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How did Hmong people find their way to Wisconsin? The answer has roots in America’s Secret War

Performers are shown at the Wausau Area Hmong New Year celebration at the Greenheck Field House in Weston, Wis., on Nov. 2, 2019. (T'xer Zhon Kha/Wausau Daily Herald)

Ties between Hmong people and the United States date to the early 1960s, nearly two decades before they began arriving in northeast Wisconsin.

Their story as American allies in the Vietnam War is often overlooked, forgotten or ignored.


Hmong are an ethnic group from Southeast Asia with a specific culture and language. In the 19th century, to escape imperialism, they migrated from southern China to the mountainous regions of Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.

During the Vietnam War, the CIA covertly recruited and trained Hmong soldiers in Laos to fight in support of U.S. forces against the North Vietnamese and the communist Pathet Lao. The operation became known as the Secret War.

According to the Hmong American Center in Wausau, the CIA directed Hmong soldiers to:

  • Disrupt the North Vietnamese supply lines that ran through Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
  • Provide intelligence about enemy operations.
  • Guard a strategic U.S. radar station that was used to direct planes dropping bombs on North Vietnam.
  • Rescue downed American pilots.

Long Vue, 54, of Kaukauna was born on the Bouam Long military base in Laos. His dad and uncle defended the radar station used by U.S. forces.

“They would be up in the mountains protecting that night and day, and they could be overrun by (North) Vietnamese soldiers at any time,” Vue said.

After the withdrawal of U.S. forces and triumph by the communist forces, Hmong were persecuted by the victors and forced to flee their homeland. Many spent time in refugee camps in Thailand before they were resettled in Australia, France, Canada, Germany and the United States.

Hmong refugees were legally admitted to the United States and were initially resettled by church organizations such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services, according to the Hmong American Center.

California, Minnesota and Wisconsin were leaders in accepting Hmong refugees. The first wave arrived in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It included Vue’s family, who arrived in Kaukauna in 1980. The last wave came in the mid-2000s.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey, more than 58,000 Hmong people live in Wisconsin, accounting for nearly 1% of the state’s population of 5.9 million.

Cities with a significant Hmong population include Milwaukee, Wausau, Sheboygan, La Crosse, Madison, Eau Claire, Green Bay, Appleton, Oshkosh, Manitowoc, Stevens Point, Wisconsin Rapids, Menomonie and Fond du Lac.

Outagamie County and the Hmong American Partnership of the Fox Valley are working to create a memorial at Plamann Park in Appleton to honor Hmong military veterans who served in the Secret War between 1961 and 1975.

According to the Minnesota Historical Society, between 30,000 and 40,000 Hmong soldiers were killed in combat by the end of the Vietnam War.

Vue said it’s important to recognize the sacrifices of Hmong people.

“We take it for granted, especially our young generation, whether the Hmong or the American kids,” he said.