Spies on the Mekong by Ken Conboy

You might need a note pad to keep track of the characters and acronyms in Ken Conboy’s Spies on the Mekong: CIA Clandestine Operations in Laos (Casemate, 256 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle). Be prepared, for one thing, to find names such as Souvanna Phouma, Souphanouvong, and Phoumi Nosavan in the same sentence.

Despite those potential obstacles, Conboy has written a mind-boggling, yet pleasingly informative, account of the Central Intelligence Agency’s operations in Laos before and during the American war in Vietnam. Conboy writes with a certainty that made me feel as if he had been present at all the many events he describes.

An expert on South and Southeast Asia, Conboy has written more than 20 books on military and intelligence operations in those areas. A graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, he has lived in Indonesia since 1992.

After World War II the U.S. saw the Kingdom of Laos as the key to stopping communism’s westward spread into Thailand—and beyond. In 1950, communist Pathet Lao forces deployed into Laos; the CIA followed in 1953.  

CIA agents—and there were hundreds of them—centered their activities in Vientiane, the capital. Most of the agents were World War II veterans with Ivy League educations and previous foreign postings. Despite that commonality, they had differing approaches to intelligence surveillance.

People in the book—friends and foes—come through clearly in Conboy’s thoughtful vignettes about them. He presents backgrounds of many men and a few women in a manner that personalizes each—for good or for bad. Some of them practically walk off the page and greet the reader.     

Through this chronicle of the CIA’s surveillance activities in Laos, Conboy offers an insider’s look at the country from the 1950s to 1970s. He shows us the nation’s leaders and their interactions with a multitude of opponents attempting to outwit the prime minister and gain control of the nation: agents, diplomats, and ambassadors from the U.S., North and South Vietnams, China, and Russia.

Conboy’s history lesson offers more intrigue than violence. The book begins with the 1954 Geneva Accords that “foisted a mantle of diplomatic neutrality upon Laos, theoretically exempting it from the Cold War rivalry,” Conboy says. But nobody abided by the Accords. The Lao National Army was not up to the task of defending the Royal Lao Government against communist Viet Minh and Pathet Lao forces that refused to leave the country as agreed. The most heinous pitfall, according to Conboy, was the International Control Commission’s failure to adjudicate ceasefire violations.

JFK explaining U.S. policy in Laos, 1961

With so many nations working on contradictory goals, failures took center stage. As Conboy puts it: “The Lao soap opera irrevocably veered off script.” In his telling, events such as a tribal peasant leading a coup that temporarily controlled Vientiane played like a “Saturday Night Live” skit.

Conboy writes in detail about the long and arduous ploys and counter ploys that pitted the CIA against the communists right through the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords. He shows the problems of underwriting the Lao government’s budget, which often included bribes; as well as how the CIA promoted civic-action programs for rural development; resolved leadership strife; monitored elections; armed the Hmong hill tribe; enlisted Thai surveillance teams; coped with Japanese activists opposing the war; oversaw commando raids against the North Vietnamese; attempted to subvert foreign agents; dealt with the opium trade; challenged misinformation; helped to form a coalition government; and dismantled a vast paramilitary network.

Everything tumbled down with the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge and of Saigon to the North Vietnamese in 1975. At that point, “communist morale across Indochina began to skyrocket,” Conboy says. Laotian students and workers stormed U.S. facilities in Laos. Teens with guns controlled the countryside. Americans fled the country by air; Lao Royal Army soldiers and American cohorts evacuated the nation by boat across the Mekong River to Thailand. The Lao king abdicated, the Pathet Lao established the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, and the last domino of Indochina toppled, Conboy says.

Based on what Conboy tells us, the CIA’s productivity in Laos boiled down to a delaying action. Similar to what happened in Vietnam and Afghanistan, the ending was always in sight. The defeat and exit of the French in 1954 and the positioning of Pathet Lao forces provided an unconquerable homefield advantage for the communists. Conboy’s book shows that spy-world operations are limited in scope, and that its practitioners understand that situation.

Along with 16 pages of photographs, Spies on the Mekong contains maps, a bibliography, and endnotes. I enjoyed reading the endnotes. For me, they were like a final chapter because they linked minor details about a few open questions. In that way, the endnotes provided a surprise package of gee-whiz facts.

—Henry Zeybel