One reporter's odyssey tracking his uncle's legacy in Laos
Lou Connick was a charming humanitarian who ran aid programs in Indochina in the 1970s – and moonlighted for the CIA. Just how far did he go in fighting communism?
Luang PrabanG, Laos
I try to keep it simple. Heading for Laos from my temporary home in Indonesia, I want to pick up the trail of Lou Connick, my late globe-trotting great uncle who spent eight years working in the country in the 1960s and '70s. I'm hoping to visit his old haunts, meet relatives of his friends, and walk in his footsteps for a few days.Skip to next paragraph
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This is the place that filled endless photo albums at his old house in Old Lyme, Conn. – shots of long-faced Lou flashing his infectious crocodile smile at school dedications and water-pump tours deep in the Laotian hills. This is the place where his de facto extended family came from, people from Laos whom he helped resettle around Old Lyme. This Laos, he talked about longingly. This Laos he spied on?
While Lou led humanitarian efforts on almost every continent, he ran aid and development programs for the Asia Foundation and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Laos at the height of the American military presence in Indochina. As part of those postings, he worked for another organization there – the Central Intelligence Agency.
His involvement with the CIA seemed low-level, passing on information here and there about people. He didn't talk about it much. Like a lot of lives lived on cold-war fronts, his remains shrouded in some mystery. That only fueled my desire to know more about Lou in Laos. As it happens, Lou's past opened up an unexpected portal into my family history as well as life in Laos, then and now.
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After tracking down some of Lou's old friends, pictures, and writings, I landed in Luang Prabang, the Buddhist-enshrined city where he spent two years running the USAID office before it closed in 1974. The city had a few artifacts in plain sight: a school the agency built in the 1970s; its old office building, now a luxury hotel; and prop planes – full of tourists – droning in low to the same airstrip from which Lou sent rice-drop sorties to isolated villages.
But there were other remnants of the past just out of view, and they didn't shine favorably on America. Millions of tons of unexploded bombs still lurked in the rice paddies along the eastern Vietnam border. In Luang Prabang, everyone had a friend or relative who fled the Communist Pathet Lao soon after the abrupt American pullout in 1974 and '75. News reports late last year described refugees still camped out in Thailand and former fighters once armed by the CIA hiding up in the Laotian hills for fear of retribution.
Seeing this firsthand, I wondered what Lou had left behind. Did his CIA ties, ones we'd endlessly speculated about for so many years, bind him to the messy US legacy? Or did he lend some humanism to a troubled foreign-policy adventure? Lou might have rolled his eyes at these earnest questions. He was a doer, not a measurer; he lived life at a brisk clip, teaching before entering the foreign service, and then in later years hopping between countries only he could locate on a map.
But he was well connected – his contemporaries at Yale University founded what would become the CIA – and he seemed to realize, especially toward the end of his life, that he'd had a front row seat on some fascinating history: Even before his time in Southeast Asia, he'd stormed the beaches as a marine at Iwo Jima.