Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed in Laos Wednesday for a short visit, but a momentous marker of U.S. and Lao relations - the last time an active secretary of state visited Laos was in 1955, when John Foster Dulles arrived in Vientiane, the quaint, sleepy capital of the then newly-independent nation. Dulles’ objective was to build relations with the kingdom of Laos in order to prevent it from falling into Communist hands, consistent with “domino” theories of the time.
Unfortunately, diplomacy in the 1950s gave way to forceful means of deterrence in the 1960s. While the United States was officially at war with Vietnam, it participated in a “secret war” in Laos. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, for 24 hours a day - one ton of bombs for each of the 2 million people in Laos at the time, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. These bombings were part of a campaign - kept secret from the American people, not formally authorized by Congress, and in violation of international accords - whose purpose was to deter communist proliferation. But the people who suffered most were ordinary Lao villagers.
Almost 40 years have passed since the end of the bombing campaigns over Laos, and U.S.- Lao relations have made impressive strides. After years of cautious engagement, dialogue between the United States and Laos has shifted from the past to the future - to sustainable development and health, trade and investment, increased educational exchange, and cooperation to combat regional issues like narcotics trafficking in the Golden Triangle. Having served as U.S. ambassador to Laos between 2001 and 2004 and participated in those dialogues, I have continued to watch with deep interest as Laos opens up to the world, and as the world discovers its beauty and economic potential. I watched with pride as Mrs. Clinton met with the Lao prime minister and foreign minister to discuss those issues, and I am encouraged by the strengthening of the ties between the two nations.
Even as both the United States and Laos build a promising future, too many Lao villagers continue to live daily with a bombing legacy. A significant portion of the bombs dropped on Laos failed to detonate and remain buried in Lao fields, alongside Lao roads, in villagers’ backyards, and even lodged in trees. These bombs, many no larger than an orange, continue to explode, killing or maiming dozens of people each year. Children born a generation or two after the war, unaware of lasting dangers, are particularly at risk.
After meeting with the government officials, Mr. Clinton met with a young survivor of a cluster-bomb explosion, Phongsavath Souliyalat, who lost both his hands and his eyesight in an accident on his 16th birthday. The two exchanged blessings of health and success, and Phongsavath wished Mrs. Clinton that her “good dreams come true.”
With encounters such as that one, my hope for a bomb-free future in Laos continues to grow. At the urging of organizations like Legacies of War and five fellow former chiefs of mission to the U.S. Embassy in Laos, Congress has begun to provide levels of funding for bomb clearance more appropriate to the vast scale of the task. After her visit with Phongsavath, Mrs. Clinton said, “We have to do more. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here today, so that we can tell more people about the work that we should be doing together.”
Mrs. Clinton making a humanitarian commitment to work toward a better future for the people of Laos is an important step forward. I hope that she continues to affirm to the Lao people America’s steadfast commitment to help and the international community to resolve this legacy once and for all by clearing their land of deadly bombs. Decades may have passed since the last bomb was dropped, but it’s never too late to do the right thing now.
Douglas Hartwick served as U.S. ambassador to Laos from 2001-2004, and is joined by five former ambassadors and chiefs of mission to Laos in support of this Op-Ed, including Victor Tomseth (1994-2006); Wendy Chamberlain (1996-1999); Harriet Isom (1986-1989); Charles Salmon Jr. (1989-1993) and Theresa Tull (1983-1986).