Last week, Vang Pao, who led the Hmong forces in the “secret war” in Laos during the Vietnam conflict, passed away near his home in Fresno, California. Vang Pao was a complicated figure – a truly brave fighter whose men helped American forces significantly during the Vietnam War, and during his time in the United States after he emigrated to America, a leader of the Hmong community, which faced as many obstacles in adjusting to American society as any immigrant group ever has. But, especially later in his life, Vang Pao also became an extremely divisive figure within the Hmong community in the United States, as Hmong-Americans, like many émigré communities, fought within themselves over whether to keep a dream alive of returning to Laos, and as Vang Pao, wittingly or not, allowed himself to be used for all number of schemes.
I had a chance to interview Vang Pao several years ago, during Hmong New Year celebrations in St. Paul, Minnesota. You can find the article from the New Republic here (unfortunately for subscribers only).