Franklin Delano Roosevelt is properly remembered as one of the best American presidents ever. He guided the US out of the Great Depression; he was an architect of the New Deal; he led the US through World War II; he was elected to four consecutive terms. By any measure he is an American hero – but he did have (at least) one dubious distinction: FDR issued orders in the spring of 1943 for the US to begin stockpiling biological weapons.
The US bioweapons program operated in secrecy – for nearly three decades. Only after the program was decommissioned was the program’s extent revealed. And while the official US bioweapons policy held that bioweapons were for the purpose of deterring a bioweapons attack from an enemy – retaliation, using bioweapons, was authorized in the event that deterrence failed.
President Nixon is responsible for ending the US bioweapons program; he ordered the end of production, and the dismantling of existing stockpiles and operations in 1969. By the time Nixon intervened, the US weaponized and stockpiled seven bio-agents: anthrax, tularemia, brucelosis, Q-fever, Venezuela equine encephalitis virus, botulism, and Staphylococcal enterotoxin B.
In 1975, the US agreed to ratify the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention – both of which outlawed biological weapons.
The US had been late to the game respecting bioweapons. At the onset of World War II, the US was one of the only belligerents without a bioweapons program; France, Japan, and the United Kingdom all had bioweapons programs, for example. In the fall of 1941, US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to begin researching bioweapons “because of the dangers that might confront this country from potential enemies employing what may be broadly described as biological warfare, it seems advisable that investigations be initiated to survey the present situation and the future possibilities.”
The NAS formed the War Bureau of Consultants (WBC) who conducted bioweapons research; the WBC’s findings pushed them to advocate for the creation of a bioweapons program. Pressure from the WBC – and from the British – prompted FDR to authorize the US bioweapons program in November 1942. Outwardly, what FDR authorized was the creation of the War Research Service (WRS) for the purpose of promoting “public security and health.” In reality, what WRS did was coordinate and supervise the development of US bioweapons at several facilities around the country – most importantly, Fort Detrick in Maryland.
US bioweapons development accelerated during the Cold War, in response to the Soviet threat – which happened to include a robust bioweapons program of their own. During the Cold War, the US and the USSR combined stockpiled enough bioweapons to kill every person on Earth.
Remarkably, the US conducted bioweapons tests on American soil – many of which gauged US vulnerabilities to such attacks. To simulate an anthrax attack, the US Navy conducted Operation Sea-Spray in 1950, in which supposedly harmless bacterias, Serratia marcescens and Bacillus globigii, were sprayed over the San Francisco Bay Area in California to determine the vulnerability of a high-population US city to bioweapons attack. The test indicated that the dose was sufficient to allow for nearly all of San Francisco’s 800,000 residents to inhale at least 5,000 particles of bacteria each. Obviously, the city would have been decimated had the spores been lethal.
Some residents were affected; the spores were not as harmless as the Navy initially believed. Eleven people checked into Stanford Hospital in San Francisco with rare and serious urinary tract infections. One man died. Later, when the man’s family sued, his case was dismissed as it was never proven that the bacteria released into the Bay Area caused his fatal infection.
Similar tests were conducted, including the dispersal of zinc cadmium sulfide (which is now understood to be carcinogenic) over Minnesota to see how far the particles would travel. The particles were detected over 1,000 miles away in New York state.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.
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