VIENTIANE, Laos — President Barack Obama, declaring that it was time to pull America's secret war in Laos from the shadows, told an audience here Tuesday that he stood with them in "acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict."
Obama, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos, recalled that the United States had dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on this country during the height of the Vietnam War, more than it dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II. That made Laos, per capita, the most heavily bombed country in human history.
"Villages and entire valleys were obliterated," Obama said. "Countless civilians were killed. That conflict was another reminder that, whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a wrenching toll, especially on innocent men, women and children."
At the time, the United States did not publicly acknowledge its combat operations in Laos, a CIA-directed expansion of the war against the communist North Vietnamese. Even now, the president said, many Americans were unaware of their country's deadly legacy here.
"It is important that we remember today," Obama told an audience of 1,075, including a scattering of Buddhist monks in saffron robes. Those gathered listened politely and applauded occasionally.
The president did not formally apologize for the bombing. But in a "spirit of reconciliation," he said the United States would double to $30 million a year for three years its aid to Laos to help find and dismantle unexploded bombs. These explosives lie buried under fields and forests, killing and maiming thousands of children, farmers and others who stumble on them.
It was a day that mixed America's wartime legacy in Southeast Asia with Obama's hopes for deeper engagement with the region. The president put his outreach to Laos in the same category as his overtures to two other formerly closed societies, Cuba and Myanmar. He followed his message of reconciliation to the people of Laos with a fervent restatement of his strategic focus on Asia.