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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

COMMENT: Soviet Archives Vindicate U.S. In Korean War




The Korean War was raging in the Cold War 1950s, and the North Korean aggressors and their Chinese patrons were accusing the United States, which had come to the defense of South Korea, of conducting biological war.


As recently as two years ago, Indiana University Press published a reiteration of the charges. In "The United States and Biological Warfare," Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman claim that new Western and Chinese documents "provide new evidence that the United States had an operational biological weapons system and that it was employed in the Korean War."


But the document game isn't what it used to be now that some Soviet archives are being opened.


In this case, the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun scored a grand scoop two years ago in reporting findings from 12 Central Committee documents on biowarfare. They were subsequently translated and issued by the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


The documents were written in the politically charged atmosphere of the Kremlin just after Josef Stalin died in March 1953. They provide, says Milton Leitenberg, a leading expert now at the University of Maryland, "explicit and detailed evidence that the [biowarfare] charges [against the United States] were contrived and fraudulent."


One document is a Soviet government statement directed to Mao Zedong. "The Soviet Government and the Central Committee were misled," says the statement accusingly. "The spread in the press of information about the use by the Americans of bacteriological weapons in Korea was based on false information. The accusations against the Americans were fictitious."


In another of the documents, Stalin's would-be successor Lavrenti Beria informs them that to throw off a panel of visiting foreign inspectors, the Soviet ambassador in North Korea had somehow been involved in hoking up "two false regions of infection" to blame on the Americans. Apparently rival Soviet security bureaucracies were at work.


Until the Soviet documents surfaced, it was possible to wonder whether the United States had conducted biological warfare in Korea. There had been a U.S. World War II biological warfare program, though it had not resulted in weapons being used. The U.S. government made a grant of war-crimes immunity to buy the cooperation of the team with which Japan had practiced biological warfare in China. The United States did not sign the Geneva Protocol forbidding biological warfare until 1972.


But once these Soviet documents surfaced, it became no longer possible to believe in good faith that the United States had been guilty as charged.


The North Koreans are a special case. After the biowarfare book came out, North Korea's United Nations ambassador last year revived the accusations in the Security Council. Is this despicable word North Korea's last on the subject? A moment when North Korea is lurching into diplomatic engagement with the United States is a good time to know.


Indiana University Press and co-authors Endicott and Hagerman, both teachers of history at York University in Toronto, have their own explaining to do. Is not a university press obliged to pursue truth as well as nourish controversy? Are not scholars under a particular burden of rigorous truth-seeking?


Stephen S. Rosenfeld is former editorial page editor of The Washington Post, to which he contributed this comment.