Germ-warfare propaganda campaign resurfaces in Netflix’s ‘Wormwood’, Stephen Kinzer’s ‘Poisoner in Chief’

An effective propaganda campaign can endure and embed itself in public memory and popular culture. The Communist charges that the US engaged in bacteriological warfare during the Korean War is one of the most enduring of these campaigns.

During the early 1950s the Soviet, Chinese and allied Communist media around the world trumpeted allegations that the US deliberately had spread cholera, smallpox, typhoid and other diseases in North Korea and the bordering Chinese region of Manchuria. Captured US airmen publicly “confessed” to the crimes. The US denied everything; the repatriated airmen recanted.

A 1998 book The United States and Biological Warfare relied on Chinese and North Korean claims and circumstantial evidence from American archives to argue that bacteriological warfare did happen; that same year scholars with Princeton’s Cold War International History Project used unverified documents from Russian archives to argue in “Deceiving the Deceivers” that it did not and the propaganda campaign was a conscious Communist fraud.

Filmed confessions of captured US airmen were widely distributed and led to a deep American fear of “brainwashing” and to cultural milestones such as the 1962 movie “The Manchurian Candidate” and 2004 remake. A search for that term on Google returns 1.89 million hits. Brainwashing entered the lexicon.

The claim played a minor role in Stephen Kinzer’s recent recapping of CIA biological and psychological warfare in the very readable book Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control. Two years earlier Errol Morris explored the story in more depth in the Netflix series “Wormwood.” The key element for both Kinzer and Morris was the 1953 death of US Army bacteriologist Frank Olson. Murder? Suicide? Misadventure? Morris builds the four-hour series around Olson’s death and the quest of his son Eric to find the truth. Although the government initially reported the death as a simple suicide leap from a 10th-story window, it changed its story in 1975 in response to a press exposé and claimed the death was the result of Olson’s participation in a joint Army-CIA LSD experiment gone awry.

Eric Olson and Errol Morris have a different theory, and some facts to back them up. Through Frank Olson’s work in bacteriological warfare at Fort Detrick he was well-aware of the development of the weapon program, and had become increasingly worried about Korea. Through snippets in the four-hour documentary they conclude that the CIA murdered him to keep him from going public and becoming a dissident on the germ warfare program and related mind-control/torture experiments in which he had been involved.

Contemporary film clips – of Chinese bug-hunters, of US airmen “confessing” – could lead the casual viewer to assume that something very bad indeed happened in Korea.

Although the preponderance of evidence indicates that the US did not use bacteriological warfare in Korea, it’s easy to see why the claim seemed plausible to so many people around the world at the time and why it has endured. Here’s why:

  • The US and the Soviets both had sophisticated biological warfare programs, and the ability to deploy bacteriological weapons.
  • The US had direct links to the Japanese scientists who had conducted biological warfare experiments in occupied Manchuria during World War II as part of the infamous Unit 731.
  • The US had demonstrated willingness to use weapons of mass destruction against civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and openly discussed using them in Korea.
  • American bombing already had flattened most of North Korea, and the US was looking for a way to break the military stalemate.
  • Epidemics had broken out in North Korea and Manchuria in early 1952 after US bombing had destroyed most of what little public health infrastructure the North Koreans had.

For Morris and Eric Olson, the details of what happened on the ground in Korea do not matter that much. What mattered was what Frank Olson knew and believed in November 1953, and what his government would do to keep that information secret. The LSD experiment story was misdirection.

Halfway through episode five, Eric Olson tells the camera:

“My father became convinced that the United States was using this stuff. Now what do we mean by using?  Was it a massive deployment? Was it experimental? That’s what this argument ultimately comes down to — a semantic question. What do we mean by using? Was it a tactical deployment? A strategic decision? What was it, actually? Was it a test? How big was that test? I think that’s what this ultimately comes down to. Does that end the historical controversy? No. But it shows that my father believed it. And If my father believed it, it was going to be very difficult to discredit him. Very difficult. I mean, what are they going to say?”

Presumably everyone involved in the bacteriological program is now dead; the documentary record is salted, redacted, destroyed or withheld on all sides. The same can be said for the propaganda and counter-propaganda campaigns.

Partisans are convinced of their truth

The rest of us continue to have to contend with a question that will never quite close.


Author: Dr. John Jenks

I am a professor of Communication at Dominican University, and research the post-1945 history of propaganda and journalism.

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