The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea

Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998, xxi + 274 pages.

Reviewed by: Geoffrey Reaume

In July, 2001, John Manley, then Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, criticized the Bush administration’s rejection of implementing a ban on the use of germ warfare. This ban is supported by almost all 55 countries at the negotiations in Geneva where diplomats have been trying for years to reinforce the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. The current US position that outside inspections would “put national security and confidential business information at risk” (National Post, July 26, 2001) could have been written 50 years ago. As Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman reveal in their important book, The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea, the United States has never been forthcoming about the history of their involvement in germ warfare.

In 1952, when representatives of North Korea and China made public their claims that the US had used biological warfare (BW) to spread disease during the Korean War, their charges were dismissed by the US and their allies, including Canada, as communist propaganda. Later when captured American flyers made statements that they had, in fact, been involved in the BW campaign, spreading infected insects and animals parts in northwest China and North Korea, these claims were also dismissed by Western officials. After repatriation in 1953, some of the American flyers claimed that they had been forced into making these statements after days of interrogation. The authors make a convincing case that their retractions were, in fact, due to the threat of court martial by US officials who had no desire to be exposed as having employed such odious weapons in an offensive manner rather than as a defensive reprisal measure. With World War II war crimes still a fresh memory, this charge had too many horrific implications. Most importantly, Endicott and Hagerman build up a “long circumstantial trail of corroborative evidence that the United States experimented with biological weapons in Korea… This was too large and too complex an operation, and was possessed of too much inner logic, to have been concocted by the Communist side for propaganda purposes, as some have suggested” (p. 195).

In building their case, the authors provide ample context, including the previously exposed use of Japanese war criminals led by Lieutenant General Shiro Ishii. He and his co-killers in Unit 731 conducted deadly medical experiments on “at least ten thousand prisoners of war” in occupied China (p. 39). In exchange for immunity from prosecution, their knowledge was secretly used by American officials to develop their own BW program. The global political crisis of the second half of the 1940s and early 1950s, is also succinctly discussed as are domestic American political developments in which congressional and military figures sought to comprehend how the US “lost” China in 1949, only to be determined to not “lose” South Korea when war broke out in 1950. By this time, there was burgeoning interest in BW among academic and military circles, especially between 1949-53, as being a less expensive way of killing or immobilizing people and animals than atomic weapons or conventional bombs.

Pharmaceutical business interests, led by George Merck, also pushed for this program, arguing that BW posed no special moral dilemma, while research scientists at Camp Detrick, Maryland, displayed an enthusiastic academic interest in the subject with the publication of over 200 papers in 1949 alone. Clearly there was money to be made in this campaign, as well as geo-political points to hammer home. American Defense Department BW funding expanded from $5.3 million for 1950, to $345 million between 1951-53. As the US became more frustrated with the war in Korea, which had bogged down in stalemate by the second year of the conflict, they resorted to the use of weapons which they hoped would spread sickness and death behind their enemies’ lines, leading to demoralization, defeat and an eventual victory over China and North Korea. The fact that these experiments were used in Korea also indicates the racist nature of a war where Asian lives were expendable in an effort to figure out if BW weapons were “effective”. Beside not wanting to “lose” Korea, the authors note that many top US military and political officials expected a general military showdown between capitalism and communism to be in the offing. Thus, testing these weapons was part of US preparations for World War III. Fortunately, these weapons were not as effective as their users had hoped. But some people did die like Qu, a railway worker, who succumbed after coming into contact with beetles infected with anthrax that were dropped by US aircraft in 1952 near Manjing railway station.

Quick response by health officials in the affected areas helped to prevent epidemics from occurring. Because BW weapons did not aid in ending the conflict, American officials became less enthusiastic about pursuing this program after the Korean War, though research continues to this day, witness the Bush administration’s latest effort to try to keep this matter hidden from prying eyes. It is fortunate that Endicott and Hagerman pried into documents in various countries including the United States, Canada and China, to help to expose a topic that is another aspect of “hidden history” that too few people in the west know about. Canada played a not insignificant part in this history by supporting BW through academic research and colluding in the cover-up. The authors’ discussion of censored, and in some cases, destroyed sources, reveals how much there is to still learn about what happened. This research may be impossible to complete due to missing documents from US Army files, difficulty in gaining access to sensitive archival material in Western countries and China and no access whatsoever to North Korean archives.

While they acknowledge the help provided by Chinese officials, Endicott and Hagerman manage to couch their language about selective access to archival material there with a good deal of diplomatic aplomb. In this respect, it will be apparent to anyone who reads this book that it is written by historians who support the Chinese and North Korean version of events, and the views of Professor Endicott’s late father James Endicott who published a pamphlet in 1952 on this topic. There is nothing wrong with this – historians who claim to be “unbiased” usually are kidding only themselves or simply don’t have anything new to say. This book, however, has a lot to say and deserves a wide audience. Whatever their biases, the authors provide a fair-minded synopsis of views contrary to their own, while also refuting these same arguments with their extensive research. Still, there are times when their partisanship wears thin as in Chapter 7 which is a good contextual chapter on the history of the Korean War, but which is obviously slanted to de-emphasizing North Korean and Chinese defeats and highlighting their victories. (As an aside, there also should have been a follow-up reference to the fact that the leading Chinese general of the war, Peng Dehuai, was later purged for having criticized Mao’s disastrous policies during the “Great Leap Forward” in 1959).

Nevertheless, these points do not mar the overall thrust of their work which is to document, as much as is presently possible, a dark chapter in recent world history where scientific researchers colluded with military and political leaders in enforcing US strategic interests during the early Cold War by developing one of the most vile weapons possible. One bright spot in recent developments to this story is that Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister spoke out publicly to criticize the retrograde US position in 2001. While it would be naïve to expect much independent thinking from the Chrétien government in its relations with the American empire, Manley’s position is nevertheless a hopeful sign that Canada’s stand on BW will take the side of all humanity compared to fifty years ago. Now, if only the Bush administration would listen to their “Canadian friends”, or most of the rest of the world for that matter, these appalling weapons could be eradicated. Endicott and Hagerman’s book should be required reading for everyone involved in the current negotiations on banning germ warfare, especially American officials. But, unfortunately, expecting that to happen is being truly naïve.

[Editor’s note: This review was written in August 2001, i.e., before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S.]