiated a civil war in Laos, armed with logistic support, training and supplies from the Viet Minh.

France’s General Salan with the future king of Laos, Sisavang Vatthana

Laos was granted full independence from France on November 9th 1953 and became a constitutional monarchy. The Pathet Lao occupied large areas in the mountainous north and remained a significant political force. In 1957 the Pathet Lao was invited to form a coalition government. This coalition collapsed the following year under pressure from the United States, which was suspicious of the Pathet Lao’s communist ties. This helped reignite the Laotian civil war between the US-backed royal government and the Pathet Lao, which was supported and supplied by Hanoi and Moscow. By the late 1950s, much of northern and eastern Laos was controlled by the Pathet Lao. During this period the North Vietnamese military entered Laos to establish the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a remote track for peopling and supplying the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. The Geneva agreement of 1962 produced another coalition government and pause in the civil war, though both lasted scarcely a year. During the 1960s the Pathet Lao, supported by the North Vietnamese, fought for control against the Laotian royal government and the ethnic Hmong, both of whom were backed by the United States.

A map showing US military operations in Laos during the mid 1960s

America’s growing involvement in Vietnam helped escalate the civil war in Laos. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and US military began supplying the Laotian government with intelligence, financial aid and military supplies. The US furnished Vientiane with planes and established a training program for Laotian pilots. Progress was slow, however, so in mid-1964 American planes began flying reconnaissance missions over Laotian territory. The first American bombs were dropped on Laos on June 9th, in retaliation for the shooting down of an American plane by insurgents. The aerial bombardment of Laos was intensified in December 1964 with the implementation of Operation Barrel Roll in north-eastern Laos. Flying mostly from Thailand, US planes flew weekly bombing runs over north-eastern Laos, targeting Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese bases. It was later supplemented by Operation Tiger Hound, a three-year campaign that involved some 100,000 bombing runs over eastern Laos.

Pathet Lao soldiers on the eve of the communist takeover of Laos, 1974

Despite this American involvement, the Pathet Lao continued to make gains. Through 1968, a succession of communist advances scattered the Royal Lao army, reducing it to barely a thousand men. Much of northern Laos was controlled by the Pathet Lao, the NVA and Viet Cong, which used Laotian territory for transporting men and supplies to South Vietnam. An intensification of US bombing stalled some communist advances, but when the Americans ceased their bombing runs in February 1973, the Pathet Lao – now bolstered by greater numbers and weaponry from Hanoi – began to expand. Within weeks they held more territory than the government, which was confined to the capital Vientiane and the western border regions along the Mekong valley. A ceasefire was signed and, in April 1973, another coalition government formed. The royalists and the Pathet Lao enjoyed equal representation in this new government. Between mid-1973 and early 1975, however, the Pathet Lao engaged in a creeping takeover of the national government.

“CIA operatives, who despaired of the ability of the Royal Lao Army, searched for other allies in the struggle against communism in Laos… and discovered the Hmong. Fiercely independent, the Hmong saw both the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese as threats and readily agreed to join the US and Laotian government forces… By 1961 the CIA had raised and armed a force of over 10,000 Hmong tribesman in an effort to even the odds… Aided by devastating American air strikes, the Hmong and Royal Lao forces fought the communists to a standstill and the war in Laos proceeded as a bloody stalemate.”
Andrew Wiest, historian

In April 1975, as the North Vietnamese were moving towards Saigon, Pathet Lao forces began moving towards Vientiane. Now infiltrated by Pathet Lao officials and supporters, the government offered little meaningful resistance. With the fall of Vientiane imminent, thousands of Americans, foreigners and royalist supporters fled across the border to Thailand. By August the Pathet Lao was in virtual control of the country. Its seizure of power was formalised on December 2nd 1975, with the abolition of the government, the abdication of King Savang Vatthana and the formation of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The Pathet Lao’s earlier promises of elections, democratic reforms and liberal freedoms were quickly forgotten, as the new regime moved to silence dissidents and establish a one-party state. Troublesome officials or military officers were sent to remote locations for re-education “seminars” and never seen again. One of these was the ageing former king, who died in a “seminar camp” sometime between 1978 and 1984. There were also recriminations against the ethnic Hmong, who sided with the royal government and the US during the civil war. As many as one-quarter of Laos’ 400,000 Hmong are believed to have killed by the new regime, while the US has accepted more than 100,000 as refugees.

Today, Laos is one of the world’s last remaining socialist states. Its government is dominated by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), the political arm of the Pathet Lao. Other parties and factions are banned. Significant policies are formulated and approved by the LPRP’s Politburo. There is an elected legislature, the National Assembly, however, only LPRP members are permitted to stand as candidates and elections are probably rigged. Unlike Hanoi, Laos’ communist regime did not sever ties with the United States; the American embassy in Vientiane continued to operate during and after 1975. As in Vietnam, the Laotian government began to slowly liberalise during the 1990s. In August 1991 the LPRP approved a new constitution that acknowledges Laos’ ethnic diversity and the individual rights of its citizens. Economic development has been slower. Laos’ economy is dominated by agriculture, mining and international tourism, which has grown remarkably in the past decade. The people of Laos remain desperately poor, with two million living below the international poverty line and hunger a widespread problem.

1. Laos is a landlocked country which lies immediately to the north-west of Vietnam. Its northern regions are mountainous and heavily forested, while the population and production are concentrated in the south.
2. Like Vietnam, Laos was colonised by the French in the late 1800s. Before this, it did not really exist as a single state but was a patchwork of kingdoms and ethnic groups.
3. French colonialism and Japanese occupation during World War II fuelled a growth in Laotian nationalism. One nationalist group, the Pathet Lao, was formed in 1950 by a supporter of Ho Chi Minh.
4. The US became involved in Laos in the early 1960s, in order to prevent the Viet Cong using Laotian territory for bases and supplies. US planes bombed Laos extensively between 1964 and 1973.
5. The cessation of US bombing in 1973 allowed the Pathet Lao to tighten its grip on Laos. In December 1975 it formed a socialist one-party government, which remains in power today.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Laos during the Vietnam War”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],