The high moral tone in Washington and London about “rogue” states, such as Iraq, building arsenals of biological weapons belies a shameful past. Winston Churchill wanted to finish off the Germans in 1944 with 500,000 anthrax bombs made in the United States (but his generals persuaded him against such action); and the United States granted immunity from war crimes to Japanese generals who had carried out ghastly experiments with biological agents on Chinese prisoners in Manchuria–so that the Japanese results could be used in developing the US biological arsenal.
In fact, it was the United States that led a secret arms race in these weapons after World War II (although it denounced them in 1969). And it is the United States that has had to live, for almost half a century, with a charge by the Chinese that it actually used biological weapons in the Korean War in violation of the Geneva Protocol of 1925.
Given this history, today’s hypocrisy in Washington and London is stunning. But what of the Chinese charges? Were they simply Communist agitprop, as the United States has always claimed, and if so, why hasn’t Washington managed to have them withdrawn? Or is it indeed true that the Pentagon or some “rogue” US covert force used the Korean theater as a proving ground for World War III, trying out everything in its arsenal except the A-bomb?
Nagging questions have always hung over the Korean War charges. For example, US pilots who became prisoners of war confessed to the Chinese that they had used biological weapons–dropped fleas infected with plague and turkey feathers coated with toxins. Were the pilots, quite understandably, simply seeking a quiet life in captivity? Or were they telling even a bit of the truth? When the pilots came home after the war they retracted their confessions, but that was under threat of court-martial.
On the scientific level, could the Chinese have concocted the epidemics of plague and cholera that suddenly broke out along both banks of the Yalu River–their border with North Korea? And what of the 1952 international scientific inquiry led by Dr. Joseph Needham of Cambridge University, which concluded that the United States was guilty as charged? Were the members of the inquiry duped by the Communists?
Now two historians at York University in Toronto, Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, have produced the most impressive, expertly researched and, as far as the official files allow, the best-documented case for the prosecution yet made. Still lacking a smoking biological bomblet, the authors nevertheless conclude from the circumstantial evidence that the United States is guilty–not of waging a prolonged biological attack on North Korea and China but more likely of conducting a limited covert action, a kind of experimental foray with biological weapons to test the kind of war Washington would have waged had the Korean conflict led to World War III.
The authors are not disinterested prosecutors. Endicott, an East Asia scholar, was born in Shanghai, the son of missionary parents. His father, Dr. James Endicott, was convinced of the truth of the charges against the United States and said so at the time, which got him into some hot water: The Canadian government, which viewed Endicott as too sympathetic to the revolutionary movement in China, considered prosecuting him for treason but was persuaded against such a move by Washington, which apparently didn’t want to stir things up. His son was granted unique access to top-secret Chinese archives, and this information lends the book credibility from an entirely new angle.
Hagerman is a military historian and a well-known critic of what Professor Richard Falk of Princeton calls the “war mentality.” One of Hagerman’s tenets is that Korea was not a “limited war” at all. The US experience in Korea, say the authors, “reveals a military culture that allowed an army to resort to scorched-earth tactics, to incendiarism [in 1952 US forces were using an average of 70,000 gallons of napalm daily], to a strategy of total warfare within the confines of Korea, even to the condoning of war crimes.” Indeed, their book shows in alarming detail how the United States was doggedly developing an array of biological weapons for offensive purposes at a time when the public was being told the arsenal was purely defensive.
Endicott and Hagerman have not only raised the level of debate over the charges but also, apparently coincidentally, run headlong into the first “official” documentary evidence from Communist sources strongly suggesting that the charges may have been Communist propaganda after all: In a total surprise last year, a dozen documents said to have been found in the Soviet presidential archives suddenly appeared in a Japanese newspaper. They suggest that in 1952, Moscow was behind a plot to blame the United States for using biological weapons in Korea when the Soviet leadership was perfectly aware that the American forces were doing no such thing. The documents have led some commentators to consider the case closed and the United States absolved. But are the documents genuine? What are we to make of the quiet development of these weapons, if not their deployment?
During World War II, the main Allied effort in biological weapons was conducted, strange to relate, by Canada–far away from the threat of war in the wide-open spaces of Alberta, where germ weapons could be tested in secret and with reduced risk of disastrous accidents to the resident population. Canada secretly developed a series of biological weapons, including anthrax. At war’s end, the experiments were taken over by the United States and further developed into actual bombs at Fort Detrick in Maryland. By 1949, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff had incorporated biological weapons into emergency war plans; their intent was to use these outlawed arms if the Berlin blockade led to general war.
By the start of the Korean War in 1950, The United States and Biological Warfare points out, the United States had an offensive biological capability that, “in case of emergency,” could be operational within three months. By the end of 1950, five anti-personnel and two anticrop agents–cereal rust and chemical growth regulators–were on the ready-to-go list. The agents were tested in M33 cluster bombs, each containing 108 aerosol bomblets. By mid-1952, the Air Force had requisitioned 23,900 of these cluster bombs. If a world war came, the plan was to carry atomic and biological bombs in the same aircraft. Even the Navy weighed in, developing a submarine-launched biological mine.
Fort Detrick scientists also continued to work with the Canadians on using insects–flies, fleas, lice, mosquitoes and ticks–to spread germs; the Canadians developed a 500-pound bomb that could carry 200,000 flies. At the same time, the US Air Force in the Far East was told by the military chiefs to plan for biological warfare attacks against China.
Exactly what the Joint Chiefs planned to do with this clandestine arsenal was a secret so tightly held that besides themselves and the President, who had to give the go-ahead for use of germ warfare, only the Secretary of Defense was to be consulted. That, of course, left the Secretary of State out of the loop and conveniently free should the need arise for “plausible denial” of the use of such banned weapons.
There are those who argue that the United States could never have used biological agents in Korea because it would have contravened a “no-first-use” policy. But Endicott and Hagerman contend that such a formal national policy was not adopted until 1956; during the Korean War, the authors argue, the use of biological weapons was at the discretion of the President. More than that is hard to determine from US archival material, because relevant documents on biological warfare have been destroyed, lost or are still classified. In their exhaustive search, for example, the authors found that at least nineteen relevant “secret” category communications during 1952 are missing.
Those who deny that the United States resorted to biological warfare suggest that Chinese and North Korean medical teams, backed by Soviet advisers, simply made up the charges. Chinese teams claim to have found sudden deaths from plague, anthrax and encephalitis, a deadly virus that invades the cerebral cortex. The Chinese investigators also reported eyewitness accounts of US aircraft dropping strange objects, including tree leaves, soybean stalks, feathers and cardboard packages containing live insects, rotten fish, decaying pork, frogs and rodents. Fleas said by the Chinese to have been found after these airdrops tested positive for plague, which, though endemic in northeast China, had not been reported in Korea since 1912. Insects, spiders and feathers were reported to be carrying anthrax. All these insects appeared out of season, in deepest winter–including heaps of locusts found inexplicably near railway stations.
If the Chinese medical teams fabricated their scientific evidence, they haven’t changed their story with the passage of time. Endicott and Hagerman went to China and interviewed members, who stood by their original reports that the United States had engaged in some kind of biological warfare.
The International Scientific Commission, which looked into the charges in 1952, concluded that the United States had used biological weapons in China and North Korea, in part because it adjudged the testimony of the hundreds of witnesses interviewed “too simple, too concordant, and too independent” to be doubted. But the commission, led by Britain’s Dr. Needham, came under fire because several members were known sympathizers of the Chinese Revolution. The authors of The United States and Biological Warfare argue that with the circumstantial evidence now available, the Needham Report should be seen in a different light, not through the gloom and suspicion of the early cold war.
In the end, if the Air Force didn’t do it, the authors suggest that perhaps germ carriers were dropped in a covert CIA mission. Endicott and Hagerman note that in 1952 the Air Force special operations division, which “directed and supervised” covert biological warfare operations, sent a specially trained air wing to the Far East. And that same year the division “entered into agreements with the CIA to manufacture and test biological weapons for aggressive applications.” However, here again the authors run into an evidentiary dead end: Former Director of Central Intelligence William Colby told Congress in 1976 that records of the CIA’s biological warfare activities going back to 1952 were “very incomplete” because at least some documents had been destroyed.
And what is one to make of the new documents from the Soviet presidential archives? The dozen that surfaced in January 1998 in the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun were purportedly obtained by its Moscow-based reporter. They concern the byzantine power struggle within the Soviet leadership in the first months after Stalin’s death in 1953–in particular, the efforts of Lavrenti Beria, deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, the official in charge of security police affairs for the Communist Party and a possible successor to Stalin, to remove Semen Ignatiev, a Khrushchev protégé, from his post as Minister for State Security. As it turned out, Beria himself fell afoul of the new order and was tried and executed for being a spy–but not before he had charged Ignatiev with conspiring with the Chinese to accuse the United States falsely of using biological weapons in North Korea.
In the documents, Beria claims that Ignatiev participated in a plot to prepare “two false areas of exposure” of plague and cholera in North Korea, and to tellDr. Needham’s visiting International Scientific Commission that the infectious agents had been dropped from US planes. (Yet reports in the Chinese archives, from China’s own medical mission, say plague was found in thirteen places during February and March of 1953.)
But the provenance of the twelve Soviet-era documents is strange, to say the least. Outside researchers have not, as a general rule, been granted access to the presidential archives in the Kremlin, and even Russian researchers are still not allowed to make photocopies. The twelve documents in question were copied by hand by an as-yet-unnamed Russian researcher, then typed up in Russian and given to Sankei Shimbun, which translated them into Japanese before publishing them.
Russia historian Kathryn Weathersby, a Korean War expert who works in Washington at the Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project, has seen other documents from the presidential archives in Moscow. She thinks the content of those from the Japanese newspaper constitute such a complex and interwoven story that it would have been extremely difficult to forge them. “The specifics of persons, dates and events are consistent with evidence available from a wide array of sources,” she says. However, there are no telltale signs of authenticity, such as seals, stamps or signatures–or even archive citations. The documents, therefore, can only be termed suggestive, not proof that the charges against the United States are false. As Weathersby says, “Far more documentation, particularly from China, is needed to give a full account of this massive propaganda campaign”–if that is what it was.
What is as strange as the emergence of the Russian documents is the apparent absence of any diplomatic pressure by the United States to persuade the Russians to open up this still-secret section of their presidential archives, so that the documents in question can be properly authenticated–assuming they are there. At the same time, the Pentagon could be providing missing pages from US military archives–or perhaps it cannot because those documents have also been destroyed. In the absence of such evidence, suspicion will remain strong that the United States did indeed experiment with biological weapons.