About ten years ago Nicholson Baker got curious about biological weapons in the Korean War (1950-1953). The mainstream story is that although the U.S. appropriated the results of very cruel experiments in Germany and Japan, and continued extensive research in bioweapons during the early part of the Cold War, we never used these weapons offensively. Baker is inclined to question this, and indeed there have always been dissenters, not least the among the North Koreans and Chinese.
As a great user and critic of libraries* Baker knew where to look and what he was looking for: letters and plans belonging to the Air Force, Army, CIA, State Department, and so forth, whose existence is well catalogued and which are held in places such as the National Archives. “Because I carried around with me one unanswered question, all these repositories came alive.” That’s a great feeling. But when you are researching something like biological weapons, you tend to get a lot of empty folders. Archivists don’t exactly stonewall you, most of the time; instead they retrieve a form explaining that what you are looking for has been withheld on security grounds. You might also get a copy of the document you want, covered in black blocks and bars of redaction. You can appeal for a clean copy, and the relevant agency is supposed to respond quickly. Instead of writing a history of the Korean War, Baker has written about this struggle with government secrecy and with the weapon that is supposed to check that secrecy, the Freedom of Information Act.
The upshot of his research is that Baker thinks bioweapons were used, but in a haphazard way that was as much designed to create fear and confusion as to produce enemy casualties or gain ground for U.S. troops and their allies. At one point, it appears that operatives were simply disposing of laboratory animals by dumping them over communist territory. If one is not convinced that the use of biological weapons is abominable as such (and beside the indiscriminate nature of pathogens designed to infect humans, plans were made expressly to target crops and livestock), perhaps casualties inflicted on our own researchers, and the impetus given to the Soviets and others to pursue their own research should give one pause. The CIA was as responsible for this as the armed forces.
The idea that the plans and capability existed is not as controversial as the idea that bioweapons were actually used. That’s a frustrating thing about the science of defense. We had to research these things in order to protect ourselves, the argument goes. Baker mentions some very surprising tests that were done on the dispersal of germs in cities like San Francisco and St. Louis, and in the New York City subway, all, naturally, without the knowledge of citizens. He even thinks that one of our ongoing minor plagues, Lyme disease, escaped from a lab in the northeast. To be sure, government scientists were breeding ticks and comparing the virulence of different strains of disease. But this is where I am most inclined to say Baker goes too far. He’s in kook territory. I can hardly vouch for my reaction, though. In large part, I simply would not want to believe that some evil bureaucrat was responsible for something like this and that I’ve been kept in the dark.
To this Baker would say that we should just release the records. Some of the stories are so gross that I am sure he would like to be proven wrong. Proof is attainable, and denied. While he waited on his requests, and gave up and wrote other books, friends and fellow researchers got old and died. The question seems insurmountable. Pentagon spokespeople continue to deny that we used these weapons. In one memorable quotation, they said the charge had “proven baseless”, but “baseless” was a code name for the weapons program itself. If we knew the truth, or even if we felt that we had the right to know, whatever the truth is, perhaps we would treat the government differently today. Baker thinks that the agencies in question are simply afraid that if we found out all their misdeeds at once, we would abolish them.
This is somewhat controversial stuff but I was disappointed to find reviewers in papers like The New York Times unwilling to go along for the ride. It’s clear that some people have not forgiven Baker for Human Smoke. In that book, he excoriated the motives of Roosevelt and Churchill and questioned the notion of “the good war”. He’s a real pacifist. So these reviewers take him to task for moral superiority and precious whimsy. One reviewer asserts that Baker’s capacity to imagine a world without planners of mass destruction is somehow more dangerous than the planning of mass destruction itself. Only The Guardian, among those I checked, had the honesty to mention the bioweapon tests on American cities.
It’s true that to finally write this book, Baker resorted to writing about what he did every day while pondering these questions. He writes about what he ate in the cafeteria of the National Archives and about what his dogs were up to when he woke up early and read email and declassified CIA documents in bed on his phone. If you don’t want to read about the quotidian, you should not read a Nicholson Baker book, but you will be missing out.
You may also find your moral superiority threatened. I think Baker should be approved for questioning the psychology of figures like Kissinger and the early leaders of the CIA. They too resorted to psychology, so called, and with considerably more malice. This was the era of “psychological warfare”, of MKULTRA, and the lobotomy. On that last, it isn’t nice, but I think it’s instructive to contemplate the fact that JFK’s own sister had such a half baked procedure carried out on her, and was mentally and physically crippled for life. I keep thinking of Mrs. Dalloway, and an offhand observation there concerning a shell shocked WWI veteran, that we don’t know how the soul works. It’s more or less still true, no matter who might want to tell you otherwise.
Baker impressed me by writing that although these sorts of projects seem hellish and unstoppable, sometimes they do simply stop. If I understand correctly, Nixon called a halt to much of our biological weapons program towards the end of the Vietnam war. This was partly owing to public revulsion to the effects of Agent Orange. Winning the war might not be worth the means, which seems like an idea worthy of informed consideration.
* I’ve written about Baker on libraries here. According to him, the Library of Congress itself was bent to the purposes of the planners of mass destruction with the establishment of a secretive maps department for planning bombardments. We might have used the space in better ways, maybe for storing the newspaper collections that Baker has written on elsewhere, but “in trying to find out how best to bomb our enemies, we bombed ourselves.”