Startribune by Stephen B. Young
I first met Vang Pao in our apartment in Cambridge, Mass., but my father had long before told me about him.
As John Kennedy’s ambassador to Thailand and as a dedicated New Frontiersman willing to “pay any price, bear any burden” to “assure the survival and success of liberty,” Dad had ensured that the Thai government would give aid and training to Vang Pao’s fighters in the mountains of Laos to stop Hanoi’s invasion of Laos.
I had known since 1961 that “VP,” as he was called, was a larger-than-life hero.
But I was surprised that night in our apartment in Cambridge when, in talking to my 9-year-old son Ian about tactics, the general threw himself down on our living room rug, called Ian to come lie beside him, and instructed him on sighting an M60 machine gun.
I next saw VP after we moved to St. Paul in 1981. In Xang Vang’s tired old house in Frogtown, VP was sitting on a couch facing an angry gathering of men from the Moua and Cha clans.
He was there to resolve a dispute over a marriage gone wrong. It took him until 4 a.m., but he restored harmony between the clans.
I grew closer to VP during his many visits here and became an adviser to him on many things, but mostly on politics and diplomacy and on how the Hmong should adjust to their new homeland. Taking advantage of a shift in geopolitical interests, I arranged a secret meeting for VP with his former enemies — the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party — to ensure a process of reconciliation in Laos.
VP and I were outmaneuvered by agents of China who sought to prevent any rapprochement among the Vietnamese Communists, the Hmong and the United States.
I once asked him to reconcile with his major rival Dr. Yang Dao of the Yang Clan. VP did so, against the feelings of his Vang clan associates. VP always kept his part of the bargain we struck that night.
What was remarkable about VP in that high-stakes policy gamble were his strategic insights and courage. Head and shoulders above just about everybody else — Hmong, Vietnamese, Lao or American.
We were pretty close. He told me of the magic stone an old Hmong had given him to protect him, walking for days through the mountains to make the presentation.
The stone, he said, was in a safe-deposit box in an American bank. It, or the spirits, saved him many times. He walked away from eight airplane crashes, was left standing when a U.S. bomber mistakenly dropped four large bombs on his command post (none exploded; figure those odds) and was shot up more than once.
The greatest honor he paid me was to allow me to sleep in his room one night in Singapore when we were on the prowl for diplomatic opportunities for Laos.
It was the tribal chief giving signal recognition to the younger warrior in front of the elders. This was not something I had experienced in the formative institutions of my youth in college, law school or Wall Street firms.
Nothing daunted him. I have seen him bless women in St. Paul who could not conceive a child and who then became pregnant within months.
It took me a while, but I finally understood. He was a warrior chieftain, a throwback to ancient societies. He had the special charisma of a great founder of a dynasty.
He was a Sitting Bull, a Cochise — a Caesar.
Hanging out with him and his clan leaders I could imagine that I was in the presence of great Asian dynasts like Tran Hung Dao of Vietnam, who defeated invading Mongols three times, or Chu Yuanchang, founder of China’s Ming Dynasty. Ancient history texts that had been on pages of dull books came alive.
But chieftains don’t prosper in today’s America.
We’re no longer into heroism and cut them no slack. We’d rather not have them around at all; they are so out-of-date. We have bureaucracies and social welfare workers and all kinds of professionals, but no professional leaders.
VP knew (often admitting it privately) that his skills, charisma and “magic” didn’t really belong in postindustrial America.
His Hmong people needed overnight to move from a preliterate warrior/farming culture, with its polygamous clan structures going back millennia, to high-tech skills in a postmodern culture of nihilism and family breakdown.
He could not let his people down; his destiny sent from higher powers was to bring the Hmong into parity will all other peoples.
He set up new agencies, promoted new customs, resolved clan disputes, sought to prevent gangs and the destabilization of families, and encouraged young Hmong to study and get advanced degrees.
Above all, he sought to convince them to be proud of who they were, of their remarkable achievements during the Vietnam War and of how far they had come in a generation in exile.
We all must pass on, so his passing must be accepted, and the Hmong will now move on without a chieftain. But I will miss him.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism