Our ‘Greatest Generation’ Men Weaponized Viruses, Too
Some of us might remember a cheesy Tales from the Crypt knock-off in the 1980’s called Tales from the Darkside. Created by horror legend George Romero, it was more great camp than great horror, but it had one of the best opening credits of any show then and since. While the camera rolls over green forest and glen, a scene-chewing narrator begins: “Man lives in the sunlit world that he believes to be reality…”
Suddenly the same landscape is rendered bleak and ominous by a jarring shift to inverted negative photography. The narration continues, dramatically pausing for effect: “But ….there is, unseen by most, an underworld, a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit….a Darkside.”
The intro (some say it was the scariest part of the show) so perfectly encapsulates the Washington swamp that it’s almost too obvious. But I thought it of again quite suddenly while editing Jeff Groom’s excellent piece Wednesday about the history of germ warfare. Groom, a military man himself, reminds us that despite the “sunlit” narrative of America saving the world from tyranny after WWII only to be thrust into another existential struggle with the Red scourge of Communism, an entire underworld was operating simultaneously, secretly manufacturing biological weapons, breeding insects as vectors for disease, perhaps even deploying them in the battlefield (in other words, doing everything we were accusing the morally bankrupt enemy of doing).
…the 406th Medical General Laboratory of the U.S. Army’s Far East Medical Section was established, “in a warehouse near the Agsugi Air Base in Yokohama (Japan) in 1946,” ostensibly to provide health services to U.S. military servicemen.
However, their mission soon expanded to include an R&D division comprised of 309 personnel. Researchers “initially concentrated on mosquito-borne diseases, but the military scientists eagerly expanded their work to include ticks, mites, lice, fleas, and flies, with particular attention to the breeding and biting behaviors of black flies and midges found in Japan and Korea.”
As I wrote about here, journalist Stephen Kinzer published a book late last year that went into great detail about the covert U.S. bio and chemical weapons programs that flourished from the infusion of seemingly endless Cold War resources after WWII. While it is important to note that it was never proven that the U.S. actually unleashed diseased swarms of insects against the enemy in Korea as alleged, it is also worth reminding readers that the War on Communism was nonetheless used to justify an entire battery of inhumane and unconstitutional activities right under the surface of our perceived reality. Much of it was lost to memory with the destruction of files decades later, but plenty has been recovered by intrepid journalists, including Kinzer, over the years.
Just an example of what we do know according to Kinzer: after WWII, the Americans hunted down and arrested one General Shiro Ishii, who commanded the ghoulish hellscape known as Unit 731, located in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Among other human experiments he conducted on Chinese prisoners, including children (like slow roasting people with electricity, or locking them in high-pressure chambers until their eyeballs popped), Ishii infected his victims with botulism, bubonic plague, syphilis, cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, and myriad other deadly diseases long vanquished by vaccines, and watched them die.
Instead of bringing Ishii to justice, scientists at the secret Army bioweapons program at Camp Detrick, Maryland, “wanted to learn what he knew and were driven by a sense of urgency that overwhelmed whatever moral qualms they might have felt,” wrote Kinzer in Poisoner in Chief. They convinced Gen. Douglas MacArthur to sign a secret decree granting amnesty to Ishii and all who worked with him. He turned over all of this research, which included an untold number of tissue samples taken from people while they were still alive, to the Americans. “Thus did the man responsible for directing the dissection of thousands of living prisoners during wartime, along with those who worked with him, escape punishment.”
The “sunlit” reasoning was likely that the information would be valuable for mounting a defense against enemy germ attacks. But we know from Kinzer’s book that the underworld was experimenting with all kinds of ways of weaponizing pathogens and dispersing them silently over populations, too. They even used unwitting Americans as guinea pigs.
In 1950, according to Kinzer’s book, scientists from Camp Detrick used a Naval minesweeper off the coast of San Francisco to release harmless but traceable bacteria (it had a red tint) into the air over the city via large aerosol hoses. After six days of this they found that some 800,000 residents in the city, as well as people as far as Oakland were affected. Over the next several weeks, 11 people checked into local hospitals with urinary tract infections, and had drops of red in their urine. One man died. “Doctors were mystified.” Of course they were—because the experiment had not been authorized or known to any local authorities.
Camp Detrick deemed “Operation Sea Spray” a “success,” knowing that yes, huge swaths of a city could be infected with a silent but deadly germ from a boat sitting off the coast of a major urban center. It would be the first of many such secret “simulations” in U.S. cities through 1969.
To believe that only rogue dictatorships like China might be responsible for weaponizing viruses—like some contend the Chinese were doing in Wuhan, is naive, and frankly dangerous. For decades after the Second World War, Americans who we call “the Greatest Generation” used the sword of righteousness to expand and metastasize the military industrial complex until one hand no longer knew what the other was doing and why, and frankly did not want to. Led by powerful men like CIA Director Allen Dulles, they did diabolical things we believed only possible in science fiction, and more. That this was allowed to go on for so long shows how amazingly useful the power of narrative can be, and how most of us are willing to believe in it at the risk of missing “the Darkside” right behind the mirror.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is Executive Editor of TAC. Follow her on Twitter @vlahos_at_TAC