Germs in the Arsenal

Article by Elton Cornell

It’s well known that the European conquest of the New World was facilitated far less by military aggression than by all the diseases — smallpox, measles, influenza, the bubonic plague, and more — Europeans brought over with them. Some historians estimate that these scourges killed up to 95 percent of the New World’s indigenous population. However, this mass death was almost entirely accidental. The only recorded incident of a deliberate sickening of native people involved the “gift” in 1763 of two smallpox-infected blankets from British soldiers to Delaware Indians. A letter from one British commander to another expressed the intent to “Inocculate the Indians by means of Blankets, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.”

Though it’s not clear whether the blankets successfully transmitted smallpox to the Delaware Indians, smallpox subsequently took the lives of 500,000 to 1.5 million Native Americans.

World Wars, Biobombs, and Fever Spray

The first World War brought unprecedented carnage to Europe. It also featured more sophisticated methods of germ warfare, thanks to advances in microbiology. German agents used anthrax and glanders to weaken Romanian sheep, Argentinian livestock, and French and American cavalry horses. On the flip side, French saboteurs infected German-bound horses with glanders.

As for World War II, evidence strongly suggests that in the Battle of Stalingrad, Russian forces deliberately infected up to 100,000 German soldiers with a rare respiratory form of rabbit fever. The mode of transmission was most likely an aerosol spraying campaign. The most notorious WWII bioweapons facility was the Japanese military’s Unit 731, a sprawling compound of 150 or so buildings near the Chinese city of Harbin. By deliberately planting typhoid fever and cholera into Chinese water systems, as well as dropping ceramic containers holding plague-infected fleas onto Chinese cities, Unit 731’s biological weapons are thought to have killed anywhere from 200,000 to 580,000 people.

In what was known as “Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night,” Japanese forces planned to target San Diego with balloons containing plague-infected fleas, but Japan surrendered a month before the operation’s launch date.

The Cold War and Weaponizing Germs

Invading Russian forces captured some of Unit 731’s operatives, but most faced no postwar confinement (or prosecution) after cutting a deal with the Americans to share classified data about their unprecedentedly cruel experiments on live subjects. Throughout the Cold War, communist propagandists accused America of using bioweapons, whether against enemy forces during the Korean War or by systematically treating the Cuban populace as biological guinea pigs.

Although the U.S. denies these allegations — as you might expect — what’s undisputed is that America started its own bioweapons program during WWII and kept it running until the end of the sixties. The U.S. Army Biological Warfare Laboratories were established at Maryland’s Camp Detrick in the spring of 1943. Before being shut down by Richard Nixon’s executive order in 1969 — a year when the program’s budget approached $300 million — Army technicians researched smallpox, anthrax, brucellosis, botulism, plague, hantavirus, yellow fever, typhus, bird flu, and other diseases. The biological weapons they produced were then tested at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, as well as other open-air venues, often upon unsuspecting civilians.

During 1954’s “Operation Big Itch,” cardboard bombs containing hundreds of thousands of uninfected fleas were dropped to see if the fleas would remain alive and attach themselves to human hosts — which they did.

In May 1955’s “Operation Big Buzz,” 300,000 mosquitoes infected with yellow fever were dispersed by air and on the ground across parts of Georgia. And in “Project Bellwether” during the late 1950s and early 1960s, researchers at Dugway Proving Grounds continued dropping untold numbers of infected mosquitoes onto an unwitting American public.

In an era of "weaponized" everything, talking about germs almost seems anticlimatic. Yet history always provides insights if one is willing to listen closely.

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