When you hear “Air America,” there is a good chance the 1990 movie starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. is the first thing that comes to mind. The plot revolves around two men who find themselves in the middle of the CIA’s private airline, which is used to deliver food, supplies, and even opium, to a small kingdom during the Vietnam War.
But what if it was more than just a movie plot?
According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s own website, Air America is in fact described as “an airline secretly owned by the CIA,” which was used as “a vital component in the Agency’s operations” in the small Southeast Asian Kingdom of Laos, from 1955 to 1974.
The version presented on the CIA’s website is authored by William M. Leary, a former history professor at the University of Georgia. He attempted to dispel the rumors by blaming Air America’s poor public image on the fact that the Blockbuster version featured “a cynical CIA officer who arranged for the airline to fly opium to the administrative capital of Vientiane for a corrupt Asian general—loosely modeled on Vang Pao, a military leader of the mountain-region-based Hmong ethnic group.”
“The film depicts the CIA man as having the opium processed into heroin in a factory just down the street from the favorite bar of Air America’s pilots. The Asian general, in return, supplied men to fight the war, plus a financial kickback to the CIA,” Leary wrote. “Ultimately, we learn that the Communist versus anti-Communist war in Laos was merely a facade for the real war, which was fought for control of the area’s opium fields.”
In an opinion piece for the New York Times in 1993, titled “The CIA Drug Connection is as Old as the Agency,” Larry Collins noted that the CIA has had its hand in the international drug trade since the Korean War in 1950, when they traded weapons and heroin, in exchange for intelligence.
The practice continued as the Vietnam War started in 1955, and Collins noted that the CIA appeared to have one interest in mind—the cultivation of the opium poppy.
“During the Vietnam War, operations in Laos were largely a CIA responsibility,” Collins wrote. “The agency’s surrogate there was a Laotian general, Vang Pao, who commanded Military Region 2 in northern Laos. He enlisted 30,000 Hmong tribesmen in the service of the CIA.”
The operation was discussed on an episode of PBS’ Frontline, titled “Guns, Drugs and the CIA,” which aired in 1988. The documentary looked at the Meo Tribe, whose members served as “the foot soldiers of a secret CIA army” in Laos, just across the border from North Vietnam. READ MORE