In Washington, I served as the chief representative for Laos on the Interagency ad hoc group on Indochina in the State Department from 1968-73. In this capacity, I was involved in the military planning and policy decisions concerning the U.S. involvement in the conduct of the military actions in Laos. This included attending the WSAG and 40 Committee meeting concerning Laos.
From 1973-1978, I was posted to the political section at the Embassy in Paris for the negotiations of the Act of the International Conference of Vietnam and subsequently, acted as the liaison with Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China. In addition, I worked with the French government on the handling of refugees at the fall of Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Communist takeover of Laos.
For fifteen years of my Foreign Service career (1963-1978), I was charged with following Lao affairs, including the activities of the Hmong Special Guerilla Units under the leadership of General Vang Pao. I was sent to Laos in 1963 to handle political and military affairs. The 1962 Geneva Agreements were supposed to result in the neutralization of Laos in that the Vietnamese were to leave and the Neutralist, Souvanna Phouma, was to preside over a coalition government. Very early on, however, it was clear that the Vietnamese did not intend to abide by their undertakings, and Souvanna Phouma had to rely on the support of the U.S. and others who desired to support his efforts to promote Lao neutrality.
Part of the support for Souvanna Phouma was military assistance for the Neutralist and Royal Army forces. In addition, with Souvanna Phouma's authorization, the SGU were supported by the U.S. more directly, but in a discreet and unacknowledged fashion. Since the Vietnamese denied their presence in Laos, Souvanna Phouma wished to have this support be unavowed in order to maintain the fabric of the Geneva Agreements. Hence, while the "Secret War" was a secret to no one, least of all the Vietnamese or the American press, there were a number of ways in which U.S. support for the Hmong SGU was handled differently from any other aspect of the Lao military -- ways which resulted in a greater United States government responsibility for these forces and the contribution which they made to the general war effort in the area. Souvanna Phouma's wisdom in maintaining the "Asian" denial position was vindicated when the Communists later took over all of former French Indochina. The Lao transition was less traumatic for the general population than that in South Vietnam and Cambodia.
As a political/military officer in Viantiane from 1963 until January 1968, I was involved in discussions of the conduct of the war which included at least in general terms, the contribution of the SGU. Although operational control was in the hands of the CIA, the interconnections with the regular Lao forces (including the Neutralist forces) and later the USAF, were within my responsibility.
I traveled extensively through areas such as the Plain of Jars and Luang Prabang where the contribution of the front line battles of the Hmong against the Vietnamese, provided a necessary defense to maintain the viability of the Lao government. I traveled to SGU headquarters and a number of outposts on hills behind the Vietnamese forces, locations from which the Hmong mounted operations to rescue downed American airmen in Laos and across the border into North Vietnam. They also provided defense for navigational assistance to American pilots which added to the effectiveness and safety of USAF operations. My visits to Hmong areas included visits, not only to recent battle sites, but also to villages and hospitals where the sacrifices of the troops and civilians were clearly in evidence. Nowhere else in Indochina -- and I visited also Vietnam and Cambodia -- did I see any group of combatants fight harder, more effectively, and with greater courage despite terrible losses, than the Hmong SGU.
After nearly five years in Laos, I returned to Washington where I worked at the Lao desk in the State Department. Shortly after my return, the military situation called for an organizational change and the Interagency Ad Hoc Group on Laos was set up and then later added to the Vietnam Working Group to become the Ad Hoc Group on Indochina. Chaired in the State Department, this group coordinated the actions of State, Defense, and CIA on behalf of the National Security Council under the National Security Advisor. One of the key issues and responsibilities was the support of the Hmong SGU, which were under pressure from increased North Vietnamese forces in Laos at the same time that SGU numbers were being greatly reduced as a result of their high casualties. With pressure on the Royal Capitol, the SGU were being asked to do even more. However, it was becoming clearer those efforts to arrive at an agreement with North Vietnam on the Vietnam aspect of the war would also have a considerable impact in Laos.
In 1973, I participate in the final phase of the negotiations which led to the Act of the International Conference on Vietnam. I served as the liaison with the North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, the Lao, the Cambodians, and also the Chinese in connection with this conference and following this conference. Thus, I was able to generally keep track of the struggle of the Lao-Hmong as well as the general deterioration of the situation in Vietnam and Cambodia including the spin off effect in Laos.
Following a medical problem, the Lao Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma was evacuated to France for medical treatment, and from conversations with him and his son, who served as his aide-de-camp, it was clear that he was reading the U.S. situation accurately and was trying to work out a transition which would be the least harmful to his people. He realized that some, such as the Hmong, could not be protected to the same extent and that they would be hunted down by the Vietnamese and would have to leave. I am sure he was more optimistic about the treatment awaiting most of the Lao civilian if not military leaders, and I doubt he expected that such a large number of persons, including the Royal Family, would be sent to Sam Neua nominally for reeducation, but in fact to their death. Souvanna Phouma clearly expected that the USG would show the same concern about rescuing the Hmong SGU that the French had shown in 1954 about some of their special forces, such as Tai Dam. He knew that in addition to their contributions to Laos, the Hmong under Vang Pao had provided services for the U.S. which earned for them a continuing American debt of gratitude.
With the passing of this legislation, we can belatedly make another small payment on the enormous debt we owe these courageous fighters who contributed so much to U.S. interests. The negative results of the U.S. actions in Indochina have been discussed without end since the 1970's , but the positive aspects of that struggle are awaiting the examination of historians. In the end, the United States government will be judged also on how positively it fulfills its obligations to those for whom we assumed a responsibility.