Hmong role in ‘secret war’ in Laos will be told in state’s classrooms
In 1990, when Ger Vang first got a job in the Oroville Elementary School District as a classroom instructional aide, he discovered that many teachers did not know why “they"—meaning the Hmong people—came to this country. Teachers assumed they emigrated from Southeast Asia because of economic reasons, to take advantage of opportunities here. That was a slap in the face to Vang, a veteran of a war fought at the request of the U.S. government on behalf of the United States.
“I had to educate them by sharing with them my personal experience during the war and after the war,” Vang said.
Now, veterans like Vang will have some help in telling their story, after the passage of Assembly Bill 78, which was signed July 10 by Gov. Gray Davis. Teachers and students alike will learn about the Hmong experience in the Vietnam War.
The bill, authored by Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes, D-Fresno, encourages—but due to budget constraints does not force—middle- and high-school social-science and history teachers to discuss the role Southeast Asians played in the “secret war in Laos” during the Vietnam War. The bill is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, 2004.
Fresno, like Butte County, has a large Hmong community. Reyes decided to sponsor the bill after learning of tragic suicides by Hmong veterans and their children and talking with Hmong women. “Hmong youth are wondering why they they’re here,” Reyes said. “It has been such a secret for so long, [and] for so long this country has not wanted to talk about the Vietnam War. In many cases, [Hmong soldiers] saved American soldiers from dying. … They are just as American as you and I.
“I think that this will help young Hmong youths have a better perspective on who they are,” she said.
During the Vietnam War the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency recruited Hmong people as a fighting force to help hold back the North Vietnamese Communist forces. In return, the CIA made a verbal commitment to the Hmong that, if the Communists won, the United States would “find a new place” for them. Instead, after the war the Hmong were cast aside and booted out of their homeland of Laos, perceived by their country as traitors for fighting alongside the Americans in the Vietnam War.
They went from being well-fed, self-sufficient farmers—a 5,000-year-old culture—to soldiers to refugees to immigrants with nothing. More than 30,000 Hmong soldiers died fighting on behalf of the United States, and thousands more civilians were killed by Communists. Those left behind after the United States retreated either hid or were targeted by Communists for their ties to the U.S. government.
In recent years, government officials have acknowledged the broken promises and made some thin apologies. But many Hmong continue to struggle, suffering from language barriers, a lack of job skills and depression.
Vang, who coordinates Community Partnership, a social-services organization, said, “I think it is time to educate the general public about our government’s involvement in Laos. The involvement was kept secret, and not very many Americans knew what was actually going on in Laos during the ‘60s and ‘70s. What the general public knew about it was the Vietnam War.”
Vang also agrees with Reyes’ plan to have Hmong veterans themselves help develop the curriculum. “I would suggest that people who were serving in the war should contribute to the writing, as well as writers and experts who know about it,” Vang said. “We want to see the history reflect the real war.”
Not only do elementary-school teachers need to brush up on their American history, but some college professors do, as well. Vang remembers back in 1991 when he was taking a world history class at Butte College and the instructor pulled down a world map showing the location of the Vietnam War. There was a big red arrow pointing to South Vietnam, but nothing into Laos. “The instructor was talking about the Vietnam War, and I questioned him about the U.S. secret war in Laos. He said that he heard about it and did not know much about it,” Vang said. “When I did my project for my master’s degree here at Chico State, my professor, who served as the committee chair for my project, did not know much about the secret war in Laos. He heard his students talking about it outside the classroom and sometimes mentioned it during class discussions.”
In terms of the stereotypes American students might have about the Hmong culture, Vang does not foresee that will be a barrier. "It is a matter of the lack of education." Individuals from other cultures have not had the opportunity to explore and learn about Hmong culture, he said. "Once it is taught and shared, people will have a better understanding and will appreciate it more."