Historical Background

The Special Guerilla Units (SGUs)

were composed primarily of Hmong people who served as a covert military force for Americans during the Vietnam era. After Geneva, America needed the SGUs to counteract the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), which openly flouted the international agreements by keeping thousands of troops in Laos. In Southern Laos, they engaged 80,000 NVA troops in Laos who could have otherwise fought in Vietnam, tracked NVA troop movements on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, disabled substantial quantities of equipment headed for NVA troops in Vietnam, and rescured many downed American pilots.

Of the approximately 350,000 to 500,000

Hmong who lived in Laos before the Vietnam era began, 35,000 men, women, and children died during the war, a fatality rate that was triple that of the American military forces in Vietnam.

  • Laos’s importance to the Cold War
  • International agreements on Laos neutrality
  • CIA recruitment, arming, and directing of Hmong SGUs
  • Hmong SGUs’ military actions aiding U.S.
  • Hmong casualties and losses
  • Communist persecution of Hmong
1961 - 1975: Vietnam War


Remember Our Fallen Heroes

Hmong Recruited for “Secret War"
  • Geneva signatories including US barred from introducing forces under Geneva Agreements
  • Hmong knew N. Laos mountain terrain
  • Royal Lao Government (FAR) armed forces were weak
  • CIA recruited, trained, financed, armed, and directed an estimated 60,000 Hmong guerrillas to fight the VietCong
  • Common enemy

Laos People’s Democratic Republic
  • Single-party Communist state since1975
  • Borders all nations in region:
    • Vietnam
    • China
    • Thailand
    • Myanmar/Burma
    • Cambodia
Pre-Vietnam War: Laos Key to US Foreign Policy
Photo: White House (May 29, 1959)

Photo: White House (May 29, 1959)

Despite the remoteness, we were determined to preserve the independence of Laos against a take-over by its neighbors to the North―Communist China and North Vietnam. For the fall of Laos to Communism could mean the subsequent fall―like a tumbling row of dominoes ill-free neighbors, Cambodia[,] South Vietnam[,] Thailand[,] and Burma. Such a chain of events would open the way to Communist seizure of all of Southeast Asia

International Agreements on Laos Neutrality

laos & president
The position of this administration....[isto] strongly and unreservedly
support the goa lof a neutral and independent Laos, tied to no outside power or group of powers, threatening no one and free from any domination.

- President John F. Kennedy, News Conference, March 23,1961
Photo by Abbie Roe, Nat’lParkServ., in JFKPres.Library and Museum(AR6454)

  • 1954 Geneva Agreements
    • Prohibit “foreign bases” and introduction of foreign troops, “except for the purpose of the effective defense” of Laos territory
    • Provided for the division of Vietnam
    • Not signed by US
  • 1962 Geneva Agreements
    • Bar re-introduction and mandate “withdrawal from Laos of all foreign troops and military personnel”
    • Signed by US, Vietnam, Soviet Union, Britain, France, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Canada, India, and Poland
  • America and the Geneva Agreements
    • U.S. desire to comply with 1962 agreements
    • U.S. adn Soviet Union reached an agreement in June 1961 tha would permit bilateral disengagement
    • Pervent direct U.S. - Soviet clash
    • Maintain suppport of allies (Britain, France)
    • Desire of Laos to appear "neutral"
    • Strengthen U.S. position for future negotiations with Communists
Photo:Stanley Tretick,Look Magazine(June 3-4,1961),U.S. National Archives & Records Administration

Photo:Stanley Tretick,Look Magazine(June 3-4,1961),U.S. National Archives & Records Administration

U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev shaking hands in Vienna, Austria in 1961

General Vang Pao organized Hmong SGU soldiers

gvp & hmong sgu

U.S. Need for Surrogate Military Force
Need for covert military action
  • While America withdrew all 666 military advisers, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) removed only 40, leaving at least 6,000 troops in N. Laos
  • Neutralist Laos government asks for U.S. military support, but asks that it be kept secret
  • Fear of increasing Communist forces in Laos(China, Soviet Union, NVA)
  • Preserve “flexibility” to pull out of region later
  • Worry American public would not support American troops in Laos
  • “Comparatively modest cost”: The annualCIA budget in Laos was approximately equal to daily U.S. military spending in Vietnam**Symingtonhearings:United States Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad, Kingdom of Laos: HearingsBefore theSubcomm.on U.S. Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad of
    the Senate Comm. on Foreign Relations, 91st Cong.,1st Sess., pt. 2,at 251(1969)

CIA Col. James "Bill" Lair and General Vang Pao

Visiting families and children of soldiers who had gone to the battlefield.

Road-watching team selection observation site in the eastern pan handle.

Hmong Military Actions Aiding U.S. War Efforts


[Given the [FAR]’s poor performance,] [t]he only prospect for effective resistance in the northeast. . . lay with the Hmong.”

- CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, Undercover Armies, CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos 1961-1973 (2006)

“[General] Vang Pao is the head of the [Hmong] irregular forces, . . . which have been the backbone of the resistance to Communist infiltration in Northern Laos” - CIA Director Richard Helms to Walt W. Rostow, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Special Assistant (Sept. 25, 1968)

  • Engaged 80,000 NVA troops fighting in Laos, impeding the NVA’s war efforts in Vietnam
  • Rescued numerous downed US pilots
Newly recruited SGU soldiers are trained on how to use their weapons (photo: SGU)

Hmong SGUs' Military Service for the United States of America

In 1969, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee found:

  • “[T]he multimillion dollar support of a 30,000 man army [, the SGUs,] can in no way be considered an intelligence operation . . . .”
  • “The United States, without any treaty commitment, nonetheless is deeply involved in Laos.”

CIA recruited, trained, financed, armed, and directed Hmong SGUs. “Sheep dipped” Green Berets and Air Force posted to temporary duty in Embassy/CIA or serve as “volunteers,” meaning that in effect, the operation was run by trained U.S. military officers


Hmong Casualties and Losses

“suffered enormous casualties . . . larger than the losses sustained by any other country on the face of this earth in the same period” - Testimony of William H. Sullivan, US Ambassador to Laos (1964-69), Symington Hearings*

  • 18,000 Hmong casualties from 1962 to 1969 alone
  • By 1971, many Hmong families were down to their last surviving male, often a youth of 13 or 14
  • Total of 35,000 Hmong soldiers and civilian fatalities, from a total of 350,000 to 500,000 individuals (7-10% fatality rate)
  • More than three times higher than US fatalities in Vietnam (2.24%, 58,220 of total 2.594 million)
Sources: AirWarin NorthernLaos,1 April-30 Nov.1971,OfficeofAirForce History,BollingAirForceBase, WashingtonD.C.Project,CHECO,at73 CRSReportfor Congress,Laos: BackgroundandU.S. Relations(Jan.7,2008) CRSReportfor Congress,AmericanWar& MilitaryOperationsCasualties:ListsandStatistics(Feb. 26,2010)

SGUs: A Crucial Part of U.S. Military Strategy
Photo: CIA (probably between 1966 and 1972)

Photo: CIA (probably between 1966 and 1972)

Richard Helms

, CIA Director said, “Three of the best NV[A] combat divisions were tied down and under persistent guerrilla attacks in Laos. The NV[A] troops were supported by tank units, artillery battalions, and combat engineers. In 1974, the total NV[A] commitment in Laos was later estimated at 80,000 troops. Every NV[A] soldier in Laos was one less enemy in South Vietnam.”

Aftermath: Persecution by Communists


Pathet Lao (Lao Communist) News Bulletin (May 9, 1975): “[T]he Hmong are the sole enemies of the Pathet Lao. . . .[s]uch an ethnic group must be destroyed and all roots must be pulled up”

  • Persecuted by Communist Lao Government which took over in 1975
  • 30,000 to 50,000 SGU Hmong fighters sent to “seminar” camps (forced heavy labor, torture, and pro-Communist “reeducation centers”)
  • In 2010, the State Department determined that prison and detention centers have harsh and occasionally life threatening” conditions, and “treat[] minority prisoners

“The communists know that we were the Americans’ hands, arms, feet, and mouths. That’s why they believe they must kill all Hmong―soldiers, farmers, children. We suffer and die just like the Jews in World War II, but the world ignores us.” ~ Ly Chai, Hmong refugee.

Sources:Hamilton-Merritt, Jane,Tragic Mountains 1,424;CRS Report for Congress,Laos: Background and U.S. Relations (Jan.7,2008);State Department 2010 Human Rights Report:Laos

Aftermath: Forced to Flee
Source:  U.S. State Department, About the Forced Deportation of Hmong from Thailand to Laos (Dec.24,2009)

Source: U.S. State Department, About the Forced Deportation of Hmong from Thailand to Laos (Dec.24,2009)

  • Over 100,000 Lao Hmong fled across Mekong river to Thailand between 1975 and 1980 (25% of the population)
  • In early 1990s, after the UN High Commissioner for Refugees began closing its camps, 30,000 Hmong returned to Laos
  • In 1999, more than 4,000 Hmong refugees in Thailand were forcibly repatriated
  • Laos has barred international groups from monitoring the resettlement process
  • Between 1975 and 1998, nearly 130,000 Hmong refugees were admitted to the United States