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Book Chapter
Peer Review
Missing Things: State Secrets and U.S. Cold War Policy Toward Laos

Charting incomplete U.S. archives from the Cold War made secret through redacted U.S. State documents, Vang shows how Hmong refugees tell their stories in ways that exist separately from narratives of U.S. empire and that cannot be traditionally archived. In so doing, Vang outlines a methodology for writing histories that foreground refugee epistemologies despite systematic attempts to silence those histories. 

image of three children sititng by a water body. The silhouette of the child in the middle has leaves of a tropical tree
Book Title
History on the Run: Secrecy, Fugitivity, and Hmong Refugee Epistemologies
Book Author(s)
Ma Vang
Press and Year
Duke University Press, 2021
Medium of Publication
Paperback/ softback
Number of Pages


Laos is far away from America, but the world is small . . . [and the] security of all Southeast Asia will be endangered if Laos loses its neutral independence. Its own safety runs with the safety of us all, in real neutrality observed by all. —PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY. MARCH 23, 1961, PRESS CONFERENCE

On April 17, 1962, a “secret” memorandum on the “Congressional Briefing on Laos” was dispatched to President John F. Kennedy.[1] According to the two-page redacted memorandum (shown in Figure 1), the briefing had been intended to provide the congressional leadership with updates on developments in Laos to decide on a “mild” suspension of military assistance to Lao General Phoumi. A first glance at the memo shows that the document is heavily redacted, showing that the people, places, and events these missing texts referenced were meant to be kept hidden in making the document available to the public. Further examination of the redactions affirms the obscuring of secrets that required the document to be initially marked as secret. Looking around the redactions at the legible content of the memorandum reveals that Congress and President Kennedy authorized military and economic aid to Laos.[2] Reading redacted documents like this memo together with the limited research and literature written by U.S. personnel about U.S. involvement in Laos and the refugee exodus affirms that the military and civilian aid programs sanctioned by the U.S. and Soviet governments were effectively open secrets.[3] This declassified and redacted memo, which I found among many other similarly marked documents in the records of the Kennedy White House, shows that the practice of designating as “secret” the records of policymakers’ open discussions about providing illicit aid to a decolonizing Laos is the hallmark of U.S. state secrecy. 

State secrecy was a necessary practice at the time to adhere, at least on paper, to the 1954 Geneva Conventions that declared Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam independent from France, and which also stipulated that these decolonizing countries were to remain free from foreign military intervention. Yet, the congressional briefing and the drafting of the accompanying memo occurred nearly two months before the July 1962 signing of a second Geneva Convention focused specifically on Laotian neutrality. The necessity for a second Geneva Convention meant that the first international agreement had done little to curb foreign military aid to Laos, or to Vietnam and Cambodia. The congressional briefing did not hide the fact that the U.S. had been supplying economic and military aid to anti-Communist Laotian nationalists as well as indirect aid to Hmong and other ethnic and Indigenous groups through the CIA and USAID since 1955. Viewed in the historical context of a decolonizing Laos and U.S. Cold War policies, the “secret” redacted documents are the blueprints of a U.S. Cold War policy that sought to capitalize on the international mandate of neutrality to militarize Laotian nation-building in order to facilitate imperialist expansions. In the U.S. Cold War imagination, Laos was linked to the United States’ broader interests in Southeast Asia. As I explained in chapter 1, the convergence of decolonization and Cold War militarization in Southeast Asia extended colonialism in this region.

If such meetings that are archived through the documents happened and militarized aid was sanctioned by the president and Congress, then the act of marking documents as “secret” operates as a convention of bureaucratic practice—intended not to hide an event, but to suppress the contents of the document from circulation and archiving. The “secret” redacted documents are the paper trails of state secrecy, through which the U.S. normalized its projections of neutrality. In examining these documents, I pose the following question about these paper trails: how does the system of designating information about meetings and U.S. foreign activities as secrets configure the U.S. Cold War neutral policy toward Laos, as well as shape refugee attempts to narrate this history? This chapter examines the declassified documents including maps from President John F. Kennedy’s National Security Council Files and Foreign Relations documents from 1961 to 1963, prepared by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and Thomas L. Ahern’s Undercover Armies: CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos, 1961–1973, published by the CIA. I observe that an essential component of state secrecy is the maintenance of an incomplete archive filled with redacted “secret” papers. “Secret” documents, then, represent common practices of the state and its archive in the production of militarized national epistemologies. This chapter makes two related arguments. First, the state and CIA processing of the documents recording U.S. militarized actions inform the construction of an intelligence bureaucracy in the post-WWII period and the formation of U.S. Cold War policies. The specific U.S. Cold War neutrality policy toward Laos that aimed at building a strong independent country occurred in secret—enabling the U.S. to maintain a presence in Laos without being there—and erased Laos from the Cold War cartography. Second, the U.S. Cold War neutrality policy operated through imagining Laos as an empty, available landscape, and its peoples as a natural defense force because they were an extension of that landscape. State secrets instituted material violence through the war in Laos and continue to institute epistemic violence in the form of ongoing historical erasure of those impacted by war.

Rather than pursuing a recovery project to fill the gaps in the incomplete historical record, this chapter shows that state documents present an epistemological dilemma for knowledge production. Turning the epistemological dilemma of missing things into a methodological approach, I look for what the secrets have produced, that is, what the secrets left in their wake. Missing things underscores the “secret war” archive—a disparate repertoire of U.S. state documents, stories from humanitarian aid and development personnel, refugee records, and refugee narratives—as a documentary corpus but also as a site where peoples, histories, and places get lost in the mundane processing of papers. In addition, missing things analyzes document redactions and erasures as critically engendering refugee narratives that challenge the existing status quo of Cold War knowledge and U.S. national history. As such, the chapter also examines refugee records to show how refugee processing structures Hmong histories that are missing in the imperial archive. In his excavation of the epistemological and ontological problems of Pakistani bureaucratic documents about city planning, anthropologist Matthew S. Hull argues that scholars need to account for the logics, aesthetics, and norms of bureaucratic texts and how these documents engage with people, places, and things to make “(other) bureaucratic objects.”[4] While Hull’s interest lies in interrogating the paper mediation of relations among people, places, and things, his point that the “regime of paper documents” is a form of governance and that the governance of paper is “central to governing the city” helps elucidate my assertion that the paper trails left behind by U.S. Cold War policymaking show secrets as conventions of document processing.[5] Moreover, Andrew Friedman’s study of the formation of the CIA headquarters, a “covert capital” in the northern Virginia suburbs, shows the importance of domestic bureaucracy in U.S. imperial policy.[6] Friedman’s argument that the suburban landscape constituted the “home front” where U.S. imperialism became something lived in the everyday, and where empire became “a set of actions” and an “administrative problem,” underscores my point that the mundane processing of “secret” documents produces U.S. Cold War neutralization strategy, derived from the international mandated neutral policy toward Laos, as well as the knowledge formation of U.S. militarized liberal empire.[7]

Missing Things in the Archive 

In chasing the disparate “secret war” archive, my analysis employs the missing bag with which I opened this book’s introduction to anchor a discussion of the archive’s production of absences around U.S. imperialism and war. The inscription of Hmong possessions—livelihoods—onto the missing baggage claim form illuminates how things go missing through flight and migration, which in turn reveals the integration of refugee presence in the structures of flight and knowledge formation. The baggage of missing things suggests that we read secret documents for both their form and content. While the baggage claim form, a paper trail of a Hmong refugee family’s migration to the U.S., highlights the mundane processing of a missing bag of personal possessions, it simultaneously emphasizes the burden of said baggage, which represents the excess of “stories that could not be told” and which will be perpetually unaccounted for.[8] Together, these two ideas—the mundane and the excess—reveal the mechanism by which the archive produces the erasure of historical knowledge, so that there are always missing things, no matter how much we may know about a subject.[9] In the context of missing things, the emphasis on Hmong soldiers has obscured Laos’s decolonization and the U.S. interruption of it, while Hmong remained a colonial baggage that troubled Laotian nation-building as well as U.S. liberal militarized empire.

Following Antoinette Burton, who has unpacked the ways that archives are “constructed, policed, experienced, and manipulated,” the missing baggage suggests the unsettled structure and contents of the archive.[10] Indeed, the baggage represents what is missing in the archive. Additionally, Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook, in their guest editors’ introduction to two thematic issues of Archival Science, argue that archives are institutions that “wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity.” They also assert that archiving is a discipline with its “own sets of theories, methodologies, and practices” through which archivists wield power over the management of records.[11] As such, they suggest archives as active sites for the negotiation of social power. Schwartz and Cook’s work signals a shift from earlier understandings of archives as passive storehouses, and of archivists as impartial and objective, to a newly critical approach to archival stories and evidence as incomplete, exposing the archive’s Truth narrative as subjective and figured in political, social, and economic contexts. Seen in this light, secrets, elisions, and distortions are integral to archives’ procedural production of knowledge. Engaging with this shift in archive studies to expose the power of the archive, I explore what it means to dwell in its gaps and erasures and to read “along the archival grain,” in the words of postcolonial critic Ann Stoler, who contends that this way of reading elucidates the archive’s regularities, logic of recall, densities and distributions, and its “consistencies of misinformation, omission, and mistake.”[12] This analysis, which Stoler further distinguishes from a reading “against the grain,” makes visible the “power in the production of the archive itself.”[13] Feminist scholar Anjali Arondekar places sexuality at the center of the colonial archive, and argues that the possibility of challenging the archive lies in juxtaposing the archive’s “fiction effects” alongside its “truth effects.”[14] Crafting a reading alongside the archive illuminates what it does rather than what it is.

This chapter will analyze state and refugee records in both their form and content to demonstrate how archival documents are fundamental to statecraft. I approach the archival records as a “state-ethnography” where documents and maps comprise the “stories that states tell themselves” about their colonial policies.[15] In the context of excavating documents that were marked SECRET to hide official policies and practices, such “codes of concealment” as TOP SECRET or CONFIDENTIAL are bureaucratic descriptive inventions that categorize U.S. Cold War policies.[16] Indeed, the de/classified SECRET document exposes redactions as routine in processing historical information for release. I use the intervening slash in de/classification to suggest the ambiguity between the classified and declassified materials, to interrogate the work of redactions to withhold sensitive information, and to indicate that the process of declassification never really completely opens up state secrets. Furthermore, not all documents about Laos have been declassified and made accessible to the public, and not all requests for information were approved. The available documents’ declassified status, marked by a secondary crossing out of SECRET and redaction of the content, no longer elucidates the politically charged history of illicit warfare and instead represents the routine exchange of messages between U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., and those in the field in Southeast Asia. SECRET documents mark two things: the conventions of the archive and the U.S. political strategy of neutrality. The baggage of missing things illustrates that we should read SECRET documents as maps that superimpose U.S. military activities with colonizing approaches toward the decolonizing Laotian landscape and people.

As conventions of the archive, the SECRET documents are a part of the problem of knowledge about Laos and about Lao and Hmong refugees, particularly because they perpetuate silences through their lack of information. As such, reading the de/classified materials necessitates an analytical practice to look for the missing things—between the texts, literally in the full spaces left behind by the redactions of text in order to accentuate their disappearance. Oftentimes, the de/classified records show redactions of words, phrases, sentences, or entire paragraphs to conceal still-sensitive information. Returning to the redacted congressional briefing memo prepared for President Kennedy, I read it as an epistemological map to emphasize the filled spaces—blacked- or blocked-out sentences and paragraph—surrounded by text. The spaces filled with omissions offer their own story of absence. Surrounded by the text left behind, they glare back, beckoning the reader to explore what the remainder of the text might say about this void. In addition, the textual narrative can be viewed as offering a fragmented and incomplete historical account, which is precisely the work of the archive. Together, the redactions and visible texts guide an understanding of the narrative fissures found between the lines, and foreground a conceptual mapping of U.S. Cold War neutralization strategies toward Laos as intervening in its decolonization to create a geopolitically open and politically neutral space for the Cold War superpowers to measure their ideological and military tolerance toward each other. Such a conceptual mapping in the documents articulates Laos as integral to U.S. imperialist expansion. As testimonies about the past, nonetheless, these documents survive not unscathed, but with parts erased as if the text had been covered over or scraped off. Missing texts as enactments of state secrecy is a function of the archive to normalize history. The erasures in “secret” documents reflect the state’s attempts to make sense of its officials’ disparate assessments of “what the problems were” in Laos that would require a congressional briefing and reevaluation of U.S. support for key Laotian political figures.[17] The edges of these erasures are markings of knowledge and power that are essential for constructing national memory.[18]

A photograph of a government document with portions of the text blacked out (redacted)
Figure 1. A memorandum for President John F. Kennedy regarding a congressional briefing on Laos. The 2-page memo was heavily redacted when it was made available to the public. Source: President John F. Kennedy’s National Security Council Files and Foreign Relations documents from 1961–1963 prepared by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum and held at the Vietnam Archive in Lubbock, Texas. Also see, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, Volume XXIV, Laos Crisis.

In her investigation of the “intimacies of four continents”—the obscured connections between European liberalism, settler colonialism in the Americas, the transatlantic African slave trade, and the East Indies and China trades—Lisa Lowe names and excavates records about these four continents as an “archive of liberalism” in order to observe how the archive mediates the imperatives of the state to subsume “colonial violence within narratives of modern reason and progress.”[19] For Lowe, it is crucial to devise ways of reading across the separate archival repositories to show how “the forgetting of violent encounter is naturalized, both by the archive, and in the subsequent narrative histories.”[20] Rather than approach the archive as a fixed site of storage, the records “actively document and produce the risks, problems, and uncertainties that were the conditions of imperial rule.”[21] Drawing from Lowe’s insights regarding the colonial archive, I read the “secret war” archive not for empirical historical information but rather to develop a critique of U.S. liberal empire’s expansion in Laos during the Cold War and militarized knowledge production.

Neutralization and the Erasure of Laos in the Cold War Cartography

In a series of CIA maps produced between 1961 and 1963, Laos was emphasized to indicate the country’s major role for the U.S. aims in Southeast Asia. Laos shares borders with a number of countries: North Vietnam and China to the north and east; South Vietnam and Cambodia to the east and south; Thailand to the west; and Burma in the northwest (an area commonly known as the Golden Triangle). For the countries to the west, bordering Laos meant bumping up against the dangerous possibilities of Communist insurrection. Laos’s dual position as geopolitically surrounded and spatially available made it instrumental for anchoring the rest of Southeast Asia and, at the same time, presented an obstacle for U.S. foreign policy. Historian Martin E. Goldstein and others have meticulously ruled out population, natural resources, and economy as reasons for U.S. interest in Laos, noting that while Laos was not a “barren land,” it also did not have an abundance of crucial resources that would warrant U.S. intervention on a massive scale.[22] Indeed, the availability of Laos’s timber resources and mineral deposits (including zinc, limestone, copper, lead, gold, salt, tungsten, and phosphates) indicated the presence of important natural resources that would have made it a desirable site of territorial competition or takeover by the U.S. Historians’ rejection of the hypothesis that the U.S. interest in Laos was based on its resources reveals that it was not what was in the country but rather what surrounded it that made Laos significant. Laos stood out as a military site, not for its economy or natural resources, but for its territorial ambivalence—neutral yet available—as a decolonizing country.

Image of a black and white map of Laos depicting Communist rebel areas in 1960
Figure 2a. Source: John F. Kennedy National Security Files, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Box 130, Folder 10 (JFKNSF-130-010). 

The CIA maps reveal the U.S. government’s creation, from the physical geography of Laos, of a political terrain for assessing global Cold War political struggles. As an example, Figure 2b, titled “Communist Rebel Areas” and dated March 22, 1961, exhibits two different kinds of shading in Communist-controlled northeastern Laos, bordering North Vietnam. A comparison of Figures 2a and 2b shows the progression of Communism westward since December 1960, to the point that it threatened the Laotian royal capital of Luang Prabang and the state government center of Vientiane, and ultimately posed a danger to Thailand. The areas on the maps marked as Communist-controlled not only chart Communist physical and political expansion, but also the U.S. political strategy to neutralize this threat. The corridor of Communist expansion, specifically the north–south route running through Laos, underscores its very landscape as a crucial “geographic frontier” in the struggle for the “free world.”[23] The paradox of Laos as a remote yet strategic location, reported in a Kennedy file document called “The Story of Laos: The Problem for a U.S. Foreign Policy,” illuminates the central dilemma faced by the United States as it attempted to maintain a presence in the country—a hesitation to build a bastion in a country with inadequate “native resources” and a difficult terrain, set against a reluctance to abandon the U.S. position within the Communist expansion struggle in Southeast Asia. The idea of neutrality, born out of the U.S.’s geopolitical dilemma, would involve the search for a “solution that would keep Laos from being wholly Communist, yet not go so far as to make it a Western ally.”[24]   

Image of a map showing Communist rebel areas in Laos 1961
Figure 2b. These two maps provided by the CIA to President Kennedy showed the communist expansion areas in December 1960 and March 1961 as evidence of Laos’ strategic significance and justification for U.S. military interventions. Source: John F. Kennedy National Security Files, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Box 130, Folder 10 (JFKNSF-130-010).

These maps accompanied President Kennedy’s press files then, and they now circulate as part of his presidential records at U.S. government repositories and other archival sites such as the Vietnam Center and Archive. They were used in the early 1960s to justify U.S. efforts to “turn Laos into a buffer,” rather than using direct intervention, as a strategy to confine the “communists to the mountains of the north while a friendly government controlled the Mekong Valley borders with Thailand and Cambodia.”[25] This chapter’s epigraph is an excerpt from the March 23, 1961, press conference at which President Kennedy unveiled the CIA map on “Communist Rebel Areas” (see Figure 3). Kennedy explained that although U.S. Americans considered Laos “far away,” its safety was connected to that of U.S. Americans and to the security of the United States. Indeed, Kennedy’s use of this series of maps during his press conference to illustrate the spread of Communism across northeastern Laos solidified for a fearful U.S. public the need to intervene in Laos to secure Southeast Asia. Yet, the U.S. interpretation of the 1954 Geneva Accords’ neutrality mandate involved maintaining Laos as a neutral decolonizing territory in which the Communist states and the U.S. could justify intervention but that neither side would fully claim as an ally. The paradoxical designation of Laos as a “neutral yet available” landscape, when its independence emerged at the threshold of neocolonialism, revealed how Laos was simply erased from the global Cold War cartography. Laos has been viewed as a Cold War “pawn” that was crucial yet peripheral to the superpower struggles between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.[26] The maps illustrated that U.S. policymakers were not concerned with eradicating Communism altogether or occupying Laos as a base for military operations, but rather with maintaining the country’s status as dependent and in transition. Support for the U.S. neutralization strategies would come in the form of a covert approach to create a secure foothold for accessing the Southeast Asian region. In opposition to this strategy, the Pathet Lao manifesto on U.S. imperialist intervention in Laos characterized the neutral approach supported by covert activities as the creation of a “new-pattern colony and military base” to further the U.S. policy of military aggression in Southeast Asia.[27]

Photograph of U.S. President Kennedy at a press conference unveiling a map of Laos
Figure 3. President Kennedy held a press conference in which he discussed the importance of Laos to the U.S., see quote in this chapter’s epigraph. He presented the two maps, 2a and 2b, comparing the increasing communist expansion into Laos. Source: Photograph AR6454-B; President John F. Kennedy at Press Conference; 3/23/1961; Press Conference, State Department Auditorium, 6:00PM; Abbie Rowe White House Photographs, 12/6/1960 - 3/11/1964; Collection JFK-WHP: White House Photographs; John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, MA. [Online Version,, January 10, 2020]

Policymakers’ perceptions of Laos’s distinctive landscape as geopolitically important for U.S. interests illustrated the Pathet Lao’s claim that Laos had become a “new-pattern colony,” though it would not be characterized as a part of what Chalmers Johnson claims as the U.S. “empire of bases,” which involved setting up traditional military outposts like those in Okinawa, the Philippines, Guam, or what policymakers imagined for Vietnam to continue colonial occupation.[28] Instead, it seemed Laos would be a location for the United States to take a stand without having an explicit military presence or intent to occupy the country. State Department discussions reveal Laos’s relevance through the possibility it offered for the U.S. to affect the surrounding countries. For instance, a “Memorandum of Conversation” detailing a private meeting among State Department officials and several military generals on April 29, 1961, concerning the subject of military action in Laos, clearly shows that the U.S. considered Thailand and South Vietnam the best places to “stand and fight” in Southeast Asia. At most, state officials and military generals conveyed the possibility of holding parts of Laos, mainly the Mekong Valley area along with the capital of Vientiane, but allowing the “enemy” to have “all of the countryside” and trying to stop both the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese with U.S. air power. General Geo. H. Decker pointed out that “we cannot win a conventional war in Southeast Asia [because] all the advantage we have in heavy equipment would be lost in the difficult terrain of Laos where we would be at the mercy of the guerrillas.” Decker’s reference to the “difficult terrain of Laos” highlights the landscape itself as an obstacle for U.S. expansion precisely when that geographic space served as the critical site to begin such a project.[29]

Despite the stated difficulties posed by Laos’s landscape, the country was conventionally depicted to showcase how the U.S. could use it to make a stand against Communist expansion. Other maps that illustrated the intricacies of Communist presence in the form of roads and support facilities for combat air operations over Laos and North Vietnam as well as U.S. military authority in the form of airstrips known as Lima Sites, reflected the U.S. conception of Laos as a gateway to the Southeast Asian frontier. Taken together, these cartographies, in their very standardized protocols, are transferable forms of militarized knowledge that obscure stories about Laos’s de/colonization.[30] In addition, as evidence for and of U.S. military actions, they give an account of U.S. imperialist intervention in the decolonizing world. This process of masking the U.S. political agenda in Laos through maps and narratives about its landscape reflects similar activities on the home front. Friedman, in his investigation of the connections between the suburban landscape and domestic imperial policymaking, finds that the “seemingly natural privacy of the suburbs lent itself” to secrecy whereby suburban culture and its built environment nurtured the strategies to “cover and deny” imperial relationships.[31] Drawing a parallel with Friedman’s analysis of the secrecy that was built into the suburban landscape, I suggest that the Laotian geopolitical cartographies offer a different kind of evidentiary narrative—Laos’s unique spatial positioning that is integral to the future of the region. In addition to the “secret” memos and reports’ reflection of statecraft, U.S. Cold War maps underscore the power of cartography in nation-building and military operations. Maps are “ideologically loaded” as tools of power to define and control territory from a distance.[32] Like the documents, the maps symbolize “governmental processes of regimentation” where “places, individual homes and complex lives are rendered as mere dots.”[33] The maps and texts point to how Laos is missing in the “imperial archive”—official U.S. Cold War government documents—as a site of U.S. imperialism.[34]

This emphasis on Laos’s uniquely difficult landscape also nurtured the United States’ determination that Laos was not yet a nation-state. Such a move was consistent with U.S. Cold War policy in other areas of the world, and followed the U.S. liberal empire’s long-standing precedent of determining which peoples were sufficiently “civilized” to merit intervention into their “freedom” (e.g., assumptions made about Filipinos and Cubans in the Spanish–American War). In a letter on the seriousness of the Laotian situation to Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Walt W. Rostow, MIT political science professor Lucian Pye described U.S. problems in subduing Laos in terms of policymakers’ failure to recognize that it was “not a nation-state,” explaining that Kennedy and his advisers mistakenly applied to Laos policies appropriate in “relations among nation-states.” Consequently, Pye stressed that they had at best been made to look foolish and at worst may have permitted a “domestic Laotian controversy to become a genuine international crisis.” This logic undermined Laotian sovereignty to rationalize increased covert military aggression in the name of building national unity. Because Laos was not really a state or a nation, Pye explained, Kennedy and others had erred in expecting it “to do things which only a viable, integrated system can do.” The failure of previous U.S. aid efforts was evidence that a neutralization policy could not be achieved. The “real problem of Laos,” Pye declared, was not U.S. intervention but rather the difficulty it was experiencing in forming a “viable political system.” He suggested that this problem required more effort and assistance from the United States to “concentrate on the fundamentals of nation building,” in order to develop Laos within the “Western tradition of the nation-state system.”[35]

Pye’s description of Laos as lacking the fundamentals of a nation-state system rests on the imperialist genealogy of terra nullius to establish territories as empty land that required occupation. The idea of Laos as an empty space utilized U.S. colonial concepts of the “unincorporated” territory, a term from the Insular Cases in early twentieth-century opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court that defined the colonial territories of the United States. The concept of “unincorporated” territory facilitated the ongoing U.S. colonial domination of Puerto Rico as a commonwealth after the U.S. invasion in 1898. As the concept was applied to Cold War Southeast Asia, Laos was not a nation-state because it occupied an ambiguous historical position between an underdeveloped French colony and an unprotected territory where the Cold War superpowers vied for political influence. Pye and other modernization theorists, by asserting that Laos lacked the nation-state tradition, suggested the need to develop Laos and its people. This produced the material consequences of U.S. diplomatic maneuvers among the Laotian elite, covert military operations, and aid projects that undermined the decolonizing nation’s sovereignty and instituted militarized, colonial violence.

Furthermore, Laos was perceived as lacking a traditional nation-state system because it purportedly could not govern its people—including the various ethnic and Indigenous groups that were understood to be available for colonial domination and rescue. At the same time as the efforts by modernization theorists like Rostow and Pye to guide the White House toward undermining Laos’s sovereignty, historian K. T. Young sent a report to President Kennedy entitled “A New Look at Laos” that presented a “radically” new approach to Laos.[36] While dated a month prior to Pye’s letter to Rostow, Young’s report aligned with the political science professor’s assessment of Laos’s nation-state problem. Young pinpointed the absence of a nation-state political framework in Laos as an internal problem of social organization and political governance. He offered an eight-point program to change the situation, which would involve the implementation of a Village Promotion Program to promote national unity. The report’s compelling assessment of the crux of the Lao problem found that the issue was neither military nor diplomatic but rather a matter of “internal social and political re-assembly [requiring] some putty around the ‘plate glass’ and some fasteners in this ‘foam-rubber frontier.’”[37] Young’s description of Laos as a “foam-rubber frontier” echoed Kennedy’s “New Frontier” of world power and industrial development in Southeast Asia. Tracing the historical development of a national myth, historian Richard Slotkin articulates the “New Frontier” as a symbol to “summon the nation as a whole to undertake a heroic engagement in the ‘long twilight struggle’ against Communism” along with social and economic injustices.[38] In turn, the Kennedy administration projected this vision onto Laos and imagined its unincorporated peoples as instrumental to this “New Frontier.” Projections of the “New Frontier” enfolded Laos and the rest of Southeast Asia into the genealogy of imperialist cartography. Yet, integral to the specific character of Laos as a “foam-rubber frontier” was what the U.S. imagined as two related issues: the divisions among the Lao leadership and the lack of nationalism among Laos’s numerous Indigenous and ethnic groups. 

The U.S. policy of neutrality toward Laos, by which the imperial power sought to influence the decolonizing nation’s development toward a Western tradition yet not fully invest in its development, located the Laotian crisis within a larger Cold War framework as a site to test Soviet reactions to U.S. maneuvers.[39] Historian Kenneth L. Hill explains that Laos was a test case “to determine whether the cold war protagonists could accept solutions that were less than completely satisfactory in relation to areas or problems where they had only marginal interests” in order to avoid superpower confrontations.[40] This strategy, according to Pye, examined “hypotheses about Soviet behavior,” including the assumption by President Kennedy and his advisers that the Russian leaders’ rapport with the Pathet Lao would influence control over Pathet Lao strategy and military actions.[41] Laos’s independence as a small and “militarily dwarfed” nation provided the rationale for its use as a U.S. “laboratory,” not necessarily for controlling Communism, but for thwarting the socialist superpower. By extension, CIA historian Thomas Ahern explains that the U.S. neutrality stance “preserves a Laotian buffer state” while avoiding the “intention to challenge Beijing’s territorial integrity.”[42]

Yet, while Kennedy’s advisors asserted Laos’s importance as part of a broader Cold War strategy to test Soviet influence but not challenge Chinese geopolitics (since doing so would produce an even greater geopolitical dilemma for the U.S.), policymakers and military leaders still had to deal with the immediate and imminent threat of Communism in Southeast Asia. They viewed a key problem in the Laos situation as “North Vietnam’s failure to withdraw any significant forces from Laos, while U.S.-supported military programs there sought to resist Hanoi’s encroachments.”[43] More specifically, these policymakers and military leaders questioned whether South Vietnam and Thailand could be held if Laos were lost. In the same April 29, 1961, “Memorandum of Conversation” mentioned earlier, Deputy Assistant Secretary John Steeves is recorded as reminding those present that the U.S. had declared it would not give up Laos because “if this problem is unsolvable then the problem of Viet-Nam would be unsolvable.” He further implored the other participants that “if we decided that this was untenable then we were writing the first chapter in the defeat of Southeast Asia.” Admiral Arleigh Burke emphasized that each time ground is given up it is harder to stand the next time: “If we give up Laos, we would have to put U.S. forces into Viet-Nam and Thailand. We would have to throw enough in to win. . . . [We should] make clear that we were not going to be pushed out of Southeast Asia. We were fighting for the rest of Asia.” If the larger goal was to gain access to or create successful foreign policies in Asia, then it was symbolically important to take a stand in Laos. The small country figured as a launching pad for U.S. imperialist expansion since the U.S. was unwilling to put forth the “greater effort” required to hold the bordering countries without Laos as the critical anchor and buffer. Specifically, Thailand would have to be defended from the “other bank”—the Thai side—of the Mekong River rather than from the Laotian side.[44] Yet, the U.S. could not fully invest in a military campaign to launch a conventional war in Laos. The U.S. neutral policy to take a stand in Laos without being there was intended to keep the country marginal in the Cold War struggle, which was consistent with the U.S. aim of moving into Southeast Asia without bringing Laos to center stage in the region—and, by extension, in all of Asia. 

Despite Kennedy’s stated commitment to maintaining a neutral Laos, he concluded that the Laos problem “was not susceptible to a military solution.”[45] Historian Seth Jacobs noted Kennedy’s challenges with the Forces armées du royaume (FAR) or Royal Lao Armed Forces (RLA), for which the United States paid 100 percent of the military budget: “RLA troops showed little stomach for combat, regularly retreating in the face of Pathet Lao thrusts” compounding the “logistical challenges posed by a mountainous land lacking sea access, railroads, airstrips, and all-weather roads.”[46] By mid-1962, Kennedy remarked to his advisers that the U.S. would fight in Vietnam if it had to fight for Southeast Asia.[47] Thus, the U.S. commitment to increase troops in Vietnam was inextricably linked to the inability to figure out a clear military or diplomatic solution for Laos. Yet, the U.S. maintained its policy of neutralization to “preserve a noncommunist Laos while leaving the ground combat to indigenous forces” even as it publicly shifted its focus to Vietnam.[48] Continued U.S. involvement in Laos included covert political, military, and economic activities to foster nationalism among the Indigenous and ethnic minority peoples. Laos’s ambiguous geopolitical position, perceived as a problem in and of itself due to the convergence of the Cold War and Vietnam War policies and military practices, presented a dilemma for U.S. militarized Cold War knowledge, the archive, and “secret” war-making.

By the time of this debate about maintaining a presence in Laos without committing military forces, the CIA had established “guerrilla bases” that covered most exits from the Plain of Jars and had trained a small Hmong force as “the main barrier to communist encroachment from the northeast.”[49] The U.S. reluctance to operate a conventional war led military strategists to envision an operation with “no Americans on the ground” and the CIA playing a “purely supportive role.”[50] The U.S. Cold War perception about Laos’s not yet nation-state status and the United States’ neutrality policy that aimed to “save” Laos from domination by the Pathet Lao, Hanoi’s supposed surrogate, allowed the U.S. to simultaneously contend with the Soviet Union-armed paramilitary units among Laos’s not yet peoples. Hmong recruits were employed as U.S. “surrogates” to defend their territory in the mountains of northeastern Laos and to divert substantial North Vietnamese forces from South Vietnam.[51] By the late 1960s, historians realized that Laos was an unfortunate test case in Cold War diplomacy.[52] The U.S. policymakers and CIA paper trails on neutrality, rather than hiding secrets, are actually where state secrets were inscribed, and then erased. 

Hmong as Colonial Baggage: Solution and Threat to U.S. Cold War Policy

While Laos was erased from the Cold War cartography as not yet a nation-state, Hmong appeared in the U.S.-generated militarized cartography that simultaneously explained and normalized the need for arming Hmong in defense of that very territory. Yet, the explanations themselves showcased a tension between the possibility of a Hmong defense force to affirm Laotian national unity and the very threat that arming Hmong could pose for nation-building. The tensions arose from colonial tropes that depicted Hmong as “close to the land” and able to traverse its physical terrain but also as irrational subjects lacking a national sensibility. So, while Laos is missing in the imperial archive, Hmong refugees are missing as the colonial baggage of a militarized U.S. liberal empire that instituted neocolonialism toward Laos and militarized colonialism toward Hmong, as well as Laotian anticolonial nation-building that sought to subsume Hmong as national subjects.

Consistent with the militarized knowledge produced about Laos as an empty space, the CIA-generated military cartography consolidated the image of Hmong as a natural part of the landscape. The two maps reproduced below from Ahern’s CIA history of the U.S. “secret war” (Figures 4 and 5) exemplify the way in which Laos’s ethnic groups were mapped as integral to the terrain, supporting the idea that they could serve as a natural buffering force against the Communist threat. The maps present a “patchwork” of territories, a term used to describe the country’s various minority groups, which plot the people onto the land. A CIA map (Figure 4) showing population distribution illustrates this spatial imagining of peoples from Laos onto the terrain in which ethnic Lao occupy the land along the Mekong River bordering Thailand to the royal capital of Luang Prabang, considered “the best land.” The groups “dispossessed” of political rights inhabit the “higher, and poorer, land.” This latter category of peoples, therefore, exist as “hill tribes”—a natural feature of the landscape.[53] Indeed, this military categorization of people was consistent with how ethnohistorical knowledge organized the social and political hierarchy of Laos and its peoples around its topographical elevations—lowland ethnic Lao, highland minorities, and mountaintop “hill tribe” groups. Parceled into different military regions, Laos’s various ethnic and Indigenous groups were predisposed as a strategic defense force for that region’s topography. Although Hmong lived in different parts of northern Laos, from Nong Het near North Vietnam to Sayaboury bordering Thailand, their concentration in Xieng Khouang Province, around the Plain of Jars, made them ideal for combat in that difficult terrain. Hence, the military cartography of Xieng Khouang and the Plain of Jars, which comprise the RLA’s Military Region II (MR II), explained the arming of Hmong to defend their homes, families, and livelihoods against Communist threats. U.S. unaccountability was built into Hmong soldiers’ participation in the military program as a “resistance movement.” The U.S. calculations of whether to stand and fight in Laos were very much tied to the way that the U.S. imagined the Laotian political and geographical landscape, onto which Hmong and other ethnic groups were mapped. 

Image of a map of Laos depicting the distribution of its ethnic groups
Figure 4. CIA secret map entitled, “Distribution of ethnic groups in Laos, 1967.” The ethnic Lao are represented through the darker shading in the lowland along the Mekong River bordering Thailand, Vientiane, and along the route to the royal capital of Luang Prabang. The places marked for Khmu and Lamet are mapped as occupying the “midland.” Hmong and other groups are shaded but not visible on this map as occupying the upper mountain. Source: Thomas L. Ahern, Undercover Armies: CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos, 1961-1973 (Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2006). Source: FOIA, accessed October 1, 2010.

The map of “Distribution of Ethnic Groups” across Laos aligned with the views of modernization theorists like Pye, Rostow, and Young (all of whom served as Kennedy administration policymakers and advisors) that Laos was a questionable sovereign state with little governance over its various minority groups. According to the map, Laos’s not yet nation-state status was a product of more than just its difficult terrain and weak nationalist/anti-Communist leaders, but was inextricably linked to Laos’s inability to govern the peoples who lived far from the central government of Vientiane.[54] A report on the “Chronology of Events in Laos” from the Kennedy Files noted that

a gulf has always existed between the central government in Vientiane and the people in the countryside, and those who have governed Laos have never established effective authority or won the respect of all the various peoples who make up the Lao nation. The non-Communist political factions have never achieved unity or cohesion and have tended to view one another with as much suspicion as they do the Communist left. As a result, no strong, effective non-Communist leadership has emerged since Laos achieved independence. The Communist Pathet Lao, supported by North Viet-Nam, Communist China, and the U.S.S.R, have taken advantage of these fundamental weaknesses in the political and social fabric of Laos bringing the country into a state of chaos and near civil war.[55]

The charge that Laos “never achieved [political] unity or cohesion” justified U.S. efforts to build coercive diplomatic and covert military campaigns with the goal of undermining the North Vietnamese Communist regime. The concerted U.S. Cold War cartography and policymaking already envisioned Hmong as a people who were displaced from a central Lao governance structure and scattered across the Laotian territory. Since the decolonizing government of Laos had not been able to assert authority over the peoples living within its territorial boundaries, the above excerpt suggests, those very groups were susceptible to Communist influence just as much as they could be coerced into the Lao neutralist regime and U.S. Cold War policies. Even if they could be recruited to join a U.S./CIA “secret army” to undermine the Communist regime, that goal could be thwarted by the peoples themselves. Hmong were considered colonial baggage for Laos and the U.S.; this was both a problem and an asset because Hmong could be the natural defenders of Laos, yet they were not Lao national subjects who could have a national sensibility, and, therefore, were ungovernable.

Since Hmong presented a colonial burden as a malleable people that could potentially be attached to any of the political ideologies and parties involved in Laos, the Hmong problem was chief among the list of items that the U.S. wished to discuss with Prince Souvanna Phouma during the anticolonial and neutralist prime minister’s visit to the U.S. in July 1962, soon after the July 23 signing of the 1962 Geneva Accords. For instance, Souphanouvong considered Hmong to be armed bandits while the right wing viewed them as a “minority tribe” that needed help. Hmong loyalty to Souvanna and the king was also an important asset to the new neutral government.[56] In this context, Hmong were considered a necessary colonial asset that could be rescued and managed as soldiers to bolster the developing postcolonial nation-state and to strengthen U.S. neutrality policies. The logic of saving a people through military recruitment also buttressed the U.S. Cold War policy of nation-building. The U.S. policy toward Laos was in this sense an anomaly compared to its broader Cold War agenda of supporting dictatorial governments, because the imperialist state sought to build a strong Hmong force that would be loyal to the Lao government but a dependent ally of the United States. For example, a State Department Memorandum of Conversation regarding the meeting with Souvanna reveals that he suggested bolstering his government by bringing Hmong to the lowlands for compulsory military service where they could be educated and introduced to “modern urban life.” In his view, exposure to life in the fertile lowlands and proximity to the central government could foster a sense of national belonging. U.S. policymakers, however, urged him to keep Hmong in the highlands and to publicly support Hmong efforts to fight Communism because the CIA had already trained and armed a Hmong RLA commander, Vang Pao, and his recruits.[57]

Keeping Hmong in the highlands made sense from a military standpoint because they lived in the provinces bordering North Vietnam, which were prime locales for encounters with North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao soldiers in ground combat. Juxtaposing a map of the ethnic groups (Figure 4) with another CIA map of the Ground War, 1961–75, which depicts Military Region II (Figure 5), makes clear that the heavy fighting on the ground occurred in areas of Xieng Khouang Province with a concentrated Hmong population. The enlargement shown in Figure 5 outlines the area where Hmong forces operated through the geographic markers of Pa Dong, Long Cheng, and Sam Thong. Pa Dong was the site of the first meeting between Vang Pao, CIA paramilitary agent Stu Methven, and case officer Bill Lair, who was the chief architect of the “secret army,” as well as responsible for training the first three hundred Hmong volunteers in January 1961.[58] Long Cheng served as the “secret” military base for General Vang Pao and his Hmong army while Sam Thong functioned as a humanitarian base for refugees and wounded soldiers. While reporters could visit Sam Thong to document the U.S. humanitarian aid provided by USAID to those internally displaced by or wounded in the fighting, the media did not have access to Long Cheng and its military operations.

Image of two outline maps of Laos seen in juxtaposition
Figure 5. A CIA image of Laos illustrating the different military regions (MR) with an enlargement of MR II where the ground war involving the “secret army” under General Vang Pao’s command operated. Several important landmarks for the ground war and key features in Hmong refugee stories are indicated in the enlargement, including Long Cheng (the “secret” military base), Sam Thong, Pa Dong, and the Plain of Jars. Source: Thomas L. Ahern, Undercover Armies: CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos, 1961-1973 (Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2006). Source: FOIA, accessed October 1, 2010. (C05303949)

Crucial to Laos’s geopolitical position as a buffer for the U.S. to “prevent the communists from penetrating Southeast Asia” was its colonial infrastructure and minority groups that would fortify the country’s ability to inhibit or concede to Communist assault.[59] Within MR II, the famous Plain of Jars plateau in Xieng Khouang Province was a strategic location offering a tactical advantage in military operations. Although not shown in the CIA map, two roads constructed during the period of French colonization (Routes 6 and 7) lead directly from North Vietnam to the Plain of Jars. These two roads were important for Communist infiltration into Laos as well as for operations by U.S.-backed forces and the CIA seeking to intercept Communist soldiers and supplies. Hmong who called MR II home and whose villages and farms (their main source of livelihood) were located near these two routes between Xieng Khouang Province (including the city of Xieng Khouang) and Houaphan Province (including the city of Sam Neua) presented the best option for the CIA, which sought to rally Hmong to defend their homeland in the service of the U.S. policies of containment and nation-building. In fact, most Hmong soldiers were trained and fought battles along these routes. 

As an example, the Hmong village of Pa Dong, where the CIA trained the first three hundred Hmong volunteers, was located about eight miles south of the Plain of Jars.[60] In Undercover Armies, Ahern paints Pa Dong as a part of the natural landscape to illustrate how it exemplifies the captivation and “eerie attraction” of Laos’s geography for U.S. personnel and policymakers: “Ban Pa Dong, 4,500 feet above sea level, epitomized the eerie attraction that Laos—especially upcountry Laos—held for nearly all the Americans who worked there. With neighboring peaks hidden behind towers of cumulus clouds, the village stood in crystalline air on a ridgeline that sloped, first gradually and then precipitously, until it disappeared in the stratus clouds that concealed the valley below. The dying swish of the helicopter’s main rotor only emphasized the stillness of a perfectly calm day.”[61] This portrayal of a Hmong village high in the mountains and disappearing into the clouds conveyed the U.S. imagination with operating a counterinsurgency program to thwart the Communist regime right “under the enemy’s nose.”[62] The romanticized depiction of Laos’s difficult yet picturesque terrain suggests that the CIA’s ability to successfully maneuver and use the landscape for a covert war would mean the U.S. could conquer this “new frontier” to emerge as a Cold War superpower. Indeed, the recruitment of Hmong as soldiers in northeastern Laos exposed the overlap of U.S. Cold War cartography of the CIA’s ground war onto French colonial cartography.[63] Laos was a means to an end, to stop Communist takeover and maintain U.S. military bases in South Vietnam and Thailand.

In addition to overlapping with the French colonial development of Laos, the U.S. Cold War cartography deployed as an asset colonial tropes about Hmong closeness to nature and the idea of a people inextricably connected to the very landscape they called home. According to Ahern, after Lair received approval from Ambassador Winthrop G. Brown and Washington for his proposal to train and arm at least three hundred Hmong volunteers, he needed to transport Vang Pao and a U.S. operative (whose name has been redacted from the record) to the village of Pa Dong because they were being slowed by the bulky WWII-vintage radio and generator they were carrying. Lair decided to copilot a helicopter with Air America pilot Clarence “Chuck” Abadie to carry Vang Pao and the unnamed individual along with a few of the “_____ [redacted] communicators” to Pa Dong. The helicopter would be forced to make two trips because it was impossible to climb to the elevation of Pa Dong with all the passengers on board. Abadie, Lair, and the unnamed individual took off on the first trip without Vang Pao and the “communicators,” but even with the reduced load the helicopter was unable to clear the last ridgeline on the way to the village. Ahern recounted that the helicopter brushed the treetops, stalled, “drop[ped] onto the reverse slope,” and “careened down the hill” while still upright.[64] Miraculously, Lair and the unnamed U.S. American escaped unscathed, dragging an unconscious Abadie from the wreckage that was on the verge of exploding. Even more fortunate for the three U.S. Americans, and consistent with their perceptions of the landscape, was the Hmong man who came to their aid. Ahern writes: “Serendipity appeared in the person of a Hmong tribesman, who jogged up the slope in the tireless gait of mountain people, running on the leathery feet and splayed toes of a man who had never worn shoes.”[65] This description of a Hmong man coming to the rescue of Lair and his pilot in a “tireless gait” with “leathery feet and splayed toes” likens Hmong to the natural landscape as a “mountain people.” Hmong physical features are figured as extensions of the landscape. 

U.S. experiences with the landscape and encounters with Hmong left a lasting impression on how the U.S. Cold War policy could remain neutral by building a “secret army” of local people to protect their homes and villages as a way to contain the Communist threat from North Vietnam. In other words, the U.S. geopolitical dilemma regarding Laos and its roles in Southeast Asia could be addressed by recruiting Hmong as a clandestine force. Once the U.S. committed air power to South Vietnam in 1964 and ground troops in 1965, Hmong became even more important as a military asset against the Pathet Lao and Viet Minh. In comparison to the Viet Cong who were depicted as highly mobile and able to “bedevil Saigon’s road-bound heavy infantry,” Ahern described Hmong soldiers as “irregulars [who] flitted over mountain trails or moved by air to occupy key high ground and to harass Hanoi’s tanks and artillery.” The tactical advantage in Laos purportedly followed the monsoon; the North Vietnamese Army advanced during the dry season, usually early November to late May, and gave ground to Hmong operations when the rains washed out the “primitive road system.”[66] These depictions presented Hmong as capable of controlling the primitivized landscape, strategically positioned as a clandestine force to divert Communist expansion.

While the CIA and U.S. policymakers saw Hmong tactical advantage as an extension of their inherent connection to the landscape, Hmong viewed their advantage as a knowledge of the land and their commitment to protect that land as home and a source of livelihood. Protecting their homeland was a political agenda, as scholars and Hmong leaders have noted, born out of a Hmong desire for sovereignty in the forms of nationhood and territory. Historian Mai Na Lee has argued that the Hmong political agenda since the French colonial period aimed for territorial sovereignty: a Hmong kingdom. The quest for a Hmong state, according to Lee, influenced how different Hmong leaders sought legitimation from various state and colonial powers to negotiate the terms of Hmong sovereignty.[67] Hmong leaders, therefore, saw the decolonization of Laos as an opportunity to seek some form of sovereignty—an effort which, Lee notes, has shifted toward settling for autonomy.[68] The historical political differences among Hmong leaders consolidated during the “secret war” period in two polarizing figures: Vang Pao, a military general who led the Hmong alliance with the right-wing anticolonial Lao nationalists and the United States, and Lo Faydang, a leftist leader who led a Communist Hmong faction in alliance with the Pathet Lao and North Vietnam.

Yet, the political alignments between Hmong leaders like General Vang Pao and Lo Faydang and Lao anticolonial nationalists like Phouma and Souphanouvong during the U.S. war years were not always smooth when understood within the longer anticolonial struggles of people like Hmong against state and imperial power. In the post-WWII years, as Laos struggled to gain independence and establish state sovereignty, its various Indigenous and ethnic groups challenged the governance of the emerging independent state as well as the vestiges of French colonial rule. Efforts by Hmong, Kha, and Brao to establish autonomy within Laos collided at the muddy intersection of decolonization movements and Cold War geopolitics. The various decolonizing states of Southeast Asia, especially Laos and Vietnam, played on these ongoing anticolonial movements by dangling the possibility of autonomy to the Indigenous and ethnic groups within their territories in order to fold these groups’ political agendas into the governments’ decolonization efforts. As such, these groups played significant political roles in the Communist strategy of a “people’s war.” Historian Geoffrey Gunn explains that even the Viet Minh pursued alliances with minorities by introducing a minorities policy proposing “cultural autonomy in principle” and stipulating “equality between peoples of Vietnamese, representation in the National Assembly, [and] respect for minority languages and scripts.”[69] Without the support of the Kha and certain Hmong leaders, Gunn suggests, the Communist Pathet Lao would not have been able to claim a popular base because Prince Souphanouvong, the leftist, anticolonial Lao nationalist supported by Hanoi, attracted few Lao to his movement before 1954.[70] Pathet Lao influence among the Kha and Hmong shaped the military conduct of the conflict and determined organizational strategy in hill bases and liberated zones.[71]

On the U.S. Cold War policy front, Hmong contact with U.S. personnel as a potential force emerged through their role in the French colonial regime. Vang Pao was on the U.S. radar well before CIA paramilitary agent Methven and case officer Lair met with him on January 10, 1961, to begin exploring “the Hmong tribe’s potential for irregular warfare” as a right-wing resistance force against the neutralist Kong Le and Communist Pathet Lao.[72] The CIA had contacted Vang in 1955, when he was a major commander of the RLA in Xieng Khouang Province, and the highest-ranking Hmong in the army. He had fought with the French against the Japanese occupation of Laos during WWII at the age of thirteen, and later with the French Expeditionary Force against the Viet Minh in 1953 and 1954. Vang Pao’s military and cultural credentials made him an important asset for a covert military operation that would enable access to Hmong forces but also ensure that they did not revolt against the Lao government. His rapport with the Hmong population made him, as the CIA described, the ideal “man we’ve been looking for.”[73] As Ahern recounts it in Undercover Armies, Lair’s first question to Vang Pao at the January 10, 1961 meeting was: “With the communists and neutralists installed on the Plain of Jars, what exactly did the Hmong people want to do?” Vang Pao responded that Hmong had two alternatives, either flee to the west or stay and fight, and he indicated that “he and his people wanted to stay.”[74] In the context of the immediate danger of conflict between the Communist regime and the U.S. imperialist regime that had already brought violence, disruptions to livelihood, and destruction of vegetation and farms, the choice to stay and fight seemed less like a choice than colonial coercion. Two weeks after Lair’s first meeting with Vang Pao, the U.S. armed “the first 300 Hmong volunteers” in Padong on January 1961 with “three C-46 cargo planes cross[ing] the Mekong into Laos carrying weapons and equipment.”[75]

The recruitment and equipping of Hmong soldiers under the command of Vang Pao was a part of the U.S. “hill tribe” program, which was followed by similar efforts in Vietnam, when the CIA observed that North Vietnamese were moving supplies south through the Laotian panhandle.[76] Members of the Kha, who lived in the Bolovens Plateau in the southernmost part of the panhandle, were also incorporated into the program. The U.S. State Department meeting with Souvanna in July 1962 revealed the two governments’ similar colonial agendas to incorporate Hmong into the nation through military service—civilizing through soldiering. Yet, the U.S. focus on Laos’s ungovernable peoples as a problem reveals that its Cold War policy to build a U.S.-leaning democratic postcolonial Laos state meant keeping them as wards of the “new” state and as U.S. colonial subjects.

Yet, even Ahern notes Vang Pao’s wariness of this “unofficial” alliance with the U.S. because it might repeat the Hmong colonial experience with France. He linked French and U.S. military projects in Laos by confronting Methven about the possibility that the U.S. Americans would eventually abandon their Hmong allies as the French had done in 1954, asking: “Would the United States stay the course, if it began helping the Hmong, or did he risk having aid cut off and his people left to the mercy of the North Vietnamese?” To this, Methven vaguely assured him that “any American commitment would be honored as long as it was needed.”[77] This ominous beginning foreshadowed U.S. abandonment of Hmong after its defeat in Vietnam in 1975, when an “American commitment” was no longer “needed.”

These questions from Vang Pao, and the fact that the CIA/U.S. was supporting a people it considered not-yet-modern, revealed an uneasy alliance. While Hmong may have been adept at guerrilla fighting with their abilities to navigate the terrain, “an American presence in Hmong country” was required to enforce effective training and advising.[78] Indeed, U.S. Major General Richard Secord benevolently characterized Hmong as “Iron Age Guerrillas”—the “Little Guys” or “Meo irregulars”—who possessed innate fighting skills but lacked the discipline that would afford them status as a conventional force.[79] Recounting the initial training of Hmong volunteers at Pa Dong, Ahern described them as “Iron Age tribesmen” who were the “best natural riflemen that Lair _____ [redacted] had ever seen” because they knew how to clean and maintain their rifles and carbines within minutes.[80] Ahern believed that their ability to learn quickly made Hmong “natural” fighters because they only needed a few hours at the improvised firing range before moving on to combat organization and tactics.[81] However, Hmong skills with firearms were mitigated by their lack of “fire discipline,” with the result that they exhausted their ammunition supply in their first encounter with advancing Pathet Lao forces two weeks after the first weapons were dropped.[82] While arming Hmong was intended to be a temporary “surrogate for a surrogate” to prevent “the enemy” from consolidating its control while the United States and the Royal Lao Government developed the Royal Lao Army into a regular fighting force,[83] the primitive, clandestine army would be the backbone of the Cold War armed conflict in Laos as well as the CIA’s largest covert operation.

 On Refugees and the Record 

This chapter has excavated the missing things in U.S./CIA “secret” but redacted documents to examine how state secrecy as a convention of the United States’ militarized liberal empire’s paper regime structured Cold War neutralization policies toward Laos. I conclude my analysis of paper trails by turning to look at their production and meaning for the refugees displaced from this conflict, who were already missing in the imperial archive. In analyzing refugee records, I show that if the classified document that served as a mechanism of statecraft was hardly a secret, then the resettlement application constituted a mundane apparatus that benignly listed Hmong applicants’ previous militarized occupations. It is my hope that the epistemological dilemma of the imperial record—missing things—and my reformulation of this dilemma into a methodological approach can be applicable to an analysis of the refugee record.

The 1973 Paris Peace Accords and the North Vietnamese victory in 1975 marked the official end to the fifteen-year “secret war” in Laos. The U.S. could no longer provide material support to anti-Communist Hmong forces. As Communists marched toward Long Cheng, General Vang Pao’s “secret” military base, the few CIA advisors who had not yet left the region conspired to force the general to leave the base, and to effectively abandon the army he had amassed over the years. While the general was airlifted to Thailand, hundreds of thousands of Hmong—soldiers who abandoned their posts to find their families; students, farmers, and fractured families who had lost too many members to the war—escaped on foot toward the Thai border if they could or sought refuge in the jungle.[84] While this official end to the Vietnam War and the “secret war” inaugurated the largest exodus of refugees outside of Europe, these refugees’ complex histories as U.S. soldier-subjects were subsumed by their status as subjects in need of humanitarian rescue. For Hmong refugees, in particular, their roles in an illicit war and the classified status of U.S. state and CIA records pertaining to the conflict marked them as illegible to be considered as U.S. allies who could qualify for resettlement through the State Department’s refugee task force.

The increasing number of Hmong refugees who appeared on the Thai side of the Mekong River posed an unexpected problem for the personnel of the State Department’s refugee task force, who had only been charged with processing Vietnamese refugees. Former State Department personnel Lionel Rosenblatt has publicly stated that he directed the refugee task force toward Hmong refugees arriving in Thailand, a group that was unknown to the task force, to fill the remaining eleven thousand spots that had been targeted toward Vietnamese refugees.[85] The unexpected demand for processing of Hmong refugees, I suggest, had the unintended effect of exposing Hmong soldiering and U.S. covert war. To be sure, the seemingly benign process of resettlement for the initial eleven thousand Hmong refugees and thereafter constituted state management of the refugee into a proper immigrant subject. Inquiries such as “What was your occupation?” comprised procedural refugee processing. Yet, Hmong refugees’ long responses show up in the written record merely as lists of occupations such as military, soldier, student, farmer, and embroiderer. Like the missing baggage’s simultaneous embodiment of the mundane and excessive, these occupational categories make up the un/familiar things that are out of place and time within a standard application. This documentation of Hmong refugees’ professional backgrounds was based on volunteer resettlement agents’ imagination of Hmong as potential immigrants who would contribute to, rather than burden, the U.S. But Hmong training and skills in the context of U.S. militarism represented an encumbrance not so much because these occupations were seen as obsolete in the U.S. but because they served as reminders of the nation-state’s production of violence and displacement.

The refugee records I examined are resettlement case files held at the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History and Research Center. The archive’s restrictions against duplication of the refugee resettlement collection, however, demanded a different approach to sifting through Hmong refugees’ case files. Because I could not record any identifying information about the applicants, I documented their occupations and skills, work histories, and education. The inventory I compiled became an unofficial list of military enrollments that serves as evidence of America’s “secret army.” The word “soldier” appears most frequently on this list, often paired with “student” and “farmer.” Each new line in the list shown below (chart 1) represents a different family and their application, which recorded either the occupation of the head of the household or the occupations of both the husband and wife. Seeing “military” and “soldier” written into the record about Hmong refugees strangely neutralizes U.S. militarism as a benign part of Hmong life in Laos; yet it symbolizes a haunting in the archive’s structure. 

Chart listing occupation and skills
Chart 1. Author compilation of Hmong refugees’ indication of their occupation and skills in their resettlement applications as a representation of Hmong enrollments in the “secret army.” Source: Author duplication of individual family case files, Immigration History & Research Center at the University of Minnesota

This list projects a mishmash of occupations ranging from the militarily skilled professions of military intelligence and medic/pharmacist to agriculturally skilled rice farmer. Hmong women’s occupations are primarily listed as farming, domestic work, embroidery, seamstress, and sometimes student. But the different pairings show how Hmong soldiers were both students and farmers, either before or after their military duties. They foreground the residual reminders of lives lived in war, and the embodied violence of the “blind right eye” note accompanying one man’s military occupation. 

Unlike the classified documents, these applications are neither hidden nor erased. But the applications represent state management of refugee resettlement and Hmong histories through their fragmentary mapping of Hmong lives onto compartmentalized ways of knowing on the page. They contain the “Hmong secrets” in the imperial archive—that information which exceeds the private and familial, and yet cannot be assimilated into the state’s documents. In chart 1, each line traces a family story, detailing generations of soldiers and students living under different imperialist regimes. For example, many of the fathers of Hmong men who joined the fighting at age sixteen for the U.S. worked as porters for the French during the 1930s and early 1940s or were soldiers for the occupying French army after WWII. Some soldiers were not particularly eager to fight on the front lines but felt an obligation to help the Hmong leader, General Vang Pao, “because the country was at war.”[86] Hmong students returned from their studies to join the fighting or continued studying to become teachers of Lao history, geography, and English. Often, families were forced to move from village to village to escape the war’s violence while their husbands and sons fought in the war. Several young Hmong women trained as nurses to care for wounded soldiers, which taught them skills beyond farming and embroidery, but all lived an existence shaped by leaving. The methods of recording education and work history on the applications allow glimpses of these stories.

Read together, education and work history provide more context for the general list above by offering dates that situate active military duty during the war. The dates reveal that these individuals fought in the later years of the war, but details about their training in “combat tactics” for two and a half months and their seven years of education allude to the conditions confronting Hmong during the war (see chart 2). Perhaps most striking are the dates and ranks listed under “Work history” that specify their status as 1st Lieutenant or Sergeant. A note about a wounded right knee but “NOW NO problems” illuminates the irony of the wound as proof of military service, yet something that does not disqualify the applicant for resettlement. In other words, these descriptions reveal the suppressed violence of war in making the refugee, which illuminates another way in which secrecy is applied in the production of refugees. Moreover, specialized training and skills explained in the following list bring to the fore Hmong participation in activities beyond the role of soldier, challenging the cartography of the Hmong guerrilla fighter. Yet, the soldier has become the most salient symbol of Hmong racial difference, and a claim for Hmong legal entry into the U.S. as refugees. 

Chart listing refugee education and work history
Chart 2. Author compilation of Hmong refugees’ education and work history in their resettlement applications to represent how military involvement appears in refugee records. Source: Author duplication of individual family case files, Immigration History & Research Center at the University of Minnesota

Re-creating lists of Hmong occupations from refugee resettlement applications powerfully remaps the complexities of Hmong lives in Laos beyond the categories of student, farmer, teacher, soldier, seamstress, medic, and domestic worker. Reading these lists offers a Hmong presence, in contrast to the mapping of war and violence from the U.S. imperial perspective in which Hmong are primarily represented as “natural” barriers to the Communist enemy. This remapping insists on rendering a Hmong presence in the spaces where things are missing. Their presence in the refugee records challenges the U.S. Cold War spatialization of Hmong as natural “fasteners” for the nation and foregrounds a “continuous, ongoing storytelling” that rejects the historical coverup inherent in the valorization of an “unofficial” Hmong-U.S. alliance.[87] Native feminist scholar Mishuana Goeman contends that re-creating spatial communities that have been defined by colonial notions of spatial belonging involves promoting forms of “spatiality and sovereignty found in tribal memories and stories.”[88] Looking at the fragmented lists above, I imagine a different documentation that rearranges and gathers together the incomplete narratives. Strung together, the occupations remap Hmong assertions of presence in space and time, rather than absence from the archive and identification as not-yet-subjects. Indeed, the mundane activities of filling out an application or attending a family gathering are already loaded with these stories that could not be told elsewhere.

In a scene in the backyard of a family gathering from the documentary Among B-Boys, a film about Hmong American youth and hip-hop culture, an uncle pulls out his wallet to show a card identifying him as a Hmong veteran of the CIA and U.S. “secret war” in Laos. He raises his hand to identify himself to the camera, filmmaker, and audience, declaring in Hmong: “CIA, Hmong. Hmong, CIA.”[89] Flashing the card from his wallet, the uncle further states that “we have CIA cards” to prove our claims. This scene from a film on Hmong American break dancers in California’s Central Valley brings into sharp relief this ongoing storytelling. Hmong Americans with whom I watched the film identified the uncle as their father, grandfather, or uncle who always tells his story about the war to whoever will listen. Their reactions suggest a familiarity that they and I share with the stories that we were not supposed to forget. Such moments captured on film and interpellated by Hmong American viewers serve as a reminder that statements like this uncle’s are often unwritten and mundane because they surface among things that are familiar. Yet, the statement demands that the listener pay attention to these fleeting notes that are always in danger of being erased.

In addition to the way that Hmong storytelling undermines the imperial mapping that displaces Hmong from history, the uncle’s CIA ID card is a counter-use of the documents that sought to interpellate and define him as “refugee” and “loyal soldier.”[90] This counter-use of the document is not the same as counterevidence, and it should be understood as part of the storytelling where Hmong participate in knowledge circulation about the war. The document is more than an evidential form of knowledge. The CIA ID card was produced by a veterans’ organization, Lao Veterans, Inc., to identify Hmong veterans for services and benefits such as the Hmong Veterans’ Naturalization Act, which I discuss in the next chapter. This veterans’ organization drew upon the emphasis on the textual record as “proper” identification to promote Hmong veterans’ visibility and subjectivity as participants and collaborators in the war. The veteran ID card appropriates conventional recording to generate a list of army recruits that does not exist in the state or military records. Yet, the reliance by veterans’ organizations and the veterans themselves on positive knowledge to mark their presence in history risks erasing those identities that cannot be demonstrated by an ID or state-issued document, or even the legal legibility of these ID cards. Storytelling continues to hold importance for communicating historical experiences that cannot be captured in the imperial archive, and is in fact still used by these same veterans even as they hold their ID cards.

Similarly, as a record of the joint military violence and humanitarian aid efforts that mark the “secret war,” Hmong who provided aid supplies carry their own identification cards issued by the U.S. Embassy in Laos. Dan Moua, a former U.S. Embassy employee, explained that he tracked the movement of supplies such as food, tarps, medical equipment, and other items during the war, noting that these supplies were sent directly from the U.S. Embassy (and the ambassador) to the frontlines of battle. Moua also discussed how soldiers are often valorized for their active participation in the war and suggested that all civilian workers such as USAID employees, policemen, teachers, nurses, etc., should receive the same commendations.[91] The ID cards carried by Hmong veterans and embassy workers reveal a different story, one in which the figures of the soldier and refugee are intertwined, and which presents militarization as a form of humanitarianism. Moua stressed that his ID card does not expire—“indefinite” is indicated as the date of expiration—and that he could return to Laos to temporarily work for the embassy. Bringing together the CIA ID with the USAID/U.S. Embassy ID underscores the “unofficial” Hmong–U.S. alliance. It also reveals how these documents, carried by the veteran and aid worker, are housed not in the archive, but on the body so that they constitute the archive of secrets and its embeddedness in the Hmong refugee.

Hmong refugees’ use of documents to assert their different roles and responsibilities during the war opens up a tracing of the “secret war” paper trails by returning to the refugee records with which I opened the introduction, to explore how the archiving of refugees remaps U.S. logics of Laotian emptiness and Hmong displacement to foreground a Hmong presence. This active presence points to alternative sites outside of the archive where different forms of documentation and Hmong refugee histories might emerge.



Epigraph: President John F. Kennedy, press conference remarks, March 23, 1961. President John F. Kennedy’s National Security Council Files and Foreign Relations documents from 1961–1963 prepared by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and held at the Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Also see John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum website, accessed January 10, 2020, 

[1] I use “secret” in quotation marks to denote the critical unsettling condition of secrets that highlights how they get produced, for whom they are meant to withhold information, and whether such information is necessarily unknowable.

[2] This document was not the first one known to discuss U.S. military aid to Laos, but it was my first encounter with such heavy redactions which shaped my analysis that secrets are as much about hiding content as they involve the processing of government documents. I analyze it as an example to ground my analytic of the missing and to develop my argument that secrets structure knowledge. This document has since been released in its unredacted version by the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, but it reinforces my argument that the mundane acts of marking things secret and removing sensitive content reflect the secrecy of state governance and knowledge. See Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, volume 24, Laos Crisis, February–May 1962: U.S. Sanctions Against Phoumi Nosavan and the Nam Tha Crisis, available online at the website of U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, accessed January 7, 2020,           

[3] The idea of “open secrets” follows anthropologist Michael Taussig’s notion of the “public secret,” in which something is generally known but cannot easily be articulated.

[4] Matthew S. Hull, Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 5.           

[5] Hull, Government of Paper, 1.           

[6] Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 10–11.           

[7] Friedman, Covert Capital, 14.           

[8] Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” Archival Science 2 (2002): 91.

[9] Davorn Sisavath has noted the difficulties of accessing records on U.S.–Laos relations at the National Archives because some were destroyed in the transferring process and many remain classified. Her research, instead, examines military waste in Laos as an archive by tracing the remains of bombs dropped on Laos. See “The US Secret War in Laos: Constructing an Archive from Military Waste,” Radical History Review (2019): 103–16,           

[10] Antoinette Burton, “Introduction: Archive Fever, Archive Stories,” in Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 7.           

[11] Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook, “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” Archival Science 2 (2002): 2.           

[12] Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” 100.           

[13] Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” 101.           

[14] Anjali Arondekar, For the Record: Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 4.           

[15] Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” 103.           

[16] Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” 107–8.           

[17] Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” 108.           

[18] Schwartz and Cook, “Archives, Records, and Power,” 5.           

[19] Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 1, 4, 2.

[20] Lowe, Intimacies of Four Continents, 2.           

[21] Lowe, Intimacies of Four Continents, 4.           

[22] Martin E. Goldstein, American Policy toward Laos (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1973), 24.           

[23] On the north–south route, see Goldstein, American Policy toward Laos, 35–36. On “geographic frontiers,” see Shiri Pasternak, “The Shifting Spatial Requirements for Indigenous Genocide In Canada,” (paper presented at the Critical Ethnic Studies Association Conference, University of California, Riverside, March 10–12, 2011).           

[24] The Story of Laos: The Problem for a U.S. Foreign Policy, John F. Kennedy National Security Files on Asia and the Pacific: 1961–1963, Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University.           

[25] Thomas L. Ahern Jr., Undercover Armies: CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos, 1961–1973 (Washington, DC: Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2006), 4. This major military effort “took the form of a military assistance and advisory program,” called the Program Evaluation Office (PEO), to circumvent the provisions of the Geneva Accords, which prohibited foreign military presence except for a “residual French mission.” Part of the economic aid program, the PEO “equipped and trained regular units of the Forces Armées Royals [Royal Lao Armed Forces].”           

[26] See Arnold R. Isaacs, Gordon Hardy, MacAlister Brown, et al., Pawns of War: Cambodia and Laos (Boston: Boston Publishing, 1987). From a U.S. personnel perspective on Laos as a pawn, see Milliard Graham, Laotian Pawn (Bloomington, IN: 1st Books Library, 1996).           

[27] Twelve Years of U.S. Imperialist Intervention and Aggression in Laos (Laos: Neo Lao Haksat Publications, 1966), 11.           

[28] Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004), 8.           

[29] The quotes in this paragraph came from the document in the Kennedy Files titled “Memorandum of Conversation,” April 29, 1961, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–63, vol. 24, Laos Crisis, John F. Kennedy National Security Files on Asia and the Pacific, Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University.           

[30] Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin, and Chris Perkins, “Introductory Essay: Power and the Politics of Mapping,” in The Map Reader: Theories of Mapping Practice and Cartographic Representation, ed. Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin, and Chris Perkins (Oxford: John Wiley and Sons, 2011), 388.           

[31] Friedman, Covert Capital, 12.           

[32] Dodge, Kitchin, and Perkins, “Introductory Essay,” 390.           

[33] Dodge, Kitchin, and Perkins, “Introductory Essay,” 390.           

[34] Jodi Kim, Ends of Empire: Asian American Critique and the Cold War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 30.           

[35] The discussion in this paragraph comes from the letter from Lucian W. Pye (Department of Economics and Social Science at MIT) to Walt W. Rostow (Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs), March 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s National Security Council Files and Foreign Relations documents from 1961–1963 prepared by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and held at the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University, accessed September 6–10, 2010. Also see John F. Kennedy National Security Files, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, box 130, folder 10 (JFKNSF-130-010).       

[36] K. T. Young, “A New Look at Laos,” February 3, 1961, Kennedy Files.           

[37] Young, “New Look at Laos.”           

[38] Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum, 1992), 3–4.           

[39] Kenneth L. Hill, “President Kennedy and the Neutralization of Laos,” Review of Politics 31, no. 3 (1969): 354.           

[40] Hill, “President Kennedy and the Neutralization of Laos,” 357. Because Laos was considered a test case, its value existed in its political viability.           

[41] Pye, letter to Rostow, March 20, 1961.           

[42] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 50.           

[43] Ahern, Undercover Armies, xv.           

[44] The quotes in this paragraph came from “Memorandum of Conversation,” April 29, 1961.           

[45] Seth Jacobs, “Laos,” in A Companion to John F. Kennedy, edited by Marc J. Selverstone (Chicester, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2014): 250.           

[46] Jacobs, “Laos,” 250.           

[47] Gregory A. Olson, Mansfield and Vietnam: A Study in Rhetorical Adaptation (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1995), 94 quoted in Jacobs, “Laos,” 250.    

[48] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 74.           

[49] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 56; on the Plain of Jars, see 66–67.           

[50] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 41.           

[51] Ahern, Undercover Armies, xv.           

[52] Hill, “President Kennedy and the Neutralization of Laos,” 364.           

[53] Here I’ve quoted from Story of Laos.           

[54] In comparison to Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos was seen as a failed colony due to its centralized government’s inability to govern and incorporate the ethnic minorities distant from Vientiane and Luang Prabang, the centers of government and of royal power, respectively.           

[55] “Chronology of Events in Laos,” President John F. Kennedy’s National Security Council Files and Foreign Relations documents from 1961–1963 prepared by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and held at the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University (n.d.), accessed September 6–10, 2009; italics in original. The original document is a secret Pentagon paper, “The Situation and Short-Term Outlook in Laos,” Justification of the War. Internal Documents. The Eisenhower Administration. Volume IV: 1956 French Withdrawal – 1960, available online at website of The National Archives, Pentagon-Papers-Part-V-B-3d (National Archives Identifier 5890524), accessed June 10, 2020,            

[56] “Memorandum of Meeting: Meeting with the President, Harriman, Forrestal, Representatives of AID, and DCI,” July 27, 1962, Central Intelligence Agency, DCI-McCone Files, drafted by John A. McCone, held in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, vol. 24, Laos Crisis, document 412; available online at website of the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian,           

[57] “Memorandum of Conversation: Meeting with Prince Souvanna Phouma,” July 27, 1962, Department of State, Central Files, 751J.00/7–2762, held in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, vol. 24, Laos Crisis, document 413 (drafted by Koren); available online at website of the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian,           

[58] Bill Lair had been in Thailand since the early 1950s to organize and train the elite Thai police group called the Police Air Reconnaissance Unit. From Richard L. Holm, “Recollections of a Case Officer in Laos, 1962–1964: No Drums, No Bugles,” CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, accessed June 15, 2017, [This link has been moved. The report can be found at:]    

[59] Quotation from Goldstein, American Policy toward Laos, 32.           

[60] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 34.           

[61] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 36.           

[62] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 34.           

[63] Similarly, Brao in southern Laos near the Lao–Cambodian border were recruited for their strategic geopolitical location to aid U.S. bombings, patrol the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and stop North Vietnamese Army advances in the region. See Ian G. Baird, “The US Central Intelligence Agency and the Brao,” Aséanie 25 (2010): 23–51.           

[64] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 35.           

[65] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 35.           

[66] Ahern, Undercover Armies, xv.           

[67] Mai Na Lee, Dreams of the Hmong Kingdom: The Quest for Legitimation in French Indochina, 1850–1960 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015). Some of these early Hmong leaders included Lo Pachay, Lo Blia Yao, and Touby Lyfoung, of whom Vang Pao was a protégé.           

[68] M. Lee, Dreams of the Hmong Kingdom, xii.           

[69] Geoffrey C. Gunn, Political Struggles in Laos (1930–1954): Vietnamese Communist Power and the Lao Struggle for National Independence (Bangkok, Thailand: Duang Kamol, 1988), 216.           

[70] Gunn, Political Struggles in Laos, 215.           

[71] Gunn, Political Struggles in Laos, 216.           

[72] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 29. I use “General Vang Pao” in general references to him and instead use “Vang Pao” when discussing him in historical context.           

[73] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 31.           

[74] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 31.           

[75] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 41.           

[76] John Prados, Presidents’ Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations from World War II through the Persian Gulf (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1986), 266.           

[77] The quotes here are from Ahern, Undercover Armies, 30.           

[78] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 58.           

[79] Richard Secord with Jay Wurts, Honored and Betrayed: Irangate, Covert Affairs, and the Secret War in Laos (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1992), 75.           

[80] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 43.           

[81] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 44. In addition, Secord and Wurts, in Honored and Betrayed, reiterate the perception of Hmong as naturalized guerrilla fighters whose soldiers usually escape unscathed because nobody expected them to “stand fast” under the pressure of heavy infantry and artillery since that is not how guerrillas fight. In doing so, they broke up into squads and “melted into the jungle” only to “reappear magically” at a different site (87).           

[82] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 44.           

[83] Ahern, Undercover Armies, 36.           

[84] See Jane Hamilton-Merritt, Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942–1992 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); and Gayle Morrison, Sky Is Falling: An Oral History of the CIA’s Evacuation of the Hmong from Laos (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999), for discussions of the CIA’s coordination of General Vang Pao and his officials’ evacuations from Long Cheng, leaving thousands of Hmong soldiers and civilians on the airstrip. This group, along with Hmong from other parts of Laos who feared Pathet Lao retribution, escaped by car and on foot to the Mekong River to cross into Thailand. Many Hmong lost their lives during this dangerous and tragic escape.           

[85] Lionel Rosenblatt, “The History behind the Hmong Refugee Exodus,” panel organized by the Hmongstory 40 Project, Fresno City College, August 22, 2015.           

[86] Thomas P. Conroy, “Highland Lao Refugees: Repatriation and Resettlement Preferences in Ban Vinai Camp, Thailand,” Bridgette Marshall Collection, Southeast Asian Archive Special Collections, Langson Library, University of California, Irvine, 46–60.           

[87] Quotation from Mishuana Goeman, “(Re)Mapping Indigenous Presence on the Land in Native Women’s Literature,” American Quarterly 60, no. 2 (2008): 300.           

[88] Goeman, “(Re)Mapping Indigenous Presence,” 301.           

[89] Christopher Woon, dir., Among B-Boys, CRS1UN Productions, 2011, DVD.           

[90] I would like to thank Adria Imada for suggesting that I consider the CIA ID cards as a counter-use of documents.           

[91] Interview with Dan Moua, October 2015.

Join the colloquy

Queer Transpacifics

What affinities, tensions, and conceptual convergences emerge between “queer” and “transpacific”? How can we (re)conceptualize queerness both transnationally and translocally? What is queer about the transpacific?


What affinities, tensions, and conceptual convergences emerge between “queer” and “transpacific”? How can we (re)conceptualize queerness both transnationally and translocally? What is queer about the transpacific?

Since the 1990s, the transpacific has gradually come into view as a geo-historically constituted contact zone that encompasses the dwelling, movement, and transactions of various peoples in Asia and the Americas. Over the past decade, “transpacific studies” has also gained academic currency as a transnational, comparative, and archipelagic analytic that has called for new interdisciplinary modes of inquiry. Rooted within and expanding from Asian Americanist critiques of U.S. militarized imperialism in the Pacific, the transpacific is articulated both as a lived, embodied, material site and also as an imagined, performed, and represented space of crossings. As such, a transpacific vantage point is uniquely positioned to deconstruct the ontology of the nation-state and account for multiple, intersecting imperialisms. The liminality of transpacific studies as an interdisciplinary formation produces generative apertures for bringing new kinds of interventions—more-than-human ecologies, oceanic vocabularies, global indigenous epistemologies, transhistorical and translinguistic archives—to bear on established frameworks within ethnic studies and area studies.

Our colloquy situates queer diasporas as integral to transpacific studies. Conceived as both living agents and as an analytical framework, queer diaspora perspectives attest to the radical diversity of libidinous and non-normative desires in the contact zones between Asia and the Americas. As queer relationalities transform and translate across borders, regions, and localities in the Pacific, they become co-constitutive with categories of sexuality and gender that both challenge and redefine hegemonic norms. Likewise, queer theorizations of time, genealogy, and togetherness can help us stagger through the post/colonial could-have-beens, maybe-nevers, and imagined futures—temporalities that are latent in the transpacific as a space sutured by multiple layered and interwoven histories of movement. The affective density of queer relationalities can localize the almost inconceivable scale of the transpacific; the diverse embodied lifeways of queer diaspora can furnish new vocabularies of relation and community. Both in concert with and in tension against one another, “queer” and “transpacific” call for new interdisciplinary methodologies, aesthetic practices, and conceptualizations of connectivity. 

Highlighting recent developments in transpacific studies that point to queer horizons for the field, Queer Transpacifics draws together emergent scholarship in literary studies, art history, performance studies, cultural criticism, film studies, and history. Bridging a vast range of approaches from post/decolonial thought, critical refugee perspectives, queer of colour critique, material histories, and diaspora analytics, our sprawling archive demonstrates both the rich texture and the future potentialities within queer transpacific work. The featured pieces expand the stakes of thinking transpacifically through searching for other solidarities that exist despite and beyond the nation; cultivating inter-regional and intra-diaspora dialogue; recasting the transpacific as variously interwoven and undertheorized archives of desire; and orienting toward alternative horizons of queer meaning-making.

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