Biological warfare

Review of

The Biology of Doom: The History of America's Secret Germ Warfare Project

New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999, 259 pp.

During the past five years, concern that outlaw states and terrorists could resort to biological warfare (BW) against U.S. troops abroad or civilian populations at home has focused official and public attention on this once arcane issue. In response, an increasing number of books on the topic have appeared, ranging from sober academic treatises to science fiction thrillers. A recent addition is The Biology of Doom, a popular history of the U.S. offensive BW program. Drawing on recently declassified documents, The Biology of Doom illuminates the personalities and events that led to the U.S. development between 1942 and 1969 of a large and sophisticated biological arsenal. Ultimately, these weapons were never used and were eliminated at the order of President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. Although the book sheds new light on the U.S. program and is told in a compelling, highly readable style, it is flawed by some questionable analysis and a lack of historical documentation.

Author Ed Regis notes that until World War II, more soldiers died of epidemic diseases such as dysentery, cholera, typhus, yellow fever, malaria, and bubonic plague than from combat wounds. In 1932, Shiro Ishii, a physician in the Imperial Japanese Army, sought to turn disease-causing microbes into effective weapons by making their lethal or incapacitating effects more predictable and controllable. He persuaded his superiors to establish a top secret production facility called Unit 731 in occupied Manchuria, where he mass-produced a variety of lethal bacteria, tested them in cruel experiments on prisoners and Chinese villagers, and developed novel delivery systems such as porcelain bombs. In field experiments in 1940, Japanese aircraft dropped plague-infected fleas on Chinese towns and villages, triggering outbreaks of the disease.

Other countries also pursued biological weapons, including both microbial agents and toxins (nonliving poisons produced by living organisms). German scientists launched a BW research program in the early 1930s, but Hitler’s lack of enthusiasm kept it a minor effort that never produced a practical weapon. Nevertheless, fears of a German biological attack drove the British to establish their own offensive program in 1934. Canada entered the BW field in 1940, and the United States followed suit in 1942. The Biology of Doom discusses all of these programs, yet it ignores the contemporaneous work on offensive BW in France and the Soviet Union. Although the French effort was inconclusive, the Soviet program, begun in 1928, later dwarfed the others in scale and scope.

The Biology of Doom focuses mainly on the U.S. BW program, which began during World War II at Camp (later Fort) Detrick, an Army airfield in Frederick, Maryland. In spring 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked the U.S. government to produce 500,000 bombs filled with lethal anthrax bacteria for retaliatory strikes against Germany in the event Hitler employed BW against Great Britain. To meet this request, the United States constructed a huge anthrax production plant near Terre Haute, Indiana, that was still gearing up when the war ended in 1945.

During the postwar years, the U.S. offensive BW program continued, driven by bureaucratic momentum and fear of covert attack. Regis recounts the appalling story of how U.S. intelligence agents tracked down Shiro Ishii in Japan and granted him immunity from war crimes prosecution in exchange for his data on germ warfare experiments on human subjects. In 1953, the United States constructed a fermentation plant at Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas for the wartime production of brucellosis bacteria, which cause an incapacitating illness. British and U.S. scientists also carried out large-scale BW trials on land and at sea in which thousands of mice, guinea pigs, and monkeys were exposed to clouds of incapacitating or lethal microbes. In a few cases, nonlethal agents were tested in human volunteers.

Drawing on recently declassified documents, Regis describes several BW field trials in colorful detail, giving a sense of their vast scale and extravagance. In 1964, for example, the United States conducted Operation Shady Grove, a series of 20 nighttime tests in the mid-Pacific Ocean. For each test, a spray tank mounted on a Skyhawk attack bomber released an aerosol cloud of infectious bacteria. The cloud was carried along by a steady breeze, exposing caged rhesus monkeys on five light tugboats arrayed in a line up to 100 miles downwind. In the largest test of the series, a 32-mile-long cloud of agent traveled more than 60 miles before losing its infectiousness, demonstrating the feasibility of biological attacks against the populations of entire cities. The Biology of Doom also sheds new light on the CIA’s acquisition of a BW arsenal for covert operations, although it remains unclear whether the weapons were ever successfully used.

By the late 1960s, the U.S. Army had acquired a BW stockpile consisting of two lethal microbial agents (anthrax and tularemia bacteria), three incapacitating microbial agents (brucellosis bacteria, Q fever rickettsiae, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus), one lethal toxin (botulinum), and one incapacitating toxin (Staphylococcus enterotoxin B). Large volumes of these agents were manufactured and poured into cluster bomblets, spray tanks, and assorted other munitions, which were stored at Pine Bluff Arsenal in refrigerated bunkers and vans.

Yet just when the U.S. offensive BW program had finally reached fruition after 25 years of effort, President Nixon decided to end it. In a speech on November 25, 1969, he declared, “I have decided that the United States of America will renounce the use of any form of deadly biological weapons that either kill or incapacitate.” In February 1970, toxins were included in the ban. Over the next three years, the United States destroyed its entire BW stockpile, although research and development on defenses against biological attack was allowed to continue.

Explaining the U.S. exit

Regis attempts to explain Nixon’s decision to terminate the U.S. offensive program at the height of its success. The stated rationales–that biological weapons were “unpredictable, and potentially uncontrollable” and could “produce global epidemics and impair the health of future generations”–were demonstrably false. In fact, extensive field trials had demonstrated that the behavior of microbial and toxin agents was fairly predictable under a wide range of atmospheric and environmental conditions. Moreover, the specter of global plagues was a red herring, because all the agents in the U.S. biological arsenal were not contagious from person to person and hence were incapable of triggering secondary epidemics.

Regis speculates that one factor driving Nixon’s decision was the controversy surrounding an incident in 1968, in which an open air test with nerve gas at Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground went awry, killing 3,000 sheep grazing north of the test site. Yet in that case, a chemical, not a biological, agent was responsible. More plausible is the suggestion that U.S. defense planners feared that hostile countries in the Third World would acquire relatively cheap biological weapons as a “poor man’s atomic bomb” to counter the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Thus, although the secret U.S. field trials had demonstrated the mass killing power of BW, Nixon’s renunciation was an attempt to send a (misleading) political message to other countries that biological arms had little military utility and were not worth the effort.

Another likely factor in Nixon’s decision that Regis does not address was the Vietnam War, which was then at its height. In 1969, the United States was under intense criticism at home and abroad for its combat use of toxic herbicides (Agent Orange) and tear gas. By publicly renouncing the offensive BW program, Nixon may have sought to deflect criticism of his Vietnam policy while retaining the option to modernize the U.S. chemical arsenal, which the Pentagon considered more important. Whatever the underlying motivation, Nixon’s unilateral renunciation of the offensive BW program led to the rapid negotiation of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), the first international treaty to ban an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. Regis contends that because some parties to the BWC (including the Soviet Union) continued their offensive programs in violation of the treaty, Nixon’s decision was naive and “one of the grandest failures in recent political history.” This judgment is excessively harsh. Although the Soviet violation of the BWC was egregious, it is likely that many more states would have pursued the BW option had the United States not delegitimated these weapons by ending its own offensive efforts.

The mystery of nonuse

The Biology of Doom also examines the “great mystery” of why biological weapons have never been used in warfare, at least on a large scale. (Despite North Korean and Chinese allegations that the United States employed BW during the Korean War, recently declassified Soviet documents suggest that the evidence was fabricated for propaganda purposes.) Regis discusses and refutes several explanations for nonuse. For example, the argument that biological weapons have not been employed because they could boomerang against the attacker does not apply to long-range delivery with bombers or ballistic missiles. Similarly, the claim that BW agents are too susceptible to the vagaries of wind and weather to be effective is refuted by the extensive use in World War I of chemical weapons, which are equally dependent on atmospheric conditions.

Regis also rejects the normative argument that biological weapons are uniquely repugnant. He points out that dying of an infectious disease is no more painful, and probably less so, than being killed by a bullet, a conventional bomb, or nuclear radiation. Indeed, he goes so far as to claim that biological weapons are less morally objectionable than other methods of warfare because they are more “natural,” exploiting a means of killing that nature regularly employs.

Regis concludes that although biological weapons are efficient killers, they have never been used in warfare because they are “exceedingly poor weapons.” According to his hypothesis, the fact that disease agents are silent, invisible, and slow-acting deprives them of the key attribute of an effective military weapon: “an immediate visual display of overwhelming power and brute strength” sufficient to “force the adversary to surrender and submit.” Although provocative, this argument fails to persuade. It is equally plausible that the insidious nature of biological weapons makes them even more terrifying and demoralizing to an enemy. Indeed, veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War have reported that the omnipresent threat of an Iraqi BW attack was one of the most stressful aspects of their combat experience. The silent, delayed effects of germ weapons also make them well suited to covert operations and sabotage. It is therefore possible that biological agents have already been used in war but that the resulting epidemic was assessed incorrectly to be of natural origin.

I believe that one of the factors Regis rejects–the visceral sense that biological weapons are morally repugnant–has indeed played a key role in the reluctance of countries to use them. Throughout military history, toxic weapons have been viewed as “unchivalrous,” and efforts to outlaw them date back to the Middle Ages. This longstanding taboo appears to be rooted in an innate human aversion to poisons and disease, as well as the fact that such weapons are indiscriminate and are more effective at killing civilians than soldiers. One reason why Regis discounts the moral dimension may be his reluctance to view U.S. BW scientists, or their collective enterprise, as evil. Several times in The Biology of Doom, he becomes an apologist for the former bioweaponeers he interviewed at length, saying that they are “as kindly and gentle a group as you could hope to find anywhere.” In becoming too close to his sources, Regis may have lost his critical distance and begun to view the past through their self-justifying eyes.

Another weakness of The Biology of Doom is that in aiming to reach a popular audience, Regis provides little documentary evidence to back up his narrative. Although he claims to have drawn on more than 2,000 pages of formerly classified U.S. and Canadian government documents, the book has no endnotes and merely provides a short list of “selected sources” in an appendix. Regrettably, this lack of documentation limits the historical value of the book’s striking new revelations.

Jonathan B. Tucker is the 1999-2000 Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Cite this Article

Tucker, Jonathan B. “Biological warfare.” Issues in Science and Technology 16, no. 2 (Winter 2000).

Vol. XVI, No. 2, Winter 2000