This week, U.S. President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos. In part, he made the journey to attend the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This will be Obama’s 11th journey to Asia since he assumed office in 2009, and the attention he has paid to ASEAN—collectively, the world’s seventh-largest economy, and the United States’ fourth-largest trading partner—is at the heart of his strategic rebalance to the region.
But his visit to Laos, where he will spend several days in the capital city of Vientiane and the former royal capital of Luang Prabang, represents much more than that. Unimaginable even five years ago, it hands Obama the opportunity to finally address the legacy of the United States’ involvement in Laos during the Vietnam War and to forge a new model for U.S. engagement in the country for the twenty-first century.
Obama may be the first president to visit Laos, but the tiny, landlocked nation was a major preoccupation of his Cold War-era predecessors. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower was convinced that securing Laos was the key to staving off the spread of communism in Southeast Asia; U.S. President John F. Kennedy agreed, and he dedicated more attention to the country than any other foreign policy issue at the beginning of his administration, when a covert, CIA-led anti-communist campaign there began.
The results of the so-called Secret War in Laos, neither disclosed to the American people nor authorized by their representatives in Congress, were devastating. It lasted more than a decade, leading to the deaths of more than 200,000 Laotians, about one-tenth of the country’s total population. Nearly twice as many were wounded; almost a million were made refugees in their own country. And Laos became the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day—one ton
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