The General's Last Stand

Vang Pao devoted his life to fighting communism in Laos—until his onetime ally, the U.S. government, arrested him

Shortly after completing his interviews, McCoy was ambushed by Hmong militiamen. "I decided not to seek an interview with [Vang] after his militia forces ambushed me in the middle of Laos," he said. "There were two bursts of automatic weapons fire from the ridge above us. We had a shootout for 45 minutes." Although nobody was harmed in the incident, McCoy says he received a direct threat from someone who knew Vang; he told McCoy that if he continued his work, his interpreter would be killed. "So for the rest of my time in Laos, I found myself under extraordinarily close surveillance."

Vang has always denied involvement in the heroin trade. In a January 1974 National Geographic article, he even complained that Hmong villagers were blaming him for aerial crop spraying after Laos banned the heroin trade in 1971, a charge he also denied. "All I know is the Hmong blame me," Vang said. "For years, I have been telling them to stop growing opium because the Americans don't want them to grow it. Opium is America's No. 1 enemy, the Communists No. 2. My passion is that my people should be free of opium, but I did not do this."

McCoy's Hmong-American critics, many of whom revere Vang, say McCoy is biased because he believes Vang tried to have him murdered. Furthermore, they say, McCoy relied upon hearsay by villagers who had broken from Vang's leadership. "When you are in war, you create enemies both abroad and within your own people," said one Hmong-American who asked not to be identified. "The drug trade is everywhere," he added. "I'm not discounting that people were doing it—probably the CIA and Air America and a couple of captains here and there, but not a cartel."

Chi Vang and Dad. Photo by Nick Schou
Chi Vang and Dad. Photo by Nick Schou

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During the Vietnam War, Vang Pao earned a reputation as a commander who was both tough and, in the eyes of some Americans who witnessed his leadership, brutal. "Vang Pao was exceptional," remarked former CIA pilot Wayne Linnen in the book Air America. "He did a lot of things people didn't like—he'd summarily execute somebody who didn't do their job. But he kept the whole thing together, and if they hadn't had him, it would have fallen apart long before it ever did."

In another book, Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992, another Air America pilot, Fred Walker, described what he claimed was a typical treatment of prisoners. "Vang Pao comes in and eats lunch. While he's eating, one of his aides comes over and says something and points to the young guy squatting in the corner. Suddenly Vang Pao spits out the sound 'Ba!' A couple of soldiers stood up and took the prisoner outside. Vang Pao continued eating. A few minutes later, I heard four shots."

Other criticism of Vang Pao stems from his treatment of his own soldiers. Air America includes details of an alleged summary execution: "A Meo [Hmong] soldier on the ridge watched the plane crawl slowly toward him and, in a moment of boredom, fired off a shot," author Christopher Robbins wrote. "The bullet went straight through the pilot's heart and killed him instantly while the plane crashed into the mountain and burned, killing everybody onboard. The soldier was executed on the spot by Vang Pao."

Vang Pao continued to fight the Pathet Lao, even after 1973, when American forces abandoned the field. By then, however, his Secret Army had been decimated by the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army. (An estimated 40,000 Hmong soldiers died during the war.) As a result, Vang increasingly recruited child soldiers for his militia. "General Vang Pao's tribal units are weary from years of fighting, and casualties have been replaced with recruits that knowledgeable sources say are 13 to 15 years of age," The New York Times reported on Feb. 11, 1971. "The number of 12-year-old and 13-year-old fighting men in the general's forces appear even higher than among Laotian units. Although there is no draft, youngsters are impressed under clan and family pressure."

Vang carried on until 1975, when he reluctantly fled to Thailand. With the help of the U.S. government, which ultimately resettled tens of thousands of Hmong in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin, Vang moved to a farm in Montana. Having grown weary of Montana's cold climate by the mid-1980s, Vang moved to Orange County's Little Saigon, home of the largest group of Vietnamese exiles in the world.

Tan Phung, Vang's next-door neighbor on the quiet Westminster cul-de-sac where Vang lived for 17 years, emigrated to the United States from Vietnam 27 years ago. He says he barely got to know Vang because he was hardly ever home. "He would just come for a while, and then go somewhere else, to Minnesota or Fresno," Phung says. A refugee who himself fled communism in Southeast Asia, Phung doesn't understand why the Americans would arrest Vang Pao. "I feel very bad because he is America's friend," he says. "I don't know what America thinks of him now."

Shortly after moving to Orange County, Vang formed Neo Hom, also known as the United Lao Council, to raise money to lobby the U.S. Congress for support for overthrowing the communist regime in Laos. The group raised millions of dollars from Hmong exiles for that effort. At least some of the cash went to purchase weapons and supplies for the scattered groups of Hmong rebels who remain in Laos. Although the U.S. government paid lip service to Vang's heroism during the Vietnam War, it never gave official support to his goal of overthrowing the Laotian government.

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