A History of Biological Warfare

A History of Biological Warfare

Biological Warfare is the use of disease-producing microorganisms, toxic biological products or organic biocides to inflict death or injury on humans, animals or plants. Countries all around the world have participated in biological warfare use. Over the past few months, I have researched the worldwide history of biological warfare. Since the time of the Revolutionary War, through World War II, and even during modern times the world has had a long history in the development of biological warfare. Biological Warfare has existed for thousands of years, and in hundreds of countries. The first recorded instance of biological warfare occurred in 600 B.C., when the Assyrian army contaminated an enemy’s water supply with ‘rye ergot’. Rye Ergot, or Ergot of Rye, is a plant disease that is caused by the fungus claviceps purpurea. The fungus is found on the rye and can cause spasms, nerve damage, and mental effects including mani and psychosis. Centuries later, in 1357, twenty-five million people died in Europe from the bubonic plague. That was nearly one-third of the European population at the time. Although the plague came from rats and fleas, it is classified as biological warfare. The disease is suspected to have come on a ship that was travelling from China to Italy. After the plague killed so many people, it became obvious that the spread of disease was a more effective battle strategy. Another example of early biological warfare is from 1763, when British soldiers gave Indians smallpox-infected blankets at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania. The disease wiped out 98% of the Native American population on the East Coast. When Europeans started to come to North America from England, they actually created a type of accidental biological warfare. By that time, Europe was already immune to smallpox. The Native Americans, however, were not immune. Now whether or not it was truly ‘accidental’ has not yet been proven, but facts show us that the Europeans were not aware of the fact that the Native Americans were not immune. Also, during the Revolutionary War in America, British soldiers tried to kill Colonist Militias with small pox infected blankets. Unfortunately, the cure to smallpox was not invented until the 1790’s, after the American Revolution. Few died, because most were immune. In 1943, the United States Biological Weapons Program began, on orders from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is not clear why President Roosevelt began this program. The program was created to test and produce top-secret biological agents. At the time it began nobody knew about the program, nor did they know what the top-secret biological agents were. The program was put on hold temporarily during World War II. After World War II the U.S. built up a large stockpile of biological agents; after 26 years the program had weaponized and stockpiled the following seven biological agents: Anthrax, Tularemia, Q-Fever, Botulism and Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis Virus. The program’s testing and experiments mainly took place in Fort Detrick, Maryland, although many experiments also took place in American cities like New York and Los Angeles. Of course, the latter were harmless particles used to demonstrate how the particles of harmless aerosol agents would spread.  This program was deemed an offensive biological weapons program; however, the U.S. supposedly never used biological weapons in battle. The program did not last long. In November 1969, President Richard Nixon ordered the United States to discontinue its biological weapons program, ending further research. This decision came as a shock to many who operated the offensive biological warfare program at Fort Detrick and elsewhere. Also, Sir Frederick Banting, the Nobel-Prize-winning discoverer of insulin, created what could be called the first private biological weapon research centre in 1940, with the help of corporate sponsors. During the 20th century, more than 500 million people worldwide died of infectious diseases. Several tens of thousands of these deaths were due to the deliberate release of deadly pathogens. Tens of thousands of these deaths were a result of Japan’s attacks on China during World War II. The Japanese army poisoned more than 1,000 water wells in Chinese villages to study typhus and cholera outbreaks. The Japanese created a program to develop biological weapons during the Second World War and eventually used them in their conquest of China. In 1939, the Japanese legally, and then illegally, attempted to obtain yellow fever virus from the Rockefeller Institute in New York. Two international treaties outlawed biological weapons in 1925 (The Geneva Protocol) and 1972 (the Biological Weapons Convention), but they have largely failed to stop countries from conducting offensive biological weapons research and production of biological weapons. Biological warfare was used in World War II and is still used in modern times! In 2002, it was discovered that during the 1990’s, the United States had been supplying Iraq with biological weaponry.  It turns out, that they were helping to build up Iraq’s Biological Warfare Program. Iraq received samples of deadly pathogens, including the West Nile virus, anthrax, the bacteria to create botulinum toxin, the germs that cause gas gangrene and many more. It is not known if they actually put these toxins to use. After the 9/11 attacks, Anthrax was sent out anonymously to government officials in envelopes. Five people were killed from the anthrax attacks in 2001. On Thursday, April 18th 2013, the FBI confirmed that anonymous letters sent to President Barack Obama the week earlier contained the deadly poison ricin in them. Ricin, from the castor oil plant Ricinus communis, is a highly toxic, naturally occurring protein. A dose the size of a few grains of table salt can kill an adult human. Although no one died from this attack, it is very disconcerting to know that biological warfare is still used in our society today. Biological Warfare has been referred to as the poor man’s atomic bomb.  It is a way to kill and destroy without picking up a single weapon. Biological warfare creates the spread of horrible diseases such as Q fever and Small Pox, which end in a slow, horrible, painful death.  It is a bit scary to think that biological warfare still exists in our society today, even if it is in small instances. The pain and suffering, the death that can spread so quickly across the world if one single germ was put out of place is horrifying to imagine. But there is no need to worry ; Gert Harigel tells us why in his essay Chemical and Biological Weapons: Use in Warfare, Impact on Society and Environment, “The term ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, used to encompass nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, is misleading, politically dangerous and cannot be justified on grounds of military efficiency. Chemical weapons have shown to be largely ineffective in warfare; biological weapons have never been deployed on any significant scale. Both types should be better designated as weapons of terror against civilians and weapons of intimidation for soldiers.” Biological warfare has been used since before the Common Era and it won’t go away until we take initiative and put an end to it. As H.G. Wells once said: “If we don’t end war, war will end us.”

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