In the mountainous region of Laos, the Hmong people were American allies during the Vietnam War. They rescued downed American fliers and attacked convoys moving supplies from North Vietnam to the Viet Cong along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos. It is likely that Vang Pao's "Secret Army" also carried out covert missions in neighboring Vietnam. Some Americans believe that Vang Pao financed arms and leadership though the opium trade with either the knowledge or complicity of the Central Intelligence Agency.
It is undisputed that the CIA recruited Vang Pao because he had already become legendary as a guerilla fighter against the Japanese during World War II and against the French during their ill-fated efforts. When the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam and the Communist Pathet Lao swept to power in Laos in 1975, the U.S. Congress cut funds to the "Secret Army" and many were killed by Communists. Vang Pao led survivors to Thailand and then to North America.
Public and private U.S. relief agencies settled many Hmong people in the Midwest. In Wisconsin alone, they are the third largest minority group and the largest in many of the state's cities. Official Wisconsin state notices and signs are often in three languages: English, Spanish and Hmong.
To please the Hmong community, the Madison School Board voted unanimously last April to name a new elementary school for Vang Pao, who is regarded by older Hmong people as a cross between George Washington and Ho Chi Minh. Some other Madison public schools are named for Cesar Chavez, Samuel Gompers, and Malcolm Shabazz (i.e., Maclom X). Hmong community leaders in Madison have already participated in the ceremonial ground-breaking.
When the Hmong people are seen as victims, the tendency by social liberals is to give them something symbolic, but when they are viewed as U.S. allies in Vietnam, anti-anti-Communist reflexes kick in. Nonetheless, the misgivings older Madison Vietnam war protesters about the possible Vang Pao history of drug trade, forced conscription of children, and summary executions were by and large ignored. Now 77, Vang Pao has raised millions of dollars among Hmong refugees in the U.S., issuing colorful certificates allowing the bearer to return to Laos in the future when the Communists are no longer in power.
Recent events have made the Madison School Board squirm and played into the hands of the old anti-Vietnam war crowd. In early June, Vang Pao and eight co-conspirators were charged with trying to buy hundreds of AK-47s, shoulder-fired missiles, mines and explosives to topple the Communists who still rule Laos. Their mistake was trying to obtain the arms in California, where they were stung by federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigators posing as arms dealers.
Among older Hmong people, attempted shipment of weapons from California to Thailand to be used by dissident Laotian soldiers and mercenaries against the Communists in power actually increases Vang Pao's stature in their eyes. There have been polite rallies for Vang Pao in front of federal courthouses in several American cities.
About 10 days after the indictments, the Madison School Board unanimously reversed itself on naming the new elementary school for Vang Pao. The members are considering naming the school for the neighborhood where it will be located or for a retired Madison school administrator or perhaps a celebrity -- who if still alive could also potentially be a source of embarrassment. The board forgot that most schools are named after someone who is safely dead.
If Vang Pao were no longer alive, the naming decision would have stood. However, he has cheated death many times on the battlefield and in assassination attempts in the U.S., probably ordered by Communists in Laos. Having been so close to death so often, Vang Pao is surely finding the federal conspiracy charges he is facing less troubling than Madison's liberals are.