Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


The general and the professor

George Washington is a bad man.

I bet you cringed.

But before you report me to the Daughters of the American Revolution, think about your reaction.

Every American knows George Washington is a hero, one of the greatest heroes in our history. We celebrate his birthday, we put his face on our money, we’ve even named a fair part of the country after him. His name, in fact, is synonymous with our federal government. So even without consulting the historical record, you’re certain my accusation is baseless.

And consider the slanderer. I’m just a student — not even a history major, much less a specialist in the early political history of the United States. If nothing else, you can call me stupid, throw this paper in the trash, and never think about it again.

Even if my slander were to reach the national stage, it would be dismissed outright by the 290 million proud Americans who make up the world’s most powerful cultural, economic, military and media powerhouse.

So don’t worry. George Washington’s well-deserved legacy — and our self-image of Americans — is completely safe. But in spite of this confident dominance, we don’t take fondly to insinuations against our heroes or, by extension, us. Even in our powerful position, we cringe.

Now, consider the Hmong-American protesters picketing outside the Humanities building.

Many of the protesters don’t speak English; I approached four fatigues-clad men before finding one who could answer my questions. They came to America after allying with us unsuccessfully during the conflict in and around Vietnam, yet their history and sacrifices represent a mere footnote in the American story, an oft-ignored contribution to a “secret war.” The Hmong culture is far from dominant in the U.S., and many people would be hard-pressed to even identify Laos on a map.

The American-flag-waving protestors are defending a man they consider to be a hero against charges they believe to be unfounded.

The accused is Vang Pao, the Hmong general who waged a CIA-supported war against Laotian communists for 15 years and who now lives in the U.S.

The accuser is Alfred McCoy, a published professor whose right to academic freedom has been publicly defended by the UW administration.

While the administration, as a guarantor of free expression, is correct to defend academic freedom, the greater UW community cannot pretend this issue is simply restricted to dry intellectual debate.

The accusations, now some 30 years old, relate to drug trafficking and are contested even within the academic community. But the greatest effect has been beyond the walls of academia, where Hmong-Americans have seen an outsider imbue their heritage and assault a key part of their identity.

In cities like Madison and Sheboygan, the controversy has stymied efforts toward greater public recognition of the sacrifices made by our unappreciated allies in Laos. It has also given many Americans a negative first impression of the Hmong and their wartime leader.

The study of history is incomplete if it remains blind to its impact on history’s participants, and those tarnished by accusation have every right to petition for evidence, regardless of their standing in the academic community. In fact, the most poignant cry coming from the protesters at the Humanities was simple and straightforward: “Show us the proof.”

To flippantly dismiss the grievances of those hurt by the professor’s charges is to automatically condemn Vang Pao and declare Hmong-Americans guilty by association. After all, public perceptions are shaped by presentation — not by proof.

I cannot claim to assess the validity of the professor’s accusations. But Vang Pao does not enjoy the protection of reputation afforded to more mainstream American heroes like George Washington. Indeed, the professor is not attacking a reputation — he is defining one.

As such, it is the general’s supporters who must fight the uphill battle to clear his name and defend their legacy: Unlike most Americans, the protestors cannot afford to simply dismiss accusations against their hero as slander.

It is for this reason that I support the protesters. It would take a good deal of substantive evidence to change my opinion of General Washington — it will likewise require solid proof for me to condemn General Pao.

Bryant Walker Smith ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in civil engineering.

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