Week 12 Preparedness Blog: United States Bioterrorism Program 1960 thru 1969

Week 12 - May 4, 2018

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

United States Bioterrorism Program 1960 - 1969

While the United States was successfully thwarting Communist takeover of South Korea, France was losing its control of Vietnam, officially ceding dominion of North Vietnam to Communist led government of Ho Chi Minh and relinquishing support of the pro-western democracy of South Vietnam to the United States. From 1954 to 1961, the Eisenhower Administration provided large sums of military and economic support to the South Vietnamese government, including dispatching nearly 700 military advisors to South Vietnam. Throughout the 1960’s, during the Kennedy then Johnson administration, the United States deepened its involvement defending South Vietnam. Reluctant to send ground troops beyond the already present military advisors, American airbases were established to provide air support to South Vietnamese forces. Unfortunately, American airbases became targets of North Vietnamese forces and their South Vietnamese allies the Viet Cong, requiring United States infantry troops to protect the airbases. Thus, began the escalating cycle of American involvement in Vietnam, leading to an eventual commitment of over 500,000 military personnel and over 58,000 deaths.

By 1960, the United States' bioweapons program was evolving from a focus on lethal agents to an emphasis on incapacitating agents. For example, Enterotoxin B from Staphylococcus aureus was studied extensively for its ability to cause food poisoning. Meanwhile, previously studied and tested human pathogens were weaponized via loading onto an assortment of bombs and other munitions. During the Vietnam War, to successfully negate North Vietnamese and Viet Cong tactical warfare advantages utilizing jungle foliage, American forces used the defoliating herbicide Agent Orange extensively; dramatically diminishing casualties. However, it was the use of Agent Orange, along with chemical riot control agents, during the very unpopular Vietnam War that would lead to public outcry and eventually end of the United States offensive bioterrorism program.

As public opinion turned strongly against American involvement in the Vietnam War, reports came forth of the environmental airborne tests over American cities and unknowing populations, as well as testing on animals and humans, both directly and thru airborne and munitions release. The Nixon administration, already dealing with increasingly hostile protests to the war in Vietnam was anxious to eliminate the growing biological agent controversy. Consequently, in 1969 President Nixon issued (pointedly at the now Fort Detrick) his “Statement on Chemical and Biological Defense Policies and Programs” announcing the United States would henceforth prohibit development and weaponization of biological agents of warfare. Nixon did indicate the United States would continue research on biological agent countermeasures such as immunizations and antibiotic treatments.

From the beginning of the American bioterrorism program in 1942 to its ending in 1969, a multitude of human, animal and plant pathogenic agents were researched and/or weaponized as potential US biological warfare agents. The incredibly exhaustive list includes: African swine fever, anthrax, Argentinian Hemorrhagic Fever, avian influenza, Blue tongue virus, Bolivian Hemorrhagic Fever, botulinum toxin, bovine influenza, bovine virus diarrhea, brucellosis, Chikungunya virus, dengue fever, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, foot and mouth disease, fowl plague, glanders, goat pneumonia, Hantavirus, Lassa Fever, melioidosis, mycobacteria, Newcastle disease, potato blight, plague, psittacosis, Q-fever, rice blast, ricin toxin, Rift Valley Fever, rinderpest, rye stem rust, sheep pox, smallpox, staphylococcal enterotoxin B, Teachers disease, tularemia, typhus, Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis, vesicular stomatitis, wheat rust and yellow fever.

Upon its conclusion in 1969, the American bioweapons program budget was at $300 million annually and consisted of extensive field testing accompanying laboratory research and development. From 1962 thru 1973, Project 112 exposed over 6,000 military personnel and over 300 civilians, without their knowledge nor consent, to aerosolized biological and chemical weapons during field tests to determine impact range and effects. Similarly, Project SHAD (Shipboard Hazard And Defense), designed to test naval ship vulnerabilities to biological and chemical warfare attacks, exposed personnel on ships to aerosolized biological and chemical weapons without their knowledge and consent.

Determined to move beyond biological weapons development, production and testing, the United States, finally in 1975, ratified the Geneva Convention of 1925 banning use of biological and chemical weapons. The United States became an international leader in encouraging all nations to rebuke the development and utilization of biological weapons. The United States, along with seventeen other nations, crafted a United Nations resolution banning the use of biological warfare agents which NATO supported and which evolved into the Biological Warfare Convention. Beginning in 1972, over 100 nations signed the Biological Warfare Convention pact, including the United States and Soviet Union. Unfortunately, as we will see in upcoming blogs not all signees would adhere to the mandates outlined in the pact.


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