Hoang Dinh Nam / AFP / Getty Images

LBJ’s dark Laotian legacy

Amid mixed record of Vietnam and civil rights legislation, a forgotten bombing campaign

April 10, 2014 5:00AM ET

Lyndon Baines Johnson needs a better legacy, according to the former president’s family, and they are right. The Vietnam War overshadows many of the striking things he accomplished in the White House. It is time history reflects the full breadth of his deeds.

To that end, the LBJ Presidential Library is holding a special summit this week to honor the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which Johnson signed into law. He also signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Those laws changed history, expanding basic human rights to all Americans. The war in Vietnam will never undermine those achievements.

But another oft-forgotten legacy of LBJ remains. Just as he ensured basic human rights for millions of Americans, he quashed them for millions of others through history’s largest, most secretive bombing campaign over the sparsely populated country of Laos.

Starting in 1964 — the same year he signed the Civil Rights Act — U.S. forces and their allies flew more than 580,000 bombing missions across Vietnam’s neighbor to the west, targeting nearly every corner of the country. The bombs stopped falling in 1973. This legacy lingers, unknown to many Americans. But it is a visceral history lesson still endured daily by millions of Laotians.

Bags mark the location of unexploded cluster bombs before their demolition in the Xieng Khuang province of Laos in 2010.
Ian Timberlake / AFP / Getty Images

An estimated 30 percent of all bombs dropped did not detonate when they fell. Between 70 million and 80 million bombs remain in Laotian soil today. The vast majority are cluster submunitions: tennis-ball-size bomblets that were packed into canisters by the hundreds and scattered widely. Cluster munitions have notoriously high failure rates, leaving postwar lands littered with fatal dangers. Handicap International, an independent Nobel Peace Prize–winning organization that runs rehabilitation programs in war and disaster areas, reports that 98 percent of cluster submunition casualties are civilians going about their daily lives or returning home in the aftermath of conflict. Since the last explosives fell in Laos, leftover U.S. bombs have killed and injured more than 20,000 Laotians.

The bombing campaign against Laos had two aims: to stop the flow of soldiers and supplies between North and South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail (which was actually a series of routes), and to aid U.S. allies in the north against the Pathet Lao, the nationalist communist group. According to the Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, the first U.S. Air Force strikes took place on June 9, 1964, against antiaircraft positions in northern Laos. The airstrikes escalated and spread with the start of Operation Barrel Roll on Dec. 14. (Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign that targeted Vietnam, did not begin until March 1965.) The Laos bombings, which were conducted in secret — their very existence hidden from the American people — didn’t stop for nine years.

But the bombs were anything but hidden from the Laotian people. They obliterated villages, destroyed fields, eviscerated civilians. They still kill Laotians today. Farmers die when they strike a bomb while hoeing. Villagers die when cooking fires cause buried bombs to explode. Children die when they find old bombs that look like toys. Survivors fear the ground beneath them. “We are always afraid in the field,” a banana farmer named Sang Kham told me a few years ago, shortly after a relative of his was blown up while farming. Sang Kham’s words echoed those of many villagers I interviewed while researching “Eternal Harvest,” the book my husband, Jerry Redfern, and I wrote and photographed on the lingering effects of the U.S. war in Laos.

For half a century, Laos has been the skeleton in all of our closets. As Americans, that is our collective burden to bear.

The president’s younger daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, recently told The New York Times that her father’s legacy is weighed down by the “agony of Vietnam,” at the expense of his domestic accomplishments, which transformed American society for the better. Her family is asking Americans to look beyond Vietnam when remembering LBJ.

I ask the same: that we look to every corner of the world where LBJ left his mark — including Laos.

According to the Office of Air Force History, three and a half weeks before he signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, LBJ ordered the first air attack on Laos. As he signed the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965, the U.S. bombed Laos. As he signed the Fair Housing Act on April 11, 1968, the U.S. bombed Laos.

Over the next two years, the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas will present “50 for 50,” a series of 50 events exploring the critical human rights issues of our time and calling for the next generation to “get it done.”

Brilliant. Let’s get it done.

Let’s get the $16 billion that experts in Laos estimate is necessary to clean up the country. Let’s rid the land of bombs, so children can play in safety, farmers can plow their fields without fear and families can cook over fires that don’t explode.

Let’s enact Senate Bill 419, sponsored by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein in February 2013, which restricts the use of cluster munitions and requires the U.S. to clean up its messes, removing unexploded bombs that threaten civilians post-conflict. Better yet, let’s join the ban on cluster munitions, as 113 other countries have, so no future U.S. president acquires the legacy that LBJ left in Laos.

For half a century, Laos has been the skeleton in all of our closets. As Americans, that is our collective burden to bear. We must not forget the monumental things LBJ did to spread civil rights in the U.S. But equally important, we must not forget what he did to destroy those very rights in other lands.

Karen Coates is a journalist, author and senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Her latest book, with Jerry Redfern, is “Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Laos, Vietnam
Human Rights

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter