Week 11 Preparedness Blog: United States Bioterrorism Program 1945 - 1959

Week 11 - April 27, 2018

by David Culp, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, Illinois Public Health Association

United States Bioterrorism Program 1945 - 1959

The United States emerged victorious from World War Two, prepared to defend democracy and freedom across the globe, via establishment of a network of military and diplomatic alliances; especially hoping the newly formed United Nations could serve as a forum for peaceful resolution of issues between nations. The Post World War Two era would see the beginnings of a Cold War with the United States and Western European democracies forming NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organization, opposing Soviet Union and its colony nations in Eastern Europe, forming the Warsaw Pact under the vision of totalitarian communist regimes; leading to Winston Churchill’s words an Iron Curtain across the European continent.   Meanwhile Asia was centrally focused on the emergence of a Communist Regime in China in 1949 and its naturally close alliance with the Soviet Union. Communist China was as adamant about spreading its totalitarian philosophy across Asia as Soviet Union was across Europe. United States, fearing a world takeover, set forth a policy of containment determined to utilize its power and influence to limit the spread of communism anywhere in the world. When the Soviet Union and Communist China supported North Korean invasion of democratic South Korea in 1950 the United States intervened along with sixteen members from the United Nations.

The Cold War fully erupted in the late 1940’s with announcement the Russians had developed nuclear weapons via information provided by their spies and sympathizers in the United States. Two major events now occurred: (1) The “Red Scare”, led by Senator Joe McCarthy, would be initiated to find and eliminate communist infiltrators in the American government and military as well as society, particularly in Hollywood 2) All available weapons would now be necessary to contain the Red Threat of Communism including and especially biological weapons. The new American approach fit the common philosophy of biological weapons which, due to their insidious and uncontrollable nature nation states, are typically loath to utilize unless under the direst of situations.

The United States Bioterrorism Program had been in its infancy during World War Two, as demonstrated by heavy focus on the deadly traditional agent of anthrax and the apparently deadlier botulinum toxin. However, realization would come to the American Program, as with most all bioterrorism programs, that botulinum toxin though statistically one of the deadliest toxins known to man was completely harmless when aerosolized as a bio weapon due to its protein fragility. Now with a real fear the Soviets could launch a nuclear attack at any moment or that they would gradually and persistently conquer nations of the world leaving United States isolated; not to mention totally convinced the Soviets had chemical and biological programs as robust at their burgeoning nuclear program, US bioweapons research fervently blossomed.

Though Camp Detrick remained the center of American bioweapons research and development; new production and testing facilities were established at Pine Bluff Arkansas, Dugway Proving Grounds Utah and Plum Island New York. American researchers deemed themselves in a race with the Soviets to weaponize a plethora of biological agents as quickly as possible for retaliation deterrence threat and if necessary offensive attacks. Many field tests were conducted during the 1950’s; for example, Bacillus globieii, a spore forming bacterium like anthrax, and Serratia marcescens, easily visualized by its red pigment, were aerosolized over American cities to assess impacts of airborne biological agent release. Hundreds of thousands of yellow fever mosquitos were released in Georgia and Florida to assess their ability to survive and transmit disease to human populations. Uninfected fleas were dispersed via military munitions at Dugway Proving Grounds to determine their survivability and coverage patterns.

Field testing evolved to direct agent testing on humans and subsequently live agent munitions development. Beginning in 1954, Seventh Day Adventists, as conscientious objectors, were selected to be Military Research Volunteers infected with and subsequently treated for biological agents. African-American citizens were deliberately exposed to the spore forming fungus Aspergillus fumigatus, which invades and grows in the respiratory tract and lungs of its victims, to analyze their susceptibility. United States biowarfare program weaponized multiple agents in pipe, balloon and cluster bombs and both the Soviets and Communist Chinese were convinced they had evidence of disease outbreaks during the Korean War being caused by American release of biological agents. By the end of the 1950’s, not only had the United States and Soviet Union produced sufficient nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over; together they had produced enough bio weapons to kill the world’s populations many times over. 


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