The political stability of Laos crumbled on the outbreak of the Laotian Civil War in 1959; a war waged by the communist Lao People’s Liberation Army against the Royal Lao Government. Often called the ‘Secret War’, the Laos Civil War had both sides receiving significant clandestine support from Cold War adversaries. For the Kingdom of Laos, this would be the US, and for the Communist forces, sympathisers from Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The series of successful coups – beginning a year after the outbreak of civil war – only destabilised the Laotian political system further [source]. Although Laos had been overtaken by a politically ‘neutralist’ party, the war between the communists and monarchy supporters intensified. In the US, Red Scare hysteria grew domestically, considering the increasing prowess of the Soviet Union [source]. Accordingly, the US stepped up its efforts in the war on Communism, with Laos in the line of fire [source].
The Hmong People
The Hmong people are an ethnic minority group that settled in mountainous regions of Laos and Vietnam. With a rich cultural history through the occupation of remote regions, the Hmong people were almost entirely self-sufficient. The CIA saw significant opportunity in the guerrilla-style fighting capabilities of the Hmong people, which was already adapted to unconventional rural and jungle warfare. Ultimately, the CIA believed that the Hmong force would be best placed to attack groups of Communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese enemies, as a result of their extensive geographic and cultural understanding, as well as their unconventional warfare capabilities [source].
The Hmong community too saw Communism as a threat to their autonomy and land ownership, which would make recruitment much easier [source]. Therefore, Operation Momentum was born: to arm and train an indigenous Hmong force as part of the US proxy war.
A Plan in Action
The CIA ran Operation Momentum from 1960 until 1974. The plan, approved directly by the Kennedy administration, was to train an elite force of native guerrilla fighters. This force would assist US forces with covert military operations in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. This began on a small scale but ramped up significantly throughout the war [source]. At its height, Operation Momentum was costing US$500 million annually – equivalent to US$3.3 billion today [source].
In 1960, the CIA approached General Vang Pao, the charismatic and undisputed leader of the Hmong. In exchange for fighters, the CIA would provide training and supplies in what would theoretically be a mutually beneficial fight against the Communist insurgency. This would include aerial support, transport, weaponry, and other relevant military and civilian supplies [source]. Additionally, the CIA offered refuge in the US in the event of a military loss [source]. On this basis, General Vang Pao agreed.
Operation Momentum: The Largest Covert Operation in CIA History
Operation Momentum ultimately marked the beginning of the militarisation of the CIA [source]. The project, which experienced several early successes, grew significantly as the war continued. It is believed to be the CIA’s most extensive covert operation due to the enormous scale of training, operational support, and armament involved. Therefore, Operation Momentum is believed to be responsible for the training of over 19,000 troops, the average age of recruits being 15 years old [source]. The force grew to an estimated 30,000 personnel at its height.
The project ran through the presence of dedicated CIA agents within Laos, along with Thai Police Aerial Reinforcement. These agents would liaise with US Forces, the US embassy in Vientiane, and Air America to provide logistic support to Operation Momentum forces wherever possible [source].
A Loss of Momentum
The operation began to wind down in 1973 due to a political peace treaty signed in Paris. All US assistance was withdrawn by 1974. However, the Laos Civil War was still ongoing. Without US intervention, the Laotian force was significantly weakened. The Civil War continued for several years, though ultimately the Communist forces and North Vietnamese belligerents were victorious. In 1975, on the brink of the fall of Laos to communist forces, the US airlifted General Vang Pao and 2,500 Hmong fighters to safety in Thailand.
Although this was the end of the CIA’s involvement, this was not the end for surviving indigenous communities. Following its victory, the Pathet Lao administration designated the entire ethnic minority Hmong people as traitors to their country due to their allegiance to the monarchy and CIA during the civil war. As such, over 40,000 Hmong people fled from Laos, though it is believed a further 100,000 people died whilst being displaced from their homeland [source]. Whilst some Hmong people, mainly fighters, made it to the US, the CIA did not keep its promise of offering a safe new home for the majority of Hmong people who were displaced as a result of the Civil War [source].
Human Rights Watch allege that Hmong people continued to be persecuted on the basis of their ethnicity and religious background as recently as 2008, illustrating that deep scars remain on this community as a result of the Laos Civil War [source]. Thailand continues to extradite Hmong refugees back to Laos, in spite of the significant humanitarian risks [source]. General Vang Pao later died in exile in the US in 2011 [source].
Operation Momentum remains one of the largest-scale clandestine interventions the CIA has ever undertaken. The mission is controversial; whilst aiding an under-militarised people, the mission was ultimately unsuccessful and led to the ethnic persecution of an indigenous community for decades to come. To this day, Laos holds the title for the most heavily bombed country in world history [source], which highlights the destruction and bloodshed that Operation Momentum left in its wake.