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.
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.
How deeply Lou was involved behind the scenes in the clandestine anticommunist effort was tough to tell. He only began talking openly about the CIA late in life and by then was nonchalant about it. "I'd get this call in a deep voice, 'Your laundry is ready,' " he once said, describing an information exchange. When he reached a secluded spot, a man waited to talk to him about students organizing.
I tried to learn more in the village of Muang Kham, north of Luang Prabang. I found Boonthong Lamsekong, the round-faced village chief and an old acquaintance of Lou's. At one point, while sitting on the cool tile floor of his house, Mr. Lamsekong said, "You know, Connick, he had many jobs. He taught at a military school in Thailand, too." That's the first I'd heard of that. Then he gave a toothy grin and said, "We don't know all his jobs." I straightened up. "Do you know the CIA?" I asked.
"I've heard of it," he said. "But I don't know about it." He looked away toward his TV and flipped channels.
Lou's visible record, in stacks of photo albums in Old Lyme, showed a charm offensive unleashed on Laos – images of school dedications and village welcome ceremonies and Lou beaming at all of them. "I think he wanted to prove to everyone that as an American he wasn't as bad as they thought," says Howard Phengsomphon, Lou's radio man at the USAID in Luang Prabang, who now lives in West Hartford, Conn.
Mr. Phengsomphon says that an increasingly hot war in the early 1970s meant USAID had to use friendly Laotian government troops to secure the villages they worked in. Meanwhile, the US was unloading its aerial blitz in the East, ostensibly targeting Pathet Lao bases and North Vietnamese supply routes but hitting civilians at the same time.
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In late 1973 and early 1974, as Lou and the Americans prepared to leave, Phengsomphon says he and the local staff grew anxious about what would happen after a likely Communist takeover. Phensomphon recalls Lou reassuring them that life wouldn't change much, and they would have transition money from USAID.
But when the Pathet Lao did take charge in 1975, Phengsomphon was marched off for two years to a hard labor camp as a capitalist sympathizer. Later, as he and his family tried to flee to Thailand, he lost two daughters when their boat capsized on the swirling Mekong River. Phengsomphon, his wife, and eldest daughter eventually made it to Thailand. From a refugee camp there, they wrote to Lou in Connecticut.
Lou rallied four churches around Old Lyme to pay for the family's resettlement in the US. At a party six months after he arrived in America, Phengsomphon retraced the harrowing slide of events in Laos. "Lou said, 'I didn't know this was going to happen. What I told you came from the bottom of my heart,' " Phengsomphon said. "I believed him. You know, we looked up to Lou."
Lou's help across oceans was impressive, but so was Phengsomphon's graciousness after all he had endured. The more I talked with people in Luang Prabang, the more a similar sentiment appeared – a peace with the past. People who'd watched their families torn up, their fathers disappear, had turned bitterness into warmth. On the street, an ice-cream man complained about how the war had made him poor, but then he asked me to sit down and share his lunch.
Lamsekong, the chief in Muang Kham, watched as schools and homes around his childhood village were reduced to ash by US bombers. "You know, war is the same everywhere," he said. "It's a political thing."
Lou understood this, I think. He returned as a private citizen after the Communist regime began opening up in the early 1990s. He made little gestures, giving money for community arts in the capital, Vientiane, and for a drinking water system and classroom in Muang Kham.
After I arrived, Lamsekong gathered six elders in his house for a traditional welcome. "I told them you were Connick's cousin," he said. "He was a very generous man." Gently, each elder took strings attached to a banana-leaf offering and tied one on each of my wrists, while chanting a blessing. "We have heard that Connick has died," Lamsekong said. "But today we see you and we don't think so."