Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman.
(Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998)

Throughout the Korean War (1950-1953), the governments of North Korea
and Communist China repeatedly claimed that United States forces were using
lethal biological weapons--charged with the agents of cholera, plague, smallpox, anthrax and other deadly diseases--dropped from aircraft against defenseless civilians. What they depicted was a massive campaign consisting of numerous attacks. In their book, The United States and Biological Weapons, Endicott and Hagerman present their brief for the prosecution. Recently, citing this book, the North Korean government resurrected the BW charges, demanding that the Security Council launch an investigation. It is ironic that when the United States made the same demand during the war, the Soviet Union vetoed the motion.

Since I had refuted these allegations in 1991, I felt obliged to revisit the charges made during the Korean War. After a careful review of the evidence and the sources, I am more convinced than before that the allegations are false.

A careful reader will note that the book has an underlying subtext. The United States is depicted as the evil empire whose good faith cannot be trusted. After World War II, taking advantage of the knowledge the US acquired from its protection of the Japanese BW criminals, it engaged in a continuous effort to build a lethal arsenal of BW weapons. In Korea, it waged a campaign of indiscriminate slaughter which consciously targeted the civilian population.

Endicott and Hagerman reinforce their case by surrounding it in a sea of facts and footnotes sufficient to drown the unwary. Their argument is flawed on three grounds:

  • They fail to ask hard questions regarding the North Korean and Chinese evidence.
  • They fail to put the US program in context.
  • They use their sources in a selective fashion.

First, assuming that the United States did use biological weapons in Korea and North China, were all the charges true? If some of the charges were true and others were not, how would one distinguish one from the other? What controls were placed on the gathering and analysis of that evidence? These are questions the authors do not address.

Second, the authors fail to put the BW program in the context of the Cold War or the BW programs of other nations. United States military leaders planned on a "worst case" basis because they assumed that the Soviet Union had a substantial biological weapons capability. Obviously, they could not ignore what they saw as a serious potential threat. Recent revelations have confirmed that the USSR's BW program was extensive.

Third, the authors‚ failure to use their sources properly undercuts the validity of their case. They repeatedly cite Dorothy Miller's "History of Air Force Participation in the Biological Warfare Program" to bolster their argument. But, although Miller says that the BW program made some progress during the Korean War years, she concludes that the program failed to standardize and produce a lethal anti-personnel weapon during the war. The one available weapon was the unsatisfactory M33 bomb designed to disseminate Brucella suis, a debilitating agent. The feathers that the authors cite as lethal disease carriers were designed to carry anti-crop, not anti-personnel agents.

The question that must be addressed is how the decision to initiate biological warfare would have been made. The interim policy of the Joint Chiefs and the National Security Council, who advise the President on national security issues, was articulated in NSC 62 which remained in place throughout the Korean War, being re-asserted in NSC 147 (2 April 1953). The US would stick by a "retaliation only" policy regarding the use of chemical, biological and radiological policy until a thorough review of the effectiveness of these weapons had taken place. That review was not completed during the Korean War. The authors ignore these documents.

What about Truman's attitude towards the use of biological weapons? In his farewell address to the nation, delivered on 15 January 1953, President Truman rejected the option of preventive nuclear war. A day later, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, wrote to Truman, questioning that nuclear weapons were in a special "moral category separate from so-called conventional weapons and perhaps separate from biological and chemical methods of warfare." In his response, President Truman was emphatic: "I rather think you have put a wrong construction on my approach to the use of the Atomic bomb. It is far worse than gas and biological warfare because it affects the civilian population and murders them wholesale." Endicott and Hagerman make use of this letter to imply that Truman would not have hesitated to approve the use of biological weapons in warfare: "The president who used the atomic bomb against Japan implied in a letter written in 1953 that had the war in the Pacific not ended by mid-August 1945, he would have used biological as well as chemical weapons." They ignore the fact that in August 1945, the United States did not have the capability to wage biological warfare against Japan. Moreover, they ignore the emphatic statement by the President on 28 May 1952 regarding the Communist allegations: "The Kremlin cries that we have used germ warfare. There isn‚t a word of truth in that. We have never broken the Geneva convention in our operations in Korea. And they know that. They know it well. But they keep on passing out the lies that have no foundation in fact whatever."

If we are to believe Endicott and Hagerman, the United States violated its own policy regarding the use of biological agents and used disease agents it had not yet weaponized. Then the President lied about it.

Endicott and Hagerman‚s use of partial and coincidental evidence, patched together to form their indictment against the United States, is at the least questionable scholarship.

John Ellis van Courtland Moon
Professor of History Emeritus

99-2, issue no. 71

For the Professional in Government and Industry with an interest in Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense, Disarmament and Verification; Emergency and Disaster Medical Planning; Industrial Health and Safety; and Environmental Protection