Last month saw the death of J. Vinton Lawrence, known to his friends as Vint. In his later years, Vint became an accomplished painter in rural Connecticut and before that a brilliant caricaturist whose wit-filled drawings of the great and famous graced the pages of The Washington Post and the New Republic.
But I want to draw you back to the year 1962 when Jack Kennedy was in the White House, Indochina was emerging as a national security problem — or so it was believed — and Vint Lawrence was 23 years old, fresh out of Princeton and newly inducted into the CIA. We lost that war 13 years later, but I have always thought that, if we had won, Vint Lawrence would have emerged as legendary a figure as did that earlier Lawrence in the deserts of Arabia.
Vint Lawrence’s assignment was to act as liaison between the American military and a then little-known tribal chieftain, Vang Pao, leader of the Hmong people in northern Laos, near the borders of China and Northern Vietnam. It is a world of hill tribes and forest-covered mountains dotted with dramatic and improbable limestone outcroppings emerging from the mists, so reminiscent of Chinese scroll painting — as remote as any place on earth.
As the Vietnamese were gearing up for their final struggle to re-unify their country, Laos was strategically important to North Vietnam. President Eisenhower had warned the incoming president that Laos would be a major headache for him. And early in his administration, Kennedy went on television to show maps of Laos — which he mispronounced, having it rhyme with chaos instead of mouse — to inform the American people why it was important in the anti-Communist struggle.
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