Vang Pao Gets Hero’s Farewell, But Not at Arlington
THE DEEPLY REVERED former General Vang Pao of the Royal Army of Laos, who led thousands of Hmong guerrillas in a CIA-backed secret army during the Vietnam War, died in California at the age of 81 on Jan. 6. Despite requests to the Pentagon and the White House by his family and lawmakers, Pao was denied burial in Arlington National Cemetery. The Pentagon said it wanted to reserve the spaces for U.S. service personnel. Vang Pao’s widow, Maysong Vang, said Army Secretary John McHugh’s decision denying the general a final resting place at Arlington was unjust. “I am deeply hurt and insulted by the decision,” she said. “The planes my husband was flying in crashed at least eight times in their attempts to save American soldiers. If that is not sacrifice, what is?” Former CIA Chief William Colby once called Vang Pao “the biggest hero of the Vietnam War,” for the 15 years he led a CIA-sponsored guerrilla army fighting against a Communist takeover.
In making the case for an Arlington honor, California Congressman Jim Costa wrote to President Barack Obama: “General Vang Pao and our Hmong veterans fought shoulder to shoulder withAmerican soldiers during the Vietnam war….Many paid the ultimate sacrifice, and our nation owes a debt of gratitude to General Vang Pao.”
Vang Pao immigrated to the United States in 1975, when the Communists seized power in Laos. A charismatic leader of the large Hmong refugee community in the United States, Pao was also controversial.
In June 2007, he and nine others were arrested for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Communist government of Laos by providing $10 million in arms to antigovernment forces. At one point, U.S. prosecutors compared the conspiracy to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. But in September 2009, U.S. Attorney Lawrence G. Brown of the Eastern District of California said the prosecution had been dropped “based on the totality of the evidence in the case. The government believes, as a discretionary matter, that continued prosecution of defendant Vang Pao is no longer warranted.”
In what The NewYork Times called “a send off for the ages,” Vang Pao’s ritual funeral ceremonies lasted for six days, beginning on Feb. 6 with his body borne on a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of downtown Fresno, Calif., past throngs of grieving Hmong lining the way and a pair of T-28 planes, the aircraft piloted by Hmong guerrilla fighters in the Vietnam War, flying above. After an emotion-packed final Hmong ceremony at the Fresno Convention Center, General Vang Pao was buried on Feb. 12 at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, Calif.
Babylift Baby on Vietnam Cover Spurs Search on New Oprah Network Show
JENNIFER NGUYEN NOONE, the baby in the photo of the Operation Babylift that appeared on the cover of the October 2006 issue of Vietnam Magazine, will be featured on Searching for… an Oprah Winfrey Network program in which host Pam Slaton assists people in finding someone—a mother, brother, father, sibling—who has somehow been lost in their lives. In frequent television promotions for the program on the just-premiered cable network launched by Winfrey, Noone hands Slaton a copy of the magazine and tells her: “There’s a picture of a soldier holding this baby. We were able to confirm that that baby was me.” In the cover photo, a C-141 crewman is pictured bottle feeding an infant while en route to Clark Air Force Base in April 1975, as the South Vietnamese government fell. At press time, Searching for… producers, and Noone, remained mum about exactly who is the subject of Noone’s search. That will be revealed when the program is aired nationwide on April 18 on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Australia Donates $3.3 Million to VVMF Education Center
IN A MARCH 7 CEREMONY at the Lincoln Memorial, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced her country’s gift of $3.3 million to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Education Center at The Wall. The funds will be used to create displays related to Australia’s veterans of the war. Gillard said Australia had learned from the war the importance of honoring its veterans. “We must make every effort to remember, we must hold on to the memory of the whole Australian experience in Vietnam,” she said.
Among the other speakers at the event were Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired General Barry McCaffrey and Australian Ambassador to the United States Kim Beazley.
Jan Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund said, “We are gratified that the Australian people feel so deeply about helping us build the Education Center at The Wall, to honor all who served and sacrificed during that war. The Australians were our steadfast allies during the Vietnam War, and we welcome their partnership once again in this important endeavor.”
Some 60,000 Australians served in the Vietnam War, and a total of 521 died and more than 3,000 were wounded.
The estimated $85 million Education Center at The Wall is designed to be a learning facility situated near the Lincoln and Vietnam Veterans Memorials that will also put faces to the more than 58,000 names on The Wall. More than $25 million has been raised for the project to date. For more information, go to buildthecenter.org.
Rumsfeld’s Challenge to Johnson on the Vietnam War
ACCORDING TO FORMER Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s recently released memoir, as a young Congressman from Illinois in 1966 he strongly challenged President Lyndon Johnson’s strategy in Vietnam at a briefing with the president in February 1966. “With only a small number of U.S. military advisers on the ground, the Vietnam War had not been an issue in my first campaign for Congress in 1962,” Rumsfeld wrote in Known and Unknown. “After Johnson became president and the American war effort expanded, I was willing to support a more robust military campaign in Vietnam, as were many others in Congress. But it was becoming difficult to support the administration, since their policy was increasingly unclear. The president seemed to vacillate between the left flank of his party which wanted concession to the enemy— some were even beginning talk of withdrawal—and those on the right who supported a more decisive military effort.”
While Rumsfeld’s account of events leading to the Iraq War during his tenure in the George W. Bush administration is drawing heat for accuracy, he backs up his claims concerning his warnings onVietnam with a copy of a memo he wrote after his White House briefing, in which, he wrote, the “Vice President supposedly chaired…but with the almost continuous assistance and interruption of the President. The President was up and down like a yo-yo all morning long. He gives the impression of a man sitting on the lid of a volcano, and he keeps erupting. He made at least three direct jabs at Senator Robert Kennedy’s speech (without using Kennedy’s name) concerning dealing with the Viet Cong.” In the memo he dictated the day after the briefing, Rumsfeld describes his question to the vice president on why the North Vietnamese were “not convinced of our national will.” Rumsfeld wrote: “Before Humphrey could answer, President Johnson popped up and pointing his finger, yelled, I’ll tell you what will convince them—more of the same like we’ve given them.’ I said, ‘Like the bombing pause?’ He said, ‘For the past 30 days we’ve stepped up bombings, 20,000 casualties….’ He described the damage that the U.S. is inflicting on the Viet Cong and the tons of bombs the U.S. is dropping. I then said, ‘Well, Mr. President, if we have been doing this since the conclusion of the pause, is there any hint or indication that we are, in fact, being successful in convincing them? Is this message getting through?’And he said, ‘No, there isn’t.’”
Later Rumsfeld observed: “The last 20 minutes of LBJ’s performance were defensive and emotional, and at points, I felt embarrassment for him.…He repeatedly said, ‘I want to be able to say I’ve tried everything.’ Note he didn’t say, I’ve tried everything because I want peace.…This type of slip, if it was a slip, is but one of the numerous instances that his comments were phrased in terms of the political situation and where blame would fall and how he would defend himself, and how he would attack anyone who attacked him.”
Study: U.S. Bombs Drove Civilians to Viet Cong
A STUDY DESIGNED to determine if massive U.S. bombing in SouthVietnam benefited or harmed counterinsurgency operations has revealed that such bombing was largely counterproductive. The study’s co-author, assistant professor of government at Cornell Thomas Pepinsky, told the Cornell Chronicle in March, “Conditional on how strong the Viet Cong presence was in any hamlet at one point in time, the addition of more bombs increased the likelihood that the Viet Cong was able to maintain or increase its level of control in subsequent periods.”
The recently released study stemmed from economists’ research on the long-term effects of U.S. bombing on Vietnam’s postwar development, utilizing U.S. government bombing data that has been released to organizations removing unexploded weapons in Vietnam. The data include GPS coordinates of where every payload of bombs was released between 1965 and 1975. Pepinsky and his colleagues on the study from Yale University, Matthew Kocher and Stathis Kalyvas, combined that information with detailed data from the U.S. military’s Hamlet Evaluation System, which was developed during the war to assess which hamlets the Viet Cong controlled and which hamlets were either neutral or held by forces loyal to the South Vietnamese government. Pepinsky said by overlaying the two data sets, he and his co-authors could determine how the bombing affected the changing pattern of territorial control on the ground. He added that the study, which is supported by Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program, is of political importance to the current American military and counterinsurgency operations that are now underway.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.