Vang Pao and his people

Mr. Lawrence
SR #2872
This is SR #2872 of production T 876. July 17, 1981. Vietnam project. Tone minus eight. 59 cycles pulse. 25 frames per second. Take one. Clap sticks.
Stand by.
Tell us how you arrived in Laos and what your function was and what you did when you arrived? Just casual sort of reflections.
I arrived in Laos in February of '62, and ahm, started by working in Vientiane and in flying up country almost every day. By that time, the agency had made a connection with Vang Pao, and basically, as a very junior officer I was running around doing very menial type things. And, we did that for about four months.
And, then in, in the fall of '62 ah the Geneva Convention was going on, and when it was signed basically they allowed two CIA officers, officers to stay in country. Ah. Tony Po was one and I was another. And, we spent a long time sort of trying to find a place where we could move the ah operations base from its, from the ah, obvious place of Pak Ou, which is where it was.
And, I had found this valley with a, with the aid USAID man named Pop Buell which is about five miles away from Pak Ou in a valley called Long Tieng. And, when I... I spent about a su—a week or two weeks that summer, in the summer of '62, giving a course in community actions or ah, sort of psychological warfare in this little valley which was pristine and absolutely beautiful.
Ah. There were about twenty people in the valley and about twenty-five water buffalo; sat up about 3,000 feet. The irony was that four years later there were 35,000 people in this valley and it was the second largest city in Laos.
So, in the fall of '62, I set up base with, ah in Long Tieng and we had radio communication with I guess about thirty teams that were stationed all around the north. Ahm. And, I, at that point, it was a very kind of handholding type operation. The ah International Control Commission was flying over daily in white helicopters and ah we basically kept our heads down, and the whole war effort or the insurgency effort, the, the Miao or the Hmong were working under was sort of kept extremely under low key.
There were no ah no ammunition drops, no, no arms supplies. It was just basically to hold on to what we had. It was a very tense time, because Vang Pao was, was very certain it would not last. This peace effort.
We were certain it wouldn't last and, yet, I can say that there was considerable effort, or really every effort on our side to basically live within the, the provisions of the, of the, of the, of the convention, and it was very clear that the North Vietnamese were not, because we very quickly learned that whatever North Vietnamese Units were in Northern Laos did not leave.
Ah. And, they had, so there was two Americans basically against against quite a considerable number of North Vietnamese. Ahm. So, that's how I got there and that's... And, then, really, for the next three years, I lived in Long Tieng, lived and ate and slept with Vang Pao and was his constant companion. And, knew the man very well.
Can you tell us a bit more about Vang Pao and how come he was selected or how come you were working with him? Was he the creation of the agency or did he exist before or what was the...?
He was not a creation of the agency. Vang Pao...
Say Vang Pao.
Ya. Vang Pao certainly was not a creation of the agency. Vang Pao came to where he was by his own abilities. Ah. He was a, an amazingly dynamic man.
Ah. His father ah had been a relatively poor man. Ah. And, he had joined the French army and had risen to the ah rank of sergeant, the highest, as high as he, an, an indigenous Laotian could go in the ah Indochina War and had led Miao troops in the Indochina War and had, was a very brave and courageous fighter. He was the highest ranking, I believe he was the highest ranking ah Miao in the whole oper—in the Indochina War.
And, he started ah then he became an officer. Went to officer's school. So, by the time the agency got to Vang Pao he was already vying with Touby Lyfoung for political control, and as the military operations increased and the political operation, political side of the struggle became less important, his role became much more important.
So, Vang Pao was in no way a creation of the agency. Now, we perhaps, you can say that the Americans made him more powerful, but, he was a, he was a leader long before we got there and his sense of, of political leadership was really quite astute.
It was amazing to watch the man operate politically. He knew what families to touch. He'd married five wives from all the five important families. Ah. He knew, he knew the psychology of his own people. He knew what they wanted, what they needed and what motivated them.
And, instead of being a person who had been well educated and rich, such as, Touby Lyfoung had been, Vang Pao had really come out of the depths of the people. And, he knew, he knew the local, the little farmers much better than, than ah, than Touby Lyfoung did or anybody did. So, as a, as a leader and as an entity, he was there long before we got there.
Then why were the Hmong ah chosen work with? What was their special characteristics or qualities and sort of things about them that made them the natural people for the agency to work with?
Well, they had had a long, and a...
The Hmong.
The Hmong had had a long and checkered career. Ah. They had come out of China. They had been forced out of China by the Chinese. They'd gone to North Vietnam by and large.
Some had obviously come into Laos but then they had been forced out of, out of North Vietnam around Dien Bien Phu and the highlands of North Vietnam by the North Vietnamese who feared them because they were very independent and fundamentally politically uncontrollable.
And, they had arrived in Laos, the largest migration of them had arrived in Laos in the la, late, latter part of the 1900's. I mean, I'm sorry, the 1800's. And, they had a ah a a a fierce sense of their own independence. My sense of Laotian history is a little bit vague at this point. It's been a long time.
But, in the, the turn of the century at some point, either in the late 1890's or the early 1900's, there was an invasion of Laos by, by the North Vietnamese. And, the Hmong around the Province of Xiangkhoang ah created a guerrilla movement to fight the people who had just kicked them out, out of North Vietnam.
The king, the then king was so worried about the survival of Laos that he formed, in effect, a kind of paternal alliance with the Hmong, and, in effect, guaranteed them, or if not guaranteed them, but allowed them to create a political entity which they had never had before. And, it, what is kind of ir—interesting is is that the the political organization of the towns and villages and the forces that we later worked with were almost identical with the, with the earlier ah organization that had fought the North Vietnamese some 50 or 60 years before.
It also explains why the the Hmong of Xiangkhoang Province were politically so more advanced than the Hmong anywhere else in Laos. Ahm. Anywhere else in Laos the Hmong existed really as individual villages. Very little connection between the villages.
And, in Xiangkhoang it was all very, very organized into sort of Tassengs which were districts and then they were, the whole province had a had a leader. So, the, we we used in effect a political organization which already been intact.

The U.S. in Laos: from secrecy to escalation

How were the U... troops involved in the very beginning?
The number of troops that were involved in the very beginning... Well, were only several companies obviously. I—iii and then it grew. By the time I started working with them in '62, I think there were perhaps maybe ten or twelve thousand. I think we'd armed about that many. I may be wrong but not- give or take something.
I think by the time I ended, by the time left it or which is just about at the top when it was, the movement was at its most powerful, I think there were about 25,000. Ah. So, we armed quite a few between the years 1964 through '66 and '67.
Can you explain why it was that there never any case officers killed in Laos?
Well, that's nnn, iii... There were case officers killed in Laos.
Oh really?
Ah. Not by, they were killed not in... I don't think I can...
I didn't hear that... I thought...
Cut. Two Take one. Clap sticks.
If I can just get you recollecting again then about the deaths of the case officers, how it happened or what, what ah, was there important that came out about it?
The case officers, the case iii... To my knowledge there were no case officers ever killed in en—by enemy or by communist action or by any ac—in any battle, or any war or in any way. Ah. There were a lot of case officers in, proportionally speaking, who were killed in in airplane crashes or helicopter crashes.
In fact, ahm, about 50% if I remember... I remember going when we, when I went out there, we went with a a a group... there were six junior officers who went out and I think half of them died in in in crashes of one kind or another. I don't know how the, I don't know how the reports were handled back here. I don't know how the State Department dealt with it. Ah. It wasn't really my concern.
None, there was only one or two who were killed ah in my area in the north. Most of them were killed in the south. Ah, where there were other operations being run with also tribal people in the south. My best friend was killed when he was there. Ah. So, in terms of percentages our casualties were relatively high, but ah, I don't know ahm the number of pilots were killed obviously.
At this stage... Was Air America involved or was it commercially transport?
Air America was involved right from the beginning. Then ah ah there were other airlines that were brought in. Commercial air transport ah ah other airlines that came in. And, I don't know quite why they found it necessary to sort of expand the the cover.
I worked for ah initially... No, I was working for an airline the whole time I was there basically. Tha—that was my cover. Thin though it was. Ah. Everybody knew exactly what I was doing, but then no one ever saw me so it didn't really make whole lot of difference. Ah. But, that if I were killed, my identification was was as an airline employee.
How did you handle the secretiveness in general? Did you have to take special precautions or...?
The secretiveness question was ah never really an issue other than a physical aspect of it that I never left Long Tieng ahm to go... I never went to Vientiane. Ah. When I left country, up country, I would fly "black" to Thailand, which is the is a euphemism.
Ah. I never ah, I was in the interesting position of, by the time I left I had seen New York more recently than I had seen Vientiane. Ah. But, the secretiveness, the idea of of covertness was one which toward the end was was not something we worried about because it was impossible to get to us except by by airplane, and the agency and the American government controlled most of the air, air traffic out of Vientiane.
Ah. Initially, in 1962 when the International Control Commission was working ah we did try to ah keep our heads down, keep out of the way. But, they never, if I, as I kn—as I remember they never landed. They never landed I, either in Long Tieng although they would fly over everyday, and they never landed where the North Vietnamese battalions and, and were also stationed.
It was a tacit, basically a tacit agreement that they would fly up to the Plaine des Jarres and sit there and palaver for a while and then fly home. So, that was something which was not really a crucial point.
What the actual military encounters between the Hmong and the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao for that matter. Were there any fights where there were dramatic encounters and people getting killed or mainly was it skirmishes or... What was the average sort of action?
The average sort of action was patrol action, was guerrilla action. Ah. Small encounters ah here and there. Small efforts. Efforts by the North Vietnamese to dislodge the Me—the Hmong from particular strategic hill points overlooking the ah Route 7 as it came in from North Vietnam. That was by and large wha, wha, what went on.
Then sort of local skirmishing with the Pathet Lao garrisons in in in the valley towns. Ah. Later on, however, the North Vietnamese particularly in Xam Nua Province came in in force, and then there was more set piece type operations. More battalions getting involved instead of squads or companies.
Ah. Toward the end, toward the end of 1965 '66 and on, there was also a concerted effort by the Americans, I think, to push the Miao into acting more as a regular army in a more regular fashion, which I personally think was a disaster for the Miao, or the Hmong. Sorry I keep mixing those words up.
But, that effort to push the Hmong to fight in a way that they were not habitually and traditionally capable of fighting was, I think, something which was in the end pushed them out on a limb militarily and politically from which they could not get back because they were good, but fighting as regular troops was not where they, where they were most effective.
They were not good at holding ground, for example. And, they were not good at maneuvering in companies. You put a Hmong in the bush with one gun and let him wander around, he could do an awful lot more damage than sending a squad or or trying to act in in traditional military techniques.

Opium production in relation to Vang Pao

What about the question of opium, heroin, CIA sponsoring an army that was sponsored by, etc...?
The question of opium. Ahm. I can say very honestly and categorically that I never knew of any overt dealing in opium by Vang Pao. Now, he had it. He had opium sitting underneath his house and every six months I would get a query from Washington saying what about the opium? What's going on with the opium?
And, I'd trot down to and we'd have a little talk, and his response basically was always the same. And, he would come out and he would say there it all is and that's where it's going to stay, and when you all leave and I need money because my people are dying or whatever that's when I'll use it and I won't use it before.
I believe him. I believe him in the sense that I think he knew that opium was his la—his last card, his trump card that he could play, but he would prefer not to because I th—he tried extremely hard all, all the time I was there to get his people off opium and to get them to grow other crops because, in effect, opium destroys the land and his ah he was at heart a farmer and he was much happier with the thought that the Miao would survive growing crops and cattle than growing opium.
Now, he, that is not to say that he did not allow opium to be traded by others. He did that largely because he had to. That was a way of of assuring allegiance of Touby Lyfoung and other important families.
Ah. And that is not to say that he didn't know that opium was being to Vientiane by Air America, not by Air America pilots per se, but by people getting on the plane and and carrying little bags and and God knows what was in them. He did know what happened but it was not a policy of his because he didn't need it for one thing. And, it didn't serve his purpose because the last thing he needed was the political ah ah ah well let me put it another way.
The Lao would were very happy to denigrate the Hmong in anyway they could. And, for him to get caught trading opium, to give in effect, a political handle to his to his political enemies in Vientiane was simply something he didn't need to do and he didn't need the money. Ah. So, it didn't serve his purpose.
There was a book as you know, "Politics in Southeast Asia, Politics of Heroin". My sense of all that was is that you could get any answer, I mean Laos is a country that if you thought you knew the answer, you basically didn't even know the question, cause you could get, you could get any kind of answer depending on who you talked to.
It's like Touby Lyfoung who once told me... I once asked Touby Lyfoung what religion are you? Touby Lyfoung looked at me with a wonderful smile and said what religion are you? I said, I'm Protestant and he said well then I'm Protestant too.
(chuckle) I mean there was a mar—yyyyyyou just didn't know. You'd have to spend years tracking the family histories, tracking who did what to whom. Why people were the way they were. I mean the whole origin of the, the...

Decline of the Hmong

Voices in background are inaudible.
SR #2873
This is 2873 of the T 876 Vietnam Project. Tone minus 8. 50 cycle pulse. 25 frames per second. Continuation of the interview with Lawrence.
One. Take one. Clap sticks.
Second clap.
Coul—could we start with, with you explaining what you thought was happening and what you thought your role was in the big picture?
Okay. It was very clear that our role to those of us who were running that operation had to be one which never allowed the Hmong to get into into a untenable political or military position. And, I feel that was the, the se—when it changed, when later on ah they were pushed into an untenable military political position was essentially the reason why they have been so terribly decimated today.
When we were there the the at the inception of the operation, there were very few Americans, the Americans had nothing to do with the actual fighting. Americans were only involved as a liaison type role. Hand-holding role. Intelligence role. Supply officer role. Just and just there to talk over what we ought to be doing and in a very in a very important sense in a political role.
I, one of the things that I did constantly was to help, was to push Vang Pao into making his allegiance to the king absolutely clear and absolutely undeniable and he understood that. In fact, he ah he understood that perhaps better than I did, but I supported him in that because, if the king would as he did historically, put the the minority peoples under his wing, it made it more difficult for the political factions in Vientiane to attack them.
And, so, we tried very hard to keep any talk of political autonomy for the Hmong completely out of the question. I never suggested it. I nev—he never and he never accepted it as a political reality, but to keep the whole thing within the context of how wars had been fought in Laos for generations and I think that was why we were initially very successful, and I think when the when the whole context of the war in Southeast Asia changed, and it became expedient perhaps for the Americans to push the Hmong into something other than their traditional way of fighting was at the place where we sold them down the river.
Now, I think if you want a historical lesson, you have the historical lesson in Burma where we did the, where, where we did in effect the same things with the hill tribes in Burma. The, ultimately, we as a country cannot keep things within local context. We always have to impose our way of doing things. And, I think that was the fact that that why the end was so disastrous for them.
What about the actual cost? Ah. Not in human terms but in monetary terms of the operation? Can you say where it came from, where the actual bases and how it ran as logistics, how many flights were needed everyday? Have you any idea of the scope?
The logistical costs I really don't know. I don't know how... I was always told that it was the cheapest operation the agency had ever run, that we were getting more for our money and the American government was getting more for its money than any other operation.
We were very closely involved with the with the A people so at the costs of the ru—where the divisions on the rice and the refugee supplies, I really don't know how those were split. But, in effect, we we spent very little money for the for the effect that we got.
Ah. The number of flights increased dramatically over the four years that I was there. They started out being two or three a day and they ended up where planes were coming in and out all the time.
In fact, it was the, I think we figured out it was the busiest airport in Laos-far busier... cause from landing and takeoff point of view which is sort of rather superfluous statistic but an interesting one because Long Tieng became a supply base for 25,000 troops and a quarter of a million, God knows how many, 1/4, I don't know how many refugees, but upwards to 1/4 of a million people that you were trying to feed.
No. The rice drops came directly out of Thailand. Ah. It did not come through Long Tieng but all the rest of them did. So, it was a very considerable in size of an operation. The cost I really don't know.
Give me your personal recollections of what Long Tieng was like over those years?
Long Tieng was a started out as I think as I said earlier a very bucolic place.
Just say...
Started out...
No. Start Long Tieng.
(chuckle) Long Tieng was a initially a very bucolic place and ended up being a very teeming, bustling city of shacks and shanties. Ahm. My life there was was a very simple one.
I mean I, I had my own house and I would eat all my meals with Vang Pao. And, I'd go down in the mornings and there would be about fifteen people there for breakfast and we would talk about the day's operations and what was happening.
And, then, he would have basically a a conference of the the people who had walked in from miles and miles ah to talk with him, to fi... And, he would listen to them and he would try to resolve their problems. Then he and I more often than not would go off maybe for a night or two to visit some place.
Or, if we were there for dinner, there would be a gathering of all the local leaders and again long, long talks. Memories of old times, memories of the times up on the plateau of Xieng Khouang where they all wished to return. This incredibly fierce desire to go back to the, to the farms that they had. And, dreaming of the day, knowing probably full well that that would never come of what their life had been like.
And, today it happens the same. I mean today you talk to these people and they still are dreaming of that one place that they left. So, there was a lot of memory talk. Ah. Where their spirits were, where they, where they’d grown up, where they wanted to return to.
And, lots of humor. Lots of humor. These men were people who had suffered a great deal and kept their humor through it all. So, there was a lot of laughing, lot of drinking. Ah. And, great resilience to life, which made them remarkably attractive, strong, decent human beings.
Ah. They were people that all Americans responded to because they envis—they, they incorporated a lot of the lonely mountain man myth that we carry in our own in our own sort of mythology. Ah. And, the pilots and all the people who worked for Vang Pao looked as, at him as somebody who was the only person who was really doing something. And, indeed, he was perhaps.

Lawrence's personal experience in Laos

What was your knowledge of the rest of the country? The rest of Laos, or rest of the American policy if there was one?
My knowledge that the rest of the country was ah if not minimal, it was, it was ahm it was not great. I would catch up on what was going on in the south or catch up with what was going on in the north occasionally when I'd talk to friends but my life there was one which went on from 5:30 in the morning till way past midnight at night. And, I didn't have any time to know what was know what was going on.
Ah. What, in terms of the American policy in Laos ah in a funny way we set the policy. I don't think the Americans had a clear policy in the sense that it was ah it was what was what was capable of being done was, in effect, the policy. Other than the fact that you wanted to keep the American presence to an absolute minimum.
But, to a considerable extent due to the compartmentalization and the secrecy of this whole operation, the policy by its nature had to come from the field rather than being directed from the from above because you weren't dealing with huge American forces and the like.
What about the personal tensions and fulfillments and satisfactions of your own life? What did you think about it? You must have been in your twenties when you were there?
I was twenty, I was twenty-two when I got there. And, twenty-six when I left. But, we were all romantics. And, this was the great, this was the, this was something which people dream about having. An, an adventure that no, that you couldn't duplicate the rest of your life.
One reason perhaps why I left the agency. And, in fact, I was told by many senior officers that I would never have an experience like this again. I was in the right time, in the right place. I was a bachelor. Um. And, it was something I felt strongly about.
I thought we were... I didn't know much about Vietnam. Ah. But, at least in Laos I thought we were doing the right thing with the right people, and I felt we were not, we were not encouraging them to do anything that was not really in their own best interests. Ah. And, I have a a certain amount of sorrow and regret to see what has happened to them, because I think we ultimately urged them to do something which was not in their own best interests.
Now, maybe it was unavoidable. Maybe it was a tragedy which you could not avoid. Ah. I'd like to think it could have been avoided, but I'm not quite sure how.
Voices in background inaudible.
End of SR #2873