In the early 1960s the United States Army Special Forces was engaged in a secretive mission in the remote country of Laos in Southeast Asia. During this time we were in the midst of a Cold War with the Soviet Union, Red China, and other communist bloc nations. The perception (and reality) was that slowly but surely through communist revolutionary movements the countries of Southeast Asia (South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand) would fall to communism. Many referred to this as the ‘domino theory’. Operation White Star was a counterinsurgency effort to stem the growth of communism in Laos.

General Pao with an American advisor, H34 Sikorsky (background)
General Pao with an American advisor, in front of an H34 Sikorsky

Special Forces teams, detachments of 10-15 men, were deployed to Laos to train and advise Lao military units and indigenous forces to resist communist infiltration and Lao communist guerrilla forces. [1] The detachments deployed for varying periods of time – usually six months. The initial force, numbering over 100 men, deployed in 1959 to conduct a counterinsurgency mission. At the time the U.S. military was not authorized by international conventions to be in Laos so the deployment was secret. The name of the mission was codenamed Operation Hotfoot. Later, the mission’s name was changed to Operation White Star in early 1961. Operation Hotfoot was a secret mission while Operation White Star was not.

The White Star plan was for a Special Forces detachment (SFODA) to train and advise battalions of the Royal Laotian Army. [2] Subsequent to the initial deployment, the some of the Special Forces detachments moved into the mountains, linked up with indigenous hill tribes, and formed units that could confront the Pathet Lao in their sanctuary areas and provide local security for the tribes. [3] This fight would later involve combat with North Vietnamese conventional army units that used Laos as a transit path [4], training area, and sanctuary. By 1962 the number of Special Forces Soldiers in Laos would number over 600. [5]

Operation White Star, having begun in 1959, would end in 1962 as a result of the Geneva Accords that established Laotian neutrality. The counterinsurgency effort was passed to the Central Intelligence Agency (utilizing many former and ‘on loan’) Special Forces Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs). The CIA was instrumental in the support of General Vang Pao’s clandestine army. CIA continued its paramilitary program until the collapse of the Laotian government. Operation White Star was an early (and successful) example of small Special Forces teams entering a semi-permissive operational area and forming, training, equipping, and leading indigenous forces in a counterinsurgency environment.