Born in New York City to what he described as “a very privileged childhood…in every possible way,” James Vinton (“Vint”) Lawrence attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Princeton University, where he was an Art History major. Recruited by the CIA, he was sent to Laos in the very early days of “Operation Momentum,” the campaign to train and arm Hmong and other hill tribesmen to fight against Communist forces. Arriving in Laos in February 1962, Lawrence was sized up by Bill Lair and worked under Lair’s lieutenant Pat Landry to train some of the first groups of Hmong soldiers. Lawrence ultimately became one of only two CIA operatives, along with the infamous Anthony Poshepny (aka Tony Poe), to remain behind in Laos once the 1962 Geneva Accords were put in force. The accords called for all foreign combatants to leave the country. He lived with General Vang Pao, serving as a constant companion and sounding board. As Roger Warner has written, Vang Pao considered Bill Lair an older brother and Vint Lawrence a younger one. Living in isolation from the outside world for nearly two years, Lawrence in many ways served as the conduit between the Hmong and the CIA. Given the amount of time he spent with them, Lawrence became an amateur anthropologist and folklorist, asking numerous Hmong leaders and villagers to help him understand their culture. After two tours in Laos, Lawrence was told he would not be allowed to return for a third (to save him from being killed or “going native”—that is, so sympathizing with the Hmong that he might never return). He was offered a new assignment in Southern Laos, but declined it. As he stated in a recording he made in January 1966, "If I was ever in the area, I coundn't be within 200 miles of that whole thing [Northern Laos with the Hmong] without knowing that in my heart that's where I would most like to be." Ignoring regulations, Lawrence packed up copies of all his CIA correspondence and sent them home, along with hundreds of photographs and other important artifacts which are now collected at Concordia University. Of his decision to keep his records, Lawrence said, “I thought, actually, I had a lot to say. We’ll let somebody else be the judge of that. But I was extremely worried about security and about my commitment to the Agency, so I basically wrapped all the boxes up in very strong tape, sent them home, and in effect said, ‘I will not look at this stuff for 25 years.’”

This collection was donated to Dr. Paul Hillmer and transferred to the Concordia University, Saint Paul Library's Archives and Special Collections in 2017. The collection consists of three scrapbooks documenting Mr. Lawrence's time in Laos in images; music and audio recordings; slides and photographic prints; and, papers, which are primarily situation reports and meeting minutes, but also personal writings and correspondence.


Browse the J. Vinton Lawrence Collection:

Audio Recordings