Excerpt of Germs by Judith Miller, et. al.
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Table of Contents
1. The Attack
5. Secrets and Lies
6. The Cult
7. Evil Empire
9. Taking Charge
10. The President
12. The Future
From Chapter Two
Germs and warfare are old allies. More than two millennia ago, Scythian archers dipped arrowheads in manure and rotting corpses to increase the deadliness of their weapons. Tatars in the fourteenth century hurled dead bodies foul with plague over the walls of enemy cities. British soldiers during the French and Indian War gave unfriendly tribes blankets sown with smallpox. The Germans in World War I spread glanders, a disease of horses, among the mounts of rival cavalries. The Japanese in World War II dropped fleas infected with plague on Chinese cities, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of people.
Despite occasional grim successes, germ weapons have never played decisive roles in warfare or terrorism. Unintended infection is another matter. European conquests around the globe were often made possible because the indigenous peoples lacked immunity to the invaders' endemic diseases, including smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus, and plague. But intentional warfare with germ weapons has been relatively rare, especially in modern times, and has been widely condemned as unethical and inhumane. Even so, in the early twentieth century, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom were among the many countries that investigated how to wage biological war.
All understood that the weapons they were developing were fundamentally different from bombs and bullets, grenades and missiles. These munitions were alive. They could multiply exponentially and, if highly contagious, spread like wildfire. Strangest of all, given war's din, they worked silently.
In the days before atom bombs, germ weapons were seen as an ideal means of mass destruction, one that left property intact. Their main drawback was their unpredictability. In the close confines of a battlefield, the weapons followed the dictates of nature, not military commanders. They might kill an adversary, or they might bounce back and devastate the ranks of the attacker and his allies. Their best use seemed to be against a distant enemy, reducing the chance that the disease would boomerang.
With intelligence agencies warning that Tokyo and Berlin had biological weapons, Washington began to mobilize against germ attacks in 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly denounced the exotic arms of America's foes as "terrible and inhumane," even while preparing to retaliate in kind. The man chosen to lead the secret U.S. program was George W. Merck, the president of a drug company. Merck was a household name, and generations of physicians had come to rely on The Merck Manual as a trusted guide for diagnosing and treating disease. But the new effort was designed to be nearly invisible, its degree of secrecy matched only by America's project to build the atom bomb.
This germ initiative had its headquarters at Camp Detrick, an old army base in rural Maryland that was close enough to Washington for quick responsiveness, but far enough away to ensure a margin of isolating safety. The work got under way in 1943 and expanded quickly. From a rural outpost in farm country, the base grew overnight into a dense metropolis of 250 buildings and living quarters for five thousand people.
The post was ringed by fences, towers, and floodlights. Guards, under orders to shoot first and ask questions later, kept their machine guns loaded. The scientists were issued pistols, which they kept at their sides or nearby on workbenches. The headquarters building at the heart of the compound had its own set of armed guards on alert around the clock. All personnel had identity passes with employee photos -- a security precaution that would become widespread in future decades. Persons leaving the post surrendered their photo passes to the guards; accidentally keeping one could lead to arrest and interrogation.
Copyright © 2001 by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad.