U.S. accusations of human rights abuses elsewhere ring hollow. In addition to coups, invasions, sanctions, proxy wars and other forms of interference, there are eight documented instances of biological and chemical weapons use by the United States. WMDs are an American specialty.
This article originally appeared in the author’s blog on Substack, Chronicles of Haiphong.
The United States frequently employs human rights as a weapon against so-called “adversaries.” Chemical and biological weapons have played a prominent role in cultivating the U.S.’s identity as the foremost humanitarian interventionist power. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was based on accusations made by U.S. intelligence that Saddam Hussein was harboring Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). In recent years, U.S. officials have accused the Syrian government on multiple occasions of engaging in chemical weapons attacks on civilian populations.
These evidence-free allegations have served as justification for wars far more destructive than whatever the targeted nations were accused of. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that it is the United States which is addicted to using chemical and biological weapons on civilian populations. The most well-known case is World War II, when the U.S. dropped two nuclear atomic bombs on Japan. Since then, the U.S. has used chemical and biological weapons on a number of occasions in its quest for global dominance. The following article offers eight examples which are by no means exhaustive.
Beginning in 1950, U.S. forces invaded Korea and murdered upwards of twenty percent of the entire population. The murderous event ended in an armistice in 1953. By 1952, Korean forces and Chinese volunteers had accused the U.S. of using biological weapons or “germ warfare” in its campaign of terror against the Korean people.
The World Peace Council, a Soviet Union-led internationalist organization, formed a delegation of scientists to investigate the matter. The International Scientific Commission (ISC) was led by the U.K.’s Director of Natural Sciences at UNESCO, Joseph Needham, and was comprised of experts from Brazil, Sweden, the Soviet Union, and France. Their report on the facts relating to the use of bacterial warfare in Korea and China was dismissed by the United States as “communist propaganda” and heavily suppressed. The journalist who broke the story, John W. Powell, was indicted on charges of sedition.
Through on the ground investigation, eyewitness testimony, and interviews with American Prisoners of War (POWs), the ISC found that U.S. use of biological weapons in Korea and China was commonplace. Examples include the dropping of containers of fleas by air and boxes of clams on foot which were infected with bacterial diseases such as cholera and the plague. In one instance, 24 eyewitnesses in the Chinese provinces of Liaotung and Liaohsi observed American F-86 and B-26 war planes drop containers of down feathers from a fowl and a species of beetle. The death of five people in the area from respiratory anthrax correlated with the handling of these infected agents. This conclusion was further supported by evidence that respiratory anthrax was completely unknown in China at the time.
Like Korea, Cuba has been subject to endless aggression from the United States. Debilitating sanctions on Cuba remain ongoing. The CIA made more than six hundred attempts on Fidel Castro’s life over the course of his political life as head of state. The U.S.’s overarching goal has always been the overthrow of Cuba’s socialist revolution.
A Newsday article published in 1977 revealed that the CIA was linked to an outbreak of African swine fever in Cuba six years prior. An intelligence source told Newsday that he was given the virus in a sealed, unmarked container at a U.S. Army base in the Panama Canal Zone with instructions to turn it over to an anti-Castro armed group. The CIA would deny the validity of the report six days after the Newsday publication.
The spread of African swine fever has been linked to a U.S. bioweapons research facility on Plum Island, the only known place in the Western hemisphere where the virus was kept. New U.S. Navy transcripts have emerged that indicate investigations were underway in 1971 regarding the presence biological toxins on Haiti’s Navassa Island, the very place where the African swine fever virus was transferred from the CIA to counterrevolutionaries seeking to overthrow the Cuban government.
Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia
The intervention in Vietnam remains the most highly recognized war in the history of the United States. A mass anti-war movement coupled with the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people ejected the U.S. military from Vietnam after decades of interference, including a decade-long brutal invasion. Opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam was spurred in part by the numerous examples of egregious human rights violations. The use of torture in the Phoenix Program, the infamous My Lai massacre, and the human devastation caused by napalm bombing campaigns exposed the cruelties of U.S. imperialism over a long period.
Biological warfare was another such cruelty. From 1961 to 1973, the U.S. dropped a toxic chemical weapon nicknamed Agent Orange onto millions of acres across Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The U.S. saw the destruction of food and agriculture as a key component of its mission to obliterate the socialist and national liberation movements fighting for independence in these countries. Agent Orange was composed of two powerful herbicides: 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid and was therefore perfect for the job. Together, these herbicides possessed trace amounts of TCDD dioxin—one of the most toxic chemicals known to science. Of the 81,000,000 liters of chemicals dropped onto Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, 60 percent contained Agent Orange chemicals.
The human and environmental costs of Agent Orange have been enormous. At least 400,000 people in Vietnam alone have died due to complications from the toxic brew of chemicals. Birth defects, cancers, and a host of other severe diseases continue to affect millions, including U.S. military veterans exposed to Agent Orange during the war. Agent Orange has also caused a significant level of deforestation and destruction of the natural environment, with 60-80 percent of animal and plant life destroyed in sprayed areas. Because dioxin does not degrade naturally, water and food supplies possess dangerous levels of the chemical to this very day.
While the U.S. has responded to public pressure by paying a small sum to Vietnam and former U.S. military personnel for the costs of Agent Orange, it is not nearly enough to make up for the devastation wrought upon the people and the planet. Laos and Cambodia have yet to receive even a formal acknowledgement of wrongdoing from the United States. Neither the U.S. government nor Dow Chemical and Monsanto, the two corporations that produced Agent Orange, have faced any real consequences for their role in one of the most devastating war crimes in the history of humanity.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq (2003-2011) is estimated to have killed at least a million people. It also served as a catalyst for the destabilization of the Arab and Muslim world. A historic event in the U.S. war in Iraq was the siege of Fallujah in 2004. The U.S. destroyed tens of thousands of buildings during the siege, including more than a quarter of the city’s mosques through intense bombing campaigns and logistical support for military contractors and death squads.
White phosphorus, a deadly chemical agent that reaches upwards of 4,800 degrees Fahrenheit once it makes contact with the air, was frequently used during the razing of Fallujah. White phosphorus causes deadly, painful burns and trauma to the body. The combined impact of white phosphorus and depleted uranium weapons on the people of Iraq has been described by researchers as worse than that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Infant mortality, cancer, and leukemia are just some of the long-term perils of the U.S.’s use of chemical weapons in Iraq.
The U.S. used white phosphorus again in Mosul, Iraq more than a decade later as the war transitioned from a military invasion to a proxy war carried out by a U.S.-led military alliance and various groups of armed militants. While white phosphorous is technically prohibited under international law in heavily populated areas, its multifaceted application in creating smokescreens and flashes of light for military purposes has allowed the weapon to remain in use.
White phosphorus was deployed again by U.S.-led coalition forces in its fraudulent fight against ISIS, this time in the Syrian city of Raqqa. While the effects of white phosphorus in Syria are not yet known, Syrian media reported that the U.S.-led coalition targeted civilian agriculture. This demonstrates that a chemical weapon possessing the ability to cause severe trauma and long-term health complications cannot be used for humanitarian purposes. The U.S. war on Syria is a dirty war, one where the U.S. has deployed chemical weapons to terrorize the population while accusing the Syrian government of the very same crime without a shred of evidence.
The United States
From smallpox blankets to modern biological and chemical weapons, the U.S.’s foundations are built upon a genocidal and colonialist campaign of violence. It should come as no surprise, then, that weapons of war would be turned against working class and oppressed people in the United States. The U.S. military operated a biological weapons testing program from 1949-1969 and conducted 239 large scale trials on civilian populations.
Over this period, the U.S. military tested zinc cadmium sulfide on the urban populations of St. Louis and Minneapolis. U.S. military personnel released the chemical by air and on the ground, mainly from rooftops. Cadmium is highly cancerous. The high rates of cancer in the majority-Black neighborhoods where the tests occurred have raised suspicions about the military’s culpability in poisoning oppressed communities.
Other such experiments include the breaking of lightbulbs filled with bacteria linked to food poisoning in the New York City subway system. A particularly controversial experiment involved the packing of crates with fungal spores at the Norfolk Naval Supply Center. This experiment sparked understandable anger when details emerged in 1980 that the majority of workers exposed to the fungus were Black American. Black American communities possess a long history of being exploited in medical experiments which have caused undue suffering and death, the most well-known case being the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment.
Many of the U.S. military’s biowarfare experiments remain shrouded in secrecy. They were investigated in detail in the book Clouds of Secrecy: The Army’s Germ Warfare Tests Over Populated Areas by Dr. Leonard Cole.
While Puerto Rico is considered a de facto “territory” of the United States, the fact is that the Caribbean nation was colonized by the U.S. in 1898 and has been treated as such ever since. High rates of poverty, migration, and debt are just a few expressions of the U.S.’s colonial relationship with Puerto Rico.
Military occupation is another clear sign of Puerto Rico’s colonial status. Beginning in the 1940s, the U.S. Navy occupied 22,000 acres or two-thirds of Vieques. Vieques was used as a testing ground for war. Napalm, depleted uranium, and other toxic chemicals bombarded the island during regular training operations. The U.S. military also conducted numerous biological weapons experiments in Vieques throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In one example, military personnel were sprayed with trioctyl phosphate, a cancer-causing agent.
Massive protests successfully ousted the U.S. Navy in 2003. but the long-term effects of the occupation on the health and wellbeing of the people of Puerto Rico remain. Cancer rates are higher in Vieques than any other municipality in Puerto Rico. Residents of Vieques are seven to eight times more likely to die of diabetes and cardiovascular disease than anywhere else on the island. Furthermore, the U.S.’s occupation laid waste to the local economy of the island and paved the way for the gentrification and corporatization that ensued once the U.S. Navy departed.
The U.S. Navy conceded amid public pressure that its hardware possessed harmful toxins but has denied any connection to the disproportionate rates of illness experienced by residents of the island.
Puerto Rico isn’t the only “territory” of the United States to experience the cruelties of U.S. military occupation. The U.S. possesses a similarly oppressive relationship with island nations across the Asia Pacific. Large-scale contamination from Agent Orange and other hazardous chemical waste from U.S. military hardware have devastated the people and the environment of nations such as Guam and Okinawa.
More specifically, 70,000m3 of radioactive waste is stored in the “Dome” on Runit Island, a region of the Marshall Islands. The waste from “the Dome” is leaking into the sea. According to the book, Poisoning the Pacific, the U.S. has disposed of 454 tons of radioactive waste and 29 million kilograms of mustard agent and nerve agents into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of the Marshall Islands and neighboring territories.
The Marshall Islands is also the location where the U.S. military exploded sixty-seven nuclear bombs from 1948 to 1958, the equivalent of one Hiroshima every day for twelve years. In 1954, the U.S. dropped a hydrogen bomb, Bravo, on Rongelap atoll and resettled the population in contaminated areas for radiation experiments. These crimes against humanity have rendered the Marshall Islands largely unlivable. Staple foods and water sources have been poisoned. According to the US Cancer Institute, future generations of Marshall Islands residents exposed to radiation are likely to experience at least 530 types of cancer.
The U.S.’s chemical and biological weapons programs were outgrowths of a Cold War mentality that pursued hegemony at all costs. This was in keeping with the history of the United States as a capitalist society founded upon slavery, exploitation and, war. While these programs were supposedly phased out decades ago, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised new questions about the character of biological and chemical warfare. Claims of a “lab leak” theory that suggest China leaked COVID-19 from its Wuhan Institute of Virology have been thoroughly debunked and met with concerns about the continued operation of Fort Detrick in Maryland, the epicenter of the U.S.’s biological weapons program. Fort Detrick has been linked to the experimentation of pathogens such as Ebola and Anthrax.
The United States remains the foremost imperialist power and therefore the principal leader in global war crimes. Biological and chemical weapons are a vile expression of how far U.S. imperialism will go to maintain its economic and political supremacy. Systemic crisis has led U.S. imperialism into an end game strategy of escalating aggression toward Russia and China. Massive annual increases to the U.S military budget mean that the endless wars currently underway in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere will be complimented by a set of new wars as the U.S. seeks to curtail China and Russia’s growing influence.
The ongoing reality of the U.S.’s addiction to chemical and biological warfare should serve as a reminder that the nuclear option is not off the table. The doomsday clock is ticking in the wrong direction. Militarists and imperialists led by the United States cannot be trusted to scale back the mass destruction that their endless wars impose upon the people. That’s why a new peace movement must develop in the imperialist orbit which addresses the challenges of the current period, one armed with a positive vision of internationalism and a strategy for organizing the masses to confront, and stop, the war machine in its deadly tracks.
Danny Haiphong is co-author of the book “American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People's History of Fake News- From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.” You can follow his work on Twitter @SpiritofHo and on YouTube as co-host with Margaret Kimberley of Black Agenda Report Present's: The Left Lens. You can support Danny on Patreon by clicking this link. You can contact him at [email protected]