United States Biological Warfare during the Korean War: rhetoric and reality

Stephen Endicott & Edward Hagerman
York University

    I went to China in 1952 wanting to assess the assertions of germ warfare being one reason. Without going into the evidence, I came away convinced that Chinese officials believed that the evidence was conclusive. On returning, Alan Watt my successor as permanent head of the Australian Department of External Affairs, 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."

- Dr. John Burton, letter of 12th April 1997(1)

    For half a century one of the most closely guarded state secrets of the United States government has been its large-scale field experiments with biological weapons during the Korean War. This secrecy is perhaps not surprising since, as a prominent American scholar has noted, if it is shown that the US engaged in germ warfare then it will also be shown that the US in the eyes of most of the world has committed a major international war crime.(2) Such an admission would be an intolerable blow to the prestige of a government and a nation many of whose citizens believe that the United States is the natural moral and human rights leader of the world.

    In the past few years a number of American scholars and journalists have come forward to reinforce US government denials that it made use of biological weapons during the Korean War. Among the more prominent writers of this opinion are Colonel Conrad Crane, professor of military strategy at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army, Milton Leitenberg of the University of Maryland and John Ellis van Courtland Moon, member of the Harvard Colloquium on Chemical and Biological Weapons. (3) In defending the reputation of the US armed forces, they say that a tangled web of questionable evidence and disinformation has been compiled by its critics to indict the United Sates of using germ warfare in the Korean War. They argue that throughout the Korean War the American armed forces had >neither the ability nor the will = to carry out offensive biological warfare as claimed by the governments of North Korea and China in 1952. Furthermore it is claimed that the United States policy barred the armed forces from using biological warfare except in retaliation. (4) It is the purpose of this article to consider the validity of these claims and arguments in light of the research which we conducted in preparing our recent book, The United States and Biological Warfare: secrets of the Early Cold War and Korea.(5) In that book we conclude that the United States engaged in large-scale field tests of biological weapons against the Asian countries and with some additional evidence we continue to believe that is the case. In considering the argument of our critics we begin at the fringes of the topic and then move to the centre.

Untangling the Web of Disinformation

    One of the important clues indicating that the United States had something to hide lies in the elaborate efforts by the government to plausibly deny, to minimize, to cover-up or to eliminate incriminating evidence relating to its biological warfare program during the Korean War period.

    In this regard, for example, there was a >Biological Warfare Cover and Deception Plan = to which reference is made in a memo of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in February 1952. One of the features of this plan, most of whose details are still secret, is that the US Secretary of State would be excluded from information concerning use of biological weapons. In this way the United States would have a high official who could publicly deny any allegations of their use. Secretary of State Dean Acheson did just that on 4 March 1952. (6)

    Then there was the oft-cited US proposal in the spring of 1952 to invite the International Committee of the Red Cross or the World Health Organization, to be 'an impartial commission of inquiry' with free reign to look into the germ war allegations. Since both of these units were Western-led the US State Department did not expect Zhou Enlai of China and Kim Il Sung of North Korea to agree to this challenge, but in case they did accept, newly released documents show that the US Department of Defence secretly authorized its head of the Far East Command in Tokyo, General Matthew Ridgway, to deny potential Red Cross investigators >access to any specific sources of information. = Concurrently US Ambassador Benjamin Cohen went before the United Nations to proclaim that the US followed a policy of openness. >We make no effort to conceal such matters, = he said. And while casting aspersions on the Communist case, Cohen refused to allow the representatives of China and North Korea to come before the United Nations to state their complaint. The Defence Department told Cohen that a statement saying that "the United States did not intend to use bacteriological warfare -- even in Korea -- was impossible." (7) An unbiased observer can scarcely help asking what such actions reveal about the tactics and sincerity of the Truman administration in offering to open its operations to international scrutiny.

    Other Korean War era cover-ups by the US military include the destruction of evidence in the Army Chemical Corps files. The Chemical Corps was the branch of the US armed forces responsible for the manufacture and supply of biological weapons. In this regard the Far East Command of the army sent instructions to the national archives underscoring that some documents turned over to it should be kept in secret or top secret classifications. The precise subject matter of the documents ordered to be kept from public view were:

    military operational policies, plans, and directives dealing with the offensive employment of BW         against specific targets....The fact that specific living agents or their toxic derivatives, identified by     scientific name and/or description had been standardized for offensive military employment.

    Not content to leave the matter in the hands of the civilians, the army recalled the Chemical Corps records from the National Archives in 1956. According to Washington archivists a number of documents were then culled and destroyed before the army returned the files to the archives thirteen years later. An example of these missing files is the Far East Command dossier on biological warfare. In the spring of 1952 that dossier originally had 25 items in it; after the cull there were 6 left, all of them dealing with defensive aspects of biological warfare, the use of gas masks etc.(8) One inference from this cleansing could clearly be that the Far East Command documents on the subject of offensive use of biological warfare were removed as ordered.

    Public relations efforts to distract public attention from the true scope and intent of the US government =s biological weapons program during the Korean War advanced further when army representatives appeared before a US Senate sub-committee hearing in 1977. The subject of the hearing, which was chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy, was US biological warfare programs. In his report to the committee Lt.Col. George A. Carruth misled the Congress and the American people by understating the funds spent on biological warfare during the Korean War and by claiming that the US had no offensive biological warfare program or capability and that BW weapons would only be used in retaliation, (9) subjects which we will turn to presently.

    All the while the US government and its Central Intelligence Agency were operating under the guidance of a doctrine known as >plausible deniability.= Adopted by the National Security Council in 1948, this doctrine, in the words of CIA chief William E. Colby, meant that >if the United States could deny something and not be clearly demonstrated as having said something falsely, then the United States could do so. = (10) In other words certain United States government personnel and institutions could lie and cheat, do unpalatable, illegal or immoral things provided they could deny them successfully and not have the government tagged for them. Given these official guidelines is there any reason to be surprised that a secret offensive biological warfare project would, if necessary, become part of a carefully constructed and tangled web of disinformation and deceits?

United States Biological Warfare Capabilities

    After a series of studies by experts from 1946 through 1950 the Joint Chiefs of Staff were convinced of the great potential of biological weapons for weakening enemy moral, for softening up enemy troops prior to an offensive, for isolating a battlefield, for interdiction >when enemy troops are in assembly and concentration areas or on the move to the front over limited, congested road nets, = and numerous other benefits. They adopted the position that the US must >acquire a strong offensive BW capability without delay.= They hoped to have a standardized biological weapons system operational for their emergency war plan against the Soviet Union and China by 1954. (11)

    For this purpose they adopted a crash programme in biological weapons in 1951-1953 with a large increase in funding and a balanced emphasis on developing biological weapons for strategic, tactical and covert use.

    In spite of their strenuous efforts, the American generals = were initially disappointed with their progress. By September 1952 they had to report to the government that they had been unsuccessful in placing a Ahighly lethal, stable, viable, easily disseminated, low cost, epidemic producing, BW agent @ into their general war plan capability. And a year later, at the end of the Korean War, they concluded that Aevents of the past two years @ had demonstrated that their biological weapons program had Asuffered from over-optimism. @ (12)

    This disappointing conclusion, however, did not mean that they had achieved nothing or that they had nil capability for employing bacterial agents on an experimental basis in the Korean War. As early as February 1950, Brigadier-General William Creasy, responsible for the biological weapons program of the Chemical Corps, notified the Department of Defence that three agents had been successfully tested in field trials with the most advanced munition (M33/M114 500lb. aerosol bomb) and that given three months notice supplies would be sufficient to place an effective dosage over 90 square miles every four days. This modest capacity could be expanded within a year to 500 square miles every four days.(13) Creasy may have been over optimistic in thinking that storage and logistical problems for making this weapon generally available in distant theatres of operations were surmountable as Professor Crane and others have pointed out. (14) But the record suggests he could provide a capability for experimental field testing in a limited area and in time for the Korean War.

    By October 1950, six months after the start of the Korean War, the program had advanced further. In addition to standardizing brucella suis causing undulant fever with the M33 bomb, development was moving forward with four other anti-personnel agents (anthrax, tularemia, bubonic plague, botulinium) and two anti-crop agents deemed feasible and they could be produced in established or proposed facilities. By summer of 1951 the Chemical Corps biology department and the services, despite the usual frictions that accompany the development of novel weapons, had a clear idea of where they were going with testing and production schedules for a variety of anti-personnel agents. Munitions development followed apace.

    There was considerable activity surrounding the development of insect vectors and accompanying munitions to disseminate disease. A standardized biological weapon, the converted 500 lb. leaflet bomb (M16 or M115/E73R), also referred to as a feather bomb (since it used turkey feathers as a vector to carry disease), was available in large quantities for anti-crop use with a standardized cereal rust spore or as a tactical carrier with an anti-personnel agent capable of contaminating A supplies and equipment@ of the military supply system of enemy troops.(15) This converted leaflet bomb carrying insect vectors figured prominently in the Chinese and North Korean charges of US biological weapons attacks. (16)

    Though details are scarce, the creation of biological weapons for covert use started early, with indications of substantial results. The Special Operations Divison of Fort Detrick was commended in 1950 for >the originality, imagination and aggressiveness it has displayed in devising means and mechanisms for the covert dissemination of bacteriological warfare agents. = They had special interest in cholera, dysentery, typhoid and botulism along with the other agents under development for the overt program. (17)

    Opinions of American generals and Professor Crane to the contrary,(18) declassified documents thus establish beyond any doubt that the United States by 1951 had some necessary supplies and capabilities for using biological weapons. But did it have the operational structures for delivering them to a war front?

Operational Infrastructure

    The Air Force was assigned the primary operational role in biological warfare. The directorate of the air force biological weapons program during the Korean War was divided into two parts, both parts reporting separately to Lt-Gen. T. D. White, deputy chief of staff for operations. The task of the first part, known as the US Air Force BW-CW Division (with an acronym AFOAT-BW) under Colonel Frank Seiler, was to establish an overt biological warfare capability for the emergency general war plan against the Soviet Union referred to earlier. (19) Initial capability within this plan was phased in by March 1952 but it was plagued with difficulties, shortage of refrigeration facilities for the brucellosis pathogen and fell short of expectations. (20) This is the part of the program that Professor Crane discusses when he concludes that the US lacked capabilities in the field.

    But there was another part. The second part was hidden in the Psychological Warfare Division of the air force under the command of Colonel John J. Hutchison and its tasks were to direct and supervise covert operations > in the scope of unconventional BW and CW operations and programs, = and to >integrate capabilities and requirements= for biological warfare and chemical warfare into war plans. (21) Our understanding about what was going on in the Korean War was the covert experimental testing of biological weapons within the objectives of the emergency war plan, with the added advantage these weapons might serve some tactical purpose in the war.

    An important component of the operational infrastructure was logistical. Though the Air Materiel Command =s logistical plan for biological weapons, plan 13-53, was in evolution during the Korean War, the author of the official history of US Air Force involvement in biological warfare for the period concluded that the logistical plan could have been used for the emergency war plan if necessary. It was undoubtedly adequate to transport agents and munitions for experimental use. (22)

    As already mentioned, the most advanced propaganda weapon of psychological warfare units, the 500 lb. leaflet cluster bomb, was adapted and standardized as a biological weapon. The regular US Air Force had approximately 70,000 of these leaflet cluster bombs in its storage hangars by 1950. (23) In addition, the Psychological Warfare Division developed an air arm, the 581st ARC Wing, operating in Asia under the cover of a transportation service (Air Resupply and Communications Service), to assist in carrying out its mission. Colonel John J. Hutchison, head of the Psychological Warfare Division, was the air arm=s deputy commander. After the ARC Wing arrived in the Philippines in July 1952, its planes and crews were immediately assigned as reinforcements to units of the Far East Air Force and to the Fifth Air Force in Korea. (24)

    According to an insider of the US Central Intelligence Agency, it was the dream of Air Force Chief of Staff, General Hoyt Vandenberg, to have a full-sized Psychological Warfare Air Command to be the equal of the Air Defense Command, the Tactical Air Command, and the Strategic Air Command, but for unconventional, clandestine warfare. (25) Vandenberg believed that the problems of fighting Communism in the Cold War were such that they should not be left to the normal forces, but should be dealt with by experts and by highly skilled men who would be in a position to utilize military strength and influence. Selected by President Truman to organize the Central Intelligence Service, the predecessor of the CIA, Vandenberg had many personal connections to create some semblance of his vision. In fulfilment of that vision, in addition to Special Forces, regular military units in Korea worked closely with the CIA which also had its own air arm based in Taiwan operating under the cover name Civil Air Transport. (26)

    Another facet of >psychological warfare= and biological weapons in the Korean War took shape around a Psychological Strategy Board created by President Truman. Born in April 1951 the Psychological Strategy Board was an attempt to put a White House stamp on unconventional and covert warfare.

    Within the limited confines of this paper we present two episodes where direct evidence (Chinese and North Korean) and corroborating American evidence combine to bear on our assertion that through covert channels the United States experimented with biological warfare in the Korean War. The purposes of these field experiments were to achieve some military objectives and to test a range of agents and munitions.

    The first episode concerns OPERATION TAKEOFF of President Truman's Psychological Strategy Board. This board had four contingency plans for the developing situation in Korea, and two of them incorporated 'novel weapons'. OPERATION TAKEOFF (renamed BROADBRIM) was to deal with a possible breakdown of the armistice negotiations that had begun on 27 July 1951, while OPERATION HUMMER (renamed AFFILIATE) was directed primarily to the period after a successful ceasefire negotiation, and was a plan to pressure the enemy during the political talks for a peace treaty to end the war. The second contingency never occurred, but the first did.

    The negotiations for a ceasefire in Korea showed signs of breaking down shortly after they began, and were in fact suspended from 23 August until 25 October 1951. The Psychological Strategy Board [PSB] hurriedly approved TAKEOFF on 18 September 1951.(27) There are signs in the still heavily censored versions of the plan that TAKEOFF, which the head of the PSB signalled was to be handled on a 'need to know' basis, and which was framed on the basis of 'plausible deniability.' had some highly unusual aspects in support of 'the political, economic and military courses of action as planned for this eventuality = that went far beyond a proposed leaflet drop on China. Collateral documents reveal the secretary of defence complaining about one of the annexes to the plan, >having such military and political implications= and demanding >planning of such magnitude, = that it should be more thoroughly considered by the PSB before being handed over for action. (28)

    At the meeting for what was described as >the covert implementation of >Takeoff,= on 3 October 1951, the service personnel were hesitant, even a little suspicious. Army General John Magruder confessed that he had delayed forwarding the plan to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Although the documents carried a memo saying that it was an approved plan, the representative of the Pentagon wanted to know why there was no formal indication of this fact on the plan itself. Why was there no box carrying the facsimile signature of the person in authority? Why was there no indication that the plan was >a numbered paper in the series of PSB formal papers?' After receiving assurances, General Magruder indicated to the meeting that he would 'probably forward the plan for action tomorrow.' (29) An uneasiness, an air of reluctance, was clearly evident.

    Four days later, in accordance with 'an oral directive,' three Army colonels left Washington for a top secret trip to see General Ridgway, commander-in-chief of the Far East Command in Tokyo. (30) We do not know whether this trip was part of TAKEOFF. Perhaps it was a chance event. But in another coincidence, when US Air Force Colonel Andrew J. Evans, Jr., who had previously worked in the War Plans Division, was shot down by the Chinese in 1953, he told his captors that planning for the BW campaign in Korea had begun in October 1951. His statement was corroborated by another high ranking POW, Colonel Frank H. Schwable, chief of staff of the Marine air wing when he was shot down in Korea, who added that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had >sent [their] directive by hand= to General Ridgway in October 1951, ordering > the initiation of bacteriological warfare in Korea on an initially small, experimental stage but in expanding proportions.(31)

    The three army colonels, after reporting in person to Ridgway, spent two weeks in Japan and Korea taking great care, they said, to ensure that no one other than Ridgway and his chief of staff >learned of our true mission in the Theatre. = Part of their mission was atomic weapons policy in Korea. This was in the wake of a simulated exercise for tactical employment of these weapons in September 1951. But collateral documents indicate that they anticipated that Ridgway >does not concur= [emphasis in original] in the use of the weapon except as indicated in one paragraph of a document not available to the authors.(32) Yet as Professor Crane notes, Ridgway was keen for atomic weapons to be employed as tactical ground weapons.(33) Which leads to the question of whether this reference was to something other than the atomic weapon. The simulated atomic attack on tactical targets indicated that there were no suitable atomic targets, because, >troops in the forward areas are, in general, dug in in such manner as to be afforded protection from airburst of atomic weapons. (34) Which raises the question of whether the colonels had another mission, that of clearing the way to implement the novel (biological) weapons aspects of TAKEOFF as a more promising way to attack a heavily entrenched enemy.

    There are further grounds to ask the question whether the anxiety around TAKEOFF related to biological warfare. As nervous rumblings about the operation continued into late November 1951, there was a flap about 'statements concerning Novel Weapons. = Some serious reservations about TAKEOFF continued, from Secretary of Defense Lovett down through the military staff. But the director of the Psychological Strategy Board, former secretary of the army Gordon Gray, presumably with presidential backing, continued to push. The Joint Chiefs of Staff eventually approved the plan 21 December 1951 and reported that >implementing plans have been prepared and are in the hands of operating agencies. (35)

    The second episode concerns the dual role of the air force's Psychological Warfare Division as both responsible for propagandistic leaflet drops and for biological warfare planning and operations. This dual role requires historians to check any evidence appearing in US operations orders that the Chinese version of events, based on their direct evidence, may be the correct one, and that corroborates the information in the confessions of captured US flyers.(36) Very few air force operations orders for the Korean War have come to light. But those that have raise questions about some B-26 missions. On May 19 through May 23, for example, the operations orders dispatched thirty B-26 aircraft on armed reconnaissance night flights to designated areas of western North Korea to hunt and destroy vehicles and rolling stock. In each case one flight of four bombers was directed to a particular place where a railway bridge or short piece of the railroad had been attacked all day by fighter bombers. Late at night the four B-26 =s added their ten tons of high explosives to ensure the rail cut. The after-mission reports show that the bombardier of the last aircraft dropped two leaflet bombs labeled M-105 at the very end of the attack. (37) This bombing pattern fits well with that described by the Chinese following their interrogation of captured flyers Kenneth Enoch and John Quinn.

    The Chinese claimed that germ attacks were carried out by the B-26=s as part of regular bombing raids, and that the germ-infected feathers or insects came in 500-pound-size leaflet bombs labelled M-105. Their prisoners told them that these bombs were reported as >duds = or as having >no visual results owing to darkness.= The purpose of these attacks was to contaminate the bombed area and disrupt the work of repair crews trying to restore the rail line bringing supplies from China into North Korea. The Chinese claim is not inconsistent with our knowledge that the US leaflet bomb had in fact been adapted and standardized as a biological anti-crop bomb, and was also considered as an anti-personnel biological weapon against the > supplies and equipment = of the military supply system of enemy troops.

    In the wake of our book the Historical Office of the Air Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio has published an historical study, 'Weapons of the U.S. Air Force: a selective listing, 1960-2000,' which lists the M105 as a biological bomb. Taking into account the evidence and analysis of our book this source confirms the link between the US Air Force biological ordinance, its use as recorded in the after-mission reports of the US Fifth Air Force in Korea and what the Chinese and North Koreans thought was happening to them on the ground via the M105 bomb. (38)

    After the Chinese allegations gained world-wide attention, members of the 3rd Bomb Wing were questioned by the US Air Force =s Office of Special Investigations to clear the air force of the charges. Colonel William G. Moore, commanding officer of the 3rd Bomb Wing from January to November 1952, signed a sworn statement declaring that while the allegations of germ warfare were >entirely false,= his flyers did fly leaflet missions, > the purpose of which was to warn non-combatants in the areas adjacent to military targets that those targets were subject to attacks by USAF, thus enabling civilian personnel to avail themselves of an opportunity to escape injury and fatalities.=

    The appropriate time for humanitarian warnings to the villagers along the railway tracks would have been before and not after 100, 000 pounds of bombs dropped by thirty-six F-84 fighter bombers beginning in early morning and the loads of four B-26s late in the evening. Warning for the next time would ring rather hollow, since the cycle of bombing on these targets was weeks apart. Moreover, considering that millions of leaflets with humanitarian messages were being dropped by non-combat aircraft on a daily basis, one may question the purpose of this tiny offering from the >leaflet bombs = of the B-26s. The Chinese allegations of biological agents dropped in this fashion and in this combination can no longer be dismissed, since detailed evidence from both the US and Chinese archives show that they were quite feasible, they were in line with US capability for covert warfare and that they happened.

    These two episodes support the charges made in February-March 1952 by China and North Korea that the United States was employing biological agents. The Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, warned in a radio broadcast that any US forces caught using biological weapons would be treated on capture as war criminals.

Further Evidence from the Chinese Archives

    Some commentators have suggested that the Chinese fabricated their case about germ warfare, that their leaders did not believe it, and that they spread lies to embarrass the United States. This controversy (stemming from copies of documents said to come from the archives of the former Soviet Union) and our views on it have already been published elsewhere. (39) The suggestion that the Chinese leaders themselves did not believe their case is not credible.

    Top secret documents from the Chinese archives made available for the first time to the authors reveal Mao and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in consultation with Chinese party cadre, military command and health officials attempting to figure out what was happening. These documents were not part of the public debate at the time of the Korean War, and have not previously been made available to non-Chinese scholars. These documents would not exist if the Chinese had fabricated the charge of BW, since there would be no reason for top officials to propagandize themselves. From the hard evidence falling at the feet of Chinese and North Korean soldiers and civilians Mao concluded that what was happening was a large scale, and not very effective, experimental program.(40) The Chinese evidence is consistent with U.S. capabilities, and with an experimental program casting a wide net to test agents, munitions and tactical and strategic applications.

    In China= s Liaoning province, medical reports of public health personnel in 1952 reveal a pattern like that reported in Korea, of U.S. aircraft sightings related directly to unusual concentrations of insects and some anomalous outbreaks of disease in light of local epidemiological patterns. There was, for example, a major outbreak of acute toxic encephalitis not local to the area in three cities close to the North Korean border. A pathology group, led by a western-educated scientist who was head of the Department of Pathology at the National Medical College in Shenyang, concluded that the disease probably was not caused by insect bites but that the infection entered through the digestive system or the respiratory tract.(41) Medical investigations in China concluded that in some cases, particularly with respect to plague, anthrax, cholera, and encephalitis, there was evidence of biological warfare, complementing the work of the North Korean Medical Corps serving with the Chinese army in Korea, which reported evidence of plague and cholera verified by medical laboratories in Beijing.

    Western scholarship has tended to dismiss the Chinese and North Korean medical evidence. Recently declassified documents indicate that these dismissals were contrived. One of the most widely circulated of these dismissals was a 1952 report by three distinguished Canadian scientists instigated by the U.S. government. None of the three was on the government =s biological warfare panel. On the other hand, documents declassified in the mid-1990=s indicate that the Canadian Department of External Affairs also sent the evidence to Prof. Guilford B. Reed, head of the Canadian biological warfare laboratories at Queen=s University and perhaps the leading expert on insect vectors in the coordinated Canadian and U.S. programs. Reed concluded in 1952 that the Chinese evidence was entirely feasible, and recommended that Minister of External Affairs Lester B. Pearson avoid public discussion of the scientific aspects of the charges. (42) This document was kept secret until 1996.

    The most visible evidence was, by its nature, through the use of insects. Though the Chinese also suspected aerosol bombs, and reported U.S. planes using spray tanks, it was the Chinese claims about insects as BW vectors that became a highly sensitive issue for the United States. Dr. Dale W. Jenkins, former head of the Entomology Division in the Biological Laboratories responsible for weapons development at Fort Detrick, said in 1963 that Athe US had never investigated the potential of using arthropods for biological warfare, @ before the Chinese raised their complaints. (43) The record, however, tells us that it did, with both the U.S. and Canadian program conducting insect vector work in close coordination dating from WWII and throughout the Korean War period. Greater disclosure of documents for the period dating from 1954 reveals a large insect vector program in place. Contrary to assertions that the U.S. had gone beyond insect vector work to concentrate on aerosol work, insect vectors remained very much part of the picture.(44)

The Will to Use Biological Weapons

    As indicated above there were reservations among some members of the US military leadership, conflicting views about the wisdom, the value and perhaps the ethics of using biological weapons. Set against these reservations were several key decisions of the US administration and its military chiefs of staff.

    On 27 October 1950, two weeks after the Chinese army entered the Korean War, Secretary of Defence George Marshall approved the major crash program in biological warfare referred to earlier. Marshall was acting upon the recommendations of a blue-ribbon committee including pharmaceutical manufacturers and headed by businessman Earl Stevenson which had produced its final report advocating an offensive, >first use= biological warfare program the week the Korean War began. Ethical issues and questions of international law were casually dismissed or evaded in policy analysis, at the same time an awareness was expressed that an offensive BW program went beyond the public consensus at home and abroad. In this case the program would have to be kept secret for the time being. Acting on all the major proposals of the Stevenson report except for adopting a doctrine of >first use,= the administration increased funding for biological warfare research and development from 5.3 million for the fiscal year 1950 to $345 million, exclusive of operating costs, for the years 1951-1953. (By comparison at a time of roughly similar buying power, the ambitious biological warfare program during the Second World War cost $60 million and employed some 4,000 people.) This was a substantial financial commitment for that time indicating the determination of the government to intensify the program.

    Adding to the strong support from the administration and sections of the business community, the attitude of the senior American generals is indicated in a top secret document dated 21 September 1951. The joint chiefs of staff approved the idea that biological warfare had great potential and the US should employ it without regard for precedent; such warfare would not destroy structures or property and thus simplifies postwar economic rehabilitation problems; its low production costs compared to other means of warfare made it attractive; the US should employ it >whenever it is militarily advantageous = and should adopt vigorous large-scale field tests >under operational conditions.' (45)

    At that moment US military chiefs decided to place the biological warfare program in Strategic Group I, with the same priority as atomic warfare. And on 21 December 1951, the secretary of defence, Robert Lovett, directed the services to achieve >actual readinessY in the earliest practicable time,= with doctrine being developed and weapons phased in as available. (46)

    These decisions make it quite clear that the United States government and its military leaders had the will to use biological weapons in the early 1950s. What remains to be clarified is whether or not U.S. military doctrine or guidelines at the time of the Korean War allowed for such use.

First Use Doctrine

    The claim of the government's supporters is that the United States had a 'retaliation only' biological warfare policy until National Security Council directive 5062/1, 15 March 1956, established a 'first use' policy. This is a mistaken claim. But confusion over 'first use' policy arises because the earlier decision in 1951-1952 for an offensive strategy was obscured by the participants in that decision. They covered their tracks with a trail of documents which tell a story of secrecy and avoidance of public accountability.

    As the crash program in biological warfare fell into place in 1951-52, the joint chiefs of staff and the defence department addressed an implication by some military officers that a 'retaliation only' policy for chemical warfare which was established by National Security Council directive 62 (NSC 62), in February 1950, applied to biological warfare. A July 1952 report on biological warfare policy from the defence department summed up the issue and its resolution:

    Following establishment of the CW national policy, one school of thought associated BW with CW by virtue of the fact that BW can be a gas type warfare. The other school of thought separated CW and BW, and insists that no national policy exists for BW. The second interpretation is preferred.(47)

    The air force and navy shared this preference. The army balked, but after a quick round of discussions in February 1952 the army agreed to support the majority view.

    The defence department was sufficiently wary to accommodate the minority view that it added a somewhat contradictory concluding comment: 'Our national policy with respect to BW is currently under review. In the meantime, the Services are governed by the existing policy on CW and, by inference, our BW policy has been guided by our CW national policy.'

    But actually by this time the joint chiefs of staff had rejected the CW precedent of 'retaliation only' in favour of the atomic warfare policy precedent of use in the national interest subject to presidential approval. In February 1952 when the joint chiefs approved the principle recommendations of its Joint Advanced Study Committee on Biological Warfare, 'that the United States acquire a strong offensive BW capability without delay,' and that, 'a sound military program requires the development of all effective means of waging war without regard for precedent as to their use,' it also approved a recommendation for, 'the adoption of a positive military policy to the effect that the United States will be prepared to employ BW whenever it is militarily advantageous.' The joint chiefs of staff ordered their staffs 'to prepare directives to the Services' to implement their decision.(48)

    On 20 March 1952, Brigadier General O.L Grover, of the US air force Psychological Warfare Division which, as we have already seen, was responsible for 'integrating biological warfare capabilities and requirements' into war plans, sent out a memo in response to a question from the US air force command stationed in Europe. The memo stated unequivocally: 'Current war plans assume that on Presidential decision, the United States may use biological warfare if it appears to be in the national interest.'(49)

    To implement this decision the joint chiefs of staff recognized that it had problems with public opinion which had come to associate biological with chemical warfare policy. Its Joint Strategic Plans Committee, in drafting the decision for implementation, observed how 'in the public mind' the retaliatory policy for chemical warfare established in NSC 62 was associated with biological warfare as well.

    In fact, the language of NSC 62 gave little reason to infer that it also applied to biological warfare. Its title referred specifically to chemical warfare policy in a military culture which had come to make the distinctions between the two. The text, except for the concluding sentence, addressed gas warfare. The concluding sentence stated, 'This policy [for gas warfare] is to be considered as an interim measure and will be subject to review after detailed operational evaluations of chemical warfare, biological warfare, and radiological warfare have been made.' A considerable stretch of interpretation was required to read this statement to mean that the previous text aimed exclusively at gas warfare also included biological warfare, though as noted, the issue was raised and the joint chiefs of staff resolved that there was no policy on biological warfare.

    But the military leaders were nervous about public perceptions. Concluding that public opinion would not be receptive to an open declaration of a 'first use' policy for biological warfare, they decided to adopt a 'first use' doctrine without a formal statement on policy. They considered themselves politically and legally secure in doing so, because with no policy on biological warfare they were introducing no change to national policy. The Joint Strategic Plans Committee defined the public relations problem while addressing a department of defence directive of 18 November 1951 to 'Obtain wide public support of national policy in the use of CW-BW-RW in the national interest':

    The fact that a directive such as this was considered necessary only a few months ago indicates that public antipathy to CW has not appreciably decreased. Because of the close association between BW and CW, and since BW possesses to an even greater degree those characteristics which have caused CW to be placed in a special category, it appears that a BW policy formally established at this time could only be similar to, and no less restrictive than, the contemporaneous CW policy. It is practicable, and may be desirable, to continue to hold in abeyance action relating to the establishment of a formal BW policy. It is considered that there is no necessity of further statements of policy concerning BW. (50)

    The issue was obscured again by a policy statement in April 1953, when NSC 147, an 'Analysis of Possible Courses of Action in Korea,' included what would appear to be an innocuous reference to biological warfare policy amidst an encompassing statement on Korean War policy. This statement indicated that biological warfare would be used in the Korean War only in retaliation. The reference indicated that 'retaliation only' policy for biological warfare was established by NSC 62 in 1950. But the joint chiefs of staff with defense department concurrence had secretly agreed this was not the case. They had already concluded that there was no policy on biological warfare and in establishing a secret offensive strategy for biological warfare subject to presidential approval, they had dodged the issue of public accountability for biological warfare policy.

    Currently accessible documents from the U. S. archives do not reveal the thinking that went into this 1953 reference to chemical warfare 'retaliation only' policy extending to biological warfare. A reasonable speculation is that military and foreign policy decision makers, anxious about public opinion at home and among US allies, were dealing with the considerable fallout surrounding Chinese and North Korean charges in February 1952 that US forces were using biological weapons in Korea. Also, this was at the height of the world-wide public protest to ban weapons of mass destruction. With the threat of the Korean War spreading to general war already subsiding in the spring of 1953, and since the military themselves already had begun to have doubts about the effectiveness of their biological weapons, they may have been more willing to go along with other members of the US administration who wanted a policy statement that could be brought out and defended in the court of public opinion.


    The disappointment expressed by the U.S. military leadership in the progress of their biological warfare program by 1953 is consistent with Chinese reports of the results of what they took to be an experimental use of biological weapons in China and Korea. The experiments were unsuccessful in starting large-scale epidemics in the battle zone or along the enemy's transportation lines. The official Chinese history of the Korean War states that the Chinese army suffered less than 400 casualties from the biological weapons attacks in 1952. This report, if accurate, tends to confirm the American feelings of disappointment with their efforts. Chinese accounts give many examples of civilian casualties as the result of what were considered to be germ war attacks on the general populace but no over-all figures.

    While American scientists and military engineers had been unable to achieve a lethal, easily disseminated, epidemic producing germ agent for use in battlefield conditions, the evidence suggests that for over one and a half years the US tried to do just that and still denies it. This is a black hole in US military history.

    If our findings and analyses are correct then confidence in the United States sincerity in supporting disarmament conventions is seriously undermined. And unless there is some note of repentance and apology by the United States for its Korean War experiments then, in our view, there will be little moral credibility for American participation in humanitarian efforts to rid the world of biological weapons and still less for unilaterally assaulting other countries because of their suspected stockpiles of such armaments.

    The threat to the planet from weapons of mass destruction (biological, chemical and nuclear) lies not mainly in some weak, poor world countries, but chiefly in powerful countries such as the United States itself and its closest allies. The threat comes from a political culture that allows the executive branch and the military to lie to Congress and the American people, and to proceed, in spite of moral and legal restraints to introduce weapons of mass destruction such as biological weapons in a time of crisis. The US government still covers-up its biological warfare experiments in the Korean War. Can people who make false denials be trusted to keep their promises?

    If the US government does confess to having committed an international war crime it will not immediately banish the threat of weapons of mass destruction. But it will be a start in changing the political culture to one of less secrecy, more transparency and honesty in public affairs. It will be a relief and a contribution to the patient efforts needed to build an international order where weapons of mass destruction can be truly eliminated.

                    - Stephen Endicott & Edward Hagerman , June 2002, Toronto, ON., Canada.

Note: this article has been offered to several scholarly journals with a view to publication, but so far none have made a positive response. (June 2004)


1. John Burton to Stephen Endicott, 12 April 1997

2. John Ellis van Courtland Moon, 'Dubious Allegations,' The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 1999, 72

3. Conrad C. Crane, 'Chemical and Biological Warfare during the Korean War: rhetoric anc reality,' Asian Perspectives, v. 25, no. 3, 2001, 61-83; John Ellis van Courtland Moon, 'Biological Warfare Allegations: the Korean war case,' Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 666 (1992), 53-83; Milton Leitenberg, The Korean War Biological Warfare Allegations Resolved, Occasional Paper 36, Center for Pacific Asia Studies, Stockholm University, May 1998 and 'The Korean War Biological Weapon Allegations: additional information and disclosures,' Asian Perspective, v. 24, no. 3, 2000, 159-172

4. Crane (2001): 62; Moon (1992): 69-71

5. Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, The United States and Biological Warfare: secrets of the Early Cold War and Korea, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1998, 304 pp., 62 photos, 7 maps. Much of the material in this article first appeared in our book, but with some significant additions.

6. Memoranda by the Chief of Staff, US Army and Chief of Naval Operations to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 'Deception in the Biological Warfare field,' 1 Feb. 52, JCS1927/3 released with JCS1837/36 (declassified in 1991), RG218, US National Archives and Records Administration, Archive II, Maryland [NARA]; Dean Acheson in the New York Times, 4 Mar. 52

7. ' ' ' ' ' ' -

8. Endicott and Hagerman (1998): 172, appendix 3

9. United States Congress, U.S. Army Activity in Biological Warfare Programs, v. 1, 24 Feb. 77, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office: report by Lt. Col. George A Carruth, 32

10. Thomas Etzold and John L. Gaddis, Containment: documents on American policy and strategy, 1945-1950, New York 1978: 'Directive on Office of Special Projects,' NSC 10/2, 18 Jun. 48; U.S. Senate Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, v. 1, Washington, D.C., 1975: Colby testimony on p. 24

11. Endicott and Hagerman (1998): 82-4; 'Memorandum,' Joint Advanced Study Committee Conclusions, 21 Sept. 51, JCS1837/26, approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 25-26 Feb. 52, JCS1837/29, RG218, NARA

12. Endicott and Hagerman (1998): 82-4, 87

13. William M. Creasy, 'Presentation to the Secretary of Defense's Ad Hoc Committee on CEBAR,' 24 Feb. 50, p. 8, CCS385.2 (12-17-43), Sec. 10 (B.P. Pt.1), Box 207, RG218, NARA

14. Crane (2001): 75

15. Dorothy Miller, 'History of Air Force Participation in the Biological Warfare Program, 1944- 1954,' U.S. Air Materiel Command, Historical Division (unpublished), v. 1 (1952), 79-81, v. 2 (1957), 104-11, 124; Department of Defense Directive on Chemical and Biological Warfare Readiness, 21 Dec. 51, p. 15, CD385 (General) RG330, NARA

16. People's China, 1 Apr. 52

17. Department of Defense, Committee on Biological Warfare, '1951 Program Guidance Report,' 5 Dec. 50, CD383.8 (Biological Warfare), RG330 , NARA

18. Crane (2001): 64, 75-78

19. James A. Rafferty, Operations Analyst, HQ USAF, "Diagnosis of the USAF Program in Biological and Chemical Warfare,' Dec. 52, 3, File TS53/67-99, BW-CW General Decimal Files 1953, Entry 199, Box 1, RG341, NARA

20. Miller (1957): 4

21. Robert M. Lee, Director of Plans, USAF, Memorandum for Chief, War Plans Division [and] Chief, Psychological Warfare Division, 17 Mar. 53, File 337-385, USAF-Operations, BW- CW General Decimal Files 1953, Entry 199, Box 5, RG341, NARA

22. Miller (1957): 30-33

23. Department of Defense, Directive on Chemical and Biological Warfare Readiness, 21 Dec. 51, CE385 (General) RG330, NARA

24. Endicott and Hagerman (1998): 120-22

25. L. Fletcher Prouty, The Secret Team: the CIA and its allies in control of the United States and the World, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1973: 220

26. Endicott and Hagerman (1998): 132

27. 'Plan Takeoff,' 18 Sept. 51, Psychological Strategy Board [PSB], File 3387.4, Korea, Harry S. Truman Library

28. Memorandum for Mr. Gray, n.d., U.S. Government Declassified Documents Index 1988 (White House), No. 1503, No. 1729

29. Two "Memorandum for the Record,' 3 Oct. 51, Declassified Documents Index 1991 (White House), No. 3540

30. Memorandum by General Ruben E. Jenkins, Assistant Chief of Staff G-3, 20 Nov. 51, Declassified Documents Index 1975, No. 69-A

31. For analysis of the BW confessions of captured US flyers and later their retractions under threat of court martial see Endicott and Hagerman (1998): 163-67

32. Declassified Documents Index 1975, No. 68-D, 69-A

33. Conrad C. Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea, 1950-53 (Lawrence, Kansas, 2000): 71

34. Memorandum for the Chief of Staff, US Army, Declassified Documents Index 1975,

No. 69-A

35. William Korn, 'Memorandum for the Record,' 26 Nov. 51; Edward W. Barrett to Gordon Gray, 29 Dec. 51, PSB File 387.4, Korea, Truman Library

36. Information for this episode is from Endicott and Hagerman (1998): 172-78, appendix 4

37. Endicott and Hagerman (1998): Appendix 4

38. Weapons of the U.S. Air Force: a selective listing, 1960-2000, HQ Air Force Materiel Command, Historical Study No. 14, (Ohio, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, 2000): 13. A disclaimer introducing this booklet states that the publication "does not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government." It also informs the reader that the study was coordinated with the Air Force Materiel Command Directorate of Requirements and was then reviewed by the Air Force Command Office of Public Affairs, "which cleared the work for public release." i Recently we have learned that Historical Study No. 14 has been withdrawn from circulation by the US Air Force and its author transferred out of his job.

39. Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, 'Twelve Newly Released Soviet-Era "Documents" and Allegations of U.S. Germ Warfare during the Korean War,' posted to H-Diplo website on 5 July 1999, and a shorter version in Asian Perspective, v. 25, no. 1, 2001, 249-257; for Kathryn Weathersby's presentation supporting the authenticity of the Soviet documents see the Cold War International History Project Bulletin, No. 11, (Winter 1998): 176-189

40. History of the Chinese Peoples' Volunteer Army in the Resist America, Aid Korea War, 2nd edition, [in Chinese], Beijing, (1900): 149-152; 'Disease Prevention Report and Comments by the Central Disease Prevention Committee,' 23 Apr. 52, Central Archives, Beijing, v. 271

41. Northeast Patriotic Health Campaign Committee, v. 43, 1952-53, Research Group report No. 8, Mar. 52, Liaoning Provincial Archives

42. 'Memorandum: Communist allegations of bacteriological warfare in Korea and China,' encl. in Escot Reid, 'Memorandum for the Minister,' 15 May 52, file 50208-40, pt.2, v. 5919, RG25, National Archives of Canada. Some Western scientists continue to question the qualifications of the Chinese scientists who conducted the investigation into the biological warfare charges, despite the fact that many of them were graduates or had been associated with major North American and European universities and medical schools. See the Journal of the American Medical Association, November 17, 1999, v. 282, No. 19, 1877- 78

43. Dale W. Jenkins, 'Defense against insect-disseminated biological warfare agents,' Military Medicine, 128, (February 1963): 116

44. Endicott and Hagerman (1998): 74-79, 143-54

45. 'Memorandum' by the Joint Advanced Study Committee, 21 Sept. 51, approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 25-26 Feb. 52, JCS1837/26, 1837/29, RG218, NARA

46. Endicott and Hagerman (1998): 50

47. Report on Chemical and Biological Warfare Readiness, 1 July 52, p. 27, Folder 18, non- logged, TS-BW-CW Decimal Files 1952 (Top Secret), Entry 199, Box 4, RG341, NARA

48. Joint Chiefs of Staff, decision on JCS1837/29, 26 Feb. 52, RG218, NARA

49. File 17, non-logged TS, Jan-June 1952, BW-CW Decimal Files 1952 (Top Secret), Entry 199, Box 4, RG341, NARA

50. Report by the Joint Strategic Plans Committee to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Statements of Policy and Directives on Biological Warfare, 11 June 52, pp. 329-330, JCS1837/34, RG218, NARA