Behind Laos's yellow rain and tears

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

Mirocha recalls being "disgusted" by how the Hmong testimonies were treated, as the scientific and political narratives spiraled out of control.

"I remember reading an editorial that said something like, 'Well how can these Hmong people identify what planes were dropping the chemicals, they have no knowledge of planes,'" Mirocha says. "But we trained some of the Hmong people as pilots! They fought on our side. They might not have been educated, but they're intelligent."

Fred, who worked both with yellow rain victims and with Meselson and Seeley, agrees that bees take the cleansing flight, and that it can appear as rain. He also believes that some of the samples really were bee crap — especially later, as word got out that Americans were looking for the stuff, and people got less rigorous about what they were collecting.

Eng Yang and his niece, Kao Kalia Yang, at St. Paul's Hmongtown Marketplace
Mark N. Kartarik
Eng Yang and his niece, Kao Kalia Yang, at St. Paul's Hmongtown Marketplace
This Hmong boy reported that his stomach rash was a result of yellow rain
courtesy of Fred
This Hmong boy reported that his stomach rash was a result of yellow rain

"I'm pretty open-minded, because of my experience with both sides, frankly," Fred says. "But that doesn't mean that some of the other samples weren't chemicals. I can't imagine anyone saying that 100 percent."


As Jonathan B. Tucker, a chemical weapons expert, wrote in a definitive 2001 account on the science of yellow rain, "Whether or not toxin warfare agents were used in Laos and Cambodia between 1975 and 1983, and if so which ones, remains a mystery."

Both sides of the issue hold fast to their beliefs. Both the U.S. and the Russian governments still keep their separate secrets. On one side, information about the former Soviet Union's weapons program continues to emerge, and on the other, the State Department maintains that it has further research that proves once and for all that yellow rain was a chemical weapon. This evidence, however, remains classified.

When asked what that smoking gun might be, Mirocha says that to him, yellow rain has already been proven. The exact combination of toxin, or toxins, used in an aerial spray remains unclear, according to Mirocha. Not all of the symptoms the Hmong experienced can be explained. But, he says, "Indeed Hmong people were killed by some aerial spray."

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

Through a spokesperson, Radiolab and WNYC declined to comment on this story. Dean Cappello, WNYC's chief creative officer, has written that Walters, the producer, spent "months reviewing nearly 20 years' worth of academic papers and media reports on Yellow Rain," and "completed an in-depth examination of competing theories to the 'bee feces' hypothesis." He says that, based on this research, the show "strongly believes...that the accumulation of evidence would not have served the story or Mr. Yang's version of events."

Thomas Seeley, the honeybee expert, is sympathetic to the show's aims. "You have to look at the body of evidence, not individual opinion," he says.

But Paul Hillmer, a history professor at Concordia University, is one of the people not buying it. In his view, even though Radiolab's segment was only 25 minutes long, it should have made more clear that what Cappello calls the "bee feces hypothesis" was just one theory, not fact.

"People for the most part are outraged that Robert Krulwich was rude, right?" Hillmer says. "When the real sin is that the bee dung theory is not open-and-shut, and they didn't tell their audience that."

Kao Kalia Yang isn't just upset because the show aired her breakdown, or even because it dismissed parts of her uncle's story and the Hmong experience. She's upset about the facts of the matter.

"They made it seem as though they were telling the truth, and we just couldn't handle it," Yang says. "But none of what they were telling us was new information. Really, it was that I knew what they were presenting as truth was not the full truth."

Yang received an email from Cappello two weeks after the podcast. Although Krulwich made a public apology, Yang has not heard from him directly. She says her emails to Krulwich and Walters, and her reply to Cappello, have gone unanswered.

"To be honest, I feel exploited," she says. "To be used as a pawn in a political debate — that's what happened in the war, and it happened again on the show." 

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