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Review Essay:

''Rumor, Innuendo, Propaganda, and Disinformation"


by Frank Proschan
For many years Jane Hamilton-Merritt has carried out a
publicity campaign in supportofVang Pao andthe so-called "Lao
resistance," while condemning the government ofthe Lao Peo
ple's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) and anyone who chal
lenges her own views. Hamilton-Merritt has demonstrated great
effectiveness in marshaling the mainstream media, reputable
public figures, and otherwise respected institutions as the chan
nels or even mouthpieces for her campaign. The publication of
Tragic Mountains highlights her ongoing efforts to find accep
tance for her fanciful vision of the recent history of Laos (and
the United States). Hersuccess inthis campaign has been possible
only because few in her audience know the facts behind her
distorted misrepresentations. In this book, Hamilton-Merritt con
structs a fantastical account of "the Hmong, the Americans, and
the secret wars for Laos" that bears little relation to the truth of
the events and personalities she discusses.
In my critique here I seek to discern Hamilton-Merritt's
essential arguments and establish that they are unsupported
or indeed often contradicted-by the facts. I attempt to dis
credit Hamilton-Merritt's arguments within the terms ofthose
very arguments as she sets them out, leaving aside certain
larger issues and questions that bear on the issues Hamilton
Merritt raises. Thus, to offer one example, I take no position
here on current debates about the adequacy of the definition
of genocide used in the 1948 U.N. convention, since Hamil
ton-Merritt never raises such underlying questions but instead
alleges that the Lao PDR is guilty of genocide as defined
legally by that convention. Readers of this review who have
not read Hamilton-Merritt's book may nevertheless wonder
whether she might not in some cases be accidentally right for
all the wrong reasons-for instance, even if a strict legal
standard for genocide may not have been met, was there not
de facto genocide? I believe, however, that the evidence shows
that she is indeed wrong for all the right reasons.
What are Hamilton-Merritt's fundamental allegations that
serve to structure her account? In Tragic Mountains she intends
TRAGIC MOUNTAINS: THE HMONG, THE
AMERICANS,AND THE SECRET WARS FOR
LAOS, 1942-1992, by Jane Hamilton-Merritt.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992,
illus., 580 pp. Hard cover, S 29.95.
to demonstrate that "the Hmong" universally supported the
French and United States during the First (1945-54) and Second
(1954-75) Indochina Wars; that they alone constituted a loyal
and effective (albeit invisible) ally ofthe United States in Laos;
that since 1975 "the Hmong" have been the target of genocide
by the Lao People's Democratic Republic; that the Lao PDRwith
Soviet assistance ifnot control subjected ''the Hmong" to chemi
cal/biological warfare (CBW); and that the U.S. government has
betrayed and abandoned its former ally, ignoring or suppressing
evidence of CBW use, and most recently supporting the forced
repatriation of Hmong refugees from Thailand to a "certain
death" in Laos. Not one of these major tenets is supported by
adequate factual evidence.
The Problem of the Unverifiable
According to a prominent oral historian, the prerequisite
for a work to be considered as a credible work ofhistory is that
its claims and evidence be subject to scrutiny by other historians:
"a fundamental canon in the use ofhistorical evidence is that it
be capable of being verified or falsified ....'" This principle is
embodied, for example, in the American Historical Association
(AHA)'s Standards ofProfessional Conduct: "Historians should
carefully document their fmdings and thereafter be prepared to
make available to others their sources, evidence, and data, in
cluding the documentation they develop through interviews."z
Tragic Mountains cannot satisfy the prerequisite ofverifiability
1. David Henige, '''In the Possession of the Author': the Problem of
Source Monopoly in Oral Historiography," International Journal of
Oral History. vol. I, no. 3 (1980), pp. 181-94 (p. 184).
2. American Historical Association (AHA), Statement on Standards of
Professional Conduct (as amended in May 1990) (Washington, D.C.:
American Historical Association, 1992), p. 5; cf. pp. 6, 25-27.
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\
Hmong guerrillas receiving marksmanship training with assault rifles in the early years ofthe misnamed "secret war"
that consumed Laos from J945 to 1975. The underlying thesis o[fragic Mountains is that the majority ofHmong supported
France, the United States, and the Royal Lao Government (RLG) in the First and Second Indochina Wars, but since the
defeat ofthe RLG in 1975 the United States has betrayed and abandoned its one-time Hmong allies. This photo and the
next one were provided by Frank Proschan arefrom and reprinted here courtesy ofthe Civil Air Transport/Air America
Archives at the University ofTexas in Dallas.
that would allow it to be considered a reliable work of history,
even though it purports to be a work ofscholarship and has been
taken by others to be an authoritative source.
Crucial aspects ofHamilton-Merritt's argument depend on
allegations made with absolutely noprimary evidence to support
them. Examples are legion: numerous demographic claims are
made with no supporting documentation (pp. 303, 403, 448,
503);3 the alleged killing of pro-democracy demonstrators in
Xieng Khouang (p. 500) is unattested in any credible source; the
translation of ''Hmong'' as meaning "'free people' or 'those who
must have their freedom and independence'" (p. 3) has absolutely
no linguistic foundation;4 the fable of a Hmong alphabet sup
pressed by the Chinese (p. 5) is apocryphal; the claim that "most"
or ''the majority of' Hmong supported the French and Americans
3. Some are presented as Hamilton-Merritt's figures, and others are the
unsupported allegations of others; compare also Hamilton-Merritt's use
of very divergent figures in her other publications and congressional
testimony.
4. See Joakim Enwall, ''Miao or Hmong?" Thai-Yunnan Project News
letter (Canberra, Australia National University), no. 17 (1992), pp.
25-26; Thomas A. Lyman, "The 'Free Mong': An End to a Contro
versy," Anthropological Linguistics, vol. 30, no. 1 (1988), pp. 128-32;
and Cheung Siu-Woo, "A Preliminary Survey of the White Hmong
Vocabulary on the Hmong Classification ofEthnic Categories," unpub
lished paper, 1989.
(pp. 45-46, p. xviii) is insupportable; the claim that Missing in
Action (MIA) "survivors were captured and kept as prisoners"
(p. 186) is pure speculation. In some cases Hamilton-Merritt can
provide no evidence because the facts are simply wrong or
invented: she claims that in 1990 Phoumi Vongvichit (then acting
president of Laos) was a guest at a July 4th party at the home of
the U.S. charge d' affaires in Vientiane (p. 50 I); she mistakes him
for Phoun Sipraseuth, the foreign minister, who did attend.
Throughout, both informants/interviewees and historical
actors are identified with pseudonyms or nicknames and their
true identity is disguised, even in some cases where the actors
are already publicly identified with their actions. These data are
consequently unverifiable and of little or no evidentiary value
from the standpoint of accepted historical methodology. Foot
notes and other citations of sources, when they are provided at
all, do not allow specific information to be related to a specific
identifiable and locatable source. Moreover, there is no indica
tion in the text that the author has deposited notes, documents,
and interview tapes and transcripts in any public archive where
they may be examined by other scholars.'
5. Hamilton-Merritt made no reply to my letter of 14 December 1995
inquiring ''where your notes, recordings, and supporting documentation
are archived, and under what conditions they are available to interested
scholars for examination."
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Admittedly the nature ofthe subjects about which Ham
ilton-Merritt writes (including the past or present Central
Intelligence Agency [CIA] affiliation of a number of actors
and informants and the ongoing illegal activities of the Lao
resistance terrorists) might impose particular problems with
confidentiality and the protection ofidentities. Oral historians
and other scholars have nevertheless devised methods of
balancing confidentiality and verifiability, such as recording
identities under seal or depositing materials in restricted ar
chives. Hamilton-Merritt makes no mention of such provi
sions, and the effect ofher inadequate citations is to ultimately
make it impossible to verify or validate her historical inter
pretations. As David Henige notes, "no scholar has the right
to seek both the approval ofhis peers and immunity from any
criticism based on their familiarity with his sources.,,6
Presented in the veneer of a scholarly study, with
the trappings ofscholarly apparatus, the book has
great potential to deceive naive readers into mistak
enly believing it to be a reliable work of research
and interpretation.
The issue of proper citation, adequate supporting docu
mentation, and the verifiability ofthe author's claims takes on
greater than normal importance because in numerous instances
where historical evidence is readily available itfalsifies Ham
ilton-Merritt's account or interpretation. Examples are legion
where she distorts the evidence she herself presents, or makes
what can only be construed as misstatements of fact. Hamil
ton-Merritt regularly violates the AHA canon that "Historians
must not misrepresent evidence or the sources of evidence." 7
What then should we expect where the historical "evidence"
exists nowhere outside of Hamilton-Merritt's own files?
For instance, Hamilton-Merritt misrepresents easily acces
sible documents when she claims on two occasions that "the
1954 Geneva Accords ... prohibited [North Vietnam] from using
a second country (Laos) in order to fight in yet another country
(South Vietnam)" (p. 114, cf. p. 126). Instead, the Final Decla
ration ofthe 1954 Geneva Conference states explicitly that "the
military demarcation line [at the 17th parallel] is provisional and
should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political
or territorial boundary." 8 Note that this is not a question of
whether the 1954 accords were eventually superseded by later
events that made North Vietnam and South Vietnam de facto
separate countries, as many reputable experts on international
6. David Henige, Oral Historiography (New York: Longman, 1982),
p.124.
7. AHA, Statement, p. 5.
8. Geneva Accords of1954, Final Declaration, sec. 6.
law have contended: The question is simply whether the Geneva
Accords said what Hamilton-Merritt claims-or whether she
instead misrepresented the evidence itself.
Hamilton-Merritt also misrepresents the contents ofa cited
source when she claims that "international drug enforcement
agencies documented that the current 'drug lords' ofLaos were
the communist government" (p. 541), and cites the U.S. Depart
ment ofState 's International Narcotics Control Strategy Report,
March 1992 as the source. In fact, that document reaches exactly
the opposite conclusion: despite receiving "reports" (note there
is no material evidence beyond hearsay) of involvement by
low-level military and local officials, ''the USG [U.S. Govern
ment] has no credible evidence that senior officials directly
engage in, encourage, or facilitate the production or distribution
of illegal drugs." 10
Beyond the numerous misstatements, factual distortions,
and unsupported allegations in the book-only a few of which
have been detailed above-there are endless small mistakes. Lao
words are frequently misspelled (typically a Thai spelling is
substituted for the proper Lao spelling), dates are wrong, the
Democratic Republic ofVietnam is misnamed a ''people's demo
cratic republic," and place names are confused. The profusion of
such mistakes taken together call the author's credibility into
question on other matters as well. Beyond the mistakes ofdetail,
however, there are also much larger conceptual faults and distor
tions, to which we now tum.
The Unanimity of ''the Hmong"
Hamilton-Merritt would have us believe that all of "the
Hmong" in Laos shared a single political viewpoint on the major
events that engulfed them between 1940 and the present. In fact,
there is virtually no way to quantify the proportion of Hmong
who sided with the French and later the Americans, as compared
to the proportion who supported Lao independence from France
and later opposed the United States. Certainly Hamilton-Merritt
offers no data to support her claims that "most," let alone all,
supported Touby Lyfoung and Vang Pao. Compare the situation
of Hmong in Vietnam: Hamilton-Merritt's account of the 1954
battles for Dien Bien Phu asserts that '" all the Meo'" were loyal
to the French (p. 58, quoting Trinquier). In fact, the sizable
Hmong population "in the vicinity of Dien Bien Phu ... joined
the Viet Minh ... they rendered great service to the Viet Minh." 11
By McAlister's account, without Hmong support the Viet Minh
could never have achieved victory.
In Laos the largest part ofthe Hmong population endeav
ored to stay alive by staying out of things, supporting neither
the RLG nor the Pathet Lao, the communist-led independence
movement more properly known as the Neo Lao Hak Xat
9. Richard A. Falk, ed., The Vietnam War and International Law
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968-72).
10. U. S. Department ofState, International Narcotics Control Strategy
Report, March 1992 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State,
1992), p. 280.
11. John T. McAlister Jr., ''Mountain Minorities and the Viet Minh: A
Key to the Indochina War," in Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities, and
Nations, ed. Peter Kunstadter (princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1967), vol. 2, pp. 771-844; see p. 824; cf. p. 831.
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1
I
The hero ofthe Hamilton-Merritt hagiography, Vang Pao, shown here in the early years ofhis involvement with
the u.s. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). An opponent ofLao independence from France in the years after
World War II, Vang Pao was later chosen by the CIA as military leader ofan irregular army composed ofHmong
and other ethnic minorities recruited to fight the Pathet Lao, the communist-led independence movement. In
painting Vang Pao as a great Hmong hero, Hamilton-Merritt ignores the fact that many Hmong in Laos chose to
support the other side. Hamilton-Merritt also tell us nothing about Vang Pao sefforts to have the Hmong secede
from Laos, his documented alliance with the ousted Khmer Rouge after 1979, or his supporters' continuing
corruption in the United States and terrorist acts against Laotian civilians.
(NLHX). But the Pathet Lao indisputably enjoyed the support
of several Hmong leaders equal in prestige and popularity to
Touby and Yang Pao, including Faydang, Nhiavu, and Lao
foung. A 1959 U.S. intelligence analysis notes the support of
Meo in Phongsaly and Sam Neua for the Pathet Lao, pointing
out that "most of the guerrillas in the northern provinces are
ex-Pathet Lao soldiers, and Meo and Black Thai tribal
groups."12 Similarly, a 1964 CIA working paper notes that the
Neo Lao Hak Xat (NLHX) ''represents the many ethnic groups
in Laos, and provides a potential means to power and prestige
for Kha and Meo minorities who have in the past been ignored
or persecuted by the Royal Lao Government (RLG)."13 See
also Arthur Stillman's report that "great tribal leaders on the
Pathet Lao side are equally numerous, ifless well known [than
those on the RLG side]."14 Despite grudging acknowledgment
that her study concerns only ''those Hmong who sided ... with
12. Pentagon Papers, House ofRepresentatives edition, document 292,
SNIE 68-2-59, 18 Sept. 1959.
13. Central Intelligence Agency, The Structure ofCommunist Organi
zations in Laos as ofMarch 1964, CIA-319/00003-64, 20 Oct. 1964,
pp. 8-9. Microfilm edition, Paul Kesaris, ed., CIA Research Reports:
Vietnam and Southeast Asia, 1946-1976 (Frederick, MD: University
Publications ofAmerica, 1983).
the Americans," Hamilton-Merritt insists absolutely without
any supporting evidence that "they constituted the majority of
the Hmong in Laos" (p. xviii).
The Singularity of the Hmong,
and Their Devotion to the Lao Nation
From Hamilton-Merritt's account one would never learn
that members of other ethnic minorities-specifically the Mien
and Kmhmu-made up a substantial proportion of the troops
under Yang Pao's command or under separate but coordinated
CIA patronage. Mien and Kmhmu in the Nam Tha region under
the command ofYao (Mien) leader Chao Mai were recruited as
irregular troops beginning in 1959, prior to the first documented
CIA recruiting ofHmong under Yang Pao.
ls
Other Kmhmu were
14. Arthur D. Stillman, Notes on Minority Policy in Laos (Santa Monica,
CA: The Rand Corporation, 1970).
15. Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics ofHeroin in Southeast Asia (New
York: Harper and Row, 1972), pp. 297ff (revised edition, The Politics
ofHeroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade [Brooklyn, NY:
Lawrence Hill, 1991]); cf. Timothy N. Castle, At War in the Shadow of
Vietnam: u.s. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955-1975
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 155.
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members ofVang Pao's Military Region II troops from 1960 on.
Indeed, the participation of Kmhmu in Vang Pao's armies was
so substantial that "by April 1971 Lao Theung [in other words,
Kmhmu] ... comprised 40 percent of his troops." 16 Hamilton
Merritt sees fit to mention these other groups only in passing,
and they are otherwise invisible in her account. This silence on
the central role ofother ethnic groups can only be taken as willful
distortion of the historical record.
A similar distortion of interethnic relations is Hamilton
Merritt's Claim that "[the Plain ofJars] belonged to the Hmong"
(p. 232). There is no historical basis upon which the Hmong
could Claim "ownership" of the Plain of Jars. According to
Douglas Blaufarb, ''the Plain ofJars itself is not Meo-inhab
ited, [although] a concentration of Meo villages exists in the
hills around it ... "17 The plain was the home oflarge numbers
ofLao Phouan, Kmhmu, Tai Dam, and other ethnic groups who
probably outnumbered the Hmong (who had indeed migrated
into the region barely a hundred years before, displacing other
prior inhabitants). No matter how sympathetic one might be to
recognizing indigenous land rights, Hamilton-Merritt's claim
on behalfofthe Hmong can only be seen as completely without
merit; in fact it trespasses on the land rights of other earlier
populations.
adopted precisely to respond to the Hmong ssecessionist ten
dencies.
20
Compare Blaufarb again: ''CIA ... advisers urged
Vang Pao to reject Meo autonomy both symbolically and in his
policies and programs .... [but] Vang Pao thus far [1972] is
not inclined to accept Lao domination ofthe Meo people after
the United States withdraws. "21 Whether or not one believes
that ethnic minorities ultimately have a moral or political right
of secession from larger nation-states, or that the Hmong might
have had justification for seceding from Laos, it is clear that
Hamilton-Merritt attempts here to rewrite the historical record
by denying-in the face ofconsistent and unrefuted evidence
that Vang Pao sought to do so.
Finally, especially egregious are Hamilton-Merritt's racist
characterizations of the Vietnamese, the lowland Lao Loum in
general, and the Lao Theung affiliated with Kong Le (inCluding
Kong Le himself). Hamilton-Merritt discusses the "traditional
enemies [of the Hmong] ... the Vietnamese" (p. 83) without
offering any evidence to support the assertion that Hmong and
Vietnamese were ''traditional'' enemies. In fact, Hmong and
Vietnamese had virtually no contact prior to 1850; in northwest
ern Vietnam and northeastern Laos there were no sizable Viet
namese populations and only minimal Vietnamese (or Laotian)
administrative authority, and the Hmong came into conflict not
with Vietnamese but with highland Tai populations. Projecting
contemporary ethnic or national conflicts backward into the
primordial past is a familiar strategy; it is, of course, simply
jingoism rather than sound history and least of all scholarship.
The issue ofproper citation, adequate supporting
documentation, andthe verifiability ofthe author's
claims takes on greater than normal importance
because in numerous instances where historical
evidence is readily available it falsifies Hamilton
Merritt's account or interpretation. Examples are
legion where she distorts the evidence she herself
presents, or makes what can only be construed as
misstatements offact.
Hamilton-Merritt also seeks to deny the well-documented
secessionist tendencies ofVang Pao and his followers. Discuss
ing National Geographic author W. E. Garrett's 1974 account
ofVang Pao's earlier efforts to proclaim an autonomous Hmong
nation,I8 Hamilton-Merritt claims that "according to teacher
Moua Lia, 'Mr. Garrett's statement ... is wrong'" (p. 327).
However, Bernard Fall, G. Linwood Barney, Gary Wekkin,
Alfred W. McCoy, D. Gareth Porter, and others provide evi
dence consistent with Garrett's statement.
19
Marek Thee gives
the most detailed account of measures that Souvanna Phouma
16. McCoy, Politics of Heroin. p. 281, summarizing congressional
testimony.
17. Douglas Blaufarb, Organizing and Managing Unconventional War
in Laos. 1962-1970 (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 1972),
p. 23, emphasis added.
Genocide against the Hmong as a People?
The author's assumption that all Hmong agreed with and
supported Vang Pao is a necessary foundation to her Claims that
since 1975 ''the Hmong" in general and in toto have been the
target of genocide by the Lao PDR. Hamilton-Merritt makes
great rhetorical use of the trope of synecdoche, substituting the
part for the whole, or perhaps metalepsis, "in which the general
idea substituted is considerably removed from the particular
detail." 22 Statements that might be true when referring specifi
cally to ''those Hmong under Vang Pao's command" or ''that
18. W. E. Garrett, ''No Place to Run: the Hmong of Laos," National
Geographic. vol. 145, no. 1, (Jan. 1974), pp. 78-111; see p. 89.
19. Bernard Fall, Anatomy ofa Crisis: The Laotian Crisis of1960-1961
(Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1969); G. Linwood Bar
ney, ''The Meo of Xieng Khouang Province, Laos, " in Southeast Asian
Tribes, ed. Kunstadter, vol. 1, pp. 271-94; Gary D. Wekkin, "The
Rewards ofRevolution: Pathet Lao Policy towards the Hill Tribes since
1975," in Contemporary Laos: Studies in the Politics andSociety ofthe
Lao. People sDemocratic Republic. ed. Martin Stuart-Fox (New York:
8t. Martin's Press, 1982), pp. 181-98; McCoy, Politics of Heroin;
D. Gareth Porter, "After Geneva: Subverting Laotian Neutrality," in
Laos: War and Revolution, ed. Nina S. Adams and Alfred W. McCoy
(New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1970), pp. 179-212.
20. Marek Thee (pseudonym for Marek Gdanski), Notes ofa Witness:
Laos and the Second Indochinese War (New York: Random House,
1973).
21. Blaufarb, Organizing and Managing. p. 79, emphasis added.
22. J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms (Harmondsworth,
England: Penguin Press, 1982), p. 391.
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small number ofHmong who violently resisted the Lao govern
ment after 1975" or "those Hmong terrorists who today support
Yang Pao instead ofKong Le or Pa Kao Her" are not necessarily
true ofthe Hmong in general or the Hmong as a whole (and are
o f t ~ n demonstrably false). Indeed, the most damning "evidence"
that. Hamilton-Merritt can offer of the Lao PDR's purported
gen6cidal intentions invariably either involves misquotes or
remdins undocumented (see below).
Hamilton-Merritt may well be unaware of the degree to
which many Hmong have thrived politically under the Lao PDR
government. The vice-president of the National Assembly and
the president of the Lao Front for National Construction are
Hmong, as is the governor of the National Ban1c There are
several Hmong governors or vice-governors in the northern
provinces, and areas of heavy Hmong population such as Nong
Het, Xieng Khouang, Km. 52, and Muong Hom are governed by
Hmong district and sub-district chiefs. There are Hmong highly
placed on the Central Committee of the Lao People's Revolu
tionary Party, Hmong professors at the teacher's college at Dong
Dok, and Hmong vice-ministers and department directors. Of
course, none of this necessarily means that Laos has become a
multi-ethnic paradise. The fact that certain members ofan ethnic
group may achieve high positions does not preclude the possi
bility that others might be victims ofinjustice or ofhuman rights
violations.
23
But the facts do belie Hamilton-Merritt's claims that
"the Hmong" are singled out for systematic and pervasive per
secution based upon their ethnicity itself, 'yust because they are
Hmong" (p. 524, emphasis added).
Note, in this regard, that in the 1948 U.N. Convention on
Genocide (inserted by Hamilton-Merritt as an appendix, p. 533),
the crucial defming factor is that ofintent. Under the convention
simply killing members of a group or causing them bodily or
mental harm does not constitute genocide: it is only genocide
when those acts are done "with intent to destroy, in whole or in
part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such." The
Lao PDR's efforts after 1975 to eliminate or control that tiny
fraction of the Hmong people who were actively engaged in
violent resistance to the government do not constitute genocide
under the terms ofthe U.N. Convention on Genocide. No matter
how harsh the Lao government's efforts might on occasion have
been (and even ifthese efforts might have involved human rights
violations, the use ofCBW, or other acts that could be considered
war crimes or crimes against humanity), such actions in them
selves do not prove genocidal intent to destroy the Hmong as a
group. Recall also that Hamilton-Merritt never argues (as have
some indigenous groups, international lawyers, and other schol
ars) for a broader or less state-centered defmition of genocide
that recognizes effects rather than intentions, and in the end she
offers no credible evidence of either intent or genocidelike
effects.
The evidence that Hamilton-Merritt does offer to support
her imputation of a policy of genocide to the Lao government
23. For recent views of ethnic minority policies and their effects in
Laos, see Wendy Batson, "After the Revolution: Ethnic Minorities
and the New Lao State," in Laos: Beyond the Revolution, ed. Joseph
J. Zasloffand Leonard Unger (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991),
pp. 133-58; and Carol Ireson and W. Randall Ireson, "Ethnicity and
Development in Laos," Asian Survey, vol. 31 (1991), pp. 920-37.
is flimsy at best, when it is not simply distorted or invented.
Crucial to Hamilton-Merritt's charges ofgenocide is her asser
tion that sometime in early May 1975, Phoumi Vongvichit (at
the time vice premier and foreign minister of the Lao govern
ment) "announced on national radio that the Hmong must be
'taken out at the roots'" (p. 337). Elsewhere, relying on a 1981
letter from Yang Pao to then secretary of state Alexander Haig,
Hamilton-Merritt recounts a strikingly similar threat: ''Vang
Pao also reminded Haig ... [that] 'The Pathet Lao had threat
ened to wipe out the Hmong ethnic tribe once they were in
power.... the Pathet Lao News Bulletin in May 9, 1975 ...
stated that ''the Hmong are the sole enemies ofthe Pathet Lao.
... such an ethnic group must be destroyed and all roots must
be pulled up"'" (p. 424). Whether this was one event or two,
on radio or in print, Hamilton-Merritt provides no primary
source citation whatsoever, nor does she refer to any publicly
available secondary source; the only citation is to Yang Pao's
letter written six years after the alleged event(s). While proving
a negative is impossible, and thus I cannot say with absolute
certainty that no such broadcast was made or bulletin publish
ed, an exhaustive search ofthe Foreign Broadcast Information
Service Daily Reports, Joint Publication Research Services
Reports, and BBe Summary ofWorld Broadcasts for the period
from I- April through 30 June 1975 shows absolutely no evi
dence to support Yang Pao's and Hamilton-Merritt's allega
tion.24
It is all the more regrettable that Tragic Mountains
propagates a view ofHmong history that glorifies
and reinforces the authority 0/an older generation
ofHmong whose leadership poorly serves the com
munity at large and especially its younger members.
Moreover, the public record instead suggests the unlike
lihood ofany such blanket threat--all contemporaneous broad
casts, speeches, and statements ofthe Pathet Lao and Phoumi
Vongvichit are careful to distinguish a very small handful of
named individuals as the subjects ofthreats, not an entire group
or class. In the early part of May, Phoumi was acting as host
to the king and queen ofLaos during a visit to Viengxay in the
liberated zone; it is highly unlikely that he would have taken
the occasion to threaten an entire ethnic group of Lao citizens
(many ofwhom were indeed allied with the Pathet Lao). From
7 May until the end of the month he was in Vientiane as the
24. Foreign Broadcasting Information Service Daily Report, Asia and
the Pacific; Joint Publication Research Services Reports, and British
Broadcasting Service, Summary ofWorld Broadcasts, Far East.
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The opposing sides in the conflict in Laos pursued very different military and political strategies. The United
States and the RLG placed great faith in military armaments and firepower, carrying out a strategy of
technowar that blanketed most ofthe countryside with bombs. At the same time, the United States supported
guerrillas drawn from the Hmong and other ethnic minorities, bypassing the elite families ofthe majority Lao
ethnic group that dominated the RLG. The Pathet Lao, in contrast, placed its faith in the support ofthe rural
populations, both Lao and minority. Because of its success in enlisting support from inhabitants ofremote
mountainous areas, the Pathet Lao was able to maintain control over most ofthe country for decades, even
iffinal victory over the RLG came only in 1975. This photo from Khaosan Pathet Lao, the news agency ofthe
Pathet Lao and later the Lao People sDemocratic Republic (Lao PDR), shows a low-tech supply convoy
during the war, when the United States was flying in supplies to Vang Pao through its Air America affiliate.
highest NLHX official in the coalition government, the Provi
sional Government ofNational Union; since Pathet Lao Radio
was broadcast from Viengxay he could not have been on the
radio after 7 May.2s
There was indeed another broadcast over Pathet Lao
radio on 6 May 1975 that Hamilton-Merritt employs as a
keystone ofher argument, although it did not involve Phoumi
Vongvichit, and it included no language approximating that
referred to above.26 Taken in full the broadcast criticizes a
"handful of special forces" that were "formed, trained, armed
and commanded" by the CIA and that remained under the
direction ofthe ''Vientiane ultrarightist reactionary clique. " 27
The Patriotic Armed Forces, the broadcast continues, ''have
no fear of this handful of special forces. We can wipe them
out (at any time?). That is not our primary goal, we are
25. The foregoing events are described in FBIS and BBC-SWB for
the period.
26. A full translation of this broadcast is included in the FBIS Daily
Report, Asia and the Pacific (9 May 1975, p. 13, titled [by FBIS?]
'The U.S.-Vang Pao Special Forces Must Be Completely Cleaned
Up"); excerpts are provided in another slightly different translation
in the BBe Summary of World Broadcasts, Far East (12 May 1975,
p. FE/49011B/l).
constrained to repeat, because we want to preserve the spirit
of national concord called for in the [1973] peace accords." 21
Clearly the Pathet Lao are simply boasting here: they do not
threaten the shrinking membership ofthe special forces (only
some of whom, in fact, were Hmong), instead simply calling
for them to be disbanded as promised in the 1973 accords and
denying any hostile intent against them, while bragging ofthe
ability to ''wipe them out" if they wished.
The only threat made in the broadcast (and in all contem
poraneous statements ofthe Pathet Lao) is directed very specifi
cally against "the obstinate reactionary clique on the Vientiane
side"-that is, a dozen or so (non-Hmong) Lao government
officials-who were accused of directing the activities of the
special forces: "the Patriotic Armed Forces must exercise our
27. In contemporaneous broadcasts and speeches, the members of
this "reactionary clique" are identified by name, constituting a dozen
or so prominent lowland Lao officials and, on occasion, Yang Pao
as the single non-Lao clique member. For names of those in the
''ultrarightist reactionary clique," see FB1S Daily Report, Asia and
the Pacific, 5 May 1975, p. 11; 12 May 1975, p. 115; 19 May 1975,
p. 13; 21 May 1975 p. 15; 23 May 1975 p. 11; 23 May 1975 p. 112.
28. FBIS Daily Report; the words in parentheses are in parentheses in
the original.
58
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I
right of self-defense and duly punish or wipe them out." 29 The
''them'' who are the subject ofthis direct threat are the lowland
Lao generals and ministers-Sisouk Na Champassak, the San
anikones, and other prominent lowland Lao officials-not the
special forces in general nor the Hmong in particular. Yet
throughout the book Hamilton-Merritt repeatedly asserts that in
this 6 May 1975 broadcast the Pathet Lao threaten to wipe out
the Hmong as a people, in their entirety, and with genocidal
intent. For instance, note the chronology where she alleges that
the ''Pathet Lao publicly announce plans to 'wipe out' Hmong"
(p. xxvi); cf. the chapter heading pp. 337-51: '''Wipe Them
Out! '" with an exclamation point added. See also where she
refers to ''the LPDR's publicly stated policy to 'wipe out' the
reactionary Hmong" (p. 516). Hamilton-Merritt quotes out of
context in two respects: first, where she presents the radio
broadcast at some length (p. 340) but omits the crucial sentences
that would make it unmistakable that threats were leveled not
against the special forces (and least of all against the Hmong in
general) but only against a clique of Lao officials who were
charged with sponsoring those illegal special forces, and second,
where she further excerpts and further misrepresents the threat
(pp. xxvi, 337-51, 516).
Although the Lao original text is not available to us, it is
worth making quite plain that nowhere in the English translations
is there any mention of the Hmong ethnic group as such. There
is a very important issue here: during this period the Pathet Lao
were careful and quite consistent in their use of the two paired
tenns ''Meo'' and ''Lao Soung" (and "Hmong"was indeed never
used by them during this period). The tenn "Lao Soung" was
used to refer to that sizable proportion of Hmong who actively
supported the NLHX and Patriotic Anned Forces. The tenn
''Meo'' (usually qualified by adjectives identifying them with the
United States) was used only to refer to that small proportion of
Hmongwho continued to support Vang Pao and refused to accept
the tenns of the 1973 Vientiane Agreement under which his
special forces were to be disbanded. So even if there had been
any threats directed against the "Meo"-and remember, Hamil
ton-Merritt provides no evidence thereof, nor is any available in
the most likely sources-the referent would have been not the
Hmong in general but Vang Pao's troops in particular.
Beyond one seemingly fabricated radio broadcast (or news
bulletin) and another whose content Hamilton-Merritt distorts
and misrepresents, the only other "evidence" she offers of a
genocidal intent includes "confessions" of two Laotians who
defected (one to China and one to Thailand) and then claimed to
have witnessed or participated in Soviet and/or Vietnamese
genocide against the Hmong. Ifwe had genuine documents from
Laos, Vietnam, or the Soviet Union showing such an intention
29. Quoted from FBIS; the BBC text differs only trivially. The same
distinction is made elsewhere between "dissolving" the special forces
and "punishing" the rightist clique that directed them. See FBIS Daily
Report, Asia and the Pacific, 7 May 1975, p. 14: "dissolve immediately
the Vang Pao 'special forces' ... [and] punish those who use the U.S.
Vang Pao 'special forces'to attack areas under the control ofthe patriotic
forces" (emphasis added); FBIS Daily Report, Asia and the Pacific,
14 May 1975, p. 18: ''the patriotic forces' side has many times demanded
that the Vientiane side dissolve at once the Vang Pao 'special forces' as
defmed in the Vientiane agreement" (emphasis added).
or indeed, ifthere existed even a shred ofmaterial evidence of
CBWuse or genocidal attacks--then personal testimonies (even
dubious ones like these of self-interested parties such as these
two defectors) would provide important corroboration; alone
they do not.
IfHamilton-Merritt is unable to offer any credible evidence
of a genocidal motivation from the Lao PDR (and recall that to
distinguish genocide from other mass killing, human rights
violations, or war crimes requires proof ofintent), she neverthe
less attempts-ultimately with no greater success-to show
genocidelike effects. Though Hamilton-Merritt herself never
argues for a defmition ofgenocide based on consequences rather
than intent, has she perhaps marshaled evidence that might be
used to establish that the Lao PDR was guilty under an expanded,
effects-based defmition of genocide? In a word, no: what little
she has to offer that purports to show genocidelike effects is
simply numbers she has plucked from thin air with absolutely no
supporting evidence.
The publication of Tragic Mountains highlights
Hamilton-Me"itt's ongoing efforts to fmd accep
tancefor herfanciful vision ofthe recent history of
Laos (and the United States). Her success in this
campaign has been possible only becausefew in her
audience know thefacts behindHamilton-Me"itt's
distorted misrepresentations.
Hamilton Merritt asserts, for example that in 1978-79, "on
Phou Bia alone the poisons had killed 50,000; another 45,000
had been shot, died of starvation, or tortured to death" (p. 403).
The Hmong population ofLaos prior to 1975 could not possibly
have exceeded 250,000. A total of 50,000 fled to Thailand in
1975 and 1976, and another 25,000 in the years between 1975
and 1979, according to statistics ofthe U.N. High Commission
on Refugees. IfHamilton-Merritt is correct, this would mean that
one-half ofthe remaining population of Hmong in Laos died in
the space of a few months "on Phou Bia alone," a ridiculous
claim. This is also irreconcilable with the current population of
Hmong in Laos: if there were only 100,000 Hmong alive after
the attacks on Phou Bia in 1978, there could not possibly have
been a population of231,000 Hmong in 1985, as a U.N. funded
and supervised population census established Compare Hamil
ton-Merritt's previously published estimates of 500,000 Hmong
in Laos in 1960 (approximately 350,000 more than any reliable
source suggests, and this was at a time when the population of
the entire nation did not come to 1.5 million) bfwhom "perhaps
70,000 are still alive" in 1980.
30
This figure of70,000 is patently
impossible, considering that between 1980 and 1988 45,000
30. Jane Hamilton-Merritt, ''Gas Warfare in Laos: Communism's Drive
to Annihilate a People," Reader sDigest, Oct. 1980.
59
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Hmong entered Thailand from Laos-at that rate there would be
only 25,000 or so left in Laos, rather than 231,000! Note also
that the present assertion is clearly based on Vang Pao's claim
(cited by Hamilton-Merritt in previous articles) that "45,000 died
from starvation and disease, or were shot trying to escape to
Thailand," but now she has inserted that they were also ''tortured
to death. "31
Elsewhere Hamilton-Merritt recounts that ''Yang Xeu an
grily reported that somewhere between 50,000 and
70,000 Hmong had died in the Phou Bia area ofLaos, many from
CBW" (p. 448). With a typical population density of 9-14 per
sons per square kilometer in mountainous rural areas ofnorthern
Laos, a population of 50,000 persons would require an area of
more than 4,000 square kilometers (more than 63 kilometers
along each dimension), far vaster than the Phou Bia area itself.
And there is no way that the Phou Bia area itself could have
sustained a population ofthis size, especially since by Hamilton
Merritt's account many were displaced persons and could not
plant rice fields.
Betrayed and Abandoned?
The second half ofHamilton-Merritt's book centers on the
author's notion that the U.S. government, motivated by its own
domestic and international purposes, cynically betrayed and
abandoned its former steadfast allies, the Hmong. Refighting the
Vietnam War (Second Indochina War), Hamilton-Merritt pur
sues the thesis that an "increasingly ... ' violent [!] antiwar
movement" (p. 247) in the United States compelled the U.S.
government to abandon South Vietnam and Laos even though
we were winning (the hackneyed argument ''we won all the
battles in Vietnam but lost the war in Washington and Berkeley").
Disingenuous Congressional peaceniks forced the administra
tion to disavow its commitments to the Hmong (p. 225-29), and
then cut off a naive and "inexperienced" Kissinger at the knees
in his negotiations with the "intractable ... hard-core, strident"
Vietnamese (p. 245). According to Hamilton-Merritt, Nixon
cynically bought domestic peace by betraying Vietnam, Laos,
and especially the Hmong.
The second leg of Hamilton-Merritt's betrayal thesis holds
that the U.S. government covered up evidence of CBW use by
the Soviets in Laos (or at least pursued the issue in a dilatory
manner) in an immoral and crass effort to push through bilateral
Soviet-American arms control agreements (cf. the Storella in
scription on p. 453). In this conspiratorial view, an opportunist
cabal of American academics, the media, and careerist State
Departnlent insiders made common cause with the Evil Empire
to deny or ignore Soviet CBW use, so that it would not block
bilateral arms-control accords. This is as close as Hamilton-Mer
ritt ever approaches to identifying any possible motive for why,
by her account, the interests of ''the Hmong" were cynically
traded off for U.S. self-interest.
However, the well-documented increase in U.S. CBW
activity during this period is impossible to reconcile with
3 L By 1995 the numbers had gotten even fuzzier: since 1975 ''tens
of thousands ofHmong have been killed or imprisoned in 'seminar
camps'" (Jane Hamilton-Merritt, ''Refugees ofthe Secret War," New
York Times. 24 June 1995, national edition, p. 15, emphasis added).
Hamilton-Merritt's vision of a U.S. government hellbent on
arms control and covering up Soviet-sponsored CBW use. A
far more credible thesis holds that charges of Yellow Rain,
widely promoted by the U.S. government in both domestic
and international forums, were made precisely in order to gain
public support and then Congressional authorization for the
Reagan administration to push forward with the manufacture
of new CBW weapons that had previously been abandoned by
Nixon and later banned by Congress (and, concurrently, to
delay or weaken bilateral accords with the Soviet Union). The
carefully orchestrated Yellow Rain pUblicity campaign of
fered the perfect pretext for U.S. rearmament (and for adoption
of new types ofCBW). Clearly one's larger political perspec
tive will determine which one takes as cause and which as
effect: did Soviet use of CBW in Laos compel Reagan and
Schultz to seek new U.S. CBW weapons out of necessity, or
did their eagerness to push through new weaponry cause them
to orchestrate a propaganda campaign? (Although the CBW
charges first surfaced under the Carter administration, the
fervent campaign of "atrocity propaganda" was only later the
child of the Reagan administration.)
Hamilton-Merritt, rather than engaging in any
meaningful debate or in any way disputing these
studies of Yellow Rain on accepted scholarly and
scientific grounds, simply condemns them all
anonymously and collectively.
Among the most striking deficiencies of Hamilton-Mer
ritt's book is her almost total disregard for virtually all previous
scholarship. There are quite sizable bodies ofliterature on these
topics, but Hamilton-Merritt studiously ignores any evidence
that in any way undercuts her own arguments (she also over
looks substantial evidence that could support her interpreta
tions). This is not the place to detail this sizable literature but
to question how a historical work written in 1992 could be
isolated so thoroughly from all previous scholarship. Consider
the allegations that Yellow Rain was used against the Hmong.32
32. See, among proponents of the Yellow Rain accusations, Sterling
Seagrave, Yellow Rain: A Journey Through the Terror ofChemical
Warfare (New York: M. Evans and Co., 1981); "Yellow Rain ":
Hearing before the Subcommittee on Arms Control ... of the
Committee on Foreign Relations. United States Senate . .. (Wash
ington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982); Chemical
Warfare in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan: Report to the Congress
from Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig. Jr.. March 22. 1982.
Special Report No. 98, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. State Department
Bureau of Public Affairs, 1982); and Chemical Warfare in Southeast
Asia and Afghanistan: An Update; and Report from Secretary of
State George P. Schultz. Special Report No. 104, (Washington, D.C.,
U.S. State Department, Bureau of Public Affairs, 1982).
60
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Jane Hamilton-Merritt says that one of the ways the United States
betrayed and abandoned its former steadfast allies. the Hmong. was by
covering up evidence ofchemical/biological warfare (CBW) carried out
against the Hmong by the Lao PDR with Soviet support. Her allegations
depend heavily on the testimony ofHmong who claim to have been the
victims ofchemicals known colloquially as "Yellow Rain. . However, the
material evidence that has been offered to support claims that Yellow
Rain was used has been shown by scientists to be insufficient proof
Many believe that much ofthe oral testimony resultedfrom coordinated
efforts by Vang Pao and his allies to propagate the Yellow Rain allega
tions. But even the most carefully gathered oral testimony is also flawed.
since the alleged victims report widely divergent phenomena and results.
One ofthese witnesses was the Hmongfarmer Ger Thong. shown above
with secondary students in Ban Done Village in Vientiane Province. Ger
Thong believes that his son and grandson died from Yellow Rain. but
the effects and characteristics he reported are hard to ascribe to any
known CBWagent. This photo is by and Jacqui Chagnon. and it is
reprinted here with permission.
There are lengthy, detailed discussions of this topic from the
standpoint of chemistry, palynology, entomology, anthropol
ogy, and political science.
33
These are published in reputable
scientific journals, refereed by peer reviewers, carefully docu
mented, and basically consistent in their conclusion that there
remains no credible evidence that Yellow Rain was ever used
against the Hmong. Note that nobody claims to have proved
the negative-that Yellow Rain was not used-since that is
beyond the ability of any scholar; but scholars and scientists
of various political persuasions, nationalities, and disciplines
agree that the only evidence offered to ''prove'' the use of
Yellow Rain is inadequate to do so. Hamilton-Merritt, rather
61
than engaging in any meaningful debate or in any way
disputing these studies on accepted scholarly and scien
tific grounds, simply condemns them all anonymously and
collectively. Not just ignoring her obligation as a historian
to disclose the counterarguments and evidence that would
qualify her own argument, Hamilton-Merritt actively mis
represents the large body of existing literature through
unsupported slurs and ad hominem attacks on its authors.
Hamilton-Merritt refers on three occasions to CBW
expert Matthew Meselson's "assertion that bees defecat
ing in flight . . . caused the death of the Hmong . . . "
(p. 455); "Meselson's announcement that bees defecating
in flight had killed the Hmong ... "(p. 456); and "Mesel
son . . . proposed that bees defecating in flight had killed
these people [the Hmong, CambodiaIis, and Afghanis]"
(p. 553). What Meselson himself said and wrote is indeed
quite different from what she reports. Notably, Hamilton
Merritt provides not a single reference to any primary
source for any of the remarks she attributes to Meselson,
despite the fact that he has published several lengthy
articles on the topic over the years, in refereed scientific
and academic journals such as Science, Nature, Scientific
American, and Foreign Policy.3' To be sure, she could
hardly have provided a primary source for the statements
she herself fabricated and imputed to him, but at least she
has the obligation to offer citations to Meselson's several
readily available articles, so that readers could then verify
for themselves that what he actually said is nothing like
what she claims.
The third and fourth elements of the ''betrayed and
abandoned" argument hold that recent U.S. policy is to
ignore if not actively undermine Hmong resistance to the
Lao government and to support the forced repatriation of
33. See, among other sources, "The Riddle of 'Yellow Rain,'"
Southeast Asia Chronicle. no. 90 (1983); Grant Evans, The
Yellow Rainmakers: Are Chemical Weapons Being Used in
Southeast Asia? (London: Verso, 1983); Lois R. Ember, "Yel
low Rain," Chemical and Engineering News. vol. 62, no. 2
(1984), pp. 8-34; Erik Guyot, ''The Case is Not Proved: 'Yel
low Rain'; Charges of Soviet Use of Chemical Warfare," The
Nation. vol. 239 (10 Nov. 1984), pp. 465ff.; Peter Pringle,
"Political Science: How the Rush to Scientific Judgment on
Yellow Rain Embarrassed Both U.S. Science and the U.S.
Government," The Atlantic, vol. 256 (Oct. 1985), pp. 67 ff.;
Elisa D. Harris, "Sverdlosk and Yellow Rain: Two Cases of
Soviet Noncompliance?" International Security, vol. 11, no. 4
(1987), pp. 41-95; Howard Hu, Robert Cook-Deegan, and
Asfandiar Shukri, ''The Use of Chemical Weapons: Conducting an
Investigation Using Survey Epidemiology," Journal ofthe American
Medical Association. vol. 262 (1989), pp. 640-43; Thomas N.
Whiteside, "Annals of the Cold War: the Yellow-Rain Complex,"
New Yorker, 11 Feb. 1991, pp. 38-<>7, and 18 Feb. 1991, pp. 44-<>8;
as well as sources cited in footnote 32 and elsewhere in this review.
34. Joan W. Nowicke and Matthew Meselson, "Yellow Rain-a
Palynological Analysis," Nature. vol. 209 (17 May 1984), pp. 205-<>;
Thomas D. Seeley, Joan W. Nowicke, Matthew Meselson, Jeanne
Guillemin, and Pongthep Akratanakul, ''Yellow Rain," Scientific
American. vol. 253, no. 3 (1985), pp. 128-37; and Julian Robinson,
Jeanne Guillemin, and Matthew Meselson, ''Yellow Rain: The Story
Collapses," Foreign Policy (fall 1987), pp. 100-17.
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Hmong refugees from Thailand to extreme danger-ifnot certain
death-in Laos. Curiously, Hamilton-Merritt offers no conceiv
able motive for these aspects of the betrayal, except a general
implication that the State Department is so eager to pursue
rapprochement with the Lao government (for some otherwise
unexplained reason) that it is willing to do anything to ignore or
obfuscate the plight ofthe Hmong. Hamilton-Merritt's conspira
torial view of the world leads her to impute evil and insidious
motives not just to the Pathet Lao, all Vietnamese, and the Evil
Empire, but also to the U.S. State Department, the Washington
Post, New York Times, the media in general, U.S. academia,
everyone else who has ever written about Laos or the Hmong,
anyone who opposes Yang Pao's terrorist bands, the Thai gov
ernment, the United Nations, refugee relief organizations, and so
on and so on. Not only are they all conspiring to exterminate the
Hmong, they are also all out to silence Hamilton-Merritt or
undercut her advocacy for Yang Pao. (It is hard tb believe that
the entire betrayal and abandonment were done simply to frus
trate Hamilton-Merritt, but reading her account one sometimes
has the impression that the entire mechanism ofthe U.S. govern
ment and mass media were mobilized for the primary purpose
of undermining her advocacy for her Hmong friends.)
As for the question of U.S. support for the armed resis
tance to the Lao PDR, both national and international law
compel the U.S. government to eschew violations of the terri
torial integrity of another peaceful country and to suppress
international terrorism. Indeed, the question should be not so
much why has the U.S. "abandoned" the resistance, but why
has the U.S. government been so unwilling to enforce the laws
it is bound to uphold that would prevent some Hmong-Ameri
cans from fmancially and in person supporting and engaging
in terrorist acts against Lao civilians? Finally, how does Ham
ilton-Merritt's conspiratorial thesis jibe with the longstanding
pattern of "looking the other way" when the State Department,
Immigration and Naturalization Service, and Justice Depart
ment have been faced with clear evidence of illegal acts by
Hmong-Americans in Thailand (or in California and Minne
sota) that should make them ineligible for permanent residence,
U.S. citizenship, or passports and permits-to-reenter? 35
A corollary question would be to what extent the United
States knowingly acquiesced in or actively encouraged the Lao
resistance's strategic alliances and cooperation with the Khmer
Rouge after they were ousted from Phnom Penh in 1979? 36 This
latter cooperation curiously receives no mention from Hamilton
Merritt, despite Yang Pao's documented involvement (nor, by
the way, does she mention his trips to China to arrange training
35. See, among others, "Thailand Arrests Seven Lao Hmong on Insur
gency Charge" Bangkok Post, 15 July 1992; Agence France Presse,
"Lao-Americans Arrested in Thailand," 15 July 1992; Agence France
Presse, "Laotian Rebel Leaders Deported to U.S.,"21 Oct. 1992; United
Press International, "Laotian-Born Americans Deported from Thailand
as Insurgents," 21 Oct. 1992; Reuter Library Report, ''Lao Warlord's
Brother Deported from Thailand," 21 Oct. 1992; Bangkok Post, "De
portees Suspected of Planning Raid into Laos," Bangkok Post, 21 Oct.
1992. It remains to be seen whether the new antiterrorism law of 1996
will be enforced against Hmong violators.
36. Geoffrey C. Gunn, ''Resistance Coalitions in Laos," Asian Survey,
vol. 23, no. 3 (1983), pp. 328-32.
and military support for his resistance bands). Hamilton-Merritt
also neglects to mention threats and assaults by Yang Pao's
supporters against Vue Mai and other rivals both in Thailand and
the United States,37 the criminal corruption ofhis close associates
in the United States,38 and other things that might make him less
worthy of public sympathy. Nor does she mention the terrorist
assaults he sponsors today against innocent Lao civilians, the
massacres ofcivilian passengers on interurban buses in Laos, the
torching of Lao villages that refuse to support him, and so on.
39
Interestingly, Hamilton-Merritt also makes no mention of
the U.S. government's illegal efforts to channel private funds
collected from Prisoners of War (pOW) I Missing in Action
lobbying groups into the Lao resistance and Yang Pao's terrorist
bands, as documented by the 1993 report of the congressional
committee on POWIMIA matters under Senator John Kerry.40
Presumably, in light of her extensive contacts with many of the
parties and players involved in these efforts, Hamilton-Merritt
would long ago have had some inkling ofthis illegal use offunds
(in violation ofthe Neutrality Act and other laws). Does she fail
to mention this because it seriously undercuts her "betrayed and
abandoned" theme? Or is it because such revelations would
discredit Yang Pao or other ofher intelligence network friends?
"Sensational Tales [That] Bear
Little Resemblance to Truth"*
The execrable quality ofHamilton-Merritt's Tragic Moun
tains is all the more unfortunate because it is one of only a few
books on the Hmong that are likely to make their way onto
library bookshelves, or into the homes of Hmong-Americans.
Presented with the trappings of scholarly apparatus giving it the
veneer of a scholarly study, the book has great potential to
deceive naive readers into mistakenly believing it to be a reliable
work of research and interpretation. So we should not be sur
*While discussing other unnamed recent books on Laos, Hamilton-Mer
ritt comments that "some of these sensational tales bear little resem
blance to truth" (p. xvii).
37. See, among others, Ruth Hammond, "Sad Suspicions ofa Refugee
Ripoff; the Hmong are Paying to Free Laos-but What's Happening to
the Money?" The Washington Post, 16 Apr. 1989, p. B1.
38. See Sonni Efron, "State Investigating Alleged Extortion by Laotian
Agency; Refugees: Lao Family Community Inc. of Garden Grove
Demanded Money for Revolutionary Group in Laos, New Arrivals
Complain," Los Angeles Times, Orange County Edition, 19 Oct. 1990,
p. A3, noting the conviction of Yang Pao's son-in-law for embezzle
ment of public funds; James Leung, ''Laotian Aid Group Under Fire:
The Organization is Suspected ofExtorting Money from Refugees," San
Francisco Chronicle, 8 Nov. 1990, p. A2; Seth Mydans, "California
Says Laos Refugee Group Is a Victim of Leadership's Extortion," New
York Times, 7 Nov. 1990, p. A20.
39. See the U.S. Department of State, Country Report on Human Rights
Practicesfor 1992 (Washington, D. C.: U. S. Department ofState, Senate
Print 103-7, Feb. 1993), p. 603.
40. See the United States Senate, Report of the Select Committee on
POW/MIA Affairs, United States Senate (Washington, D.C.: United
States Senate, Senate Report 103-1, 13 Jan. 1993), pp. 303ff; Michael
Ross, "Use ofPOW-MIA Groups in Covert Operations Alleged; Activ
ists: Justice Dept. Urged to Probe Senate Charges that Aid was Funneled
to Laotian Rebels," Los Angeles Times, 14 Jan. 1993, p. A16.
62
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prised to find it cited as an authoritative
source in the press and in recent publica
tions.41 Hamilton-Merritt would pretend that
there does not exist any reliable scholarship
on Laos and the Hmong (p. xvii), but to do
so requires that she ignore or deny a sizable
body ofworks spanning a range of ideologi
cal perspectives. Yet most readers (including
especially young Hmong-Americans seek
ing to understand the circumstances that
have brought them to the United States) will
likely turn to Hamilton-Merritt's fantastical
account instead of ferreting out reliable
scho larly studies. They will be poorly served
by her book.
Franklin Ng points out that his Hmong
American college students in Fresno increas
ingly rely on "printed English language
sources to document their history." 42 Unfor
tunately for them, Hamilton-Merritt's book
is likely to be found in libraries with much
greater frequency than such serious studies
as Nicholas Tapp's Sovereignty and Rebel
lion, which offers a comparative perspective
on the Hmong in Thailand, or Lynellen
Long's account of Hmong in the Ban Vinai
refugee camp.43 A search ofthe OCLC library
database, for example, shows that as ofMay
1996 Tragic Mountains is held by 845 librar
ies, Tapp by 186, and Long by 205. Ofrecent
works similarto Hamilton-Merritt's and c o n ~
cerned primarily with the involvement of
Hmong in the Second Indochina War, only
Roger Warner's BackFire comes close at 608
libraries, with Timothy Castle's historical
monograph held by only 337, Kenneth Con-
boy and James Morrison's military history by 121, and James
Parker's memoirs by 149.
44
It can only be expected, then, that
"Hmong students [who] are drawing from external sources, in
some cases fragments, distortions, or mediated versions of their
oral traditions" 45 will glom onto Hamilton-Merritt's book. It is
all the more regrettable that Tragic Mountains propagates a view
of Hmong history that glorifies and reinforces the authority of
an older generation of Hmong whose leadership poorly serves
the community at large and especially its younger members.
In its own way, though, Tragic Mountains offers more than
enough weaknesses and vulnerabilities to ensure its own easy
discrediting. There is potentially a case to be made, from a
politically conservative perspective like Hamilton-Merritt's, that
those Hmong who allied with the United States during the Second
41. See, for instance, Sucheng.chan., ed., Hmong Means Free: Life in
Laos and America (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1994).
42. Franklin Ng, "Towards a Second Generation Hmong History,"
Amerasia Journal, vol. 19, no. 3 (1993), p. 55.
43. Nicholas Tapp, Sovereignty and Rebellion: The White Hmong of
Northern Thailand (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Lynel
len D. Long, Ban Vinai: the Refogee Camp (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1993).
According to the u.s. census, by 1990 there were more than 90,000 Hmong in the United
States. By 1994 the parents in this resettled Hmongfamily shown above in Seattle in 1984
were both working and owned their home and a rental property. They also had one more
son, and their oldest son was in college. Hmong growing up in the United States are
increasingly turning to English-language sources to document and understand their histo
ries. It is regrettable that Hmong children ofthis and later generations are more likely to
find Hamilton-Merritt'sjlawed book in libraries and homes than other more accurate and
balanced accounts ofthe Hmong. This photo is by and courtesy of Nancy D. Donnelly, and
it is from her Changing Lives of Refugee Hmong Women (Seattle, WA; and London:
University ofWashington Press, 1994).
Indochina War were to a very large extent pawns in the hands of
U.S. policy-makers, and that after 1975 many of them suffered
harsh retribution from the victorious Lao PDR. Adherents ofsuch
an interpretation may well take self-satisfied comfort in Hamil
ton-Merritt's account, and naive readers may well be fooled by
it in their ignorance, but any critical reader cannot help but notice
the flimsiness of her arguments and the fallacies in her method.
Just as she has given any careful reader more than enough
evidence to prove her own ineptness as a scholar, Hamilton-Mer
ritt has inadvertently provided the words for a capsule review of
her own book: it is no more than "rumor, innuendo, propaganda,
and disinformation" (p. xv), no matter how much it pretends to
be a work of scholarship.
44. Roger Warner, Back Fire: the CIA's Secret War in Laos and its Link
to the War in Vietnam (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995); Castle,
At War in the Shadow of Vietnam; Kenneth J. Conboy and James
Morrison, Shadow War: the CIA's Secret War in Laos (Boulder, CO:
Paladin Press, 1995); James E. Parker, Codename Mule: Fighting the
Secret War in Laosfor the CIA (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press,
1995). For more on these books, see the next page of this issue of the
Bulletin ofConcerned Asian Scholars.
45. Ng, "Second Generation Hmong History," p. 63.
63
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Recent Works on the "Secret War in Laos"
Timothy N. Castle, At War in the Shadow of Viet
nam: u.s. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Govern
ment, 1955-1975. New York: Columbia University
Press, 1993, 210 pp. Hard cover, $47.50; paper,
$15.00.
Kenneth Conboy with James Morrison, Shadow
War: The CIA's Secret War in Laos. Boulder, CO:
Paladin Press, 1995, illus., 453 pp. Hard cover,
$49.95.
James E. Parker, Jr., Codename Mule: Fighting the
Secret War in Laos for the CIA. Annapolis, MD:
Naval Institute Press, 1995, illus., 193 pp. Hard
cover, $49.95.
Roger Warner, Back Fire: The CM's Secret War in
Laos and its Link to the War in Vietnam. New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1995, illus., 416 pp. Hard cover,
$25.00.
The warfare that consumed Laos from 1945 to 1975
"really was not all that secret, "historian William Leary points
out in his foreword to Codename Mule (p. xiv), although the
words "secret war in Laos" have a mantra-like appeal to
publishers and authors, evinced by the titles above. Comple
menting Hamilton-Merritt's Tragic Mountains are four other
recent works, each of which approaches the war years in its
own way, although only Hamilton-Merritt gives lengthy cov
erage to the postwar years.
Timothy Castle's historical study, expanded from a 1991
doctoral dissertation and drawing upon exhaustive documen
tary and interview research, concentrates on questions of
military and diplomatic policy, tracing the various forms of
military assistance (both overt and covert) provided by the
United States to the Royal Lao Government and the structures
established to administer that assistance. The most scholarly
of all of these works, the book devotes a third of its pages to
scrupulously detailed notes, references, and bibliographies.
Sharing with the other authors a strong antipathy for the
Pathet Lao and sympathy for those Hmong allied with the
United States, Castle nevertheless provides the best available
overview ofU.S. diplomatic and military objectives, accom
plishments, and failures during the entire span of years be
tween France's resumption of colonial control over Laos in
1945 and fmal independence in 1975 (a longer time span than
similar but earlier works such as those by Bernard Fall, Arthur
J. Dommen, or Charles A. Stevenson).
Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison provide military
history of a different sort: blow-by-blow, battalion-by-battal
ion, acronym-by-acronym accounts that are often
ing in their minutiae and detail. Also based on exhaustIve
research the book is nevertheless virtually undocumented,
with no bibliography or list ofinterviews, and only occasional
attributions or citations in endnotes. This sparse documenta
tion is especially regrettable because Conboy and Morrison's
study provides a more comprehensive and at the same time
more detailed account of the multiple actors and groups
involved than any other source. Thus make it unmistak
ably clear, for instance, that ethnic groups other than Yang
Pao's Hmong were in the thick of things at every stage ofthe
conflict, and they provide an important body of concrete
detail on incidents and individuals that is otherwise unavail
able.
Codename Mule is not military history but military
memoir, by a former CIA case officer involved in the
Laotian conflict from late 1971 to the end of 1973. It shares
with Hamilton-Merritt's book a perspective ofHmong-cen
tricity that renders the low land Lao and other ethnic groups
invisible on the U.S.-Royal Lao Government side, and
demonizes the opposing forces as all ''North Vietnamese"
interlopers rather than Laotians. And like Hamilton-Mer
ritt, James Parker delights in war stories, the hijinks ofCIA
personnel, and the exploits of Hmong soldiers. But as a
primary document the book provides an evocative and
sometimes chilling account ofthe attitudes and motivations
of the personnel involved in implementing U.S. policy on
the ground and in the skies over Laos.
Warner's Back Fire offers the broadest scope and
greatest accessibility ofall the works discussed here, draw
ing extensively from the files and correspondence ofEdgar
"Pop" Buell and interviews with key actors such as Buell,
Bill Lair, William Colby, Jerry Daniels, Charles Weldon,
Yang Pao, and many others. Sources are cited and docu
mented, albeit in journalistic format rather than scholarly
notes; and there is no consolidated bibliography. Warner's
account extends from the policy level ofembassy meetings,
cable traffic, and internal CIA debates to the concrete level
of battlefield engagements. Alone of the works here, War
ner gives consideration to the larger political debates in
Washington and the international media, and to the role of
antiwar activists (Fred Branfman in particular) in stopping
the bloodshed.
Castle points out the substantial barriers obstructing
fuller knowledge of the events and decisions covered by
these books: "resistance to declassification of materials
dealing with U.S. military involvement in Laos has come
primarily from the Central Intelligence Agency and the
Department of State" (p. xi). Should such materials finally
come to light, perhaps they will answer some of the ques
tions raised by the present books and their predecessors.
But what is also vitally needed is a mbre demanding set of
questions, posed by authors willing to go beyond hagiog
raphy and nostalgic war stories to write critical biographies
and analyses, to go beyond Hmong-centric accounts to
understand the ethnic complexities of Laos, and to go
beyond the retrospective myth making of Vang Pao-and
his U.S. patrons seeking self-vindication-to acknowledge
the fundamental misunderstandings that guided U.S. policy
from its outset. *
64
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