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The U.S. Government's Secret Testing of Radioactive, Chemical and Biological Weapons and Substances on Humans

As we travel through a period of increasing government secrecy, it is worth taking a second look at these books that document secret U.S. government radioactive, chemical and biological weapons and substances testing on U.S. citizens.

On this page:
Clouds of Secrecy: The Army's Germ Warfare Tests Over Populated Areas,

The Biology of Doom: The History of America's Secret Germ Warfare Project,

Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans,

The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War

Clouds of Secrecy: The Army's Germ Warfare Tests Over Populated Areas by Leonard A. Cole

From Publishers Weekly
This disturbing study, based on government records, courtroom testimony and interviews, focuses on biological-warfare testing and the U.S. Army's expanding program to develop cheaper and more effective biological weapons. Cole traces the growth of the biological arsenal during World War II, reviews the scientific literature (which questions the Army's contention that bacteria used in tests are harmless) and assesses the spraying of several American locales, including San Francisco and the New York subway system. Cole charges that the Army failed to monitor the health of the targeted population, and quotes from a 1981 trial in a case brought by a San Francisco family, one of whose members is believed to have died as a result of the 1950 test in that city. Reflecting on ``the human capacity to confuse good intentions with harmful actions,'' the author, who teaches at Rutgers University, concludes with a discussion of the ethics of spraying unsuspecting citizens with bacteria and the need for protection against such experiments.

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The Biology of Doom: The History of America's Secret Germ Warfare Project by Ed Regis

Scientific American: The Editors Recommend: December
Regis ... interested himself in what the U.S. and other countries did during and after World War II to develop methods of biological warfare. With the aid of the Freedom of Information Act, he obtained more than 2,000 pages of formerly secret U.S. government documents on the subject. They form the foundation of this account, which traces the U.S. biological weapons program from its inception in 1942 to its termination by President Richard Nixon in 1969 ... By then, according to Regis, "the U.S. Army had officially standardized and weaponized two lethal biological agents, Bacillus anthracis and Francisella tularensis, and three incapacitating biological agents, Brucella suis, Coxiella burnetii, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus. The Army had also weaponized one lethal toxin, botulinum, and one incapacitating toxin, staphylococcal enterotoxin B." ...

Notwithstanding all this activity ... nations have so far avoided serious biological warfare. Regis thinks the reason is that biological weapons lack "the single most important ingredient of any effective weapon, an immediate visual display of overwhelming power and brute strength."

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Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans by Jonathan D. Moreno

The New York Times Book Review, Daniel J. Kevles
...the historical record he presents in Undue Risk strongly supports his contention that the rights of human subjects deserve to be held paramount over any needs of national security.

From Scientific American
The infamous Nazi medical experiments on human subjects represent an extreme of government arrogance. But many other nations, including the U.S., have done similar if less egregious things, usually in the name of national security. Radiation, chemical agents and disease-causing agents are tested on people who have not given informed consent and may not even know they were test subjects.

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The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War by Eileen Welsome

From The New England Journal of Medicine, December 16, 1999
Amid the embarrassments of Monicamania and of multiple public mea culpas, the past few years have not been exemplary ones for American journalism. This fact makes the triumph of The Plutonium Files all the sweeter, because this superlative book is a reminder of the purpose of investigative journalism.

This richly detailed, subtly nuanced history of government-engineered radiation experiments on unwitting Americans is based on the Pulitzer-prize-winning series Eileen Welsome wrote for the Albuquerque Tribune. Welsome's tenacious and resourceful detective work has unveiled the saga of a sordid, tragic, yet fascinating chapter in the history of American medical science. The book succeeds on many levels. It is a gripping expose of governmental exploitation and of medicine's moral failures in an era in which blind trust defined the normal relationship between physicians and patients. Between April 1945, scant months before the bombing of Hiroshima, and July 1947, the scientists of the Manhattan Project followed the construction of the atomic bomb with a chilling second act: medical experimentation on hundreds of unsuspecting Americans. Pioneers of nuclear science, such as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Louis Hempelmann, and Stafford Warren, masterminded the experiments from the headquarters they carved out of the New Mexico desert, in Los Alamos. Doctors working with the Manhattan Project initially injected plutonium into 18 men, women, and children. They acted without obtaining the consent of these people, informed or otherwise, and without therapeutic intent. Their mission was to study dispassionately the "fiendishly toxic" effects of plutonium on selected groups so that physician-scientists would know how best to protect American researchers, soldiers, and citizens exposed to atomic weapons.

But the radiation experiments did not end there, nor even with the end of World War II. The malignant flowering of curiosity about the effects of radiation on humans continued for three more decades. Until the 1970s, government scientists and physicians made use of unwitting Americans in order to discover the effects of exposure. Scientists already knew that radiation was dangerous. Newspaper accounts had graphically detailed the radiation poisoning of women in New Jersey who painted the dials of watches with radium, who died horribly while they were still young. The hands of Nobel laureate Marie Curie, the discoverer of radium, were chronically covered with radiation burns, and she died of radiation-induced leukemia in 1934. Many people who worked with x-rays died of various forms of leukemia.

But scientists wanted to know more. What types of physiologic damage were caused by specific levels of radiation? So, in hospitals, schools, and other institutions across the nation, they administered amounts of plutonium, x-rays, gamma rays, and radium that far exceeded established tolerance limits...

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