Korean War Redux

Into the Germ Warfare Maelstrom

Photograph Source: U.S. Government – CC BY 3.0

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.”

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