The Vietnam War effort of the United States impacted far more than just Vietnam. The entire region of Southeastern Asia felt the military presence marked by the Vietnam War. Laos, a geographic neighbor of Vietnam, was subject to much of the wreckage and bloodshed caused indirectly by the American effort to contain communism. The Central Intelligence Agency conducted a ‘Quiet War’ in that region against the Pathet Lao, the communist organization of Laos. The Hmong, a somewhat apolitical people who historically inhabited the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia, became the American army by proxy against the Pathet Lao.
The American public has largely ignored the role of the Hmong in the Quiet War, although the CIA actively cultivated that ignorance. The WNYC radio program Radiolab, however, took notice of one striking story from the Quiet War. Among the many violent episodes of the war in Laos and of the Vietnam War in general, the existence of ‘yellow rain’ proves one of the most interesting and bizarre.
The Radiolab podcast episode ‘Yellow Rain’ documents the war story of a Hmong man named Eng Yang. He tells of the violence experienced by his village in the 1970s, and specifically of a phenomenon referred to as yellow rain. This yellow rain dropped from the sky and appeared to poison and kill entire populations exposed to it.
When CIA officers reported this phenomenon to the White House, President Reagan’s staff publicly accused the Soviet Union of the use of biochemical weapons. This accusation resulted in the discussion of the United States created its own biochemical weapons. But after close examination, what appeared to be highly sophisticated, microscopic, death agents turned out to be bee feces.
When the interviewers on Radiolab bring this fact to the attention of Eng Yang, he reacts with the fury and indignation of decades of neglect. He expressed his feelings of mistreatment and sadness through his translator: “My uncle says that for the last twenty years he didn’t know anybody was interested in the deaths of the Hmong people…that what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him or to me.” Eng Yang firmly believes, to this day, that the yellow rain dropped from Soviet planes on his village was lethal. The facts discovered by Ivy League researchers are of little consequence to him.
In this sense, the war story is both true and untrue. Eng Yang’s experience is true to him, but the existence of a biochemical weapon known as yellow rain is objectively false. Questioning the truth behind an individual’s story leads, as Robert Krulwich of Radiolab discovered, only to animosity.