Sep 24, 2012

Yellow Rain

Producer Pat Walters brings us a detective story from the Cold War, about a mysterious substance that fell from the sky in Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam war.

As retired CIA officer Merle Prebbenow explains, once the US pulled its troops out of the region, the Communists took over—the Viet Cong and their allies in Laos the Pathet Lao. Eng Yang, who was living in a tiny village in Laos in 1975, explained what that meant for him and his family and friends. Eng, who talked to us with his niece Kao Kalia Yang translating, is Hmong. Thousands of Hmong fought alongside the Americans during the war, and when the US left, they were targeted by Viet Cong and Pathet Lao, who were out for revenge. Eng says it started with isolated killings, until one day, his whole village was attacked. He and thousands of other Hmong fled their homes and went into hiding in the jungle. And that's when they started seeing it: yellow droplets that fell from the sky and splattered the landscape, followed by dying plants, animals, and eventually friends and family doubled over with stomach problems.

When US scientists looked at the yellow spots, they found poison, and pretty soon "Yellow Rain" as it was known, had become a flashpoint in the cold war. Chemical weapons expert Matt Meselson and biologist Thomas Seeley, two scientists bent on analyzing the substance, tell us what happened when they challenged the original reports (which were used to justify the production of a chemical weapon by the US back in the early 80s). And when we explain their views to Eng, who saw loved ones die, and who fled his home in Laos to escape, we have to reckon with a very different kind of truth.

Editor's Note: This segment, which was originally podcast on September 24th, 2012, was amended on October 5th, 2012.

Read more:

Robert responds to concerns about this segment.

Jad offers more context on this segment.

Kao Kalia Yang's The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir

Thomas Seeley's Honeybee Democracy

Merle Pribbenow's article "The Man in the Snow White Cell"

A two-part New Yorker story that tipped us off to this tale in the first place:


THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists