My Experiences up Close with the People Who Bombed a 700-Year-Old Civilization into Dust
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I learned firsthand about the realities of executive branch power 40 years ago, when I discovered that a handful of U.S. executive leaders from both political parties, liberals and conservatives, had secretly destroyed the 700-year-old Plain of Jars civilization in northern Laos without congressional or public knowledge, let alone consent.
The Executive and Congress: Craven Fear
I learned then that one key to executive power is its secrecy and deception. As described in an earlier piece, executive officials did not inform Congress it was bombing Laos, as Senator J. William Fulbright stated in the fall of 1969. Even after the refugees from U.S. bombing had been brought to the capital city of Vientiane in September 1969 (each said their villages had been partially or completely destroyed, and I had photographed dozens who had been blinded, burned by napalm, and lost arms and legs ), U.S. Executive Branch officials still lied to legislators by denying they had bombed civilian targets.
Back in D.C. on April 22, 1971, I saw an executive branch representative, former U.S. Ambassador William Sullivan, look directly into the eyes of a legislator, Senator Edward Kennedy, and lie to his face, saying, "It was the policy not to bomb civilian targets in Laos."
I knew Kennedy knew he was being lied to. He had issued a report six months earlier saying that, “the United States has undertaken a large-scale air war over Laos to destroy the physical and social infrastructure in Pathet Lao-held areas. The bombing has taken and is taking a heavy toll among civilians."
In the fictional democracy many pundits think we still live in, Kennedy would have sworn Sullivan in and indicted him for perjury for lying to Congress.
But even 40 years ago, one of the Senate's most powerful legislators did not dare seriously challenge what he knew was unaccountable executive mass murder. The killing of civilians in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam continued for two more years until it was finally halted.
This craven congressional fear of the Executive is another key to its power. I first observed this in 1967, when I accompanied my congressman, Lester Woolf, along with Congressman Rex McCarthy, on a visit to Sam Thong. It was portrayed in the press as a center for refugees fleeing communism, but actually was a camp for dependents of Hmong soldiers fighting in the CIA's secret army.
We flew up in a large C130 plane carrying rice. But as we approached Sam Thong we were told the runway was too muddy for the heavy plane, and that we would be landing at an "auxiliary landing strip" to Sam Thong. After we arrived, I followed an embassy official who had flown up with us over to a dour Pop Buell, the USAID official in charge of Sam Thong, who stood stockstill with his arms crossed. When we reached him he said to the embassy man out of the corner of his mouth, "Do they know anything?" The official replied, "Don't worry, Pop. [Deputy Chief of Mission] Hurwich gave them a beautiful snow job, complete with maps. They were very impressed."
I wondered about this exchange, but soon found myself in a meeting where the Hmong General Vang Pao delivered an impassioned speech about how his people were fighting for freedom against the communists and requested more military aid from Congress. My liberal Democratic congressman earnestly pledged he would do his best to see he got it.
That night I found myself sharing a trailer with Congressman Wolff in the nearby town of Vang Vieng. I was new to Laos at that point, but had already heard the stories about how Vang Pao was a savage warlord who carelessly shot prisoners in public or threw them into pits where they slowly starved to death; a dictator entirely opposed to the democracy he claimed to be fighting for. As I began to tell Wolff what I had heard, he nervously interrupted me and burst out, with genuine fear in his voice, that I needed to understand that he had been elected on Lyndon Johnson's coattails in 1964 and that nobody crossed Lyndon Johnson! He was not interested in learning anything more about Laos.