Talking Proud Archives — Military

LS-85, Airmen left out on the limb, a leadership failure

September 10, 2017

By Ed Marek, editor

Relationships between Vietnam, Laos and the US: all linked

I want to avoid deep discussions of the history surrounding US interests in Laos. If you want more history, I commend another report I did, "LS-36, 'The Alamo' in Laos." It has quite a bit of history and background in it. I'll point out, however LS-36 was close to LS-85, about 30 miles away.

I do want to underscore here that the wars in Vietnam and Laos were inextricably linked. These linkages in turn drove the evolution of LS-85. Martin E. Goldstein, shown here, a political scientist, in his book American Policy Toward Laos, described the linkage this way:

“The Laotian conflict represented an unusual cold war struggle in that it was settled, at least temporarily, by a compromise agreement in 1962. The compromise might well have endured for several years were it not for the escalation of fighting in Vietnam in the middle 1960s. The United States and particularly North Vietnam found the territory of Laos to be of central strategic importance to the war in Vietnam.”

Cheng Guan Ang, at the time the Head of Studies and Associate Professor at the Institute of Defense and Strategy Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, in his book The Vietnam War from the Other Side, said:

“From the moment the decision was taken to open the Ho Chi Minh Trail for the purpose of infiltration, it was understood that Laos and Cambodia would have to be involved in the Vietnamese struggle.”

A US Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) 58-68,
"Communist Intentions in Laos," published on March 21, 1968, said:

"We believe that Communist intentions in Laos are highly contingent on developments in South Vietnam. The Communists have the capability to reduce the area controlled by the Laotian Government to a few enclaves in fairly short order. For the present, however, Hanoi's primary concern in Laos is with the security of the vital panhandle infiltration routes; in these circumstances it is unlikely that the Communists would wish to over-extend their forces in Laos or run grave risks of destroying the general framework of the 1962 settlement."

But there was a "however" in the SNIE. It said if "Hanoi saw an advantage in opening a 'second front' in Laos to place further strain on US resources … or if Hanoi were confident at some point that negotiations in South Vietnam were at hand, it might think it useful to take as much territory in Laos as possible to strengthen the Communist bargaining position."

As an item of interest, Lt. General Marshall Carter, USA, shown here, Director National Security Agency, felt the NVN had the capability to take and hold that which was already held by the Pathet Lao, and extend that control over much of Laos without much risk. I'll say in advance that's what the NVN did and that impacted LS-85.

The US also was inextricably linked to the wars in the RVN and Laos. There are three linkages relevant to LS-85:

  • Stop traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
  • Assure Laos does not become a communist country
  • Take the Indochina War to the NVN

Geneva Conferences

There were two important Geneva Conferences dealing with Southeast Asia and the events that are before us here:


  • The Geneva Conference of 1954 ended French colonization of Southeast Asia. However, it did not satisfy NVN's desire for a unified Vietnam. The US did not want a unified Vietnam. The US knew it would unify under a communist government. So the NVN decided to invade the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), join up with an indigenous Viet Cong (VC) insurgency and unify it that way. The US decided to defend the RVN against both entities.


  • The International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos of 1962, signed by 14 countries, including NVN and the US, pledged to respect Laotian neutrality, "to refrain from interference — direct or indirect — in the internal affairs of Laos, and to refrain from drawing Laos into military alliance or to establish military bases in Laotian territory." The NVA could not and would not respect this neutrality. It retained forces in Laos and sent in many more forces because the Pathet Lao was not able to handle the job alone. The US attempted the pretense of neutrality. However, US policy was to prevent a communist Laos. Therefore, it worked around neutrality by employing the US ambassador to Laos and the CIA to fight covertly against the indigenous Pathet Lao insurgency and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The US also attacked NVA logistics and manpower movements on the Ho Chi Minh Trail which ran through eastern Laos.


Linkages: Vietnam and Laos
US tackles the linkages
Challenges to Rolling Thunder pilots
TACAN at LS-85
TSQ-81 at LS-85: Process to make it happen
TSQ-81 at LS-85: Installation
TSQ-81 operations
Situation Assessment: Houaphanh Province
NVA plans attack
NVA moves to attack positions
US threat assessments - actions taken
The NVA attack
The aftermath