Then & Now: U.S. Biological Weapons Research

Other Then & Now articles

In 2009, the United States joined more than 160 countries in renewing the Biological Weapons Commission (BWC), a multilateral disarmament treaty first signed in 1972 and entered into force in 1975. The BWC prohibits the development and proliferation of biological weapons for offensive purposes. However, the development and testing of biological weapons for defensive purposes is still permitted.

During World War II, the Allies feared biological attacks from the Germans and the Japanese, whom they suspected of running extensive development programs. “Not many people can understand the mindset of 1941, when we were attacked by the Japanese,” says Camp Detrick Historian Norm Covert. “The entire nation was at war, so we had a real mission to protect our nation.” In 1942 Franklin Roosevelt sanctioned a top-secret biological weapons testing program in the United States that would last 27 years ? well into the cold war. Experimenting on thousands of animals and fully-informed Army recruits, American scientists proved it was possible to produce effective weapons of mass destruction at a fraction of the cost of a nuclear bomb. “It took a little thought, but not much, to realize that to pioneer a cheap weapon of mass destruction is exactly what the United States should never do,? says biologist Matthew Meselson. On November 25, 1969, President Richard Nixon ended America’s offensive bioweapons program.

Today, despite U.S. participation in the BWC, American scientists continue to conduct ongoing research on biological agents. Since 2001 the U.S. government has spent or allocated more than $50 billion to address the threat of biological weapons, including an effort to develop an even deadlier strain of the anthrax virus to test against current vaccines. Scientists are also working on vaccines against the smallpox virus, which has been eradicated worldwide since 1980.

Anthrax in particular continues to be a source of public fear as a potential biological weapon. In September, 2001, five people died after envelopes containing lethal spores of the virus were mailed to two U.S. Senators and several news media offices. Dr. Bruce Ivins, a civilian microbiologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases laboratories at Fort Detrick, MD, committed suicide in July 2008 after becoming the sole primary suspect in the case.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

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?