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The dark side of Henry Kissinger's legacy: secret bombings during Vietnam War

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are considering the legacy of Henry Kissinger, former national security advisor and secretary of state, who has died at age 100. The writer Jeremi Suri told us this week he admired Kissinger's ability to get things done but that Kissinger also had a way of, quote, "kissing up to power."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JEREMI SURI: So if you look at his record, he's much better at achieving things that serve the interests of, shall we say, first-world countries and the leaders of those first-world countries. And his record in what we would call the Global South is much poorer because those are relationships that mattered less to him.

INSKEEP: OK, let's hear from someone from the Global South. Over the course of a decade during the Vietnam War, the United States attacked Laos, a neighboring country. B-52 bombers were constantly overhead. Now, Kissinger did not start the bombing of Laos, but as national security advisor and secretary of state, he was deeply involved for years. Bo Thao-Urabe lived through that bombing as a child in Laos and now lives in Minneapolis, from which he joins us. Good morning.

BO THAO-URABE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So you were there until the age of 6, until 1973. These were years when the war was going on. What are your family memories and family stories of that time?

THAO-URABE: Sure. As you mentioned, I was born, really, at the height of that secret war in Laos. And so that was probably the period where the heaviest bombing happened. And I'll just remind folks that the U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs that contained more than 270 million cluster bombs inside them on Laos. And it became the most bombed country of any war. And so for nine years, every eight minutes, a bomb was dropped on Laos. And, you know, I think as a child, I just remember seeing the sky lit up almost every minute, you know, when you look up. And I think that's the experience of many Hmong Americans who are here now.

INSKEEP: The idea of a secret war is hard to get your brain around in the 21st century - the idea that it took the first 6 or 7 years before the United States had to disclose it was even doing this. Obviously, it was not secret to you or to your family, right?

THAO-URABE: That's correct. Yes.

INSKEEP: How could that be?

THAO-URABE: The Hmong had been - yeah, the Hmong had been - I think the theory the Americans had was that no American soldier would be killed there. And Laos was supposed to be a neutral country at that time. But because it was - you know, some parts of it was used by the Communists to move supply lines. And so the U.S. CIA went in and recruited the Hmong, along with other ethnic Lao soldiers, to fight on the ground. And their missions were pretty simple - to destroy supplies, the supply line, but also to rescue downed American pilots. And so that was their role. And my father, along with thousands of Hmong soldiers, fought in that war.

INSKEEP: Your father was a veteran of that war, you're saying.

THAO-URABE: Yes. That's correct. He was what they called a secret guerrilla soldier for the U.S. CIA.

INSKEEP: And you're pointing out there was, from the U.S. perspective, a justification. North Vietnam was sending supplies through the landscape and through the roads of Laos into South Vietnam. Kissinger, among many other American officials, supported this effort to interdict that, which seems never to have worked. Looking back on it now, what do you make of this particular part of Henry Kissinger's legacy?

THAO-URABE: Yeah, well, I think considering what I hear from many Hmong elders about their understanding of that agreement to serve the - to serve America and then Kissinger really playing such a big role in supporting that and implementing that covert operation. And then afterwards, really, when the U.S. signed peace agreements to leave, they pretty much left the Hmong to themselves - right? Even if they recognized that the Hmong were going to be sought out for persecution, that that was not something that Kissinger played a big role in terms of post the Americans leaving.

INSKEEP: Meaning that people like your family were left to your own devices to get to safety, ultimately in the United States.

THAO-URABE: Right. That's correct.

INSKEEP: Boto Thao-Urabe is a Hmong community organizer and activist. Thanks very much for your insights. I really appreciate it.

THAO-URABE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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