US Bombings in Laos 1965-1973

During the Vietnam War, the US spread combat operations to neighboring Laos. The US secretly waged widespread bombing runs on nearly every corner of the country, as illustrated by the map on the left. Laos experienced more than 30,000 casualties during the bombings, more than 20,000 people have died since bombing ceased in 1974 due to leftover unexploded munitions, and many more tens of thousands were needlessly displaced. A UN report notes that Laos is, per capita, the most bombed country on the planet, with .84 tons of explosives dropped per person from the years 1965 to 1974.

The true extent of the carnage was not known until Clinton declassified military records for the entire Vietnam War. The US military keeps meticulous records of all combat operations, recording the date, precise location, type and number of aircraft and total pounds of explosives dropped. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s Office of Humanitarian Demining has been working with the Laotian government to assist in the clean up of leftover landmines and unexploded ordnance. It is estimated that it may take up to 3000 years to clean up all unexploded ordnance in Laos alone.

The U.S. Government spent nearly 17 million dollars every single day to bomb Laos. What it has spent to clean it up, is, as of yet, a pittance (2.7 million a year) and the State Department has reduced this amount even further for 2011. Over 280 million bombs were dropped on Laos. It’s estimated that up to 80 million of them never exploded.

It is through a Laotian demining group that I was able to get a hold of this data set.

The Pattern of Bombing

The United States bombed Laos almost daily for nine years, a country we were not even at war with. Out of 2,858 total days, the United States Air Force bombed Loas for 2,290. Even the Air Force gets weekends and holidays off. Things got really intense in 1968-70 during Operation Menu (Nixon’s secret bombing campaign of Cambodia and Laos), and then spiked again just before the Vietnam War ended.

The military, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, followed seasonal bombing patterns, peaking in summer and falling back during the Christmas season. A time series decomposition confirms an overall peak in 69 to 70, but while the number of bombing runs may have peaked then, the intensity was only magnified. As larger and larger planes came in to the fold (such as the B-52) and smaller craft such as the A-1’s became phased out in favor of the F-4’s, the US military became more efficient in it’s bombing runs, becoming able to drop more tonnage of explosives using fewer aircraft. (It’s incredible what you can learn from data)

The Spatial Distribution of Bombing

Density of bombing events in Laos. Dark means more dense, light mean less dense.

The United States bombed nearly every quarter of Laos, but some areas were hit worse than others. In particular, the eastern end of the southern part of Laos, and the area around the province of Xieng Khouang. Areas along the Thai and Cambodian borders suffered less bombing but probably experience the largest influx of refugees.

Relative to the population Xieng Khouang had the largest tonnage of explosives per person dropped on it, followed by the Southernmost province, Attapu. Bombing runs were not uniformly spread across provinces, but appeared to target specific areas more than others in terms of overall tonnage dropped. There appear to be specific hot spots in the south, which could represent any number of things, but none of which are in this data set.

Pounds of explosives dropped per person. Population data was drawn from a 1995 census.

IDW interpolation of pounds of munitions dropped. Note heavily concentrated spots in the middle of the country, and in the south.


The Vietnam War is widely perceived as having been an incredible policy blunder. That the American government was unwilling to cut it’s losses and stop early was not only a sign of incredible American arrogance, but has resulted in decades of ruined economies, loss of life, and a series of disastrous South East Asian governments, not the least of which was the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge. This data set, while historically important, should also serve as a reminder of things to come, as the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq comes to the fore. It’s unfortunate that while the Vietnam war is a part of the daily lives of all Laotians, that it rarely registers on the radar of the average American, and if it does, it’s considered to be a problem exclusive to those who served. While the effects of the war on those who fought in Vietnam cannot be understated, the incredible burden that generations of Laotians will experience cannot be forgotten.

Knowing that we were not at war with Laos, the most troubling part of this data set is realizing the incredible monetary expense of the operation. 17 million dollars per day. More than 4 million tons of explosives were levied on Laos. All of which were provided by private contractors such as McDonnell Douglas. I could imagine (although I have no evidence), that the bombing campaigns were less strategic and more corrupt, a dangerous collusion of profit and policy. The secrecy surrounding the bombings make me all the more suspicious. The connections between defense contractors and actions in the Vietnam War and the possibility that the War was extended by those with monetary interests is well worth pursuing. Investigations into the mistakes of Vietnam could go far to inform present day discussions of the merits/demerits of entering long term conflicts. Of course, in the case of Iraq, the milk has already been spilled.

War is devastating in the long term for the US economy. Government spending which could be used to invest in infrastructure and social development projects, is diverted to support an endless war effort. In the short term, however, defense contractors and those involved in defense manufacturing profit. It has been suggested that the workers during the Vietnam war were dependent on defense related manufacturing, so much so, that Reagan’s promises of expanding defense spending helped usher him in office. While our manufacturing jobs may trickle overseas, defense manufacturing must remain in the United States. This creates an internal economy that is dependent on endless war around the world, supported by people who don’t have to fight it. Remember the incredible uproar over the cancellation of the F-22?

I don’t know where I stand on Chomsky besides thinking that he has interesting opinions, but I found this clip interesting. It would be worthwhile to know whether his claims can be verified or not:


NRA, “National Survey of UXO Victims and Accidents, Phase 1,” Vientiane, undated but 2009, p. 39.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

38 responses to “US Bombings in Laos 1965-1973”

  1. Bev Boonnhong Korasack says :

    Can we call Secret war in Laos as an unofficial genocise event. Or just emptying the planes and flew empty plane to Don Muang Airport, got big paycheck and entertained at Night Clubs with Thai prostitudes.
    My uncle was working as CIA Commander in Laos during that time.

  2. Cindy says :

    Pete, I am editing a video for an NGO working in Laos and I wondered where you sourced those maps and if I could use them in a video I’m creating. Please respond by email. Cheers Cindy

  3. Pete Larson says :

    I made them myself. If you would like to use them, you are welcome to. If you need anything in particular, I can probably provide.

    Have you seen the movie of the bombings?

  4. Luther Bliss says :

    There is a documentary called ‘Bombies’ on this subject. It brings home what the true human cost of the USA’s satanic (I cannot think of a better word) policy of bombing this country. Especially evil are the unexploded cluster bomblets that litter the country.

    Many bombs were dropped on Laos by pilots returning from Vietnam to their bases in Thailand. If they did not drop their bombs over Vietnam (for a variety of reasons) then if was considered safer to drop ordnance on Laos than risk landing with the bombs still attached. I wonder if these stats include this ‘disposal’ practice.

    I always think that the fact that the ‘secret war’ in Laos saw more explosives dropped than WWII shows how far the US government’s control of world opinion can dictate reality. It began as ‘CIA war’ in the 1950s and basically remained covert since then – to everyone except to those who lived through it.

  5. Jeffrey says :

    Hi Pete, I am writing on behalf of a non-profit photobook initiative to seek permission to use the figures in one of the maps that you have created (Pounds of explosives dropped per person). We will re-create a similar map, using your data, but we would like to modify the units from pounds to Kilograms. If this is possible, we will acknowledge you/ your website in our book and the book’s website. It will be much appreciated if you could let us know what you think by email, if possible. Many Thanks Jeffrey

  6. sue says :

    Your article is at odds with facts I have heard and read that up to a quarter of the entire Laos population was displaced and that hundreds not tens of thousands of civilians were killed in a policy of carpet bombing by america to destroy the people and infrastructure that supported the pathetic Laos.

  7. sue says :

    Apologies for the iPad saying pathetic Laos. It was typed as the political group, pathet Laos.

  8. Paxse says :

    Did the U.S. decide to bomb Laos for some unknown reason? You write:

    “During the Vietnam War, the US spread combat operations to neighboring Laos. The US secretly waged widespread bombing runs on nearly every corner of the country”

    Any idea why?

    Many more details here:

    Even though it was agreed that Laos should be considered “neutral” in the war, Vietnam launched a major incursion into the country in 1968. The Royalists were fighting a home-grown Socialist effort to unseat them as well. Add in the Ho Chi Minh Trail thru southern Laos and it is easy to see why Laos was not able to remain outside the hostilities. There is blame all around, not just against the Americans.

    To read your words one might believe that the U.S. felt like bombing the sh*t out of Laos and the Laotians for no apparent reason. You may also recall that a large number of Laotians were our allies in the war since they feared a Communist takeover as much as the South Vietnamese feared it. Notice that the Vietnamese and Lao who moved to the U.S. have not moved back. It’s not because of unexploded ordnance.

  9. Darrell MacLennan says :

    Still, don’t you think dropping 4 million tons of ordnance on a country is a bit excessive?

  10. William J Bennett says :

    One point that is very true, the lack of intelligence in this entire theater was at best pathetic and no US government official in high office made
    any effort to stop making some serious errors. Military Intel was truly
    an oxymoron..

  11. Amanda White says :

    Laos has the distinction of being one the most bombed areas on the planet. This was more than simply another failure of policy by the US Government, and breach of international law. It illustrates a lack of elementary morality. Consider Henry Kissinger’s orders to the US air force on the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, “Anything that flies on anything that moves.” The intentional targeting of civilians is common among terrorists. Historically, has the US government target civilians and shown little regard for their lives when not specifically targeting them? How about the current assassination program run out of the White House?

    It takes extraordinary effort to not know that many in the US government have committed serious crimes including war crimes. Is it any wonder the US government is hated by so many around the world.

  12. Mark says :

    You would call the United States arrogant. Get your facts straight. The VC were retreating into Cambodia and Laos. How are you expected to win a war when the enemy (communists) keep retreating into countries where we aren’t supposed to be? They only problem is they didn’t do it sooner.

  13. tim hart says :

    There can be no justification for this. Justification implies some degree of morality. Likewise, I would not use the term reasons, for this implies some form of logic. It would be most accurate to say that there are explanations for all of this. I’d like to explore. No one forced these pilots to fly these planes, they did not do it to avoid torture. These predominantly European-American men had to compete for pilot training. The best explanation for their motivation would be to protect American troupes on the ground. But this is a so-called ‘slippery slope’, as it were, which ends with total annihilation at the bottom, besides, who flew across thousands of miles of ocean to walk through whose villages? To say that it was to make the world safe for democracy is likewise ludicrous, if you mean killing to make the world safe for American business. I think the most immediate explanation is that those who were performing these operations were motivated by thrills and exhilaration. I also think the pilots were enjoying prestige and looking forward to careers as commercial airline pilots.

    If over 4 million tons were indeed dropped on Laos just think of the number of Americans who were directly involved in manufacturing all of this ordnance. And then there is the peripheral economy derived from all of this income in the counties where it was produced. The representatives of the legislative districts where it was (and still is, no doubt) produced would not have been speaking in these terms, but instead would have been talking about dominoes, democracy, and freedom (albeit for select groups). And behind estate gates and conference room doors they would be discussing rubber plantations and mineral resources with captains of the military industrial complex. Ultimately, the SE Asian peninsula was only a proving ground for American weaponry. American military adventurism there was truly a “gangster’s war”.

    Men responsible for generating the orders which the crew of the Enola Gay executed are on the record admitting that they thought Japan would be the perfect laboratory to observe and record the effects of the nuclear bombs on people. The fire-bombing of Tokyo in 1945 killed an estimated 100000. They were perfectly willing to bomb the Japanese out of existence. And this was all in retaliation for an attack on military equipment.

    With regard to America’s lopsided war with Japan, the way to stop all the gruesome, gory, grisly deaths would have been to pull American forces back and call for negotiations.

    America is a war/greed based socio-economic system.

  14. tim hart says :

    The power of the united states created a holocaust in Japan and the SE Asian peninsula. Thanks Pete for maintaining this forum.

  15. evan says :

    Yeah there was absolutely nothing virtuous about any of it. I was born in 1965 so this wickedness was happening in my lifetime. Let’s picket the gates of the bomb factories and even the homes of those who own them and are enriched by the suffering of others. Those who own the ordnance and ammunition factories and those (like mining and petrochemical) industries who supply the material to build bombs, rockets, missiles and whatever warhead you like are only interested in maintaining the current global status quo.

  16. evan says :

    Thank you Pete Larson for this webpage. I cannot condemn this too strongly. Men cannot be forced to take these actions. It’s very disappointing that I have been able to find only one example of a member of America’s air force who refused orders to fly a b-52 mission after getting news that an earlier bombing run had wiped out a wedding gathering in Cambodia.

    My point is that these guys were doing it because they wanted to. Pilots were not drafted. Threat of court martial was no excuse. If a bombardier is going to pull the lever, flip the switch, press the button, or whatever to open the bomb bay doors with great reluctance, then why not simply refuse the next mission? The rate of downed pilots and navigators and bombardiers per sortie was probably miniscule, statistically safer than walking in some areas of America. Courage and bravery were not big factors. The resulting carnage may never have been seen by some of them. That blindness was most likely willful.

    Dare I say that many of these crew members from the loaders to the pilots were doing this for fun? Because they truly enjoyed it? They required no pushing. Later they would be found at the bar. Meanwhile back in the USA those who manufactured the bombs from the suppliers of detonators and chemical explosives (located in sparsely populated areas like Nevada I assume) to the raw materials for shells and projectiles would be found in casinos after their shifts had ended.

    Delivery of all this ordnance to this beautiful area of humanity was thanks to our oil industry. The forces of evil are so strong in this regard that we have seen John Kerry as a young man condemning the creation of free fire zones in Vietnam and bombing on The Plain of Jars transform into secretary of state in an administration with an ongoing remote control human deletion program.

    Just as amazing as the choices made by so many Americans during this time is the incredible spirit of endurance, resilience and flexibility demonstrated by the injured, maimed, damaged people of the region. Especially those who have lost both hands, have been blinded, have lost their reproductive organs. Their lack of ill will toward the people of the USA reveals a spirit which has not succumbed to sickness or disease (meanwhile here in the good old USA there are those who become enraged by automobile traffic). The situation demands apologies and reparations. As usual I think professor Chomsky’s analysis is fairly accurate.

  17. steve says :

    That should have read greed-war or war-greed

  18. matt says :

    I heartily agree with the comments left by Tim, Evan, and Steve.

  19. J Mariani says :

    We are talking about gooks being bombed by kooks who cared little (if at all) about the lives of little Asian people? SE Asia became essentially communist after the war yet somehow the West prospered. What does that say about the fear driven Domino theory? Vietnamese communists did kill tens of thousands during their take over of the country, but preventing or ending that was never our motivation for intervention.

    Atrocities galore!! A pox on all houses!!!

  20. stryvin says :

    Thanks Peter S. Larson for establishing this page. It has been a great source of links to other sources of information on this subject in both book and video format.

    I believe spite was an important factor in USA Inc.’s bombing in the region. Their maximal objectives were to establish permanent military bases in the Pacific coast region of the SE Asian peninsula, near a border of China, thereby controlling mineral, agricultural, and human resources in the region. Due to resistance by indigenous forces and many of their own draftees this objective was not achieved.

    It was then decided to keep air crews and ordnance manufacturing employed to keep nations of the region from developing for their own benefit by providing them with a continuing rain of bombs, counting on some of those not to explode on impact, thereby creating minefields of a sort. These missions were carried out by mercenaries, by definition, those who compete for paid positions.

    The Khmer Rouge were a human phenomena generated by the actions of the United States. When the enemy is literally untouchable, it should be expected that anger will seek revenge upon those from the population who may have been cooperative, hence the attack from those in the rural population near the Ho Chi Minh trail upon the residents of Phnom Penh where the U.S. embassy was located.

  21. stryvin says :

    The mindset fed to the citizens of the USA is that their government is superior to all others because of the freedom enjoyed by it’s population (meaning those of European descent). But it’s actions around the globe indicate it’s attitude toward indigenous peoples are that they are simply creatures living atop resources valuable to it’s wasteful, materialistic lifestyle and therefore must be removed and used for labor. Is this not the height of hypocrisy?

  22. stryvin says :

    Drive those who are living self-sufficient sustainable lives in bucolic rural areas into cities such as Vientiane or overcrowded Phnom Penh, Saigon and strategic hamlets where they will be corralled like animals and become dependent upon meager U.S. aid. How familiar. Incineration of whole villages. Remind you of anything?

    Liberation of those being held for the ‘final solution’ can be seen as an incidental by-product of the return of the prodigal son to help settle a European family feud.

    Absolute indifference is the true height of racism.

    Because we can.

    Because who will stop us?

    It stops only when the evil spirit at the controls retires to other projects.

  23. stryvin says :

    Serial mass murder. Serial mass maiming. Those whose bodies were permeated by fiberglass and one-way bits of metal suffered tremendously. What a heroic action it would have been for a crew member of a b-52 to mutiny before the release of the bombs and bring the aircraft down in the most remote and most uninhabited location, causing complete and total detonation of the entire load.

    Anti-personnel bombs were essentially harmless to military equipment, they were designed to inflict pain, suffering, misery, grief.

    America has dispensed much long term torture.

  24. stryvin says :

    Some of these b-52 missions probably left from Guam. A mutiny which plunged one into the ocean before releasing any of it’s bombs would have been every bit as heroic as passengers bringing down one of the 9-11 planes.

    The corporations which designed and manufactured these bombs should provide at their own expense the people who would best know how to dispose of all this explosive ordnance.

  25. friend says :

    Evan should have stated automobile traffic to which they contribute.

    I also believe that when the US gives aircraft and training to an indigenous air force to bomb and burn their neighbors and distant relatives it is doing that to spread the guilt.

  26. Richard Nelson says :

    Does anyone recall the C-130 Spectre strafing of civilian targets in friendly Kong Island, south Laos circa July4th 1994?

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