“I want to make it clear to the American people, and to all of the world, that all we want in Laos is peace, not war—a truly neutral government, not a cold-war pawn, a settlement concluded at the conference table and not on the battlefield. Our response will be made in close cooperation with our allies and the wishes of the Laotian government. We will not be provoked, trapped, or drawn into this or any other situation, but I know that every American will want his country to honor its obligations to the point that freedom and security of the free world and ourselves may be achieved.”PRES. JOHN F. KENNEDY, Press conference, State Department, March 23, 1961
With President Kennedy’s public stance, he could not take direct military action in Laos. Instead, the U.S. increased its covert activities by boosting its support of the Hmong guerilla units. Given the name “Special Guerilla Units” (SGUs), these soldiers were armed, trained, and paid by the United States. There were 9000 Hmong armed by 1962… 20,000 by the end of 1963.
As I get started here, I want to put out a few weasel words. You know, those words you say so you can deny anything and everything. These weasel words are; I have no first-hand knowledge of the Hmong people. Everything I know comes from books and the things I have read. I hope to gain some first-hand knowledge during the Great Ho Chi Minh Trail Ride.
As I go along, I’ll be putting up links to the books and other places for information I found useful in learning about the Hmong and the war. Click on the book image, and a separate tab will open up on Amazon, where you can check it out.
For much of this segment, information came from the book, Tragic Mountains by Jane Hamilton-Merritt. This excellent book not only chronicles the war but also gives you a feel for who the Hmong were… and are.
(More weasel words I am required to put here: this is not a “Pay-per-click” deal. However, I am paid a small (tiny) commission if you buy something you click on. This helps pay a small percentage of the costs to operate this site.)
After Laos was established as an independent country, a significant problem was a lack of national identity. Under French control, there was no attempt at Nation Building. The French were happy with things the way they were. They viewed the Laotians as mere peasants. The French were only interested in Laos because it provided a buffer to the west of their more lucrative interests… Vietnam.
With no national unity, the majority of Laotians identified primarily with their local region. They were grouped around their hamlets or villages. Few people ever traveled outside of their local areas. Most sources describe the people as “tribal.” I hate the word tribal because of some negative connotations that may have. But I looked up the meaning and found:
“a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.”
Ok… with that definition in mind, then using the word “tribal” applies. For the Laotians, their loyalty was to the local leaders and clan.
Laos might be the last place you would expect a war. The people there are friendly and welcoming. Go into their town or hamlet, and you will soon be treated like family. For the most part, Laotians recognized that they were part of a Kingdom and gave deference to the King. But they were mainly loyal to their regional community.
The Hmong were different than the typical “lowlander” Lao. Yes, they were “tribal” by the definition. But with a population of around 300,000, that hardly made them what most would consider a tribe. Instead, they should be regarded as a “Nation.” By definition, a nation is:
“A stable community of people formed based on a common language, territory, history, ethnicity, or psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”
As a nation, the Hmong go back thousands of years. First persecuted as a minority in China, they ultimately migrated in the 19th century to the mountainous region of what is now Laos. Seen as outsiders, the Hmong were an ethnic minority. Those of Lao descent treated the Hmong as second-class people.
I should mention that like any “nation,” The Hmong are not a homogenous group agreeing on everything. During the Second Indochina War, some joined sides with the Communist forces. That said, the majority joined the fight against the Pathet Lao and NVA.
There were [are] several different Hmong groups, or clans, organized by the region where they lived. The clans were often identified by the colorful ceremonial dress and headdress styles: Green, Blue, Black, Striped, White, Flower, and Red. They covered an area from northern Burma to northern Laos, northern Vietnam, and southern China.
What the Hmong wanted was to live peacefully without external effort to control and manage their affairs. They specifically wanted to be free from North Vietnam’s interference. The North Vietnamese had been their traditional enemy since the Hmong migrated to the region. Since the Pathet Lao were aligned with the North Vietnamese, the Hmong saw them (the Pathet Lao) as adversaries too.
“Do not worry about the words in Geneva, they are only words. Worry about the Vietnamese soldiers in Laos, They are real.”A Hmong elder’s warning after the 1954 Geneva peace accords.
In the months and years following the Geneva peace accords, the French withdrew from Laos, and the United States gradually replace them. Only the Americans gave the Hmong and Laos any hope of stopping Uncle Ho’s goal of complete control of Indochina.
The war in the northern part of Laos centered around the Plaine Des Jares (Plain of Jars, or PDJ). The PDJ itself isn’t very large… only about 50 square miles. But it was the center of farming and trading in the region. Major routes in the area also ran either through or near the PDJ.
Zoom in on the map, and you’ll see why the PDJ was the center of the war in Northern Laos. From the east, Route 7 (from the North Vietnamese border) ran right through the middle of the PDJ. Route 6 from the Pathet Lao Headquarters in Sam Nuea junctioned with Route 7 only 30 miles east of the PDJ. Route 13 from the north junctioned with Route 7, about 40 miles west of the PDJ. From that junction, a force could have a straight shot down Route 13 to the Laotian capital of Vientiane.
The area of the PDJ is mountainous. The PDJ itself sits at an altitude of about 3500 feet. The “White” Hmong lived in the hills and mountains surrounding the PDJ. Their political leader was a man named Touby Lee Fong. Although Vang Pao (VP) became the Hmong’s military leader, it initially required Touby’s approval to go forward with the United States’ help.
It is important to note that it took an entire village’s decision to throw their support to VP. Men were reluctant to become full-time soldiers unless they knew their family would be taken care of. Sometimes, this meant that the families were evacuated to refugee camps. This took commitment by the United States to support the families of the men who took up arms.
There were many instances where all the able-bodied men would leave the village to join with VP. The villages they left behind would need support for food and supplies since the men were not there to work the fields. Supplies, predominately rice, were air-dropped into the villages by Air America. There were cases where the children of some villages did not know rice was grown in the ground. They believed it came from the sky.
Make no mistake about it, the United States did not have to persuade the Hmong to fight against the Communists. As the North Vietnamese began to invade their region, the Hmong wanted to do everything they could to stop them. To do that, they needed support from the United States.
Before the wars, they were mainly subsistence farmers. Vang Pao knew the Hmong’s traditional, independent way of life would not (and did not) survive under the Communists.
“For me, I can’t live with Communism. I must either leave or fight. I prefer to fight.”Vang Pao – 1960
By 1967, there were 22,000 Hmong soldiers in Vang Pao’s army. Each soldier was paid about three dollars a month. But they weren’t fighting for pay… they were fighting for their nation and their way of life.
As the battle for control of the PDJ and the areas surrounding it went back and forth, Hmong families left the region for the safety of areas fully controlled by the Royal Laotian Government. Estimates are all over the place on how many Hmong “refugees” there were during the war. I’m going with 170,000, but there could have been as many as 250,000.
(I put the word refugees in quotes because that word doesn’t exactly describe the situation. A large portion of these were the families of the Hmong soldiers. When the soldiers joined VP’s army, the families went to safe locations. I should note that when I went to NKP or other unaccompanied tours, my wife & family went to live with her parents while I was gone. So, in the same sense that the Hmong were refugees, my family were refugees too. Such is the life of anyone joining the military.)
The field manager who became responsible for the “care and feeding” of the Hmong “refugee” families was Edgar “Pop” Buell. Pop was a retired farmer from Indiana who volunteered to go to Laos. Starting in 1960, Pop and his staff organized education, medical care, clothing, and food for families of Hmong soldiers and other refugees.
Pop was also responsible for seeing to it that Hmong villagers in remote, isolated locations received air-drops of supplies. Through his efforts, He developed a great trust with the Hmong. They knew Pop would make sure they would be taken care of. This was especially important for the morale and support of the Hmong soldiers.
[Pop was and still is legendary among the Hmong. Instead of me attempting to tell you all about him, CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT POP. Opens in a new tab]
There is no accurate accounting of how many Hmong Soldiers served in either VP’s army or the Royal Laotian Army. In essence, anyone who could fire a rifle became a soldier. Their losses were horrible. One account says that in the worst two year period, there were 18,000 soldiers killed in combat. [Likely ’Nov 67 – April ‘69]
Yet they kept coming. The Hmong valued their special and direct relationship with the United States. They believed it was a guarantee that they could save their way of life and never return to being viewed as inferior within Laos. By 1969, Hmong troop strength was nearing 40,000.
They were giving everything for their nation.
A short time ago we rounded up 300 fresh recruits. Thirty percent were 14 years old or less, and ten of them were only ten years old. Another 30 percent were 15 or 16. The remaining 40 percent were 45 or over. Where were the ones in between? I’ll tell you—they’re all dead.EDGAR “POP” BUELL, International Voluntary Service employee.