Writer, anti-Vietnam War activist and US secrets whistle-blower Fred Branfman, the man who exposed the carpet bombing of Laos in the 1970s, has his own take on Vang Pao, the Hmong general and CIA operative who died last week in Califronia, aged 81.
Fred Branfman – My memo on Vang Pao
I guess Vang Pao’s passing is significant because he was at the center, when I was in Laos, of the largest CIA operation in its history before or since. At its peak the CIA ran its own war in northern Laos, including its Long Cheng airbase, the busiest in the world in terms of takeoffs and landings; fielded a huge Secret Army, originally made up of Hmong led by Vang Pao but later including tens of thousands of Thais, Nationalist Chinese and other mercenaries; had its own private airlines, Air America and Continental Airlines; and, of course, conducted the most protracted bombing of civilian targets in human history – conducted by the U.S. Air force out of giant U.S. airbases in Thailand, South Vietnam and aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin, but with the targeting largely under the control of the CIA.
I learned a great deal about the Vang Pao/CIA operation from many sources over the years including CIA pilots, etc., and particularly from one American friend, a very decent USAID guy named Ron Rickenbach, who’d been in the center of the whole operation for several years, who really liked the Hmong, and turned against the whole situation when he realized the Americans were forcing teenagers to fight and killing them off by sending them up against NVA/PL troops to essentially use them as live bait to draw enemy fire so the airplanes could bomb.
I always remember Ron, with tears in his eyes, describing how the traditional courting rituals of the Hmong – which featured boys in a group and girls in a group rolling balls back and forth between them – could not be conducted anymore because there were mostly only girls and most of the young men of fighting age had been killed off.
I also was in two meetings with Vang Pao personally at Sam Thong, and picked up a lot over the years from a variety of other people, including a friend who flew for the CIA.
My first meeting was particularly instructive. I wound up flying up to Sam Thong in the summer of 1967 with my Congressman, Lester Wolff and his colleague Cong. McCarthy from Buffalo. We were in a C130 and as we were flying to Sam Thong the head of USAID, Dr. Mendenhall, said there’d been some rain in Sam Thong and the runway was too muddy for our C130, so we’d land at an “auxiliary landing strip” and thence fly by helicopter to Sam Thong. We did so and, after landing at Sam Thong, the two obviously delighted Congressmen (presumably they were not treated as well back in America) were greeted by smiling Hmong putting Hawaiian leis around their necks. (No one seemed to notice the incongruity – Hawaii being about as far from the hills of northern Laos as one could possibly imagine.)
I walked behind a U.S. Embassy official who walked over to the legendary Pop Buell who was standing off to the side, arms folded around his chest, watching the show. Buell said to the Embassy Official out of the corner of his mouth: “do they know anything?” The official responded obsequiously, “oh, no, Pop. Mendenhall showed them our big map and they were very, very impressed!”
What the Congressmen didn’t know was that we had landed our C-130 at a Long Cheng landing strip – or indeed that the giant military base at Long Cheng even existed. I then went to a meeting where “freedom fighter” Vang Pao came in, flanked by a bunch of CIA types in sunglasses, briefed the Congressman on his fight against communism and for freedom, and asked for arms, which the Congressmen – two liberal Democrats – eagerly said they would support. That night I roomed with Cong, Woolf in a USAID trailer in Vang Vieng and tried to tell him about the rumors I’d already picked up – I’d been in Laos only about 5 months by then but had heard things – like how Vang Pao was a brutal, vicious sadist who would put “enemies” into holes and let them slowly starve to death like animals, etc. Woolf interrupted me quite passionately and explained that he had been elected on LBJ’s coattails in 1964 and, with real fear in his voice, explained that no one in his class dared oppose LBJ.
So the U.S. Congress was not even told about Long Cheng, let alone the American bombing, let alone the CIA’s creation of a Secret Army of Thai, Nationalist Chinese and other mercenaries in addition to the Hmong, let alone that the CIA was using northern Laos as a base to attack North Vietnam – including using the Phou Pha Thi mountain in northern Laos to guide U.S. bombers into North Vietnam, etc.
I had in fact, I realized later, witnessed the Potemkin Village set up by the Americans that was used to fool and mislead a generation of gullible journalists and Members of Congress. The Potemkin village story line at Sam Thong: “The North Vietnamese had attacked the Hmong people in northern Laos, who had fled this vicious communist attack, and Pop Buell, Dr. Weldon and other courageous, well-meaning Americans were feeding the poor Hmong refugees who had fled communist oppression, in a humanitarian effort aimed at keeping Hmong refugees alive at Sam Thong, where they could not only get U.S. rice to feed their families, but have access to a hospital, schools, etc.”
The real facts, as I discovered from Ron Rickenbach and a variety of other sources: the White House and CIA, wishing to use northern Laos as a base from which to attack North Vietnam, and to keep the Pathet Lao from power, armed a two-bit former Sergeant to first launch small-scale operations against the Pathet Lao and a handful of NVA in northern Laos and then, as the Hmong obviously were too weak to stand up to their communist foes – as was obvious from the start – built up a huge CIA presence in Laos, making it the largest CIA station in the world, built Long Cheng, imported mercenaries, conducted the savage bombing – using the Hmong as little more than live bait and mopping op operations after they had pulverized an area from above, in an attempt to prevail in northern Laos.
They based their “Secret Army” out of Long Cheng, and Sam Thong was a side show – a place to feed the Vang Pao Hmong soldiers’ families and convince credulous journalists that the U.S. was fighting for freedom and democracy in Laos. The real dynamic driving the U.S. operation in northern Laos was “careerism”, as the Shackleys, James Lilleys and many others escalated mercilessly, using Laos as a steppingstone for rising to positions of greater power within the CIA and military after Laos. (Richard Secord, later of Contra fame, was the key U.S. Airforce officer aligned with the CIA targeting Lao villages out of Udorn Airforce base in Thailand.)
The notion that the U.S. was fighting for freedom and democracy in supporting Vang Pao was particularly sick. As you may remember from “The Most Secret Place on Earth”, Vang Pao himself says “Because America promoted democracy, we had to fight with the Americans. We didn’t like communism, so we had to fight for democracy.” In fact, of course, Vang Pao was a brutal, vicious, small-minded warlord who rose to power solely because the Americans provided him with the money, arms and bombing, who presided over the senseless death of countless Hmong – and sent heroin to U.S. troops in South Vietnam – out of his lust for power and wealth. He accumulated millions while many of his fellow Hmong, even on his side, lived in desperate poverty. There was no democracy whatsoever in the CIA’s Hmong Army and Secret War. It was in fact the exact opposite. Vang Pao was fighting to maintain “brutal warlordism” not democracy in northern Laos.
If we go back to the late 1950s, the Hmong were divided. Some liked the Pathet Lao, some didn’t. The greatest enmities had more to do with traditional rivalries between lowland Lao and the hilltribe Hmong. There was a sizable faction of Hmong fighting with the Pathet Lao. The Hmong leaders who were anti-communist – like Vang Pao – had fought with the French in the cause of keeping Laos a French colony, hoping to then cut their deals with the victorious French.
Had the U.S. not intervened after the French loss, they would undoubtedly have reached a deal with the communists, who probably would have won. Such a deal then would obviously have been much, much, much better for the Hmong people than what eventually occurred after 20 years of bitter, U.S.-stoked war-making. And, most importantly, had the Americans not intervened all those Hmong who got killed fighting for the Americans – and their descendants – would have lived.
The enmity between the Vang Pao and the communists obviously has its origin in the first Indochina war. After 1954 the Pathet Lao obviously opposed those who had sided with the French, and vice versa. The conflict between Vang Pao and them obviously had nothing to do with VP’s commitment to “freedom” vs. “communism”, but rather his siding with the colonialists and then accepting American money and arms so he could build up his own powerbase and increase his own power and wealth.
The last few times I’ve been to northern Laos I have been struck at how much of it consists of Hmong villages, living peacefully under PDR rule as far as I can tell. I have no idea how they feel about the present Lao government, of whether they might argue the Lao in northern Laos receive better treatment than they do, and I certainly have no brief for the present Lao government which I feel extremely disappointed by. But there’s no real armed resistance and life just seems to be going on.
When I was on the Plain of Jars a few months ago I met one of the heads of the government police force on the PdJ – he was a Hmong. I spent a day with a Hmong guy who helps run a travel agency, and though his father had fought for Vang Pao and he didn’t like the present government, he didn’t complain about their overall treatment of the Hmong. None of the westerners I talked to living on the PdJ were aware of huge problems with the Hmong. I assume the Lao government, which makes a point of having Hmong on the Politburo and other positions of power, talks about “nationality rights”, etc., are treating them like anyone else if only to avoid antagonizing the huge numbers of Hmong in northern Laos who obviously could become a huge problem if provoked.
What I learned about Vang Pao was that he was a brutal, vicious sociopath who killed, one on one, face to face, without compunction. In “The Most Secret Place on Earth,” Charlie Weitz, an Air America pilot, says:
“I’ll never forget the first time I met VP. He was walking up towards me. They were dragging a defector down toward him. As he walked by he just pulled out a gun, blew the guy’s head off, and kept on walking. And I said, ‘you have to listen to what this guy has to say.'”
That the U.S. empowered and unleashed this sociopath on the Hmong people and Laotians in general is one of their major crimes during the Indochina war (though only one of hundreds of such crimes.)
Vang Pao was a Sergeant in the French army, a member of a small clan, a virtually nobody in traditional Hmong society. CIA case officer Bill Lair heard about him and began supporting him in a relatively small way. Then the CIA, particularly under Lair’s successor Ted Shackley – by supplying him with hundreds of millions of dollars of arms and aid, as well as U.S. aircraft, CIA personnel, tens of thousands of Thais and Nationalist Chinese, the base at Long Cheng, etc., etc. – transformed him from a minor psychopath into a classic vicious and undemocratic Asian warlord.
Vang Pao ruled his own people with an iron hand, as a vicious, savage dictator. Besides his own personal killing and torture, and that he authorized, Al McCoy described how villages who refused to supply soldiers to his army were refused rice and/or bombed.
Vang Pao was said to be personally willing to fight and had shown some talent in the early years – not so much for real war-fighting but launching raids into North Vietnam, assassination, spying, small-scale killing, sabotage etc. Once the war grew beyond small, murderous actions, however, it was way over Vang Pao’s head and the U.S. ran the show. Vang Pao was largely a figurehead from an overall military point of view.
The CIA was clearly just cold-bloodedly using the Hmong, knowing they could not possibly win but sacrificing them on the grounds that they were tying up North Vietnamese soldiers who would otherwise be fighting Americans in South Vietnam. U.S. Airforce Brigadier General Heine Aderholt was in charge of Airforce Special Operations in Southeast Asia, on loan to the CIA, according to the film “The Ravens: Covert War In Laos”, where Aderholt says the following on camera:
“Vang Pao was a son-of-a-bitch, but he was our son-of-a-bitch. That’s exactly what he was. He was brutal and tough and mean. You won’t find many people who will say that, but that’s the God’s honest truth.”
“What would have happened if we hadn’t gone into Laos? There would probably have been more than ten thousand more Americans in South Vietnam because we tied up ten divisions of first-line North Vietnamese soliders. And put them against a bunch of Hmong.
“It’s easier to lose your Hmong people than to lose Americans. It doesn’t make as bad publicity at home.”
(For the record there were never more than a few thousand North Vietnamese troops in Laos, according to the U.S military attaché, until February 1971 when I was expelled. Their numbers grow subsequently, but the idea that there were “ten divisions” there is absurd and delusional.)
One of Vang Pao’s main interests was moving opium and heroin, using the Air America planes at his disposal, to the huge market of U.S. soldiers in South Vietnam. He showed no compunction about doing this, nor did the CIA which turned a blind eye to it.
Ron told me that somewhere in the mid-1960s even Vang Pao had cold feet about presiding over the disappearance of the Hmong on his side, and wanted to give up, but the CIA and Pop Buell wouldn’t let him quit. So Vang Pao continued functioning as a warlord and enriching himself, while presiding over the death of countless Hmong boys sent off the fight, and be slaughtered by, the North Vietnamese/Pathet Lao.
In late 1970, while interpreting for Sydney Schanberg, I went up with a group of journalists to Sam Thong, This was the famous incident where, after the typical VP briefing asking for more arms, Tim Allman stringing for the NY Times, Max Coiffait of AFP and John Saar of Time/Life, walked over the hill to Long Cheng and reported on it for the first time.
What I remember most, however, was interviewing a sweet, innocent 15 year old Hmong “soldier” with a big gun who had been forced to fight in the CIA’s “Secret Army.” That was late 1970. I particularly remember his fearful and confused dark eyes. The war – and the death of many more Hmong children who the CIA mercilessly forced into battle knowing they would be massacred – vastly escalated over the next two plus years. I’ve wondered since if he lived. I doubt it.
So I regard Vang Pao as a monster and sociopath whom the U.S. used for its own ends. Even if one wants to argue, as I would not, that there was a rationale for the CIA supporting him in the late 1950s or early 1960s, I don’t see how anyone with a mind or conscience can justify his and the CIA keeping their Hmong teenagers fighting after it was long clear that they could not win anything and would only be slaughtered.
There are many reasons to despise Vang Pao: his siding with the colonialists rather than those – including many Hmong – fighting for independence from the French, his savagery and brutality, his total disregard for democratic and human rights, his vast corruption as he enriched himself from the opium and heroin trade, his indifference to the wellbeing of the great mass of his people, etc. But, for me, the greatest reason for despising Vang Pao is that he didn’t quit in the mid-1960s, when he wanted to, and – for his own personal psychological needs, including an addiction to power and wealth – presided over the slaughter of countless more young Hmong men despite knowing they were just being used by CIA and U.S. Air force careerists.
You say you could regard him as a tragic figure in a way. I guess one could argue he was a tragic figure in the same way little Heinzie Kissinger deserves sympathy for what he went through from ages 9-15 in Nazi Germany as a Jewish child living through the period from when Hitler took power up until Kristalnacht, a particularly sensitive age when one is aware of the fear and horror but not fully comprehending what is going on.
Unfortunately, both men as adults to my mind became monsters in human form, e.g. the recent revelation of Kissinger’s comment that the Russians sending Jews to the gas chamber was not an American foreign policy concern. I can sympathize with them as individuals, but also feel strongly that they need to be judged for their actions. There is no serious question that Kissinger – and Vang Pao – would have been executed for their warcrimes had they been subject to the Nuremberg Judgement.
The question for me about Kissinger is not Kissinger himself – obviously a deeply traumatized and disturbed individual whom I could have sympathy for in a one-on-one situation. To me the Kissinger issue is how such an obviously sick and sickening, cruel and malignant beast who had no regard for human life, could rise to such power and become the toast of American society, and of course that he was not brought to justice for his crimes against humanity. When I think of Kissinger, I find myself wondering what his career tells us about the sickness of the human psyche in general and that of American elites in particular.
I have the same basic attitude toward Vang Pao.
For an enlightened and accurate telling of the CIA´secret history in Laos ,check out The Most Secret Place on Earth, a feature documentary by Marc Eberle, which talks to the protagonists of Laos civil war – on both sides. The film features interviews with State Department, CIA, Air America officials, as well as Vang Pao and some of his critics – Fred Branfman and Professor Alfred McCoy amongst them.
Watch the trailer for the feature length documentary The Most Secret Place on Earth – The CIA´s covert war in Laos here.
Director: Marc Eberle, Screenplay: Marc Eberle/Tom Vater, Producer: www.beetz-brothers.de, Co-Production: NDR/arte/WDR
Developed within the framework of Discovery Campus Masterschool 2003
Funded by the Filmförderung HHSH, Filmstiftung NRW, MEDIA NEW TALENTS and MEDIA BROADCAST
The Most Secret Place on Earth was screened at ten international film festivals and in German cinemas early 2009 and was nominated for the Golden Panda at Sichuan intl. Film Festival, China, the History Makers’ Award, New York, the Banff World Television Award, Canada, and the North German Film Award. It has been broadcast on European television several times.
Photograph of Fred Branfman at FCC Bangkok by Michael LaPalme.