You can’t see it. You can’t hear it. You can’t smell it. Yet a biological weapon could decimate an entire city. In 1942, the United States government, sanctioned by President Franklin Roosevelt, began a highly classified program to research and develop bioweapons. It was the first in a series of steps, each motivated by fear of powerful enemies, that took the United States down a path to develop a new weapon of mass destruction.

From producer John Rubin, this one-hour AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary offers an unprecedented look at more than two decades of closed-door meetings, secret test sites, determined scientists, and human subjects that attempted to turn some of the world’s most potent germs into some of the world’s most effective weapons. “It was a turning point in the way America was willing to fight,” says producer John Rubin. “Roosevelt’s decision acknowledged the readiness to use a kind of weapon that military leaders had long shunned as dishonorable.”

The United States had just been attacked at Pearl Harbor and was fighting a world war on two fronts. Intelligence fueled fear that Adolf Hitler was developing a terrifying new weapon — a bomb that could target soldiers and civilians alike with lethal microbes. And in the world of medicine, doctors and scientists were prepared to exploit their new understanding of germs. The stage was set for America to enter the dirty business of biological warfare. “Once you’re looking at a science not strictly for the benefits that it can bring, but for the damage it can inflict on an enemy, you’re in a whole new world,” explains Jeanne Guillemin, Senior Advisor to MIT’s Security Studies Program.

In the spring of 1943, scientists began arriving at Camp Detrick in Maryland. The team was comprised of virologists and bacteriologists from the top universities and pharmaceutical companies in the nation. Their work took place under the ultimate security classification — the same level as the parallel Manhattan Project to build an atom bomb. “In some cases there were only four or five people who actually knew the extent of what was going on at Camp Detrick,” says Norman Covert, an expert in the history of America’s bioweapons program. What was going on was the race to develop biological weapons strong enough to destroy an entire population.

But when World War II ended after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world saw what nuclear weapons could do and many questioned the need for biological warfare. Advocates, however, pushed forward, and with the rise of the Cold War the program intensified. No one knew what the Soviets had in development, but U.S. strategists were determined to be ready. “During the Cold War, the idea of retaliation was paramount,” explains biowarfare expert Martin Furmanski. “If the Soviets had biological weapons, we had biological weapons.”

For more than two decades testing continued — not just in Maryland laboratories, but in ventilation systems in Washington, D.C., on the streets of St. Louis, on the shores of San Francisco Bay, and in the desert of Utah. The most conclusive tests took place in 1965 near a Pacific atoll called Johnston, when a single military plane sprayed a long line of germs that cause a deadly disease, tularemia. “These field tests demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt the feasibility of biological warfare,” says Bill Patrick, former chief of product development at Detrick. “We infected animals some sixty, seventy kilometers downwind from the point of spray. And that is why we know that one particular agent, when properly stabilized and properly disseminated is a very effective weapon system.”

But just four years later, the program came to an abrupt end. On November 25, 1969, President Richard Nixon made a stunning announcement: “Mankind already holds in its hands too many of the seeds of its own destruction… Therefore I have decided that the United States will renounce the use of any form of deadly biological weapons that either kill or incapacitate.”

While Nixon’s declaration ended America’s offensive bioweapons programs, military leaders and researchers had opened a door that could never be shut. “They’ve bequeathed on a world this knowledge and we now have to control it and contain it and make sure the biological weapons are never used,” cautions historian Brian Balmer.

“Today, perhaps more than ever, people are aware of what a biological attack could do to a city or a nation,” says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE executive producer Mark Samels. “The program was, in many ways, a consequence of the mindset that scientific and medical advances could be turned on their heads to create massive destruction.”

My American Experience

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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?