Lawrence of Laos


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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