Still today, the controversy over the use of bacteriological warfare by the United States during the Korean War (1950-53) has not been settled.
In the heat of military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, the issue came to the attention of the world when Foreign Minister Pak Hon-yong of the DPRK and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai accused the United States of waging germ warfare in Korea and Northeast China.
It was on January 28, 1952 that the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPVs) army first discovered insects carrying various pathogens in the DPRK, according to a book “History of the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea.” Similar insect vectors were found one month later in Chinese territories bordering the DPRK and in Qingdao in coastal Shandong Province.
The newly published book (Military Sciences Press, Beijing, 2000) devotes a whole chapter —19 pages in total — to the US biological warfare against the Chinese and Korean peoples, the most detailed account of the issue in an openly circulated Chinese publication to date.
“The US conducted ‘germ warfare’ in order to reverse the disadvantageous situation it faced on the battlefields, to put pressure on the Chinese and Korean negotiators in the truce talks and to test the capability of its bacteriological weapons,” said Senior Colonel Qi Dexue, a military historian with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Sciences, and also the editor of the war history. “To cover its crimes, the US waged the germ war clandestinely.”
Fortunately, the bacteriological warfare failed to result in the large-scale outbreak of epidemics among soldiers or civilians in Korea and China, thanks partly to the timely and effective preventative measures taken immediately after the first discovery of the contaminated insects.
One of these measures was the establishment of a highly-powerful organization, the “Central Epidemic Disease Prevention Committee” on March 14, 1952, with Premier Zhou as its chair. Later that year, the body was renamed the “National Patriotic Health Campaign Committee,” and it is still in operation today.
The germ warfare followed a regular pattern — US planes flew over Korean and Chinese territories, dropping cylindrical objects or “leaflet bombs” near battle lines, densely-populated towns and villages or along the railroads. When local people went to investigate, they found flies, spiders, fleas and dead or dying rats.
Tests showed that all the dropped items were contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, which could cause the plague, cholera, typhoid fever, paratyphoid, dysentery, encephalitis or meningitis.
On February 22, 1952, the DPRK Government denounced the US crimes, followed by China two days later.
Zhou noted in a statement that as early as December 1950, the United States had disseminated smallpox spores in Pyongyang, the DPRK capital, and other DPRK provinces when its armies were forced to retreat from the 38th Parallel under attack by the CPVs and the Korean People’s Army.
Zhou said at the time that the Chinese people, together with the people of the world, “will fight to the end to stop this insane crime that has been committed by the US Government.”
Of course, nothing but denial could be expected from the United States. On March 4, 1952, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson issued a statement flatly denying the charge and calling it “Communist propaganda.”
To collect evidence on germ warfare, China set up a 70-odd-member commission of inquiry to conduct investigations on Korean battlefields and in Northeast China.
From March 3-19, 1952, a mission of inquiry organized by the International Association of Democratic Lawyers toured Korea and Northeast China to conduct on-the-spot investigations.
From July 23 to August 6, that year, the International Scientific Commission to Investigate the Facts Concerning Bacterial Warfare in China and Korea, headed by Cambridge University professor Joseph Needham and made up of noted scientists from countries such as Sweden, France, Britain, Italy, Brazil, the Soviet Union and China, conducted further investigations in Korea and China.
The product of this field trip, the “Report of the International Scientific Commission for the Investigation of the Facts Concerning Bacterial Warfare in Korea and China,” better known as the Needham Report, concluded that “the peoples of Korea and China have indeed been the objective of bacteriological weapons. The weapons have been employed by units of the US armed forces using a great variety of methods, some of which seemed to be developments of those employed by the Japanese army during the World War II.”
Canadian missionary James Endicott, after having conducted an investigation in the vicinity of Shenyang, capital of Northeast China’s Liaoning Province, told a press conference in London on April 25, 1952 that the United States used bacteriological weapons not only in Korea, but also in China.
The Chinese and the Koreans also possess other substantial evidence — confessions made by US pilots who were involved in conducting biological warfare in Korea and China and were later taken as prisoners of war (POWs). The pilots confessed to having used bacteriological weapons. Some senior officers, including Colonel Walker M. Mahurin (Group Commander, 4th Fighter Interceptor Group, US Air Force), Colonel Andrew J. Evans Jr (Deputy Commanding Officer, 49th Fighter Bomber Wing, US Air Force) and Colonel Frank H. Schwable (Chief of Staff, US First Marine Air Wing), even touched on the decision-making process by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff to wage biological warfare.
The United States turned a blind eye to all this evidence, and the pilots eventually retracted their confessions —under threat of court-martial or a treason trial — when they were released.
“The so-called ‘germ warfare’ confessions were not simply a sudden bright idea on the part of the Communists, they were an integral part of a tremendous and calculated campaign of lies,” Charles Mayo, US alternate representative to the United Nation, told a UN conference on October 26, 1953.
However, the charges made by China and the DPRK have had the backing of some Western scholars from the 1950s to date.
In the early 1950s, John William Powell, editor and publisher of the Shanghai-based China Monthly Review, criticized the role of the United States and the UN in the Korean War and supported the Chinese and North Korean charges in his magazine.
The US Government banned the magazine in 1953, forcing Powell to close down the publication due to the loss of its main readership. Powell was indicted for sedition in 1956 along with his two editorial assistants — his wife Sylvia and assistant Julian Schuman.
In 1983, American professor Paul Cassell, when addressing the problem of how adversarial systems make it difficult to establish violations of international law, used the biological warfare charges as a case study and concluded that there was mounting circumstantial evidence that the United States was guilty.
But, it must be noted that there was only limited information available to him when he was writing for the Stanford Law Review (“Establishing Violations of International Law: ‘Yellow Rain’ and the Treaties Regulating Chemical and Biological Warfare,” No 35, January 1983). Moreover, Cassell reached his conclusion by weighing the evidence on both sides long after the event had occurred.
The most in-depth investigation into the US biological warfare made by Western scholars was conducted by Toronto-based York University history professors Stephen Endicott (son of James Endicott) and Edward Hagerman.
Their findings were presented in the book “The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea” (first published in 1998 by the Indianian University Press).
The two historians brought together in the book an array of evidence amassed from interviews and governmental archives and presented the compelling conclusion that “the United States took the final step and secretly experimented with biological weapons in the Korean War” (p198).
Endicott and Hagerman argue that the United States did not fight the Korean War as a limited war. Rather, US leaders were prepared to use “whatever methods and weapons were considered necessary to achieve their goals.”
However, the authors admitted that “clear and identifiable direct evidence that the United States experimented with biological weapons in the Korean War is not available in the US archives as they presently exist for public scrutiny” (p188, original emphasis).
For example, the National Archives of the United States was given the records of the Chemical Warfare Service.
But the preface to the accession list for 1949-51 files of the record says: “These lists were prepared by the army when the records were transferred to the Records Centre in 1956. They were attached to the accessioning dossiers and reflect the contents of the accession as it appeared in 1956. Between 1956 and 1969, some files were recalled by the army and others were destroyed. The records were accessioned permanently by the national archives in 1969” (emphasis added).
“After reading our book a number of serious US scholars have called upon the US Government to open up its archives on its biological warfare activities during the Korean War, but so far the US Government is keeping very quiet about this request,” said Endicott in an interview via e-mail.
To reveal the shrouded truth, Endicott and Hagerman conducted extensive research in the United States, Japan, Canada and Europe.
They were the first foreigners to be given access to classified documents in the Chinese Central Archives. They interviewed Chinese scientists who investigated the cases of cholera and plague in the spring of 1952, which was the result of American aerial attack, and reviewed the confessions of US POWs who admitted to participating in bacteriological warfare.
“The combination of Chinese and North Korean data and corroborating circumstantial evidence from the US and Canadian archives and elsewhere lead us to conclude that strategists decided to test these weapons during the Korean War. The temptation to test was increased when biological weapons — if they worked — might help end the military stalemate in the war,” said Hagerman in an interview via e-mail. “Evidence from both the Chinese and US sides suggests that the experiments were not successful.”
Endicott and Hagerman back the Needham Report. Despite the fact that the International Scientific Commission consisted of people sympathetic to the Chinese revolution — few neutrals existed at the time of their work— the outcome of the commission, the historians believe, “is a plausible re-creation of equally plausible data from North Korean and Chinese sources that the United States experimented with insect and other vectors of biological warfare during the Korean War.”(p190)
The problem that the Needham Report has encountered in the West is the criticism that the Chinese Government fed the International Scientific Commission fraudulent information, according to Hagerman.
Endicott and Hagerman made fruitful searches of the Chinese archival sources for scientific evidence of biological warfare, evidence that would help eliminate suspicion that the Chinese Government created false evidence.
They also found in the Chinese archives previously undisclosed sources showing that the Chinese political and military leadership weighed the medical evidence trying to figure out what was going on.
“This evidence would not exist if the charges were a hoax, since the political and military leadership would not be propagandizing itself,” said Hagerman. “It is our hope that our evidence will enhance the credibility of the International Scientific Commission Report, leading to its resurrection in western scholarship as a source of evidence, as well as the credibility of the findings of James Endicott following his field investigations.”
According to Stephen Endicott, the US Government under President Richard Nixon unilaterally renounced the use of biological weapons in 1969. This renunciation was taken up by the Soviet Union and other nations and resulted in the Biological Warfare Convention of 1972 prohibiting biological weapons, which was ratified by sufficient countries, including the United States, to come into effect in 1975.
The signatories to the 1972 Biological Warfare Convention are currently working on a protocol to establish ways of monitoring compliance with the convention and finding means of enforcement.
One of the questions on which there is no agreement is the proposed requirement that nations give an account of their history of involvement with biological weaponry. Three dates were proposed to begin the story: 1925, when the original Geneva Protocol banning biological weapons was adopted; 1945, the end of World War II; and 1975, when the new Biological Warfare Convention took effect. The US delegation is proposing that the truth telling begin after 1975.
“Of course, this would save them from the embarrassment of dealing with the Korean War period,” said Endicott.
Endicott and Hagerman devoted several chapters tracing the history of the US biological warfare programme from its outset during World War II.
“Their study shows in great detail how the federal government, the military establishment, the pharmaceutical industry and institutions of medical research worked together during an extended period to create biological weapons and to prepare them for use in war,” says a review on the book run on the Journal of the American Medical Association.
More importantly, the two historians discovered “one of the best kept official secrets” of the United States and Japan, namely how Japan’s World War II bacteriological warfare programme was integrated into the US post-war plans to develop the latter’s own biological warfare capability.
They describe how, on the initiative of its service chiefs, the United States granted immunity to a group of Japanese war criminals, including Lieutenant General Shiro Ishii, in return for their co-operation in sharing their knowledge of biological warfare.
During World War II, the notorious Ishii headed Japan’s Unit 731 of germ warfare, whose members performed horrifying experiments in Northeast China on Allied prisoners of war and civilian Chinese, killing over 3,000 of them.
In relation to the covert US-Japan deal, “The United States and Biological Warfare” and “Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-45, and the American Cover-Up,” support each other.
“The United States, because of its large stockpiles of nuclear weapons and its advanced technology in general, is the country most capable of using such terrifying weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological. The experience of the Korean War shows that the United States will resort to any and all means to gain its objectives — including the condoning of war crimes only to engage in international war crimes itself,” Endicott said.
“Until the US Government makes a confession and an apology for its experimentation with biological weapons in the Korean War, the people of the world should be very wary about letting it lead them anywhere in international politics,” he concluded in the email interview.