Hmong American History

William Colby, the
Hmong and the CIA
“Don’t get the Hmong to do any attack against the North Vietnamese.
We don’t want to escalate this thing any more than possible.
We would just like to dampen it down where it is … where we
don’t let it get any further but we don’t try to win any victories there [Laos].”
-William Colby
Former CIA Director

In 1962, with few viable options, President John E Kennedy asked the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to find people in Laos who valued their independence enough to resist the North Vietnamese encroachment into their country.

With that order, two agents contacted the Hmong, recounted former CIA chief William E. Colby to a small group of mainly Hmong students who had gathered at the Georgetown Hmong Youth Conference.

The events Colby spoke of transpired some thirty years ago during the time of their parents, long before any of these students had been born. So appropriately enough, it was in this room at Georgetown University last April-surrounded by the very children of transplanted Hmong veterans the CIA recruited to fight the “secret war” in Laos-that Colby’s long, distinguished life came full circle.

No one knew it at the time but unfortunately, this would be Colby’s last public speaking engagement. just three weeks after filling in important gaps in the formation of the CIA’s relationship with these students’ parents, Colby was found dead in the Potomac River, the victim of a ruptured aneurysm.

As one of the less than twenty people present at his last speech, it was a true pleasure to meet the man and to have him place the Laotian war into the larger context of the worldwide conflict in Southeast Asia. The following analysis presents parts of Colby’s speech along with other evidence that will help clarify the conflict in Laos and the Hmong role.

As with the Hmong, the Vietnam War remains a traumatic period in history for many Americans. The aftershocks of the American effort to contain communism in Southeast Asia continue to be felt to this day. in just two decades, a whole new community with an ancient culture was transplanted from one world to another. Twenty years ago, many Americans would not have known who a “Hmong” person was.

Today, the Hmong inhabit all regions of the United States – and all five continents.

For the Hmong people, the drama in Laos remains at the center of attention. Fighting the secret war in Laos forced the Hmong to assume many roles and identities; from highland farmers they became guerrilla warfare specialists, then refugees fleeing genocide and finally the Hmong found themselves taking on the role of immigrants, adopting new homes around the world. It is with this understanding of Hmong history that one must have to truly know the significance of the Hmong people in Colby’s speech.

Colby is better known for giving away the CIA’s “family jewels,” top level cloak and dagger secrets which included plots to topple foreign governments and schemes of assassination. His importance to Hmong history however, lies in his revelations about the American government’s policy position with respect to Laos. What was America doing in Laos, a small count of only three million people, full of mountains and as backward as any third world country?

After two decades, the Hmong are still uncertain as to why the Americans turned to them for help against the communists. The origin of the relationship between the Hmong and the United States can be traced to events that began before 1962 which culminated in the signing of the Geneva Accords.

Before 1962, American, Soviet, Chinese and North Vietnamese military and paramilitary forces were all present in Laos. American policy-makers became concerned with the possibility of military confrontation between the superpowers. To them, the consequences of such an encounter could have disastrous results, as three of the four countries possessed nuclear capabilities.

“President Kennedy and General Secretary Kruschev the Soviet Union had a meeting in 1961,” Colby explained. “They both agreed, we were going to have our confrontations. Laos [was] not the place for it. Let’s recognize a neutral and independent Laos, withdraw all our military and para-military forces, just leave it alone and leave it out of the equation.”

General agreements from that meeting resulted in the signing of the Geneva Accords in 1962. In itself, the primary goal of the Accords was simple and symbolic: it expressed the mutual American and Soviet interest in avoiding possible confrontation in the tiny country by broadly prohibiting all nations from interfering in the affairs of Laos. Specifically, it required all nations to remove non-diplomatic personnel from Laotian soil.

To ensure compliance, Canada, India and Poland were selected to the ICC or International Commission for Supervision and Control of Laos. Its duty: To monitor and report violations of the Accords to the signatory countries.

In theory, the carefully chosen members of the ICC – one communist state (Poland), one American-allied state (Canada) and one supposedly neutral state (India) – was to secure fair and equal representation from the two principle governing/social theories, democracy and communism. One system was not to gain an advantage over the other. In practice however, the United States felt that India leaned favorably toward communism. This bias on India’s behalf quickly presented the Americans with a major obstacle.

Pursuant to the agreement, the USSR, China and the United States all withdrew their troops. But when the North Vietnamese dishonored the Accords and removed only forty soldiers from a force of 7,000, American policy-makers faced the first of a series of major dilemmas. As feared, despite obvious breech of international agreement by North Vietnam, the ICC stalled investigations and failed to rigorously enforce treaty conditions. At the same time, the United States could not reintroduce American troops into Laos to force compliance with the Geneva Accords without breaking the treaty themselves. Such a move risked drawing Chinese and Soviet military presence back into Laos.

Keeping with policy, the American government didn’t want to risk unnecessary military confrontation with the other two world powers. However, the United States still needed to prevent the North Vietnamese from helping the communist Pathet Lao take over Laos. It was within this global context that forged the alliance between the United States and the Hmong. The 1962 Geneva Accords proscribed the manner in which the Americans could help the Hmong and the type of war the Hmong would be required to fight.

“We began to get the signals in 1962 after the agreement [Geneva Accords] that the North Vietnamese were beginning to move. The were beginning to build up their forces. They were beginning to move out of the area Nam Sam Neau and so forth, down towards the Plain de Jars. They began to push the Hmong around. . .. He [President Kennedy] said: ‘CIA, can you provide a little quiet help to the people in Laos who want to fight for their own independence?’ and our two officers were in contact with the Hmong,” Colby recounted.

“They said, ‘Yes, the Hmong want to fight.’ They wanted to defend their territory against these North Vietnamese who were beginning to push down into them and that was basically the origin of the [Hmong/CIA] relationship.”

American desire to adhere to the spirit of the Geneva Accords deemed it necessary that the Hmong serve as a clandestine force which could harass the North Vietnamese without being directly linked to the United States. The Hmong were prohibited from taking any offensive actions as that could lead to an escalation in the war on the part of the North Vietnamese. Increased fighting also had the potential to expose the American support of the Hmong and could possibly lead to a complete annulment of the Geneva Accords. Colby – then CIA Deputy Director – was instructed by Assistant Secretary W. Averell Harriman of the State Department to keep the effort in Laos purely defensive in nature.

“‘Okay, one hundred guns but no attacks, only for defense,’ ” Colby said of Harriman’s orders.

“Don’t get the Hmong to do any attack against the North Vietnamese. We don’t want to escalate this thing any more than possible, ” explained Colby of the American policy in the 1960s. “We would just like to dampen it down where it is … where we don’t let it get any further but we don’t try to win any victories there [Laos].”

The need to conceal American involvement in Laos was also substantiated by the testimony of William Sullivan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

In October of 1969, Sullivan was questioned by the Counsel Roland A. Paul before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the United States’s commitment to the Hmong.

Paul asked of Sullivan: “So the presence of American military forces in Laos is not in itself a commitment-generating factor?” “We do not consider that it is a commitment,” Sullivan replied. Paul clarified his own question: “Would this means that we could increase our military presence in stages in Laos with the ability to terminate that augmentation at any time?” “I believe that we have that ability currently. In fact, we used to use a rule of thumb our ability to make it reversible and terminate it within eight hours,” Sullivan answered. “It would probably take 24 hours now, but it still could be done.”

From the very beginning the United States was interested in maintaining the neutrality of Laos. American diplomats negotiated the Geneva Accords in good faith not knowing beforehand that the North Vietnamese would not honor the agreement. Even in supporting Hmong, the United States tried to hold to the spirit of the Accords by discouraging the Hmong from taking the offensive. American forces in Laos were held to 24-hour rule, partly to minimize the chances of detection.

What was the commitment of the United States with respect to the Hmong given the American desire for neutrality?

Sullivan testified in 1969, there was no commitment to the Hmong from day to day. The relationship between the Hmong and the United States served the greater purpose of keeping Laos neutral. The Americans assumed the attitude that the Hmong had lived on this land long enough to defend it against foreign encroachment. According to Colby, from an American policy-making standpoint, the arrangement appeared mutually beneficial.

The United States provided the munitions and general directions but left the decisions up to the Hmong. It was an arrangement that suited the Hmong perfectly Being intensely independent, fighting the war as they saw fit was a level of control that few Hmong leaders had ever experienced before. With American aid, the Hmong advanced rapidly beyond the limits imposed on them by Laotian society. At this basic level of analysis, the relationship served both sides well.

However, given that the secret war in Laos was dictated to be a stalemate by the American interest in preserving the neutrality of Laos, what would have been the fate of the Hmong in Laos if the war had not ended? Since the Hmong were expected to fight a purely defensive war, there was no chance the North Vietnamese would ever be driven out of Laos. The war in Laos could have continued without a final resolution. But by the close of the war in Laos, the age of some of the front-line Hmong troops were starting to dip into the low teens. The estimated casualties sustained by Hmong forces by 1969 was 18,000. From such sobering facts, it is evident that the Hmong could not have sustained a defensive war indefinitely, regardless of US or Hmong desire to continue such a fight.

Colby maintains that the defensive strategy devised by the CIA and employed by the United States was ultimately in the best interest of the Hmong. “I have to say that that was good for Laos, and for the Hmong. You were not subjected to the massive kind of military contest that might have developed otherwise, including the massive destruction that [a major war effort] brings,” Colby said.

It will never be known how a full-scale war would have affected the Hmong in Laos. Were more Hmong lives saved because the situation never escalated beyond a minor war in a backward, agrarian country? What did happen was that support from the United States ended with the commencement of the Paris peace talks with the North Vietnamese, Laos fell to communism and the Hmong had no alternatives but to flee in masses.

More than two decades after the war in Laos, the Hmong continue to struggle to understand the war and their role in it. Many in the Hmong community still claim the war could have been won. However, given the limitations placed upon American support, there is little doubt that if the war could have been won by Hmong forces alone, it would have been won at a tremendous cost in Hmong lives. It is about time that the Hmong community know the complete truth about the war in Laos. Knowing the truth will finally allow the older generation to put to rest any feelings that they lost a war. Knowing the truth will give the new generations respect for their people and their origin.

Colby’s final remarks reflect many of the American voices who worked with, fought alongside, and died with the tens of thousands of Hmong in Laos: “As an American, I for one am delighted that our country has been strengthen by the addition of people like yourselves. You can be good Hmong and at the same time, you can be good Americans. You can be both,” Colby said. “And I think you will be.”