On the Biological Warfare “Hoax” Thesis



Milton Leitenberg’s biological warfare hoax theory is not believable. For the past three decades, Leitenberg has paraded the thesis that the allegations of biological warfare use leveled against the United States by North Korea and China during the Korean War has all been a nefarious hoax— a grand piece of political theater— deviously orchestrated by Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and the swarthy Joseph Stalin. Leitenberg’s thesis epitomizes the deeply embedded racism of America’s Cold War politics. He has enjoyed bounteous support from right-wing academia and quasi-government think tanks. The BW hoax thesis has impacted scholarship and US foreign policy, and it is a major stumbling block to improving US relations with North Korea. In this essay I will argue that Leitenberg’s thesis is a house of cards built on forged documents, false claims and fake facts.

Arrayed against the hoax thesis is the entirety of collected material evidence and eye-witness testimony.1 That body of evidence includes the depositions of Korean and Chinese civilians who witnessed US aerial attacks during the war;2 it includes the testimony of a British soldier of a ground deployment by US paramilitary personnel during the retreat from the Yalu River in the winter of 1950-51;3 and it further includes the leveling of criminal sedition charges against American journalists for reporting the allegations of germ warfare.4 Additional evidence includes the revelation of a highly advanced Japanese BW program Unit 731 during WWII located near Harbin, China which was responsible for the deaths of 400,000 Chinese and Russian nationals, the secret acquisition of this BW program by the US Army,5 the quid pro quo granting of immunity to Unit 731 director Shiro Ishii and his subordinates from war crimes prosecution,6 the Soviet Union’s prosecution of General Otozo Yamada at the 1949 Khabarovsk War Crimes Trial and the revelations of that tribunal,7 the anchorage in Wonsan Harbor of US Infantry Landing Craft No 1091 described by Newsweek Magazine as the “bubonic plague ship,”8 the strange mission of its commander, General Crawford Sams, to abduct an infected enemy soldier from a North Korean hospital bed,9 the appearance of diseases hitherto unknown to the region, namely, pulmonary anthrax and hemorrhagic meningitis,10 the lab reports of Chinese medical examiners published in the December, 1952 Chinese Medical Journal,11 the confessions of 19 American pilots and crew shot down and captured behind enemy lines,12 the mysterious and dramatic murder of CIA bio-weaponer Frank Olson,13 and not least, the extensive findings of the International Scientific Commission (ISC) led by Joseph Needham which investigated the BW allegations and concluded unequivocally that the US had indeed engaged in germ warfare attacks by air against North Korea and China at identified locations on specific dates and times.14

The preponderance of all this evidence is indisputable, yet the US government continues to this day to refuse to address any of this evidence case by case. The government’s defense tactic at the time (and remains today) was to lump all BW war crime evidence against it into one basket which it then ignored or dismissed as communist propaganda. There was never any attempt to refute or provide countervailing evidence of any charge in any of the specific evidence categories. Instead, the US embraced the inherently racist strategy of employing authority figures in government and academia to heap scorn upon the Chinese and North Korean accusers. Disparaging speculations regarding the motives of victims were openly aired in Congress. A systematic purging of Korean War records was secretly begun, and the national “forgetting” of the Korean War became unspoken policy. Finally, the US initiated the vigorous prosecution and the threat of prosecution against whistle blowers to silence the truth.

US denial has also consisted of a continuous disinformation campaign. The official denial mantra asserted the BW allegations were false accusations intended to smear the US. When Secretary of State Dean Acheson sanctimoniously denied any “UN Command” involvement in BW deployment, this denial served as a diversionary smokescreen for what was largely a CIA paramilitary operation outside UN Forces command.15 The US led UN Command could claim clean hands because the dirty work was provided by outsourced CIA covert operatives.

In 1998, the false allegations claim of the US morphed into a more sophisticated version with the publication of two papers by scholars, Kathryn Weathersby and Milton Leitenberg of the Woodrow Wilson Center.16 Leitenberg claimed that new evidence consisting of twelve documents, collectively the “Russian dossier,” allegedly smuggled from the Soviet Union Presidential Archive proved beyond any doubt that the BW allegations by North Korea and China were a complete fabrication. The communist had staged a Cold war political gambit to tar brush the US on the international Cold War propaganda front. It was a devious but failed tactic in the larger struggle between the competing hegemonic systems of communism and capitalism.

Leitenberg’s “hoax thesis” has been generously underwritten by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project (CWIHP). In 2016, Leitenberg revisited this subject for CWIHP with a second essay claiming additional documentary evidence to support his theory.17 Documents #1-16 consist of cable correspondence between Mao, Zhou and Stalin regarding immediate measures necessary to combat the new BW threat. Document #17 and Document #20 are rambling essays by Tibor Méray, who as a young Hungarian communist journalist was sent to the front to report the Korean War from the North Korean side. The third source, Document #19, is claimed to be a posthumously discovered memoir written by Wu Zhili, a medical doctor and Director of Public Health for China’s People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) during the war.

These three sources along with the Russian dossier are Leitenberg’s sole evidence to support his hoax thesis. Leitenberg makes no attempt to address or refute any of the evidence piled up against the US by scholars Sheldon Harris, Stephen Endicott, Edward Hagerman, Peter Williams and David Wallace, or the accounts of journalist Wilfred Burchett and Alan Winnington, who covered the Korean War at the front and witnessed events first hand. Instead, he is dismissive and scornful of all evidence but his own, and further insists that his interpretation of his own documents is the only possibly true explanation of events.

However, the Russian dossier is a deeply flawed source of evidence as I pointed out in my previous article.18 The acquisition of the 12 documents which make up the dossier is cloaked in shadow.19 They are copies of copies of copies which cannot be temporally or materially connected to their claimed source, the Soviet Presidential Archives. The likelihood that they are complete forgeries is far greater than the slim possibility that they are actual transcripts of secret Kremlin correspondence. As I further pointed out, on the very long chance they do happen to be real, Leitenberg’s spin as to their meaning is the least likely of various possible interpretations.

In this article we will turn our attention to Leitenberg’s three new sources to see if they fare any better than the Russian dossier. We will also spend time with the International Scientific Commission report (ISC Report), that very difficult to find volume which has just been made available in electronic format.20 But before beginning these exercises we should remember the context of our story.

The Korean War was the first military battleground of the Cold War. More than 4 million Koreans died in the three years of intense combat, the vast majority of this carnage was caused by US saturation bombing, fire-bombing and aerial strafing. More than 400,000 tons of explosive ordnance was dropped during the war with another 30,000+ tons of napalm. Every building north of the 38th Parallel was burnt and turned to rubble. The KPA and the Korean civilian population dug into caves and underground shelters to survive three years of intense bombings. The germ warfare attacks occurred during 1951-52.


Let us begin by looking at Leitenberg’s addendum Documents #1 - #16. Leitenberg claims these documents come from Chairman Mao’s personal archive. How he obtained them is not stated, though CWIHP does advertise on its website that any foreign scholar with access to their country’s top secret government files is welcome to apply for a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Regardless of means, it is completely unclear why Leitenberg would believe that this collection of correspondence between Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Stalin would support his hoax hypothesis. In fact, it does exactly the opposite. These cables demonstrate just how seriously the three communist leaders take the American BW attack, and the practical measuress they rush into place to contain the assault. Let us examine this correspondence.

#1 is one of Chairman Mao’s frequent poetic exhortations to the masses, this one from 1952: “Get mobilized, stress sanitation, reduce disease, improve health, and smash the enemy’s bacteriological warfare.” On February 18, 1952, Mao received a report from Nie Rongzhen, Acting Chief of Staff of the People’s Revolutionary Military Commission. Nie’s report details that insects— spiders, flies, and fleas — were dropped by US airplanes over a wide area of North Korea controlled by PVA frontline troops of the 20th, 26th, 39th, and 42nd armies. Nie stated that experts had been sent in for field studies, and samples of insects had been sent back to Beijing for testing to determine what kinds of bacteria they were infected with. #2, Mao’s response is concise, “Please have Premier Zhou pay attention to this matter and take care of it.” Mao promptly delegates this new emergency to the very top echelon of government.

In #3, Mao details to Stalin at length about this new BW development in the war. He states that 3.4 million doses of vaccine and 4000 lbs. of insect powder have already been sent to the front. He further reveals that Japanese war criminal Shiro Ishii, and two former Unit 731 staff, Wakamatsu Yujiro and Kitano Masajo, had been testing bacterial weapons on Chinese and North Korean POWs at the prison camps on Kyoseyto (Koje) Island. Mao states this report was confirmed by a May 18, 1951 Associated Press dispatch by an American journalist.21 Mao requested unspecified assistance from the Soviet Union.

#4 is a brief reply from Stalin to Mao which states, “We agree with the plan of measures you have proposed.... The Soviet Government, for its part, will actively support these measures.” #5 is green light instructions from Mao to Zhou to proceed with vaccine protocol in designated cities and provinces. #6 is a request for assistance from Zhou to Stalin for a nine-member team of medical specialists in epidemiology, microbiology, parasitology, and similar skills to be sent to China with all the necessary lab equipment to conduct research. #7 is a second request from Zhou to Stalin to send “pure DDT – 600 tons; live anti-plague vaccine – 20 million doses; and tetanus vaccine (typhoid fever, parasitic typhus A, parasitic typhus B, cholera) – 20 million doses.” Zhou exhorts the urgency of need by requesting his order should be delivered by airplane directly to Beijing. Zhou also makes it clear to Stalin that he expects this aid to be put on China’s bill. “I request that this order be included in the account for goods exchanged.”

#8 is a request from Mao to Stalin for more fighter jets to be deployed to airbases in China and the training of Chinese pilots to fly night and bad weather missions to shut down US air superiority and the spreading of BW germs into China. Some Korean War scholars argue that with the ground war bogged down in WW I style trench warfare by 1952, it was really the rise of the Chinese Air Force flying Soviet MIG fighter jets that turned the tide of the war and forced the US to enter seriously into truce talks.22

#9 is the reply from Stalin to Zhou. Stalin agrees to send the 9-member epidemiology team with necessary lab equipment within two weeks. Within four weeks the Soviet Union could deliver 5 million plague vaccines, 3.8 million cholera vaccines, and 8.5 million typhoid fever vaccines. In the following month an additional 5 million plague vaccines, 3.2 million cholera vaccines and 4 million typhoid vaccines would be delivered. Additionally, 100 tons of pure DDT were being sent within the month and another 100 tons the following month. Obviously, Zhou Enlai had submitted a very large chemical and pharmaceutical order and the Soviets were scrambling to fill it ASAP.

#10 and #11 consist of brief comments by Mao on reports from the front on public health measures, vaccination protocols, and hygiene efforts. He approves the measures described in the reports and recommends a more widespread adoption across China This subject seems fairly innocuous; after all, improving public health and hygiene is an obvious step which needs to be undertaken in fighting disease epidemics, but it is in fact quite a controversial topic in Cold War scholarship. Right-wing scholars argue that the BW scare was all a ruse to institute rigorous Western public health reforms including widespread “vector annihilation” into a backward Buddhist world view of cohabitation with all creatures. They argue that the BW scare was a communist ideological ploy to radically change cultural norms throughout China.23

#12 is a cable from Mao to Stalin informing him of the arrival in Beijing of the delegation of the International Scientific Commission. He notes the presence of the Russian commission member Zhukov-Verezhnikov, and his offer to bring in four more Russian scientists to review and organize the evidence for the ISC Report. Mao presses Stalin to send the additional specialists.

This particular cable is a lightning rod for Leitenberg. Zhukov was a renowned and highly decorated Russian scientist who was a leading researcher in many areas of epidemiology and disease prevention. He had a long and illustrious career and received many awards and commendations during his life.24 He is most noted in the West, prior to serving on the ISC, as the expert witness on disease pathology who testified at the 1949 Khabarovsk War Crimes Trial held by the Soviet Union which convicted General Otozo Yamada, Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese occupying army in Manchuria, and his top officers for biological warfare crimes.25

Leitenberg fingers Zhukov as the behind the scenes puppet master of the ISC. He alleges that it is Zhukov who orchestrates the fix to provide false evidence and false lab reports to dupe Joseph Needham and the other ISC members into believing the fabricated BW charges. Leitenberg produces no evidence to support this claim. Zhukov, in Leitenberg’s narrative becomes the godfather of the hoax. Leitenberg denounces him dismissively as a “KGB general.”26

#13 This brief cable from Mao to Peng Dehuai, Commander of the PVA, commends the general for the robust mobilization effort against BW at the front. Rapid army response to BW attacks including quick site clean-up procedures, increased numbers of hygiene workers and epidemic prevention teams, more field hospitals and ambulances, mandatory inoculations, more public bathrooms, better sewage treatment and disinfection stations, more volunteer recruitment, a big push towards the extermination of insects, rodents, small birds, other potential vectors, and a massive public education effort— what is revealed in this hubbub of activity is just how nimbly the Chinese government, the PVA, and the KPA mobilized the general citizenry throughout China and North Korea in response to the BW threat.

This response was prophylactic. Through immediate preventive action China attempted to mitigate the potential effects of widespread contagion. These methods were practical, highly effective and low cost. And the results paid off very well. The truth about the American BW attacks which the Chinese, the North Koreans, the Russians, and the Pentagon all know, but nobody else seems to know or is willing to admit, is that the sustained BW assault was simply not effective. The total number of casualties has never been released by any of the principals, but apparently it was proportionately small. For the US Army, BW was a grave disappointment.

#14 and #15 are Soviet documents which do not seem germane to the subject. The last document #16 is a cable from Mao to Kim Il Sung dated November 8, 1952, informing him that China intended to release the statements of 19 American POWs who had confessed to engaging in bacterial warfare against North Korea and China. (They had previously been broadcast by radio.) He requests North Korea’s cooperation. The confessions were being released in response to complaints raised by the US in the UN general Assembly that China had compelled (brainwashed) American POW’s to make false statements.

There is nothing in any of these correspondences which Milton Leitenberg parades about as evidence of a grand BW hoax that even remotely affirms his thesis. The emergency measures undertaken by North Korea and China to defend themselves against the sustained American BW attack are revealed in these documents as completely genuine and carried out with the utmost urgency. Even though these measures were low budget prophylactic strategies, they worked very effectively. The effectiveness of this defense was due to tremendous wartime mass mobilization in both countries, the competence the leadership brought to the task, and the tremendous public support that allowed for great sacrifice and loss of life during the war years. There is no evidence of a grand hoax by North Korea, China or the Soviet Union contained in these documents.


Let us now turn to the two essays by Tibor Méray attached to Leitenberg’s 2016 paper. Document #17 consists of 12 articles published sequentially by the Parisian daily Franc-Tireur between the 6th and 19th of May, 1957.27 Document #20 is titled “Germ Warfare: Memories and Reflections,” and is sourced to Milton Leitenberg’s personal papers. It is the English translation of a talk Méray gave in June, 2000 at the Woodrow Wilson Center.28

In May of 1951, Tibor Méray was a 23-year-old aspiring writer and Communist Party member who covered the art & culture beat for the Hungarian Communist Party daily, Szabad Nép. Without forewarning, Méray was sent to cover the Korean War peace talks in Panmunjom. He arrived like a deer in headlights speaking no Korean, no Mandarin, a little English and some French, but regardless he was promptly embedded with the North Korean PLA delegation. There he met Wilfred Burchett and Alan Winnington, two Western correspondents embedded with the Chinese PVA delegation. The PVA negotiators usually had better information than their KPA counterparts so Méray had to frequently go to his senior colleagues for updates. The three men bonded across two years of negotiations and shared battlefield experiences. Méray’s dispatches distributed throughout the global Soviet press duly reported the BW allegations on which he was briefed.

Méray returned to Budapest after the war. He supported the reform government of Imre Nagy in which the intelligentsia placed high hopes, but Nagy’s reforms were subverted by a rival Party faction. In 1956, amidst a worker and student rebellion in the streets of Budapest, Khrushchev sent in the tanks to put down the revolt and install a government more to the liking of the Soviet Union. Méray fled Hungary and lived abroad for the next thirty-five years. Several friends and former colleagues were sent to prison, or executed. He was forever embittered by this betrayal of the intelligentsia class, and became ardently anti-Communist and a harsh critic of the Soviet Union and the Hungarian socialist government.

Méray’s falling out with Burchett, however, occurs after the Korean War. The two journalists meet again in a 1954 lunch reunion in Budapest which included Méray's friend and mentor, Miklos Gimes. Later recalling this meeting in his autobiography, At the Barricades, Burchett expresses little sympathy for the pampered life of the Hungarian intelligentsia, and their naive view of the stakes in the Cold War struggle between East and West. Without mentioning him by name, Burchett rebukes Méray for cowardly scampering to Paris in the 1956 uprising and not fighting in the street for what he believed.

On Burchett is Méray’s hurt and angry reply to the double betrayal of the Communist Party and of his one-time friend and colleague with whom he shared many battlefield close calls. This volume reprises both of Leitenberg’s texts, and is superior for it reveals Méray’ personal motivations for his modified views on the Korean War BW issue. Méray cryptically opens his book with the sentence, “Had you not written those sixty-five lines, Wilfred, I would not have set out to write this book.” From there, Méray’s book includes a rant of fault-finding, conjecture, and character assassination regarding Burchett, a few stories from the war front for color, the reworked Leitenberg excerpts, and a great deal of wallowing in doubt.

Following his flight from Hungary, Méray takes his Korean War BW stories to six eminent French scientists. These pillars of the French Academy, each in turn, drill into a befuddled Méray the fundamentals of Cartesian doubt. If Méray was not a lucid and uninterrupted witness to the entire chain of BW discovery, that is— from the moment of deployment, through sample collection, through delivery to the lab, through culturing of bacilli, through identifying and counting microbes under a microscope, through writing the lab report— how could he possibly be certain the declared result had not been compromised?

But this scenario is completely absurd, and is not how science operates in the real world. In the professional practice of science, if one is required to pee in a jar for a drug test, the policeman witnessing your sample-taking is not the lab technician writing up the report which will convict you in court. There are many roles in this chain and each actor is expected to fulfill their allotted task in a professional manner. Medical science is built upon the mutual trust of its participants in their honesty and methodology. The scientific process is highly compartmentalized.

At no time in any of his Korean War correspondence or subsequent writings does Méray claim to have discovered deliberate deceit. At no time does he say that he has been lied to by his North Korean and Chinese hosts. At no time does he claim the BW allegations were false. Méray comes to despise communism and the Stalinist state, and he readily admits his opinion regarding BW has been tainted by his disillusionment and feelings of betrayal. But after all that, Méray’s claim is simply that he cannot be sure, that he has doubts.29 This admission of doubt from a deeply wounded and embittered soul about events which transpired more than half a century earlier is hardly substantiating evidence of some concocted BW hoax. Méray’s testimony offered as evidence for a grand theatrical BW hoax is completely ludicrous. It only succeeds in making Leitenberg’s hoax thesis increasingly farfetched.


The most curious of Milton Leitenberg’s 2016 documents is the purported memoir of Wu Zhili. In his role as Director of the PVA Health Division, Wu Zhili was at the center of China’s campaign to fight the American BW attack, and to implement public health measures to reduce widespread contagion. His testimony, were it authentic, would be highly significant for establishing the truth or falsehood of the BW allegations. It is the first document from a Chinese source which appears to question the official Chinese and North Korean narrative of the BW charges against the US, and therefore it deserves close scrutiny.

In the opening statement, the document poses a question which it then answers very concisely, “[H]ow indisputable is the bacteriological war of the American imperialists? The case is one of false alarm.” The essay then proceeds to make the case for a lack of physical evidence of BW pathogens, such as anthrax, plague and cholera in the samples of flea and fly vectors recovered in the battlefield environs. It then claims that the insects recovered were native species of snow fleas, not introduced ones from afar, and these local insects are not carrying any exotic diseases. It goes further to lament the lack of corpses for forensic autopsy to confirm disease outbreaks. Therefore, in all three critical areas of disease pathology— the collection in the field of diseased vectors, the laboratory analysis of pathogens, and the autopsy of victims— the research of the Chinese medical staff has drawn a blank in establishing evidence for the American BW attack.

The essay then delves into the political issues involved as China and North Korea have already denounced the US attack to the world, and now their scientists cannot produce the evidence. What to do with the imminent arrival of the ISC investigators? The author describes with trepidation his summons to deliver the bad news to General Peng Dehuai at PVA Command. He fears his role melodramatically, “my head will be chopped off.” However, Peng, in spite of his displeasure at receiving such bad news, shows his pragmatic side by ordering the author to use this opportunity to launch widespread public health measures of hygiene and vector control in Korea and China.30

According to Leitenberg’s narrative, this essay was discovered posthumously in Wu’s personal papers, and published in 2013, seven years after his death, in the journal, Yanhuang Chunqiu, an obscure academic publication of the Chinese Academy of Art.31

The first question which arises is the authenticity issue. Is this truly the “memoir” of Wu Zhili? As with the Russian dossier, once again Leitenberg has produced a critical document with an untraceable origin. Who “discovered” this document? Where is the original manuscript? Is the original written in Wu’s handwriting? Who delivered it to the editors at Yanhuang Chunqiu? Where is the editorial board correspondence which would surround such a controversial topic? Are there any family members or living colleagues who can corroborate the content from personal experience or private discussions with the author? Just like the Russian dossier, the authenticity shadow looms heavy over this document. It seems remarkably convenient that it should appear from a dead author out of an evidence vacuum to fill in the exact blanks necessary to patch together Leitenberg’s hoax thesis.

The second glaring flaw of this document is the accuracy of claims made by the author regarding the lack of BW evidence. These assertions are directly contradicted by the evidence collected and published in the ISC Report. For example, in Appendix AA, “Report on the Occurrence of Respiratory Anthrax and Haemorrhagic Anthrax Meningitis following the Intrusion of U.S. Military Planes over Northeast China” (ISCC/5), five cases are discussed with accompanying lab diagnosis and autopsy reports.32 In Appendix FF, “Memorandum on Acute Encephalitis – A New Disease in Shenyang (Mukden) and its Neighborhood, Produced by the Intrusion of Bacteria Disseminating U.S. Planes” (ISCC/6), a 73% mortality rate within 48 hours is stated, and eleven autopsy reports are discussed.33 The ISC Report is quite thorough in presenting the pathology of each investigated incident, and there are many examples of concise pathology discussions which directly contradict statements of their lacking in the purported Wu Zhili memoir. There are also extensive photographic images of diseased human organs and brain tissue with slide specimens of isolated disease samples. On the grounds of factual evidence, the document presented by Leitenberg is completely misinformed.

However, the most startling claim in this document is that two condemned prisoners were inoculated with plague bacilli in order to have autopsy evidence to present to the ISC. This admission, which is made in an off-hand manner, amounts to a serious denunciation of the PVA for adopting the same criminal tactics used by the Japanese Army Unit 731. By making this charge, the author deliberately undermines the moral higher ground upon which the Chinese Communist Party had built its loyalty with the masses. The CCP is dragged down into the same immoral cesspool as the Japanese invaders. This is not a credible narrative given China’s very recent experience with Japanese bio-terrorism indelibly stamped into the national historical memory. It is not believable that Wu Zhili would so incautiously denounce his colleagues and the Party with this pernicious slander. There is no supporting historical evidence for this claim. Given this careless defamation, who could believe this untraceable document was actually written by Wu Zhili?

Wu edited two anthologies of medical papers. He was the lead author and editor of the volume, Summary of Health Service in the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea. This is a very thorough account of the medical corps logistical work to set up public health services during the Korean War. Regarding the US bacteriological attack, Dr. Wu states, “Our experience is that germ warfare is not terrible, as long as the organization is well-conducted with fast testing and early diagnosis, vaccination is carried out strictly and repeatedly, the enemy’s agents are discovered and extinguished quickly, and a tight quarantine is in place. These are effective anti-epidemic measures to prevent bacterial weapon damage.”34

Wu Zhili is the author of Autobiography of a War Doctor. This book is actually a double volume also containing Proud Memories, the autobiography of his wife, Zhang Yangfen, who was a medical education expert. This double volume is the true “memoir” of a remarkable medical couple who were at the very forefront of the campaign to revolutionize China’s public health system. Their lives were heroic in every sense of the word through their idealism, their work ethic, their commitment to the Chinese Revolution and to the new communist state. Nowhere do they claim that the American BW attack was a “false alarm.” The Wu Zhili “memoir” that Leitenberg bandies about appears to be a fabrication.35 In my view, this document, like the Russian dossier before it, is a fraud.

While I maintain that the purported Wu Zhili memoir is a planted fake, a new chapter in this story has recently come to light in a privately circulated essay by historian Stephen Endicott. Endicott and Edward Hagerman co-authored, The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea. This book is a meticulously researched indictment of the secret US germ warfare campaign against North Korea and China. Endicott and Hagerman visited China in 1997 arranging interviews and collecting documents as a prelude to publication of their book. While in Beijing they requested an interview with Wu Zhili who agreed on the condition that permission was granted from the PVA. This permission was not forthcoming, so the interview could not take place.

Endicott speculates that Dr. Wu wrote this essay in response to the denied interview, with the caveat, “if it is genuine.” If we entertain the possibility that it might be genuine in an honest attempt to better understand this chapter of history and the private motives of individuals, the text suggests that Wu may have written the paper out of anger or feelings of humiliation at having been denied by functionaries an international platform to tell his side of the BW story. Also, we might inquire, how good was Dr. Wu’s memory of war events after four and a half decades? Endicott suggests that Wu stuck the essay in a drawer and forgot about it. Had he rediscovered it later he might have had second thoughts, but how many writers go through old file drawers?

The opinions expressed by the text’s author regarding the BW campaign sharply differ from those of Peng Dehuai, and the CCP leadership, Nie Rongzhen, Zhou Enlai, and Mao Zedong. Endicott concludes that Dr. Wu’s view was less informed. Endicott suggests that had he been aware of subsequent evidence, statements and interviews both from American and Chinese participants, i.e., historical hindsight, he might have had a different opinion. Wu was privy to the medical evidence, but what did he know regarding the pilot confessions, or the flight data, or events away from his location at the front?

To that observation I would add that,unlike the four political leaders, Wu Zhili is a trained scientist. He demonstrates the same professional skepticism as Tibor Méray’s six Cartesian academics. He further understands the disease pathology better than the others. The simple fact that widespread pandemics did not break out across China and North Korea leads him, the scientist, to question his initial premise. However, his conclusion, that it didn’t happen (“false alarm”) is mistaken. This conclusion directly contradicts what Wu Zhili states very clearly in his Summary of Health Services, that the BW campaign wasn’t effective because of the defensive countermeasures undertaken.

Apparently, it is not that easy to infect a large population over a broad area with lethal diseases, if your intended victims are aware of your actions and can take precautionary countermeasures.36 The technology in 1951-2 of spreading disease through infected vectors and by aerosol was met on the ground by a well-organized public health mobilization of prophylaxis and vector annihilation. Ultimately, the defense prevailed.37


The ISC Report’s availability – at long last – in electronic format will greatly impact Cold War scholarship and the absurd continuing hostilities between the US and North Korea. The most controversial content of the entire Report at the time of its release was the interviews conducted with the four US POWs which included three Air Force pilots, Lt. Paul R. Kniss, Lt. Floyd B. O’Neal, and Lt. John Quinn and one navigator, Lt. Kenneth L. Enoch. These airmen had previously written confession statements which were broadcast internationally by Chinese radio. The ISC interviews clarified details of the Air Force indoctrination procedures to prepare the airmen to drop germ warfare payloads. In the US, the airmen had been given “cautious informatory lectures” and had not been apprised of what they were expected to do. Later, at overseas American and Japanese bases they were briefed that “bacteriological warfare was said to be theoretical and purely defensive.” Then they were briefed that the Chinese and North Koreans had these weapons and the US had to be prepared to retaliate in kind. When the airmen arrived in Korea, the “pilots were surprised to discover it had already been started.”38

The confessions of Quinn, O’Neal, Kniss, and Enoch are representative of all the American POW confessions regarding BW deployments. The pilots expressed great remorse for their actions which they understood as war crime violations of international law, and asked forgiveness. The confessions contained abundant knowledge about the diseases and vectors to be dispersed, the altitudes and wind directions for optimum deployment, the payload terminology for pre-flight briefings and return debriefings, the names of briefing officers and instructors with dates and locations of these sessions, remarkable details regard bomb mechanisms and mechanics, including hand-drawn diagrams of bombs with cut-away internal workings and release mechanisms all neatly labeled, and extensive narratives of base activity, pre-flight logistics, munitions loading, and general discussions.

The information divulged in these confessions was far too detailed, and too much in agreement to have been made up. Similarly, individual confessions were far too divergent in length and narrative style to be dictation. What is revealed is that, as a group, these young men in their late twenties and early thirties were all highly intelligent “A” students who knew how to take meticulous class notes, retain lecture information, study and pass tests in order to advance their promotion to pilot and navigator training in the rigorous and competitive Air Force education system. These pilot confessions are true, remorseful, soul-searching efforts of expiation. Reading them today with the passage of time leaves no doubt.

However, the confessions were immediately denounced by US Army psychologists as evidence of an insidious new method of communist Chinese brainwashing which could plant false memories in the pilot’s psyche. Evidence for this argument centered on the inclusion of communist slogans in the confessions such as “imperialist warmongers.” Obviously, there had been political debriefing in the POW camps. Nevertheless, the officers readily confessed without being tortured by their guards.39 Captured British soldiers gave up no information beyond name, rank and serial number, but the US airmen voluntarily spilled their guts, so the question remains, why?

The explanation that emerges from the confessions is that the airmen felt extreme resentment towards the Air Force for deceiving them into committing morally repugnant acts. They were from good families, raised as Christians, then ordered to fly missions dropping germ bombs, which felt sinful. They had been misled into this dirty work which they had to obey or face court-martial for refusal. Furthermore, their BW payloads were loaded onto their planes not by fellow Air Force personnel, but by strangers (CIA personnel) who treated them as subordinates and ordered them not to inspect the payloads. The airmen's confessions reveal this deep undercurrent of guilt and anger.

Following repatriation after the ceasefire, the airmen faced intense debriefing. They were given the ultimatum to recant their confessions or face a vindictive court-martial. Falsely confessing to a war crime could result in a twenty-year sentence, and these were young men with their whole life ahead of them. If they accepted the Army psychologists’ explanation that they had been brainwashed, they could then disavow their confessions, sign affidavits agreeing to forever keep the secret, exit the military with an honorable discharge, and receive the benefits of the new GI Bill. The Army psychiatrists also let them in on another little secret — the BW campaign had been a failure, they had not really committed the horrible moral sins for which they were beating themselves up. They could sleep in peace, get on with their lives, and they all accepted.

The US government’s charge of communist brainwashing has its own covert history. Projection blaming, as the psychological term implies, means accusing another of one’s own actions. It is well studied in psychology, for frequently in family relationships both the blamer and the blamed are unaware of the real situation. But when projection blaming is done tactically by a government, it frequently masks race warfare and class warfare. The US charge of communist Chinese brainwashing served to mask two top-secret CIA covert research projects involving brainwashing. The first under the code name Artichoke utilized psychotropic drugs such as LSD to conduct secret mind-control experiments on American citizens. The second project in collaboration with ex-Nazi war criminals under the codename MKUltra developed special interrogation techniques at black sites in Germany where suspected Soviet agents were tortured and murdered. This history of institutionalized criminal behavior within the CIA is rapidly coming into the sunshine.40

The charge of brainwashing leveled against the Chinese also shows how deeply embedded racism is in US foreign policy. Asians in American culture have long been portrayed as insidious, invidious, and inscrutable— the yellow peril, the red menace, the Mongol hordes.41 The shifty, nefarious brainwashing of POWs and the theatrical perpetrating of a grand biological warfare hoax by Mao, Zhou Enlai, and Stalin is exactly what Americans should expect from this enemy. Hoaxes and flimflam are deeply rooted in racial prejudice,42 and the degree to which Milton Leitenberg’s hoax thesis has been accepted in mainstream academia is due in large part to negative racial stereotypes entrenched in the white American subconscious.

Milton Leitenberg’s BW hoax thesis is bunk. It is a house of cards built on forged documents, innuendo, and false facts.43 The Cold War denial lobby which includes The Woodrow Wilson Center played an important part in promoting this false hoax thesis. There remain powerful political forces in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congress, State Department, Defense Department and CIA who do not want this history of US war criminality made public knowledge. It is not beyond the means of this interest group to create false narratives with fraudulent documents and cooperating academics to perpetrate this heinous cover-up. It is long past due for America’s Korean War atrocities to see the sunshine. BW is only one Korean War crime. There is also the violent and routine killing of more than 3000 CVA and KPA prisoners at Koje Island Prison Camp which needs new investigation. The US Army’s strategy of carpet bombing, which destroyed the entire built infrastructure of North Korea, must be addressed in any future reparations and peace talks. Well-intentioned philanthropies such as the MacArthur foundation would be well-advised to reconsider their support for fake research from the CWIHP.

The communist government of China has also played a role in perpetrating Leitenberg’s hoax claim by remaining silent and not vigorously refuting his false narrative. There is no political will at the center of power to push for truth on the BW charge as long as business with the US is booming. The article attributed to Wu Zhili remains available online to blink brightly as the shiny lapel pin of China’s “new liberalism.” Chinese historians know better than to revisit this topic. A last footnote regards the long-term impact of the insect annihilation. Western scholars have argued that the mass campaigns of public hygiene through vector extermination caused the destruction of important pollinator species. Along with poor central planning, pollinator destruction led to extremely low crop yields and the post-war famines. The mindset of human domination over nature which began with the insect annihilations lingers in China’s current environmental crisis.


1 Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman lay out the most convincing case for US bio-warfare in the Korean War in, The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1989.

2 This recent article contains eye-witness testimony of BW deployment in North Korea in 1952. Julian Ryall, “Did the US use germ warfare in Korea,” The Telegraph, 10 June 2016, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/7811949Did-the-US-wage-germ-warfare-in-Korea.html

3 “It was all very fishy. They were surprised and unhappy to see us. It was obvious that something suspicious was going on, and that it was a clandestine affair.” From an eye-witness account by a British soldier of an American Army special detachment dressed in “parkas” spreading chicken feathers into private homes in a North Korean village behind retreating UN Forces. The narrative is quoted at length in Peter Williams and David Wallace, Unit 731: The Japanese Armys Secret of Secrets, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1989, 265–266.

4 John W. Powell, an American journalist living in Shanghai who published the news magazine, China Monthly Review, was indicted along with his wife, Sylvia Powell and their colleague, Julian Schuman on charges of Sedition for their coverage of the BW allegations during the war. For a concise history of the Powell-Schuman Sedition Trial, see Stanley Kutler, The American Inquisition: Justice and Injustice in the Cold War, Hill & Wang, New York, 1982.

5 A BruiseTerror of the 731 Corps, a film by Haruko Yoshinaga, broadcast November 1976, Tokyo Broadcasting System. Yoshinaga succeeded in locating and interviewing twenty former members of Unit 731.

6 John W. Powell, “Japan’s Germ Warfare; The US Cover-up of a War Crime,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Vol. 12, No.4, Oct–Dec 1980, 10.

7 On the Trial of Former Servicemen of the Japanese Army Charged with Manufacturing and Employing Bacteriological Weapons, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1950

8 Williams and Wallace, Unit 731, 263

9 Ibid., 260

10 “Anthrax infection by the respiratory route is significant with the work of bacteriological warfare carried out in the United States. Research from Camp Detrick published in 1946 and 1947 (see App. AA & II) show that it has been possible to obtain new strains of anthrax bacilli cultured in synthetic media which not only possess unusually high virulence, but are especially adapted to the respiratory route of infection.” Report of the International Scientific Commission for the Investigation of the Facts Concern Bacterial Warfare in Korea and China (ISC Report), Peking, 1952, 34

11 Chinese Medical Journal, Sept.–Dec. 1952, 335–660.

12 Endicott and Hagerman give an interesting account of the pilot’s recantations of their confessions in The United States and Biological Warfare, 166-170.

13 Eric Olson has worked tirelessly to shed light on his father’s murder. Here is a summary of the Frank Olson murder case with sources: [www.serendipity.li/CIA/olson2.htm] The Netflix six-part documentary, Wormwood, directed by Errol Morris, investigates the Olson assassination and the shadowy CIA operations which surrounded it.

14 ISC Report, 1-62

15 Thomas Powell, “Korean War Biological Warfare Update,” Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 31, No. 3, 2017, 133. This does not mean that the Army, the Air Force and the JCS were not operational in germ war deployment, but the CIA provided the covert oversight to bury the evidence.

16 Kathryn Weathersby, “Deceiving the Deceivers: Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang and the Allegations of Bacteriological Weapons Use in Korea,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin 11, 176-180; Milton Leitenberg, “New Russian Evidence on the Korean War Biological Warfare Allegations: Background and Analysis,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin 11 (Winter 1998), 180-199.

17 Milton Leitenberg, “China’s False Allegations of the Use of Biological Weapons by the United States during the Korean War,” Cold War International History Project, Working Paper #78, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 2016.

18 Powell, “Korean War Biological Warfare Update” (n. 15), 121-137.

19 According to Leitenberg’s 1998 narrative, Yasuo Naito, then a Moscow-based correspondent for the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shinbun, claimed to have received a hand written copy (presumably in Russian) of the dossier from an unknown person apparently with access to the Kremlin’s restricted Presidential Archives. Excerpts of the document cache were translated into Japanese by either Mr. Naito or his employer and published in Sankei Shinbun. Leitenberg further claims that Naito provided him with a typed copy of the hand written copy (also presumably in Russian) which was subsequently translated into English by Kathryn Weathersby.

20 I am grateful to Jeff Brown and Godfree Roberts for locating complete volumes in Chinese and English of the 669-page ISC Report, PDF: http://tbf.me/a/quZgG : Complete ISC Report divided into chapters and appendices, PDF: https://www.transferbigfiles.com/7c74a903-6835-4e0d-acc4-bc4d22c77f63/kIVMrNLhwCoTprftiPre-w2/fulltext

21 AP dispatch 5/19/57

22 Bruce Cumings makes this argument in The Korean War: A History, Modern Library Chronicles Book, New York, 2010, see Chs. 1 and 6.

23 Judith Shapiro makes this argument in Mao’s War Against Nature: Politics and Environment in Post-Revolutionary China, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001

24 Nikolai Nikolayevich Zhukov-Verezhnikov: Born July 12, 1908 in Moscow, died February 26, 1981. In the 1930s graduated from the Medical Faculty of Moscow University. From 1932 to 1936 and from 1941 to 1947, worked in the Saratov Research Institute of Microbiology. In 1947 he organized and headed the Laboratory of Experimental Immunobiology at the Institute of Experimental Biology of the Academy Medical Sciences of the USSR, Director of Institute 1948-1950. Elected full member of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences; from 1950 to 1953 was Vice-President of this Academy. From 1953 to 1954 he was First Deputy Minister of Health of the USSR. His c.v. continues for several more pages.

25 The Khabarovsk Trials were held specifically because the US shielded Ishii and his BW collaborators at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial. The US denied Soviet prosecutors the opportunity to interrogate Ishii, claiming that no Russian soldiers or civilians had been victims of BW crimes and therefore the Soviets lacked legal standing. The Soviets and the Chinese were adamant that Unit 731 and Unit 100 BW war crimes were prosecuted and part of the historical record of the war.

26 The denunciation of Zhukov as a KGB agent and provider of false evidence needs to be sourced to specific evidentiary documents, or it should be retracted.

27 Accessible at CWIHP, http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/123153

28 Accessible at CWIHP, http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/123154, an amended version was published in The Korea Society Quarterly 3 (Fall 2000): 10-11, 44-45. The workshop was organized by Kathryn Weathersby, the translator of the Russian dossier, and Christian Ostermann, Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

29 At the June 2000 CWIHP workshop Méray stated, “I fled to the West after the 1956 Revolution. The Voice of America radio station sought me out virtually in the first moment, while I was still in Vienna. They asked me to issue a statement saying that the germ warfare was a lie. I replied that I could not say that I did not see what I saw. The most I could do was to have doubts about the explanations of what I saw.” CWIHP digital Archive #3, p.4.

30 The Wu Zhili author states, “My personal analysis was: (1) Imperialism is capable of carrying out all manner of evils, and bacteriological war is not an exception. (2) Severe winter, however, is not a good season for conducting bacteriological war. When the weather is cold the mobility of insects is weakened, and is not conducive to bacteria reproduction. (3) Dropping [objects] on the front line trenches, where there are few people and sickness does not spread easily, and where the U.S. military’s trenches are not more than ten meters away, allows for the possibility of ricocheting. (4) Korea already had an epidemic of lice-borne contagious diseases. All the houses in the cities and towns had been burned down, and the common people all lived in air-raid shelters. Their lives are already difficult, but the Korean people are extremely tenacious and bacteriological warfare cannot be the greater disaster that forces them to surrender. (5) Our preliminary investigation still could not prove that the U.S. military carried out bacteriological warfare.” Quoted from Milton Leitenberg CWIHP Working Paper #78, March 2016, addendum Document #19

31 Yanhuang Chunqiu, founded in 1991 by retired general Xiao Ke, is considered a dissident or liberal reformist monthly journal in the People's Republic of China. It promotes the view that Enlightenment humanist interpretations of history should be considered in conjunction with Marxist class warfare interpretations of history. The website of the magazine was temporarily taken down by the site administrator ten months prior to the publication of the Wu Zhili memoir for failure to submit the required annual paperwork. The article remains archived for download.

32 ISC Report, Appendix AA, 361-71

33 ISC Report, Appendix FF, 449-69, A total number of infected individuals and fatalities in the region is not given, but to arrive at the 73% mortality rate, a prime number, would indicate that the outbreak was substantial.

34 Wu Zhili, Summary of Health Service in the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea, People’s Medical Publishing House, Beijing, 1988, 15 (trans. Yi Huang and Thomas Powell).

35 For example, Leitenberg’s character Wu Zhili states, “Later, in 1987, a few army leader cadres ran into me and said, ‘The American imperialists engaged in such massive germ warfare but our side didn’t even have one death!’ By then, I thought this was unimaginable.” Leitenberg, “China’s False Allegations” (n. 17), Doc #19, 70. As with the melodramatic fear of beheading, this theatrical vignette strains credulity.

36 Cuba has a long experience of bio-terrorist attacks from the United States which include swine flu, sugar cane rust, and blue mold. In 1981, a US caused epidemic of hemorrhagic dengue broke out in Cuba infecting more than 300,000 people and killing 158, of which 100 were children. Cuba is fortunate to have invested in its public health system which has been able to react promptly to identify and contain outbreaks. The US’s ongoing BW assault against Cuba has been well documented. Ariel Alonso Pérez, Biological Warfare Against Cuba, Capitán San Luis Publishing House, Havana, 2008

37 The Japanese BW experiments in Manchuria of Unit 731were much more successful in mass killings of civilians because there was no functioning government to organize public health responses. Ishii was able to sell a glowing picture of BW military capability to both his superiors in Japan and later to his American handlers.

38 The order to begin the BW attacks was given in November 1951 during the period of the Kaesong peace talks.

39 The treatment of American and all UN POWs in Chinese and North Korean prisons by the communists was humane. There is no evidence of any physical mistreatment or starvation rations. This sharply contrasts to the treatment of PVA and KPA prisoners in the US-run Koje Island prison camps where internees were daily brutalized, beaten, kept on starvation rations, forcibly tattooed with anti-communist slogans by Kuomintang Army guards, and more than 3000 POWs were shot or hanged for resistance or on various other pretexts. This unknown war crime by the US Army is another reason the Korean War has been forgotten. For a full account of this atrocity, see Wilfred Burchett and Alan Winnington, Koje Unscreened, Britain-China Friendship Association, London, 1952

40 For a recent report see: George Burchett, “Wormwood and a Shocking Secret of War: How Errol Morris Vindicated my Father, Wilfred Burchett,” Counterpunch.org, 12 January 2018.

41 “The air war was ineffective and the US was losing many planes to Soviet MIGs. But neither side could acknowledge that. The North Koreans and Chinese armies were dug deep underground and not vulnerable to air strikes. Mostly civilians and civilian infrastructure were the victims of bombardments and it was bad PR for US (UN). . . .Dropping germs into caves, underground shelters and other facilities with a high concentration of troops etc. would have been a very logical move. The US had the means, the motive and willingness. . . .To Yanks & Allies, the 'gooks' were vermin. So why not exterminated them like vermin using vermin, bugs, flees, spiders, clams, anthrax. . . .” Private correspondence to the author from George Burchett, 1/28/2018

42 .” . . the Vale dwellers, that superior, lighter race—perhaps because they make clear that race and racialism have plenty to do with the hoax and its success.” Kevin Young, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post Facts, and Fake News, Greywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2017, 18. Young describes hoax after hoax that embody racial stereotypes. While criminal scams and fraud are universal, Young argues that there is something particularly American about hoaxes as theatrical entertainment. The “tall tale” he claims is a uniquely American literary genre.

43 For example, Leitenberg writes, “During World War II, the US BW program was engaged solely in research, and it had produced no stockpile of BW agents. After 1945, the United States neither produced nor procured any biological munitions until the end of 1951.” Leitenberg, “China’s False Allegations” (note 17), 8. This serious claim is directly refuted. “An offensive [US] biological program began in 1942 under the direction of a civilian agency, the War Reserve Service (WRS). The program included a research development facility at Camp Detrick, Maryland, testing sites in Mississippi and Utah, and a production facility in Terre Haute, Indiana. Experiments were conducted using pathogens including B. anthracis and Brucella suis.” George W. Christopher, et. al., “Biological Warfare: A Historical Perspective,” in Joshua Lederberg, ed., Biological Weapons: Limiting the Threat, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999, 22. Furthermore, the US acquired Unit 731 research in 1947, plenty of time to have operable BW weapons by 1951.