My overnight train chugged into Chiangmai, the mountain capital of northern Thailand, at 10 AM the next morning.
Hugh was teaching his English classes but I couldn’t risk a hello. I was supposed to be in Bangkok, writing TV scripts. If Peace Corps found out, I could get bounced. I flagged down a samlor and rode out to Soi Lanka to meet my mystery contact.
To my stunned surprise, Sterling’s friend turned out to be a chain-smoking, “retired” CIA agent who had run paramilitary operations for the CIA in Laos from 1961 to 1965,back when stealth, sophistication and patience were American strategy in Indochina. He was briefing me as a favor to Sterling. Notes were OK; nothing for attribution.
I sat down, shut up, and listened.
Bill Young grew up in Burma, like Sterling. He spoke fluent Lao, Thai, Meo and Lahu, and used tribesmen to successfully clear out North Vietnamese communist infiltrators operating around Luang Prabang, employing his language skills, familiarity with the terrain, an understanding of inter-tribal hatreds, and a pittance of U.S. taxpayer dollars. His soldiers were little guys, but each had a “big pair.” Bill used the same bargain-basement tactics to run the Pathet Lao out of Sayaboury and Nam Tha provinces in northwestern Laos.
War on the cheap.
“That’s how we should be fighting this war,” he told me. “But they won’t let us.”
Bill’s “they” included Washington politicians, state department bureaucrats, and new guys in the Agency with no knowledge or experience in Southeast Asia who escalated the guerilla war into a conventional, bull-in-a-china-shop, European-style land war. Old Southeast Asia hands like Bill were pushed aside, marginalized. Disgusted, he had walked away from the fight.
He took a long drag on his Winston. “I’ve been on the outside three years now,” he said glumly.
I learned the war in Laos was a simmering stew of tribal rivalries, historical animosities, double-crosses and shifting alliances, wars within wars, and Bill patiently walked me through the complex story, starting with France’s creation of her Indochina colony in 1887 and ending with the CIA’s creation of its secret, off-the-books army – how it was funded, organized and fought.
He was brutally frank about the drug trade. Hill tribes in Burma, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam started growing opium in the 19th century, using it as medicine for themselves and money when they traded with lowlanders. The French officially encouraged its cultivation in Laos and Vietnam to help finance their red-ink colonial empire, and operated it as a state monopoly, selling the crop through government-controlled opium dens. When the French pulled out of Indochina, military and business leaders in Laos and Vietnam inherited the business.
The opium trade in Laos was controlled by Gen. Ouane Rattikone, Commander in Chief of the Royal Lao Army who owned several refineries around Ban Houei Sai turning the opium into high-grade No. 4 heroin, some of which was flown by American-supplied Royal Lao Army planes to Saigon to be sold to American soldiers.
“Why aren’t we doing something to try and stop it?” I demanded.
“Nobody can stop the opium growing,” Bill said flatly. “It’s part of their culture, their economy. Besides, we need Vang Pao’s help.” Bill was one of the first CIA people to work with Meo Gen. Vang Pao. It was Bill who had identified Long Cheng as the ideal forward base for the Meo army.
“Any chance I can get into Long Cheng?”
But he laid out for me the growing challenge Vang Pao faced trying to hold his Meo army together. The military situation in Laos was deteriorating rapidly. The Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese had taken back the Plaine des Jarres and the main town, Xiengkouangville. We were in the process of leveling it, he noted with a grim smile, lighting another cigarette. Now the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao were threatening Long Cheng, and Vang Pao’s hill tribe guerillas were starting to walk away from the fight, retreat back into the jungle.
I told him about Kham Sai, the young boy living with Soukinkham’s family who had been fighting with the Armee Clandestine since he was 12. He wasn’t surprised.
“Vang Pao is getting down to kids and old men. The rest are dead.”
The afternoon turned sultry and oppressive. The sky slowly darkened, the breeze picked up, and a monsoon downpour finally let loose. We pushed our rattan chairs deeper under the verandah and settled back to resume our conversation. I felt like I was back in Pepeekeo, the rain drumming on the roof, talking about the Vietnam war with a friend instead of a spook. I had long demonized CIA agents in my mind, but Bill was unexpected – intelligent, thoughtful, conflicted. As sincere in his beliefs as I was; maybe more.
“Sterling is sending me to Luang Prabang to see what’s going on up there.” I said. “Are the rumors true?”
“That the Lao government is thinking of pulling out and abandoning the town to the Pathet Lao.”
“If Long Cheng falls and Vang Pao throws in the towel, you can kiss Luang Prabang goodbye – along with the rest of Laos.”
“Is he thinking of doing that?”
“It’s a possibility,” he told me gloomily. Vang Pao was a general in the Royal Lao Army, but he was also a tribal leader, responsible for the safety and future of his clan. Vang Pao didn’t trust the Royal Lao Government, Bill said. With the Indochina conflict going badly for America, the Royal Lao government was making noises about a possible coalition government with the communist Pathet Lao insurgents. If they made that mistake, Bill believed Vang Pao would bolt and set up an independent Meo kingdom in the northwestern Laotian jungle up in Sayaboury, a province just across the Mekong river from Thailand. “I scouted out that escape route for him a long time ago, when the Agency first got involved.”
The monsoon rain continued to pour down and the grey afternoon faded into evening. The verandah had no lights, and I had to bend close to my notebook to scribble. Bill’s father Harold joined us on the verandah as Bill wrapped up my briefing.
“Pop” Young served as a Baptist missionary in Burma, like his father before him. During World War II, he raised a “ghost army” of several thousand Lahu hill tribesmen to harass the Japanese. He described with relish a week-long ambush they arranged on a steep mountain trail that sent one Jap vehicle after another over the cliff until the valley below was filled with human and mechanical carcasses. During the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Pop Young’s Lahu Christian converts regularly slipped into Yunnan, China on assignment from the CIA to gather information on communist troop movements and intercept communications.
The Thai government had just shut down the jungle survival training course he ran for the Thai Border Police which played sheriff over a half-dozen hill tribes – Shan, Kachin, Karen, Yao, Lisu, Lahu, Meo – who didn’t know or care about the Kingdom’s borders or rules and were susceptible to communist propaganda.
Pop’s outspokenness might have contributed to the shut-down. He matched his son’s love and respect for the hill tribe peoples, and brought an Old Testament fire to his opinions. He hated the way many of the Thai Border Police he trained looked down on the hill tribe people as ignorant, uncultured savages – the way America once viewed its own native Indians.
”The Police strut into their villages and demand virgins and pigs,” he raged. “They’re just creating more communists.”
He estimated some 300 hard-core Meo troublemakers were now fighting the Thai government in the North. The Thai Police had modern weapons, radios and choppers, but they weren’t half the men they chased, he told me. They were soft. They couldn’t survive in the jungle. They knew nothing about the plants and animals around them. They jumped at everything.
“They’re filled with superstitions about demons and ghosts lurking out there,” he said, shaking his head in disgust. He stubbed out his butt and leaned forward to share a secret. “They’re scared of the jungle.”
Harold shared his son’s disgust with America’s ‘no-win” policy. They both still believed the Vietnam war was salvageable, but America needed to get down and dirty, fight smarter, use everything.“It’s a back alley fight and we need to understand that,” he thundered. If the Chinese interfered, like they did in Korea, just nuke ‘em. Old Joe checking dipsticks back home would have saluted and cheered.
A copy of Guideposts, a Christian inspirational magazine, lay on the table. Pop was straight out of the Henry Luce school of politics, a good Christian who saw America as the light of the world, who abhorred godless communism and was convinced we were in an apocalyptic fight to the death with evil. He was genuinely puzzled by the mood of America, particularly bewildered by my generation. He sincerely sought answers, an explanation from me.
I didn’t have one for him.
The gulf was too large, and Pop had been away from the States much too long.