Behind Laos's yellow rain and tears

A controversial Radiolab episode opens old wounds and raises countless questions for Minnesota's Hmong

Chester J. Mirocha settles into an armchair in the living room of his St. Paul home with a cup of tea and a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. His white beard is neatly trimmed, and he wears a bird-embroidered denim shirt tucked into denim pants.

He doesn't look much like the kind of man to bring chemical warfare to light.

For more than 30 years, Mirocha was a plant pathology professor at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus. He was also one of the world's leading experts in mycotoxins, the kind of poison the government suspected was carried in yellow rain. He had been working with these specific toxins, known as trichothecenes, for over a decade.

Eng Yang grew up near what he remembers as "hundreds" of honeybee hives. One recent day, he sketched on a napkin the approximate sizes of several species local to Laos and Thailand, to illustrate his familiarity with bees (and their byproducts).
courtesy of Eng Yang
Eng Yang grew up near what he remembers as "hundreds" of honeybee hives. One recent day, he sketched on a napkin the approximate sizes of several species local to Laos and Thailand, to illustrate his familiarity with bees (and their byproducts).
Narrative embroidery tells the story of the Hmong escape, including, at left, yellow rain
collection of the Center for Hmong Studies, Concordia University
Narrative embroidery tells the story of the Hmong escape, including, at left, yellow rain

"We had done most of the work on trichothecene toxins," Mirocha recalls, adding that his lab had worked on major government contracts for several years. During that time, he had not only developed new analysis methods, but had "kind of pioneered" a particularly precise method, known as mass spectrometry.

Mirocha remembers his lab's accomplishments carefully, with the measured words of a scientist. "I can only speak for my lab," he says, "but I think we were rather good."

Mirocha wasn't just a leading expert in mycotoxins: He was an expert in Russian mycotoxins. In the early 1970s, he had traveled to Russia twice to study problems the Soviets were having with these kinds of poisons.

Following World War II, Russia had suffered a serious natural outbreak of a particular type of trichothecene, known as T2 toxin, after citizens ate wheat that had been left to mold under snow. Mirocha obtained samples of the toxins from the Soviets, studied them, and published his results. He suspects that the Russians would have been able to weaponize T2.

"The Soviets had an excellent background in toxicology," Mirocha says. "And they had stockpiles of a lot of biological weapons."

In 1981, Mirocha was sent a leaf sample and asked to test for that same substance, T2 toxin. He didn't know where the sample was from or who was sending it, but he performed the test as usual. He found several toxins, reported the result, then flew off to Cairo to teach at a mycotoxins workshop.

In Egypt, Mirocha received a phone call. There was a reporter on the other end, but the connection was fuzzy, and all he could hear were questions about his analyses — something about secret research.

While Mirocha had been overseas, the world had been waking up to yellow rain. On September 13, 1981, Secretary of State Alexander Haig gave a dramatic speech in West Berlin: "We now have physical evidence from Southeast Asia which has been analyzed and found to contain abnormally high levels of three potent mycotoxins — poisonous substances not indigenous to the region and which are highly toxic to man and animals."

The analyses Haig referenced were — by all declassified accounts — Mirocha's.

When Mirocha got back to St. Paul, his name was in the papers. On September 28, 1981 — just 15 days after Haig's speech — a two-inch headline on the front page of the St. Paul Dispatch read, "U professor made secret tests for biological warfare agents."

The paper argued that Mirocha had conducted secret government research, in violation of university policy. The university, however, recognized that he hadn't been doing anything clandestine, just standard tests that were part of his job.

His name was quickly cleared. But it was his first taste of yellow rain's political baggage.

"I was a celebrity for a while," Mirocha remembers. "These people were coming in with these big cameras and things, and taking up all the space in the hallways. It was kind of hard to take."

On top of the reporters, FBI and CIA agents arrived to question him and inspect his lab procedures. Mirocha testified twice before Congress, and took a trip to the Pentagon to listen to the government's theories.

He went on a six-mile run every day to manage the stress.

"My priority was our work in mycotoxins," he says. "But in terms of politics, that was hijacked, because politics became more important to other people."


Matthew Meselson first became suspicious of the official explanation for yellow rain in November 1982.

He was reading through State Department briefings on the new threat, when he noticed that the yellow samples had a high pollen content. One of the defense scientists speculated that the Russians had added pollen to the toxin to aerosolize it.

To Meselson, a Harvard biochemist and expert in chemical biological weapons, this was nonsense.

"When I read that, I knew they had set their foot down a blind alley," he says.

So he got to work forming a hypothesis of his own. Meselson organized a brainstorming meeting in Cambridge, and later called a honeybee expert at Yale by the name of Tom Seeley. Meselson described the yellow spots to Seeley — their size, their color, and how they were loaded with bee pollen.

"'The State Department explanation is not parsimonious,'" Seeley said, according to Meselson's recollection. "'It's bee —.'" Meselson breaks off, laughing. "And then he used a four-letter word."

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15 comments
anniegreen852
anniegreen852

This is awful! We need to take care of our world.

Annie

www.shuttersnshades.com.au

garyplumber25
garyplumber25

All I keep thinking is the Hmong would have noticed and mentioned the bees in their account of yellow rain. How high do the bees fly during the cleansing flight? To high to see?

ksablug
ksablug

The reason every party is doing everything it can to censor this inhumane aggression against the Hmong is that the Hmong had been used as pawns for such parties to test their weapons, including chemical ones. And when evidences were found, everybody has an obligation to reverse the findings. However, no matter what scientists and powerful parties may argue, it is without doubt that the Hmong had been through a period of very inhumane chemical warfare. If it were not the Hmong, the world would have done something about it, but since it were the Hmong, it is nobody's business.  

tomak2010
tomak2010

My late dad said, "yellow rain" did fall from the sky when he was fighting the Vietcong and Pathet Lao near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Years later, my father died from hemorrhage.

I know Uncle Eng Yang and the Yang family, especially Uncle Soua. I grew up very close to the Yang family in the Ban Vinai camp. He and his brothers DIDN'T fight during the Vietnam War.  Their dad paid other villagers' sons to fight in placement of the sons. However, Eng did work or volunteer, as radio operator and security enforcer, for General Vang Pao's POST-WAR cause and Vue Mai and crossed the Thai-Lao border numerous times (est. roughly from 1975 to 1985). Was there chemical weapon/yellow rain used in the jungle or in Hmong villages during that time? The answer is: (though the US no longer involved) YES--there were chemical dropped on the Freedom fighters and Hmong escapees who took refuge in the jungle. The yellow rain came. The Hmong did experience this horrible act.  After the "yellow rain" most of them could not functional mentally or physically and left to die in the jungle and those with minor effects escaped to the camp. In the Ban Vinai Camp, some of them became mentally ill, some experienced strokes/hemorrhage, lung issues, and others died unexplained deaths. You just knew something strange's going on. Not even the shaman in our Section 3 Quarter 30 could save their souls. To say that the "yellow stuff" is bee excrement is politically motivated and hurtful.  It's very shameful to not recognize something that did happen to the Hmong. The CIA/State Department needs to declassified these information. The Russian needs to show responsibility and show the world the data, the T2 toxins, they sold to the Vietnamese government. 

lex.lee02
lex.lee02

carolinakoi. so...you're point is: Mr. Yang should consult with his past mentors/leaders if the topic is about yellow rain?? r.e.a.l.l.y.? LOL i don't want to sound like Robert Krulwich/ Radio Lab but, who'd want to listen about what hmong leaders think when the topic is about Yellow Rain and it's survivors????

 

I'll give you an idea, open up a blog and please carefully plan what you're going to say about Yellow Rain. And make sure you talk to your mentors or if you prefer, your leaders, about what happened during the war and of Yellow Rain. Remember, blogs are your only option because no is interviewing you if you are going to consult to your leaders and mentors first. Then why not just interview your leader and or mentor instead. A topic like yours when it doesn't suits any intrest. I might come and check your blog when I feel like I want to learn something about a hmong leader but make sure you carefully get every fact right. :)

yangmerlinda
yangmerlinda

Personally, I think that Mr. Yang has done his part, he has experinced Yellow Rain as a hmong, so I think he should be able to talk about it freely. I can understand why you might be concern, but I believe that in stating his experince, so honestly and clearly, we understood his message.  His message is that Yellow Rain has occured and during the time many hmong died. Whether or not, Yellow rain was chemical used for genocide or bee feces, Eng Yang's take home message is that Yellow Rain is forever memory, a memory of the war, a memory of the deaths of Hmong, and a memory of life before he came to US.

carolinakoi
carolinakoi

As a young refugee, I remember very well about this story being the topic of discussion in BanViNai Refugee.  As a Hmong, this story is not a story that Kao Kalia Yang nor Eng Yang can tell alone.  This is a story has many deep secrets.  Story such as this should have been more carefully thought and plan in telling the many sides of it.  There is even an documentary completed by National Public Radio and aired on television many years ago.  The Hmong elders/leaders who were directly involved in this story should have been consulted, particularly, the formers leaders of BanViNai Refugee camp during that time.  Evidences have been collected since late 1979s to mid 1980s.  I am very suprised that Eng Yang singly chosen to tell this story without consulting his past mentors/leaders.  This clearly show a poor planning on Eng Yang's part.  Just know that "Yellow Rain" is not a topic that the United States government does not want to deal with.  There is a book coming in Spring 2013 that will dscuss a little about this so called "Yellow Rain."  But for the future, evidences and people who were involved should be consulted and a careful planning needs to be thought out if we are going to have the world listen to our story. 

ksablug
ksablug

Dr. Mirocha's lab work said it all. 

bvang6974
bvang6974

I cried after reading this story, especially the part about how rude and inconsiderate the Radiolab folks were to the Mr. Yang. Fortunately, not all of the Hmong people had to deal with Yellow Rain as they fought WITH the United States, however for those who did have to experience Yellow Rain are not viewed as liars and uneducated people.  There are many secrets the United States does not want to reveal to their people about their role in the Secret War in Laos.

Paul
Paul

I would just like to clarify that the RadioLab folks had access to the work conducted by the scientists from Princeton and GWU before they ever went to interview Mr. Yang.  They never told their audience that there were any scientific views that cast doubt on Meselson's theories.  And they happily accepted the assumption that Dr. Mirocha's work was substandard in some way.  Did they ever even speak to him?  These are the attitudes and practices that made them feel comfortable treating Mr. Yang and his testimony the way they did.  If they'd just done their homework and been a little less eager to tell a story about Reagan, "alleged toxins," and bee poop, they might have avoided all of this.

yangmerlinda
yangmerlinda

Thank you for the insights and perspectives from each sides, this has helped clear up many unanswered-questions for me. You have done a great job of journalism here! WELL DONE

ConstantReader
ConstantReader

"What proof would be enough?" he asks. "Well to me, the personal, first-hand information from the Hmong people is enough."

 

Said no Scientist Ever. 

bvang6974
bvang6974

 @carolinakoi

 I am sorry to have to say that if a Hmong person experienced something, I am not going to doubt them and say, You never experienced this, maybe you were hallucinating or something.  THAT IS JUST WRONG.  This is similar to any time atrocities happen to a population and everybody chooses to close their eyes instead of seeing the truth.  Nobody asked the Japanese Americans to be interned in camps, but they were, and are we going to discount their horrific memories of being put there.  Nobody asked the millions of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust if they wanted genocide to happen to their people, but if we were to discount the fact that it happened, then we are turning a blind eye on truth, history, and facts. 

 

The U.S. gov't recuited the Hmong to help fight their war in SE Asia. This turned the Hmong into enemies of the state and of their allies, including China and the Russians. Chemical warfare was used in SE Asia against the Hmong.  Even if no one will admit it, doesn't mean it's not truthful, factual, and part of our history.

swingbatter
swingbatter

 @Paul They did do their homework, they did say it is one theory. What I took away from the episode is not that Krulwich was rude but that they could not have been prepared for this kind of overreaction. "So we talked to a scientist who thinks A, and how would you answer that considering B" is not rude and it's not a crime, it's something that the interviewee can calmly debunk. Instead -- complete meltdown, hysterics, THEY DID NOT JUST BELIEVE EVERYTHING WE SAY, HOW RUDE.

 

Listening to this episode I thought Ms Yang was acting irrationally, and that was it. Nothing was dictated to her and instead of breaking out in tears she could have responded with what is said here -- "that is just one opinion, and I'll have you know that we distinctly saw XYZ, and we can back this up with A,B and C." Can't back it up? Shrug and understand that people want evidence. 

Paul
Paul

 @swingbatter  @Paul 

Exactly where in the RadioLab piece do they offer any evidence to contradict the bee dung theory?  Exactly where in the piece do they do anything to suggest that the bee dung theory is anything other than the best sceintific explanation for the yellow rain phenomenon?  They had evidence in hand in the form of reviewsand studies by Jonathan Tucker and the aforementioned scientists from GWU and Princeton. 

See, for example, an article in “Politics & the Life Sciences,” 24 August 2007, starting on page 24. (Note this research is more than 25 years newer than Meselson's and used a wide variety of new evidence, including “8,529 pages of United States government documents, declassified . . .and released through a Freedom of Information Act request, including medical records, laboratory reports, diplomatic communications, internal memos, and protocols originating primarily from the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center. . .and interviews with 48 individuals with expert knowledge related to Yellow Rain, including 20 who were directly involved in investigating allegations. . .”

A few of the many conclusions in this paper: “Between 1979 and 1982, refugee reports of attacks were consistent with other intelligence data, including known battles and flight paths of aircraft, more than 60 percent of the time. . . Clinical complaints and findings among self-described victims and detailed refugee accounts of attacks were sufficiently similar in Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan to suggest a key common factor, most plausibly a Soviet link, in influence and support of direct operational involvement. . .Clinical complaints and findings of alleged victims as documented by photographs, medical records, autopsy results, and third-hand accounts are consistent with mass simultaneous poisoning and not with any known natural disease endemic to Laos, Cambodia, or Afghanistan. . .Approximately 75 percent of alleged attacks involved seeing or hearing a helicopter or airplane, followed by seeing or smelling a gas or powder fall to the ground. . .”

If, in the wake of this and other evidence, including Mirocha's, that the bee crap theory is insufficient to describe what happened,  why the hard sell over the course of the show?  Why no inclusion of competing theories, even for a moment?  If the show isn't about journalism or about science, then fine.  But if it is, then what RadioLab did is simply wrong, regardless of the Yangs' reaction to their interviewers.  My argument has nothing to do with emotion.

 
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