It was a bit like Bigfoot; lots of rumors and claims of sightings, but spotting a Soviet troop in Southeast Asia was a rare event. Throughout the 69-year existence of the Soviet Union (1922-1991), it was acceptable in most realms to use Russia as a synonym for the Soviet Union. Likewise, Russians for Soviets. True, the Russian republic comprised two thirds of the Soviet Union, Russian was the official language, and Russians dominated the government. But less than half of the population were actually Russian. The other 14 republics were comprised of dozens of nationalities and ethnic groups. United under totalitarian communist rule, the Soviet Union was a superpower and made no bones about its ultimate goal: to eventually spread communism throughout the world by any means possible. It was in their written doctrine, the public speeches made by their leaders, and was followed up by their actions.

Support for communist movements across the globe via political support and arms was expected and maintained. Their progress was steady. From 1922 until 1983, each and every country that fell to communist control remained within that sphere. Post-WWII, the major democracies attempted to thwart this growth in every way possible short of launching an all-out war with the Soviet Union and its allies. It was widely accepted by both sides that such a war might well begin as a conventional conflict, but as soon as one side began to lose, it would escalate to chemical warfare, then tactical nuclear weapons would be employed. Finally, inevitably, an all-out thermonuclear exchange would occur, destroying civilization as we know it. This is the mutually assured destruction (MAD) doctrine that has been in place 50+ years. The Soviets refrained from getting too aggressive but remained resolute that “world communism” would someday win out. It was an all-out game of chess with freedom and/or the survival of the world at stake. It was the Cold War era.

Regional conflicts, guerrilla wars, brush wars, and “police actions” were the name of the game as former colonies fought for their independence and dictators in Third-World countries were deposed in revolutions. It was the U.S. against Soviet-supported communists in most of these hotspots, the two forces engaged in a delicate dance. Fight hard, but not too hard. Difficult for politicians, challenging for spooks, and impossibly frustrating for warriors. Enter Southeast Asia following the exit of imperial Japan. Bordering Vietnam to the west is Laos, which fought a civil war from 1953 to 1975. It is poor, heavily forested, mountainous, and has very few roads. It’s an incredibly remote and difficult country to navigate. The U.S. supported the Laotian government while communist guerrillas were supported by the Soviet Union and North Vietnam.

In 1962, a non-interference treaty was signed to keep both sides from escalating the conflict. Yet both continued—quietly. It was the “secret war” everyone knew about, but no one officially admitted. We secretly supplied weapons, training, communications, and logistical support through various means with the most famous being the CIA’s Air America. While the film of the same name was a decent comedy, it unfairly portrayed the operation and its personnel as silly, outlandish, and corrupt. In fact, some of the finest and bravest Americans ever to volunteer and serve wore the civilian uniform of Air America.