The amazing life of Vang Pao

As Chico prepares to memorialize him, we should understand why the Hmong people regard him as their greatest hero

Vang Pao is pictured here in his Clovis home in 2009.

Vang Pao is pictured here in his Clovis home in 2009.

andy alfaro/sacramento bee/

A sculptured likeness of Vang Pao will come soon to an honored place in Chico, thanks to a decision by the City Council in November to permit a statue of him to be placed outside council chambers. His picture already hangs in honored places in thousands of homes in Hmong communities now scattered all over the United States. We should know something about him and the many reasons why we should be proud that he and the Hmong people will achieve a deserved recognition.

Vang Pao is not exactly the George Washington of the Hmong—there, after all, is no Hmong government anywhere in the world. And none is on the horizon. But if adulation by large numbers of ethnic kinsmen is any criterion, Vang Pao invites comparison to George Washington. Gen. Vang was on hand to unite and inspire and focus the Hmong people at a crucial juncture in their very long migratory history.

“He is like the earth and the sky,” a Hmong refugee told a Fresno Bee reporter in 2007.

“I trusted Gen. Vang Pao with my life,” said Chai Vang Thao, a spokesman for the Hmong community in Butte County.

The salutes from Americans who knew him are even more enthusiastic. William Colby, the director of the CIA in the 1970s, called Vang Pao “the biggest hero of the Vietnam War.”

Vint Lawrence, one of the earliest of the CIA agents to know Vang Pao, said the general seemed unconcerned about his safety in battle—perhaps he believed that divine spirits controlled his fate. In any case, “His reaction [to danger] was extraordinary. He assumed he was not going to get shot. He just exuded bravery.”

President Bill Clinton, belatedly, authorized a plaque at Arlington National Cemetery in 1997. The valor of Gen. Vang Pao’s troops would never be forgotten, it reads.

Lionel Rosenblatt, a founder of Refugees International, put the matter quite bluntly when he said that Vang Pao’s Hmong were put “into this meat grinder, mostly to save U.S. soldiers from fighting and dying [in Vietnam].” Rosenblatt went on to become one of the main movers in the effort to relocate larger numbers of Hmong to the United States after the end of the Vietnam War—a matter by no means taken for granted at the time.

Many in Washington thought the problems attendant on resettlement of large numbers of Southeast Asian farmers would overwhelm U.S. resources. Former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson stated publicly that Hmong families were incapable of integrating themselves into American culture.

After Vang Pao’s death in January 2011 efforts were made to bury him in Arlington. Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, R-Calif., noted that he “saved the lives of thousands of Americans in the Vietnam War. … He deserves to be buried in Arlington.” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., wanted to extend burial rights in U.S. national cemeteries to foreign-born Hmong veterans—estimated to number as many as 6,900. The Arlington burial efforts failed. Hmong in America, including many veterans of the war, were bitterly disappointed.

Vang Pao and Air America

The history of Vang Pao and the Hmong people and American involvement in the origins of the Vietnam War intersected for the first time in 1960. American presence in Vietnam, in the wake of the earlier (1954) French defeat, was limited at that time to a small number of “advisers” working to prop up an anti-communist regime in Saigon. The full-scale commitment of U.S. ground troops was two presidents in the future—Jack Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson.

This photo was taken circa 1972, during the “secret war” in Laos. Gen. Vang Pao (arrow) is pictured holding hands with Thai Army Chief of Staff Surakij Mayalab at a site overlooking Hmong–CIA headquarters in Long Tien, Laos. To the left of Mayalab is CIA case officer Burr Smith (with shaved head). The rest of the men in the photo are Thai soldiers who served in Laos with Lao-Hmong forces.

Nonetheless, President Eisenhower, worried about a communist insurgency in Laos, declared in 1960 that that country must be kept out of communist hands. The “falling domino principle” was cited as reason. China was already communist; Vietnam was threatened; Laos would be next; Cambodia … Thailand … where would it end?

In 1960 Vang Pao was 31 years old and already an experienced soldier. As a teenager he had fought with the French against the Japanese who controlled most of Southeast Asia during the Pacific War. Later, in the 1960s, he was a major when Americans met him and soon became a major general in the Royal Lao Army—the highest rank achieved by a Hmong in that force. The Hmong, while they had grudges against the Lao royal government whose powerbase was in the lowland areas of Laos, felt they had a better chance for autonomy under it than under the communist insurgency known as Pathet Lao. The Pathet Lao leadership was trained by Hanoi.

Vang Pao first met American counterinsurgency agents in 1960. These CIA agents, often disguised as civilian operatives in the bogus corporation “Air America,” went to work to enlist Hmong villagers in the remote fog-shrouded highlands of central and north Laos. The Americans immediately recognized Vang Pao as their most valuable ally.

With Vang Pao’s help, Hmong allies were recruited and assigned to gather intelligence, protect American radar sites, operate advance radio and surveillance outposts, and rescue downed American airmen. Many Hmong soldiers lost their own lives in their effort to rescue Americans. The Hmong engaged in fierce combat on the contested border region between Laos and Vietnam. One expert estimates that for more than a decade the 40,000-strong Hmong forces prevented as many as 70,000 Vietnamese troops from overrunning Laos.

Vang Pao was compared by one expert as a Hmong version of Gen. George Patton: He could think like his enemy. But instead of great powerful armies, Vang Pao, at least in the early days, commanded men wearing homespun clothes who often took wives and children into battle. They abandoned their traditional homes, their fields, their livestock, and settled in encampments, many concentrated in mountaintop areas surrounding the Plaine des Jarres. (The French named it that after the thousands of stone jars that dotted the landscape and were thought to be prehistoric burial places.)

In the early 1960s, when Americans first met them, Hmong recruits carried hand-made flintlock rifles—Vang Pao presented one to President Johnson in 1968 on the occasion of a visit to the United States. Walt Rostow, national security adviser, sent a note to LBJ praising Vang Pao: “He is a real asset to us, a feisty little fighter ….”

The Secret War

By the mid-1960s, as full-scale war in Vietnam evolved, the Laos-Vietnam border area became ever more crucial. The famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, the supply route from communist North Vietnam to the South, weaved its way inside and out of the territory of Laos. Interruption of the flow of supplies from Ho Chi Minh’s regime in the north to their Viet Minh allies in the south became a principal strategic goal of the United States. And that in turn dictated a strong American presence in Laos. A clandestine presence. Thus the “secret war” in Laos (and also Cambodia).

“Laos was officially neutral; that didn’t stop the North Vietnamese communists nor the Americans nor Mr. Vang,” commented the Economist.

By the mid-1960s Vang Pao and the Hmong were often in the air. “He loved aviation,” writes Jane Hamilton-Merritt, author of Tragic Mountains, a gripping story of the secret war and the heroic role thousands of Hmong played in it. At first he “rode shotgun” on missions, but before long Gen. Vang was flying a Cessna 185 or H-34 helicopter.

He persuaded the Americans that Hmong could be trained as pilots, and scores of them were. Vang Pao regarded Hmong pilots as braver and more skilled than the Lao, or Thai, or even American flyers. The Hmong were flying to protect their people. For them every mission was a life-and-death mission.

“American pilots typically flew 100 combat missions, celebrated with a champagne party and went home with medals for bravery,” writes Hamilton-Merritt. “Hmong pilots had no 100-mission parties with champagne, no R&R in faraway cities, and no end of tour. Instead they flew until they were blown out of the skies.”

The Controversial Vang Pao

This rendering shows how the memorial to Gen. Vang Pao, which the City Council approved in November 2011, will look.

Photo courtesy of the city of chico

Vang Pao had his enemies and critics. Not surprising for a general fighting guerrilla warfare, he could be ruthless. It is said that his recruitment policies included drafting very young boys; those who resisted were not treated well. He could and did order summary executions.

And it is widely acknowledged now that he financed much of his patriotic activity by being an opium warlord. This was especially true in the early 1970s, as the United States began its strategic retreat from Vietnam.

Financial assistance to Vang Pao began to dry up. He still had to pay his ever-more-besieged troops—and their families. The narcotics trade was a way to solvency.

Critics of American policies in Southeast Asia point to the Secret War as a moral low point in the Cold War. U.S. bombers flying from distant Guam or bases in nearby Thailand dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laotian territory—more than the total dropped on all of Germany during World War II. By another calculation, the 580,000 bombing missions over Laos between 1964 and 1973 constituted the heaviest aerial bombing in history.

Historian Sucheng Chan, though not Hmong, writes with great sympathy for the plight of the Hmong in her 1994 book Hmong Means Free. The North Vietnamese and Americans fought the “Second Vietnam War” partly in Hmong homelands, she says, but neither side cared much about the needs of Laos or the Hmong. They made use of Laos for their own ends.

By the early 1970s, “the United States was determined to end its involvement in Southeast Asia and was looking for a way to extricate itself ‘with honor’ from a conflict that had cost more than a million lives (all participants combined) and left a legacy of ecological destruction that still boggles the mind,” Chan writes.

After 1975

With the American retreat from Southeast Asia in 1975, a decision had to be made who among our Hmong friends could be saved. In the last days, amid great turmoil at remote airstrips, the CIA managed to evacuate Vang Pao and a few thousand officers and their families to safety in America and elsewhere around the globe.

Recall the pictures of the panic scenes as people scrambled to board the last helicopters out of Saigon in 1975? The same scenario played out mostly beyond camera range in Hmong villages at about the same time.

The rank-and-file Hmong left behind were subjected to brutal attacks by the communist victors, who used vastly superior firepower and chemical and biological warfare in an attempt to exterminate the Hmong. The Hmong in general were treated badly; those suspected of ties with the CIA were worked to death by day and put into holes in the ground by night. As many as 100,000 perished; another 100,000 fled Laos.

Of those Hmong people who remained in Laos, tens of thousands were sent to re-education camps as political prisoners, where they served indeterminate, sometimes life sentences. Many of these people are unaccounted for; it is easily assumed that most perished.

For the vast majority of Hmong survivors, the American pullout meant that their only hope was fleeing to refugee camps in Thailand. Can we possibly understand the terror and panic of a people constantly in flight and pursued by troops of the post-1975 government of Laos, which had promised to “wipe out” Hmong who had allied themselves with the United States?

The early stages of escape took them through the Lao jungle, relocating every few months as the communists discovered their locations. They were unable to farm or grow anything in the jungle. “They depended on whatever edible roots they could find,” writes former Marysville resident Her Vang in his recently completed Ph.D. dissertation, “Dreaming of Home, Dreaming of Land: Displacements and Hmong Transnational Politics, 1975-2010,” at the University of Minnesota.

Author John Boyle is a retired professor of Asian history at Chico State University. He has been a “reading pal” with about 30 Hmong second- and third-graders over the last 15 years. He is shown here recently with one of them, Pangsee Xiong, holding a photo of them taken in 1996. She recently graduated from East Carolina University, in Greenville, N.C., with a major in public health and a concentration in community health.

Photo courtesy of JOHN BOYLE

The final stage of the escape involved crossing the Mekong—but many could not swim. There are no great, wide rivers in the Lao highlands. The desperate clung to makeshift bamboo rafts or inflated plastic bags. And they dodged bullets from pursuing troops—and sometimes from Thai soldiers chasing them back from the “safe” side. Many did not make it. How many infants really didn’t have a chance?

And when the lucky survivors waded onto Thai territory, to commence what for many would be permanent exile from their homeland, they ended up in squalid refugee camps, some for years, some for two decades. While there, they were always coping with the threat of repatriation to Laos, where they faced torture and death.

Many Hmong turned down offers of resettlement in America because it would mean that they would have to abandon their families in the refugee camps. One estimate holds that for every person in the camp at Ban Vinai who emigrated to the States, a child was born in the camp. It had a population of about 38,000 in 1987.

The forced resettlement of Hmong continues to be a source of terror for the relatively small numbers of Hmong remaining in Thai camps. In May 2009, Doctors Without Borders withdrew in protest from Ban Huay Nam Khao detention camp in Thailand because of the country’s forced-repatriation policy and abuse of the Lao Hmong refugees. The camp is the last remaining Lao Hmong refugee camp in Thailand.

Doctors Without Borders left behind a trove of accusatory evidence regarding Thailand and the plight of the Hmong. Jane Hamilton-Merritt pleaded to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “Read the report about the fear of those who are about to be forcibly returned to their abusers in Laos. Know their stories. Hear their cries.”

Vang Pao’s Last Years

Gen. Vang Pao spent most of his time, as one commentator put it, leaning on “his network of former spooks, soldiers and diplomats to twist arms in Washington, D.C., and win help for his kinsmen.” Fortunately for the Hmong cause, Vang Pao had a wide range of connections.

But Vang Pao also never gave up the dream of returning and organizing the ragtag rebels holding out in isolated jungle camps and establishing a Hmong homeland in Laos. The jungles of Laos remained “unfinished business” in his mind.

Central to these dreams was the notion of Chao Fa, a mystical group of Hmong warriors who fought against French colonial rule nearly a century ago. The general dreamed of returning to Laos and reviving the Chao Fa goals.

Vang Pao and many Hmong of his generation were quite different from other refugees America has absorbed. They were not convinced that their final destiny was to be found in the United States. Almost all of them felt a deep connection to their Laos homeland and to their Hmong relatives stranded there. Their quandary was and is an ongoing tragedy.

Vang Pao’s last years produced an episode of great controversy. In 2007 U.S. federal courts ordered Vang Pao’s arrest for allegedly plotting to overthrow the communist government of Laos. Federal agents charged the general and several others with plotting to assemble an arsenal of weapons that they intended to ship to anti-Laotian resistance forces inside Laos.

Appeals came from many quarters to drop the charges. Not lost in the debate was the fact that decades earlier the U.S. had trained and supported Vang Pao to resist the (ostensibly) same regime.

Vang Pao and others were arrested and denied bail. Adding some confusion to this situation, Vang Pao at times insisted that he intended to broker a deal between the Lao authorities in Vientiane and the minorities. Vientiane responded by saying that they would kill him if he set foot in Laos. He was soon released from prison, and after two years of hearings, in 2009 all charges against Vang, by then 80 years old, were dropped. He died in January 2011 in Clovis. A six-day funeral brought thousands to the streets and public places of nearby Fresno—and to Hmong communities across the nation.

Author’s postscript

I’d like to make this suggestion to whoever is in charge of writing the inscription on the Vang Pao memorial sculpture: Please make it abundantly clear that the dedication is not just to Gen. Vang, but also to the heroic and long-suffering Hmong people who committed themselves to the American cause three and four decades ago in far-away Laos.

And to their children and grandchildren who now are increasingly less interested in a resurrection of the Chao Fa kingdom than they are in the daunting task of making their way in America.

The new generations of Hmong will not and should not forget the sacrifices of their parents and grandparents’ generations. If a sculpture of Vang Pao helps them (and the rest of us Americans) to honor those sacrifices, then it will be a worthy contribution to our city.