The Pitfalls of Political Withdrawals: Remembering the Hmong
by Barbara_Donnelly_Lane
December 19, 2011 10:42 AM | 2659 views | 3 3 comments | 116 116 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

     As our flags go down over Iraq and surge troops pack to leave Afghanistan, I cannot help but think about that other war to which our current entanglements in the Middle East are so often compared.   I especially worry that while President Barrack Obama is keeping campaign promises to antiwar activists that the United States might inadvertently inflict damage on allies who must continue to live in regions we evacuate long after we’re gone.  After all, this is exactly what happened to the Hmong in Laos after Vietnam.  To add insult to injury, not only were these allies abandoned for political reasons, most Americans have never even heard of them. 

     Even so, originating in the mountainous regions of China, the tribal Hmong people have a long history that extends more that 2,000 years.  They moved south to escape brutal Chinese oppression at the beginning of the 19 th century.  There they were subject to new influences, as Laos became a French protectorate in 1893. In the first half of the 20 th century, Hmong clans would fall on different sides of the “Free Lao” movement, which would further complicate their modern history. 

     Regardless, in 1961, one of these Hmong factions led by Vang Pao, a Royal Lao Army officer, answered the call of the CIA under President John F. Kennedy to open a secret front designed to resist the advance of communism. Armed by the United States to be guerillas in Laos and working as spies who gave safe haven to American pilots shot down over the jungle, these Hmong valiantly fought for American interests for more than a decade.

     Unfortunately, the Hmong decision to ally with the United States would prove to be a costly one.  Apparently unconcerned about the consequences that were inevitable for any American allies abandoned in the region, Congress stopped funding the war effort in Vietnam in 1975.  For many of the Hmong, this political action of “friends” in Washington meant exile or death was soon to follow.  

     In fact, many Hmong were simply shot and killed by the triumphant Pathet Lao communists. Soldiers who had served with Vang Pao were sent to “re-education” centers where they suffered through hard labor and starvation. Hmong peasants who remained in the hills were (and are) subjected to political indoctrination “seminars” and forced labor collectivization. 

     All of this gave rise to refugee camps that still exist on the Thai border, which is where I first encountered the Hmong.  In the 21 st century, those Hmong who are in these camps live in a perpetual no man’s land without hope of entering Thai society, kept under tight military scrutiny, and frightened of taking their children back to Laos. 

     For this reason, many Hmong are still granted political asylum to live in the United States, and there is even a Hmong community in the Atlanta area.  In light of our current withdrawals, it’s ironic that Vang Pao, the complicated but revered leader of the Hmong who continued to work for his people while in exile, just passed away in 2011. 

     Of course, I know the United States can never leave troops in any one country forever, and President George W. Bush created our withdrawal date in Iraq.  However, I cannot help but be concerned about the political machinations that seem to have infiltrated military decisions in the Middle East because I know—while liberals at home may think they’re doing something wonderful for the people we leave behind—if we are not careful, we will create new misery and hardship for those who bravely partnered with us to build better futures in their countries.  To prove this point I only need to remember the Hmong. 

Comments-icon Post a Comment
Oliver G. Halle
December 20, 2011
I sympathize with Barbara's concern for the Hmong and her concerns for a post-Iraq without U.S. troops there to defend the likely civil unrest and religious conflict. But the U.S. has a long history of abandoning our friends, and Obama should not be singled out or blamed for keeping the agreement of his predecessor to withdraw. George H.W. Bush abandoned the Kurds and the Shiities following the first Gulf War after he promised them support for overthrowing Saddam. Eisenhower (one of my favorite 20th century presidents) gave tacit support to the the Hungarians in 1956---until the Soviets came in with tanks. The Prague Spring of 1968 ended badly, too, when our government provided assistance to the underground movement and then pulled the plug.

We can not stay in Iraq forever. Our military is already overextended and adding significantly to our deficits and national debt. England, Holland, Spain, Portugal, and the Soviet Union, among other nations, all went broke from their overseas military commitments. Perhaps if we had a draft (and lowered the cost of paying our volunteer force), Americans would view some of our military ventures a little differently. Perhaps too, if we were more selective about when and where to get involved, we would be in a better position to keep our commitments to those that support their causes and ours.
December 21, 2011
Your comments are always interesting and thought provoking. It's nice to know more about the Hmong. I was introduced to them in a very favorable way in the Clint Eastwood movie, Gran Torino. It is sad, but true, that we have limited dollars in our country. We have tried to do things that are in our national interest, and, I believe, in the interest of the people who needed assistance. Hopefully we will be smart enough to elect officials who will make wiser decisions in these very complicated times.
B. D. Lane
December 22, 2011
Thank you both so much to your thoughtful comments to this article. However, the fact that the United States has withdrawn from other regions without keeping promises should not be held up as a justification for such actions now or in future.

Anyway, put aside the moral questions that are inevitable in the face of people we leave behind. We have invested quite a bit of blood and treasure to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan. As bombs are already falling again in Iraq, we should ask how our national interests are ever served with complete or premature withdrawals. What is more expensive? Staying a long time? Or going back in? These questions should be applied to Afghanistan.

Of course, I don't disagree that every military engagement should be very thoughtfully considered. I don't want to argue the merits of our involvement in the Middle East. Rather, I want to remind people that once we engage in ANY country, there are serious consequences when we leave that should be considered if we really care about the fellow human beings we say we were helping. Whatever their politics, it seems to me that once we leave regions, Americans often forget about those people... or compartmentalize them away in "the past."
*We welcome your comments on the stories and issues of the day and seek to provide a forum for the community to voice opinions. All comments are subject to moderator approval before being made visible on the website but are not edited. The use of profanity, obscene and vulgar language, hate speech, and racial slurs is strictly prohibited. Advertisements, promotions, and spam will also be rejected. Please read our terms of service for full guides