Napalm bombs explode in Vietnam, 1965.

In November 1969, President Richard Nixon surprised the American public, and the world, by ordering the United States to unilaterally discontinue its biological weapons program, thus ending further research into their development. Though this decision came as a shock to many who operated the offensive biological warfare program at Fort Detrick, Pine Bluff Arsenal, Dugway Proving Ground, and elsewhere, its seeds had been planted years earlier.

Growing Pressure
Matthew Meselson in Vietnam, where he was studying the effects of chemical weapons, 1969-1970. On the surface, the U.S. biological weapons program appeared to be going swimmingly in the 1960s; frequent tests of simulated pathogens proved the efficacy of biological weapons, and in 1967 the Fort Detrick scientists developed a bacteriological missile warhead. But opposition was growing to the U.S. use of unconventional weapons like napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam, and biological weapons began to be tarred with the same broad brush. Matters weren’t helped by a March 1968 accident in which the Air Force mistakenly dropped VX nerve agent outside the Dugway Proving Ground, apparently resulting in the death of over 3,000 sheep (some estimates claim that over 6,000 sheep were killed) in Skull Valley, Utah. That same year Seymour Hersh published a book called Chemical and Biological Warfare: America’s Secret Arsenal and news arose of the large-scale tests the military had conducted in the Pacific with biological agents. A plan to sink ships filled with old chemical weapons in the ocean off Long Island met with furious public protest, and Congressional representatives began to demand more scrutiny of what had been heretofore a largely secret program. The scientific community was also raising alarms; Harvard biology professor Matthew Meselson had already circulated a petition in 1966 signed by 5,000 scientists asking the U.S. to halt the use of chemical weapons in Vietnam and conduct a top-to-bottom review of American biological and chemical weapons policy.

Working Together
Against this backdrop, word came from Great Britain and Canada that it might be possible to get an international convention passed banning biological weapons if the U.S. made some gesture of good faith in the area. Newly inaugurated President Nixon decided that the time was right to look into the matter.

Kissinger’s Review and Nixon’s Decision
Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger headed up the review process, which began in late spring 1969. A chance encounter with Meselson at an airport led Kissinger to ask his old Harvard colleague to submit a position paper on the subject of biological weapons. Meselson’s conclusion was that biological weapons were both dangerous because the technology could readily fall into the hands of enemy groups or nations and unnecessary because of the U.S.'s massive nuclear arsenal. His arguments were reinforced by other submissions; in fact, when the National Security Council met with Nixon on November 18, only the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued for the retention of biological weapons. One week later, Nixon made his announcement. “I have decided that the United States will renounce the use of any form of deadly biological weapons that either kill or incapacitate,” the president said. “Our bacteriological programs in the future will be confined to research in biological defense, on techniques of immunization, and on measures on controlling and preventing the spread of disease.” In taking this step, Nixon cited the “massive, unpredictable, and potentially uncontrollable consequences” of biological weapons. He added, “By the examples that we set today, we hope to contribute to an atmosphere of peace and understanding between all nations.” Privately, Nixon showed more realpolitik. America had no need for biological weapons, he declared; if an enemy used them on the U.S., we would retaliate with nuclear bombs.

The Biological Weapons Convention
Whatever Nixon’s motivations, his decision had the desired international effect. Negotiations on a treaty banning all biological weapons intensified, and after the Soviet Union dropped its opposition, in April 1972 the Biological Weapons Convention was completed and became open for signature by the nations of the world. The U.S. Senate ratified the convention in December 1974, and it went into effect in March 1975, the same year the Senate also finally ratified the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the wartime use of bacteriological weapons. The Biological Weapons Convention was a historic accomplishment, not merely restricting biological weapons but pledging their complete elimination. Unfortunately, one of its key signatories, the Soviet Union, continued a secret biological weapons program in direct violation of the treaty’s terms, a fact that would only become known years later.

 

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The Cold War and the nuclear arms race dominated American foreign policy for decades. Did fears of nuclear weapons affect your life? Should the U.S. have engaged in creating the world’s most powerful bombs? What is the most theatening weapon today?