Comment on Milton Leitenberg's article, "New Russian Evidence on the Korean War Biological Warfare Allegations: background and analysis," Cold War International History Project Bulletin, No. 11, Winter 1998.
by  Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman

        In this revision of his earlier article, "The Korean War Biological Warfare Allegations Resolved" (Stockholm, May 1998; reprinted as "Resolution of the Korean War Biological Warfare Allegations," Critical Reviews in Microbiology, 24(3)1998), Milton Leitenberg has softened his conclusions on the import of the 12 Soviet documents reporting an alleged incident of faked biological warfare evidence in the Korean War. He now concludes that some questions the documents raise remain open, pending clarification from more documents both specific to the reported incident and to its broader context. We agree, as indicated in our previous posting on the context of the 12 Soviet documents. Based on our recent book, The United States and Biological Warfare in Korea: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea (Indiana University Press, 1998), we also wish to contribute some thoughts and information to the debate that Professor Leitenberg canvasses on the issues and information presented over the years by those who reject, who accept, or who suspend judgment on the Chinese and North Korean allegations.

        One pitfall that has added to doubts about the allegations for several scholars is their analysis that the National Security Council in policy document NSC 62, approved February 17, 1950, placed biological weapons in the retaliation only category. All appear to have been led astray by NSC 147 in April of 1953 which included biological weapons in the retaliation only category with chemical and radiological weapons, citing NSC 62 as source and precedent. In fact, NSC 62 only limited the use of chemical weapons; policy on biological and radiological weapons was left in abeyance. The Joint Chiefs of Staff successfully argued that there was no policy on biological warfare, and that the government should secretly follow the precedent of atomic warfare, employing biological weapons as weapons of opportunity subject to presidential approval. On February 25, 1952, the JCS decided on a "a strong offensive capability without delay" for biological warfare and development of "all effective means of waging war without precedent as to their use." This decision was issued as an order to the armed forces. Earlier, on December 21, 1951, Acting Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett had sent the military chiefs a strong communication urging that "actual readiness be achieved in the earliest practicable time," and that they provide "guidance, in emergency war plans and supporting logistical plans, for the employment of chemical and biological weapons." Why NSC 147 referred back to NSC 62 for a misleading precedent is open to speculation, though by this time the United States was responding to the pressure of the charge that they had used biological weapons in Korea. There also is evidence that by mid-1953 the JCS was disillusioned with biological weapons as the quick fix that they had sought in instituting the large scale and expensive biological warfare crash program in 1951.

        The secret offensive policy put in place in early 1952 was part of a tremendous urgency in 1951-52 to get a biological warfare capability in place when faced with what was considered the imminent threat of general war. Of the many motives pushing U.S. planners to consider biological weapons the most important was that in the early post-WWII period powerful military interests both in the United States and in it's biological warfare partner Great Britain were convinced that biological weapons were potential superweapons, with greater potential as weapons of mass destruction than the atomic bomb, and greater flexibility for strategic, tactical and covert use. Strategic planners also emphasized the advantage of biological weapons not destroying physical infrastructure, an immediate consideration for a country aware of the cost of total war in the reconstruction of Europe and Japan. And at a time of military cutbacks, biological weapons were considered an inexpensive addition, especially when weighed against the costs of atomic warfare. Another argument that surfaced among planners was that biological weapons were a critical complement to U.S. exploitation of its assumed superior scientific capability to create such a multiplicity of weapons that the Soviet Union could not cope with an attack. And mindful of the criticism that strategic bombing had failed to destroy civilian morale in WWII strategists talked of the special fear that warfare by disease instilled in populations.

        Fear of imminent general war provided the incentive for biological warfare advocates to get their weapons in place. As fears escalated with communist victory in China, the Berlin Blockade, events in Czechoslovakia, Soviet acquisition of the bomb, and the sudden outbreak of war in Korea, the United States government instituted a crash program to develop a standardized operational capability in biological warfare for general war. The original target date was July 1954, but accompanying this longer-term plan there was planning to achieve limited capability should war come any time earlier. Under the crash program agents and munitions were developed and worked into emergency war plans. By March 1952 the United States had an operational capability for general war, with unit assignments and logistical support. As the official historian for U.S. Air Force involvement in biological warfare for this period, Dorothy Miller, observes, the plan lacked the bells and whistles of a fully standardized weapons system, but if necessary it could have been used. By 1952 the United States also had created an infrastructure for covert biological warfare in the Far East buried deep in the Psychological Warfare Division of the air force. Pervading the anxiety involved in this crash program in a time of extreme crisis was the awareness that the only true test of whether biological weapons would work was the test of the battlefield. Accompanying this awareness was the call for realistic testing. By the height of the Korean War the United States had the means, motive and capability to secretly test the weapon in which they had invested so much. And American capability with respect to agents, munitions and mode of delivery corroborates the Chinese and North Korean evidence upon which they had based their charges.

        Which brings us to issues surrounding the Chinese and North Korean evidence. Professor Leitenberg raises the issue of some doubters being influenced by the Chinese and North Koreans rejecting the World Health Organization and the Swiss International Committee of the Red Cross as neutral investigators of the charges, despite WHO being an agency of the United Nations against which they were at war, and the ICRC having a suspicious background of neutrality, later confirmed, from WWII. More important, recently declassified documents show that the United States was less than candid in its offer for international inspection. The Defense Department told its ambassador to the UN Disarmament Commission, Benjamin Cohen, that a statement saying "the United States did not intend to use bacteriological warfare-even in Korea-was impossible." More telling, the Defense Department secretly gave permission to General Matthew Ridgway, the U.S. Far East commander, to deny potential Red Cross inspectors "access to any specific sources of information." Cohen nevertheless proclaimed before the United Nations that the United States followed a policy of openness-"we make no effort to conceal such matters"-while casting aspersions on the Chinese and North Korean case because of their refusal to accept the adjudicators selected by the United Nations.

        The above raises the issue of "plausible denial," the doctrine of denying what the government wishes to conceal of its activities. Acknowledged by CIA director William Colby before the Church Committee investigating U.S. intelligence activities (1976) and discussed in documents on special forces doctrine, "plausible denial" also surfaced in the 1952 "cover and deception" plan for biological warfare. The discussion so far as declassified documents reveal it, is a JCS discussion on whether or not to inform the secretaries of state and defense of biological warfare operations. The discussion first leaned toward excluding both, but ended up excluding only the secretary of state. That exclusion meant not leaving a paper trial rather than not being informed is suggested by a discussion surrounding a biological warfare plan to be implemented if the Berlin Blockade led to general war. The JCS recommended that in the interests of secrecy the plans be presented orally to Secretary of Defense James Forrestal and Secretary of State George Marshall, and that the National Security Council be bypassed in favor of agreement on implementation reached directly through the secretary of state. The doctrine of "plausible denial" and the "cover and deception" plan for biological warfare must be kept in mind when weighing public statements of denial by Secretary of State Dean Acheson and U.S. Far East commander Matthew Ridgway and Ambassador Cohen.
Professor Leitenberg notes that some western governments submitted the Chinese and North Korean documentation of their evidence, particularly that gathered by the International Scientific Commission, to committees of their scientists, all of whom dismissed it. A widely publicized dismissal of an earlier body of evidence was made by a three man committee of distinguished Canadian scientists appointed by the Canadian government on the recommendation of the U.S. government. Canadian embassies and the western media and others effectively circulated their report. What has remained buried until the recent opening of the Canadian External Affairs Department file on biological warfare for the period was that the External Affairs Department also quietly sent the Chinese and North Korean data to a fourth scientist. This was Professor Guilford B. Reed of Queen's University, head of the Defense Research Laboratory at Queen's, Canada's leading biological warfare scientist, and an expert on insect vectors with extensive work dating from the beginning of the closely coordinated U.S. and Canadian programs during WWII. Reed advised the government that though there were some anomalies, the Chinese and North Korean evidence was credible and recommended that Minister of External Affairs Lester B. Pearson avoid a public debate on the scientific aspects of the issue. Reed's reply is stamped as having been seen by L.B. Pearson. This document was kept deeply buried and not declassified until 1997. Documents on the Canadian biological warfare program never mention the three scientists who rejected the evidence as members of or having anything to do with the biological warfare panel. They were out of the loop and probably had no idea what really was going on in biological warfare development. Isn't there a lack of integrity here on the part of the Canadian government? In the only expert opinion from within the biological warfare loop that he notes, Leitenberg quotes WWII U.S. biological warfare scientist Theodor Rosebury as reserving his opinion on the International Scientific Commission's report on the evidence.

        The Leitenberg article records the familiar discrediting of the International Scientific Commission, whose membership was recommended by the World Peace Council and accepted by China and North Korea to investigate their charges. Though only one member of the commission came from the Soviet bloc, the membership was sympathetic to the Chinese Revolution. Professor Leitenberg notes that the committee's most distinguished member and leader, Dr. Joseph Needham of Cambridge University, was a Marxist, raising the inclination of some to infer that this reflects on his credibility and that of any like-thinking member of the committee. But surely that is not an argument against critical analysis any more than is being a liberal democrat. At a time when there were few neutrals, the members of this commission were under the world's microscope and did have their scientific reputations to protect, none more so than Needham, who is acknowledged as one of the great scientific minds of this or any other century. Most have not questioned his integrity, but fall back on a question of his political innocence and whether or not he was duped, though charges of political innocence must be approached warily from sources who tend to label westerners who holds Marxist views or sympathize with Marxist revolutions as politically innocent. Which leaves the question of whether or not Needham and the others were duped.

        One argument in the case against the commission's objectivity was that, although it interviewed numerous eye witnesses, it did not gather its own material evidence but accepted that presented by the Chinese scientists. Needham himself considered whether or not the case could have been faked and decided that too many people would have to have been involved. Professor Leitenberg argues that a hoax would have required fewer than Needham believed.
We have attempted to get beyond the dead end of this debate by looking at Chinese materials, declassified for our research, surrounding the medical investigations of what were considered incidents of biological warfare in China. What do they reveal about the integrity of Chinese medical teams investigating instances of biological warfare and providing Dr. Needham with his evidence? These teams usually were headed by western educated scientists, and their reports left us with an impression of professional expertise exercised with great care. Then we looked at whom the medical authorities were reporting to for some sign of how they were dealing with the issue of biological warfare. As noted in a previous posting, we gained access to previously classified top-secret communications between Mao, Zhou Enlai, top party cadre and the military leadership which indicated a concerned group trying to figure out what was happening. The documents would not exist if the charges were a hoax, since the political and military leadership is not going to be lying to itself in top-secret communications which it has no intention of introducing into the Cold War debate of the time.

        The most sensitive issue in the debate is the statements of the downed flyers who confessed to biological warfare. Leitenberg observes that they generally have been given little credence because they were gathered under unbearable pressure and torture, were not the words of the flyers but of their captors, and were retracted upon returning to the United States. It is indeed a thorny area, but one which every historian who deals with the biological warfare charges must address. First of all, we approached the flyer's statements as a body of information without making any assumptions about whether some or all did or did not contain true information on biological warfare. We then placed this considerable body of information beside our research into U.S. capabilities in agents, munitions and modes of delivery and found a close correlation. One way to dismiss these correlations is to argue that their captors orchestrated the confessions using publicly available information from the Japanese biological warfare program in WWII. Without discounting that this material was available to the Chinese, it also is necessary to acknowledge that a close correlation exists between what the Chinese reported with respect to agents and munitions and U.S. capabilities.

        There also is good reason to conclude that the flyers created their own statements and did so under stress and duress that was tough but not unbearable. Very revealing in these respects are statements made by one of the flyers in a long interview in 1996. He said that the information he provided was of his own creation, and that his captors just kept giving his statement back to him for more until apparently satisfied that he had no more to give. He also said that the pressure was tough but not unbearable, and that he gave a confession just to get it over with. He still maintains that he and the others gave in because they were so poorly prepared emotionally and intellectually for what happened to them. This flyer presented his experience as representative, having discussed what happened to them with several others with whom he was billeted after they made their statements, as well as talking with others on the voyage home. The air force evidently agreed with this flyer's analysis, because it appointed him to the founding faculty of the Air Force Academy where he was head of the communications program and where he played an active role based on his experience in the survival and code of conduct curriculum.He also became a quasi-official spokesman for the flyers experiences, making endless public speeches. He contends that had he and others who made statements in Korea had the training that took place at the Air Force Academy during his twelve-year tenure, there would have been very few confessions. Similarly, the army, in a massive study on the abnormally high incidence of collaboration by U.S. prisoners in Korea compared to those from other United Nations contingents, concluded that they folded under what should have been bearable stress and duress. A Chinese interrogator of the flyers whom we interviewed noted how easily the U.S. prisoners broke compared to the British, lacking the emotional and intellectual maturity and toughness of the British officers. His recollections were consistent in many respects with those of the above flyer. To take one example, this flyer, an intelligent, observant former actor with a Ph.D. from Syracuse University, and a WWII veteran, had no doubts that his interrogators believed that the germ warfare charges were true. This is consistent both with the interrogators contention that the Chinese were engaged in intelligence gathering to find out what was going on and with the flyer's contention that he and the other prisoners provided the information in their statements.
If one accepts the veracity of the above, where did some of the flyers get so much information. One possible source of technical information is the advanced courses on biological warfare attended at the time by selected personnel, courses the existence of which were denied by the services but are confirmed by the documents. Another source would be that some or all of these flyers were engaged in biological warfare. Some higher ranking prisoners gave detail on operational planning that when placed beside some materials from the Psychological Strategy Board give one cause to pause.

        Any weight attached to the retraction of confessions stateside is greatly reduced by documents that we have uncovered indicating that they were made under the threat of court- martial. The documents also reveal that the CIA was nervous about the retraction process and advised against putting the returned flyers before the public for fear that they would repeat what they had written in their statements. They advised that the public emphasis be placed instead on the flyers who did not confess, which is what was done.

        All of this raises the question that invariably is asked, namely, if the United States used biological warfare in Korea how come after all this time nobody has come forward to admit to it. Unless someone involved suffered great moral anguish, there would be no reason, of course, to risk the obvious consequences, even when some of the participants slip into an age group where some consequences diminish. And the other side of the coin is that nobody has come forward in China to acknowledge that the charges were a hoax, even allowing for the increasing freedom to travel for such groups as medical scientists. The scientists that we interviewed who had been involved in the evaluation of evidence leave no doubt they continue to believe that the U.S. experimented with biological warfare in the Korean War.

        There is a second hand witness to American complicity whose repeated statements, based on the acknowledged integrity of the man, should be more widely acknowledged as part of the circumstantial evidence. The witness is Dr. John Burton, the distinguished scholar who is still writing and communicating with top level U.S. officials from the past and present. Burton was a young permanent head of the Australian Department of External Affairs when war broke out in Korea. He resigned when the Australian government failed to take his advice to stay out of the war, and subsequently visited China to observe evidence of biological warfare. He came away convinced that Chinese officials believed that the United States was using biological warfare. He contends that his successor as head of the Department of External Affairs, the now deceased Alan Watt, "informed me that in the light of my public statements he had sought a response from Washington and was informed that the United States had used biological weapons during the Korean War but only for experimental purposes." (letter to Stephen Endicott, 12 April 1997).

        To move back to the medical evidence, Professor Leitenberg repeats the very questionable conclusion that the Chinese and North Korean armies routinely suffered from certain diseases that they accused the United States of spreading as germ warfare, and at other times the Chinese and North Koreans were the victims of widespread disease in North and South Korea. Though the detail is too involved to discuss in this forum, our research indicates that this analysis must be revisited in terms of actual disease occurrence in the Chinese and Korean armies, among the civilian populations, and in the control that the Chinese and North Korean medical corps had over knowledge of what was naturally occurring and what was anomalous.

        Like others Professor Leitenberg mentions the curious outbreak of hemmorhagic fever among U.S., Chinese and North Korean troops in an area passed over by both armies. We too have looked at the hemmoraghic fever outbreak without drawing any concrete conclusions, though we have extended the context and the content of what was going on from the U.S. side. With respect to the outbreak of plague among the Chinese and North Korean forces, he repeats the contention of others that this was carried by Chinese forces transiting areas of Manchuria where plague was widespread at the time. In fact, there was plague in Pingfang in 1947 and near the border of Inner Mongolia where the Japanese had been conducting experiments. These were two rather small areas of a very large Manchuria that covers an area greater than that of France. And the Chinese army didn't enter that northern area of Manchuria. It came into Liaoning Province in southern Manchuria (from the other side of the Great Wall), and crossed the Yalu River into Korea.

        Professor Leitenberg attempts to make more than his reading of the record warrants with respect to the timing of Chinese communications on the outbreak of biological warfare. In this revised version of his essay he treats an important six point Chinese memorandum by Zhou Enlai in objective fashion, but unfortunately retains the erroneous footnote about its timing, which was in fact February 20, 1952.

        More to the point with respect to the motives of Chinese political and military leadership is the content of the top-secret documents declassified by the Chinese for this study and discussed above.
Professor Leitenberg also comes back to familiar arguments that the Soviet Union made every effort to block an investigation into the allegations. He omits the fact that at the time the USSR proposed that China and North Korea be invited to the UN to state their case. This proposal was voted down by the U.S. led majority 40-15. It was contrary to the UN charter not to invite complainants in an international dispute to state their case. We address other aspects of UN history of the allegations in our previous posting on the 12 Soviet documents.

        We believe that these are the substantial if not the only issues raised in Professor Leitenberg's article. Some may wish to discuss others, and if we believe that we have anything to contribute we will join in the discussion.

Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman
Department of History
Atkinson College
York University,Toronto, Canada, M3J 1P3

Note:  This article appeared on the internet Cold War International History Project/H-Diplo Discussion: The Korean War on 5 July 1999.  Address: H-Diplo@H-Net.MSU.Edu