Truth or Treason? Dirty Secrets of the Korean War

Photo by Stefan Krasowski | CC BY 2.0

The Korean War ended in a stalemate at the 38th parallel, which to this day divides North and South Korea. The final armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. There still is no final peace settlement of the conflict. Technically, the two sides are still at war, separated by a Demilitarise Zone (DMZ) with nukes now pointing at each other, guaranteeing nuclear annihilation if war breaks out again. And given Donald Trump’s threats of unleashing “fire and fury” on the DPRK, the possibility is horrifyingly real.

The cessation of military operations also marked the beginning of a new war: the propaganda war. As the first armed conflict of the Cold War ended in a draw, it was essential for the US-led coalition, flying the UN flag, to claim a moral victory for the “Free World”. The Red-Yellow hordes had been stopped at the 38th parallel in Korea. The next battle would be in Indochina, where the French – supported by the US – were fighting a “communist” insurgency, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. The Indochina War  would become the Vietnam War, or the American War as they call it in Viet Nam.

But the “Free World” propagandists had to clear some hurdles before claiming victory in Korea. The North Koreans and Chinese had accused the US of waging bacteriological warfare and of atrocities against the civilian population and prisoners of war held in Allied camps. The war had left much of the country in ruins, with barely a building left standing in the North. According to Wikipedia, “nearly 3 million people died. More than half of these, about 10 percent of Korea’s pre-war population were civilians.” Unlike World War II, the Korean War did not bring much glory to the US & Allies. Thus it became the “forgotten war”, the one no one knows much or talks about.

Two “Caucasian Communists”, Wilfred Burchett and Alan Winnington reported the Korean conflict from the Chinese-North Korean side. I put Chinese first, because both were accredited to the Chinese delegation to the ceasefire talks. There was nothing sinister about it. Both held British passports and the United Kingdom had officially recognised the People’s Republic of China and had normal diplomatic relations. The two men were reporting events of world significance from the “other side” of a conflict which was officially a “police operation”, not a war, conducted under the UN flag. Winnington was the correspondent of the London Daily Worker and Burchett of the Paris evening paper Ce Soir, edited by one of France’s best known poets, Louis Aragon. Their colleagues on the Allied side were in fact grateful for the information they were getting from the two ‘red’ newsmen, as it complemented the meagre handouts released by the US Command press service. In his seminal and authoritative book on foreign correspondents, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq, Phillip Knightley speaks highly of Wilfred Burchett reporting from Korea.

But US Command took great exception to any news coming from the ‘communist’ side and tried – unsuccessfully – to put an end to “certain correspondents abusing their news coverage facilities for the purpose of fraternisation and consorting and trafficking with the enemy” and thus “endangering military security”. One of the high points of “fraternisation” – which attracted the ire of the US Army propagandists – was an episode worthy of M.A.S.H.

It was code-named ‘Operation Father Christmas’ and involved a plot hatched by the Associated Press Tokyo Bureau in December 1952. The ‘plot’ was to ‘reactivate’ Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Frank ‘Pappy’ Noel, held in a Chinese POW camp.

That’s how the story is told by John Faber, historian of the National Press Photographers Association in Great Moments in News Photography:

… four men sat in AP Tokyo dreaming up a Christmas package for POW Noel. “How about cigarettes?”  “Some canned food like chicken?”  “It’s cold in those prison camps, how about a bottle of whisky?”  “As long as we’re dreaming, how about a camera?” joked Max Desfor, photo editor. Bob Eunson, bureau chief, Bob Schutz, staff correspondent and Bob Tuckman, reporter, digested the electrifying idea. Why not?

At the Panmunjom truce parley site a few days later, Tuckman and Schutz worked on the idea with Communist correspondents Wilfred Burchett (Paris Ce Soir), Allen [Alan] Winnington (London Daily Worker), Chu Chi ping (Peiping Ta Kung Pao). Within a short time Burchett informed Bob Schutz that the Red authorities had approved the plan. Schutz packed up his camera outfit, enclosed a letter to Noel, and passed it over the dividing fence to Chu Chi ping.

Three weeks of tense waiting went by before AP Tokyo “messaged” N.Y. on Jan. 24: “Christmas package in hand being carried Schutz due Tokyo late tonight.”  … The AP had scored a “beat”. Frank Noel was back on “active status” although a prisoner of war in Korea. A “first” had been written into photojournalism history.

The nation’s newspapers headlined the story: “Exclusive – ‘Pappy’ Noel Comes Through.”  “Captured AP Lensman Scores Exclusive from Behind Iron Curtain.” There were full-page picture spreads, eight column strips, panel displays. Noel’s pictures brought hope to the POWs, and to their folks in the US. During his internment he made several hundred pictures. On 9 August 1953, after 32 months of imprisonment, Frank Noel was freed. A unique episode had ended.

‘Pappy’ Noel’s photos contrasted very unfavourably with harrowing pictures of North Korean and Chinese POWs kept in brutal conditions in Allied camps. It was very hard to dismiss Burchett’s and Winnington’s reports of atrocities as “communist propaganda” as they were also witnessed – if not always reported – by Allied newsmen and UN observers. [1]

Something had to be done about the two annoying ‘red’ newsmen.

As I wrote in my previous story in CounterPunch (How The CIA Tried to Bribe Wilfred Burchett, 19 January 2018), in September 1953, the CIA, through an American newsman, made Wilfred Burchett an offer of $100,000 to switch sides. He declined.

So what do the CIA & Associates do with extremely bothersome people that can’t be silenced through bribes or intimidation? They resort to physical elimination or character assassination.

A cable from the Australian Embassy in Tokyo to the Department of External Affairs in Canberra, dated 16th July 1954, marked TOP SECRET reports:

“Headquarters of Far East Command approached the Embassy today regarding declassification of a United States Army Intelligence report detailing the activities of Wilfred Burchett and Alan Winnington in subverting United States prisoners of war in North Korea prison camps. This report (…) is based on information obtained by the United States Army interrogation of released United States prisoners of war …

“… the United States Army psychological warfare section are anxious to have this report de-classified so that they can use material contained in it in broadcasts, pamphlets and other propaganda aimed at discrediting these two men …” [2]

Please note, US POWs were released in September 1953. This cable is dated July 1954, almost a year later. US Army Intelligence, the psychological warfare section, the CIA and other agencies had had plenty of time to “de-brief” the released POWs.

In his essay Korea: Wilfred Burchett’s Thirty Years’ War (in BURCHETT: Reporting the other side of the world 1939-1983, Edited by Ben Kiernan, Quartet Books, London 1986) Gavan McCormack writes:

The San Francisco Chronicle (11 August 1953) carried a very revealing report from Keyes Beech:

“This is a fear-ridden atmosphere in which American POWs are being shipped back to the US … All interviews with repatriates are conducted in the presence of a censor and a Counter-Intelligence Corps agent. Unless the repatriate is an exceptional man, this is, to say the least, an inhibiting influence … Often during the course of the interviews, ex-prisoners have turned to the counter-intelligence men for consent before answering questions.”

Thus the threats and ill-treatment under which these men had confessed in Korea were compounded by the threats and intensive psychological pressures under which they later denied their confessions. It is impossible to say with absolute confidence that such men told the truth always in the latter case and untruth always in the former.”

The first big shot at discrediting the “two men” was an unsigned article in US News & World Report of October 2, 1953, about a month after the failed CIA bribe attempt. The title was STRANGE CASE OF TWO TRAITORS.

The article accuses Burchett and Winnington of being “a new kind of traitor” and working “actively for the enemy.” They “Aided Reds… Faked Germ-War ‘Confessions’… Needled Prisoners.”

Serious stuff. If true, the two men could be facing charges of treason. As the article suggests: “For doing less, William Joyce, Britain’s “Lord Haw Haw” was tried and hanged at the end of World War II.”

If not true, it was slander, indeed character assassination. Let’s not forget this was at the height of the Cold War and Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts. People’s lives and careers were destroyed. You either toed the anti-communist line or paid the price. In American, only a few brave men and women found the courage to resist the anti-communist hysteria. Most just ducked, protected their careers, or advanced them by flushing out Reds from under the beds.

While the US Army’s psychological warfare section – and the CIA, no doubt – were collecting material to discredit the “two men”, a physical assassination was being plotted in the US by the CIA. That of Frank Olsen, a scientist working simultaneously on a secret bacteriological warfare program for the US Military at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and a top secret mind control and torture program for the CIA, also at Fort Detrick and at secret locations in Germany.

These are the threads that tie the CIA to the two cases, the newsmen’s and the scientist’s: germ warfare, confessions, brainwashing, torture.

Frank Olson’s story is masterfully told by Errol Morris in his six-part docu-drama Wormwood. I’ve written about it in a previous piece published in CounterPunch (Wormwood and a Shocking Secret of War, 12 Jan 2018).

Code Name Artichoke

Before Wormwood, another film was made about Frank Olson by German filmmaker Egmont Koch in 2002. The title is Code Name Artichoke.

“Artichoke” was the codename for top secret CIA research in mind control and torture techniques. After WW2, the CIA took over the research program the Nazis conducted in concentration camps, experimenting with human beings. From the film, we learn that (all quotes hereafter are from the film):

“Many of the survivors told US doctors about cruel experiments the camp doctors carried out using diseases, germs and various drugs.

“A few weeks later, at Kransberg Castle north of Frankfurt, the scientific elite of Nazi Germany was arrested and questioned by American officers. The name of the project was Operation Dustbin. The American Military hoped to evaluate and exploit the findings German researchers made during the war…

“Some of the leading scientific experts in Nazi Germany had been involved in biological warfare, testing the effects of deadly germs on human beings in Dachau and other concentration camps.

“One of them was Professor Kurt Blome. Blome was the Third Reich’s Deputy Surgeon General and the man behind German research into biological weapons.”

Blome was tried at Nuremberg and should have faced death by hanging like other Nazi war criminals. But he was acquitted. The Americans had other plans for him.

Norman Cournoyer, a friend and colleague of Frank Olson’s comments in the film:

“We were interested in anyone who did work in biological warfare. Did they want to use the Nazis? Absolutely. They’ll want to use anything that would kill people.”

From 1950 until his death in November 1953, Frank Olson made frequent trips to Europe, especially Germany. He was travelling on a diplomatic passport, unusual for a mere scientist. In fact, as his former friend and colleague, Cournoyer says in the film: he was a member of the CIA.

He visited some of the US Army’s most important facilities in Germany and the CIA’s top secret headquarters located in the building of the IG Farben, in the heart of Frankfurt. Olson had switched from the US Army biological weapons research program to a top secret CIA project “to use chemicals, drugs and torture on human beings in order to break their will and make them submissive: brainwashing.”  The name of the operation was Artichoke.

“The team would enjoy the opportunity of applying “Artichoke” techniques to individuals of dubious loyalty, suspected agents or plants and subjects having known reasons for deception…”

“The goal of the experiments is to manipulate the human mind in order to extract secrets from its subjects. And then to erase their memory, so they can’t remember what happened to them.”

Norm Cournoyer comments: “He was troubled after he came back from Germany one time… He said ‘Norm, you would be stunned by the techniques that they used.’ They made people talk! They brainwashed people! They used all kinds of drugs, they used all kinds of torture.”

“They were using Nazis, they were using prisoners, they were using Russians, and they didn’t care whether they got out of that or not.”

In July 1953, Frank Olson left on his last trip to Europe. He returned deeply disturbed and confided to his friend Norman Cournoyer that he’d watched people die during interrogations. He told him: “Norm, I’m getting out of that CIA. Period.”

On 28 November 1953, Frank Olson was thrown out of a 13th floor window of the Statler Hotel in New York by CIA agents. He was silenced.

Meanwhile in Korea, American prisoners of war were being released. Some had confessed to conducting bacteriological warfare and were facing charges of treason for “collaborating with the enemy”. The U.S. and allies vehemently denied the charges and accused the Chinese and North Koreans of extracting the confessions through torture and brainwashing.

The CIA saw an opportunity to step in.

“All hands agreed that among the returning POWs from Korea the ‘hard core’ group and those who had been successfully indoctrinated were excellent subjects for Artichoke work.”

“Of those who returned, some were interrogated by the CIA using cruel methods, and forced to rescind their confessions. But were the confessions the truth? Did the Americans in fact use biological weapons in the Korean War? As a test? And was this the secret Frank Olson knew, and might disclose?”

Frank Olson’s son Eric comments:

“This fits with what my mother had always said: ‘Korea really bothered your father’.

Finally one of my father’s colleagues, within the past year only, told me that my father had come to understand that Korea was the key thing and that they were using biological warfare methods in Korea.

And then I proceeded to ask him about the germ warfare confessions, this was alleged to be by the American government, these confessions made by the American servicemen were immediately discredited by the U.S. government under the idea that these were manipulated and produced only by the effect of brainwashing.

And at that point my father’s colleague looked at me as if to say ‘read-my-lips’: ‘it wasn’t all brainwashing’.”

The narrator asks:

“Would this colleague, Norman Cournoyer, repeat this statement in front of the camera?”

Norman Cournoyer and Eric Olson have this exchange:

– I took an oath when I left the United States Army that I would never divulge that stuff.

– You divulged it to me.

– You cannot prove it, can you?

– I can assert it. You told me.

– Hearsay!

– So you don’t want to say it?

– No… I don’t want to say it. But, there were people who had biological weapons and they used them. I won’t say anything more than that. They used them… Was there a reason for your dad being killed by the CIA? Probably so.

Both Wormwood and Code Name Artichoke come to the same conclusion: Frank Olson was thrown out the 13th floor window of the Statler/Pennsylvania Hotel in New York by CIA agents because he knew too much about biological warfare in Korea. He was tormented by this knowledge and wanted to leave the Agency. So he had to be eliminated.

Dirty Little Secrets

There was another dark secret at Fort Detrick, where Frank Olsen worked. It is told in a 2010 Al Jazeera documentary by Tim Tate, titled Dirty Little Secrets. In Dirty Little Secrets, Japanese professor Mori Masataka travels to North Korea – his fourth visit there – to pursue his investigation of allegations of bacteriological warfare. He and the Al Jazeera team venture deep into the country to interview people who had witnessed germ warfare attacks during the war. The team’s movements are strictly controlled and the testimony of North Korean witnesses can be dismissed as “communist propaganda”, together with the ample evidence on display at the Pyongyang War Museum.

But the Al Jazeera team also goes to Manchuria, to the site where the notorious Unit 731of the Japanese Imperial army conducted biological warfare and other experiments on human beings under the direction of General Shiro Ishii. His unit’s experiments are very similar to those conducted by the Nazis in the extermination camps. After WW2, General Ishii and members of his unit were granted immunity by the US Military and transferred to Fort Detrick to contribute their knowledge to the development of the US biological warfare program.

The Al Jazeera team also travels to Texas to interview 85-year old Kenneth Enoch, one of the pilots who had confessed to conducting biological warfare bombing raids in Korea. He is asked this question by the interviewer:

– One imagines that these were very brutal guards?

– No, no, no…

Enoch chuckles and goes on to recall how his guards went out of their way to keep him warm, bringing “a pot full of charcoal” to his room.

This is followed by footage of Enoch making his public retraction, obviously reading from a prepared script, upon his return home from Korea. He states:

“… also forced to read their propaganda, to make favourable comments on it, that is their Russian publications and so on communism …”

But when interviewed by Al Jazeera his story changes.

– Did they try to indoctrinate you?

– No, no… (Laughs) I don’t think so. They had all kinds of books there if you wanted them, I guess. If you borrowed one and didn’t like it, you just didn’t read it.

Then he makes at least a partial admission that the US did use biological weapons in the Korean War.

“The people who deal in that don’t have to go and fight, and that’s a pretty sweet deal for them. You know, but they send it with you,” he says.

Records of Enoch’s bombing missions over North Korea were removed by US air force investigators from the official records in March 1952 – two months after he was captured and one week before he made his confession to germ warfare.

Oral recordings of British POWs in Korea at the Imperial War Museums website corroborate Enoch’s testimony of generally decent treatment and conditions in the camps. They can be heard here. It should be noted  that US flyers accused of conducting germ warfare bombings were supposed to have been treated particularly harshly. Yet Enoch doesn’t seem to complain. On the contrary, he’s relaxed and smiling, even chuckles, while recollecting his supposedly harrowing experience in the POW camps. Almost all of the British POWs interviewed between 1987 and 1999 speak well of Wilfred Burchett. Most say they liked him. This totally contradicts allegations of torture and brainwashing to extract “confessions.”


What about the other side of the story, told by the CIA and the US Military?

There’s a clue, from a possible author of the anonymous US News & World Report story about the “two traitors” mentioned earlier. His name is Edward Hunter. He is credited with coining the word ‘brainwashing’. He is the author of the book BRAINWASHING, The Story of Men Who Defied It, published in 1956.

His obituary in The New York Times (June 25, 1978) under the headline Edward Hunter, Author and Expert On ‘Brainwashing’ informs:

“The author of several books on brainwashing, Mr. Hunter is credited with having introduced the term into the English language …

Mr. Hunter began his career as a newspaperman and foreign correspondent for the old International News Service …

With the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Hunter was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services, beginning an association with the United States intelligence community. After the war, his assistant said, he joined the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Coincidently or not, Edward Hymoff, the newsman who made the failed CIA bribe offer to Wilfred Burchett on behalf of the Agency, was also ex-OSS and was at the time bureau chief of International News Service in Seoul, Korea. INS was owned by the Hearst group, notorious for its early support for Hitler and its fierce anti-communism.

I’ve downloaded a copy of Edward Hunter’s BRAINWASHING. (It bears the stamp UNITED STATES AIR FORCE). One “story of men who defied it” is that of Frank Noel (no ‘Pappy’ in the middle).

It is a rewrite of the Associated Press “Operation Father Christmas” story with a sinister role assigned to “Wilbur(sic) Burchett the turncoat Australian. Burchett’s sly, calculating approach fooled many p.o.w’s.” And so it goes, in the same vein as the US News & World Report hatchet piece.

I mention it here, because it would be the model for future slanderous attacks on Wilfred Burchett, which continue, sporadically, to this day, with new additions to the list of his “treasonous” activities, such as being a KGB agent at the service of Communist China, North Vietnam, North Korea, Pol Pot, the Communist Party of Australia. In Australia, the source of many such attacks is the right wing magazine Quadrant, once financed by the CIA. One of its editors, Robert Manne, led, and still occasionally leads, the Antipodean anti-Burchett forces. Slanders published in Quadrant are usually picked up by Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian and other media outlets Down Under. Thus Burchett, the traitor, communist propagandist, brainwasher, torturer etc. is kept alive. Refutations of  these slanderous narratives by distinguished historians, like Professor Gavan McCormack of the ANU, are usually confined to academic journals and ignored by Wilfred Burchett’s vociferous detractors. It is an uneven battle.

It is not too hard to imagine how the stories of POWs returning from Korea were re-written – or entirely invented –  to fit the racist anti-communist narrative. B-grade science-fiction movies from that time and the Fu Manchu films were no doubt a good source of inspiration. Culminating with the classic of the genre, The Manchurian Candidate. After all, there are new wars to fight and new villains must be conjured up to keep the masses frightened and subdued. And voices opposing these wars and other evil deeds must be silenced or smeared and discredited. We’ve seen that script repeated again and again, with only a few updates to keep up with the times. Remarkably – and tragically – it works.

On 20 October 1977, legendary American journalist Carl Bernstein, of Watergate Fame, published a sensational piece of investigative reporting in Rolling Stone Magazine. It’s title is self-explanatory: THE CIA AND THE MEDIA, How Americas Most Powerful News Media Worked Hand in Glove with the Central Intelligence Agency and Why the Church Committee Covered It Up.

The New York Times followed up with three long pieces by John M. Crewdson and Joseph B. Treaster on December 25, 26 and 27, in that order:

The C.I.A.’s 3-Decade Effort To Mold the World’s Views, Agency Network Using News Organs Books and Other Methods is Detailed

Worldwide Propaganda Network Built by the C.I.A.

C.I.A. Established Many Links To Journalists in U.S. and Abroad

They are very well researched articles and provide ample food for thought.

They remind us that the US Military, the CIA, the Fourth Estate and other dark forces work hand in hand to condition public opinion into accepting a permanent state of war. Not only individuals, but entire countries that stand in their way are ruthlessly eliminated and annihilated. Courageous individuals who seek the truth and tell the truth are smeared, intimidated, persecuted and occasionally physically destroyed.

So remember to “believe nothing until until it has been officially denied”, as the great journalist Claud Cockburn famously said.

I would like to conclude with a quote from Wilfred Burchett, in the closing paragraph of his autobiography, At The Barricades:

“It so happened that step by step and almost accidentally, I had achieved a sort of journalistic Nirvana, free of any built-in loyalties to governments, parties, or any organizations whatsoever. My loyalty was to my own convictions and my readers. This demanded freedom from any discipline except that of getting the facts on important issues back to the sort of people likely to act—often at great self-sacrifice—on the information they received. This was particularly so during my reporting from Vietnam, the most important of my career, far too important to be swayed by dictates from outside or above. Over the years, and in many countries, I had a circle of readers who did not buy papers for the stock market reports or strip cartoons, but for facts on vital issues affecting their lives and their consciences. In keeping both eyes and both ears open during my forty years’ reporting from the world’s hot spots, I had become more and more conscious of my responsibilities to my readers. The point of departure is a great faith in ordinary human beings and the sane and decent way they behave when they have the true facts of the case.”[3]



[1] Wilfred Burchett and Alan Winnington, Koje Unscreened, Britain-China Friendship Association, 1953

[2] NAA: A432, 1952/1677, National Archive of Australia

[3] Wilfred Burchett, At The Barricades, Times Books, New York, 1981

George Burchett is an artist who lives in Hanoi.