In the 1990 movie, Air America, Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr., play two Air America pilots who smuggle heroin while supporting U.S. proxies in the Vietnam War.
Air America was an airline run by the CIA previously called Civil Air Transport (CAT), which had been formed by General Claire Chennault and Whiting Willauer to ferry supplies to the Chinese Guomindang (GMD) in its war against the Chinese Communist Party in the 1940s.
Known as the “Flying Tigers” because of the insignia that they crafted on their planes, CAT pilots provided combat support to U.S. and allied troops in the Korean War and carried out clandestine intelligence operations over China.
In the Indochina War in Laos, Air America played a key role in supplying the CIA’s Hmong clandestine army and ferrying troops involved in clandestine operations.
The airline became known as “Air Opium” for its role in trafficking drugs grown in the Golden Triangle by the Hmong, whose chief Vang Pao was arrested but never prosecuted for drug smuggling.
After the Indochina War ended, Air America pilots continued to smuggle drugs from the Golden Triangle to help fund CIA black operations, laundering their money through the Nugan Hand Bank in Australia that was set up by a Laos secret war veteran.
Glenn Grothman is a Republican House representative from Wisconsin and critic of the so-called “deep state” who is currently sponsoring legislation that would guarantee retirement benefits and official recognition for the 1,000 U.S. citizens who worked for Air America.
Air America pilots killed in action would be included on the CIA’s Memorial Wall (the so-called “Wall of Stars”) which memorializes agency employees who died in the line of service.
Hired as covert operatives, Air America employees were not provided standard government forms and are unable to prove their federal employment status, which is necessary to qualify for retirement benefits. However, Grothman said that “these patriots risked their lives fighting communism in the same way members of the Air Force did.”
Grothman’s sentiments are echoed by Mark Warner (D-VA) who is sponsoring a Senate version of the bill with Marco Rubio (R-FL), the vice chair of the Senate intelligence committee.
Warner said: “I’m proud to introduce this legislation to provide well-earned benefits and formally recognize the courage of Air Americans during the U.S. war effort in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.”
While CovertAction Magazine concedes that Air America pilots should receive government pensions (like any government employee), the magazine objects to the characterization of Air America veterans as heroes.
In an article about the Air America pension legislation in The Intercept, Tim Weiner, author of a CIA history called Legacy of Ashes, is quoted, saying that “the whole point of Air America was to kill communists.”
In the opinion of CovertAction Magazine, this was not a heroic undertaking.
The Communists in Southeast Asia were at the vanguard of national liberation struggles and often the primary political group promoting land reform, and government investment in education, literacy and health care.
The U.S. objectives in stamping out communism related largely to threats of communist regimes undercutting foreign investment opportunities for U.S. corporations through nationalization policies, closing down U.S. military bases and undercutting U.S. global power.
In The Intercept article, Weiner dismisses the idea that Air America pilots smuggled drugs, stating that “there were rogue Air America pilots, but the story that the CIA was smuggling dope for profit or political advantage [in the Indochina War] is almost entirely a canard.”
Weiner is wrong, as opium is a vital cash crop in Southeast Asia that was grown by the Hmong in Laos and was a key means of raising black funds in the U.S.-led secret war.
The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) had first engaged in the opium trade in Burma and China during the Pacific War, recognizing that opium in the region was a substitute currency.
General William “Ray” Peers, commander of OSS Detachment 101 in Burma, confessed in his autobiography: “If opium could be useful in achieving victory, the pattern was clear. We would use opium.”
After the triumph of the Maoists in China’s civil war in 1949 (known as the “loss of China” in the U.S.), General Peers, as CIA station chief in Taipei, arranged for CAT (aka Air America) to support incursions by defeated GMD soldiers from Burma into China’s Yunnan province, thus enabling the GMD to bring to market one-third of the world’s illicit opium supply.
The CIA also set up a front corporation, Sea Supply, that built airstrips so CAT planes could fly opium out of Thailand, where the drug trade was run by CIA assets such as police chief Phao Sinyanon.
In a June 1968 exposé in Ramparts magazine, University of California at Berkeley Professor Peter Dale Scott wrote that the CIA was flying opium on behalf of its Laotian clients “in harmless looking suitcases” in Air America planes to heroin-processing laboratories in Hong Kong.
In, “Air America: Flying the U.S. into Laos” (Ramparts, February 1970), Scott estimated that, at the peak of the Vietnam War, Air America flew around 6,000 tons of opium per month.
Scott wrote that “the use of illegal narcotics networks to fight communism seems to have been sanctioned inside the United States. With the maturation of both capitalism and Third World nationalism, wealthy U.S. interests have resorted systematically to organized outlaws to pursue their operations.”
Alfred W. McCoy’s 1972 exposé, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, provided extensive documentation of the CIA’s coordination of the Southeast Asian drug trade, which has since been bolstered by further evidence.
CIA officers admitted to journalist Douglas Valentine that they ran the drug traffic in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
In an exclusive interview with CovertAction Magazine, Valentine said that Weiner is “a lying sack of shit,” pointing to different passages in his books that disproved his analysis.
In Pisces Moon: The Dark Arts of Empire (2023), Valentine quotes CIA officer William Young, who said that an Air America pilot named Robert “Dutch” Brongersma was a key figure who oversaw CIA involvement in the Southeast Asian drug trade in collaboration with Thai military intelligence.
CIA operative Anthony Poshepny told Valentine that C-47 Air America planes flown by Taiwanese pilots would fly for 13 hours out of the Lao-Thai border town of Houei Sai with opium packed in Styrofoam drums, and that the CIA gave Vang Pao, whom Poshepny referred to as a “crook,” his own planes with crews of GMD mercenaries who flew narcotics to cash customers around Southeast Asia.
In The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs (2003), Valentine quoted John Evans, deputy to Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) enforcement chief John Enright in 1966, who said he saw documents that proved that, using Air America, the CIA underwrote the entire Guomindang drug network throughout Southeast Asia.
Enright said that that was why they called Air America “Air Opium.”
In my own research in the FBN records at the National Archives, I found files referencing drug smuggling by Air America planes and its Lao subsidiary, Air Vientiane, and arrest records for Air America pilots caught smuggling drugs in Indochina, including a major bust at the Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon.
Major Stanley C. Hobbs was caught smuggling 57 pounds of Burmese opium from Bangkok in August 1964 to a clique of South Vietnamese officers. His punishment was being forced to pay a small fine as the FBN was thrown out of Laos to prevent the compromising of “national security” operations.
Grothman’s bill might ultimately achieve something positive in raising awareness of Air America’s central role in the Indochina Wars.
If people do further research, they can learn about how employees of their government carried out criminal activities in support of an imperialist war that killed countless civilians.
A graduate of Exeter, Princeton and Harvard, Willauer had been an anti-communist troubleshooter in the U.S. Justice Department who was a key figure in the 1954 coup in Guatemala and the Bay of Pigs operation targeting Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. He worked with Chennault in intelligence-related operations during the Chinese civil war. Born in Commerce, Texas and raised in Louisiana, Chennault served in the U.S. Air Service in World War I and was a fierce advocate of “pursuit” or fighter-interceptor aircraft during the 1930s when the United States Army Air Corps was focused primarily on high-altitude bombardment. His career in the Flying Tigers was memorialized in a 1942 silent film starring John Wayne. ↑
According to Douglas Valentine, “when Burma charged the KMT [GMD] with opium smuggling in 1953, the CIA requested “a rapid evacuation in order to prevent the leakage of information about the KMT’s [GMD’]s opium business.” The State Department announced that KMT (GMD) troops were being airlifted by the CAT to Taiwan, but most remained in Burma or were relocated to northern Thailand with the consent of Thailand’s top policeman and drug lord. U.S. Ambassador William J. Sebald was not fooled by this chicanery, and rhetorically asked if the CIA had deliberately left the KMT (GMD) troops behind in Burma to continue “the opium smuggling racket.” Douglas Valentine, “The CIA and Drugs, Inc.: a Covert History,” CounterPunch, November 7, 2014, https://www.counterpunch.org/2014/11/07/the-cia-and-drugs-inc-a-covert-history/ ↑
Quoted in Jeremy Kuzmarov, The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), 77, 78. ↑
Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (New York: Harper & Row, 1972). [NOTE: Same comment as above.] ↑
See also Peter Dale Scott, “The CIA’s Flourishing Opium Trade,” Ramparts, June 13, 1968. ↑
Douglas Valentine, Pisces Moon: the Dark Arts of Empire (Walterville, OR: TrineDay, 2023), 193. ↑
Valentine, Pisces Moon, 170. ↑
Douglas Valentine, The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs (London: Verso, 2003), 391, 392. ↑
See Kuzmarov, The Myth of the Addicted Army, 88. Louis Wolf, the founder of Covert Action Information Bulletin, was an International Voluntary Service (IVS) worker in Laos during the 1960s who used to go drinking with Air America pilots. They told him that “we hauled everything, including dope.” ↑
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About the Author
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine.
He is the author of five books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019), The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018), and Warmonger. How Clinton’s Malign Foreign Policy Launched the U.S. Trajectory From Bush II to Biden (Clarity Press, 2023).
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.