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Why the U.S. military exposed minority soldiers to toxic mustard gas

June 22, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
During World War II, the U.S. government conducted experiments with mustard gas and other chemicals on thousands of American troops. A new NPR investigation has found that some military experiments singled out African-American, Japanese-American and Puerto Rican servicemen by race. Judy Woodruff learns more from Caitlin Dickerson of NPR and Susan Smith of University of Alberta.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was a painful, horrifying and secret part of America’s history during World War II.

The U.S. government conducted experiments with mustard gas and other chemicals on some U.S. troops at the time. That chapter of history was first revealed in the early ’90s. Now a new investigation by NPR finds the military used race-based experiments as part of those tests. African-American men, shown here in protective gear, as well as Japanese-American and Puerto Rican soldiers, were singled out.

These pictures show the forearms of men exposed to mustard gas and other agents. Some, like Rollins Edwards, are living with the effects decades later, including injuries to their skin.

Caitlin Dickerson led NPR’s investigation. And Susan Smith is a professor of history at the University of Alberta, Canada. She has studied and written extensively about this.

And thank you both for being with us.

Caitlin Dickerson, to you first. How did you hear about all this? What led you to the story?

CAITLIN DICKERSON, NPR: So, to explain that, Judy, I have to start by telling you that these tests were part of a much larger body of experiments that the U.S. military conducted during World War II involving around 60,000 enlisted men.

I was looking into the Veterans Administration, who in the 1990s, when those tests were first exposed, promised to provide disability benefits to veterans who sustained permanent injuries in those tests. And in the course of reporting that story, which will air on “Morning Edition” later this week, we started to come across the names of studies that really stood out to us, things like comparison of the word nisei, which means first-generation Japanese Americans, to white soldier, comparison of the word they used then Negro to white soldier when exposed to mustard gas.

Those were the first threads of evidence of these experiments that we found, started pulling on those. And then we came across Susan Smith’s work, submitted requests to the federal government for original documents. And that’s where it all started.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Susan Smith, you had been doing work looking into this. How extensive were these tests using mustard gas and other chemical agents?

SUSAN SMITH, Professor of History, University of Alberta: Well, certainly, there was a lot of medical research on chemical weapons for World War II.

And the mustard gas experiments in particular, as Caitlin mentioned, some 60,000 American soldiers were used in experiments. But I was quite struck by the nine race-based experiments that I located. There’s at least nine. There could have been more, but in the published scientific records, I found experiments on Japanese Americans, African-Americans and Puerto Ricans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Caitlin Dickerson, what was the effect of these experiments? We showed some of those photographs just now, but what did these experiments do to these men?


Mustard gas, it reacts with human DNA right away, within seconds of making contact, and it causes irreversible damage. So, frequently, you will see things like chronic skin problems, including skin cancer, that never goes away.

Rollins Edwards, who I interviewed in my story, he still — more than 70 years later, he still has thick scabs on his skin which he scratches at until they bleed. Mustard gas also commonly affects the airways, so it causes things like COPD, emphysema, asthma. It can cause leukemia and eye disease, all kinds of very serious and sometimes life-threatening illnesses.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is a man who has lived into his 90s. Is that right?


So, the veterans that I was able to talk to for this story are, of course, an exceptional group, having far outlived their life expectancy and having gone through this. We can assume that there are many more who aren’t around to tell us their stories today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Smith, why was the government doing this? What were they trying to find out?

SUSAN SMITH: Well, the First World War had been a chemical war, and there was every expectation that the Second World War would be one as well.

So, the allied governments, Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Australia, all prepared for a chemical war. This is also all true of the Japanese and the Nazis in Germany. So chemical war was everyone’s expectation. And the scientists were involved in helping with that research.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But why did they choose a number of African-American men, Japanese American men, Puerto Ricans, and so forth?

SUSAN SMITH: And this is a really important question about how race matters in the world of science.

The expectation was that racial differences would prove to play out not just for disease, but for toxic exposures of mustard gas. So the scientists themselves had assumptions that racial groups might be variable. And the expectation was that white soldiers would have one kind of response, but African-Americans might be more resistant, Japanese Americans as well, and Puerto Ricans too, that there would be racial differences they could identify.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Caitlin, what did they find out?

CAITLIN DICKERSON: So, when you look at the results of these experiments, there’s a report that was written at the end of the war that does suggest military scientists continued to think that African-Americans were more resistant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Based on what they found or…

CAITLIN DICKERSON: Based on what they found. And we did show those results to a few different medical researchers and experts, but it’s really hard to say anything about the veracity of the numbers, because we just weren’t there.

And we know that the standards about experimentation on humans were not up to the level that they are today. So, they do suggest that, at the time, they thought African-Americans were more resistant. But right after that, they sort of follow up and say, but you know what, there’s a lot of variation among these groups, maybe even more so than between them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, just to underline, these men went willingly, is that right, all the people who participated?

CAITLIN DICKERSON: That’s not necessarily the case. And I’m glad you brought that up. It’s important.

When you look at all of the documents surrounding military mustard gas experiments, the test subjects are referred to as volunteers. But we know even from a government study that was conducted back in the 1990s, when the first sets of experiments were exposed, we know that the term of — the term volunteer isn’t necessarily accurate, that, in some cases, men were asked to volunteer, but they weren’t told what they were volunteering for.

And they were offered incentives, like a vacation or an award. The men that we interviewed for these — for this story about race-based experiments, they say they were not volunteers, the military didn’t ask them. They told them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Smith, are there other experiments that were done at that time that have yet to be made public?

SUSAN SMITH: Well, certainly, from the 1940s through the 1970s, there were many, many types of scientific experiments on human beings.

Despite the Nuremberg Code coming out in 1947, the role of human experimentation in medical and scientific research was very important as a tool for scientists.

What is interesting here is that we know about radiation experiments. We know about toxic exposures of Agent Orange later in the Vietnam War. But this is the World War II story that we don’t know as much about, partly because we don’t remember that it was preparation for a chemical war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s just a striking set of findings and some remarkable research, and — Professor Smith, and remarkable reporting, Caitlin Dickerson.

We thank you both.

CAITLIN DICKERSON: Thank you very much.

SUSAN SMITH: Thank you so much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A postscript: The U.S. government has acknowledged the experiments. And the Defense Department told NPR that it no longer tests chemical weapons on troops. A spokesman said the experiments were — quote — “unfathomable.”

Some members of Congress are calling for apologies and a settlement.