The question whether the United States used biological weapons during the Korean War remains a fierce controversy nearly 70 years after the North Korea and China made the initial allegations of such attacks.
An important new book by author Nicolson Baker, published in July by Penguin Books, Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act, makes the case that the U.S. pursued a very limited use of germ warfare during the Korean War, turning then to deception around use of biological weapons (BW) in the latter stages of the conflict as a form of psychological warfare.
According to Baker, the U.S. used deception to make the North Koreans and Chinese believe they were under bacteriological attack, using dropped insects and voles, but not, except perhaps in very limited cases, actual biological weapons. The Chinese and North Koreans, for their own propaganda reasons, supposedly responded by falsifying evidence for some of the BW attacks, even as they presumably knew the attacks were not bacteriological in nature.
Baker is wrong about this, for reasons I will explain below. In my estimation, after pursuing the issue for many years (as has Baker), the evidence of U.S. biological warfare during the Korean War is well-nigh overwhelming. The novel incorporation into Baseless of portions of the CIA’s 2013 release of declassified Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) intercepts and reports from the Korean War corroborates the BW claims of the Soviet, Chinese and North Korean governments. In fact, the use of the fairly new SIGINT evidence marks this book as a landmark in the historiography of that savage and poorly understood war.
Despite my conclusion that he erred in his conclusion to his book, Baker, who won the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, is an honest and fearless reporter, one who doesn’t pretend his work is definitive. In fact, he writes concerning his conclusion on the Korean War BW issue, “You may not be convinced, but that’s okay. My aim is to open the files, not necessarily to convince.” Baker wants to “squeeze germs of truth from the sanitized documentary record of the U.S. government.”
Baker rails against the corrosive actions of censorship, about destroyed documents, and the malign intent of bad actors, even as he battles his own emotional fatigue generated by persistent exposure to the horror of what he is reporting.
Cold War Secrecy
Baseless is initially introduced as a narrative about the inanities and frustrations of using FOIA to pursue Cold War documents. The title refers to the eponymous name of an early 1950s secret government operation, which Baker describes as “a Pentagon program that aimed to achieve ‘an Air Force-wide combat capability in biological and chemical warfare at the earliest possible date’…. assigned priority category I, as high as atomic weapons.”
The Department of Defense’s decision to withhold twenty-one Project Baseless documents from FOIA release became the precipitant for Baker’s journey into the depths of Cold War secrecy. In particular, he sought the truth about U.S. germ warfare during the Korean War, a truth Baker fears may never be found without the release of still more classified documents.
As a narrative, Baseless can be read as a modern version of Joseph Conrad’s famous novella, Heart of Darkness. But instead of the crimes of King Leopold II and the International African Association, Baker exposes the activities of a group of CIA and Pentagon proponents of biological warfare, in league with top U.S. and Canadian scientific experts, who conducted “devious, manipulative, violent operations that might affect – did affect – millions of families all over the planet.”
Among other covert U.S. campaigns documented in the pages of this book are the deployment of biological weapons against enemy agriculture and livestock, including use of hog cholera in East Germany in 1953 and 1954; swine fever and tobacco mold in Cuba; coffee rust in Guatemala; wheat rust in Russia; and an unprecedented experimentation with biological warfare agents or their simulants on urban populations in Minneapolis, St. Louis, San Francisco, New York and other areas.
In addition, Baker recalls and documents a long history of unethical scientific experimentation by the CIA, the Pentagon, and other U.S. agencies, from MKULTRA to the radiation experiments on countless civilians in the period after World War II. We learn about viruses that have been rendered more virulent at Army and CIA labs at Ft. Detrick and elsewhere – work that apparently still continues to this day. We learn about the plans to mass “gas blitz” Japan at the close of World War II with tens of thousands of phosgene, mustard and cyanide gas bombs, a plan that ultimately, in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was never implemented.
It’s a dark and awful journey, replete with too many villains to count, but also some heroes. The villains include Frank Wisner, the head of the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination, the center of covert special operations in the darkest years of the Cold War; Vannevar Bush, the head of the Department of Defense’s Joint Research and Development Board and “the maître d’ of biological warfare”; and WWII flying ace Jimmy Doolittle, who concluded germ warfare was necessary in the conflict with Communism, assuring the faint of heart among us, “Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply.”
The heroes are few, but important. There’s Democratic Congressman James Moss, who championed for years the Freedom of Information Act, which finally became law in 1966. Baker also cites Canadian scholars Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman (both now deceased), who wrote a 1998 book summarizing their study of the archival record surrounding the Korean War biological warfare charges.
Baker becomes friends with the Canadians. He sees Endicott in great pain, nearing the end of his life, and thinks, “He has not killed a single person. Contrast that with the germ-warfare people… they were all killers. Killers of people, killers of villages, killers of monkeys and dogs. They devoted themselves to finding improved ways and means of killing” (pp. 291-292), but Endicott and Hagerman devoted their work to exposing the killers.
As the narrative unfolds, so does the toll of confronting so much horror. The recognition that the nation’s leadership and top scientists were committed to bombing and napalming and nuking their adversaries into submission, not excepting the use of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction to achieve their aims, is terrifying to the author. It weighs on his soul, on all our souls.
Baker offers the reader brief respites from the horrific story he’s telling. Much has been made in other reviews about the frame of the book as a diary. Oases of mundane existence are sprinkled across the unrelenting narrative. The author adopts some dogs. He meets a man “pushing a fat-faced, smart-eyed baby in a stroller.” He drives past Denny’s Restaurant and a Comfort Inn. He experiences a day where “every grass blade was shining.”
The juxtaposition between the mundane and the horrific produces some occasional black comedy. “I ate some boiled potatoes for breakfast and thought about the word ‘aerosol,’”Baker writes, remembering that while growing up “aerosol” was associated with a kind of underarm deodorant. “But now I have a different feeling. Aerosols are about mass killing” (p. 68).
But finally, the journey into the impenetrable mass of death-dealing material, the dart-guns and the aerosol-spraying of poisonous bacteria, the constant planning for mass death and devastation, takes its toll. Baker is a courageous man, but among such horror, any of us may succumb to despair.
“We need to know what happened in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s,” Baker writes. “I can’t help believing that if we know what happened we will do better in the future and that there’s hope. Sometimes I have doubts. Sometimes I have doubts about the whole human experiment.“[Baker, Nicholson. Baseless (p. 225). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]
To Doug Baker (no relation to Nicholson Baker), reviewing Baseless for the New York Times, all the revelations about U.S. misdeeds is too much. Baker “only adds to the ball of confusion that is our world today.” He “smears” “our leading Cold War wise men” with “distortions, speculations and omissions…. Suffice it to say that in his view there is not a calamity anywhere in the world that was not caused by a United States government program.”
The Times review is an embarrassment.
Secrecy and Historical Amnesia
Baseless is the first book to my knowledge published in the United States by a major non-academic publisher (Penguin Books) to maintain the U.S. used biological weapons, even if in a very limited basis, during the Korean War.
The book makes a still largely circumstantial case that the use of biological weapons in Korea descended from a huge classified program that began during World War II to develop germ weapons to use against enemy military personnel, civilians, and agriculture. The program was augmented by the absorption of Japanese and German biowar expertise after the war, when the U.S secretly protected Axis scientists and doctors working on bioweapons from war crimes prosecution.
Baseless documents much of this, and this alone makes it an important book. Its significance extends to a larger critique of U.S. government and society. Baker examines the history of FOIA and concludes that the secret holders are winning. Indeed, the book ends with a heartfelt plea for more openness.
“Every U.S. government document that’s more than fifty years old should be released in full, right now. No redactions. As a first step,” Baker writes (pp. 379-380, italics in original).
Who can disagree with that? Baker’s book is one long argument against war crimes and the military mindset that produces such atrocities, and then acts to cover them up.
“Really secrecy is about mind control,” Baker writes. “It’s about deliberately imposed historical amnesia. If you can suppress all knowledge of something… for decades, you allow the myth of American decency and goodness to endure. By the time the truth comes out, the shock is muffled. The outrage response is inhibited.” (pp. 332-333)
I understand Baker’s concerns. I have shared many of his interests, as well as his frustrations. I also have tussled with FOIA over the years, with a few notable successes – obtaining a new, less redacted version of a CIA torture manual, as well as documents pertaining to a number of Guantanamo detainee deaths – and way too many rejections or forever-delayed FOIA defeats.
I have shared Baker’s interest in the true facts behind the Korean War, as that war has been, as researcher Tom Powell reminds us in a new essay, “deliberately erased from cultural memory in order to hide [U.S.] misdeeds.”
Powell is the son of John W. Powell, who was the first in the United States to use FOIA to reveal the extent of the U.S. cover-up of its collaboration with Japan’s World War II biological warfare scientists in Unit 731. John Powell and his wife, and their associate at the 1950s English-language journal China Monthly Review, were prosecuted for sedition for daring to report on the germ warfare charges during the Korean War. (After years, the charges were finally dropped.)
Tom Powell, who has written critically about attempts to document the Korean War BW charges as a hoax, wrote to this author and noted the importance of Baker’s research, but he reached much the same conclusion I did about the underlying weaknesses of Baker’s approach:
“Baseless illustrates clearly the shortcomings of purely archival work – the academic prejudice for written documents over the eye-witness testimony…. [In] Baker’s love of the discovery process, rabbiting around archives playing cat and mouse with redactors, he fails to understand that documents can be forged, or placed to deliberately falsify the record….”
Powell’s complaint about forged documents relates to Baker’s seeming acceptance of the findings of scholar Milton Leitenberg, who claims he has definitively debunked the germ warfare charges by the publication of purported documents from China and the Soviet Union that claim the bacteriological warfare charges were a conspiracy by the Russian, Chinese and North Korean governments, who supposedly planted BW evidence deliberately to deceive.
There is not time and space in this essay to review the charges and analysis of Leitenberg’s evidence. Those interested can pursue both Leitenberg and Powell’s work, as well as other writings on the subject. (I will soon be publishing my research on this point.)
There is other evidence overlooked or minimized in Baker’s book. He refers to the Korean War-era pamphlet, “I Accuse,” written in 1952 by Stephen Endicott’s father, the Rev. James Endicott. Baker notes that James “took the side of China and North Korea and said the germ-warfare accusations were true,” and was threatened with treason charges in Canada as a result (p. 327). But James Endicott was also an eyewitness to the germ warfare, not just a backer of the Chinese and North Korean charges. This is what James Endicott wrote literally at the beginning of his pamphlet:
If you had seen what I have seen, what would you say?
What would you say if you had seen with your own eyes sections of the brains of children who had died from acute encephalitis following germ-war bombardments by U.S. aircraft?
…. Would you be silent? That would make you an accomplice.
Or would you speak out?
I did all these things. I was there. I saw and heard the truth.
Somehow, Baker never refers to the eyewitness testimony of James Endicott.
Similarly, Baker cites my 2018 release of the Joseph Needham-authored, 700-plus page International Scientific Committee (ISC) September 1952 report on its investigation into the BW charges. The members of the committee were drawn from six different countries, mostly in Western Europe.
“It’s a remarkably detailed document, worth taking a look at,“Baker writes of the report (p. 219), but he barely mentions any of the evidence the ISC presented.
The one ISC-detailed incident Baker does relate in some depth misreports the facts, and hence comes to a conclusion diametrically opposite to those of the ISC investigators.
This is a crucial section of his book, as it pertains to the veracity of the germ warfare charges, and tests Baker’s own thesis about what all the seeming germ warfare activity was really about. We therefore must look at it in more detail here.
The Kan-Nan Plague Attack
The episode Baker analyzes from the ISC report concerns the dropping by U.S. airplanes in April 1952 of hundreds of voles over villages gathered around the town of Kan-Nan (Kan-Nan hsien) in far Northeast China. The entire narrative cannot be rendered here, but in summary, the voles were reportedly infected with plague.
The problem was, in the heat of the attack, health officials saw to it that nearly all the voles were immediately destroyed, as a wartime public health measure. (Most commentators today, even Milton Leitenberg, believe that the mass of North Koreans and Chinese believed they were being attacked with biological weapons, including infected insects and small animals.)
Baker says that the ISC report concludes that from a single vole that was rescued from destruction, no colonies of plague could upon examination be observed. He takes this to be an example of a massive CIA deception operation to make the North Koreans and Chinese believe they were the victims of germ warfare attack. The voles, according to this theory, were blank bullets, so to speak. They were real, and American planes dropped them, but they were not infected with plague or any other bacteriological toxin.
Baker’s own thesis derives from, one, the fact that no fatalities were observed from this attack; and two, his belief that subsequent evidence of plague bacteria was manufactured. (Other plague attacks discussed in the ISC report did have documented fatalities, but Baker never notes this.)
He writes that the sole Soviet member of the ISC “shows up, injects a guinea pig with the experimental material saved months earlier, and easily finds evidence of plague bacteria. Presto. Not convincing” (p. 221).
But that’s not what the documentary record in the ISC report states! Baker relates the ISC investigators found only “partially obscured colonies that might possibly resemble plague.” But the findings of two prominent Chinese plague experts, reproduced in the ISC report, concluded, “From the vole, Pasteurella pestis [plague] was isolated” (ISC report, p. 251).
True, the Chinese scientists found it difficult at first to determine if plague were present. This was because the singular sample they had was contaminated with coliform bacteria. Such contamination is, as one modern scientific paper I reviewed put it, “a widely occurring phenomenon and a prominent problem in microbiological research and microbial production.”
But the scientists looking at the Kan-Nan material did not give up. They selected two of the colonies they had that weren’t completely overgrown with coliform bacteria and cultured them on an agar plate. Then they injected the material into two mice, one albino rat, and two guinea pigs. The result? The mice died. “Autopsy revealed typical pathological changes of plague.” (ISC report, p. 250). Other similar results followed. From the spleen and liver of one rat and and a guinea pig “typical colonies
of Pasteurella pestis were obtained.”
So how did Baker conclude that a Soviet member of the ISC team had doctored the results? If this was all an elaborate hoax, why did the ISC publish the detailed protocols of the bacteriological examination of the vole, presenting all the difficulties of producing the plague evidence from the sole remaining specimen? (See Document M-6 in the ISC report.) Why not just say you found plague and be done with it? Why not kill off some prisoners and pass them off as BW victims, as Milton Leitenberg claims was done, referring to Soviet and Chinese documents he attests are authentic?
If the germ warfare story was a “hoax,” why is there no evidence of it to be found in the highly classified signals intelligence documents published several years ago by the CIA? It is a case of the dog who did not bark.
Baker’s research minimizes the numerous eyewitness accounts of the BW attacks, including not just the dropping of insects and voles, but the resulting illness and deaths after the passage of U.S. planes dropping the vectors of disease. The ISC interviewed hundreds of such eyewitnesses.
Baker does mention a 2010 article by Julian Ryall of the UK Telegraph. Ryall interviewed a Japanese scholar who himself had interviewed dozens of germ warfare survivors, documenting the Korean War BW attacks. But this merits barely a page in Baker’s book. Nothing is said of the many interviews in the ISC report, nor the testimony of other Western witnesses such as James Endicott (as noted above), or Australian reporter Wilfred Burchett.
I wish Baker had seen Tim Tate’s 2010 documentary for Al Jazeera, “Dirty Little Secrets,” which covered much the same material as Ryall’s story, but includes on-camera interviews and pictorial evidence.
Despite the criticism above, Baker has done herculean work in gathering the evidence he has. If he cannot bring himself to conclude that U.S. forces in Korea and China undertook a large program of biological warfare in the early 1950s, he has taken the reader right to the verge of such a conclusion.
Baker has shown that there was clear intent to wage biological warfare, that hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to accomplish that purpose, that a pattern of monstrous intervention using biological weapons and other nefarious means of destruction was unleashed on many countries over the years in the name of anti-Communism. Even many decades later, a veil of secrecy remains over the events of the Korean War, and for this, readers and American society as a whole must thank Baker for taking the perilous journey he did.
“Whether or not you agree with my account of what happened,” Baker writes, “I’m hoping that you will be shocked and revolted—and sometimes inspired—by some of the activities I describe in this book. I hope you’ll read it and say, No, that’s not acceptable. That can’t be allowed to happen ever again” (p. xiv).