Invasion of Laos 1971: Lam Son 719
by Robert D. Sander, University of Oklahoma Press, 2014
The 1971 invasion of Laos is one of the forgotten episodes of the Vietnam War. Perhaps this is because it involved primarily soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), with the United States providing only air and logistical support. It might also be because, unlike the militarily successful but politically disastrous American invasion of Cambodia the year before, Operation Lam Son 719, as it was known to the ARVN, ended badly from both perspectives.
Robert D. Sander reveals many reasons why things went badly in Invasion of Laos 1971. The rainy season had not quite ended when the ARVN went in, so the ground troops had to cope with rain as well as poor visibility due to fog. There were problems with command and control, at the staff level and between the ground forces and their American-supplied air support. They were exacerbated by the effects of the June 1970 passage of the Cooper-Church Amendment, which prohibited U.S. ground forces and advisers from entering Laos and prevented U.S. military advisers from accompanying the ground forces.
The Laotian invasion was meant to be a follow-up to the 1970 Cambodian incursion and was similarly intended as a “limited objective offensive” aimed at disrupting the flow of North Vietnamese military supplies into South Vietnam. Politically it was supposed to demonstrate the success of the American government’s “Vietnamization” policy, because the operation was to be carried out by an increasingly self-sufficient South Vietnamese government and military, much as the United States tried to do more recently in Iraq and NATO is still trying to do in Afghanistan.
Another reason that ARVN troops conducted the Laos operation was the extremely negative political backlash generated by the otherwise militarily successful Cambodian operation of the previous year. By far the deepest and most lasting impression made on the American public by the Cambodian sweep was the concurrent sight of American student protesters being shot down by Ohio Army National Guard troops on the campus of Kent State University.
Lam Son 719 was almost a microcosm of the entire Vietnam War. While it began well, achieved its short-term objectives and produced a “favorable” body count, in the long run those successes meant little against the ultimate outcome of the enterprise. Likewise, while the politicians were able to proclaim they had achieved a great victory over the enemy, that “victory” did nothing to curtail the flow of North Vietnamese supplies or alter the outcome of the war. In fact, the ARVN emerged from the operation with heavy losses and damaged morale, from which it never fully recovered.
Sander is well-qualified to tell this story because he was among the small number of U.S. personnel actively involved in combat during Lam Son 719 and witnessed events firsthand as a helicopter pilot. And as a retired Army colonel with 25 years’ experience, his conclusions about the failure of the operation carry considerable weight.