The Hmong are an ethnic group from the highlands of Laos. When a communist movement called the Pathet Lao began to gain power in Laos during the Vietnam War, the Central Intelligence Agency recruited the Hmong to fight the communists and attack North Vietnamese supply lines. The resulting conflict far outlasted the Vietnam War.
The Secret War
The Hmong's struggle with the communists didn't begin with the CIA. In the earlier war between the French colonial rulers of Indochina and the communist rebels, the Hmong had fought on the side of the French. The Hmong people valued their independence highly and feared that the communists would not respect their autonomy. When the communist Pathet Lao movement joined the Laotian government, the CIA decided to recruit the Hmong as guerrilla fighters to keep the Pathet Lao from helping their communist allies in the neighboring country of Vietnam. Because Laos was officially a neutral country, the CIA's proxy war was kept secret.
When the CIA decided to recruit the Hmong for their secret war, the agency sent a few agents into the Laotian highlands to train and organize the Hmong guerrilla forces. The Hmong military leader was a man named Vang Pao, also known as "The General." The U.S. government supplied Vang Pao's Royal Laos Army with training, weapons, food and ammunition and asked them to wage a guerrilla war against the Pathet Lao as well as any Vietnamese communists operating in Laos.
Hmong forces suffered tremendous losses in their fight against the communists. Before the war there were approximately 300,000 to 400,000 Hmong living in the Laotian highlands, but about 100,000 of them were killed in the fighting. As the war progressed, Vang Pao began to recruit children between eight and 13 years old to fill the ranks of his depleted forces. The Hmong had always grown opium for their own use, but Vang Pao began to smuggle the drug on a large scale to help fund his war effort.
After the War
The consequences of the war were devastating for the Hmong people. Some of the Hmong, including Vang Pao, immigrated to the United States after the war. There are now Hmong immigrant communities in a number of Midwestern cities. Many of the Hmong ended up in refugee camps in Thailand, but a remnant of the Royal Laos Army never gave up the struggle. They were still fighting the Laotian government in 2010 when journalist William Lloyd George visited one of their hidden camps in the jungle. In an article in "The Independent," George described them as a tiny force of desperate people clinging to the hope that the CIA would come back to rescue them.
- Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images