Tony Yang watched the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 as if it were a flashback. Nearly 50 years earlier, after helping the Americans in another war, it was him and his father who were jostling to board a plane for refuge in the United States.
Yang’s father had been part of one of the most successful, expansive, and least-known operations in CIA history: America’s “secret war” in Laos. The spy agency’s goal was to keep the Southeast Asian country neutral without the deployment of American troops on the ground as the Cold War consumed neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam.
The U.S. effort came to rely on locals like Yang’s father and other members of the Hmong community, viewed by the CIA as a self-reliant people eager to protect their independence from encroaching Communist forces threatening their crops, livestock and families.
Their sacrifices for the CIA would eventually lead to opportunities to emigrate to America, with a large number ultimately settling in northern California. But decades on, many Hmong Americans questioned whether their family’s service to the country has been adequately recognized.
“Nobody really knows who we are,” said Yang, 56, of Elk Grove, California.
Now, marking the agency’s 75th anniversary, the CIA is honoring the Hmong people. The CIA’s museum, located at the heart of its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, is not open to the public but is accessible to all CIA officers and guests of the spy agency.
A new renovation of the museum prominently features the Hmong and their service to the United States.
“This was one of the largest paramilitary operations in CIA history,” David Robarge, chief historian at the CIA, said in an interview, noting that over 50,000 Hmong were involved in the operation over the course of a decade.
“We got out as many as we could over the years — we felt that we owed it to our covert action allies not to leave them behind,” Robarge said. “Fundamentally, our operations with sources are based on trust. The same thing applies with covert operations. Individuals who work with you want to know you won’t leave them high and dry.”
History of CIA and Hmong guerrilla fighters
Laos was considered “the cork in the bottle” in Southeast Asia by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who feared the country’s fall to communism could lead to a domino effect throughout the region. But it was President John F. Kennedy who authorized the expansion of the CIA’s ability to operate a full-fledged paramilitary operation there, arming the spy agency for the first time with a helicopter program, covert bombers, and even a commercial airline — known as Air America — secretly owned and operated by the CIA.
Members of the Hmong community served throughout the mountainous country as road watchers, intercepting sensor devices and monitoring enemy troop and supply movements along the Ho Chi Minh trail, starting well before the first U.S. Marines landed in Vietnam in 1965.
“We were the first in and the last out of Asia,” said Robert Byer, director and curator of the CIA museum. “When you look at the program in Laos, it was an extremely effective covert action. It showed that the CIA could operate a large paramilitary operation and what kind of partnerships are required going into covert actions around the world.”
New items in the CIA museum include prized possessions in Hmong culture, including a traditional skirt, necklace and Qeej wind instrument, as well as a crossbow and arrows, a powder horn and shot bag, and other makeshift weapons used during the conflict.
From Laos to Northern California
The new exhibit is a meaningful gesture to Mia Foster, whose voice carried with the weight of her family history as she described their experience from their adopted hometown of Sacramento, California, where so many Hmong settled after the war.
Foster was born in California as one of eight children. But her parents’ survival story is hardwired in her memory, etched in family lore.
Her father, Wa Pao Yang, was a lieutenant in Lao guerrilla forces fighting alongside the CIA during the war. Both of her parents escaped Laos in 1975, after the U.S. operation had ended, trekking for two weeks through Laotian jungle convinced they had been left behind for dead.
They managed to make it to a refugee camp across the Thai border — their home for the next four years until they emigrated to San Francisco. The America they sought was a nameless vision.
“My parents, they left the refugee camp in 1979. My mother thought America was a place in the sky,” Foster said. “But they realized that their sacrifice didn’t end with the war.”
In San Francisco, she said, “there was this feeling of being forgotten, of living in a wholly new world. Living in this new, industrialized place, there was so much pain and trauma. Mom lost her dad in the war and that pain trickled down to us and our generation.”
The family struggled in their new home, bouncing from San Francisco to the twin northern California farming communities of Marysville and Yuba City, where a sizable Hmong population settled after the war.
Foster said a back injury her father suffered in combat when he fell down a mountainside never fully healed and dogged him until his death last year.
Decades later, Foster of Elk Grove, near Sacramento, now works in the mental health field, helping others in the Hmong community in the Sacramento area where she has lived since 2004.
“There’s so much trauma and pain that we’ve held on to,” she said. “Now, there’s a second American generation — they’re starting to forget their history.”
That’s why she says the CIA’s public acknowledgment of the Hmong people is so important. The recognition comes as plans for a national memorial monument honoring Lao-Hmong Americans gather steam in Colorado, to be erected in the Denver suburb of Westminster.
“We’re always seeking our identity. With the awareness, the monument and now at Langley, it means that our history won’t be forgotten,” she said.
“The history of the Hmong — we’ve always been persecuted,” Foster added. “This is the first time in Hmong history where there is peace. It’s not just surviving.”