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Suppressing US War Crimes: The Cold War Denial Machine Lives On

Biological warfare remains one of the deepest kept secrets of the Cold War.

Carrying her baby brother on her back, a war-weary Korean girl walks by a stalled M-26 tank, at Haengju, Korea, June, 1951.

A shadowy chapter of US Cold War history involving germ warfare allegations in 1952 recently played out in the New York Review of Books: In February, Michael Ignatieff, former Canadian politician and international political scholar, wrote a movie review of Errol Morris’s recent six-part Netflix docudrama, “Wormwood.”

“Wormwood” investigates the mysterious 1953 death of a top US germ war scientist and CIA employee, Frank Olson. Olson was bludgeoned on the back of the head and “dropped” from the 13th floor window of his Manhattan hotel room under orders from his CIA bosses, according to his son, Eric Olson. The US government was at that time very actively engaged in an international denial effort to brand claims of widespread US biological warfare use during the Korean War as communist propaganda. As a top scientist at the Army Chemical Corp’s biological warfare lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland, Frank Olson was in the unique position to spill the beans on this cover-up. He did not fully grasp how dangerous his CIA associates were, how freely they operated outside the law, or his own imminent peril.

George Burchett’s review of “Wormwood” gives the back story not often heard of the larger Korean War germ warfare story. The American use of bioweapons in Korea is known and accepted as fact by most Cold War scholars outside the US, but domestically, biological warfare remains one of the deepest kept secrets of the Cold War. That secret, even today 66 years after the fact, still has professional gatekeepers. No sooner had Ignatieff’s review of “Wormwood” appeared in that flagship of American liberal letters than the chief US point man on germ war denial, Milton Leitenberg, issued a response letter titled, “No They Didn’t.” In this letter, Leitenberg claims, “Dulles, Helms, et al. absolutely did not order Frank Olson killed because ‘he knew too much about US biological warfare during the Korean War’ because there was no biological warfare carried out by any agency of the US government during the Korean War, or for that matter by anyone else.”

Denying Cold War Events

Leitenberg’s denial rings hollow. This is an old claim which he has been making for the past two decades with bounteous financial support from think tanks, especially the Woodrow Wilson Center. Leitenberg dismisses all the mountainous evidence of biological warfare war crimes, including eyewitness testimony, laboratory analysis and autopsy reports and the flight patterns of US airplanes — all described in detail in the 1952 report of the International Scientific Commission. There were also 19 pilots’ confessions, the most damning confession was that made by the highest-ranking officer shot down, Marine Corp Col. Frank Schwable.

In 1998, Leitenberg launched his thesis that the 1952 allegations of biological warfare made against the US by China and North Korea were all a hoax, which he later characterized as “a grand piece of political theater.” At that time, he based the entirety of this claim upon a clandestinely acquired “Soviet dossier” consisting of 12 documents allegedly hand-copied from original Soviet Politburo correspondence and smuggled out of the Soviet Union’s Presidential Archive. These documents were surreptitiously given to a Japanese journalist, Yasuo Naito, by an unknown benefactor, and subsequently published in a right-wing newspaper called Sankei Shimbun. Leitenberg claims Naito gave him a typed transcript of his hand-written documents, which was translated and authenticated by Kathryn Weathersby, then an archivist at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project. Naito has avoided this subject ever since. The whereabouts of his hand-written transcripts have not been disclosed.

Regardless of the improbable truth of this espionage story and the mountainous physical evidence and document evidence to the contrary, Leitenberg’s thesis has gained popularity among Cold War scholars and deniers who would prefer not to believe the US state capable of dispersing diseases like plague, anthrax and hemorrhagic meningitis by airplane over large regions of North Korea and China. Attacking an enemy with disease is a war crime targeted primarily against civilians, women, children and the elderly. Cold War scholars seeking prestigious fellowships and grant funding know to avoid looking under this rock.

Two decades earlier in 1980, journalist John W. Powell (the father of this author) shocked the US with revelations of Japan’s WWII germ warfare factory, Unit 731, which performed gruesome human experimentations on live victims and weaponized anthrax and cholera, killing an estimated 400,000 people in China between 1937 and 1945. This was followed by Peter Williams and David Wallace’s 1989 book, Unit 731: The Japanese Armys Secret of Secrets. These journalistic investigations established how the US Army had secretly acquired highly advanced, human-tested, biological warfare research from Japanese Surgeon General Shirō Ishii and his staff in exchange for protection from war crimes prosecution.

By 1998, the biological warfare story had further evolved as Canadian scholars Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman produced a thoroughly researched indictment of US germ warfare use in Korea, The United States and Biological Warfare. The book exposes how the CIA and US Air Force began a lengthy and complex secret deployment of germ bomb attacks over North Korea and China for many months in 1951-52. The lessons gained by Japan’s Unit 731 in mass murder warfare were applied by the US military in the Korean theater. President Truman, the CIA, the Army, Air Force and Joint Chiefs of Staff were all complicit in the secrecy of this operation.

Close on the heels of Endicott and Hagerman’s 1998 book came two articles: the first by Kathryn Weathersby announcing the discovery of the Soviet dossier, and the second, mentioned above, by Milton Leitenberg explaining its significance. It is here that Leitenberg lays out his hoax thesis. This release was timed to coincide with the publication of the Canadian research to produce the appearance of academic conflict in order to neutralize the staggering truth of the findings of Endicott and Hagerman. Instead of going viral, the topic died again in a bogus academic dispute, helped along by the evaporation of institutional funding.

Leitenberg revisited his hoax claim in a 2016 monograph for the International Cold War History Project of the Wilson Center, claiming additional revelations of communist collusion in another document with suspect origins. This is the purported “memoir” of medical doctor and Chinese public health official Wu Zhili. While the current location of the original document is not revealed, the story line goes that it was “discovered” among Wu’s papers and published seven years posthumously in Yanhuang Chunqiu, an obscure academic journal of the Chinese Academy of Arts, and translated by Drew Casey. In this rambling text, Wu denounces the Chinese claim of US germ warfare as a “false alarm.”

However, from my own research, it appears there are actually two false alarm narratives attributed to Wu Zhili. The first is the nine-page verbose Leitenberg memoir (this document is Attachment #19 of Leitenberg’s 2016 monograph), and the other is a typically concise one-page passage from Autobiography of a War Doctor, Wu Zhili’s actual memoir. The two narratives describe quite differently the same series of events which occurred early in the 1952 biological warfare campaign, and draw very different conclusions. Furthermore, the adopted English phrase “false alarm” in Chinese more closely signifies an unnecessary or “needless panic,” which is qualitatively distinct in meaning from the English. Both writing style and diction indicate the two texts were not written by the same author.

Milton Leitenberg’s claim of a grand biological warfare hoax is a hoax itself. The Wu Zhili memoir and the Soviet dossier are forgeries; they are the latest fraudulent documents to be exposed in the shadowy history of Cold War espionage tradecraft.

Misrepresenting Cold War Events

Milton Leitenberg is also the author of Soviet Submarine Incursions in Swedish Waters, 1980-86. Based on one incident involving the grounding of a Soviet submarine in Sweden’s territorial waters in 1981, Leitenberg builds an ill-founded indictment against the USSR for the many dozens of submarine incursions into Sweden’s territorial waters during the Cold War 1980s, citing sources which claim as many as 300 sub incursions across the decade.

The Swedish government initially blamed the Soviets, but later backed off. Sweden’s naval forces tracked the intruder subs dropping depth charges from ships and helicopters, but no official positive identification was ever made of the elusive submarines, and no submarine was intentionally sunk. The Swedish Navy acted with great restraint.

In the 1990s, rumors began circulating through military and diplomatic back channels that the subs had been US and British. In 2000, former US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger publicly acknowledged that the US and Britain had conducted underwater operations in Sweden’s territorial waters. Finally, in 2004, the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo commissioned a thorough study of the events. The Secret War Against Sweden: US and British Submarine Deception in the 1980s, authored by Ola Tunander, discovered through extensive interviews and collected evidence that the Soviet Union was not involved in the submarine incursions, which instead were made by US and British underwater vessels. The two NATO powers were jointly testing new top-secret, sea-floor-crawling submarine assault vehicles against a formidable, nonaligned and technologically modern naval force operating under strict orders not to kill.

In a darker vein yet, Tunander argues that the sub incursions were part of a US and British psychological operation (PSYOP) designed to scare the population of Sweden into an anti-Soviet fervor. Throughout the 1980s, a compliant Swedish press blamed the Soviet Union and drumbeat a nationalist fervor. Fear of communists dramatically increased in the population of Sweden, and this data was duly quantified. These unannounced underwater incursions into Sweden’s territorial waters amounted to covert and hostile war games with PSYOPs propaganda targeting of a neutral, nonaligned nation by supposedly friendly powers. Leitenberg’s Soviet submarine thesis was thoroughly discredited by Tunander.

The Importance of Uncovering the Truth

In regards to both the 1951-52 US germ warfare campaign and the 1980s submarine incursions, two of the US’s biggest criminal debacles of the Cold War, Milton Leitenberg has offered up erroneous facts, misleading theories and bogus documents as a scholarly Cold War historian on behalf of the US.

Leitenberg has simultaneously enjoyed abundant academic success with his appointment as senior researcher at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, and through his close association with the Woodrow Wilson Center, a quasi-governmental foreign policy think tank status. This formidable institutional support has allowed him to ride heavy-handed over Cold War scholarship to fulfill his role as gatekeeper of the US’s ugliest Cold War secrets. His ability to corral scholars to toe the denial line for the past two decades is starkly revealed in Ignatieff’s brief reply, “Never having claimed to be able to plumb these murky depths, I am happy to take Milton Leitenberg’s word for it.”

That Ignatieff caves to Leitenberg’s pressure is both shocking and sobering. The US denial machine is working with Inquisitional efficiency, and in one discrete sidebar of liberal letters, we see its machinations in appalling close-up. This is disinformation, history scrubbing and a tired brand of fake-document espionage, and it’s not a pretty sight.

In spite of these history-suppression measures, there has been a renewed interest in Cold War scholarship, which has led to the founding of the Bioweapon Truth Commission. On June 25, 2018, the 68th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, the Bioweapon Truth Commission will inaugurate its Global Online Library. This new source contains important scholarship including many declassified and hard to find documents pertaining to the Korean War. It will be a useful new resource for both advanced scholarship and for general public curiosity.

The hidden history of the Korean War — the 4 million dead Koreans, the carpet bombing, firebombing, germ bombing, the entire built infrastructure of North Korea reduced to rubble, the prisoner torture, civilian massacres, suppression of war crime evidence, the lies and the silent forgetting — all this is now coming into the sunshine. Going forward toward Korean unification, nobody should agree to bury these truths again.

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