The Hmong, a gallant American ally, a "people in exile," a people of dignity

By Ed Marek, editor

March 14, 2010

Note bene: I have been working on this story for several months. I've got to start publishing it. Most of it is done, but I need to check things over so I will be publishing it in sections. My holdup at present is discussing the Hmong as our ally in the Laos War. This is a tough one for me to write, as I flew over northern Laos frequently as part of an electronic reconnaissance crew. Plus the subject is very complex. It may take me some time to finish that section. (030510)



These are all American Eagle Scouts from an all-Hmong Minneapolis Troop 100. Praised as a powerhouse of team spirit and enthusiasm, they bring pride to parents and symbolize hope and achievement to the Hmong community. Photo credit: Dick Swanson. Extracted from "The Hmong: Laotian Refugees in the 'Land of Giants'", presented by National Geographic, October 1988. Also see, Dark Sky, Dark Land: Stories of Hmong Boy Scouts of Troop 100, by David L. Moore.

Have you heard of a people from Asia called the Hmong? Many Wisconsinites have. In the 2000 census, there were 33,791 Wisconsin citizens who were Hmong. In 2000, they were a very young population, more than 67 percent under the age 24. They are our neighbors, friends, business associates, fellow Badgers.

Hmong live in many communities across the US. They live throughout the US, most notably in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, Florida and Washington.

The 2000 US census said there were 170,049 Hmong people from Laos living in the United States. That was an 88 percent increase over the 1990 figure of 90,082. I have seen an estimate for 2005 that said their population in the US had increased by then to 183,265. We can conclude that their population in Wisconsin has increased as well.


Members of the CIA's Hmong Secret Army in Laos, circa 1965. Drawn from, "The Hmong Dream," by Gary Yia Lee, presented by North by North East.

There are some Americans who know the Hmong exceedingly well. They fought with them in the Second Indochina War, known generically to most Americans as the Vietnam War. The First Indochina War was between the fight for independence from the French.


Ethnic Hmong and Laotian veterans, who served with the US Army during the Vietnam War, and representatives from the Center for Public Policy Analysis participate in a memorial and wreath laying ceremony to commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War in Laos and to honor Hmong and Laotian veterans, May 16, 2008 at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Getty Images. Presented by daylife.


Hmong SGU and US Special Forces veterans standing in remembrance of their friends at the Lao, Hmong and American Veterans Memorial, Deland Park, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, May 26, 2008. Presented by Lao, Hmong and American Veterans Memorial.

To these Americans, the Hmong were loyal, hard-fighting allies in combat against communism in Laos. An estimated 30,000 Hmong died in that war. Most of the survivors were driven from their homes, many to refugee camps outside Laos, mainly in Thailand. Many have been shipped back from Thailand to Laos where they will be in great danger, and, as we have noted, there are now more than 183,000 living in the US. One speaker in the
"Secret Wars Net Trailer" on You Tube said this about the Hmong:

"They were our most staunch, loyal allies, fierce fighters, and they could be counted on to fight with us until the end."

Ly Chai was a Hmong from Laos who settled in the United States following the American war in Indochina. Jane Hamilton-Merritt, in her book,
Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the American, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992, reported that Ly Chai said this during a 1980 interview:

"The communists know that we (Hmong) were the Americans' hands, arms, feet and mouths. That's why they believe they must kill all Hmong, soldiers, farmers, children. We suffer and die just like the Jews in World War II, but the world ignores us."

As an Air Force veteran of the Indochina War who flew as a crewmember aboard electronic reconnaissance missions over Laos, I knew we were supporting the Hmong and our special forces working with them in the field, through CIA. I lack the needed command of the English language to express my deep sorrow for the US having left them to die and suffer as we suddenly left that war unfinished. The communist enemy killed tens of thousands of Hmong following our departure.

Ralph Wetterhahn, writing
"Ravens of Long Tieng" published by Air & Space on November 1, 1998, said this:

"On January 27, 1973, the Paris Agreement on Vietnam was signed. U.S. military involvement in North and South Vietnam ceased. The prisoners of war started coming home, but the fighting in Laos didn't stop.

AderholtHeinie VangPaoA

"The last outpost defending Long Tieng fell on February 22, 1975. An impromptu evacuation was masterminded by General Heinie Aderholt (left), who arranged for a motley fleet of aircraft including a C-130, C-46, and Pilatus Porter. He sent a helicopter to retrieve (General) Vang Pao (Right) (Hmong leader). Long Tieng was mobbed by villagers trying to get out--only a lucky few would leave. It would take two more years before all Hmong resistance would collapse.


Hmong Refugees in Laos Waiting for Evacuation in the 70s. Drawn from, "The Hmong Dream," by Gary Yia Lee, presented by North by North East.

"That collapse was devastating to the Hmong--tens of thousands were killed by the communists during the next 10 years, and today, the Hmong who survived are on the bottom economic rung of a profoundly impoverished country. Many Hmong fled to refugee camps in Thailand. Many of those were eventually repatriated against their will, and others disappeared into Thailand as illegal immigrants. Some of the Hmong who escaped Laos came to the United States, but only a handful of backseaters who flew with the Ravens (USAF Forward Air Controllers employing O-1 Bird Dog aircraft) survived. One of them, Moua Fong, lives in Orange County, California. After the fall of Laos in 1975, he travelled on foot from Long Tieng through enemy lines, then swam the Mekong and spent four years in a Thai refugee camp."

About all I can do at this juncture is to write this article and give Wisconsinites a chance to learn something about them and their history. Theirs has been a turbulent history. Some years ago a Vietnamese-American became the number one graduate of the US Air Force Academy, and went on to be an Air Force doctor. I think he is a major by now. Some day, a Hmong-American will do the same.


Hmong women and children in their village in Laos, dressed in formal attire. Photo credit: W.E. Garrett, presented by "The Hmong of Laos, No Place to Run, by W.E. Garrett, January 1974 edition, National Geographic.

The Hmong belong to an ethnic group, tied largely by language and a historic tradition of living in mountainous regions of southern China and adjacent areas of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. While the Hmong have never had their own country, most agree that they originated in China.


A Hmong Village perches on a ridge top in Laos. Photo credit: W.E. Garrett, presented by "The Hmong of Laos, No Place to Run, by W.E. Garrett, January 1974 edition, National Geographic.

They are known to many as hill people. They speak the Hmong-Mien languages of southern China, northern Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, also known as Miao-Yao. This language is similar to Chinese. Hmong are known as Miao or Meo in China. Their culture is roughly 4,000 years old.

Writing "The Hmong, Laotian Refugees in the 'Land of the Giants'", published in the October 1988 edition of National Geographic, Spencer Sherman wrote this about the Hmong:

"Anthropologists have described the Hmong as tribal mountain dwellers with strong clan loyalties, a people steeped in animistic ritual, bound by good and evil spirits to a way of life filled with the magical and mystical. Development specialists have called their agricultural life in Laos primitive and environmentally unsound. Narcotics officers have called them opium growers and dealers. The Communist leaders of Laos have called them barriers to national reconciliation. In the United States, refugees call their resettlement a worst-case situation.

"The Hmong have one other attribute that make them worthy of special note. They were Vietnam war veterans and, in the opinion of former Central Intelligence Agency Director William E. Colby, 'damned good fighters.'"

Hamilton-Merritt has written that their values center on "honor, commitment, loyalty and freedom." To Hmong, that name means "free men." I wish to mention here that I have seen some Hmong scholars argue the validity of this contention, saying that this "free men" translation is inaccurate, highlighting that Hmong integrated well with the Chinese and even the French later on. I cannot get into this debate here.

W.E. Garrett, at the time a senior assistant editor of
National Geographic, wrote "The Hmong of Laos, No Place to Run," published in the January 1974 edition of that magazine. He called the Hmong "proud and independent ... pawns in the power struggle that has wracked Southeast Asia, and their ceaseless battle for survival..." He has said they "stood out for their drive and energy ... (and) for their incurable optimism." He added that they are hospitable, curious, shy.


The Hmong came into the Indochinese region from China. In many power struggles to gain power and control, the Hmong were defeated by the Han Chinese. Many were taken into slavery. As a result, many of the Hmong fled into the mountains of Indochina, mainly Laos. Video grab from, "The Hmong Journey - China," presented by You Tube.

My observation is that it has been this zest for freedom that has marked their history over the past 4,000 years. They have been caught in multiple power struggles that have attempted to enslave them. They have had to fight for their very survival more times than one cares to count.

Hmong history is complicated for those of us not steeped in it. You will see me use the words "complicated" and "complex" more than once. There has been some very good historical research done over the years. Much of the research has been limited by the difficulties associated with reading and interpreting Chinese. Written Hmong history has been limited. And the Hmong have been on the move for much of their history, making documentation difficult. Hmong themselves have recently begun to dig into their history with a fervor, and they have been challenging some things that have been written by some very notable researchers.

Since I am no expert on the Hmong, I relied heavily on the works of Andrea Matles Savada,
Laos: A Country Study, 1994. I used her work to form an outline, and tried to fill in some spaces with research done by others.

I commend the Hmongnet to you as an excellent place to access a wide variety of resources on Hmong history. For example, the
Hmong Studies Journal has many articles about the Hmong on line and these are nicely sourced at Hmongnet.

In her book
I begin my life all over the Hmong and the American immigrant, Lillian Faderman starts this way:

"Where the Hmong came from originally is a mystery."

W.E. Garrett wrote in 1974:

"The Hmong used to say the world reached only as far as a man could walk."

Scholars for the most part seem to agree that the Hmong originated in China, perhaps starting on the east coast, then pushing to the southwest, and then into the Southeast Asian Massif. Faderman wrote that they "can be traced to settlements in the plains along the Yellow River more than five thousand years ago, from which they later retreated to the mountains of China where they might better defend themselves." For our purposes, we will view China as the ancestral home for the Hmong.


General area of Hmong residence in China and emigration outside China. Presented by Hmong in Alaska.

The Hmong emigrated from China in many waves throughout the centuries. There were plenty of good reasons to leave. That said, it is important to note that this emigration, by foot, was extraordinarily difficult. The terrain was uncharted, quite mountainous and lined with heavy tropical jungles, the latter quite a different environment from what they experienced in China. As a result, most Hmong remained in China. There are some 3 million, perhaps 4 million, still there to this day --- tough to get a good count.

A good many emigrated to Southeast Asia in the 18th century, many of them to northwestern Vietnam, part of an area then known as Tonkin. A major emigration to Indochina occurred early in the 19th century. Hmong went to Vietnam, Thailand, southeast Burma and Laos. The group on whom we will concentrate are those who went to Laos, since most of those Hmong who now live in the US are from Laos. As mentioned earlier, the Hmong of Laos are of special interest to me personally.

These Hmong who settled in Laos began their settlements there in northeastern Laos with gradual movements to the west, across the Mekong and into Siam (Thailand). The Hmong would settle in Laos as far south as Vientiane on the Mekong River border with northern Thailand. Much of the lowlands was already occupied, so the Hmong, traditionally used to the mountains of China, most often chose to live and operate on mountain and ridge tops in Laos. Their preferred method of clearing land for agriculture was known as swidden, or slash and burn. They could grow crops such as rice and corn for a couple years, and then have to leave it dormant to restore its fertility. This in turn translated to their having to move their villages quite a bit, especially in northwestern Laos. That said, the Hmong in northeastern Laos managed to remain in established villages for very long periods of time.


Indochina Ethnolinguistic Groups From Indochina Atlas, 1970. Presented by University of Texas.

A point to remember here is that the Hmong were spread across the uplands of all northern Laos. They were not just concentrated in one area. I apologize for having to use a 1970 map, but it gives you a sense for what we're saying. The light green shows Hmong distribution at that point in their history. Note in particular how they straddle the border with northern Vietnam. I should zoom in on northern Laos so you can get your bearings a little better.


The gray to the far north reflects Tibeto-Burman, the light purple the Lao (Tai), the brown Tribal Tai and the yellow Tribal Mon-Khmer. Once again, the Hmong in light green. During the war, the areas in this light green were hotly contested by US and Hmong forces fighting against enemy communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese. I should be up front here and highlight that we and the Hmong would also fight against Hmong allied with the enemy, many of whom were forced into service by the enemy.

The Hmong are considered to be part of the Lao Sung, or highland people. The Lao Sung made up about 10 percent of the Lao population, and the Hmong were the largest ethnic group among the Lao Sung. Broadly speaking, the Hmong were a small percentage of the population living in Laos but were our strongest ally in war in this region.

It is hard to pin down a number for how many Hmong lived in Laos. By the time the French came in 1893, about the best we can seem to do is say there were enough of them to tax, and enough of them to revolt and cause the French a major headache. Estimates are that there might have been about 100,000 in all Indochina by 1937. Numbers used in 1970 or so range from 60,000 to 300,000. We know that about 200,000 fled to Thailand following the war in Indochina in 1975.

There is a lot I wanted to do with this report, too much, making it unmanageable and a struggle to publish. I have decided for purposes of this report to focus on that Hmong history that got them from China to Laos and joined with the US to fight the Indochina War. I did not want to get into the war itself. I alluded to the issue early on in this report. My main purpose is to help Americans understand the Hmong living as our neighbors and friends, especially those here in Wisconsin. That said, I feel compelled to some day finish this by addressing the Indochina War and the Hmong participation as an American ally in the Laos War. We are beholding to them.


A broad overview of East and Southeast Asian history from roughly the 13th century

Laotian history, the Hmong migration and the French arrival in Indochina

French Indochina, WWII and the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia and the creation of a united Laos

The Hmong and the US join in the Indochina War (not yet published)