The War in Laos: Why Still Secret?
The citation which Mike received stated that his actions took place “deep within enemy-controlled territory.” While this is factually correct, it is also misleading. Staff Sgt. Fred Zabitosky received a Medal of Honor with the same notation (DA GO 69-27). After some time and, I believe, court intervention, the awards was reissued with a change reading “within enemy-controlled territory in Laos” (DA GO 91-23). Why is this important?
In 1962, Averell Harriman, Ambassador at Large in the Kennedy Administration, negotiated an agreement meant to establish the neutralization of Laos. The United States withdrew the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group in Laos 666 military advisors from Laos in accordance with this agreement. The North Vietnamese ceremonially withdrew 25 personnel, leaving well over 10,000 North Vietnamese troops in Laos. The United States failed to respond strongly to this total negation of the agreement and, for many years, pretended to accept the myth of North Vietnamese withdrawal. When it was required to act out of due diligence against those forces, it established elaborate ruses to do so; Project 404 (sheep-dipped military personnel acting as Assistant Military Attaches) and CIA-led Hmong and other elements in Laos, and cross-border operations by MACV-SOG from Vietnam. The consequences of this facade were well-documented in Norman B. Hannah’s “The Key to Failure: Laos & the Vietnam War” (Madison Books, 1987).
GI’s in Vietnam usually attributed it to an effort by the State Department to preserve Harriman’s historical legacy, dubbing the Ho Chi Minh Trail as “The Averell Harriman Memorial Highway.” The U.S. denied it had any military forces in Laos, when, in fact, the small numbers of military personnel engaged in Laos were there solely because of a much larger, and also denied North Vietnamese presence. Thus, in 1969, Fred Zabitosky’s Medal of Honor and other awards to SOG personnel engaged in cross-border operations were written up with the phrase “deep within enemy-controlled territory.”
In 1970, when the Government of Cambodia permitted U.S. and South Vietnamese forces to enter its country and engage the North Vietnamese forces that were occupying vast tracts of Cambodia, they also closed the port of Sihanoukville to the transshipment of supplies to those North Vietnamese forces. It became evident that the bulk of the Communist material was coming through Cambodia. The North Vietnamese recognized this and determined to expand and secure their supply route through Laos on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. One of the actions they took, in September 1970, was to attack Laotian and CIA forces on the Bolevens Plateau in order to expand their control westward. MACSOG personnel conducted Operation Tailwind at the request of the ambassador in Laos, to distract the North Vietnamese and relieve the pressure on units on the Bolevens. Mike Rose received his award for actions in Tailwind that received attention because of the totally bogus story aired by CNN in 1998.
By denying an American presence in Laos, the historical record has been misconstrued, beyond the operational aspects that affected the outcome of the war. In the recent Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, episode 2 (1961-1963) states that “Kennedy sent the Green Berets to the Central Highlands of Vietnam to organize mountain tribes to fight the Viet Cong to undertake covert [emphasis added] missions to sabotage their supply bases in Laos and Cambodia,” as though this was an illegitimate action undertaken by the U.S. Ken Burns accepts the presence of Communist sanctuaries in those countries without questioning the self-imposed restraints by the U.S. Later, in discussing the failed ARVN Operation Lam Son 719 in Episode 9 (May 1970-March 1973), he points out that “by the end of 1970, both houses of Congress had barred all U.S. ground personnel, even advisors, and special forces, from crossing the border,” but he fails to chastise Congress for its one-sided proscription.
In the time frame of the Vietnam War, it may have been useful to designate operations as being “deep within enemy-held territory,” under a flawed diplomatic policy. But in the context of history written post-war, that terminology is not only inappropriate, but it perpetuates misperceptions that color the public understanding of that history. It might be useful to find out who and why this terminology was used in Mike Rose’s award citation, but it would be even more useful to correct the record. No one was shy about talking about Laos in the award ceremony, only in the award itself.
Stephen Sherman served with 5th Special Forces Group (ABN) in Vietnam. He is presently the editor of a series of books on the Second Indochina War and a principal contributor to a website devoted to correcting the Burns/PBS documentary of the Vietnam War, which can be found at http://wiki.vvfh.org
An interview with Stephen Sherman can be found at https://www.sofmag.com/special-forces-and-special-operations-activities-in-southeast-asia-from-1954-1976/