Hmong… The USA’s Best Ally

This is the first of a multi-part series about the best ally the United States has had… ever… the Hmong in Laos. I can only give you a brief idea of their story… who they are, what they sacrificed, and what they continue to sacrifice. Telling the complete story would take many book volumes. My goal here is for you to come away from with at least some understanding of what the Hmong people gave to the United States.

Anyone who thinks he understands the situation here simply does not know the facts.

Attributed to an early Ambassador to Laos, source unknown

Trying to understand the Second Indochina War is, at best, complex and confusing. At worst, it was a quagmire that no one really understood, and that’s why it became such a mess. That’s truer of Laos than any other part of the war. So… how did this whole mess get started?

As I go along, I will give you Amazon links to some of the books I own or have found valuable. Note that this is not a “Pay-per-click” deal. However, I am paid a small (tiny) commission if you buy something you click on. These clicks help with a small percentage of the costs to operate this site.

If you are new here, you’ll notice that I called it the “Second Indochina War.” Most people in the United States call it the Vietnam War, and it’s called the American War in Vietnam. It involved more than the Americans and Vietnam. Laos, Cambodia, and to some extent, Thailand were also involved. Since it involved all of Indochina, most of the world outside of the US and Vietnam call it the Second Indochina War.

It was the “Second” one because the first one (duh) started in 1946 when the French tried to reclaim its colonial territories held before WWII. Again, the First Indochina War encompassed mostly the same territories as the second one. Then the region was known as “French Indochina.”

The colored area shows French Indochina of the 1930s

The First Indochina War ended in 1954 following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The United States involvement began toward the end of that war when the U.S. gave military aid to the French. It was too little, too late.

During the siege at Dien Bien Phu, American pilot James “Earthquake McGoon” McGovern and first officer Wallace “Wally” Buford were shot down while flying a C-119 cargo aircraft on a resupply mission to the French. McGovern and Buford were flying missions for the CIA owned “CAT”… the forerunner of Air America. They crashed and died near the village of Ban Sot in Laos. This was the first shoot-down of Americans in Indochina.

[I’ve created a glossary for terms like CAT or Air America. Click on the highlighted term, and a glossary will open up in a new tab.]

I contend that the Second Indochina War began before the ink was dry on the Geneva peace accords that ended the First Indochina War in 1954. Those peace accords created North and South Vietnam with provisions for an election to unify Vietnam would be held in 1956. That election was never held. The accords also affirmed an independent Laos.

The US began sending aid… and military advisors to the region almost immediately. President Eisenhower’s administration began providing “military training assistance” to South Vietnam only 3 weeks after the accords were signed. Likewise, some US military advisors were sent to Laos.

On 8 September 1954, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was formed with its principal objective of protecting Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam from Communist aggression.

Pewwwww! All that background stuff and barely a mention of Laos. I’ve it’s like stepping into the abyss. Well… here are a few more tidbits directly related to Laos:

  1. Two months after the peace accords, North Vietnam formed Group 100 to direct, organize, train, and supply the Pathet Lao in order to gain control of Laos.
  2. In Dec ’58, North Vietnam launched an invasion of Laos and occupied parts of Northern Laos.
  3. In May ’59, North Vietnam established Group 559, which began operation of the Trường Sơn Strategic Supply Route… AKA, the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
  4. In Sep ’59, North Vietnam formed Group 969, which was an expanded version of Group 100. Group 969 assumed control of Pathet Lao forces.
  5. As he left office, President Eisenhower told incoming President Kennedy that Laos “was the key to Indochina.”
  6. Laos erupted into Civil War between the North Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao and the US-backed Royal Laotian Government. Laos became President Kennedy’s first crisis.
  7. In early 1961 Kennedy pressed for a ceasefire. In May, the Pathet Lao accepted the cease-fire at the behest of the North Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese used this “ceasefire” to capture and consolidate their hold on the Ho Chi Minh Trail… in particular, the transportation hub of Tchepone.

Starting in 1953 and continuing until 1975, Laos’s government was referred to as the Royal Laotian Government. It was a Constitutional Monarchy which, in this case, meant it had a King, but the real power rested with the Prime Minister and his cabinet. However, the real form of the government morphed many times over the years. To keep from getting too sidetracked, I won’t go into details here. Instead, if you want a better understanding, click the sidebar below.

Sidebar 9 – The Royal Laotian Government(s): (opens in a new tab)

I’m not sure I’ll ever understand all of the elements of the civil war in Laos. It wasn’t a two-sided conflict like most civil wars. Instead, there were at least three factions at war with each other. Princes and other royalty all vied for control of the country. They all claimed loyalty to the King, but they were mostly loyal to their own position.

Add to that, a Royal Laotian Army Captain named Kong Le staged a nearly bloodless coup d’état. He captured the administrative capital of Vientiane and took over for a few months. However, it was short-lived. A counter-coup ensued and ran Kong Le “outta Dodge.”

Kong Le and his 1200-man force trekked north and joined with the Pathet Lao. However, Kong Le soon flipped back as a “Neutralist.” No one really knew who Kong Le and his army would fight for. When they did engage, they fought poorly. Kong Le promoted himself to General at the head of his own private little army. In the end, when “General” Le faced mutiny from his subordinate commanders, he fled to exile and never returned to Laos.

The “Adventures of Kong Le” are but one instance of how complicated everything was in Laos. There were many factions (often blood relatives) and lots of infighting between them.

Sidebar 10 – Kong Le – Supper Hero or Super Villan?

Before we leave Kong Le in our dust, I need to mention that he set up “shop” with his “Neutralist” army in Moung Soui, a little bit Northwest of the Plain of Jars. Moung Soui was also known as Lima Site 108 (LS-108). LS-108 changed hands between the Pathet Lao (NVA) and Royalist forces several times.

In chapter 31, “Why Me (Again),” A-1 pilot Bill “Bags” Bagwell tells of his close air support mission to friendly forces as the Pathet Lao were capturing LS-108 in June of 1969. Shot down on that mission, “Bags” gives a dramatic description of ejecting from a burning A-1E.

Communist North Vietnam’s intentions toward Laos were clear. They wanted control of Laos and, in particular, control the territory needed for the development of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In the midst of the Cold War, the United States was not about to let that go unanswered. However, the US (Kennedy, in particular) had been promoting the goal of a neutral Laos.

This was a departure from the previous President Eisenhower’s approach. Eisenhower wanted a strong Royal Laotian Government Army to counter any Communist advances. Kennedy’s approach was for a Neutral Laos with a coalition government. He felt such a “Neutral” coalition would prevent a complete Communist take-over.

I want to note here that the North Vietnamese were signatories to many agreements calling for the neutrality of Laos and the withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces over the years. North Vietnam never had any intention of honoring any of their agreements. They were focused on their goal and did anything necessary to accomplish it. When it came to international agreements, they simply nodded their heads yes, signed the agreements, and then went on and did what they always intended to do. Here are four of many examples:

  1. The Geneva Accords of 1954.
  2. The 1959 agreements on the neutrality of Laos.
  3. The 1962 Geneva Peace Conference which specified the neutrality of Laos and called for the withdrawal of all but a handful of foreign military.
  4. Ultimately, following the peace agreements of 1973, the US withdrew… the North Vietnamese did not abide by their agreements. In 1975, the North Vietnamese completely ignored the 1973 Paris Peace agreement, invaded and conquered South Vietnam.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch… ok… back in Northern Laos, the North Vietnamese supported Pathet Lao were attempting to gain ground in the early 60s. Following North Vietnam’s invasion of Laos, they established their operations base at Sam Nuea (many other spellings) in Northeast Laos. Opposing them was a small guerrilla force with a charismatic leader named Vang Pao.

Hmong guerilla fighters circa early 1960s

As a young teenager, Vang Pao worked with the Free French to protect the Hmong from the invading Japanese during World War II. The French recruited Vang Pao again during to First Indochina War to help them against the Viet Minh.

Most Americans who worked with Vang Pao always referred to Vang Pao as “VP.” (Probably not to his face.) So, while he certainly deserves the title “General Vang Pao,” I’ll use the vernacular “VP” most often to keep things simple.

After the Viet Minh (forerunner to the North Vietnamese Army) invaded Laos in 1953, VP led a group of Hmong irregular guerillas against the Viet Minh. VP performed so well, he was sent to the French Officers School and became a 2nd Lieutenant. As the French departed the region, VP was given increasing responsibility within the Royal Laotian Army. In 1958 he had been promoted to Major, and by 1960 he was a Lieutenant Colonel.

VP’s (and his Hmong followers) hatred of the North Vietnamese was further increased when the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) rustled cattle from his home village of Nong Het. Nong Het is only about seven miles from the border of Vietnam. The North Vietnamese intrusion left the people of Nong Het cold and hungry.

VP appealed to a CIA representative named Stu Methven for help. Methven couldn’t do much to help against the North Vietnamese but was able to provide an airdrop of blankets, sweaters, rice… and of all things, an anvil to the Hmong village.

When Methven returned to visit VP in Nong Het, a village-wide event was held in the CIA man’s honor. All of the villagers gathered to greet Methven… wearing olive-drab sweaters from the airdrop 

And so, VP’s relationship with the US and the CIA began.

A detailed description of these meetings between Methven and VP is in chapter 2 of “Battle for Skyline Ridge: The Cia Secret War in Laos”

Soon after taking office, President Kennedy was faced with the deteriorating situation in Laos. Fighting was underway as the NVA was moving into Northern Laos. Publicly, Kennedy announced he would seek a “neutral Laos.”

However, as the situation quickly worsened, Kennedy prepared to use air power against the Pathet Lao and NVA. B-26 aircraft and personnel were deployed to Thailand under the code name “Millpond.”  Preparations for the air attacks were completed. The aircraft were loaded, armed, and ready to fly their first attack. However, before the aircraft launched, the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba caused Kennedy to rethink his options. The planned air attacks from Operation Millpond were called off.

I should mention that Operation Millpond was initially to be more than just the B-26s. All branches of the US military, especially Marines on Okinawa, were alerted to support the action if needed. Also, note here that the CIA was set-up as part of operation Millpond.

Kennedy decided not to take direct military action in Laos. Rather, he increased his attempts to achieve a neutral Laos. No matter how admirable the goal of neutrality was, it had the effect of backing the United States into a corner. There was no way the United States could take overt military action while “advertising” to the world the goal of neutrality.

Simultaneously, the CIA began to take covert action to slow the Pathet Lao/NVA in their advances. A CIA man named Bill Lair met with VP early in 1961 to talk about what was needed for the Hmong people. (Most documents use the name “Bill Lair,” however his full name was James William Lair.) Lair assured VP that the United States could provide the Hmong with the food and supplies they needed… and weapons, ammunition, and support they wanted.

VP supported the Royal Laotian Government and, more importantly, saw it as his duty to protect the Hmong by fighting against the Communists. During that 1961 meeting, VP convinced Lair that he and his Hmong guerillas would fight the Communists “at all cost.”

Following the meeting with Lair, VP convinced the Hmong elders that the United States would provide the support they needed and not abandon them when the going got tough. Simultaneously, Lair briefed his CIA superiors, and a few days later, they received approval from Washington to equip and train 1,000 Hmong irregulars. (Most sources cite the 1,000 to be trained, but a few go up to 4,000.)

And so it began. The United States started training and sending arms to the Hmong guerillas. For the United States, the Hmong became their surrogate army against the North Vietnamese.

Vang Pao circa 1961

“Communism was spreading in our part of the world—pouring into Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam. We had to find a way to stop them. The US had the vision to stop them from spreading into these countries. I aligned with the US because they were the most powerful country in the world at that time. The United States had won World War I and World War II, and I assumed that winning the Vietnam War would be no problem.”

GEN. VANG PAO, St. Paul, interview 2006

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Sidebar 1: The Pathet Lao

Who were these Pathet Lao guys?

The answer to “who were these guys” has filled many CHECO papers, war college graduate thesis’ of many military officers, and several books written on the subject. I’m not sure anyone of those works has completely answered the questions. So… it make perfect sense that I’m going to try to give at least a little understanding in a 1,000 words or less. (I hated those 1,000 word essays back in school, didn’t you. Now I’m writing them.)

It starts out like some kind of fairy tale;

Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Laos there were three young princes. Each prince wanted to take control of his domain, known as The Land of a Million Elephants. Each prince had his own plan for the country.

Really… there were three princes that wanted to run the country. Here’s where the confusion begins… there was a King. Actually there were two kings. The first king sorta ruled from 1904 to 1959… and the second from 1959 till the Pathet Lao took over in 1975. I say, “sorta ruled” because as you will see, he really didn’t have much power.

The first king was quite a lover. He had a harem of wives… maybe 15. They bore him over 50 children. Yes indeed, quite a lover. After his death, his first son by his first wife became the second king. With me so far?

Then there were the three princes. I’m not sure where these princes came from… probably other sons by other wives. Much of the confusion for us Westerners comes from the phonetic spelling of their names. There are differing spellings, they end up long, often look quite similar, and are hard to pronounce. The main princes involved were named: Prince Souphanouvong, Prince Souvanna Phouma, and Prince Boun Oum Na Champasak. To make it just a little more complicated, there was a fourth prince involved early on; Prince Chao Maha Oupahat Petsarath Ratanavongsa.

I have a headache from trying to read all that. And I’ll never get the spelling right as I go along. So… meaning no disrespect, I’m going to use a little short hand.

  • Prince Souphanouvong  = Soup
  • Prince Souvanna Phouma = Savana
  • Prince Boun Oum Na Champasak = Champ
  • Prince Chao Maha Oupahat Petsarath Ratanavongsa = Ravioli
  • King 1904 – 1959, Sisavang Vong = Vong
  • King Oct ’59 – Dec ’75 Sisavang Vatthana  = Hana

A couple of notes here. Laotian names are family name first and given name second. If that holds for all the princes, they all had different family names. Second, King Vong was only the King of Laos from Oct 1949 on. Before that he was King of Luang Phrabang, one of the three Kingdoms that made up the country of Laos. There were several other princes that came in and out, but they were minor players so I’m leaving them out at least for now.

It’s already muddy, and I’ve barely begun.

The problems started long before World War II, but that’s where I’m going to start for brevity. Before the war, the French, allowed the figurehead King to remain, but they really ran the place until the Japanese invaded. (Remember the Bridge over the River Kwai).

The Japanese allowed the king to remain, but they then ruled by brutality and intimidation until the end of WWII. They publicly tortured and killed the existing leaders or anyone who opposed them. They even imprisoned King Vong for a while. Although King Vong was a strong supporter of the French (after all, they installed him on the throne), the Japanese forced the him to denounce French rule.

I’m pretty sure Soup was taking notes on the Japanese brutality… notes and lessons he would take with him in the Civil War to come.

Following the end of WWII, the French came back to reclaim their “protectorate”… all of Indochina. King Vong welcomed the French back. However, the princes (Soup, Savana, Champ and Ravioli) formed the “Lao Issara” (Free Laos). The group was made up of mostly princes and educated elite of the country. Their goal of was freedom from France. Free Laos proclaimed itself to be the “official” government of Laos in late 1945.

Getting rid of France was about the only thing members of Free Laos agreed on. They soon fell apart, the French came back to assume control, and most Free Laos members went back to the existing government. Depending on who is telling the story, before the Free Laos dissolved, Prince Soup was either expelled, or left on his own over disagreements. Soup wanted to collaborate with the Vietnamese Communist Vietminh and was a strong supporter of Uncle Ho.

Soup & Uncle Ho
Soup and Uncle Ho.

Soup went to Vietnam along with a few dozen followers who were all dissatisfied with the developments in Laos. They were given training and support by the Vietminh. By 1950 Soup and his followers formed as the “Pathet Lao.” They were dedicated to fighting against French Imperialism. At the time, Soup along with others who formed the Pathet Lao, wanted to get rid of the monarchy.

Later, when the Pathet Lao fully was established, Soup announced it was his goal for Laos to become a Communist country. Based on his collaboration with Uncle Ho, I suspect it had always been his goal. 

I should note here that a few sources (including places on Wikipedia) indicate the “Laos Issara” group was the basis of the formation of the Pathet Lao. I’m reasonably sure this is not correct. It was Soup and his small band of followers that formed the Pathet Lao.

Early on, the Pathet Lao weren’t much of a force. They fought minor skirmishes against the French along the border between Vietnam and Laos.But that was about it. It wasn’t until 1953 when the Vietnamese army (Vietminh) and the Pathet Lao attacked into Laos. They took over the town of Sam Neua and the surrounding province of Houaphen.  Sam Neua and the province became the headquarters of the Pathet Lao and remained so until they took over the country on 2 Dec 1975.

I should mention here, that there were very few Pathet Lao in the force that took over Sam Neua and Houaphen. It was primarily the Vietminh that provided the fighting army. The Vietminh, subsequently the NVA, would provide the majority of the fighting force for the Pathet Lao all they way to 2 Dec 1975.

From the early beginnings, the Pathet Lao (always with large NVA support), waged the Civil War for the next two decades… first against the Royal Laotian forces and then against the forces backed by the CIA and US Military. They showed a dedication and ruthlessness like the Japanese had demonstrated during World War II.

Ultimately, when the US withdrew their CIA, Air America and Military support of the Royal Laotians, the Pathet Lao achieved all of their goals