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Allegations that the United States military used biological weapons in the Korean War (1950–53) were raised by the governments of People's Republic of China, the Soviet Union and North Korea in 1952. The story was covered by the worldwide press and led to a highly pubicised international investigation. US Secretary of State Dean Acheson and other US and allied government officials denounced the allegations as a hoax. For many years, the allegations continued to have a number of prominent supporters. In 1998, however, a large cache of Soviet, Chinese and North Korean documents were released indicating that the allegations were part of an elaborate disinformation campaign.[1][2][3] Much more recently, in 2010, CIA declassified communications intelligence daily reports from the war, which describe messages from North Korean and Chinese military units about how they were under attack from germ or bacteriological weapons.[4]

Allegations[edit | edit source]

During 1951 the Communists made vague allegations of biological warfare, but these were not pursued.[5]

On 28 January 1952, the Chinese People's Volunteer Army headquarters received a report of a smallpox outbreak southeast of Incheon. From February to March 1952, more bulletins reported disease outbreaks in the area of Chorwon, Pyongyang, Kimhwa and even Manchuria.[6] The Chinese soon became concerned when 13 Korean and 16 Chinese soldiers contracted cholera and the , while another 44 recently deceased were tested positive for meningitis.[7] Although the Chinese and the North Koreans did not know exactly how the soldiers contracted the diseases, the suspicions soon shifted to the Americans.[7] On 22 February 1952, the North Korean Foreign Ministry made a formal allegation that American planes had been dropping infected insects onto North Korea. This was immediately denied by the US government. The accusation was supported by Australian reporter Wilfred Burchett, and by the apparent confessions of captured US airmen.[8] The Communists also alleged that US Brigadier General Crawford Sams had carried out a secret mission behind their lines at Wonsan in 1951, testing biological weapons. He said, however, that he had actually been investigating an outbreak of bubonic plague.[9]

When the International Red Cross and the World Health Organization ruled out biological warfare, the Chinese government denounced this as Western bias and arranged an investigation by the World Peace Council.[10] The World Peace Council set up the International Scientific Commission for the Facts Concerning Bacterial Warfare in China and Korea. This commission included several distinguished scientists, including renowned British biochemist and sinologist Joseph Needham. The commission's findings also included eyewitnesses, and testimony from doctors as well as four American Korean War prisoners who confirmed the US use of BW.[10] Its final report, which made on 15 September 1952, was that the allegation was true, that the US was indeed experimenting with biological weapons.[11]

The International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) also publicized these claims in its 1952 "Report on U.S. Crimes in Korea", along with journalist John W. Powell.[12][13]

Counterclaims[edit | edit source]

The US and its allies responded by describing the allegation as a hoax.[14] The US government also declared IADL as a Communist front organization since 1950, and charged Powell with sedition.[13][15][16] Upon release the prisoners of war repudiated their confessions which they said had been extracted by torture.[17]

An Australian colleague, Denis Warner, went so far as to suggest that the story had been concocted by Wilfred Burchett as part of his alleged role as a KGB agent of influence. Warner pointed out the similarity of the allegations to a science fiction story by Jack London, a favorite author of Burchett's.[18] Based on declassified Russian documents that showed KGB payment to agent Burchett, historians Herbert Romerstein and Robert Manne also believed that Burchett worked for KGB.[19][20] However, the notion that Burchett originated the "hoax" has been decisively refuted by one of his most trenchant critics, Tibor Méray.[21]

Méray worked as a correspondent for Communist Hungary during the war but fled the country after the abortive uprising of 1956. Now a staunch anti-Communist, he has confirmed that he saw clusters of flies crawling on ice.[22] Méray has argued the evidence was the result of an elaborate conspiracy: "Now somehow or other these flies must have been brought there... the work must have been carried out by a large network covering the whole of North Korea."[23]

Disease prevention measures[edit | edit source]

Recent research has indicated that, regardless of the accuracy of the allegations, the Chinese acted as if they were true.[6] After learning the outbreaks, Mao Zedong immediately requested Soviet assistance on disease preventions, while the Chinese People's Liberation Army General Logistics Department was mobilized for anti-bacteriological warfare.[24] On the Korean battlefield, four anti-bacteriological warfare research centers were soon set up, while about 5.8 million doses of vaccine and 200,000 gas masks were delivered to the front.[25] Within China, 66 quarantine stations were also set up along the Chinese borders, while about 5 million Chinese in Manchuria were inoculated.[24] The Chinese government also initiated the "Patriotic Health and Epidemic Prevention Campaign" and directed every citizen to kill flies, mosquitoes and fleas.[24] These disease prevention measures soon resulted in an improvement of health for Communist soldiers on the Korean battlefield.[25] Tibor Méray provided eyewitness account of North Korean conducting an "unprecedented campaign of public health" during the allegation.[26]

Subsequent evaluation[edit | edit source]

Subsequent historians have offered other explanations to the disease outbreaks during the spring of 1952. For example, it has been noted that spring time is usually a period of epidemics within China and North Korea,[24] and years of warfare had also caused a breakdown in the Korean health care system. Historians have argued that under these circumstances, diseases could easily spread throughout the entire military and civilian populations within Korea.[27][28] In 1986, however, Australian historian Gavan McCormack argued that the claim of US BW use was "far from inherently implausible", pointing out that one of the POWs who confessed, Colonel Walker Mahurin, was in fact associated with Fort Detrick in Maryland, a biological weapons research facility.[29] A 1988 book on the Korean War, by Western historians Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings also suggested the claims might be true.[30][31] The official Chinese government stance by the mid-1990s was that biological warfare was a real threat at the time and they reacted properly in order to prevent serious epidemics from spreading throughout North Korea and China.[32] In 1998, Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagermann claimed that the accusations were true in their book, The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea.[33] The book received mixed reviews, some called it "bad history"[34] and "appalling",[35] while other praised the case the authors made.[34] In response, Kathryn Weathersby and Milton Leitenberg of the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center released a cache of Soviet and Chinese documents in 1998 showing the North Korean claim to have been an elaborate disinformation campaign.[30][36] They revealed that North Korea's health minister travelled in 1952 to the remote Manchurian city of Mukden where he procured a culture of plague bacilli which was used to infect condemned criminals as part of an elaborate disinformation scheme. Tissue samples were then used to fool the international investigators. The papers included telegrams and reports of meetings among Soviet and Chinese leaders, including Chairman Mao Zedong. A report to Lavrenti Beria, head of Soviet intelligence, for example, stated: "False plague regions were created, burials . . . were organized, measures were taken to receive the plague and cholera bacillus." These documents revealed that only after Stalin's death the following year did the Soviet Union halt the disinformation campaign.[37] Weathersby and Leitenberg consider their evidence to be conclusive — that the allegations were disinformation and no BW use occurred — and their conclusions have been generally accepted.[1][2][3]

In 2001, KGB expert Herbert Romerstein also criticized Endicott's research on the basis that it is purely based on accounts provided by the Chinese government.[38]

Author Simon Winchester concluded in 2008 that the KGB was sceptical of the allegation, but that North Korea leader Kim Il Sung believed it.[39] Winchester believed the question "has still not been satisfactorily answered".[40]

In September 2020, researcher Jeffrey S. Kaye released a collection of declassified CIA Communications Intelligence Daily Reports and an accompanying article, claiming U.S. intercepts of North Korean and Chinese military communications during the Korean War documented the reality of the Communist militaries under biological warfare attack. He questioned the validity of the Weathersby and Leitenberg documents.[4]

See also[edit | edit source]

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  • Shiwei Chen, "History of Three Mobilizations: A Reexamination of the Chinese Biological Warfare Allegations against the United States in the Korean War," Journal of American-East Asian Relations 16.3 (2009): 213-247.
  • John Clews, The Communists. New Weapon: Germ Warfare (London, 1952)
  • Stephen L. Endicott, "Germ Warfare and "Plausible Denial": The Korean War, 1952–1953," Modern China 5.1 (Jan. 1979): 79-104.
  • Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, The United States and Biological Warfare (Bloomington, Ind., 1998)
  • Report of the International Scientific Commission for the Investigation of the Facts Concerning Bacterial Warfare in Korea and China (Peking and Prague, 1952);
  • Jeffrey S. Kaye, "'A real flood of bacteria and germs' — Communications Intelligence and Charges of U.S. Germ Warfare during the Korean War," Medium.com (September 16, 2020)
  • Stanley I. Kutler, The American Inquisition: Justice and Injustice in the Cold War (New York, 1982)
  • Albert E. Cowdrey, “Germ Warfare. and Public Health in the Korean Conflict,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 39 (1984)
  • John Ellis van Courtland Moon, “Biological Warfare Allegations: The Korean War Case,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 666 (1992)
  • Tom Buchanan, “The Courage of Galileo: Joseph Needham and the .Germ Warfare. Allegations in the Korean War,” History 86 (October 2001)
  • Julian Ryall, "Did the US wage germ warfare in Korea?", Telegraph, (June 10, 2010).
  • Ruth Rogaski, “Nature, Annihilation, and Modernity: China’s Korean War Germ-Warfare Experience Reconsidered,” Journal of Asian Studies 61 (May 2002)
  • Nianqun Yang, "Disease Prevention, Social Mobilization and Spatial Politics: The Anti Germ-Warfare Incident of 1952 and the Patriotic Health Campaign,” Chinese Historical Review 11 (Fall 2004).

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Leitenberg , Milton (1998), The Korean War Biological Warfare Allegations Resolved. Occasional Paper 36. Stockholm: Center for Pacific Asia Studies at Stockholm University (May issue).
  2. 2.0 2.1 Leitenberg , Milton (1998), “New Russian Evidence on the Korean Biological Warfare Allegations: Background and Analysis”; Woodrow Wilson Center Cold War International History Project, Bulletin 11 (Winter issue), pp 185-199.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Weathersby, Kathryn (1998), “Deceiving the Deceivers: Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and the Allegations of Biological Weapons Use in Korea”, Woodrow Wilson Center Cold War International History Project, Bulletin 11 (Winter issue), pp 176-185.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Jeffrey S. Kaye, "'A real flood of bacteria and germs' — Communications Intelligence and Charges of U.S. Germ Warfare during the Korean War," Medium.com (September 16, 2020)
  5. Simon Winchester, The Man who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom, Harper Collins, New York, 2008, pp 199–200; Gavan McCormack, "Korea: Wilfred Burchett's Thirty Year's War", in Ben Kiernan (ed.), Burchett: Reporting the Other Side of the World, 1939-1983, Quartet Books, London, 1986, pp 202-203.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Zhang, Shu Guang (1995). "Mao's Military Romanticism: China and the Korean War, 1950-1953". Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas. p. 181. ISBN 0-7006-0723-4. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Zhang 1995, p. 182.
  8. Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, (revised edition), Prion, London, 2000, p 388.
  9. Sonia g Benson, Korean War: Almanac and Primary Sources, Gale, New York, 2003, p 182.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Guillemin, Jeanne. Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism, (Google Books), Columbia University Press, 2005, pp. 99–105, (ISBN 0-231-12942-4).
  11. Simon Winchester, The Man who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom, Harper Collins, New York, 2008, pp 203-208.
  12. "Report on U.S. Crimes in Korea" (PDF). International Association of Democratic Lawyers. http://www.uwpep.org/Index/Resources_files/Crime_Reports_1.pdf. Retrieved 26 May 2013. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 "John W. Powell Dies at 89; Journalist was Tried on Sedition Charges in 1950s". LA Times. December 23, 2008. http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-powell23-2008dec23,0,6511142.story. Retrieved July 31, 2013. 
  14. Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, (revised edition), Prion, London, 2000, p 388.
  15. "Report on the National Lawyers Guild, legal bulwark of the Communist Party". United States Congress House Committee on Un-American Activities. September 17, 1950. http://archive.org/stream/reportonnational1950unit/reportonnational1950unit_djvu.txt. ""The current international Communist front for attorneys is known as the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. This organization is sometimes referred to as the International Association of Democratic Jurists."" 
  16. "Central Intelligence Bulletin" (PDF). Central Intelligence Agency. October 4, 1958. p. 5. http://www.foia.cia.gov/sites/default/files/document_conversions/5829/CIA-RDP79T00975A004000200001-4.pdf. ""pro-communist International Association of Democratic Lawyers"" 
  17. Lech, Raymond B. (2000). "Broken Soldiers". Chicago, IL: University of Illinois. pp. 162–163. ISBN 0-252-02541-5. 
  18. Denis Warner, Not Always on Horseback: An Australian Correspondent at War and Peace in Asia, 1961-1993, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1997, pp 196-197.
  19. Herbert Romerstein (2001). "Disinformation as a KGB Weapon in the Cold War". International Intelligence History Association. p. 57. http://books.google.com/books?id=7GCLnVGiID4C&lpg=PA57&ots=aylBYEKBFL&pg=PA57#v=onepage&q&f=false. 
  20. Robert Manne (2008). "Agent of Influence - Reassessing Wilfred Burchett". The Monthly. http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2008/june/1354144238/robert-manne/agent-influence. 
  21. Tibor Méray, On Burchett, Callistemon Publications, Kallista, Victoria, Australia, 2008, pp 73-76.
  22. Tibor Méray, On Burchett, Callistemon Publications, Kallista, Victoria, Australia, 2008, p 51.
  23. Tibor Méray, On Burchett, Callistemon Publications, Kallista, Victoria, Australia, 2008, p 252.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 24.3 Zhang 1995, p. 184.
  25. 25.0 25.1 Zhang 1995, p. 185.
  26. Tibor Méray, On Burchett, Callistemon Publications, Kallista, Victoria, Australia, 2008, pp 261-262.
  27. Eitzen, Edward M.; Takafuji, Ernest T.. "Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare" (PDF). United States Government Printing. p. 419. ISBN 9997320913. http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/medaspec/Ch-18electrv699.pdf. 
  28. Lech 2000, p. 162.
  29. Gavan McCormack, "Korea: Wilfred Burchett's Thirty Year's War", in Ben Kiernan (ed.), Burchett: Reporting the Other Side of the World, 1939-1983, Quartet Books, London, 1986, p 204.
  30. 30.0 30.1 Auster, Bruce B. "Unmasking an Old Lie", U.S. News and World Report, November 16, 1998. Retrieved January 7, 2009.
  31. Korea: The Unknown War (Viking, 1988)
  32. Zhang 1995, p. 186.
  33. Endicott, Stephen, and Hagermann, Edward. The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea, (Google Books, relevant excerpt), Indiana University Press, 1998, pp. 75-77, (ISBN 0-253-33472-1), links accessed January 7, 2009.
  34. 34.0 34.1 "Reviews of The United States and Biological Warfare: secrets of the Early Cold War and Korea", York University, compiled book review excerpts. Retrieved January 7, 2009.
  35. Regis, Ed. "Wartime Lies?", The New York Times, June 27, 1999. Retrieved January 7, 2009.
  36. Weathersby, Kathryn, & Milton Leitenberg, "New Evidence on the Korean War", Cold War International History Project, 1998. Retrieved March 4, 2011.
  37. Auster, Bruce B. "Unmasking an Old Lie", U.S. News and World Report, November 16, 1998. Retrieved October 29, 2013.
  38. Romerstein 2001, p. 59.
  39. Simon Winchester, The Man who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom, Harper Collins, New York, 2008, pp 212-214.
  40. Winchester 2008, p 199.



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