Few, if any Americans today know who Vang Pao was. That is a shame, because America probably had no greater ally during the Vietnam War than the Napoleon-sized Vang Pao.
Vang Pao, who died in Clovis, California Thursday, was the leader of the CIA’s so-called “Secret Army” in Laos–a force of some 100,000 Hmong (pronounced “Mung”) guerillas that between 1960 and 1975 kept four crack Vietnamese divisions tied down in the Laotian Highlands north of the Plain of Jars and off the backs of American troops fighting in Vietnam.
The cost of the Hmong’s 15-year alliance with America was heavy. More than 30,000 out of a population of 350,000 were killed. An equivalent casualty rate in the United States would be a war in which 20 million Americans died.
Even though the alliance officially ended in 1975 when the last Americans were ignominiously run out of Saigon by advancing North Vietnamese troops, the Hmong continued to die because of their once close association with Washington.
At the time of my visit to the Hmong refugee camps during my tenure as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune I learned from Hmong survivors that the Laotian hill people were being systematically exterminated by both the North Vietnamese and the Communist Pathet Lao government.
General Vang Pao and a force of 18,000 Hmong fighters were finally forced from Laos in May 1975 by a vastly superior force of North Vietnamese troops fresh from victory in Vietnam. It was a humiliating defeat for the proud Hmong people made even worse by Washington’s almost total disregard for their once important allies.
There was little doubt that Vang Pao was still feeling a sense of betrayal when I met and interviewed him, though he never expressed those feelings openly. The Hmong people I met in Northern Thailand did, however. They were angry and frustrated by the cold shoulder they received from Washington after the fall of Saigon.
I first met Vang Pao in 1979 in, of all places, Corvallis, Montana. I had just returned from Northern Thailand and several of the squalid Hmong refugee camps along the Mekong River separating Thailand from Laos.
General V.P., as he was known by his followers, took me on a tour of a 425-acre barley farm he owned some 45 miles south of Missoula. He climbed behind the wheel of a battered olive-green Chevrolet Malibu and the two of us headed off down a dirt road.
At one point he stopped the car and his hard black eyes stared at the pine covered Bitterroot Mountain before us. I had asked him why he decided to settle in Montana with his large family. At the time he had 23 children, ranging in age from 32 to 3, as well as several dozen assorted aunts, uncles and in-laws, cousins and other followers.
“It reminds me of back home,” he said.
“Back home” is a place called Long Chieng, a picturesque valley settlement on the Plain of Jars in Laos.
Vang Pao, at the time 49, then maneuvered the Chevy around a curve and through a shallow ford. Along the roads and in the fields men, women and children worked or fished in one of the glassy streams that flowed through the farm.
“My neighbors are very friendly,” Vang Pao told me. “But most of them know little about Laos or what went on there during the war.”
Nothing has changed. Americans are just as ignorant of our Hmong allies today as they were then.
So here’s a little history lesson. In 1961 Vang Pao, who had earned a reputation as a fierce guerilla fighter against the Japanese during WW II, was recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to lead a secret army of Laotian Hill tribesmen against Laotian Communists and their North Vietnamese masters. The North Vietnamese were using routes through Laos to supply Communist troops in South Vietnam.
During a top secret briefing I had in the late 1970s with an American military attaché in Bangkok I was told just how valued Vang Pao and his Hmong fighters were to Washington and the U.S. military during the war.
“Of all the field commanders who fought the North Vietnamese, and that includes Americans, not one can come close to Gen V.P. in victories,” the military attaché told me. “And only a handful of Americans even know his name.”
In 1975, under CIA orders, Vang Pao and a handful of his military followers, were flown from their military mountaintop headquarters to Thailand. From there Vang Pao was flown to the U.S. And as far as the U.S. government was concerned Vang Pao and the Hmong were now history–and a forgotten history at that.
Later, as we sipped tea in his kitchen, Vang Pao told me: “I would like to return to Laos someday.” Then, pounding his fist into his palm he thundered: “I don’t give a damn if the government in Laos is left or right–just as long as it is Laotian. But this government in power there now sold the country to the Vietnamese. Laos is no longer Laotian. It is Vietnamese. And that makes me angry.”
That anger eventually got him into trouble with the U.S. government in 2007. Federal authorities charged Vang Pao and some of his followers with planning to violently overthrow the communist government of Laos.
That Lao liberation movement, known as Neo Hom, allegedly raised millions of dollars to recruit a mercenary force and buy weapons. He eventually spent six weeks in jail before being released on bail. In 2009 the charges against Gen. V.P. were dropped once it became clear that there had been a “misunderstanding” of the evidence.
In late 2009 Vang Pao said publicly that he wanted to return to Laos. “It is time to seek reconciliation so that the Hmong people still trapped in the jungle and refugee camps can be liberated.”
That plan was scrapped after the Communist regime in the Laotian capital of Vientiane said Vang Pao would be executed as a war criminal if he returned to Laos.
Now, after his death, Vang Pao’s followers in California’s Central San Joaquin Valley are hoping he can be buried in Arlington National Cemetery along with others who fought on behalf of the United States.
Vang Pao moved to California from Montana several years ago to be closer to the largest Hmong community in the United States. His treatment at the hands of the U.S. government and now his death will no doubt galvanize the Hmong-American community into pushing for American recognition of the Hmong role in the war. There is also a desire in the Hmong community for Washington’s backing in ensuring the human rights of Hmong still living and suffering under the Communist regime in Laos.
Whether or not anyone will support the Hmong cause in Washington is anyone’s guess. However, I can still hear Vang Pao’s words that day in the kitchen of his Montana farm. They ring as true today as they did in 1979:
“The United States has forgotten about the Hmong people and what they did. We helped the Americans. We died for the Americans–and we still are, long after the war has ended. And isn’t it ironic that most Americans don’t even know who we are.”