Why the US let Japanese war criminals go free

Wednesday, August 28, 2002 - 10:00

Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare,

1932-1945, and the American Cover-up
By Sheldon H. Harris
Routledge, 2002
385 pages, $57 (pb)


In the last days of World War II, as the Japanese retreated from the Soviet army's advance into Japanese-occupied China, great care was taken by the Japanese army to destroy certain of their bases in dozens of Chinese cities. Red Army soldiers, arriving at these sites, discovered mass graves, many of the bodies still warm. The Japanese retreat was hasty but highly methodical. There was something they wanted to keep secret.

US and Soviet military investigators soon began piecing together the ugly story of Japan's biological warfare (BW) research in China, including experiments on humans. Sheldon Harris has meticulously documented the gruesome story in Factories of Death.

The primarily Chinese victims, but also Korean and Japanese civilians and Allied soldiers, were infected with pathogenic bacteria including bubonic plague, anthrax, cholera, typhus, smallpox, tuberculosis and dozens of other diseases to determine the most deadly killers. Some victims had vivisection performed on them. Those that did not die from the infections were no longer "viable experimental material" and were killed, their bodies burned in crematoria.

Field trials of delivery mechanisms (bombs, aerial spraying, poisoning of water and animals) were conducted against victims tied to stakes, and against whole Chinese villages and cities. Epidemics raged. In Nanjing, during the two-month slaughter and rape-fest of 1937-8, Chinese POWs were given dumplings laced with typhus and released to spread the disease. Children were given chocolate infected with anthrax. In border skirmishes with Soviet troops, pathogens were spread to thousands of Red Army soldiers.

Around 30,000 to 50,000 people are estimated to have been killed from the experiments alone in the BW bases, while victims of the open-air field trials reached six-figures. The human suffering was incalculable.

The standard defence of Japanese politicians and military comma-nders, then and now, was that these atrocities were the result of the "rogue" Kwantung army, the "loose cannon" Japanese military force in "Manchuria" (the three north-eastern provinces of China) which was occupied from 1931 to 1945. This force supposedly operated beyond the control of civilian and military authorities in Tokyo. This is a lie.

The ultra-right, fervently nationalist political and military forces which increasingly dominated Japan from the early 1930s had a program of military expansion of which biological warfare, made militarily practicable by human experimentation, was an accepted strategy.

Army doctor Major Ishii Shiro, a professor of immunology at Japan's top military medical school, the Tokyo Army Medical College, had conducted BW experiments on Japanese civilians in Tokyo and was given the opportunity to experiment on a much larger scale in occupied China.

He headed the infamous Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army located in the region known as Ping Fan. This massive BW factory and laboratory had ready access to thousands of prisoners — Chinese resistance fighters, Communist guerrillas, common criminals, POWs and Chinese civilians (people with an intellectual disability, vagrants, opium addicts and random people swept from the streets when "experimental stocks" were running low).

Unit 731 at any one time had 5000 personnel, including some 500 scientists (mostly microbiologists) from Japan's most prestigious universities. The war ministry in Tokyo lavishly funded the unit and support came from the highest levels of the military establishment, the scientific community, the Japanese Diet (parliament) and the royal family. Tens of thousands directly participated in Unit 731, including Prince Takeda (Emperor Hirohito's cousin and Kwantung army official who later headed the Japan Olympic Committee for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games).

Any diligent investigation by the US occupying forces after the war would have uncovered Japan's BW program and the war criminals responsible for it. Surviving victims, disaffected subordinates, dissident scientists, the conscience-stricken and the merely opportunistic could all have dobbed in their principals. The Japanese left, particularly the Japanese Communist Party, which strongly opposed (and infiltrated) Japan's BW network, had highly accurate knowledge of the atrocities.

Information from all these sources flooded into the US agencies investigating the Japanese leadership's war crimes. Yet by the time the war crimes trials concluded in 1948, not one of those responsible for the BW atrocities had been indicted, let alone convicted.

Although the chief war crimes prosecutor had compiled a detailed picture of the BW program and of those responsible (tracing the line of authority all the way to Tokyo), the plug was pulled by Washington as a deal was hatched to offer immunity from prosecution to the BW war criminals in return for providing the US with the results of their work.

Most "highly valued" were the human experiments "showing the direct effects of biological warfare agents on man". This was the view of the US State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee (SWNCC), a high-level, powerful body of the departments of state and war, and the US Navy, which determined occupation policy in Japan.

Prosecution for BW crimes, the SWNCC argued, would "stop the flow of information". The US Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed, including commander-in-chief President Harry Truman, who in March 1947 ordered an end to BW war crimes investigations.

The "utmost secrecy" was also ordered about the decision to trade immunity for information. A cover-up would "guard against embarrassment" of the US political and military authorities letting war criminals go unpunished so that the US could reap the benefits of their atrocities. Knowingly accepting the proceeds of crime is a crime itself, and the US had to be spared this awkwardness.

Washington's own BW research program had begun in 1943 with secret government funding of US$60 million, and by 1945 the US army had operational plans for 1 million anthrax bombs. Public revulsion at biological experiments on humans, however, had restrained the Dr Strangeloves so the Japanese BW research was a godsend.

The cover-up in Japan and the US has continued ever since. The master war criminal, Ishii, lived in quiet retirement on a handsome government retirement package. Other BW war criminals went on to illustrious careers with the Japanese ministry of health and welfare and the universities, their past un-investigated, ignored or covertly valued.

Every director bar one of the Japanese National Institute for Health, a government-sponsored research institute, has been a war criminal who served in a BW unit and experimented on humans. Half the scientific staff of the NIH had been veterans of Unit 731. For three decades after the war, they continued work on unfinished Unit 731 projects, and performed other biological experiments on unwitting prisoners, babies, psychiatric patients and soldiers of the Japanese "self-defence" army. In the 1980s, hospitalised children were given untested vaccines by NIH researchers, thousands dying or becoming disabled as a result.

The government-employed BW war criminals worked hand-in-hand with their war crime colleagues in the private pharmaceutical and blood-treatment companies, the primary concern of this network of war criminals being company profitability. Unit 731 has vanished from the school textbooks approved by the Japanese ministry of education.

As well as importing German Nazi scientists and intelligence officers after the war, Washington continued on its BW path, enriched by the windfall Japanese data and occasionally working in collaboration with its Japanese compilers. The US used biological warfare during the Korean War. From 1948 to 1968, a secret BW testing program was launched on misled or uninformed US citizens (a pale shadow of Unit 731 atrocities but a shadow cast by the same moral framework).

In both Japan and the US, the biological warfare atrocities, the deal with the war criminals and its cover-up, the post-war BW programs and human experiments, and the pharmaceutical company scandals were justified by the "national interest", military "defence" and corporate profits.

The joint regard for Unit 731 held by both Japanese and US military and political elites show that when it comes to human rights, the concerns of those who hammer away about the "national interest" amount to nothing but immense suffering and death for humanity.

From Green Left Weekly, August 28, 2002.

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From GLW issue 506