Cover image for The biology of doom : the history of America's secret germ warfare project
The biology of doom : the history of America's secret germ warfare project
Regis, Edward, 1944-
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First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : H. Holt, [1999]

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259 pages ; 25 cm
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UG447.8 .R44 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The first book to expose the true story of America's secret program to create biological weapons of mass destruction. From anthrax to botulism, from smallpox to Ebola, the threat of biological destruction is rapidly overtaking our collective fear of atomic weaponry. In an era when a lone fanatic could wipe out an entire population with the contents of a small vial, the specter of germ warfare has moved into a prominent position in the public's mind. This riveting narrative traces America's own covert biological weapons program from its origins in World War II to its abrupt cancellation in 1969. This project, at its peak, employed 5,000 people, tested pathogens on 2,000 live human volunteers, and conducted open-air tests on American soil. The U.S. government appropriated research from Japanese experiments on Chinese civilians, thus benefiting from one of the twentieth century's greatest atrocities; sprayed its own cities with bacterial aerosols; and stockpiled millions of bacterial bombs for instant deployment. Yet, surprisingly, almost nothing has been published about this project until now. In light of America's increasing surveillance and condemnation of foreign biological weapons programs, this exposé of America's own dangerous Cold War secret is both fascinating and shocking.

Author Notes

Ed Regis, Ph.D., is a former philosophy professor & has written for "Wired," "Discover," & "Science Digest." He is the author of four books, including "Who Got Einstein's Office?," "Great Mambo Chicken," & "The Transhuman Condition."

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

For a time after President Nixon terminated the bacteriological warfare program, the details remained secret. Bits of appalling information dribbled out over the years--such as accidental sheep kills and intentional releases of germs in U.S. cities, to which Regis adds his own excavations to produce a coherent narrative of what went on. Born like the atom bomb from fear of what the Germans might be doing, the germ project began at a Maryland site by scaling up experiments the British had conducted with anthrax. But although such plagues are lethal, transforming them into weapons is technically difficult, and Regis' account of the efforts to do so--from the work on bombs and sprayers to the field tests that made many a landscape uninhabitable--amounts to the creation of a new Pandora's box. An objectively handled summary. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Regis (Virus Ground Zero, etc.) presents a thorough, frightening look at America's biological warfare program, from its inception during the late 1930s through the 1980s. He covers all the bases in looking at the strategic and scientific developments of biological warfare both in the U.S. and among its principal adversaries, including Japan, Germany and Russia. The topic is gruesome: Regis reveals that humans, as well as guinea pigs, rhesus monkeys and other animals, were exposed to live infectious agents. Bombs were created to remain underwater, then surface and spray out germs; tests were done on the efficacy of fleas as agents to carry plague. Regis writes for the layperson, and he is careful to depict the human dramas behind the science. He writes, for instance, of the scientist who tested psychotropic agents on unwitting co-workers and of the University of Wisconsin professor who had been drafted into the war effort and found it impossible to get out (as Regis puts it, "being in the profession was all too much like being in the Mafia: once you were in, you were in for good"). Along his way to reporting this important and underdiscussed aspect of the Cold War, Regis offers a great deal of startling evidence on the use of biological agents during the Korean conflictÄand, also disturbing, that America used data from Japanese biological warfare tests done on Manchurian criminals. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Regis presents an in-depth account of the development and considerations of biological warfare. The focus is centered on activity in the US, yet concurrent activities throughout the world have been drawn into the narrative. Conditions for testing, range of potential agents, and storage of weapons are included. In 1942, Major Leon A. Fox MD, US Army Medical Corps, considered biological agents ineffectual for general warfare. The Japanese, following Fox's interpretation, took the opposite perspective, and Japan was the first to evaluate and use germ warfare. Many nations, including the US, have signed treaties to abstain from continuing development, yet secret programs are still being maintained. Biological weapons are more likely to be used by disaffected groups, e.g., the subway attack in Japan, thus the potential of biological attack cannot be ignored. This book will primarily interest select groups--e.g., military security, the medical and public health community, since many affected people will require emergency medical care--and the aware general reader. General readers; professionals. A. D. Gounaris; emeritus, Vassar College



Chapter One twenty years earlier, the U.S. Army would have laughed at the idea of making war upon the enemy by spraying germs out of a can. The Army's official position, in those days, was that biological warfare was science fiction.     That position had been formulated, argued, and loudly proclaimed by one Leon A. Fox, M.D., a major in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. Fox viewed himself as a great debunker of popular delusions, and in 1932 he had written an article for the Army journal Military Surgeon in which he took a dim view of the entire germ war fantasy.     "Bacterial warfare is one of the recent scare-heads that we are being served by the pseudo-scientists who contribute to the flaming pages of the Sunday annexes syndicated over the nation's press," he wrote. "I consider that it is highly questionable if biologic agents are suited for warfare. Certainly at the present time practically insurmountable difficulties prevent the use of biologic agents as effective weapons."     For one thing, most of the world's microbes were highly perishable: they were destroyed by heat, cold, and even by sunlight. Placing germs inside weapons and firing them off like cannonballs pretty much guaranteed that the organisms would be dead on arrival.     "Shells can be used to project missiles and chemicals on to an enemy many miles distant," he said, "but bacteria cannot be used in this way. No living organism will withstand the temperature generated by an exploding military shell."     You could spread bacteria from an airplane, he conceded, just as a crop duster sprayed insecticide over farmland. Still, "their effect would be quite local and probably less dangerous and less certain than high explosives used in the same way."     And in any case there was the boomerang effect to consider. Unless you've immunized your own army against the specific biological agent you're going to use on the enemy, that agent could come back and kill you as easily as them. If, on the other hand, you've immunized your own forces against certain bacteria, then the other side could do so as well, making the entire biological assault an exercise in futility.     But if you wanted to wage war with germs even in spite of all these obstacles, exactly which diseases would you try to inflict upon the adversary?     Not meningitis, for the organism was "so delicate that even on the most favorable culture media it rapidly dies when exposed for even a few hours to temperatures much below that of blood heat." Smallpox was out because soldiers were immunized against it as a matter of course. Influenza was a possibility, except for the fact that no one knew how to start a proper epidemic of the disease: the microbe was always skulking around in the environment somewhere, and it broke out sporadically and at random for unknown reasons. Handling the virus in a controlled manner and directing it upon the foe at will seemed entirely out of the question.     Plague was excluded by the boomerang argument. "The use of bubonic plague today against a field force, when the forces are actually in contact, is unthinkable for the simple reason that the epidemic could not be controlled. The torch once set off might destroy friend and foe alike, and would therefore prove of no value as a military weapon."     Botulinum toxin sounded like a good weapon, and indeed plenty of Sunday supplement writers seemed to get hysterical over it, claiming that an ounce or so of the substance would be enough to kill every man, woman, and child on earth. Mathematically that might be true, said Fox, but it was of no account if you couldn't physically parcel out a minute portion of that ounce to each of those persons one by one. A bare mathematical possibility, in other words, was not the same thing as a genuine material prospect. "There were over one hundred billion bullets manufactured during the World War--enough to kill the entire world fifty times," Fox said. "But a few of us are still alive."     But for all the cold water he threw on the idea of biological warfare in general, even Leon Fox had to admit that there was one biological agent out there that approximated to a high degree what could be called the "perfect military pathogen." This was anthrax.     Anthrax was a spore-forming microbe, meaning that when the bacillus was thrust into unfavorable conditions it curled itself up in a tiny ball and built around its outer surface a capsule that amounted to a hard hide. Such spores were known to be remarkably stable and resistant to the destructive influences of light and heat, and they could remain that way, with no loss of virulence, for a period of many years.     "These spore-forming invaders are a real problem," said Leon Fox. "We cannot dismiss anthrax so readily."     He also made one other concession, concerning bubonic plague. Even though, because of the boomerang problem, it was of no use in close quarters on the battlefield, plague could still be used, he said, "to harass civil populations." This would be true especially if the attacker could leave the area right after introducing the microbe.     He even had an idea about how to do this: "It may be possible for airplanes flying low to drop recently infected rats." Leon Fox's piece was published in the March 1933 issue of Military Surgeon under the title "Bacterial Warfare: The Use of Biologic Agents in Warfare." Shortly after it appeared in English, a Japanese translation was prepared in Tokyo, where it was read by one Shiro Ishii, a physician in the Imperial Japanese Army.     Ishii was about the same age as Fox, and was also a major in his country's Army Medical Corps. However, Ishii was not as skeptical about the idea of germ warfare as Fox was. In fact, he regarded Fox's piece as "fantastic' and "not based on scientific facts."     Ishii's own view was that germ warfare was a distinct possibility. Why had it been outlawed by the 1925 Geneva disarmament convention, he reasoned, unless it posed a realistic threat to modern armies? Organized states did not go to all the trouble of banning forms of warfare that had little or no chance of working, but on June 17, 1925, in Geneva, representatives of twenty-nine nations (including the United States) had signed a "Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare."     Gas warfare, Ishii knew, had caused a million casualties in World War I. Although bacteria had never been used as weapons, it was obvious they could do a lot of damage. Every military physician understood that during all the wars of past history, more men had been killed by disease than by actual battle. Malaria, dysentery, cholera, typhus, bubonic plague, and other diseases had devastated countless armies. Why couldn't a field commander capitalize on that fact, turning nature's own prefabricated agents of destruction into controlled and directed offensive mechanisms?     Ishii had gotten some firsthand experience of the murderous potential of epidemic diseases when in 1924 he waded into an outbreak of an unknown pathogen on the Japanese island of Shikoku. Patients were losing weight, shaking with chills, and many became partially or totally paralyzed by the infection. Before long, 3,500 people had died of severe brain inflammation.     Much later, the cause was found to be Japanese B encephalitis virus, a microbe that was transmitted to humans by mosquitoes. The outbreak had natural causes and had not been artificially induced. Still, the epidemic was exactly what a germ warfare attack would look like: a strange disease appearing out of nowhere all at once, swamping the health care system and leading to many casualties. It was a formative experience for Shiro Ishii.     As a person, Ishii was overbearing and generally obnoxious. At Kyoto Imperial University, where he'd gotten his medical degree in 1920, he made a habit of coming into the lab late at night, running through a succession of test tubes, beakers, and other lab glassware, and then leaving the mess for others to clean up. Nevertheless, he ingratiated himself with his superiors, married the university president's daughter, and fathered a large brood. He spent his after-hours in bars and geisha houses, having a whale of a time. He had a mesmerizing effect on people, even strangers, and was said to have a hypnotic appearance.     In 1928, Shiro Ishii left Japan and toured the world, heading south to Singapore, then west to Ceylon, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, then moving systematically through Europe, hardly missing a single country. He crossed the Atlantic, visited the United States and Canada, and returned to Japan via Hawaii. A raft of legends soon sprang up about him. One dating from this period claims that he lived in Boston for a time and studied germ warfare at MIT, but MIT had no such program.     Two years later Ishii was back in Japan and working as professor of immunology at the Tokyo Army Medical College. While there he made his one positive contribution to military medicine, inventing a ceramic filter for water purification. The filter removed all kinds of impurities--bacterial, viral, or chemical--without boiling or any sort of chemical treatment.     Such a device, if it worked, would be a boon to modern armies, saving them from recurrent epidemics of waterborne diseases. Supposedly, Ishii performed live demonstrations of his device by urinating into the filter and drinking the output, and there was a legend that he repeated this display before Emperor Hirohito and invited him to sip the discharge. The filter was apparently a success because both the Japanese Army and Navy adopted it for field use, and a Tokyo firm manufactured it in various sizes, paying Ishii substantial royalties in the process.     By 1931, then, Ishii was a miracle man who strode into breaking epidemics, had circled the globe, invented an appliance that purged water of evil influences, and got rich on the proceeds. So when he gave impromptu lectures about the advantages of using germs as weapons, people paid attention. Indeed, his reasoning appeared to be unanswerable: microbes made people sick and killed them, and they did so reliably and according to the known laws of microbiology. Germs were invisible, cheap, and easy to grow in quantity. Why not utilize their offensive potential? And why not make him, Shiro Ishii, leader of the whole project?     In 1932 the Japanese Army gave Ishii a research laboratory at the Army Medical College in Tokyo, a bacterial production facility in Harbin, China, and a test site in the nearby rural village of Beiyinhe. Three separate institutions devoted to biological warfare research and all of them under the control of the same man, Shiro Ishii.     And all of it while Leon Fox insisted that germ warfare was a pipe dream. In August 1933, a year after Shiro Ishii became the emperor of Japanese germ warfare, and the same year in which Leon Fox published his piece dismissing the notion, the Germans were staging a series of practical, hands-on biological warfare experiments in the ventilation shafts of the Paris Metro and in the tunnels of the London Underground--if an article that appeared in a staid British periodical The Nineteenth Century and After could be believed. The piece, "Aerial Warfare: Secret German Plans," by the British journalist Wickham Steed, published in the July 1934 issue, told an amazing story.     Recently, by means he did not specify, Steed had received a cache of secret German documents. One was a memorandum allegedly written in Berlin in July 1932, by an unidentified official in the gas warfare division of the German War Office. The document described how bacteria then known as Micrococcus prodigiosus (later renamed Serratia marcescens ) were commonly used in medical schools to demonstrate the airborne transmission of infectious diseases. The Micrococcus prodigiosus bacteria, thought to be harmless to humans, had a bright red hue--on culture plates they appeared as tiny red specks-and so to provide an object lesson in how bacteria could float through the air, a medical school lecturer would place a small quantity of the stuff in his mouth, mix it with his own saliva, and then proceed with the day's talk. At the end, the speaker would collect the culture plates that he'd earlier placed at various points around the room and incubate them overnight. Next day, lo and behold, fresh new colonies of the red bacteria had grown up on the culture plates. The conclusion was obvious for all to see: if the lecturer had been ill with tuberculosis or some other communicable disease, the causative agents would be flying around the room and infecting everyone within range.     The other lesson was that Micrococcus prodigiosus microbes made excellent biological tracers, and could be used to track air currents in places other than in medical school lecture halls. That gave the German gas warfare official an idea: Why not use that same bacillus to trace the airflow patterns into and throughout the subway tunnels of London and Paris? Then you'd know the probable results of spraying the subway air vents with chemical gases or pathogenic bacteria. The memo concluded, "If these bacilli could be successfully rained down from an aeroplane, with sufficient concentration, from various heights and in varying conditions of wind and weather, etc., and, as in the case of the medical demonstrative experiments just mentioned, could be caught by culture plates on the ground, then one could study at one stroke, aerodynamically and meteorologically, not only bacteriological but also chemical spraying."     The subways could be prime targets in a future war, especially if Londoners and Parisians flocked to the tunnels during air raids. With the intake air contaminated by anthrax or other bacteria, the underground refuge would be converted into an incubator of a mass epidemic.     In 1933, according to Wickham Steed's documents, German agents had already sprayed billions of the bright red Micrococcus prodigiosus microbes into the Paris Metro system by driving a car several times around the Place de la Concorde subway entrances while releasing the bacteria. The car's exhaust gases had disguised the aerosol cloud, and no one had noticed the mock attack.     Six hours later, at the Place de la République Metro station, a mile and a half from the dispersal point, the German covert agents found that more than four thousand colonies of the Micrococcus prodigiosus germs had been deposited on the bacterial culture plates they had set out in the station. For biological warfare purposes, that was a favorable result: it meant that you could fly over the Place de la Concorde, which was easy to spot from the air, day or night, drop a biological bomb, and be confident that the bacteria would seep down into the subway system and infect anyone there or in the immediate neighborhood. The Germans, according to Wickham Steed, had run similar spray tests in London, using the Piccadilly Circus Underground station as the attack point. The results had been similar to those in Paris.     No one ever proved, then or afterward, whether the "secret German documents" were real or phony, fact or fantasy. But it made no difference, the underlying message was equally disturbing either way: subways were vulnerable to biological organisms dropped from the skies. Worst of all, there seemed to be no obvious or easy way to defend against it.     Steed's article created a mass sensation in the United Kingdom. Politicians made speeches about it in Parliament, public health officials considered possible responses to a biological assault on the Underground, and military leaders examined various counterattack strategies, it being an article of faith among them that the best response to a given threat was always retaliation in kind. The cities of Berlin and Hamburg had their own subway systems, and they, too, were open to bacterial attacks. There seemed to be only one logical recourse: if the Germans were preparing for germ warfare, the British would not be far behind. In 1939, some five years after the Wickham Steed affair, a Japanese physician by the name of Ryoichi Naito showed up, unannounced, at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York.     The Rockefeller Institute was located on a rich and fabulous fourteen-acre campus between 64th and 68th Streets on the east side of the city. The institute's walks were bordered by tall trees, fountains, ponds, and patios, making the school reminiscent of an Italian villa in Tuscany. Into this heavenly setting, on February 23, 1939, came Dr. Naito, who was an assistant professor at the Army Medical College in Tokyo, the very place where, as it happened, Shiro Ishii ran a bacterial warfare research lab. Naito carried with him a letter of introduction from the military attaché of the Japanese Embassy in Washington explaining that medical researchers in Japan needed samples of yellow fever virus for the purpose of creating a vaccine.     Yellow fever was a viral illness characterized by high fever and headache, jaundice, black vomit, and bleeding. It was transmitted by mosquitoes and common in the tropics. There was essentially no treatment for it, as was generally true of diseases caused by viruses, and the mortality rate was approximately five percent.     Naito met with Dr. Wilbur A. Sawyer, director of the Rockefeller Institute Virus Laboratories, and told him that he'd come to the institute precisely because one of its scientists, Max Theiler, had recently developed a yellow fever vaccine. The Japanese needed samples of the virus, said Naito, in order to make a vaccine of their own.     Sawyer listened to this with some doubts. For one thing, yellow fever was a disease of the tropics, mainly Africa and South America, whereas there was little if any of it to be found in Japan. Why, then, would they need to protect themselves against it?     But there was a second consideration. To prevent the emergence of the disease in areas where it didn't exist already, both the League of Nations and a Congress of Tropical Medicine had passed resolutions prohibiting the importation of yellow fever virus into Asian countries for any reason. Sawyer therefore was regretfully unable to provide any samples of the virus to Dr. Naito.     Three days later, on a Sunday morning, a Rockefeller Institute technician who worked in Sawyer's virus lab, a man by the name of Glasounoff, was stopped on the street by an unidentified man who spoke with a foreign accent. The stranger was around forty, had a small mustache, and was dressed in a blue pinstripe suit and brown overcoat and hat. He told Glasounoff that he needed samples of the Asibi strain of the yellow fever virus--an extremely virulent strain, lethal for humans--for a scientific project in Japan. He couldn't ask the lab chief directly, he said, because there was some professional rivalry involved, a case of the unfortunate competition that so often prevented progress in the sciences. But if Glasounoff could provide the samples, he would be paid a thousand dollars.     This was highly unusual, and Glasounoff declined the proposition, whereupon, even more alarmingly, the foreigner upped the offer to $3,000--$1,000 now, plus $2,000 on delivery. Glasounoff refused, got away, and reported the event to Dr. J. H. Bauer, his boss at the virus lab.     Bauer sent news of the incident up through the chain of command at the Rockefeller Institute, and a full report of the occurrence eventually reached the State Department in Washington. But nobody there knew what it meant. On October 4, 1940, some twenty months after the two failed Japanese attempts to get yellow fever virus samples from the Rockefeller Institute, and eight years after Leon Fox had proposed the idea of dropping "recently infected rats" as a way of causing a plague epidemic, a lone Japanese plane circled the town of Chuhsien in Chekiang Province south of Shanghai, China.     The plane made a low pass over the western district and dropped out an indistinct cloud of stuff, as if the pilot had released a bucket of sand. On the ground, a man by the name of Hsu saw the material filter down through the air and settle on the street in front of his house. He stooped down to examine the particles and saw that they consisted of wheat grains and rice; he also noticed a large number of fleas crawling around in the mixture. He swept up a sample of the grains and fleas and brought it to the local air-raid station, whose personnel forwarded it to the provincial public health laboratory.     The public health laboratory workers knew that rat fleas were the normal carriers of the bubonic plague bacillus, among other things, and so they crushed the fleas and tried to culture out any bacteria they might be harboring. All their attempts to culture an organism from the fleas failed, but on November 12, thirty-eight days after the Japanese plane dropped its cargo over the city, an epidemic of bubonic plague broke out in Chuhsien in the area where the grains and fleas had been found in abundance.     The epidemic lasted for twenty-four days and resulted in twenty-one deaths. According to local health records, the town of Chuhsien had never before experienced so much as a single case of bubonic plague.     The Japanese plane had apparently caused the epidemic. The wheat and rice grains it dropped had attracted the local rats, the rats attracted the fleas, and the rats carrying the fleas brought the bacillus into village homes in the classic manner of plague transmission.     The case for all this would have been clinched had the lab workers performed an animal inoculation test, crushing the fleas, injecting some of the contents into lab rats or guinea pigs, and causing them to become ill with the disease. The provincial public health laboratory, however, lacked the facilities to perform such an experiment.     But the identical scenario was soon repeated elsewhere, in the port city of Ningpo, also in Chekiang Province, where on October 27, 1940, Japanese planes staged another bombing raid, scattering a large quantity of grain in the process. Nobody took any samples, but bubonic plague broke out in Ningpo just two days later. The epidemic lasted thirty-four days and claimed a hundred human lives.     Then on November 28, 1940, with the other two epidemics still in progress, three Japanese planes flew over Kinhwa, a city midway between Chuhsien and Ningpo. Afterward, the ground was covered with tiny pearly-white granules about the size of shrimp eggs. The residents collected the pellets and brought them to the local hospital.     The objects were roughly a millimeter in diameter, about the size of the roller on a ballpoint pen. They were translucent and when placed in water they swelled up and broke open, releasing a substance that formed a milky suspension.     A technician smeared the suspension onto a glass slide and placed it on the focusing stage of a light microscope. The objects were somewhat fuzzy and blurry but recognizable nonetheless. The plague organism had a distinctive bipolar appearance: it looked like a safety pin, with two dark ends separated by a thin clear shaft. That was the shape that now appeared in the microscope.     On the other hand, the laboratory failed to culture the bacillus from the samples, and no bubonic plague epidemic ever broke out in Kinhwa And so after three consecutive attempts there was only circumstantial evidence that the Japanese were performing biological warfare experiments in China.     The Japanese provided more evidence a year later when at 5 A.M. on November 4, 1941, a solitary plane flew over Changteh, a city in Hunan Province some 500 miles inland from the other three sites. Air-raid sirens went off and people took cover as the aircraft made three low passes down Kwan-miao Street. Wheat and rice, small flecks of paper, several pieces of cotton wadding, and miscellaneous other objects fell from the sky like confetti. The locals collected these strange "gifts from the enemy" and took them to the police, who brought them to the Presbyterian hospital. There lab workers looked through the microscope and saw what they thought was the plague organism, although they performed no corroborating tests.     But a week after the air raid, an eleven-year-old girl who lived on Kwan-miao Street developed a high fever and swelling of the lymph nodes, the "buboes" from which bubonic plague got its name, and she was dead within two days of the first symptoms. There had never been any cases of bubonic plague in Changteh for as far back as anyone could remember. A year after the first Japanese plague attacks on China, the Americans finally decided to hold discussions about the potential threat of biological warfare.     Word of the yellow fever incident at the Rockefeller Institute had reached Lieutenant Colonel James S. Simmons of the U.S. Army Surgeon General's office. Simmons was one of the few in the Army who had rejected Leon Fox's skepticism about the possibilities of germ warfare. In fact, Simmons had argued as far back as 1937 that the Japanese could easily create epidemics in the United States by dropping swarms of yellow-fever infected Aedes aegyptii mosquitoes on American shores. So when he heard in January 1941 that the Japanese had been scouting around for samples of the virulent Asibi strain and were willing to pay good money for it, he thought he knew exactly what was happening, namely, that they were trying to make a biological weapon out of the yellow fever virus.     Still, nothing happened for several months. In August 1941, finally, Simmons wrote to the secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson, telling him that certain segments of the U.S. Army were now prepared to give more credence than formerly to the whole notion of biological warfare. The orthodox view of germ warfare, which was that it was an unworkable phantasm, was based largely on theory, not on hard evidence or experiment. Simmons suggested to Stimson that the War Department ought to take the matter in hand, by undertaking a research program to create possible defenses as well as to prepare to reply in kind to a biological attack.     In time-honored government manner, the secretary of war responded by creating a committee. Composed of nine of America's top biologists, from Johns Hopkins, Yale, Cornell, the Rockefeller Institute, and the University of Chicago, and headed up by Edwin B. Fred, professor of bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin, the WBC Committee itself was never sure what the letters "WBC" stood for. Officially and for the record they meant "War Bureau of Consultants"; unofficially they were a deliberate backwards spelling of "Committee on Biological Warfare." Whichever it was, the members met for the first time on November 18, 1941, at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. They decided they would perform a literature search.     Nine days later, the U.S. Army received its first reports of the Japanese bubonic plague attacks on the Chinese village of Changteh.     Ten days after that, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, at which point the committee members decided to take the prospect of germ warfare somewhat more seriously than before.     Two months later, on February 17, 1942, the WBC Committee issued its first formal report. By any standard it was an impressive document, more than two hundred pages long, with thirteen appendixes including an annotated bibliography that ran to eighty-nine pages.     The results of theft literature search were especially surprising. Beyond the narrow confines of the U.S. Army, the world of science was full of proposals for the intentional dissemination of noxious microbes as a means of killing or incapacitating the enemy. Sixteen articles discussed the use of animals as means of spreading bacteria, while fourteen proposed using insects. Sixteen additional articles mentioned dissemination by airplane, fifteen talked about sabotaging public water supplies, ten suggested bacterial aerosols, and six proposed bacterial bombs.     The old arguments against germ warfare were now seen to be invalid in every respect. "This type of warfare has been frequently rejected as impracticable, or unlikely to be used because of the `double-edged' nature of the weapon," the committee members said. But the "boomerang" effect was a problem only for close-range fighting; newer methods of long-range attack--dissemination by airplane, for example--entirely removed that obstacle.     Leon Fox's contention that bacteria couldn't survive being dropped in bombs was now revealed to be mere conjecture. Maybe they could survive, but who really knew without making the attempt? This was an empirical matter that could be settled only by experiment.     The committee members also had several practical suggestions as to which specific germs and diseases might be applied to the task. "Meningococcal meningitis might be spread by spraying meningococci in crowded quarters," they said. "Typhoid could be introduced by sabotage into water and milk supplies and by direct enemy action into reservoirs.... Botulinus toxin might be conveyed in lethal amounts through water supplies.... Plague could be introduced into any of the large cities or ports by releasing infected fleas or rats.... Diphtheria can be spread by dissemination of cultures in shelters, subways, street cars, motion picture theaters, factories, stores, etc., by surreptitiously smearing cultures on strap handles and other articles frequently touched."     They spoke of relapsing fever and hemorrhagic jaundice; of smallpox, rabies, and poliomyelitis; of Rift Valley fever, dengue, and influenza. All of them were potential weapons--and that was only for human beings. Animals and plants had diseases of their own: Newcastle disease, fowl plague, foot-and-mouth disease, hog cholera, rice blast, cereal stem rust, wheat scab, late blight of potato--all these things were out there in nature, ready and waiting for conversion into offensive weapons.     The committee's most imaginative suggestion, though, was to combine many diseases into a single live delivery package, a living buzz bomb of assorted pathogens that could be sent winging its way toward man or animal. A mosquito, they thought, would be perfect for the task, and so they recommended that "studies be made to determine whether mosquitoes can be infected with several diseases simultaneously with a view to using these insects as an offensive weapon."     Clearly, the committee members had warmed to their subject and were now firm believers in this new and exotic form of waging war. "Biological warfare is regarded as distinctly feasible," they said. "We are of the opinion that steps should be taken to formulate offensive and defensive measures."     A few months later, in June, the WBC Committee issued its second and final report. "The best defense for the United States is to be fully prepared to start a wholesale offensive whenever it becomes necessary to retaliate. In biological warfare," they added with emphasis, " the best defense is offense and the threat of offense ."     The last line of the report, and the final conclusion of the War Bureau of Consultants, was: "Unless the United States is going to ignore this potential weapon, steps should be taken immediately to begin work on the problems of biological warfare."     Its job done, the group disbanded. Copyright © 1999 Ed Regis. All rights reserved.