How could people do something like this?

Today comes yet another story of the incredible cruelty that the US government is willing to inflict on totally innocent people, sacrificing them to its militaristic goals. NPR had a shocking story about how the US Army tested chemical weapons on 60,000 of its own soldiers during World War II. They picked out black, Puerto Rican, and Japanese-Americans to test out a theory that their skin might have greater resistance to chemical weapons.

As a young U.S. Army soldier during World War II, Rollins Edwards knew better than to refuse an assignment.

When officers led him and a dozen others into a wooden gas chamber and locked the door, he didn’t complain. None of them did. Then, a mixture of mustard gas and a similar agent called lewisite was piped inside.

“It felt like you were on fire,” recalls Edwards, now 93 years old. “Guys started screaming and hollering and trying to break out. And then some of the guys fainted. And finally they opened the door and let us out, and the guys were just, they were in bad shape.”

Readers will immediately recall the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment where the US military again used black people as guinea pigs and destroyed their lives in the process.

One should note that despite the large numbers of people involved, this was kept quiet for over 70 years. Who knows what other horrors we will learn about in the future.

You can listen to the NPR story.


  1. says

    The USG also tested bioweapons on the entire population of New York City by releasing vaccinia in the subways to trace its spread. Can you imagine how any hospital’s human studies committee would react to that idea?

  2. says

    You’ve only mentioned the tip of the iceberg: there are A LOT of such experiments. There was the Guatemala syphilis tests, when the US government infected prostitutes in Guatemala so they could test penicillin on wild-caught infections in their male clients. There was the time when the US Navy routinely sprayed San Francisco with Serratia marcescens for almost 20 years to test preparedness for biological attacks. There were the children in a mental institution in New York who were deliberately infected with viral hepatitis — after lying to their parents and guardians about what they were doing and why — to create test subjects for a cure study. There was the study when pregnant women were given doses of radioactive iodine, so their miscarriages could be used to study the effects of radiation on human fetal development.

    Trust me, what you mentioned is absolutely nothing.

  3. Mano Singham says


    What you have listed is sickening and I admit I was not aware of them.

    And yet we keep on moralizing to other countries about how they should admire and emulate our values …

  4. says

    The Declaration of Helsinki was issued in 1964 to set ethical standards for human medical experimentation. It was proposed by the World Medical Association, an international council of scientists, researchers and doctors, in response to the Nazi atrocities. Based on the criteria used in the Nuremberg trials to judge crimes against humanity, the WMA urged the international community to accept these as a a standard and to adopt them into their national laws.

    The United States was one of the last developed country to adopt these rules, with the requirement for review boards being adopted in 1981 and most of the rest in 1991. There are still things condemned by the Declaration that are legal in the US.

  5. lorn says

    As a history buff I was aware of some of this testing. Different times. People have to remember that at the beginning of WW2 it was all new. Nobody knew what warfare was going to look like.

    As an example: US naval experts still thought the ultimate weapon on the seas was going to be the battleship. War Plan Orange was officially our naval strategy for dealing with the Japanese and it, in a nutshell, was a plan to meet the Japanese fleet in the middle of the Pacific, form up lines of battleships and steam around parallel to each other until one side cut and ran, or sank. Luckily the Japanese were kind enough to disabuse us of our misconception about the primacy of battleships at Pearl Harbor, and do so before we had a chance to implement Orange and lose our entire Pacific fleet.

    The facts known:
    All the major powers had stockpiles of chemical weapons.
    All the major power equipped their troops with protective equipment such as gas masks which would allow them to withstand a gas attack or, on the offensive, attack into a contaminated area.
    Most naval vessels had air locks and other anti-gas components designed in.
    Most major bunkers built by the European powers incorporated gas-tight doors, filters, and airlocks.

    All the powers had seen in WWI the damage that chemical warfare could do. Everyone understood that the chemical weapons used in WWI were going to seem weak and ineffectual compared to what might be used in the next great war. In WWI aircraft were flimsy and primitive beasts carrying only a small amount of bombs short distances. In the inter-war years aircraft came into their own. Weapons loads were, for the first time, routinely measured in tons. Aircraft ranges and endurance had improved to the point Lindberg was able to cross the Atlantic. This did not go unnoticed by military planners. For the first time they started thinking of terror from the air delivers from thousands of miles away.

    Remember that chemical weapons, contrary to popular belief, were not really very effective against even marginally prepared troops. There were battles won through the use of gas on troops who didn’t know what twas happening and had no way to protect themselves but the opponents quickly compensated. Even the simplest protective equipment, a pair of goggles and a mask of gauze soaked in urine, could lessen the effects of chlorine gas and might leave just enough troops left to man the machine guns and hold out. Attacking troops, thinking the battle won through the use of gas were sometimes slaughtered in great numbers. In one famous case a British soldier, gathering that the chlorine gas favored low spots, climbed up on a small rise with a machine gun and was able to fight off a major German attack. Chemical weapons lost effectiveness on the battlefield very quickly. In the end, most powers stopped using them in anything but special situations. They were always expensive to produce, difficult to transport and store, and they were often more of a hindrance to the attacker than the defender. There were easier, cheaper, and more reliable ways of killing people.

    On the other hand, chemical weapons used on population centers promised to be a grand way of demoralizing and debilitating civilians in major population centers. Combine the newer blister agents with long-range aircraft, and use the combination against major cities and the planners were excited and/or horrified as to the possible effects. There was a need to get some idea as to the numbers they might be facing.

    Of course, as with all things, this took on something of the flavor of the times. Eugenics was still considered a valid field of study and racial characteristics were thought to define what one might be good at. It was taken as accepted wisdom that Blacks were better at working in the tropical sun and Mexicans were racially designed for stoop labor.

    Our experience with minorities in WWI was limited. The black troops were not heavily exposed and even less so to the agents used late in the war. Experience with Asian troops was even more limited. This was a source of concern because it was assumed by many military planners we were going to come up against Asian troops. Were our troops going to be suffering the effects of chemical weapons while waves of Asian soldiers, nearly immune to the agents, marched over them? If NYC was attacked with chemicals would the black community need more, less, or the same amount of medical help as other ethnic communities?

    They are ridiculous ideas now, we know that no race has any appreciable immunity from chemical weapons, but people were not so sure about it back then. Was racism a part of it? Absolutely, racism permeated the society and every part and action of that society. Why would military doctrine and testing be immune to it?

  6. Numenaster says

    Thanks for the history recap, lorn. I didn’t know most of that, and I was educated in what were considered good US schools in the 1970’s and 80’s.

    Mano, you are right to call out our moralizing. I take a little comfort from the fact that it was our public broadcasting system that brought this report to you. There are many people who would like to see PBS limited to only telling the nice stories about America. I’m glad we get these stories with them.

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