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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 6.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Rewriting Vang Pao's past
School name choice is an affront to historical memory

In the 1970s, Dmitri Yurasov was a precocious Moscow schoolboy obsessed with Russian history. He began reading the imposing 16-volume Soviet Historical Encyclopedia, which put the official Communist Party stamp to the glorious advances of the Lenin and Stalin years.

Only when Yurasov came across the odd description of a dead scholar as 'illegally repressed and rehabilitated after his death' did he get his first inkling that Stalin had jailed and murdered millions in the Great Terror of the 1930s.

As a budding scholar, Yurasov later secured a job working in the Soviet archives and surreptiously burrowed deep into the secret records to begin recapturing the Soviet Union's suppressed history.

As David Remnick chronicles in his magisterial Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, Yurasov secretly compiled more than 100,000 index cards, each detailing the life and death of a forgotten Russian citizen caught up and killed in Stalin's brutal purges.

I've been thinking of Yurasov lately, amazed at the Madison school board's willingness to engage in its own brand of historical forgetfulness. What else can you make of the board's decision to name a new west-side school for Hmong General Vang Pao, a tool of the Central Intelligence Agency in its bloody 'secret war' fought in Laos during the Vietnam conflagration?

Given this city's rich history of often inspired (and sometimes tragically misguided) opposition to the Vietnam War, how could the Madison school board name a school for a Vietnam-era warlord associated with possible war crimes?

To do so is an affront to historical memory on more than one level.

I say this with hesitancy, having met with former Madison school board member Shwaw Vang and other local Hmong. I know they hold Vang Pao in high esteem and credit him with bringing them to safety in the United States (see accompanying story).

Certainly, Vang Pao is an extraordinary figure. He led a Hmong army of 30,000 'equipped, supplied and directed' by the CIA, as The New York Times put it, that battled the communist Pathet Lao and later the Viet Cong as they traveled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos to fight the Americans and our South Vietnamese allies.

Brave, charismatic and sometimes brutal, Vang Pao is celebrated by his CIA associates as 'probably the greatest guerrilla leader in the world' and as the flat-out best general of the Vietnam War, according to a Minneapolis Star Tribune profile in 2005.

But singing Vang Pao's praises doesn't tell his entire story. He is also linked to summary executions of soldiers, the forced conscription of teenagers to fight in his army, and a booming opium market that produced a flood of cheap, high-quality heroin.

The source of many of these allegations is UW-Madison history professor Alfred McCoy and his epochal The Politics of Heroin, first published in 1972 as The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia and subsequently twice expanded to detail the CIA's more recent covert wars in Nicaragua and Afghanistan and the related surge in cocaine and heroin production.

McCoy, in a briefing paper posted on, cites abundant newspaper and book accounts of Vang Pao's questionable deeds. Among them are reports from the Star Tribune and The New Republic on Vang Pao's back-to-Laos group known as Neo Hom.

'Bitterness grows in the Hmong community over decades of aggressive fund-raising by Neo Hom, the general's vast and secretive operation,' the Star Tribune reported in 2005. 'Even one of Vang Pao's admirers in the CIA questions Neo Hom, saying it raises funds based on the dubious premise that Vang Pao will someday lead the Hmong back to Laos to overthrow the communists.

'Aging Hmong immigrants, many say, have given untold millions of dollars to that cause,' the paper wrote. 'But their American-born children question what happened to the money their parents and grandparents gave.'

Yet shaking down the true believers pales in comparison to the nasty business of the 'secret war' in Laos. Dissident Hmong villages that refused to turn over their boys for Vang Pao's army saw him cut off their USAID rice shipments until they played ball, according to McCoy.

They were starved, in other words, into submission.

McCoy's book has stood the test of time, including the CIA's effort to stop its publication, because it's seemingly well-sourced (McCoy claims more than 250 interviews with heroin dealers, police officials and intelligence agents in Europe and Asia) and its scholarly tone avoids the usual left-wing hyperbole about the CIA and drug-running.

For McCoy, the CIA's complicity isn't a product of corrupt agents or some French-like master plan to use drug proceeds to finance covert actions. Instead, it's 'the inadvertent consequence' of the CIA's cold war strategy.

In Asia, the CIA fought the communists by aligning itself with tribal clans in the rugged highlands of Burma, Laos and Afghanistan. According to McCoy, tribal warlords used the agency's arms and protection to bolster their production of opium ' a traditional cash crop whose proceeds helped support tribal dependents through 'bloody wars that ground on for years with heavy casualties.'

Nobody disputes that the Hmong raised poppies for opium as a cash crop. The opium was almost certainly cooked into heroin farther down the supply line. But the evidence is thin on whether Vang Pao ran his own heroin lab. Other Laotian and Vietnamese generals have been implicated with far more certainty.

McCoy and others build a compelling case that Air America, the CIA-controlled airline, transported opium in Laos along with armaments, food and troops. Vang Pao himself kept a large cache of opium stashed under his house as 'insurance' should the CIA abandon him, scholar-turned-journalist Jonathan Mirksy asserted in a 1990 piece in The New York Review of Books.

Mirsky's source was an ex-CIA agent who also admitted that Air America was used to carry opium. Mirsky wrote that he brought up these assertions with former CIA director William Colby. 'Colby spoke highly of this ex-agent and did not dispute what he had told me,' Mirsky recounted. 'He simply underlined that none of these activities were CIA policy.'

Heroin's toll on American troops in Vietnam was horrific. A 1973 White House task force reported that 34% of American soldiers 'commonly used' heroin. 'For these men, heroin was just another narcotic like marijuana, pep pills or alcohol,' McCoy writes. The damage followed them back to the States, as did packages of Asian heroin for sale here.

I don't fault Madison's Hmong community for mobilizing behind the naming of the Vang Pao Elementary School. They are simply following in the steps of other emergent immigrant groups ' the Irish, the Jews, the Italians, the Hispanics, not to mention African Americans and Native Americans ' who want the broader society to acknowledge their presence and their value to the community. Such is the American dynamic.

But the impulse to honor the Hmong can't come at the expense of historical memory. Vang Pao's legacy shouldn't be buffed up and altered like a fabricated entry in the Soviet Historical Encyclopedia. The school board needs to brace itself and recognize, as did Dmitri Yurasov, that history shouldn't be rewritten to serve the political needs of the moment.

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