Resources on the Secret War in Laos

What Is Legacies Library?

Legacies Library is a collection of books, films, articles, and oral histories vetted by Legacies of War that tells the story of the American bombing of Laos (1964-1973) and its neighbors in Vietnam and Cambodia. Legacies Library offers original programming including film screenings and author interviews that tell the living story of the “Secret War” in Laos–ensuring it’s no longer a footnote in American history.

The works below have been selected by the staff and trustees of Legacies of War. We are Lao-Americans, American veterans, diplomats, and members of the diaspora from the Secret War. Though we come from diverse backgrounds, we share a commitment to providing accurate and insightful resources on the legacy of the Secret War in Laos.

 

Category of Resources

Books

Articles

Films

 


Books about the Secret War in Laos


A Great Place to Have a War

By Joshua Kurlantzick

Through interviews and original reporting, Kurlantzick argues that America’s secret war in Laos in the 1960s helped transform the CIA from a loose collection of spies into a military operation and a key player in American foreign policy. The author gets CIA leaders on the record about their role in making Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world.

Why we recommend it: Excellent overview of the CIA’s involvement in Laos featuring vivid depictions of Hmong General Vang Pao and CIA operatives who shaped the war and the future of Laos forever.

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Voices From The Plain of Jars

By Fred Branfman

During the Vietnam War the United States government waged a massive, secret air war in neighboring Laos. Two million tons of bombs were dropped on one million people. Fred Branfman, an educational advisor living in Laos at the time, interviewed over 1,000 Laotian survivors. Shocked by what he heard and saw, he urged them to record their experiences in essays, poems, and pictures. Voices from the Plain of Jars was the result of that effort.

Why we recommend it: A classic, must-read account of the bombings in the voices of the survivors themselves, curated by the activist who first testified in Congress that civilians were being targeted. Excellent for educators and those seeking to understand the human side of the secret war.

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What We Inherit: A Secret War and a Family’s Search for Answers

 By Jessica Pearce Rotondi

 

“Part memoir, part investigative journalism, and completely engrossing, What We Inherit is not a book you’ll be forgetting anytime soon.”—O, The Oprah Magazine

In the wake of her mother’s death, Jessica Pearce Rotondi uncovers boxes of letters, declassified CIA reports, and newspaper clippings that bring to light a family ghost: her uncle Jack, who disappeared during the CIA-led “Secret War” in Laos in 1972. The letters lead her across Southeast Asia in search of the truth that has eluded her family for decades. What she discovers takes her closer to the mother she lost and the mysteries of a secret war that changed the rules of engagement forever.

Why we recommend it: A fast-paced, riveting account of a journey across modern Laos that will appeal to audiences who have never heard of the secret war. Blends history and reporting with armchair travel. Recommended for those planning or interested in a trip to Laos. The author is now a trustee of Legacies of War.

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The United States, Southeast Asia, and Historical Memory 

Edited by Mark Pavlick and Caroline Luft

This book sheds crucial new light on the epochal U.S. interventions in Southeast Asia after World War II. Antiwar activist Fred Branfman describes the tragic lives of Laotian farmers under U.S. bombing. Cambodia scholar Ben Kiernan and colleague Owen Taylor illuminate the course of Cambodian history after unprecedented U.S. bombing. The book also includes classic works by Noam Chomsky, Nick Turse, and Edward Herman.

Why we recommend it: Short, digestible essays by experts like Noam Chomsky and Fred Branfman that explore the all-too-human effects of the bombings on Southeast Asia. Excellent academic resource.

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Books About the History of Laos and Southeast Asia

 

Bamboo Palace: Discovering the Lost Dynasty of Laos

By Christopher Kremmer

Twenty years after the Indochina wars, Christopher Kremmer visits Laos at the crossroads of change in southeast Asia. He begins his journey in the tranquility of Luang Prabang, once the royal capital. With its ancient culture and stately airs, the town-like Laos itself-is a place of secrets, mysteries and nagging questions.

Setting off in search of the lost royal family, a 600-year-old dynasty consumed by the violent troubles of the 1960s and 1970s, Kremmer reveals a small land-locked corner of Asia struggling to deal with the legacies of the US war and Asian communism. Bamboo Palace begins as a travelogue, turns into a mystery and ultimately redefines a nation’s history as Kremmer journeys through Laos to uncover one of Indochina’s darkest secrets.

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The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future

By Milton Osborne

 

A compelling, lively narrative history of the peoples and cultures of the great river of Southeast Asia, The Mekong spans two thousand years–from the dawn of civilization on the Mekong Delta to the political and environmental challenges the region faces today. Beginning with the rise of ancient seafaring civilizations at Oc Eco and moving on to the glory of the Cambodian empire in the first millennium, through European colonization and the struggle for independence in the twentieth century, Osborne traces the history of the region that comprises the modern nations of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, and China. Vibrant, insightful, and eminently readable, The Mekong is a rousing history of a dynamic region that has fascinated readers the world over.

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Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam

By Andrew X. Pham

A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

Winner of the Whiting Writers’ Award

 

Catfish and Mandala is the story of an American odyssey―a solo bicycle voyage around the Pacific Rim to Vietnam―made by a young Vietnamese-American man in pursuit of both his adopted homeland and his forsaken fatherland. Intertwined with an often humorous travelogue spanning a year of discovery is a memoir of war, escape, and ultimately, family secrets.

 

Andrew X. Pham was born in Vietnam and raised in California. His father had been a POW of the Vietcong; his family came to America as “boat people.” Following the suicide of his sister, Pham quit his job, sold all of his possessions, and embarked on a year-long bicycle journey that took him through the Mexican desert; on a thousand-mile loop from Narita in South Korea to Kyoto in Japan; and, after five months and 2,357 miles, to Saigon, where he finds “nothing familiar in the bombed-out darkness.” In Vietnam, he’s taken for Japanese or Korean by his countrymen, except, of course, by his relatives, who doubt that as a Vietnamese he has the stamina to complete his journey (“Only Westerners can do it”); and in the United States he’s considered anything but American. A vibrant, picaresque memoir written with narrative flair and an eye-opening sense of adventure, Catfish and Mandala is an unforgettable search for cultural identity.

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Articles about the Secret War in Laos

 

Land of a Million Bombs

By Santi Suthinithet, Hyphen, Issue 21 (2010)

Laos is historically referred to as “Lan Xang,” the land of a million elephants. Today, it would be more accurate to call it the land of a million bombs.

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Legacies of War: Cluster Bombs in Laos

By Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell, Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009)

In this article, nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell discuss the massive illegal U.S. bombing of Laos between 1964 and 1973 and its lingering human, economic, and ecological toll.

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Walt Haney Papers

Walt Haney has been gathering photos and accounts of Laotian refugees for the past 40 years. His work includes A Survey of Civilian War Casualties Among Refugees from the Plain of Jars, which was reprinted in the records of the 1971 Senate Hearings before the Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees, and The Bombing of Laos and the Browning of One Volunteer, a paper presented at the 15th Annual Meeting Association of Third World Studies in 1997. 

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Films about the Secret War in Laos

The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)

Directed by Ellen Kuras & Thavisouk Phrasavath

Filmed over 23 years, The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) is the directorial debut of renowned cinematographer Ellen Kuras in a remarkable collaboration with the film’s subject and co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath.

After the U.S. government waged a secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War, Thavi’s father and thousands of other Laotians who had fought alongside American forces were abandoned and left to face imprisonment or execution. Hoping to find safety, Thavi’s family made a harrowing escape to America, where they discovered a different kind of war.

Epic in scope yet devastatingly intimate, featuring an exquisite score by Academy Award winning composer Howard Shore, The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) is a testament to the resilient bonds of family and an astonishing tale of survival. Visit the film’s site at thebetrayalmovie.com.

Why we recommend it: An elevated, intimate account of one family’s escape. An excellent complement to documentaries that focus on the big picture of the bombings.


Bomb Harvest

Directed by Kim Mordaunt

“Bomb Harvest” is an award-winning documentary that follows a bomb disposal team lead by Laith Stevens, a straight-talking, laconic Australian bomb disposal specialist, as they diffuse ordnance left behind from the Secret War.

Why we recommend it: “The Bomb Harvest” film crew were granted an unprecedented 2 months on the ground with bomb disposal teams and live bombs, in areas of Laos which have never been filmed in before.


Eternal Harvest

Produced by Jerry Redfern and Karen Coates

 

“Eternal Harvest” is a documentary film about the “Secret War” in Laos featuring interviews with Laotians who lived through the bombing campaign and those whose fields are still home to unexploded ordnance today. The filmmakers speak to local and foreign experts about the hazards of removing UXO from the American bombing and the breadth of the work ahead.

Why we recommend it: Powerful firsthand accounts of the war and a direct look at its impact on present-day Laos.

 


 

The Most Secret Place on Earth

Directed by Mark Eberle

In this 2008 documentary, CIA agents, pilots, and Laotian and Thai fighters take viewers through the history of the war and grant a glimpse into the physical heart of the conflict: the top secret CIA airbase in Long Cheng. Never-before-seen private archive material of the war and exclusive new footage from Long Cheng illustrate an audacious and tragic chapter of U.S. history.

Why we recommend it: In addition to introducing the major players of the war, it offers rare original and new footage that sheds light on the “Secret War.”


This Little Land of Mines

Directed by Erin McGoff

 

This Little Land of Mines is an independent feature documentary premiering in 2019. It’s about the resilience of the Lao people as they live among and work to clear 80 million unexploded ordnance (UXO) that the United States dropped during the Vietnam War era. Most Americans have no idea the United States was involved in Laos because it was entirely covert. The US bombing of Laos spanned three US presidents and was the largest covert CIA operation in US history.

Why we recommend it: Through heart touching interviews, striking cinematography, and cathartic stories, This Little Land of Mines


Naga

By Kim Sandara

This eight-minute short animated film from Laotian/Vietnamese artist Kim Sandara is an hauntingly beautiful representation of a Lao myth. Every year around Buddhist lent, balls of light rise from the Mekong river. Sandara depicts the light’s source as the Naga, the protector of all Lao people, rising from the river to escort the souls of children killed by the 80 million cluster bombs left behind from the Vietnam and Secret Wars.