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Lost Document: International Scientific Commission Report on Bacterial Warfare During Korean War

This article covers the first substantive Internet posting and analysis of a unique Cold War document, the “Report of the International Scientific Commission for the Investigation of the Facts Concerning Bacterial Warfare in Korea and China.”

The ISC was headed by one of Britain’s foremost scientists of his day, Sir Joseph Needham. The report was published by the Chinese government in 1952. The version linked here, printed by Hsinhua’s News Agency in Prague, Czechoslovakia does not include hundreds of pages of annexes published in the initial report. Hopefully these will be made available online in the near future.

The charges of U.S. use of biological warfare during the Korean War have long been the subject of intense controversy. The reliance, in part, on testimony from U.S. prisoners of war led to U.S. charges of “brainwashing.” These charges later became the basis of a cover story for covert CIA experimentation into use of use of drugs and other forms of coercive interrogation and torture that became the basis for its 1963 KUBARK manual on interrogation, and much later, a powerful influence on the CIA’s post-9/11 “enhanced interrogation” program.

While the document embedded below has been the subject of numerous essays and books, the document itself is generally not available to the public. Even those who might wish to study the subject it covers will likely find it quite difficult to obtain. I will explore some of those reasons below. But I will note that some Cold War scholars have been quick to debunk the ISC report, none have made even the slightest effort to make the original materials available for other scholars or the public to assess for themselves the truth or falsity of their analysis.

At the very end of this article is a bibliography for interested readers.

ISC Report Part 1
ISC Report Part 2

( picked up my public posting of this document at Document Cloud. It combined the two parts I’ve embedded here into one 2.6MB posting. For those who wish to use or link to their version, the link is here.)

Why was this report effectively suppressed?

What follows a text transcription of an important section of the report concerning Japanese use of bacteriological weapons against China during World War Two, Allied knowledge about this, and possible use of such Japanese scientific knowledge or techniques, as well as personnel, by the U.S. military during the Korean War.

Back in 1952, such collaboration between the US and Japanese war criminals using biological weapons was top secret, and totally denied by the U.S. But today, even U.S. historians accept that a deal was made between the U.S. and members of Unit 731 and associated portions of the Japanese military that had in fact spent nearly 15 years experimenting on the use of biological weapons, experimentation that included use of human vivisection and barbaric torture of thousands of human beings, most of whom were disposed of in crematoria. In addition, there was collaboration between the Japanese and the Nazi regime on these issues, though that is beyond the matter of this posting today (though see bibliography).

The U.S. collaboration with Japanese war criminals of Unit 731 was formally admitted in 1999 by the U.S. government, though the documentation of that has never been published. I have those documents and will be publishing them very soon.

It is a matter of historical record now that the U.S. government granted amnesty to Japan’s chief at Unit 731, doctor/General Shiro Ishii and his accomplices. The amnesty was top secret for decades, until revealed by journalist John Powell in a landmark article for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in October 1981.

What came to be known as the Needham report, due to the fact the ISC was headed by the prestigious British scientist, Sir Joseph Needham, came under immediate fire upon release. The report still remains a flashpoint for scholars. A 2001 article by the UK’s Historical Association detailed how UN and UK government officials collaborated in attempts to debunk the ISC findings. The UK Foreign Office released memoranda saying that claims of Japanese bacteriological warfare, going back to 1941, were “officially ‘not proven.’:

The sensitivity of the material uncovered by the ISC touched two areas of covert US government research. First was the US governments own plans to research and possibly implement germ warfare. The second issue concerned the confessions of U.S. flyers as to how they were briefed and implemented trial runs of biological warfare during the Korean War. The U.S. claimed that the flyers were tortured, and the CIA promoted the idea they were “brainwashed” by diabolical methods, causing a scare about “commie” mind control programs and “menticide,” which they used to justify the expenditure of millions of dollars for U.S. mind control programs during the 1950s-1970s.

The programs used experiments on unwitting civilians, as well as soldiers undergoing supposed anti-torture training at the military’s SERE schools. I have shown via public records that CIA scientists continued to use experiments on “stress” at SERE schools after 9/11, and believe such research included experiments on CIA and/or DoD held detainees. That such research did take place can be inferred from the release in November 2011 of a new set of guidelines concerning DoD research. This newest version of a standard instruction (DoD Directive 3216.02) contained for the first time a specific prohibition against research done on detainees. (See section 7 (c).)

I believe a strong case can be made that while coercive methods, primarily isolation, was used on the U.S. prisoners of war who later confessed, that their confessions were primarily true. The idea that only false confessions result from torture is in fact false itself. While false confessions can result from torture (as well as less onerous methods, such as the Reid Technique, used by police departments throughout the United States today), actual confessions can also sometimes occur. I have first-hand experience working with torture survivors to know that is true.

It is true that all the POWs who confessed use of germ warfare later recanted that upon return to the United States. But the terms of their recantations are suspect. The recantations were made under threat of courts-martial. The archival evidence of the flyers debriefings have been destroyed or lost due to fire (according to the government). Meanwhile at least one scientist working at Ft. Detrick at the time admitted to German documentary investigators before he died that the U.S. had indeed been involved in germ warfare in Korea. (See video.)

An “actual investigation… could do us psychological as well as military damage”

The charges of U.S. use of biological weapons during the Korean War are even more incendiary than the now-proven claims the U.S. amnestied Japanese military doctors and others working on biological weapons who experimented on human subjects, and ultimately killed thousands in operational uses of those weapons against China during the Sino-Japanese portion of World War Two. The amnesty was the price paid for U.S. military and intelligence researchers to get access to the trove of research, much of it via fatal human experiments, the Japanese had developed over years of studying and developing weapons for biological warfare.

The U.S. strenuously denied such charges and demanded an international investigation through the United Nations. The Chinese and North Koreans derided such offers as it was United Nations-sanctioned forces who were opposing them in war and bombing their cities. But behind the scenes, a CIA-released document I revealed in December 2013 showed the U.S. considered the call for a UN investigation to be mere propaganda.

At a high-level meeting of intelligence and government officials on July 6, 1953, the U.S. was not serious about conducting any investigation into such charges, despite what the government said publicly. The reason the U.S. didn’t want any investigation was because an “actual investigation” would reveal military operations, “which, if revealed, could do us psychological as well as military damage.” A “memorandum from the Psychological Strategy Board (PSB) detailing this meeting specifically stated as an example of what could be revealed “8th Army preparations or operations (e.g. chemical warfare).”

Charges of chemical warfare by the Americans during the Korean War were part of a report by a Communist-influenced attorneys’ organization visiting Korea, and their findings were dismissed as propaganda. But the PSB memo suggests perhaps they were right. Other evidence of false stories being spread by the Americans exists.

Not long after I published the PSB document and accompanying article, scholar Stephen Endicott wrote to remind me that he and his associate Edward Hagerman, co-authors of the 1998 book, The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea (Indiana Univ. Press), had found material themselves that indicated U.S. calls for “international inspection to counter the Chinese and North Korean charges… was less than candid.”

Endicott and Hagerman found that U.S. Far East Commander, Gen. Matthew Ridgway, had “secretly given permission to deny potential Red Cross inspectors ‘access to any specific sources of information.'” In addition, they documented a State Department memo dated June 27, 1952 wherein the Department of Defense notified that it was “impossible” for the UN ambassador at the time to state that the U.S. did not intend to use “bacteriological warfare — even in Korea.” (p.192, Endicott and Hagerman)

The Khabarovsk War Crimes Trial

The ISC report references the December 1949 war crimes trial held by the USSR in Khabarovsk, not far from the Chinese border. The trial of Japanese war criminals associated with Units 731, 100 and other biological warfare divisions followed upon a near black-out of such issues at the larger Toyko war crimes trials held by the Allies a few years before.

At the time of the Khabarovsk trial, U.S. media and government officials either ignored the proceedings, or denounced them as yet another Soviet “show trial.” The Soviets for their part published the proceedings and distributed them widely, including in English. Copies of this report are easier to find for purchase used, though expensive, on the Internet, but no available version appears online, and no scholarly edition has ever been published.

Even so, U.S. historians have been forced over the years to accept the findings of the Khabarovsk court, though the general population and media accounts remain mostly ignorant such a trial ever took place. The fact the Soviets also documented the use of Japanese biological experiments on U.S. POWs was highly controversial, denied by the U.S. for decades, was a quite contentious issue in the 1980s-1990s. While a National Archives-linked historian has quietly determined such experiments did in fact take place, the issue has quietly fallen off the country’s radar.

The relevancy of these issues is of course the ongoing propaganda war between the United States and North Korea, the military rebuilding and aggressive stance against Japan, and the overall “Asian Pivot,” wherein the Pentagon is reallocating resources to the Asian theater for a possible future war against China.

The history behind the Korean War, and U.S. military and covert actions concerning China, Japan, and Korea, are a matter of near-total ignorance in the U.S. population. The charges of “brainwashing” of U.S. POWs, in an ongoing effort to hide evidence of U.S. biological warfare experiments and trials, has become entwined in the propaganda used to explain the U.S. post-9/11 torture and interrogation program, and alibi past crimes by the CIA and Department of Defense for years of illegal mind control programs practiced as part of MKULTRA, MKSEARCH, ARTICHOKE, and other programs.

The following is a transcribed portion of the ISC report that should be of interest to readers. They are the earliest claims I can find concerning the Japanese BW program, and links to what was then only conceived as a possible cover-up and collaboration by U.S. officials. Needham (who never lost belief in the rightness of what his investigators found) was right then. He and the work of his investigators did not deserve the obloquy and oblivion that awaited their work. This posting is an attempt to right that historical wrong.


The Relevance of Japanese Bacterial Warfare in World War II

No investigation of allegations of bacterial warfare in East Asia could fail to take cognisance of the fact that it was undoubtedly employed by the Japanese against China during the second world war. The Commission was relatively well informed on this subject since one of its members had been the chief expert at the Khabarovsk trial, and another had been one of the very few western scientists in an official position in China during the course of the events themselves. In 1944 it had been part of his duty to report to this government that although he had begun with an attitude of great skepticism, the material collected by the Chinese Surgeon-General’s Office seemed to show clearly that the Japanese were, and had been, disseminating plague-infected fleas in several districts. They were thus able to bring about a considerable number of cases of bubonic plague in areas where it was normally not endemic, but where conditions for its spread were fairly favourable. As is generally known, under normal circumstance, bubonic plague is endemic only in certain sharply circumscribed areas (e.g. Fukien province) out of which it does not spread.

From the archives of the Chinese Ministry of Health one of the original reports dealing with the artificial induction of plague at Changte in Hunan province by the Japanese in 1941 was laid before the Commission (App. ISCC/1). This document is still today of considerable value and indeed historical interest. Official Chinese records give the number of hsien cities which were attacked in this way by the Japanese as eleven, 4 in Chekiang, 2 each in Hopei and Honan, and 1 each in Shansi, Hunan and Shantung. The total number of victims of artificially disseminated plague is now assessed by the Chinese as approximately 700 between 1940 and 1944.

The document reproduced below has, moreover, historical interest. It is known that the Chinese Surgeon-General at the time distributed ten copies among the Embassies in Chungking, and it may well be more than a coincidence that according to the well-known Merck Report of Jan. 1946, large-scale work in America on the methods of bacteriological warfare began in the very same year, 1941. The Commission was happy to have the opportunity, during its work in Korea, of meeting the distinguished plague specialist who wrote the original memorandum from Changte, and of hearing his views on the failure of the Kuomintang Government to follow up the evidence which was already in their hands by the end of the second world war (App.). As is generally known, his conclusions were subsequently fully confirmed by the admissions of the accused at the Khabarovsk trial.

By the publication of the “Material on the Trial of Former Servicemen of the Japanese Army charged with Manufacturing and Employing Bacteriological Weapons” (Moscow, 1950) a wealth of information about the pracdtical work carried out under the direction of the Japanese bacteriologist Ishii Shiro (who was unfortunately not himself in the dock) was made available to the world. It was established beyond doubt that techniques had been employed for the mass-production of bacteria such as those of cholera, typhoid and plague, literally by hundreds of kilograms of the wet paste at a time. Techniques, quite simple in character, had also been used for the breeding of large numbers of rats and very large numbers of fleas, though in practice only the latter seem to have been disseminated. Moreover, the various witnesses were ready to give chapter and verse as to the dates upon which they had proceeded to various Japanese bases in China to superintend the methods of dissemination used. Abundant details were also forthcoming about the special secret detachments (such as the notorious “731”) and their laboratories, pilot plants, and prisons in which Chinese and Russian patriots were made use of with perfect sangfroid as experimental animals. In the course of its work, as will be mentioned below (p. 44) the Commission had the opportunity of examining some of the few remaining specimens of the earthenware “bombs” which were manufactured for Ishii in a special factory at Harbin.

It would seem that the Japanese militarists never abandoned their visions of world-conquest by the aid of biological weapons in general and the dissemination of insect weapons in particular. Before they departed from Dairen they systematically tore out from all volumes of journals in the university and departmental libraries articles which had any connection with bacterial warfare. It should not be forgotten that before the allegations of bacterial warfare in Korea and NE China (Manchuria) began to be made in the early months of 1952, newspaper items had reported two successive visits of Ishii Shiro to South Korea, and he was there again in March. Whether the occupation authorities in Japan had fostered his activities, and whether the American Far Eastern Command was engaged in making use of methods essentially Japanese, were questions which could hardly have been absent from the minds of members of the Commission.

— From pages 13-14 of the Report of the International Scientific Commission for the Investigation of the Facts Concerning Bacterial Warfare in Korea and China

Partial Bibliography

Daniel Barenblatt, A Plague Upon Humanity: The Secret Genocide of Axis Japan’s Germ Warfare Operation, HarperPerennial, 2005

Tom Buchanan, “The Courage of Galileo: Joseph Needham and the ‘Germ Warfare’ Allegations in the Korean War,” The Historical Association, Blackwell Publishers, 2001

Stephen Endicott & Edward Hagerman, The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea, Indiana Univ. Press, 1998

Stephen Endicott & Edward Hagerman, “Twelve Newly Released Soviet-era `Documents’ and allegations of U. S. germ warfare during the Korean War,” online publication, 1998, URL:

Sheldon H. Harris, Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-45, and the American Cover-up, rev. ed., Routledge Press, 2002

Milton Leitenberg, “New Russian Evidence on the Korean War Biological Warfare Allegations: Background and Analysis,” Cold War International History Project, Bulletin 11, 1998

Jeffrey A. Lockwood, Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War, Oxford Univ. Press, 2010

John Powell, “A Hidden Chapter in History,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 1981

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Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a psychologist in private practice in San Francisco, where he works with adults and couples in psychotherapy. He worked over 10 years professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus. He has published previously at Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record.