On a trip through Southeast Asia, secretary of state Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state in 57 years to visit Laos, where undetonated U.S. bombs still litter the country. In the four hours she was in Laos, Clinton met with the prime minister and foreign minister about the environment and the economy before travelling to a Buddhist temple and a prosthetic limb clinic. John Foster Dulles, the staunch anti-communist Secretary of State under Dwight Eisenhower, visited Laos in 1955—two years after it was granted independence from France—to convince the ruling royal family to join the U.S. in the cold war. That was at the onset of a 20-year civil war that lasted until 1975, when the communist Pathet Lao overthrew the ruling government, established the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and created a one-party communist state.
No secretary of state had visited since, though the people of Laos have been confronted daily by the consequences of past U.S. action in their country. As the U.S. war in neighboring Vietnam escalated during the 1960s and ‘70s, both the Viet Cong and the U.S. military entered into intensifying operations in Laos. During the decade stretching from 1964 and 1973, the country was hit by a B-52 bombload an average of every eight minutes. The U.S. dropped an estimated 260 million bombs on the country. Up to 80 million of the dropped bombs went undetonated—and to this day lay lodged in fields and forests. An estimated 37 percent of farmable land in the country is unusable due to these hidden explosives. Since bombing ended in 1973, about 20,000 people have died from bomb explosions. In 2008, the Guardian reported on how commonplace the bombs had become: Fatalistic acceptance of the danger is fostered by familiarity. Bomb remains are fashioned into everyday items: cluster-bomb casings become fencing; houses perch on stilts crafted from 500lb bombs; mortars with fins are used as table lamps. The horrifying effects of cluster bombs were largely concealed from the U.S. public at the time. Fred Branfman, writing at AlterNet, explains the nature of the weapons that the U.S. used: Although the communists knew all about these weapons, the information was kept secret from the American people and Congress. It was only by interviewing U.S. military personnel that I learned how these bombs … were designed to maim not kill human beings in the hopes of tying up others to care for them; how steel pellets were replaced by flechettes meant to tear more flesh if one tried to remove them than they had entering the body; U.S. Airforce personnel at Udorn Airforce Base in Thailand had told me they comprised 80% of the bombs dropped on Laos. Branfman’s essay argues that this is the time to put more funding to help remove the bombs that remain and ease the suffering that the U.S. has caused thousands of poor Laotians—so far, the U.S. has spent $61 million dollars in total to help clean up the bombs, while it spent $70 billion in bombing operations in Laos. After meeting a 16 year-old victim of cluster munitions who lost his sight and both of his arms, Clinton reportedly told him, “We have to do more. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here today, so that we can tell more people about the work that we should be doing together.” In addition to increased funding, calls are coming for the U.S. to finally join an international convention banning cluster bombs. 111 countries signed the treaty in 2008. The U.S., Russia, China, Pakistan, and Israel were among those who did not. As the U.S. seeks to cultivate an economic relationship with Laos, it could also bring help for a pervasive problem that it created. But amidst a tour focused on promoting free markets and countering China’s influence in the region, the problem could as easily fade back into the normalcy of daily life.
Isaac Dalke is a summer 2012 In These Times editorial intern.