Fadiman turns her attention to Hmong history, surveying the origins of their time in Laos, where they dwelt in the mountains at high altitudes in which few other populations cared to live. They also established themselves as masterful opium farmers, though very few of them became addicts. They grew opium using a technique called “swidden agriculture,” or “slash-and-burn, agriculture,” a method of obtaining farmland by completely burning away large strips of forest. When a plot eventually became barren, the Hmong would pick up and move somewhere nearby, again razing the vegetation and planting new crops.
In this chapter, Fadiman redoubles her effort to provide a comprehensive analysis and portrait of the Hmong. Whereas she had originally framed their migrations as a way of escaping oppressive forces (which was indeed the case), now she presents migration as fundamental to their lifestyle and livelihood.
Fadiman focuses on the influence the Vietnam War had on the Hmong community in the 1960s and ’70s. The complicated politics surrounding this war reach back to the Geneva Accords of 1954, when Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam were recognized as independent states in what had been French Indochina. By these dictates, Laos was declared a neutral country. But because the nation was strategically based between Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia, it became a hotbed of covert political struggle. As such, a Laotian pro-communist army called the Pathet Lao eventually aligned with the communist Ho Chi Minh (the leader of North Vietnam) and fought against the anti-communist Royal Lao army, each side vying for control of the country. Because the United States wanted to stop the spread of communism but couldn’t outwardly intervene because of the Geneva Accords, the CIA secretly armed and trained a group of Hmong soldiers to fight alongside the Royal Lao army. This group was called the Armée Clandestine.
In describing the role of the Laotian Civil War in Hmong history, Fadiman addresses the little-known role the Hmong played in the Vietnam War, thereby continuing to round out her depiction of Hmong history. She also shows that the Hmong have been unfairly treated by Americans since long before they emigrated to the United States.
Fadiman suggests that the Hmong sided with anti-communist forces because capitalism was less likely to impede upon their autonomy. “It was unlikely that communist agrarian land reformers would look with favor on Hmong swidden agriculture,” she writes. The Hmong also worried that, since they had sided with the French before French Indochina fell, the North Vietnamese would show them little mercy. Furthermore, General Vang Pao, the Hmong leader of the Armée Clandestine, recruited vehemently, threatening villages that “failed to fill their soldier quotas. Regardless of the Hmong’s motives to fight, though, one thing was sure: America saw the Hmong as a cheap solution to a difficult problem—indeed, the average Hmong soldier was paid approximately $3 per month, whereas the average American soldier was paid between $197.50 and $339 per month.
Yet again, the Hmong demonstrated the extent to which they are willing to fight to preserve their values. Indeed, their decision to fight communism had little to do with global politics, morality, or commitment to capitalism and democracy; Fadiman suggests instead that they sided against communism simply because they perceived it as a greater threat to their way of life and cultural values.
A controversial figure who was both feared and admired for his severe tactics, Vang Pao, became perhaps the most famous Hmong person in both Laos and the United States. During the war effort, he was flown twice to the United States and invited to the White House. Meanwhile, America secretly ensured Hmong collaboration by using Air America to transport opium. In keeping with such secrecy, the war in Laos became known as the “Quiet War,” a struggle that raged in the shadows of the Vietnam War as the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China covertly supported the Pathet Lao, pitting them against the anticommunist Royal Lao, an army for which many Hmong soldiers—including young teenagers—gave their lives.
Though the United States had to keep their involvement in Laos quiet because of the Geneva Accords, their steadfast secrecy was something of an insult to the many Hmong men and teenagers who sacrificed their lives for the CIA.
By the end of the Quiet War, the Pathet Lao had triumphed and Laos was left ravaged; “With their fields left rotting, their livestock abandoned, and their mountains emptied of game, more than 100,000 Hmong were kept alive by U.S. Sponsored food drops,” writes Fadiman. But when the Vientiane Agreement of 1973 was signed, America cut off its aid program and stopped dropping food to the Hmong who had fought for them. A maximum of only 3,000 Hmongs (mostly high-ranking officers of the Royal Lao) were airlifted out of the dangerous country by American airplanes. Vang Pao also boarded an American helicopter, leaving over 100,000 Hmongs behind in what was now enemy territory.
By airdropping rice, the United States essentially established a culture of dependency amongst the Hmong. This is not to say that the Hmong were lazy, but rather to say that they had no other choice but to accept the American aid. This model ultimately set the stage for the distribution of welfare benefits that the majority of Hmong people subsisted on after emigrating to the United States in the 1970s and ’80s.