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Air America C-123 on ramp at Long Tieng, 1970. Set up in June 1961, Long Tieng was the headquarters for Vang Pao, who led irregular forces of the Meo people, a CIA ally in the conflict with Pathet Lao. (Source: CIA, Center for the Study of Intelligence, CIA Air Operations in Laos, 1955-1974. Photo courtesy of D. Williams.)

FIGHTING THE WAR IN SOUTHEAST ASIA, 1961-1973

Air Force Histories Reveal CIA Role in Laos, CIA Air Strike Missions,

New Evidence on Nuclear Weapons, Air Force Policy Disputes, During Vietnam War Years

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 248

Posted - April 9, 2008

For more information contact:
John Prados - (301) 565-0564

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Washington D.C., April 9, 2008 - Previously secret U.S. Air Force official histories of the Vietnam war published today by the National Security Archive disclose for the first time that Central Intelligence Agency contract employees had a direct role in combat air attacks when they flew Laotian government aircraft on strike missions and that the Air Force actively considered nuclear weapons options during the 1959 Laos crisis.

The newly declassified histories, which were released through Freedom of Information Act litigation by the National Security Archive with the law firm James & Hoffman, include the Air Force's detailed official history of the war in northern Laos, written during the 1990s but hidden in classified form for years. Also declassified were Air Force historical studies on specific years of the Vietnam War, documenting in great detail the Air Force's role in planning and implementing the air war in North and South Vietnam. Among other significant disclosures in these histories are:

  • Air Force interest in nuclear options during at least two flash points in the Southeast Asian conflict: Laos in 1959 and in 1968 during the battle of Khe Sanh.
  • CIA operational commitments for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion hampered the Agency's ability to carry out Kennedy administration policy in Laos.
  • CIA proprietary Air America directed search and rescue missions in Laos in addition to its role in combat operations.
  • The U.S. ambassador in Laos served as the field commander of the so-called "secret war" there, a role that has been largely undocumented.

This briefing book was made possible through a lawsuit brought in March 2005 by the National Security Archive after it discovered through its Freedom of Information Act audits that the Air Force had a pattern and practice of mishandling FOIA requests, including failing to process requests, destroying records, discouraging requesters, and excessive delays. The Washington, D.C., law firm James & Hoffman successfully argued the case before federal Judge Rosemary Collyer, who in April 2006 granted partial summary judgment to the Archive. She found that "the Air Force has indeed failed miserably to handle Archive FOIA requests in a timely manner." The court ordered the Air Force to resolve the Archive's requests--some pending as long as 18 years--as expeditiously as possible. The requests for the Laos history and the Vietnam War studies were originally filed in 1988 and 1990; the Air Force finally processed them pursuant to the court's order and released more than 500 pages of previously-classified histories.

Laos History - Highlights

The most recent (and recently released) document is a volume of the official history series The Air Force in Southeast Asia. Prepared by Air Force historians, Victor B. Anthony and Richard R. Sexton, the 400-page The War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973 was published by the Air Force History Office in 1993 on the basis of two separate manuscripts, one of which the Archive first requested in 1990. The Air Force initially released this history in 2006, but with much heavier excisions; as a result of a successful Freedom of Information Appeal by the National Security Archive, much more information is available.

DUCK SOUP was a proposal considered during mid-1965 to use Air America to intercept North Vietnamese aircraft dropping supplies into northeastern Laos.  Ambassador William Sullivan was a strong supporter, but the State Department objected because of the risk that captured Air America pilots "would confirm to the communists the [the company's] paramilitary nature."

The War in Northern Laos shows how the Joint Chiefs of Staff created a plan for U.S. military intervention in Laos as early as 1959, almost two years before previously thought. As part of the activity surrounding the first Laotian crisis in 1959, caused by the failure to integrate the Pathet Lao communist military into the Royal Laotian Armed Forces and the consequent outbreak of civil war, the Air Force pressed to deploy a squadron of B-47 bombers to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. They were to be used for possible bombing missions to interdict Pathet Lao lines of communication into North Vietnam. The use of nuclear weapons had already become so tightly interwoven into Air Force doctrine and training that both the contingency plan and the bomber deployment envisioned possible use of nuclear weapons and may have been a reason why the Eisenhower administration rejected this course. (pp. 23-25)

The Air Force history further reveals that, under the codename Erawan, U.S. Special Forces began to train some Laotian soldiers in unconventional warfare techniques as early as the fall of 1959. (p. 28) This predates both the CIA creation of a Hmong tribal "secret army" and the previously-known beginning of the Special Forces White Star training mission in 1960-61.

As the Kennedy administration took office in January 1961, CIA paramilitary forces were fully extended in preparations for what became the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba three months later. The Air Force history shows that the CIA could not meet aircrew requirements for the highly classified Project Mill Pond, which President Kennedy approved in March 1961 to address the Laotian crisis. (pp. 42-43) The crews were to fly "sanitized" (unmarked) B-26 bombers on interdiction missions over Laos, and the CIA most likely was not able to supply them because its assets were fully occupied by the Cuban exile air force project that formed part of the Bay of Pigs operation. The end result was that the Air Force provided crews, disguised as civilians ("sheep dipped"), for the operation. (p. 379) Either the Air Force itself or the CIA created a phony corporation in Thailand as the ostensible employer of these airmen. The episode marked the first direct commitment of U.S. military forces to the Laotian war.

An international diplomatic agreement reached in Geneva in 1962 was supposed to have ended the Laotian war. Instead both sides conspired to evade its strictures. The Air Force history contains details on some of these efforts, but more important, it shows that U.S. embassy officials and military officers recognized that U.S. support for the Laotian government operation codenamed Triangle in the early summer of 1964 (before the Tonkin Gulf incident) marked a full abrogation of the Geneva accords. In this operation the U.S. committed artillery specialists to assist Laotian ground units, forward observers to call in air strikes, and airborne controllers to guide strike aircraft. The Air Force history also admits that the U.S. here began to use Yankee Team photo reconnaissance missions as cover for air attacks. (pp. 119-125)

Equally significant, it was at this time that CIA's Air America proprietary became involved in combat missions that went beyond its traditional role of air transport or airlift. A cadre of Air America pilots trained to fly Laotian combat aircraft, was kept in readiness by the U.S. embassy, and was called upon when necessary. (pp. 101-4, 118, 121, 128-9, 167, 172-5Preferred by the embassy over the U.S. Air Force, the Air America combat pilots also became the mainstay of aerial search and rescue efforts in Laos, flying the planes that controlled rescue missions, not merely helicopters that picked up downed air crews. This involvement began with the very first loss of a Yankee Team aircraft in June 1964. (pp. 109, 164-5) An Air America combat rescue mission in May 1965 actually resulted in the most serious accidental air strike incident to date, even though Ambassador William Sullivan thought that the contractor was more likely to avoid incidents than the Air Force. (p. 169)

In the case of President Johnson's Christmas Bombing Halt over North Vietnam in 1965-66, the Air Force history discloses that the famous halt over the North was not truly a halt after all. Rather the U.S. strike aircraft were simply retargeted against Laos. The numbers of Rolling Thunder strike sorties that had been hitting North Vietnam were balanced by an equivalent number flown over Laos. (pp. 137-8)

By 1968 there was a well-established system for conducting the U.S. war in Laos.  Directed by the U.S. ambassador, the CIA led the ground campaign and established requirements, to which the Air Force responded. The Air Force history reveals that differences between the military and the CIA reduced the effectiveness of U.S. operations in Laos. The CIA's refusal (for reasons of secrecy) to share its plans, its misunderstanding of the potential of airpower, and its parochialism led the Air Force to resist providing a higher level of combat air support. (pp. 240-1)

Air Force Historical Monographs on the Vietnam War

The Air Force historical monographs are less ambitious than the Laos history, but they furnish a useful counterpart by providing a top-down look at a picture that the Laos history views sideways. Some of these have been previously declassified but with deletions, and they have been virtually unavailable to those interested in this era. The 1966 volume remains secret. All were part of a regular series, USAF Plans and Policies in South Vietnam, compiled on an annual basis by historians at Air Force headquarters. By focusing on the Washington command center of the U.S. military this series provides an unusual level of detail on the thinking of top military leaders, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in particular.

Recent claims that the United States had won the Vietnam war by 1963 to the contrary, the volumes USAF Plans and Policies in South Vietnam 1961-1963 and USAF Plans and Policies in South Vietnam and Laos, 1964 show doubt at high levels that the U.S. was winning the war. The earlier volume discloses a brief period of optimism in the summer of 1963, but one both preceded and followed by skepticism. Air Force chief of staff General Curtis LeMay, in endorsing a February 1964 report, argued that absent considerable improvements the South Vietnamese had "at best an even chance" of survival, and in fact took this as his rationale for full-blooded U.S. intervention. (p. 7) The 1964 study is replete with similar statements that reflect pessimism about the progress of the war, not a sense of U.S. victory. In May 1964, for example, "LeMay believed that the war was being lost," or, a few months later, "counterinsurgency operations were proving ineffectual in the face of demoralized Vietnamese leadership and rising Viet Cong strength." (pp. 18, 24) These contemporaneous accounts, untrammeled by postwar debates over progress in the war, (Note 1) demonstrate the actual views of the U.S. high command.

Contrary to assessments that the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) confined themselves to tactical advice and failed to rise to the occasion for proposing measures of a strategic scope, (Note 2) the Air Force history notes a November 1964 JCS memorandum which reviewed a full spectrum of Vietnam options (including withdrawal) but recommended forceful, rapid military escalation because it would involve "the least risk, casualties, and costs, [ensure] less possibility of enemy miscalculation and intervention, and most likely … achieve U.S. objectives." (p. 43)

The Air Force command staff, the 1965 history volume reveals, opposed the JCS plan to block the narrow neck of the Indochinese peninsula with a force of U.S. and allied troops holding a line across that terrain.  While this option is a favored one  for those who argue the U.S. could have won the Vietnam War, the Air Force believed that it contravened "prior JCS views on the proper U.S. course." In fact, the Air Staff resisted the idea of deploying any large-scale American force to South Vietnam as requiring partial national mobilization, imposing tremendous logistics requirements and inviting, rather than deterring, Chinese intervention. (pp. 17-18)

The 1967 history monograph discloses new details on the Westmoreland proposal of that spring for massive troop reinforcements to Vietnam. The U.S. military did not unite behind Westmoreland's bid; for example, the Air Force chief of staff objected that American combat forces in Vietnam had already risen "far in excess" of original requirements, and observed that Hanoi's strength had been underestimated. The Air Force opposed the large-scale troop deployment. It and the Joint Chiefs agreed to support the smaller "minimum essential force" of slightly more than 100,000 troops in the Westmoreland proposal. (pp. 12-21)

The 1967 study also provides new data on the nature of the combined military-civilian scientific analysis codenamed Sea Cabin. Long supposed to be a reflection on bombing efficiency, the Air Force history shows that Sea Cabin was intended to examine how to preserve aerial effectiveness under conditions of de-escalation. In fact the analysis, this history tells us, "was the most comprehensive examination to date of possible ways to negotiate an end to the war." The Air Force effectively scuttled Sea Cabin by claiming it reflected outdated intelligence and was inconsistent with existing Joint Chiefs of Staff pronouncements, thus in the Air Force's view requiring additional redrafting. (pp. 47-48) The 1968 volume also comments briefly on Sea Cabin.

One more point of interest concerns the data used to evaluate success in the Vietnam war. According to the Air Force study, by late 1967 "there was also concern that past and present ‘progress' indicators were not sufficiently thorough or reliable." The Air Force took several actions "to better pinpoint operational issues and analyze the effects of the air war," including publishing new collections of statistical data and creating units of civilian and military experts to review the methodology of measuring progress. (p. 61)

The Air Force history volume for 1968 discloses additional evidence of the synergistic impact of U.S. measures taken to cope with different crises.  For example, B-52 heavy bombers sent to the Pacific to respond to the Pueblo crisis were used in strike missions to support American forces in the battle of Khe Sanh. In this section, the study provides information on the Air Force chief of staff's support for General Westmoreland's proposal for a nuclear weapons plan for Khe Sanh. (p. 9) Air Force planning for new campaigns against North Vietnam included a massive attack on the lines of what ultimately occurred in 1972. (pp. 25-29) And the document contains the most detailed analysis yet made public of U.S. military planning for a negotiated settlement of the Vietnam war, including provision for a large residual force that, under one option, would have included a permanently-stationed two-division ground force. (pp. 39, 47-51, 61-63)

This material is an important addition to our knowledge of the Vietnam war and especially useful with respect to the air power that was so central to the United States war effort in Southeast Asia. Individually and together the monographs (Documents 2-6) were also sources for the Air Force's official histories (like Document 1) and thus help to show the kinds of raw material that contributed to those histories.


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Document 1: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The War in Northern Laos, 1954-1973, By Victor B. Anthony and Richard R. Sexton (Center for Air Force History, 1993. Secret. Excised copy

To facilitate downloading, this document is also available in smaller downloadable chunks:

Cover page, Table of Contents and Introduction

Part I - A Decade of Distant Support

Part II - The Quiet War, 1964-1968

Part III - Air Power Redresses the Balance, 1969-1973

Glossary, Bibliographic Note, Sources and Index

This comprehensive history, similar to the published volumes of the series The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia but born classified and never released for publication, deals with all aspects of the war in Laos, although it necessarily devotes much greater detail to air than to ground operations. It contains information and analysis on tactical engagements, the political setting for various developments, the U.S. embassy's strategic direction of the war and its dealings with the Royal Laotian Government, Thailand's support for the Laotian war, Air Force-CIA relationships, and a welter of fresh information on the activities of the CIA proprietary Air America.  Perhaps classified CIA histories could shed light on the internal workings of CIA programs and the operations of the Vientiane station or Long Tieng base.

Document 2: USAF Plans and Policies in South Vietnam, 1961-1963, By Jacob Van Staaeveren. U.S. Air Force Historical Division Liaison Office, June 1965. Top Secret.

During the early phase of the Vietnam war when the U.S. military functioned as advisers to the South Vietnamese, air operations were an important part of the U.S. role. The Air Force deployed a covert unit to South Vietnam nicknamed Farm Gate, and this unit began to fly in combat as early as 1961, in the guise of training South Vietnamese air crews. At the time the Kennedy administration considered South Vietnam a sort of military laboratory. This monograph, completed in 1965, is a source of rich detail on discussions of the tactics to be used in Vietnam, Air Force disputes with the U.S. Army over which service would field aircraft, early use of defoliant chemicals (including what became known as "Agent Orange"), and the general attitude of the Air Force toward the war in Southeast Asia. This monograph series is to be distinguished from the history released above in that it represents a more contemporaneous account compiled by service historians based almost entirely on internal documents. It is not as polished a product, but presents opinions not clouded by later historical debates. This and the following documents are called "monographs" because they are typescript and double-spaced rather than typeset, as is the Laos history.

Document 3: USAF Plans and Policies in South Vietnam and Laos, 1964. U.S. Air Force Historical Division Liaison Office. (Date and author not given), Top Secret.

Actually the fourth in the series of Air Force monographs (the two intervening studies remain classified), the 1964 volume concerns a year of key transitions in the American war, when the U.S. role shifted increasingly from advisory efforts to unilateral military operations. This is the year of Tonkin Gulf and Yankee Team and other covert pressures against North Vietnam. Because much of the military planning concerned the preparation of plans to bomb North Vietnam, the monograph is especially strong on the development of the Joint Chiefs of Staff target list and the Washington debates over possible responses to various incidents that took place in South Vietnam. As noted previously, Air Force pessimism regarding the situation in Vietnam was marked. The monograph, like others in this series, presents data on South Vietnamese air operations that is not available elsewhere.

Document 4: USAF Plans and Operations in Southeast Asia, 1965, by Jacob Van Staaveren, U.S. Air Force Historical Division Liaison Office, October 1966. Top Secret.

Prepared in 1966, this monograph ranges over the year the Johnson administration began its Rolling Thunder aerial campaign over North Vietnam and began to fight a ground war in the South. The Air Force's institutional interest in grabbing the largest share of the combat action, in this observer's view, was responsible for its opposition to the large ground force commitments that President Johnson decided upon, and which are the focus for much of the discussion in this account. The monograph provides considerable detail on the deployment of Air Force units to Southeast Asia and its operational difficulties in mounting Rolling Thunder. In keeping with the goal of this series simply to furnish a sort of reference point for Air Staff to consult in the course of their planning and deliberations, the paper draws few conclusions. It seems clear from the context that the Air Force considered victory possible through its air campaign.

Document 5: The Air Force in Vietnam: The Search for Military Alternatives, 1967, by Jacob Van Staaveren,  Office of Air Force History, December 1969. Top Secret .

Prepared in 1969, when the Rolling Thunder campaign had been terminated and the Nixon administration had begun to reduce the level of its air operations in Southeast Asia, this monograph begins to take a more explanatory approach. One example is the point made above regarding growing doubts, including suspicions of the military's own data, about how the Air Force could judge success in the war.  Numbers of sorties flown and tonnages of bombs dropped were deemed inadequate, and estimates of those "killed by air" were increasingly recognized as tenuous. The Air Force created both military and civilian panels in an attempt to derive a more satisfactory measure of merit. The main focus of the monograph is on the several successive efforts during 1967 to craft a deployment program and military strategy for Vietnam, and the evolution of Air Force arguments in that inner debate. The details of the then still ongoing Rolling Thunder operation are not neglected but the focus remains at the higher level. It is noteworthy that the huge public debate over the efficacy of the air war, which featured in major congressional hearings in the summer of 1967, is barely reflected in the monograph.

Document 6: The Air Force in Southeast Asia: Toward a Bombing Halt, 1968, by Jacob Van Staaveren. Office of Air Force History, September 1970. Top Secret

The 1968 monograph took the Air Force series to a new level, instantly doubling the amount of content by going to a single-spaced presentation. Completed in the fall of 1970, during the phase of the war when U.S. troops were withdrawing from Vietnam, this is also the first monograph to begin searching for answers to explain the turn of the tide. This volume features extensive discussion of Air Force planning for sortie rates in the war, especially those for B-52 bombers; brief narratives of the air battles for Khe Sanh and of the Tet offensive, the last phase of the Rolling Thunder air campaign against North Vietnam, and the bombing in the North Vietnamese panhandle that continued until the total bombing halt of November 1968.  On this point, the study includes the interesting admission that once bombing had been confined to the panhandle the Air Force assessed it as even more effective. (p. 39)

Notes

1. The victory view has most recently been advanced by scholar Mark Moyar in Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

2. As in H. R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam (New York: HarperCollins, 1997).

 

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