You can’t see it. You can’t hear it. You can’t smell it. Yet a biological weapon could decimate an entire city.
In 1942, the United States government, sanctioned by President Franklin Roosevelt, began a highly classified program to research and develop bioweapons. It was the first in a series of steps, each motivated by fear of powerful enemies, that took the United States down a path to develop a new weapon of mass destruction.
Here’s an unprecedented look at more than two decades of closed-door meetings, secret test sites, determined scientists, and human subjects that attempted to turn some of the world’s most potent germs into some of the world’s most effective weapons. “It was a turning point in the way America was willing to fight,” says producer John Rubin. “Roosevelt’s decision acknowledged the readiness to use a kind of weapon that military leaders had long shunned as dishonorable.”
The United States had just [negotiated] an attacked at Pearl Harbor and was “fighting a world war” on two fronts. Intelligence [media] fueled fear that Adolf Hitler was developing a terrifying new weapon — a bomb that could target soldiers and civilians alike with lethal microbes. And in the world of medicine, doctors and scientists were prepared to exploit their new understanding of germs. The stage was set for America to enter the dirty business of biological warfare. “Once you’re looking at a science not strictly for the benefits that it can bring, but for the damage it can inflict on an enemy, you’re in a whole new world,” explains Jeanne Guillemin, Senior Advisor to MIT’s Security Studies Program.
In the spring of 1943, scientists began arriving at Camp Detrick in Maryland. The team was comprised of virologists and bacteriologists from the top universities and pharmaceutical companies in the nation. Their work took place under the ultimate security classification — the same level as the parallel Manhattan Project to build an atom bomb. “In some cases there were only four or five people who actually knew the extent of what was going on at Camp Detrick,” says Norman Covert, an expert in the history of America’s bioweapons program. What was going on was the race to develop biological weapons strong enough to destroy an entire population.
But when World War II ended after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world saw what nuclear weapons could do and many questioned the need for biological warfare. Advocates, however, pushed forward, and with the rise of the Cold War the program intensified. No one knew what the Soviets had in development, but U.S. strategists were determined to be ready. “During the Cold War, the idea of retaliation was paramount,” explains biowarfare expert Martin Furmanski. “If the Soviets had biological weapons, we had biological weapons.”
For more than two decades testing continued — not just in Maryland laboratories, but in ventilation systems in Washington, D.C., on the streets of St. Louis, on the shores of San Francisco Bay, and in the desert of Utah. The most conclusive tests took place in 1965 near a Pacific atoll called Johnston, when a single military plane sprayed a long line of germs that cause a deadly disease, tularemia. “These field tests demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt the feasibility of biological warfare,” says Bill Patrick, former chief of product development at Detrick. “We infected animals some sixty, seventy kilometers downwind from the point of spray. And that is why we know that one particular agent, when properly stabilized and properly disseminated is a very effective weapon system.”
But just four years later, the program came to an abrupt end. On November 25, 1969, President Richard Nixon made a stunning announcement: “Mankind already holds in its hands too many of the seeds of its own destruction… Therefore I have decided that the United States will renounce the use of any form of deadly biological weapons that either kill or incapacitate.”
While Nixon’s declaration ended America’s offensive bioweapons programs, military leaders and researchers had opened a door that could never be shut. “They’ve bequeathed on a world this knowledge and we now have to control it and contain it and make sure the biological weapons are never used,” cautions historian Brian Balmer.
“Today, perhaps more than ever, people are aware of what a biological attack could do to a city or a nation,” say producer Mark Samels. “The program was, in many ways, a consequence of the mindset that scientific and medical advances could be turned on their heads to create massive destruction.”
Matthew Meselson in Vietnam, where he was studying the effects of chemical weapons, 1969-1970. On the surface, the U.S. biological weapons program appeared to be going swimmingly in the 1960s; frequent tests of simulated pathogens proved the efficacy of biological weapons, and in 1967 the Fort Detrick scientists developed a bacteriological missile warhead. But opposition was growing to the U.S. use of unconventional weapons like napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam, and biological weapons began to be tarred with the same broad brush. Matters weren’t helped by a March 1968 accident in which the Air Force mistakenly dropped VX nerve agent outside the Dugway Proving Ground, apparently resulting in the death of over 3,000 sheep (some estimates claim that over 6,000 sheep were killed) in Skull Valley, Utah.
That same year Seymour Hersh published a book called Chemical and Biological Warfare: America’s Hidden Arsenal and news arose of the large-scale tests the military had conducted in the Pacific with biological agents. A plan to sink ships filled with old chemical weapons in the ocean off Long Island met with furious public protest, and Congressional representatives began to demand more scrutiny of what had been heretofore a largely secret program.
The scientific community was also raising alarms; Harvard biology professor Matthew Meselson had already circulated a petition in 1966 signed by 5,000 scientists asking the U.S. to halt the use of chemical weapons in Vietnam and conduct a top-to-bottom review of American biological and chemical weapons policy.
Against this backdrop, word came from Great Britain and Canada that it might be possible to get an international convention passed banning biological weapons if the U.S. made some gesture of good faith in the area. Newly inaugurated President Nixon decided that the time was right to look into the matter.
Kissinger’s Review and Nixon’s Decision
Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger headed up the review process, which began in late spring 1969. A chance encounter with Meselson at an airport led Kissinger to ask his old Harvard colleague to submit a position paper on the subject of biological weapons. Meselson’s conclusion was that biological weapons were both dangerous because the technology could readily fall into the hands of enemy groups or nations and unnecessary because of the U.S.’s massive nuclear arsenal. His arguments were reinforced by other submissions; in fact, when the National Security Council met with Nixon on November 18, only the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued for the retention of biological weapons. One week later, Nixon made his announcement. “I have decided that the United States will renounce the use of any form of deadly biological weapons that either kill or incapacitate,” the president said. “Our bacteriological programs in the future will be confined to research in biological defense, on techniques of immunization, and on measures on controlling and preventing the spread of disease.” In taking this step, Nixon cited the “massive, unpredictable, and potentially uncontrollable consequences” of biological weapons. He added, “By the examples that we set today, we hope to contribute to an atmosphere of peace and understanding between all nations.” Privately, Nixon showed more realpolitik. America had no need for biological weapons, he declared; if an enemy used them on the U.S., we would retaliate with nuclear bombs.
The Biological Weapons Convention
Whatever Nixon’s motivations, his decision had the desired international effect. Negotiations on a treaty banning all biological weapons intensified, and after the Soviet Union dropped its opposition, in April 1972 the Biological Weapons Convention was completed and became open for signature by the nations of the world. The U.S. Senate ratified the convention in December 1974, and it went into effect in March 1975, the same year the Senate also finally ratified the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the wartime use of bacteriological weapons. The Biological Weapons Convention was a historic accomplishment, not merely restricting biological weapons but pledging their complete elimination. [for whatever that’s worth] Unfortunately, one of its key signatories, the Soviet Union, continued a secret biological weapons program in direct violation of the treaty’s terms, a fact that would only become known years later.
A History of Biological Weapons
British soldiers, besieged by American Indian tribes during Pontiac’s Rebellion, give blankets infected with the smallpox virus to tribal representatives.
Paul Fildes, son of noted painter Samuel Fildes, is born in London.
Shiro Ishii is born near Tokyo.
Ira Baldwin is born on an Indiana farm.
Fildes enters medical school to study to become a surgeon, but soon transfers to bacteriology.
Guards patrol the gates at Porton Down Germ Warfare establishment. The British establish a secret facility at Porton Down to deal with the threat of chemical weapons.
Ishii receives his medical degree from Kyoto Imperial University; he soon develops an interest in bacteriology.
Spurred by the horrors of World War I, delegates in Switzerland create a Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical and bacteriological methods of warfare. However, countries are still allowed to research, develop, and produce these weapons. Thirty-nine countries sign the protocol, including the United States. Although the Senate refuses to ratify the treaty, the U.S. government says it will still abide by the terms.
Spurred by his interest in biological weapons, Ishii begins a two-year fact-finding trip around the world, visiting Europe and America.
Shiro Ishii is appointed professor of immunology at the Tokyo Army Medical College. He is promoted to the rank of major in Japan’s Army Medical Corps and begins to advocate for a Japanese biological weapons program.
Fildes edits a nine-volume treatise on bacteriology that is published by the Medical Research Council, whose Bacteriological Chemistry Unit he heads.
The Japanese Army gives Shiro Ishii control of three biological research centers, including one in Manchuria, a Chinese province that the Japanese had invaded a year earlier.
U.S. Army Medical Corps Major Leon Fox publishes an article in the magazine Military Surgeon dismissing the idea of biological weapons. “Practically insurmountable difficulties prevent the use of biologic agents as effective weapons,” Fox writes.
Great Britain begins taking steps towards establishing its own biological weapons research project. Although the Medical Research Council is cool to the idea, Fildes agrees to assist the government.
Construction commences on a large Japanese biological weapons complex called Ping Fan near the Manchurian city of Harbin.
World War II begins in Europe with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany.
In a speech, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler boasts of fearsome German weapons against which his enemies would be defenseless. This fuels speculations among Allied leaders about what weapons German scientists may be developing.
The Japanese biological weapons complex Ping Fan begins operations. It employs some 3,000 personnel under Ishii’s direction, working on a wide variety of biological agents, including bacteria that cause plague and anthrax. Over the next five years, Unit 731, as it becomes known, conducts horrific tests on Chinese prisoners and, allegedly, some Allied POWs. Victims are injected with, forced to eat, and made to breathe deadly pathogens. Often prisoners are killed before the diseases have become terminal so autopsies can be performed. Ishii’s men also create bacteriological bombs, and later that year Japanese warplanes repeatedly drop porcelain bombs containing fleas infected with plague over Chinese towns, resulting in several outbreaks of plague among the human population.
Meanwhile, in England, a new biology department is established at Porton Down with Fildes as its head. His initial research focuses on botulism and anthrax.
A committee of nine eminent American biologists convenes at Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s request to investigate the possibility of germ warfare.
The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, bringing America into the war. That same day, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill receives a top-secret memo summarizing developments at Porton Down and reporting that cattle cakes laced with anthrax bacteria are the only biological weapons that currently can be deployed.
Churchill’s Defense Committee meets and gives the go-ahead for production of these cattle cakes. Later that year, the first of some five million cattle cakes are manufactured at Porton Down. The plan, named, “Operation Vegetarian,” is to drop them from aircraft over Germany in the hope of wiping out its cattle. This plan is never implemented.
Stimson’s committee issues the first of its two reports, concluding that biological warfare is “distinctly feasible” and the United States should begin its own biological weapons program immediately.
Stimson writes to President Franklin Roosevelt conceding that biological warfare is “a dirty business” but arguing America must be prepared. In May, Roosevelt approves the creation of a U.S. biological weapons program.
British-trained commandoes ambush high-ranking Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich near Prague. Although he suffers only minor wounds, Heydrich will die suddenly a week later. Fildes later claims to have “had a hand” in the assassination, perhaps by supplying the commandoes with grenades contaminated with botulinum toxin.
The Japanese test Salmonella on Chinese prisoners. Then they disperse the bacteria that cause typhoid, cholera, and other food-borne diseases over Chinese populations.
A team of Porton Down scientists led by Fildes begin outdoor testing of anthrax bacteria on the remote Scottish island of Gruinard. They set off anthrax-filled bombs and observe their impact on a group of sheep placed downwind. Most of the sheep die within a few days.
Fildes’ team has an anthrax bacteria bomb dropped from an airplane onto Gruinard. Although it lodges in a bog and does not infect any sheep, a similar test is more successfully repeated a month later on a beach in Wales.
Fildes arrives in Washington to meet with officials. Recognizing U.S. superiority in mass production, he asks for American help in making biological weapons. Fildes’ first request is for seven pounds of botulinum toxin (code named “Agent X”), which is a proteinaceous substance produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Later that month, Ira Baldwin, now a professor and head of the bacteriology department at the University of Wisconsin, receives a call from Colonel William Kabrich of the U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Service. Kabrich asks Baldwin to attend a meeting at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. Once there, Baldwin and other scientists are sworn to secrecy and then asked whether they believe that the U.S. can produce mass quantities of biological agents. Baldwin says yes, and 10 days later Kabrich asks him to head up the program.
Baldwin arrives in Maryland and becomes scientific director and administrator of the U.S. Army’s biological warfare research program. He soon begins recruiting colleagues from University of Wisconsin to join him.
Baldwin visits Horn Island, off the Mississippi coast, and will select it as a place to conduct outdoor biological tests.
Baldwin locates a site for his work at a little-used National Guard airfield in Frederick, Maryland, that becomes known as Camp Detrick. The Army officially takes it over in March and staff members begin arriving in April. The Army also acquires Horn Island, ret research. Scientists completed interior equipment intstallation; the boiler was operated by Alex Bryant, then a soldier.
Workers erect a two-story building dubbed “Black Maria” at Camp Detrick. The next month, a group of scientists led by Harvard bacteriologist Alwin Pappenheimer begin work there on filling Fildes’ request for seven pounds of Clostridium botulinum. Within two months, they have succeeded. Later that year, construction begins on two pilot plants for larger-scale production of biological agents.
Camp Detrick scientists begin outdoor biological bomb testing, using yeast instead of pathogens for the initial trial runs.
Gruinard after being bombed with Anthrax
The British conduct more anthrax bomb tests at Gruinard.
Testing of bombs containing botulinum toxin begins at Horn Island and continues for nine months. The tests lead the Army to conclude that such biological weapons are unlikely to be effective.
Convinced that the Germans will use biological weapons if able to produce them and that the British must be able to retaliate in kind, Churchill places an order for 500,000 “anthrax” bombs, i.e., bombs containing anthrax bacterial spores, with the Americans.
Camp Detrick produces a first batch of 5,000 anthrax bombs for the British, but it is clear that filling the whole order (plus another 500,000 bombs for American use) exceeds its capacities. The Americans decide to construct a new production facility near Vigo, Indiana, and begin safety testing there that summer.
In Manchuria, Unit 731 is blown up ahead of the advancing Russian Army, destroying most but not all records of Ishii’s activities.
The Army closes the Horn Island site, declaring it in “excess.” The Vigo production plant, still in safety tests, has manufactured four tons of an anthrax bacterium simulant, but nothing that could actually be used as a biological weapon.
Japan officially surrenders to the United States after atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II.
A committee is formed to oversee the demobilization of the Vigo plant. Later that month, the Camp Detrick administration begins slashing work schedules and Baldwin heads back to Wisconsin. Meanwhile, a Camp Detrick scientist named Murray Sanders arrives in Japan to pursue reports of a Japanese biological weapons program.
Sanders begins interrogating Tomosada Masuda, a colleague of Ishii’s at the Ping Fan facility.
The mayor of Ishii’s hometown announces his death; the funeral takes place a few days later.
A confidential U.S. intelligence report suggests Ishii is not, in fact, dead, but has gone into hiding.
The U.S. War Department releases a report on the nation’s wartime biological weapons program, keeping many key details obscure.
The U.S. demands that the Japanese government produce Ishii, who is in fact alive; he is handed over to American forces eight days later.
Another Camp Detrick operative, Lieutenant Colonel Arvo Thompson, begins interrogating Ishii, who lies repeatedly about his wartime activities. Thompson does not press him, but returns to America and writes up a report.
A third investigator from Camp Detrick, Norbert Fell, arrives in Japan. War crimes trials are about to be held, and the Soviets have shown interest in Ishii. Fell and his colleagues therefore think Ishii may now be more cooperative.
General Douglas MacArthur sends a request by radio to the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee in Washington, D.C. for documentary immunity for Shiro Ishii and his colleagues and urges them to grant it. He writes “information about vivisection useful.”
Ishii tells Fell that he is willing to share what he knows, including details of his human experiments, in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Hopeful of gathering useful information, the Americans agree and even coach Ishii on how to avoid questioning by the Soviets. Although Ishii’s information is eventually judged to be of little worth, the U.S. honors its immunity deal and no mention is made of biological weapons at the Japanese war crimes trials.