This post is a chapter from a much larger manuscript about the Golden Triangle which I’m currently writing and should be published later this year.
In war, there are winners and losers. While the Vietnam Wars were fought by France and the United States from 1947-1973, another war-a secret war-was fought in the mountains of neighboring Laos at the same time. This secret war involved the Hmong Hill Tribe of northeastern Laos and their opium. It was a war the Hmong lost with devastating consequences.
This Profile in Opium tells the story of the Hmong of northeastern Laos who lived in and around the high plateau called the Plain of Jars-named for the thousands of ancient and mysterious stone jars that are scattered about the plain. Their leader during the Secret War between 1962-1975: Hmong General Vang Pao.
The Plain of Jars
This tragedy of the Hmong is cast on the Plain of Jars, a windswept plateau where thousands of ancient jars are strewn across the landscape. Some jars are nine feet tall and weigh 25 tons. Others much smaller. Some have human bones inside.
The jars are ancient-maybe as old as 2,500 years. Archeologists can tell us nothing about who made them. Current belief is that they were funereal urns. The Hmong believe a race of giants carved them to hold lao lao-rice whiskey.
Today it is still dangerous to visit the Plain of Jars. The Americans dropped two million pounds of bombs on this area of Laos between 1964-1973. Many of the bombs are unexploded and lie just under the ground. 1
The jars mostly survived the Secret War. Not so with the Hmong.
“Every prosperous home must have opium.”
-Hmong proverb 2
The Hmong are one of many Hill Tribes of the Golden Triangle that have grown opium since the beginnings of the 19th Century. In fact for the Hmong, growing opium is a way of life, a cultural tradition, and an important economic resource. 3
The Hmong are part of a much larger ethnic group called the Meo. But don’t refer to the Hmong as Meo-they insist on being called Hmong. They are Hmong and proud of it. When historians refer to “Meo opium”, they are often referring to Hmong opium.
Around 1800, the Hmong began to migrate from southern China into Laos, Vietnam and to a lesser extent Thailand. 6 As the 19th Century unfolded, more and more Hmong left China and migrated southward, searching for a new homeland. The Hmong exodus from China was propelled by political violence perpetrated against them by ethnic Chinese warlords.
Northern Vietnam and Laos received the largest influx of Hmong migrants, no doubt because of proximity to southern China and the mountainous terrain was similar to their homeland in China. As the Hmong migrated south into Laos and Vietnam, they migrated as refugees escaping violence.
In 2008, the Hmong numbered 3 million in China, 850,000 in Vietnam, 460,000 in Laos and about 150,000 in Thailand. 7 According to the 2010 U.S. Census, roughly 260,000 Hmong live in the United States as a result of being displaced refugees after the end of the Laotian civil war in 1975.
The Hmong & Opium
It was in Laos that Hmong culture would be inextricably linked to producing opium. In fact, opium would become their most important crop. 8
In Laos, the Hmong successfully carved out a homeland in the mountains and high plateau area of northeastern Laos. During the 19th Century, they harvested their opium and sold it to Muslim caravan traders who in turn sold it to French Indochina’s opium monopoly. There were no laws that prohibited the opium trade. In fact, Laos didn’t outlaw opium until the early 1970’s. The Hmong used the opium poppy as a cash crop.
Opium brought in desperately needed cash to Hmong families who lived a subsistence level life. It was their only cash crop. From the mid-19th Century to the early 1950s, Hmong opium was smoked in the many dens located in Laos and Vietnam. And then in the late 50’s and 60’s, it was Hmong opium that was smuggled to Hong Kong for refinement into heroin. By the 1970’s, Hmong opium was being refined into #4 grade heroin (95-98% pure) in Laos itself.
The Hmong were the largest opium producers in Laos. 9 Not that it ever made them wealthy. But in the 1960’s, a small plot of poppy on a family farm might bring in $100-$200 (US) annually-a huge amount in Laos where per capita yearly income at the time was only $70 (US). 10
No one knows when the Hmong first started to grow opium poppies. Did they grow it in China prior to 1800 and their migration into Indochina? In fact some scholars say the Hmong migrated south into Laos for the specific purpose of growing opium. 11 Or did opium become a Hmong cash crop starting only in the mid-19th century as a result of the British/Chinese opium wars that spurred domestic demand? 12 No one is certain and the Hmong can’t say.
But what is certain, is that the Hmong migrated to the mountains and high plateaus of Laos where the climate and soil for poppy cultivation is excellent. And from that point forward Hmong culture and opium were forever linked.
Poppies to Opium: Hmong Farming
Opium poppies grow best at elevations between 1,000-1,500 meters. Vang Pao’s Hmong lived in the general region of the Plain of Jars which varies between 1,100-1,300 meters. Opium is a winter crop and needs cool temperatures and sporadic rain. (Too much rain washes away the seeds that are broadcast on the ground.) The climate and rainfall of the Plain of Jars fits the opium bill perfectly. Opium loves lots of lime in the soil. The mountain slopes of this area are rich in lime.
A Hmong village could be as small as just a few rickety bamboo shacks in the mountains. These small settlements were only accessible by trail. No roads. A short distance from a village are the Hmong fields that usually lie on mountain slopes. The Hmong are slash and burn farmers. In the Spring, the men clear a new plot, usually a hectare or less, and then set fire to it to burn away the undergrowth. The ash fertilizes the soil.
The Hmong also grow corn and rice during the summer months. Opium poppy is a winter crop. Corn and rice deplete the soil and so the Hmong must slash and burn a new field after only 3-4 years to grow rice or corn. But opium can grow on a plot far longer, up to 10 years, before the soil is depleted. 13
Most Hmong use some of the opium they produce. 14 And like all over the Golden Triangle, the Hmong smoke their opium in long pipes. Opium is used to treat fever, diarrhea, cough or any respiratory problem, arthritis, and of course pain.
Poppy cultivation and opium collection is women’s work. Men clear the field and burn it. But it’s the women who plant, weed and tend the crop. It’s the women who lance the poppy bulb to collect the oozing opium. This will become an important fact as Hmong men suffered terrible casualties during the Secret War, yet the poppy fields continued to bloom until about 1970 when production fell off.
Hmong Opium & Operation X: The Quid pro quo
After WWII, the French attempted to re-establish their colonial state of French Indochina after the Japanese Imperial Army had been vanquished. Communist forces in Vietnam-the Viet Minh-and in Laos-the Pathet Lao-went to war against French occupation. The Hmong of Laos and Vietnam found themselves in the middle of a war of independence even though they had little national identity to either country. They were Hmong, not Laotian!
In Laos, the problem for the French was that their Royal Laotian Army was a rather cowardly force and not much interested in fighting against the Pathet Lao who were supported by the North Vietnamese Army. The French needed tough guerrilla fighters who knew the countryside and would attack Pathet Lao and Viet Minh positions. The French recruited the Hmong in Laos as their Hill Tribe army to not only directly fight the communists but also to provide intelligence on communist troop movements and strength.
But not all the Hmong sided with the French. Some sided with the Pathet Lao. The Hmong in Laos were never a unified group. There were Red, Green, and Striped Hmong who spoke different dialects. 15 There were 18 different Hmong clans, all showing different allegiances through their clan headsman. 16
Fearless, bold, resourceful and anti-communist, the Hmong of Xieng Khuang Province and the area around the Plain of Jars fit the bill for the French. But there was a quid pro quo that cemented the French/Hmong military relationship-opium. The French would purchase the Hmong opium crop and in return the Hmong would fight on the French side. The French would then sell the opium in Saigon and use the profits to buy arms to supply the Hmong. 17 A win-win situation.
But it was now a post-WWII world, and attitudes about the opium trade had changed drastically from before WWII. World powers now condemned the recreational use of drugs and the old colonial opium monopolies. France was no longer free to openly exploit opium as they did in their colonial days. Therefore the French purchase of Hmong opium was now done secretly and it was called Operation X. 18
Operation X-money & guns for Hmong opium-lasted from 1946-1954.
Enter the Americans
In 1954, the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, defeated the French at Diem Bien Phu in northern Vietnam just across the Laotian border which ended French involvement in Southeast Asia. In 1955, the United Nations divided Vietnam into two countries-north and south, and Laos became officially an independent, neutral nation. No country was permitted to send troops or give military aid to Laos. 19
In 1960, sleepy, backward Laos was the most troubling country in the world for the United States. The U.S. would not stand idly by while the communists took control of Indochina. Laos was the most pressing foreign policy issue facing the newly elected American president John F. Kennedy. 20 In Laos, a proxy war was about to be fought between the United States and the Royal Laotian Government on one side, and North Vietnam with its ally Russia on the other. The Hmong of Vang Pao found themselves pulled into this war and used as cannon fodder by the Americans.
But the United States had a problem. They couldn’t send military aid or support without violating the new United Nations agreement about Laotian neutrality. Therefore, the U.S. began a secret war of military support for the Royal Laotian Government and the training and arming of the Hmong living around the area called the Plain of Jars.
The Secret War
The United States ran into the same problem as had the French-the Royal Laotian Army (RLA) preferred their barracks to the battlefield. The U.S. needed Hmong guerrilla fighters just like the French did. Starting in 1961, the U.S. government used the Central Intelligence Agency to begin recruiting and arming the Hmong in and around the Plain of Jars to fight its Secret War. 21 Essentially the American Hmong army was the same as the French Hmong army. But the Americans wanted a new leader. One that wasn’t shy about leading Hmong troops into battle and taking casualties.
But who would lead this Hmong guerrilla army and why would the Hmong fight on the side of the Laotian government and the Americans? After all, they were Hmong and certainly didn’t identify as Laotian.
The answer to the first question was a young Hmong colonel in the RLA named Vang Pao. The answer to the second question: opium. Just like the French Operation X, the American CIA was about to get involved with the Hmong opium trade as a carrot to reward military loyalty. 22
Vang Pao: The Hmong General
“If we die, we die together. Nobody will be left behind.”
Vang Pao was born December 8, 1929 in the Hmong village of Nong Het in Xieng Khuang Province, a stone’s throw from the northern Vietnamese border and smack dab in the middle of prime opium country. Although fluent in French and comfortable in the presence of foreigners, it was his Hmong culture that guided his life. An important fact considering opium culture was Hmong culture.
He was a warrior. Still only in his teens, Vang Pao became an interpreter for French forces trying to break the occupation of the Japanese from French Indochina of which Laos was a part. He attended the French Military Academy in Laos and at the age of 25 he was made an officer in the Royal Laotian Army. 23 He advanced quickly up the ranks of the Royal Laotian Army and became a major general in 1964. 24
Vang Pao had five wives and 20 children. He married women from different clans which was a basic method in Hmong culture for a rising leader to garner a larger following than merely his own clan.
He had only a few years of formal education yet was well read and spoke fluent French, Lao and of course his native Hmong. He was charismatic and many of his Hmong saw him as a demi-god. The American military and CIA loved Vang Pao. He was a soldier’s soldier. 25
He did not smoke opium and didn’t want his soldiers using it either. He knew it made them lethargic and unfit for battle. But he was also realistic enough to know that some of his soldiers would be addicted to opium by virtue of its ubiquitous presence in Hmong life. Therefore, at times he would airdrop opium to his troops on the ground so they could stave off the consequences of opium withdrawal. 26
Vang Pao knew opium as only a Hmong could. Since childhood, he would have seen opium grown, collected, stored, smoked, and sold to opium merchants who came to his village every Spring. He understood the critical economic importance of opium to his Hmong.
Although Vang Pao was a disciplined soldier with a crisp salute and a sophisticated military tactician, he was also a very superstitious man. The Hmong are animists by religion and believe in talismans, spirits and spells. Vang Pao was no different.
In February 1966, he was shot in the shoulder as he stepped off a helicopter in a forward combat position. He survived and was told by his commanders that possibly he had been shot by one of his own troops and not the Viet Minh. Vang Pao gathered all his troops present at the time he was wounded and demanded they drink a special Hmong holy water that would kill any Hmong soldier who had attempted to kill him. The soldiers drank and nobody died. Proof to Vang Pao that he’d been shot by the enemy and not a fellow Hmong. 27
Again, when our discussion turns to the role of Vang Pao in the Hmong opium trade and what he knew, his cultural identity and knowledge will be important factors in determining that role.
C.I.A. personnel stationed in Laos during the Secret War named the country with perjorative intent “The Land of Oz”. They called General Vang Pao the “Wizard of Oz.” 28
The Dark Side
Vang Pao was a fearless soldier who even as a general would often show up at forward firefight positions and himself engage the enemy. His Hmong worshipped his bravery. He brooked no tolerance of any soldier who shied from battle. Nor would he loose sleep when his young soldiers suffered punishing casualties.
Vang Pao ordered summary executions of his own soldiers.29 When a soldier failed to carry out an important assignment or angered the general in some way, his execution would be ordered and immediately carried out. Such executions enforced discipline. He also executed prisoners of war that he had captured. 30 A war crime.
Vang Pao paid his soldiers with CIA money. He would inflate the number of soldiers on his payroll and keep dead soldiers on the payroll, keeping the money for himself. 31
And as we will see when the Secret War goes badly for the Hmong, Vang Pao will conscript Hmong boys as young as 13 for his army. And if a family or village refused to give up their boys, he would threaten to either bomb the village or cut off its rice supplies.
General Vang Pao, with service revolver on hip and the blessing of the CIA, was no one to trifle with.
The Central Intelligence Agency
The responsibility of waging the Secret War was given to the CIA by the American government. Since the United Nations had declared Laos a neutral state, it was too risky to allow the United States military to become actively involved in Laos. The U.S. involvement in Laos needed to be hush-hush.
The CIA had few choices in selecting Vang Pao to lead an army of Hmong. He was native to the area of the Plain of Jars; He was the highest ranking Hmong officer in Laos; He was stridently anti-communist; He was charismatic and his Hmong would follow him into battle; He was square-jawed, decisive and talked in a tough military jargon-all qualities that the CIA adored. And most importantly, he wasn’t hesitant to commit his Hmong to battle and suffer casualties. There was no second choice for the CIA. Vang Pao was their guy.
In 1960, Vang Pao had roughly 1,000 Hmong guerillas under his command. Within a year, he had 9,000. By late 1963, his command had now become an army of 30,000. 34 The Hmong army reached its peak in 1968 with 40,000 trained and armed troops.35
But the CIA was about to find out what the French already knew: If you want the Hmong on your side, you must accept their opium trade. 36 This quid pro quo was succinctly stated in Ramparts magazine in 1971:
“Opium was the economic cement binding the parties [the Hmong and Americans] together much more closely than anti-communism could.” 37
There is no doubt that the Hmong living in and around the Plain of Jars were loyal to Vang Pao. But their loyalty was not a blind allegiance. There were economic and coercive elements that Vang Pao and the CIA employed that assured rank and file “support” from the Hmong.
The Carrot: From 1966 onward, Vang Pao sent his officers to isolated villages to buy the opium crop from individual Hmong farmers. Individual farmers sold their small crops yields of opium, usually between 3-15 kilos, to buying agents of Vang Pao. 38 They offered more than the market rate for opium, buying a kilo for $60 (US) instead of the market rate of $50/kilo which ensured loyalty. 39
The Stick: Vang Pao’s Hmong army was not a volunteer force. Young Hmong men were either conscripted or downright pressganged into service. If a village refused to allow its young men to be conscripted, Vang Pao would refuse to buy their opium and threatened to treat the village as if it were the Pathet Lao enemy. 40
He also used rice as a stick for recruiting village young men and even boys into his army, while at the same time increasing opium production by families. Since rice was now being supplied by Vang Pao and the CIA, a family no longer needed to plant and grow rice, and therefore could dedicate more farmland to the poppy crop. As the war progressed, the Hmong villages came to depend on rice delivered to them by CIA planes and helicopters. If a village refused to allow its youth to join Vang Pao, he would threaten to stop the rice deliveries. 41
Some argue that the CIA had plenty of money, and unlike the French and Operation X, had no need to finance a Hmong army through opium. While true, this misses the mark concerning Hmong household economics, opium culture, and the value of opium itself. The subsistence Hmong family needed their opium crop to survive economically. They weren’t just going to suddenly do away with poppy farming because some foreigners found opium unseemly.
Fact: The CIA never directly bought Hmong opium as the French did and sell it to distributors in Saigon. But by the mid-60’s, the Hmong could no longer sell their opium to their traditional buyer-the mule caravan traders who trundled throughout the Golden Triangle and came to the isolated Hmong villages in Spring to purchase the opium crop. 42 The war had made the countryside too dangerous. The Hmong were now dependent on Vang Pao and the CIA to buy and transport their cash crop to market. 43
CIA Logistics: opium takes flight
The CIA and Vang Pao began building a Hmong guerrilla army starting in 1961. The plan was to arm, supply and organize the countless Hmong villages that dotted the mountainous areas in and around the Plain of Jars, and Xieng Khuang and Houaphan Provinces in northeastern Laos. This area became known as “Military Region #2” and Vang Pao was in charge of it.
There were no roads where many of the Hmong lived, only trails and pack-animal routes. In order to arm and supply the Hmong, the CIA began carving landing strips on ridges and mountain sides where small planes and helicopters could land. These short, dirt landing areas were called “Lima sites” and by 1970 there were approximate 300 such sites in and around the Plain of Jars. 44
The CIA based their operations in Long Tieng, a small village before the war about 125 kilometers north of Vientiane. At its height in 1971, Long Tieng had 40,000 inhabitants and bustled with activity. It’s landing strip was nearly 1300 meters long and could handle any type of aircraft. It was from Long Tieng that the CIA would fly to the 300 Hmong Lima sites to deliver food and weapons. 45
The CIA could not use aircraft with the markings of the US Military. CIA aircraft had to be disguised as civilian aircraft to hide American military involvement or at least provide a plausible denial. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave a simple reason why the CIA was used by the American military in Laos: “because it was less accountable.” 46
The CIA had a ready answer-Air America. Air America was an outwardly commercial airline, but wholly owned by the CIA. Its forerunner was the Civil Air Transport (C.A.T.), a private airline that the Agency had used to supply the Chinese Nationalists in their war against Japan. In 1959, the CIA purchased C.A.T. and renamed it Air America.
This was not the first time the CIA had disguised an airline to carry out Agency objectives. In the 1950’s, the CIA used “SEA Supply Co.” (Southeast Asian Supply Co.) to fly arms and supplies to the Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) in Burma after their defeat by the Chinese communists.. With both the SEA Supply Co. and Air America, the CIA was credibly linked to opium smuggling. 47
Air America had helicopters, light planes and large C-47 transports positioned at Long Tieng. The helicopters and light planes were used to land at the primitive Lima sites in the mountains and deliver their food and weapons. The return flights carried Hmong opium back to Long Tieng. 48
Accusations that the CIA was involved in transporting Hmong opium first surfaced in the early 1970’s. 49 These initial allegations were at first scoffed at by the CIA, the US Military and many leading politicians. ‘Opium? What opium? We would never stand for something as immoral as drug peddling!’, was the US government’s response.
But as time recedes, the historical record has come into sharper focus. Today there is no doubt that the CIA allowed its aircraft to be used to transport Hmong opium.
In 1971, John Ingersoll, the Director of the US Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (the forerunner of the US Drug Enforcement Agency) made some very startling admissions. The Director, under oath, told a Congressional panel that Air America had “unwittingly” smuggled heroin into Vietnam. 50 He also revealed that just a month prior to his testimony 80 kilos of heroin had been seized on an Air America plane landing in Saigon. 51 He also specifically mentioned the Hmong in reference to Air America and opium:
“The Meo tribesmen (the Hmong) are something else. But I don’t blame the CIA for what the tribesmen do.” 52
Unfortunately for the generals who oversaw the CIA’s Secret War, others began describing the Agency’s involvement with Hmong opium. Ron Rickenbach, USAID Refugee Operations Officer in Laos from 1962-1969, and in charge of delivering food and supplies to the Hmong at the Lima sites stated:
“I was on the airstrips. My people were in charge of supplying the aircraft. I was in the areas where opium was grown. I personally witnessed it being placed on Air America planes.” 53
Rickenbach also stated:
“The people (Hmong) were willing to take up arms….Growing opium was a natural agricultural enterprise for these people and they had been doing it for many years before the Americans ever got there. When we got there, they continued to do so.” 54
Neil Hansen, an Air American pilot bluntly stated:
“Yes, I’ve seen the sticky bricks (opium) come on board and no one was challenging their right to carry it. It was their own property.” 55
The CIA/Hmong quid pro quo was now fully articulated: Fight on the American side and the CIA will give you food, guns and the CIA will transport your opium to market.
Xieng Khouang Air = Air Opium
In 1967, the CIA gave Vang Pao two Dakota C-47 transport aircraft for the ostensible purpose of flying supplies between Long Tieng and Vientiane. This airline became the main conduit whereby opium brought to Long Tieng by Air America helicopters and small aircraft was then flown south to Vientiane for either processing into heroin or morphine base. 56 Ergo-Air Opium.
The real reason the CIA gave Vang Pao two C-47s to use at his disposal was for the reason Henry Kissinger had previously alluded to when asked about using the CIA in Laos: “because it was less accountable.” 57 In other words, the CIA knew Vang Pao would use these C-47s to carry opium and if discovered by the press, the CIA had an easy out-‘That’s not our airline. We know nothing.” Plausible deniability.
Hmong Opium 1966-1971: How Much?
The evidence is clear; the witnesses believable; the economics sound; the quid pro quo followed: The CIA flew helicopters and small planes to isolated Hmong villages and carried their opium back to the sprawling CIA base at Long Tieng.
Fifty years later, the CIA at best can only muster a defense of “yes, but we didn’t know at the time.” But how could the CIA not know? The head of USAID in Laos knew. Air American pilots knew. The Hmong knew. The Laotian generals knew. Was it really only the CIA who didn’t know? And what about Vang Pao? What exactly was his role?
The first question to be answered is how much opium did the Hmong produce who lived under Vang Pao’s authority? While no precise records exist we can arrive at a rough estimate using the imprecise data at hand.
Laotian Opium: The 1960’s
The U.S. Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in 1968 estimated that Laos was producing 100-150 metric tons of opium annually. 58 But that figure is an estimate and its underlying assumptions unknown.
The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) stated that Laotian opium production in 1966 couldn’t be ascertained because of the civil war. 59 But the United Nations was able to estimate Thailand’s opium production in 1966 at approximately 145 metric tons. 60 Historically, Laos has produced more opium than Thailand annually, therefore the figure of 100-150 metric tons of opium may underestimate Laotian production.
But in their book Whiteout, the authors write that Laotian opium production in 1959 was 150 metric tons and by 1971 had increased to 300 metric tons. 61 These figures would be roughly double the estimates of 100-150 metric tons annually.
The Hmong of Vang Pao didn’t produce the entirety of Laos’s poppy crop. And there were Hmong in Laos who sided against Vang Pao and sold their opium to the Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese. 62While the Hmong were the largest producers of opium, 63 the Hill Tribes of northwestern Laos, especially the Yao, also significantly contributed to Lao’s annual opium yield. But regardless of whether the annual opium harvest was 150 or 300 metric tons, what was the amount of opium produced by the Hmong under Vang Pao?
To answer that question we first need to estimate how many Hmong lived under the military authority of Vang Pao in the timeframe of the late 1960’s.
In 1960, the Hmong Population in and around the Plain of Jars was about 250,000 and nearly all belonged to farm families that grew the opium poppy. 64 In 1972, the total Hmong population in Laos was estimated to be 300,000 to 500,000. 65
It’s very likely that the Hmong population in and around the Plain of Jars including Xieng Khuang and parts of Houaphan Provinces grew from 250,000 in 1960 to roughly 275,000 by 1972, maybe more. This figure would fit perfectly into the Culas and Micraud estimate of 300,000-500,000 total Hmong population in 1972 with 400,000 being the middle point. Therefore if 275,000 Hmong lived under Vang Pao and almost all families grew opium, how much did they grow?
Hill tribe farming is done primarily by family units throughout the Golden Triangle. The Hmong are no different. The villages are not cooperatives and opium revenues are earned by families, not by villages. So, how many Hmong families for a population of 275,000?
It is not unusual for the Hmong to have large families. Let’s assign the average size of a Hmong family unit at 7 persons. That means there were approximately 39,000 family units under Vang Pao in Military Region #2. To guard against overestimation, let’s allow that 10% of all these Hmong families did not grow opium for any variety of reasons. That leaves us with approximately 35,000 opium producing families under Vang Pao.
So how much opium did approximately 35,000 Hmong families produce? Alfred McCoy in his book The Politics of Heroin in S.E. Asia writes that in the Hmong village of Long Pot (under the control of Vang Pao) an average family farm produced 15 kilos annually. 66 Even under the disruptions of the civil war, the villagers of Long Pot maintained an average annual opium yield of 15 kilos. 67
15 kilos per family may be a high number given the favorable growing conditions at Long Pot village, so again to protect against overestimation, lets set the average family opium crop at 10 kilos annually.
Therefore, approximately 35,000 Hmong families producing an average of 10 kilos of opium annually would constitute a total annual yield of 350,000 kilos, or 35 metric tons. Again this amount of opium is a rough estimate as to the amount produced within Vang Pao’s territory and the amount the CIA helped to transport to market. That’s enough opium to manufacture over 3.5 tons of heroin.
Therefore, if the 1968 estimate of Laotian opium production by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs of 100-150 metric tons is accurate, then Vang Pao’s Hmong were producing about one third to one fifth of the total Laotian opium crop.
The CIA and its Air America were transporting tons of opium annually.
Opium Logistics: What Vang Pao Knew
In later years after the war as an American resident, Vang Pao completely denied any involvement in the opium trade while he was the military leader of the Hmong. 68 Unfortunately, that claim holds no water. Even Vang Pao’s relatives admit he dealt opium. His CIA case officer for much of the Secret War, Tony Poe, admitted that Vang Pao sold Hmong opium to the South Vietnamese heroin syndicates:
“Oh, he was making millions,” and he put the money in “U.S. bank accounts, Switzerland, wherever,” Poe said. 69
Even William Colby, head of the CIA from 1973-1976, made this admission:
“Hmong grew opium which was turned into heroin and flown to Vietnam, where it was sold to American Troops, and then some of it was sent to the U.S.” 70
It’s a hard, cold fact that from 1966 onward, the CIA via their airline Air America was transporting Hmong opium to a collection point at Long Tieng-the secret CIA nerve center in Laos. Long Tieng was also the headquarters of General Vang Pao.
And what happened to the tons of raw opium that was transported into Long Tieng every year? Much was flown to Vientiane by Vang Pao’s own airline Xieng Khuang Air (Air Opium) where a large #4 heroin refinery was in full operation. 71 Royal Laotian Air Force planes under the command of General Oaune Ratticone, head of the Laos Opium Administration,73 and either delivered it to Vientiane for heroin refinement or shipped it to South Vietnam for distribution and processing.
Vang Pao organized and oversaw the collection of opium from isolated villages; He oversaw the transport of opium to Long Tieng; And he oversaw the distribution and sale of his Hmong opium. But was Vang Pao involved in heroin production?
There are allegations that Vang Pao operated a heroin refinery at Long Tieng starting in 1970. 74 There are also allegations that Vang Pao kept a large “bail” of heroin under his Long Tieng house 75 which is typically where the Hmong store their opium. While these allegations can’t be confirmed with the surety of Vang Pao’s involvement in the opium trade, we can be sure that the vast majority of Vang Pao’s Hmong opium was refined into #4 grade heroin.
The War Goes Badly
By 1968, Vang Pao and his 40,000 strong Hmong army were suffering major casualties at the hands of the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army (NVA). In fact the Hmong army was now directly engaging the far superior force of the NVA and suffering defeat after defeat.
In 1969, the head of the CIA notified President Nixon that Vang Pao’s Hmong army was so decimated that he was now using 13 and 14-year-olds to fight against battle hardened regulars of the North Vietnamese Army. 76 In his book Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat: The Hmong and America’s Secret War in Laos, author Keith Quincy writes:
“[Y]oung teenagers replaced their dead elder brothers, creating platoons of Lilliputian soldiers in baggy uniforms with sleeves rolled up to the elbow to free tiny hands for the operation of man-size weapons.”
Edgar “Pop” Buell, who oversaw Hmong food supplies for USAID and worked closely with the CIA during the Secret War made a startling observation in 1968:
A short time ago we rounded up 300 fresh [Hmong] recruits. Thirty percent were 14 years old or less, and ten of them were only ten years old. Another 30 percent were 15 or 16. The remaining 40 percent were 45 or over. Where were the ones in between? I’ll tell you—they’re all dead. 77
Village elders pled with Vang Pao to stop the slaughter and evacuate his Hmong to western Laos where the war was not being fought. 78 Of course Vang Pao refused and threatened them with a cutoff of their rice supplies.
By 1970, the Hmong Army of Vang Pao was no longer an effective fighting force. 79 The Hmong villages could no longer supply enough young men to keep up with the growing casualties. The worst years were between 1968-69 when 18,000 Hmong soldiers were killed in combat along with thousands of other Hmong civilians. 80 If you were a Hmong soldier under Vang Pao, you had roughly a 50% chance of being killed in combat during 1968-1969.
Starting in 1968, Hmong opium production fell off dramatically. By 1971, Laos was only producing and estimated 30 metric tons annually down from between 100-150 metric tons of just a few years prior. 81
By 1974, the Hmong were refugees in their own country. They were forced into refugee areas near Vientiane and Long Tieng as the enemy Pathet Lao closed in. They were completely dependent on the CIA for food. They had lost an entire generation of young men to the war. They had lost their traditional way of life.
And the Hmong feared for their lives. The Pathet Lao announced publicly a vendetta against the Hmong who had fought against them. The Pathet Lao marked Vang Pao and his Hmong for elimination. 82 The Pathet Lao were in no mood to forget Vang Pao’s summary executions of their soldiers.
The Tragic End
While Vang Pao’s Hmong army was no longer effective after 1970, the final end did not come until 1975 when the Pathet Lao finally defeated the Royal Laotian military and the CIA. On May 6, 1975, Vang Pao resigned as general. On May 14, 1975 he was evacuated from Long Tieng by the CIA as the Pathet Lao approached 83, leaving behind tens of thousands of his Hmong followers.
The victory of the Pathet Lao and defeat of Vang Pao created between 100,000 -200,000 Hmong refugees. 84 Most of these Hmong would flee to refugee camps in Thailand, across the Mekong River. Many would die trying.
The final scorecard for Vang Pao’s Hmong Army during the Secret War: 30-40,000 Hmong soldiers killed in combat. Another 3-4 thousand missing in action. Tens of thousands of Hmong civilians killed. An estimated one-fourth of all Hmong men and boys died in the Secret War. 85 More Hmong died in the Secret War in Laos than U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War.
The Hmong as Refugees
Vang Pao flew off via a CIA helicopter to the safety of Thailand, leaving 50,000 desperate Hmong in and around Long Tieng. Air America evacuated very few. A total of 100,000-200,000 Hmong were left behind to fend for themselves against the victorious Pathet Lao. The Hmong were left on their own to find a way across the Mekong River to safety in Thailand where they would be granted refugee status.
Most walked to the Thai border and swam or made make-shift rafts to cross the Mekong River. The journey could take up to a month. 86 And along the way, the Hmong had to hide from the Pathet Lao who sought political revenge.
Hmong refugees came in waves. In 1975, a trickle started to flow into Thailand and by year’s end there were 25,000 Hmong in Thai refugee camps. By 1979 there were 60,000 refugees with nearly 3,000 Hmong crossing the Mekong River daily. 87 By the 1980’s, there were hundreds of thousands of Hmong refugees in squalid camps in Thailand.
Thailand did not want to give the Hmong permanent residency. The United States, realizing that the Hmong refugee problem was of their making, offered asylum in the United States to a majority of the Hmong refugees. By 1990, 90,000 Hmong had been resettled in the United States88, mostly in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Since 1990, an additional 60,000 Hmong have resettled in the United States.
A disaster is defined as “a sudden calamitous event bringing great damage, loss, or destruction”. 89 But a tragedy is fundamentally different. A tragedy drips of sorrow. A tragedy is something that needn’t happen. “Romeo & Juliet” is a tragedy-the Titanic a disaster.
The Hmong were cynically used by first the French and then the CIA to fight a civil war they had little to gain from. They were subsistence farmers that neither capitalism or communism offered much in the way of improving their lives. The French needed the Hmong because their own troops were cowards. The Americans needed the Hmong under the simple formula that at dead Hmong was better than a dead American.
Hmong opium was used as the quid pro quo that bound the Hmong to the French and Americans. The Hmong needed their cash crop of opium to get to market. The CIA made sure that happened but charged a high human price. Without such a quid pro quo, the Hmong might never have been seduced into becoming involved in the Laotian civil war.
And what of Vang Pao?
Vang Pao knew the importance of opium to his Hmong culture-a culture he was raised in. He knew from 1966 onward that the Hmong could only get their opium to market via CIA aircraft. Vang Pao dispatched his junior officers to buy opium from the tens of thousands of Hmong families scattered about northeast Laos.
But Vang Pao’s involvement in the Hmong opium trade is a given. Almost all Hmong participated in the trade.
Vang Pao’s sins were ones of warmongering, brutality, thievery, and warlordism. While he is a venerated leader to his Hmong who followed him to the United States, history remembers a different legacy.
His warmongering led his Hmong into a futile war they had no interest in. His brutality is more than evidenced in his sending 13-year olds into battles against a hardened enemy. His brutality is again evidenced by orders of summary executions for both enemy prisoners and his own Hmong soldiers that drew his ire, which were war crimes. His thievery was evidenced by his stealing his soldier’s pay. And finally his warlordism was evidenced by his threats to cut off food aid to any Hmong family that refused to give up their young sons for war.
Vang Pao died on January 6, 2011 in Clovis, California at the age of 81. His family and the Hmong community in the US formally requested Vang Pao be given a hero’s burial at Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C. After careful review, the Army denied the request.90
The Hmong who followed him to the United States and their families still revere him today.
On April 9, 2007 the Madison, Wisconsin School Board unanimously agreed to name an elementary school for Vang Pao. A large contingent of Hmong had resettled in Madison, including Shwaw Vang who was Hmong and a member of the school board. The Hmong packed the school board meeting and gave vociferous support for naming the new school after their hero Vang Pao. And the school board did. 91
It was a no-brainer idea. Vang Pao had opened many Hmong schools in Laos and what better way to honor this brave anti-communist than to name a school after him in a community where so many of his loyal followers had resettled.
Enter Alfred McCoy who was a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Considered a leading expert on the South East Asian heroin trade (and referenced frequently in this article), Professor McCoy informed the Madison School board of a few inconvenient facts about Vang Pao:
- That he was a central figure in the Hmong opium trade, and that Hmong opium was refined into heroin and sold to our soldiers in Vietnam or smuggled throughout the world.
- That he pressganged Hmong boys as young as 13-years old (some even younger) into his army and sent them into battle against superior forces suffering terrible casualties.
- That he ordered summary executions of not only enemy prisoners, but of his own Hmong soldiers who displeased him, both of which are war crimes outlawed by the Geneva Conventions.
The Madison School Board was thrown into a tizzy by such unthinkable allegations. Naming an elementary school for someone who orders a pistol to be aimed at the back of a prisoner’s head and casually commands the trigger be pulled is not what the school board had in mind. And the dope dealing! The school board choose to reexamine their decision.
When the Madison School Board began investigating these allegations of Professor McCoy, they quickly realized that they weren’t allegations but verifiable facts. They quickly gaveled to order another meeting and withdrew the name of Vang Pao, much to the anger of the U.S. Hmong community.
History has not been kind to Vang Pao.
The town of Clovis, in central California is about as different from Laos as you can get. Clovis is flat, White, orderly, middle class, and its surrounding farmlands stretch as far as the eye can see. The opium poppy would not grow in Clovis.
Vang Pao eventually resettled here along with many of his Hmong followers. About a year and a half after his death in Clovis, the Fresno School Board decided to name a newly built elementary school in Clovis for Vang Pao-The Vang Pao Elementary School. A beautiful , modern school with a spacious atrium where a large portrait of Vang Pao looks down on the school children passing under.
This time there was no controversy. Not a peep. There was no media attention about a prior life filled with violence and opium. There was only praise for a Hmong hero who fought on the American side. The school board matter-of-factly named the new school for General Vang Pao.
You can go to Clovis today and drive past the school. You could even park your car and walk into the school’s atrium and stare at the portrait of Vang Pao. Unless you’re Hmong, you probably wouldn’t even know who Vang Pao was. If you asked, you’d probably be told that Vang Pao was the “George Washington” of the Hmong.
But history tells a different tale-a tale of tragedy for the Hmong.
- For more information about the Plain of Jars, please see: Karen Coates, “Plain of Jars” Archeology Magazine, Vol. 58 No. 4, (July/August, 2005); Karen Coates, “A Singular Landscape”, Archeology Magazine, Vol. 70 No. 1 (January/February, 2017)
- Joseph Westermeyer, Poppies, Pipes, and People: Opium and its Use in Laos, University of California Press, Page 47 (1982)
- W. Randall Ireson, “Hmong Demographic Changes in Laos: Causes and Ecological Consequences”, Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in South East Asia, Vol. 10, No. 2 (October, 1995)
- Ibid. at page 199
- Gary Yia Lee, “Nostalgia and Cultural Re-Creation: The Case of the Hmong Diaspora”, Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of South East Asian Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2, (2008)
- Timothy Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: US Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government 1955-1975, Page 6, Columbia University Press, New York, (1993)
- Mai Elliott, Rand in S.E. Asia: A History of the Vietnam War Era, Page 550, Rand Corporation (2010)
- Westermeyer, Poppies, Pipes, and People: Opium and Its Use in Laos, Pages 42-43
- Paul T. Cohen and Chris Lyttleton, “Opium-Reduction Programmes: Discourses of Addiction and Gender in Northwest Laos” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol. 17, No. 1 (April, 2002)
- See: Christian Culas and Jean Michaud, “A Contribution to the Study of Hmong (Miao) Migrations and History”, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde Deel 153, 2de Afl. (1997)
- Westermeyer, Poppies, Pipes and People: Opium and its Use in Laos, Page 44.
- Ibid. at page 72
- Keith Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat: The Hmong and America’s Secret War in Laos, See Chapter: Warlord, Hmong Studies Journal, Vol. 3 (Winter, 2000)
- McCoy, The Politics of Heroin in S.E. Asia, Page 92.
- North Vietnam violated this neutrality from the start by not only giving the Pathet Lao weapons, but also by stationing North Vietnamese Army units within Laos to support the Pathet Lao.
- Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam, Page 27.
- Timothy Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: US Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government 1955-1975, Page 38, Columbia University Press, N.Y. (1993)
- Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, See Chapter 10: “Armies and Addicts: Vietnam and Laos”, Verso Press (1998)
- Douglas Martin, “Gen. Vang Pao, Laotian Who Aided U.S., Dies at 81“, New York Times, Jan. 8, 2011
- Gary Yia Lee and Nicholas Tapp, “Culture and Customs of the Hmong”, See: Chronology XXVI, Greenwood Publishing (2010)
- Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam, Page 81.
- Keith Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat: The Hmong and America’s Secret War in Laos.
- Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam at Pages 80-81.
- William P. Head, “Dirty Little Secret in the Land of a Million Elephants”, Air Power History, Vol. 64, No. 4, Page 13.
- Alfred McCoy, “General Vang Pao: A Review of Reputable Sources” (May 15, 2007) In this PDF, Professor McCoy lists several sources who witnessed Vang Pao either ordering an execution or himself carrying out the execution.
- Marc Eisen, “McCoy Challenged On Vang Pao: He fires back.” Isthmus (April 19, 2007) See: Letter of Dr. Gary Yia Lee, an expert on Hmong studies who admits Vang Pao summarily executed prisoners.
- Keith Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat: The Hmong & America’s Secret War in Laos, Eastern Washington Univrsity Press (2000) See Chapter: Warlord
- Tim Weiner, “Gen. Vang Pao’s Last War”, New York Times (May 11, 2008)
- Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U.S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government 1955-1975, Page 38.
- Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Whiteout, Page 504.
- William P. Head, “Dirty Little Secret in the Land of a Million Elephants: Barrel Roll and the Lost War”, Page 14.
- McCoy, The Politics of Heroin in S.E. Asia, Page 9.
- Frank Browing and Banning Garrett, Ramparts, Vol. 9 No. 10 (May, 1971)
- Cockburn and St. Clair, Whiteout, Page 509. (ebook edition)
- Mai Elliott, “Rand in S.E. Asian: A History of the Vietnam War Era”, Rand Corporation, Page 550 (2010)
- Walter J. Boyne, “The Plain of Jars”, Air Force Magazine (June 1, 1999); See also: Derrick Jensen, “Tricks of the Trade: Alfred McCoy on How the CIA Got Involved In Global Drug Trafficking”, The Sun (May, 2003)
- Christian Culas and Jean Micraud, “A Contribution to the Study of Hmong (Miao) Migration and History”, Page 217, Bijdragen en Volkenkunde Deel 153 (1997)
- See: Derrick Jensen, “Tricks of the Trade: Alfred McCoy on How the CIA Got Involved In Global Drug Traficking”, The Sun, (May, 2003)
- Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: US Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government 1955-1975, Page 59.
- Ibid. at 57.
- Please read an earlier chapter “Profiles in Opium: General Phao Sriyanon” for a detailed discussion of the CIA and opium smuggling in Thailand.
- See: Frontline: “Guns, Drugs and the CIA”, Produced and Written by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, Original Air Date May 17, 1988; See also: Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, 92nd Congress, Testimony of Alfred W. McCoy; See also: Alexander Cockburn, Whiteout, Chapter 10: “Armies and Addicts: Vietnam and Laos” (Verso, 1998); See also: Frank Browning and Banning Garrett, Ramparts, “The New Opium War”, Vol.9 No. 10, (May, 1971)
- See: Testimony of Alfred McCoy before Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations for 92nd Congress, 2nd Session, Senator Proxmire presiding, Page 3 (1973)
- Thomas J. Folely, “Asian Officials Protect Heroin Sale Panel Told”, Los Angeles Times (June 3, 1971)
- Cockburn and St. Clair, Whiteout at page 508 (ibook edition)
- Frontline, “Guns, Drugs and the CIA”, Produced and written by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, Original Air Date: May 17, 1988
- McCoy, Politics of Heroin in S.E. Asia at page 278.
- Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: US Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government 1955-1975, Page 59.
- McCoy, Politics of Heroin in S.E. Asia, Page 281 See footnote 134.
- United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, “Opium Poppy Cultivation in the Golden Triangle” (Oct., 2006)
- Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Claire, Whiteout, Page 508
- Keith Quincy, Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat: The Hmong and America’s Secret War in Laos, See Chapter “Warlord”, Hmong Studies Journal, Vol. 3 (Winter, 2000)
- Mai Elliot, “Rand in S.E. Asia: A History of the Vietnam War Era”
- McCoy, Politics of S.E. Asian Heroin, Page 279.
- Culas and Micraud, “A Contribution to the Study of Hmong Migrations and History”, Page 232.
- McCoy, Politics of Heroin in S.E. Asia, Page 282.
- Mark Eisen, “Vang Pao: Drugs and the CIA“, Isthmus, (May 7, 2007)
- Mark Eisen, “Vang Pao: Drugs and the CIA“, Isthmus, (May 7, 2007)
- Johnathon Mirsky, “The War That Will Not End”, The New York Review of Books, (Aug. 16, 1990)
- McCoy, Politics of S.E. Asian Heroin, Page 186
- The Laos Opium Administration was a Laotian government syndicate that controlled much of the opium trade in Laos. It was headed by General Oaune Rattincone who also oversaw the operation of several heroin refineries in Laos./efn_note] routinely landed at Long Tieng to pick up Hmong opium 72Please see a preceding chapter “The Laotian Connection”.
- McCoy, Politics of S.E. Asian Heroin, Page 281.
- Johnathan Mirsky, “The War That Will Not End”, The N.Y. Review of Books (August 16, 1990)
- Tim Weiner, “Gen. Vang Pao’s Last War, New York Times (May 11, 2008).
- Minnesota Historical Society, Hmong Timeline
- Castle, At War In The Shadow of Vietnam: US Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government 1955-1975, Page 111.
- Ibid. at page 111.
- Minnesota Historical Society, Hmong Timeline
- McCoy, Politics of Heroin in S.E. Asia at page 281; See footnote 134.
- Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: US Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government 1955-1975 at page 122.
- Ibid. at page 125.
- W. Randall Ireson, “Hmong Demographic Changes in Laos: Causes and Ecological Consequences”, Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in S.E. Asia, Vol. 10 No. 2 (Oct. 1995) Note: This author states 100,000 Hmong refugees; But see: Gary Yia Lee, “Nostalgia and Cultural Re-Creation: The Case of the Hmong Diaspora”, Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of S.E. Asian Studies, Vol. 19 No. 2 (2008) Note: This author states 180,000 Hmong refugees.
- Minnesota Historical Society, Hmong Timeline
- “Fleeing to Thailand“, Minnesota Historical Society. Interviews with Hmong refugees.
- Hmong Culture, “Hmong Refugees”
- Merriam Webster Dictionary
- Garance Burke, “Hmong General Denied Arlington Burial“, NBC News (Feb.4, 2011)
- Marc Eisen, “Vang Pao Elementary School To Open In Madison“, Isthmus (April 12, 2007)