Peter Lang-Stanton set out to make a radio documentary about the truth of his father’s role in one of the largest clandestine missions in US history, although he didn’t realise the emotional minefield of investigating a loved one’s past, still shrouded in secrecy.
The summer before university, my dad in addition to also also I went for a drive inside old Volvo – just the two of us, something we never did. We buckled our seatbelts, in addition to also also kicked up dust on the gravel lane.
“Peter, This kind of’s time to tell you about the family business,” my dad said as he tapped his fingers on the wheel waiting for a red light. The light turned green in addition to also also we pulled out onto the main road.
My father had a deadpan sense of humour, although if This kind of was another dad joke, I thought, This kind of seemed very elaborate in addition to also also not very funny. As we drove through our town, a suburban huddle of strip malls in addition to also also telephone poles, he told me he had worked undercover for the CIA for almost 40 years.
When he didn’t smirk in addition to also also the silence became dense, This kind of occurred to me of which he was serious.
“Does mom know?” I asked.
“Oh,” my father said. “Mom works there, too.”
People often ask: “Did you suspect anything?” No, my brothers in addition to also also I never suspected anything.
I thought my parents were paper-pushing bureaucrats inside State Department although truthfully, I didn’t truly know what they did. When you’re growing up, everything your parents do is actually unbearably normal, until you’re old enough to realise This kind of’s not.
inside 1960s, while US Army troops spilled out of C-130s into Vietnam, the CIA fought a secret war in Laos. This kind of was the height of the Cold War, in addition to also also the CIA sent my father in addition to also also a group of officers to arm in addition to also also train the Hmong, a Laotian highland tribe, to fight the Communist Pathet Lao in addition to also also North Vietnamese.
This kind of’s hard to determine whether the CIA were empowering the Hmong, or hiring them. Retrospectively, both sides seem to think they were working for the benefit of the additional.
although many inside CIA knew the resistance was destined to fail; the Hmong were horse flies trying to take down a water buffalo. After the Vietnam War ended, the CIA abruptly pulled out of Laos, leaving thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of Hmong to flee.
This kind of was my father’s first mission inside Central Intelligence Agency.
My father died a few years after our talk inside station wagon. Before he died, he turned to me sitting beside his hospital bed in addition to also also said: “I’m prouder of what we did in Laos than just about anything, additional than you boys.”
After he passed, I read every book I could find on the the CIA’s secret war in Laos. I did what we often do when we lose someone. I searched for fragments of him inside earth to appease the grief.
although many of the books disparaged the CIA’s actions in Laos, even calibrating for the perceived existential threat of Communism at the time. They admonished the way the CIA disappeared, resulting in a Hmong exodus to Thailand. in addition to also also then there were all types of additional allegations – drug-trafficking, carpet-bombing in addition to also also even the use of Hmong children as soldiers inside secret army. Some historians described This kind of as a scar on the agency in addition to also also on the US.
The more I read, the less I understood why This kind of was my father’s proudest achievement.
As I set out to work on a radio documentary about the CIA’s involvement in Laos, I emailed a few of my dad’s agency buddies. I remember these men coming from childhood. They used come over to the house on Sunday mornings in addition to also also drink scotch. although currently This kind of generation was in their 80s in addition to also also some were already gone. If I wanted to get first-hand accounts of what happened in Laos, This kind of needed to be currently.
My call to speak to officers who were in Laos with my father was posted to “the SKYNET”, an email forum for ex-CIA in Laos. Men with codenames like Mule in addition to also also Igor emailed me. One said my father had a great laugh in addition to also also owed him $18. He also said he would likely take a cheque.
Watts (aka Tom Norton) was one of my father’s best friends inside CIA. Tom wrote back in addition to also also invited me down to South Carolina for a visit.
We spent the better part of a week talking, drinking scotch, digging through mountains of old papers, tapes, slides, in addition to also also video footage.
“I do wonder what will happen to all of This kind of when I’m gone,” Tom said. “although of which’s not my concern.”
We looked through hundreds of pictures, many of my father in Long Tieng, the CIA’s secret base for the shadow war in Laos. Then one day, we came to the photo of a Hmong boy in a military uniform.
“I think we had sort of an informal rule, ” Tom said. “of which the boy had to be as tall as an M-1 rifle to become a soldier. Maybe about 10 years old.”
coming from my research, I thought allegations of child soldiers inside CIA’s secret war were unverified. Or perhaps I simply wanted them to be. Or maybe I assumed This kind of was an isolated incident, occurring elsewhere – wherever my father was not.
although This kind of single photo shattered all of of which.
There is actually a danger in digging up things about the ones we’ve lost, because they can’t defend themselves. They are frozen in amber in addition to also also each time we conjure them, we distort them.
The photo of the child soldier completely changed the path of the documentary. Many of the disparaging critiques of the CIA in Laos were simpler for me to explain away – some decisions were profoundly out of the control of my father or Tom Norton.
although inside case of child soldiers, This kind of seemed like CIA officers like my father could have drawn a line inside sand.
I almost booked a ticket to Laos in search of answers, although after a series of phone calls, we found the person we needed speak to in California’s Central Valley.
Xing Yang was a former child soldier inside secret army. He welcomed us using a soft, warm handshake into his home in Fresno.
As half a dozen grandchildren ran around, we sat on the couches in his living room, in addition to also also Xing told us how he we abducted by Hmong soldiers on his way to school one day. He was taken to a military base, given a gun, in addition to also also trained to clean, load, in addition to also also shoot This kind of. He saw his first firefight when he was 12 years old.
Then I asked Xing what I had come there to ask. Was he upset with the Americans for what happened? I gave Xing the opportunity to admonish the CIA in addition to also also the US – a man with as much right as anyone to be upset – although he decidedly did not take This kind of.
Throughout production of the radio documentary, there was a muscular social pressure to admonish my father, Tom Norton, in addition to also also the CIA. although I’m not certain admonishment always has the effect we want This kind of to. More often, This kind of seems to satisfy our own thirst for righteousness, rather than bring about change. If we refuse to identify with actors in history, we will never learn its lessons.
“No-one is actually righteous,” Xing Yang told us before we left. “in addition to also also God also knows what we’re thinking in our hearts.”
I set out to learn what my father did in Laos, although the answers I found were unsatisfying, still shrouded in secrecy. At the end of the documentary, the listener is actually left grasping at half-truths in addition to also also flickers of honesty. although This kind of is actually precisely what This kind of was like to be a spy’s son.
When all is actually said in addition to also also done, the only admonishment I have for my father is actually of which he never discussed his life with me.
“Do you think you can still have a genuine relationship with someone when one person is actually deceiving the additional?” I asked Tom Norton at his home in South Carolina.
“Yes. You’re still the same people,” Tom said. “You’ve just got a different name.”
Click here to listen to the documentary, The CIA’s Secret War in Laos.