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The Great Germ War Cover-Up

When Nicholson Baker searched for the truth about biological weapons, he found a fog of redaction.

In late September of 1950, just as U.S. armed forces were surging up the Korean peninsula, residents of the San Francisco Bay Area noticed an odd odor. The unidentifiable smell hung around for a week. People scratched their heads and pointed fingers—they thought the problem could be their neighbors cooking brussels sprouts, or maybe it was sewer gas. What they didn’t suspect is that they were being sprayed with microorganisms by their own government.

Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act
by Nicholson Baker
Penguin, 464 pp., $30.00

But they were. From offshore ships, researchers working for the Army, Navy, and CIA engulfed the area in Serratia mar­cescens, Bacillus globigii, and zinc cadmium sulfide particles. Residents, not realizing they had become unwitting test subjects, breathed it in—“nearly everyone of the 800,000 people in San Francisco,” according to a governmental report. In theory, the germs and chemicals were innocuous, but a local hospital was surprised by the sudden appearance of nearly a dozen cases of Serratia marcescens bacterial infections, never seen in that hospital before. One infected patient, a retired pipe fitter, died.

It wasn’t the only time the U.S. government did this. Federal researchers secretly fogged Minneapolis and St. Louis during the Korean War. In 1966, they would run a similar experiment on New York City, dropping light bulbs filled with Bacillus subtilis variant niger into subway stations during rush hour to see how far the bacilli would spread—more than a million New Yorkers were exposed. In all, the Army acknowledged having conducted bacteriological tests on 239 populated areas between 1949 and 1969.

The tests were part of a large-scale, secret program of germ warfare research and development. The CIA researched possible targets, such as the Moscow subway, and military researchers designed a biological balloon bomb that could carry infectious spores far into enemy territory. The Pentagon tested and stockpiled means of inducing illness. By 1971, its arsenal of weaponized disease contained, among other articles, 220 pounds of anthrax, 804 pounds of tularemia, 334 pounds of Venezuelan equine encephalitis, 5,098 gallons of Q fever, and tens of thousands of bombs.

Did the United States ever drop one of those bombs, spray some of that anthrax, or splash a little Q fever on its enemies? Did it ever purposefully release bacteria known—perhaps even modified—to make humans ill? Did it ever, in other words, wage biological war? That is the question of Nicholson Baker’s engaging, bracing, and moving new book, Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act. As his subtitle suggests, it is an exasperatingly hard one to answer.

There is something about scouring classified documents for long-hidden military secrets that attracts a certain type of obsessive. Nicholson Baker, who once wrote a 147-page essay tracking an archaic use of the word lumber through centuries of Anglophone literature, is that type. He somersaulted onto the literary scene in 1988 with The Mezzanine, a heavily footnoted novel about an office worker’s uneventful lunch hour. Baker’s learned notes, down-the-rabbit-hole digressions, and verbal flash have invited comparisons with the virtuoso meanderings of David Foster Wallace, though Baker comes off as gentler, less tormented by his demons, and, frankly, nicer.

In the late 1990s, Baker’s career took an unexpected turn when he got caught up in the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. The pair had exchanged books as gifts: The president had given his young intern Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and she’d given him Baker’s Vox, an experimental novel in the form of a phone-sex conversation (one character reports seeing “the great seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” as she climaxes). Both choices were telling. Clinton offered an erotic but classroom-safe—and thus technically aboveboard—collection in which one of the most famous poems is about loving a president. Lewinsky, less inhibited and less of a narcissist, tossed back a fresh bouquet of surreal horniness.

Baker has not stopped writing weird sex novels. But he has also turned to more overtly political investigations with impressive and admirable zeal. His powerfully argued Double Fold (2001) took libraries to task for needlessly throwing out books. In Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids (2016), he offered a painful account of Maine’s public school system, where he worked as a substitute teacher. In Human Smoke (2008), his history of World War II, writing as a pacifist, he excoriated the Allied leaders for their moral blindness.

Soon after Human Smoke, Baker turned to the Korean War, in which the United States faced persistent accusations of having used biological weapons. Baker researched the topic for nearly 10 years without reaching conclusions as firm as he would have liked. That is in large part because whenever he asked for the relevant documents from the government under the Freedom of Information Act, he received nothing. “Really, nothing.” Years went by, “presidents came and went,” and he continued to wait. Some requests were refused, others idled in bureaucratic limbo. On occasion, documents arrived but were slathered in redactions—“a devil’s checkerboard of blackouts.”

The Freedom of Information Act requires federal agencies to respond to requests within 20 business days or, if multiple agencies must be consulted, “with all practicable speed.” “Yet there is no speed,” Baker finds during his researches. “There is, on the contrary, a deliberate Pleistocenian ponderousness.” Baker waited seven years for one set of documents without receiving them. Five federal agencies have requests that have been pending for more than a decade, and the National Archives has one that’s more than 25 years old. The issue isn’t that we don’t know what the government is currently doing. It’s that we don’t know what it has done, and we may never know.

The mists of secrecy swirl particularly thickly around potentially embarrassing topics, such as the use of biological weapons. This has made the question of germ warfare in Korea nearly impossible to answer satisfactorily. It’s an intellectual briar patch in which well-intentioned scholars have lacerated and ensnared themselves for decades without reaching a consensus. Nevertheless, there are things we can see through the dark fog of redaction.

To start, we know that waging biological war was not unthinkable for the U.S. military in the years following World War II. Five days after the Korean War started, a committee charged with studying unconventional weapons issued a set of emphatic recommendations, known as the Stevenson Report. The United States “must not arbitrarily deny itself” the use of biological weapons or use them only in retaliation, the report stated. It should prepare “to wage biological warfare offensively.” This view was championed by General Jimmy Doolittle, famed for having bombed Tokyo in 1942. “In my estimation, we have just one moral obligation,” he told his fellow officers at an interservice symposium. “And that moral obligation is for us to develop at the earliest possible moment that agent which will kill enemy personnel most quickly and most cheaply.”

Not everyone agreed with him, but the Pentagon nevertheless backed a crash program, spending nearly $350 million on biological warfare development during the Korean War. Scientists were put to work weaponizing diseases, from familiar scourges like plague to epidemiological deep cuts like coccidioidomycosis, a fungal infection of the lungs. At no point while fighting in Korea did the military acquire the ability to wage all-out germ war with dedicated units of trained biological weapons handlers and mass-produced stockpiles of tested weapons. It could make small, experimental attacks, though.

Within a year of the Korean War’s start in June 1950, China and North Korea announced that the United States had used its biological weapons. There were ultimately two charges: that retreating U.S. forces had purposefully spread disease in their wake in late 1950, and that U.S. planes had dropped infected feathers, insects, rodents, and bacteria bombs on villages in Korea and China in early 1952. Such accusations possessed an obvious propaganda value, and the North Korean and Chinese governments worked with the Soviet Union to plant evidence—including, it seems, injecting condemned prisoners with cholera and plague and then burying their infected corpses at sites of alleged U.S. attacks. As the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union summarized the situation in a note to Mao Zedong: “The accusations against the Americans were fictitious.”

Yet, Baker asks, did those elaborate lies contain truthy kernels? Whatever disinformation flowed from the top, Chinese and North Korean troops in the field believed there truly had been biological attacks. U.S. intercepts of panicked communications from Chinese and North Korean units on the scene in 1952 confirm this—one Chinese unit, reporting that an enemy plane had dropped a flood of “bacteria and germs” nearby, made an urgent request for DDT. “Are we really supposed to think they were engaging in an elaborate ruse?” asks Baker.

His case would be stronger with firm testimony from the perpetrators, but that has proved elusive. In 1952, Radio Peking and Pravda started publicizing statements by dozens of captured U.S. airmen who confessed to having dropped “germ bombs.” Yet upon their release to the United States, the airmen recanted, and some reported having been tortured.

An international commission, including the prominent British biochemist Joseph Needham, visited alleged attack sites and interviewed some 600 people. The commission concluded there had been bacteriological war, and a pillar of its case was the Kan-Nan Incident, in which, it found, U.S. planes had dropped more than 700 rodents over four Chinese villages. But that commission had been convened and somewhat guided by the Chinese government, and, more important, nobody in the Kan-Nan area actually got sick or died.

The most tantalizing testimony Baker cites concerns the earlier alleged attacks, from November 1950, when U.N. forces were legging it down the Korean peninsula, pursued by the People’s Liberation Army. A British sergeant saw men in unmarked fatigues wearing gloves, parkas, and masks going house to house, pulling feathers from containers and spreading them around. “They were very surprised and unhappy to see us,” the sergeant remembered. “It was obvious that something suspicious was going on, and that it was a clandestine affair.”

In the wake of the U.N. retreat, North Korea’s foreign minister announced that thousands of smallpox cases had broken out. “Areas which have not been occupied by the Americans have had no cases of smallpox,” he added. That sounds damning. But wait—isn’t it just what a North Korean official would say if he wanted to tar the United States? If you’re straining to keep track of the charges and countercharges, all I can say is: Welcome to the annual meeting of the Korean War Biological Weaponry and Related Propaganda Studies Association. You can pick up your tote bag at registration.

“Let me just blurt out what I think happened with germs and insects during the Korean War,” Baker writes in a late chapter. “I believe that something real and infectious happened in the last, subzero months of 1950.” The masked commandos with feathers were spreading diseases, and indeed people in that area got sick, some with a “gruesome new disease, Songo fever,” that had previously been unknown in the region but has hung around and “is still a problem in Korea today.”

Baker thinks the rain of rodents over Kan-Nan in 1952 was something different. He believes the U.S. military basically dumped a bunch of its discarded lab animals—wolf spiders, flies, clams, voles—over enemy targets, not to spread infection but to spread fear. Baker notes a declassified military plan from the time to terrorize communist troops by pretending to contaminate the northern border of North Korea with radioactive dust. Perhaps the voles and wolf spiders were a modified version of that tactic.

Perhaps. A skeptic would need to hear more. That the U.S. military had the idea, ability, and at least in some quarters the inclination to do the things Baker describes is hard to deny. What’s missing is the last and vital link, the official document that says, “Yes, we did it. We doused turkey feathers with Songo fever and spread them around people’s homes. We introduced contagious new diseases into the land we were trying to help. And then we scooped up all the test animals from our germ warfare laboratories and threw them out of F-82s onto inhabited villages because we wanted to scare the bejeezus out of people, even if those people were children.”

Baker has no such document, and he doesn’t pretend to. Yet if that evidentiary gap weakens his case that the United States probably waged small-scale bacteriological war, it strengthens his case for declassification. Because even with all that we already know about official plans, capabilities, and desires for biological war, governmental agencies are still aggressively whiting out memos, withholding reports, and putting off legitimate requests for information with illegal and absurd delays. What military secrets are so vital that, nearly 70 years later, we still cannot know them?

There’s another reply to Baker’s evidence, not that of the skeptic but of the cynic. Who cares if the United States took a tentative step over the line into biological warfare in Korea? Have you seen what else it was doing there?

Indeed, it was doing a lot. The president of South Korea was the massacre-prone anti-communist Syngman Rhee, and the United States backed him even as he slaughtered political prisoners and other suspected enemies of the state both before and during the war. U.S. forces were sometimes drawn in, as at the village of No Gun Ri in 1950, when troops from the 7th Cavalry Regiment opened fire on fleeing civilians, killing hundreds. “We just annihilated them,” remembered a former machine gunner.

The men in charge of the war contemplated far worse. If the Chinese did not withdraw, President Harry Truman believed, the United States should “eliminate” not just Shanghai, Beijing, and Port Arthur, but also Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad, and Odessa. He signed an order authorizing the use of atomic bombs on Chinese and North Korean targets. General Douglas MacArthur, for his part, explained in a 1954 interview that, if he’d had a free hand, he “would have dropped between 30 and 50 tactical atomic bombs” and spread “a belt of radioactive cobalt” across the peninsula to prevent Chinese troops from crossing for 60 years.

The nukes were never used, but that was no mark of restraint. U.S. planes released an unrelenting torrent of munitions over Korea, dropping 635,000 tons of bombs over the course of the war, more than it had dropped in the entire Pacific theater in World War II. “Whereas sixty Japanese cities were destroyed to an average of 43 percent,” writes historian Bruce Cumings in The Korean War, “estimates of the destruction of towns and cities in North Korea ‘ranged from forty to ninety percent’; at least 50 percent of eighteen out of the North’s twenty-two major cities were obliterated.” In 1951, the former commander of the Air Force’s Far East Bomber Command testified to a Senate committee that there were simply “no more targets” to strike. “Everything is destroyed,” he said. “There is nothing standing worthy of the name.”

That testimony wasn’t a secret. Newspapers reported it. Once you understand how brazenly psychotic the war was, it’s much easier to imagine the United States using its biological weapons. It’s just harder to think it matters.

There’s no evidence that can answer the cynic. In fact, the higher the evidence of war’s horrors piles up, the stronger the urge to stop caring becomes. Rebutting the cynic means making a moral appeal, and that is where Baker glows incandescently. Ultimately, what is so compelling about Baseless is not the prosecutorial brief. It’s watching Baker, a thoughtful, sensitive, and vividly expressive soul, grapple with the pathological secrecy of his own government and with the heinousness of what he suspects it has done.

“There are two ways to live,” Baker writes. “You can live in a way in which you do your best not to kill people, or you can live in a way in which you attend meetings and perform experiments that are aimed at refining ways to cut lives short.” The bulk of humanity lives the first way, and Baker—his desk cluttered with redacted documents about how to induce anthrax and brucellosis—takes the occasional break to remember that. Baseless is punctuated with quiet moments from Baker’s life in Maine: observing the “tiny leaves unscrolling themselves” as spring arrives, or holding a dog’s forepaw and feeling the “braille of joy of his paw pads.”

These small eruptions of humanity establish nothing about the Korean War, but they provide a sanity check. Beyond the environs of Washington, D.C., people’s thoughts are filled with their hobbies and pets, not with weaponizing diseases or nuking China. Their worldviews are not hardened by the national security state. “If they’d known what some American bacteriologists were doing between 1943 and 1971, what would people have said?” asks Baker.

Probably many would have said, Don’t breed diseases for heightened virulence by passing them through guinea pigs and monkeys. Don’t find exotic maladies whose symptoms resemble other diseases in order to delay a diagnosis, so that people or animals will stay sicker longer. And don’t, absolutely do not, breed diseases for resistance to antibiotics.

If that’s what most people would have said, they would have been right—we’re now painfully aware of what an out-of-control disease looks like. But the public didn’t make the call. The mandarins of U.S. foreign policy did, and that is what is so terrifying. George F. Kennan, James Forrestal, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, and Henry Kissinger—“these are not normal people,” Baker notes. They are men who, in pursuit of freedom, advised staging coups, propping up dictators, and raining napalm down on Asia. “They should not be allowed near a diplomatic pouch or a negotiating table,” Baker writes. “They should not have the ear of the president. They are people who make things worse.”

Preparing and possibly using biological weapons wasn’t the most horrendous thing the Pentagon has done. But it’s an occasion to contemplate the yawning chasm between the moral instincts of most individuals and those of the men in charge. This is the controlling fact of U.S. foreign policy after World War II. A country full of kindhearted, interesting people—the land of Aretha Franklin and Jim Henson—has, through its government, repeatedly tormented other nations in ways it’s hard to imagine its voters approving of.

That’s what profound inequalities do, and the sheer concentration of so much global power in so few hands is the main problem. But secrecy, insulating policymakers from even their own compatriots, has not helped. A foreign policy establishment confident that its secrets will not get out operates in a bubble. A code of silence gets you a clubby, closed world: bishops shuttling molesting priests to new parishes, cops planting evidence. Or it gets you men who think it’s OK to soak San Francisco in bacteria for a week just to see what happens. Men who would choose to destroy every city and town in North Korea rather than let communists prevail.

After journalists learned more about the biological warfare program in the 1960s, the Nixon administration called it off. The United States finally agreed to stop developing and stockpiling bacteriological weapons. Yet the redacteurs have continued mutilating and hiding records to this day. And the more stingily federal agencies withhold decades-old documents, the more they degrade the principle that the public should ultimately know what its officials have done.

This perpetual secrecy must stop, Baker insists. “Every government document that’s more than fifty years old should be declassified in full, right now. As a first step.” It’s not just a matter of settling historical debates. It’s a bare-minimum requirement of a democratic foreign policy. Of having a government that, when contemplating a horrifying course of action, would think of posterity and choose something saner.