The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Jane Hamilton-Merritt
“Rewarding Out Friends and Punishing Our Enemies”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I must say that I remain every grateful to my longtime friend and counselor, Sinclair Korman, for directing me to today’s guest and to her truly compelling new book about one aspect in particular of America’s behavior in war and peace and in the never-neverland between them that leaves a great deal to be desired. An extraordinarily accomplished photographer, awarded coveted prizes for her views of frontline Vietnam combat, as well as a first-rate investigative journalist and Asian scholar, Jane Hamilton-Merritt’s Tragic Mountains, her new Indiana University Press volume, meticulously details Laos over many, many years. About the experiences of the Hmong in dealing with America, former Central Intelligence Agency director William Colby notes that, “Tragic Mountains is not only a fair and accurate account; it is an engrossing tale of humanity under conditions of danger, heroism, and eventual defeat.” And CNN’s Peter Arnett says that, “Jane Hamilton-Merritt’s gripping, detailed narrative of the United States’s enticement and betrayal of the Hmong people of Laos has echoes in the contemporary world where other desperate people like the Kurds and the Shias in the Middle East risk being pawns in heartless geopolitical gamesmanship.” The brave Hmong, whose devoted, little-known wartime efforts in our behalf in Indochina led them to be despised as the running dogs of American imperialism, are only one of various peoples to whom we have promised much, but delivered little. And the question we must address now is whether that is indeed part of an American theme. Reward your enemies and punish your friends.
And in a sense, that’s where I would like to begin our program today. How do you extrapolate and find even larger meaning the experiences that you chronicle in Tragic Mountains, the experiences of the Hmongs?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: How do I extrapolate to the world policy? Well, I think one thing that we’ve learned from what happened to the Hmong in Laos was that when you have a minority peoples about whom the world doesn’t know much, and when you have, as the case in Laos, a secret war, which the Americans didn’t know anything about, when the peoples who allied themselves or befriended the Americans, in this case, when they’re in trouble there really isn’t anybody to stop forward and talk about their issues, because a minority in a country, in a secret involvement or a covert involvement, not enough people know about it. And if television can’t reach into it, it doesn’t exist. Because we know today, unfortunately, that news is made by seeing something on television. So I think American policy has to be alert to the fact that if we do make arrangements or understandings with, particularly minority peoples around the world, we must be very careful that we are prepared to protect them or at least to talk publicly about that relationship so that don’t get into trouble.
HEFFNER: Well, you make it sound as though there were almost a naïve or innocent lack of understanding on our part that we had lured these people into activities, and then abandoned them. Abandonment is abandonment.
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Yes, and that’s true. But I think in the beginning, if we can talk about Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War, we talk about Vietnam, and Laos, which was the secret theater of the Vietnam War, was in Laos. The enticement was not evil in the beginning, because the North Vietnamese had invaded Laos, the homeland of the Hmong people of Laos. And the Americans had seen the Hmong fight against the North Vietnamese regular army and the communist Pathet Lao. They had seen that as a positive effort to push the Vietnamese back into their homeland, and to keep the Lao domino from falling in the domino theory that one country would fall to communism and the rest of them would fall like a row of dominoes. So the American in the early days saw the Hmong people as tough, independent, rugged folks who didn’t like the North Vietnamese nor communism, and they agreed to arm the, because they were not capable of fighting against the North Vietnamese. They were basically unarmed. To arm them and to train them in something they already knew a lot about, which was hit-and-run tactics, because that had been their nature of warfare against the Japanese during World War II.
HEFFNER: What was the role that they played, essentially, in war?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Well, in the American war, in the US war in Southeast Asia, the Hmong were a very important factor. First if all, as I told you, they fought the North Vietnamese who invaded this first domino of the domino theory, and they were holding the communists at bay. That was the thought there. They keep the North Vietnamese from coming down through Vien Chong and threatening Thailand where the United States had its airbases, in northern Thailand, from which American pilots flow strikes against Laos and North Vietnam.
In addition to that, they also provided critical intelligence for the United States. They also protected and defended high-tech navigational sites in Lao territory, so the American strike forces could proceed over northern Laos, up to the border of China, without penetrating Chinese airspace, and then come down the Rid River valley on air strikes. They also very significantly helped rescue many downed American aircrews who were shot down over Laos. And they were very effective in hit-and-run tactics against the North Vietnamese, a bleeding action against the North Vietnamese, to keep them occupied, divisions of troops occupied with these hit-and-run tactics. And of course you know the Ho Chi Mink Trail ran through Laos, so there was always the effort to try to bleed off men and material, financing, and looking after the material on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
HEFFNER: How successful were they?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Oh, they were very successful. And they were so successful that when the communists came to power and the United States withdrew, that they, of course, then had to face the punishment that they had allied themselves with the Americans and the royal Lao government. And as a result, retribution, of course, took place when the communists came to power in 1975.
HEFFNER: Well, you tell the story of continuing retribution.
HAMILTON-MERRITT: It continues today. They still are considered to be enemies of the state. The Lao government, of course, is a communist government, as I’m sure you know. And the Hmong still are hiding out in the hills, there still is fighting going on in Laos, although it foes unreported in the press because there is not freedom of travel in Laos today.
HEFFNER: And your gratitude for what they did during the war, during the Vietnam War? What is it? How has it been demonstrated?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Well, the part of the problem was that the war, the American involvement in Laos was secret. It was secret for all of those years. And so it’s been, the government still hasn’t released the documents. The documents on Laos, the secret theater of the Vietnam War, basically remain classified. And I can speak to that from personal experience. It took me 14 years to put Tragic Mountain together. And I have tried through FOIA, Freedom of Information, many times to access the materials. I get some, but many things remain classified. So the Hmong were caught in a situation wherein the Americans, during the time of the Vietnam War, denied they were fighting in Laos, denied that there was American military involvement in Laos. And so the war was secret. And very few Americans ever knew about this. Of course the Hmong knew about it; they were fighting it. And Americans who served there, many thousands of them, as a matter of fact, know about it.
HEFFNER: And now, what would you say about the level of understanding of what role the Hmong played is in our country?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: I would say it’s limited. It’s, very few people know. In fact, most people don’t even know about the Hmong. They actually were called “Mao” during the time of the Vietnam War, and “Mao” is how we referred to them then, which is a pejorative word.
HEFFNER: Meaning what? You say it’s a…
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Well, it’s a pejorative word. Well, it’s not clear exactly what “Mao” means, but it could mean “little sprout,” or “barbarian.” And anyway, for a Hmong to hear “Mao,” it’s fighting words, and they’ll go to fight over it because they consider it to be a pejorative word. So we won’t call them “Mao,” we’ll call them “Hmong,” which is how they call themselves. And my experience is, I traveled through this country lecturing to civic groups and foreign policy groups, is that in the back of their mind there’s some idea that there might have been something going on Laos, but very few people know the length of time the Americans were involved, and the importance of Laos in all of this. I think you can say that whoever controlled the Hi Chi Minh Trail, which was in Laos, it was the route that came out of North Vietnam through Laos around the DMZ into first South Vietnam then later into Cambodia, whoever controlled that complex of trails was probably going to win the war for South Vietnam. And the Americans tried desperately to control the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and they were never able to do it.
HEFFNER: Do you think our treatment of the Hmong is a function of this being a war that we lost, essentially?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: In part, but I still think that the main problem is that no one knew about the Hmong to begin with, they have no constituency, they are a minority, as other minorities get trapped in this kind of, they’re locked in, no one seems to know about them. You know, how many movie stars so we have talking about the plight of the Hmong? How many movie stars do we have talking about the plight of the Monegnards, the Radey and the Dega in the central highlands of what’s now Vietnam, former South Vietnam. I don’t see any high-profile figures going on television talking about we must do something about the human rights for those folks who are in trouble because they allied themselves with the Americans during the time of the Vietnam War.
HEFFNER: Now, when you say, “Those folks who are in trouble,” what’s the nature of their trouble?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Well, the nature of the trouble, I was just talking to some Montegnards from Vietnam, from the central highlands, who still have families there, they are in this country, and they still talk about the punishment that goes toward those who had allied themselves with the American military effort in the central highlands, allied themselves with the Green Berets. And so we know recently a group of several hundred managed to walk out through Cambodia into Thailand. They’ve been resettled in this country in the south. All of whim had worked with the American Green Berets during the time of the Vietnam War. And in the case of the Hmong currently, as I told you, there’s fighting in Laos. People are unhappy with the government. It’s a Marxist government. And there are very few freedoms. No freedom to change your government or to criticize the government or to travel. Very limited freedoms. Practically none that we would think would be important. SO there’s trouble for Hmong inside Laos. But perhaps the biggest problem now, at least what I hear from the Hmong community in this country, that numbers about 130,000, is that there are still 50,000 to 60,000 Hmong in refugee camps in Thailand who have fled Laos, who fear persecution. And they want to be resettled with their relatives in the West, or they want to return to a democratic Laos, to live in their homelands. And apparently the US government how has a program in place along with the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and the Thai government and the Lao government, to return these people who all claim they’re political refugees or asylum seekers. And they are being forcibly repatriated—the polite word is “involuntarily repatriated”—but it is, in fact, forced. And, in fact, I have a document here in front of me that just came to me about problems in the camp, how people having to buy refugee status with American dollars. And of course under international refugee law you don’t buy refugee status; that’s granted based on interview of your fear of persecution if you return. So the Hmong suffer, unfortunately, to this day. Those who allied themselves with the Americans at the time of the Vietnam War.
HEFFNER: To what degree are there others in the world around us who are suffering the same sort of indifference?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Well, I think it’s very obvious when we talk about the minorities who have been encouraged in one way or another to rise up against what we would consider to be a negative regime or a bad regime. We think about the Kurds. We think about, I just talked about the Montegnards in Vietnam. Certainly the Hmong of Laos. Where they responded to American policy to overthrow the government or work with us while we attempt to forward the traditional government, or in the case of Laos, the royal Lao government. And as I mentioned earlier, that when a minority makes an agreement with the United States, because that minority is not well known, has no voice in the outside world or at the United Nations, when it becomes, when it loses or it becomes, this group is in trouble, there really is not voice, there is no access to world communities. And that is something that troubles me very much because it can happen again, and unfortunately, it probably will happen again.
HEFFNER: Now, let me ask you this question: Are we any different, in this respect, from other countries?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Hmmm. Well, I focus mostly on our relationships with, particularly in Asia…
HEFFNER: And you expect more of us.
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Well, I certainly expect when, for example, in the case of the Hmong, which I talk about in Tragic Mountains, where they really gave all to help their American friends, their friends an allies, they consider the Americans to be really good friends…
HEFFNER: Why, by the way…
HAMILTON-MERRITT: They thought that the, they looked upon the United States as a democracy, which they thought was very important. And the United States had technology, which the Hmong, for example, thought was important. And aviation. All of which they thought was the wave of the future. And they were right, of course. And they wanted to be a part of that. And they thought that if they had the Americans as their friends during their conflict with the communists in their country, that they could never lose. In fact, General Vang Pao told me that, he’s a refugee now in this country, in the United States, General Vong Pao being the military leader of the Hmong in Laos, and military regeant too. He said he could never have imagined that he would be a refugee in the United States, because the United States of America was backing his cause and was helping him, and he was helping the United States. And he would never have imagined it would have ended in defeat.
HEFFNER: I’m sure there are Cubans and Haitians and other peoples around the world who would say more or less the same thing. But I just come back to the question as to whether other major countries have conducted themselves differently in terms of the enticements and the failure to deliver.
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Well, I can think of the French. The French, during following World War II, in Indochina the French promised the Hmong—if we could go back to the case I know so well—
HAMILTON-MERRITT: –the French promised the Hmong that if they joined in the fight against the Viet Minh, following World War II, and then up to the time of Dien Bien Fu in 1954, that if they helped each other out that the French were there to help the Hmong. And of course they all believed they would win. And of course the French did not win in Indochina, Dien Bien Fu. They were defeated dramatically, and there were many Hmong inside Dien Bien Fu, Hmong trying to rescue Frenchmen at Dien Bien Fu. So I guess the answer to your very wise question is that, yes, there must be other countries who, we certainly know France made alliance with minority peoples, because they are often the toughest and the most rugged and the most independent, that they’re eager to protect and defend their homelands. So I would say that there are probably other countries standing along beside the United States.
HEFFNER: How sizeable is the Hmong community in the United States?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: In this country it’s over 130,000. Spreading from the ventral valley of California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Providence, Denver, Colorado, North Carolina. So there are Hmong all across this country, and in France as well.
HEFFNER: But you’re suggesting that without the kind of political moxy and political power to bring about a recognition of the story that you have told here.
HAMILTON-MERRITT: No, they don’t have the power. First of all, they don’t yet write in English that well. Some do, but many of them so not. But they do write their congresspersons and senators. And they do talk about them about this issue of the repatriation that I’m speaking about. And usually the letter foes to the staff member of the senator or the congressperson. And that person is often very, very young, and they know nothing about the Hmong, they know nothing about the secret war in Laos, because, frankly, hasn’t been written about that much. There are very few books that really deal with the secret theater of the Vietnam War, the Lao theater. So my experience has been, talking to the Hmong who do, in fact, write to their senators and their congresspersons, is that they think it probably gets trashed because the young staffers often don’t have the historical knowledge to even know what they’re talking about.
HEFFNER: You’ve gone out on a limb. You’ve written this book. Are there any others who have taken up the cause of the Hmong?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Yes. In fact, I’m very touched by some of the former advisors, military advisors, American military advisors who have come forward in recent days to talk about their Montegnard friends who are in the same kind of trouble that the Hmong are in Laos. And there are others who worked with the CIA, the paramilitary advisors, some of whom are in Tragic Mountain, who are trying in their own small way to get Americans to pay attention, particularly the media, Congress, to pay attention to their former friends who still need help in their troubles.
HEFFNER: Colby. What is his stake in recognizing the wisdom of what you had done?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Well, you’d probably have to ask Mr. Colby himself. But, in fact, I asked Mr. Colby if he would, I thought he would be a good person to comment on Tragic Mountains, because obviously he used to be the head of the CIA and he had worked for a very long time in Southeast Asia, and if anybody in the government should know about the Hmong and the Hmong story, what really happened, Mr. Colby would be one of those. And as you mentioned earlier on in the program, he says that Tragic Mountains is the accurate account of what happened. And I suppose I would have to say that, knowing Mr. Colby, but I personally know of other men who worked with the CIA in their relationship with the Hmong of Laos during the Vietnam War, and I frankly think that they feel terrible about what’s happened to the Hmong. They held the Hmong were honorable and decent folks who kept up their part of the commitment, and that the Americans did, in fact, turn their backs on the Hmong and their desperate pleas for help in their attempt to stay alive as a group. You know, many, many Hmong died. So I think Mr. Colby wanted to come forward and say this is what really happened, and let the chips fall where they may.
HEFFNER: In terms of the story you tell, how does that impact—the facts of the matter, not your story itself—how do those facts impact upon our diplomatic relationships in that part of the world?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Well, I would think Tragic Mountains would be a very unpopular book in Laos, for example, because it talks about what the Hanoi and what Vien Chong did in its effort to, quote, “Wipe out the Hmong,” who had allied themselves with the Americans and with the royal Lao government. And all I Have done actually, in Tragic Mountains, is to record history. I have taken from the radio broadcasts what the official position is of the Lao government, and I have merely recorded it. I have taken the position of the American State Department and recorded it, as well as, you know I interviewed over a thousand people involved in Laos from the times of the socites up to the present, people who have recently come out of Laos, who have escaped Laos, who have escaped Laos.
HEFFNER: But look, you said it explanation, and you’ve said it a couple of times in this program, this was the hidden war. This was the secret war. That’s true. All Vietnam, indeed, or Inodchina, was unknown to us to a great extent. But the people you’re talking about now, our diplomatic representatives, our government, to them it is not and was not a secret war. Therefore, I ask what impact the revelations here and the whole history itself—as you say, you’re simply telling history—have had upon our diplomatic representatives, our government, to them it is not and was not a secret war. Therefore, I ask you what impact the revelations here and the whole history itself—as you say, you’re talking about now, our diplomatic representative, our government, to them it is not and was not a secret war. Therefore, I ask what impact the revelations here and the whole history itself—as you say, you’re simply telling history—have had upon our diplomatic representation in that part of the world.
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Well, I think…Well, the books is new, so maybe it’s a little too early to tell. I hope it might have some impact. But I think it’s tough sledding because so few of, the diplomats who are serving currently in Southeast Asia are very young, of course the senior men are not young. But one would hope that they would read Tragic Mountains and take it as an account of what happened, and think about what I means in terms of the resolutions still to be accomplished in the Vietnam War. We still have few outstanding things. From the American perspective, it looks like we have the POW/MIA issue would certainly be an outstanding issue. And I think also the Hmong, what to do with the Hmong is also an outstanding issue. What will we do with those 50,000, 60,000 left in Thailand? Do we forcibly repatriate them to Laos if they don’t want to go? They’re running out of the camps, they’re hiding because they’re afraid to go. Do we forcibly, involuntarily repatriate them? What do we do with that group? My position is that, because the human rights situation in Laos is minimal, that the Hmong do in fact have a fear of persecution and they should not be forceably repatriated. So it seems to me those two issues still are outstanding as a result of our involvement in the Vietnam War.
HEFFNER: Is your suggestion that they come to the United States?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Well, many of them want to because they have family, friends here and are eligible for resettlement. The problem had been that someone had said that if you came out of Laos after 1985 you were no longer a political refugee. And of course that’s too bad because they consider, they came out after, tough to get out sometimes, you know, better to try to hide in the mountains. So if you came out after 1985 you probably are not considered a political refugee. But I would disagree with that. I would think that you would be.
HEFFNER: Well, what inroads are being made upon that point of view?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Well, I think a number of human-rights groups think that the Hmong, in fact, are political refugees and asylum-seekers, and should be not forcibly returned, that there should be fair and honest screening processes and that people should not be put in the position where they have to pay for refugee status, which is this current crisis which seems to be going on. So I think we ought to be in the involvement of more human-rights groups. I think also that the Congressional Human Rights Caucus ought to be very heavily involved in this, because that’s…
HEFFNER: And it is not.
HAMILTON-MERRITT: It is not to this point. I keep urging, and maybe I’ll be successful this fall. It is not involved as it should be. And it should be, because that’s the reason for its existence.
HEFFNER: Is one—and we have 30 seconds left—has anyone in strong position of leadership in this country, besides you and your wonderful book, taken up their cause?
HAMILTON-MERRITT: Well, there are a few people in Congress. Representative Dorian from California has indicated that he would be interested in pushing for a briefing of the situation of the Hmong, particularly the situation in the camps. So there are a few people. We need a lot more people. And I think the way you become involved is that you have to know something about Laos. And Tragic Mountains is a good starting point, because it does give us a good history of what the Hong are all about.
HEFFNER: Jane Hamilton-Merritt, it is, Tragic Mountains is a very good starting point. Thank you for joining me today.
And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, PO Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2 in check or money order.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Goodnight, and good luck.”