After the hell that was World War I’s chemical
weapon attacks, the US government felt a dire need to catch up to the rest of the world
in developing chemical and biological weapons for the next great conflict. With the signing of the Geneva Protocol in
1925 and its prohibition in the use of biological and chemical weapons in warfare though, the
US quickly lost interest. It wouldn’t be until the infamous Japanese
sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that the government would change course, suddenly seeing a need
to understand how vulnerable America was to a germ or chemical sneak attack. The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor caught the
US government completely unawares, and immediate after the attack fears grew: if the US was
vulnerable to a sneak conventional military attack of such scale, then just how vulnerable
was it to a chemical or biological weapon attack? Despite the signing of the Geneva Protocol
banning chemical and biological weapons, rumors of Japanese chemical and biological tests
on prisoners of war reached America’s intelligence agencies, and it was feared that a Japanese
or possibly German ship disguised as a simple freighter could park outside a major city
and spray chemicals or germs into the air, infecting hundreds of thousands of Americans. In 1942 President Roosevelt signed into action
the first biological warfare program which would be overseen by the National Academy
of Sciences. It’s primary aims were to develop biological
weapons for military use- should an enemy break international law then it was thought
that the US needed to be ready to retaliate in kind. The second aim however was to explore just
how vulnerable the US population and its infrastructure were to a chemical/biological attack. The War Research Service was thus created,
with George W. Merck, of the Merck pharmaceutical company, leading it. Work on developing new bio and chemical weapons
immediately began, though thankfully they were never used. At the end of the war Merck warned that work
on discovering America’s vulnerabilities and developing new capabilities to act as a deterrent
couldn’t be ignored during a time of peace. Merck went on to say, “It must be continued
on a sufficient scale to provide an adequate defense.” In 1948, a Committee on Biological Warfare
was established and overseen by bacteriologist Ira Baldwin, with one of its first reports
determining that the United States was extremely vulnerable to a sneak attack of chemical or
biological weapons. This report alarmed the President, who immediately
wanted to know just how vulnerable America was, yet this was something that could only
be discovered one way: a series of “open air tests” with real, live germs. In order to best simulate a hostile attack
with deadly bacteria, the Committee decided on the use of Bacillus globigii and Serratia
marcescens- two strains of bacteria believed to be non-pathogenic and relatively harmless
to humans. Serratia marcescens had one other major benefit
going for it- it would turn food and surfaces it colonized a bright red, making it easier
to identity and track its dispersion across a major city. With assurances that the bacteria involved
were harmless to humans, the green light was given for the first biological attack on US
soil, carried out by the US government itself. On September 20th, 1950, a US Navy vessel
steamed across the mouth of the San Francisco Bay. In her hold were millions of gallons of water
infested with the two strains of bacteria, which was pumped out and vaporized through
special nozzles. San Francisco was chosen because of its favorable
wind conditions and geography- wind coming in from the ocean would carry the bacteria
across the entire city, exactly the type of thing an enemy would seek to do in a real
attack. For 30 minutes, the navy ship sprayed thousands
of gallons of infected water into the morning fog, creating two-mile long clouds. Carefully monitoring time of release, temperature,
wind speed, and humidity, US agents then collected samples all across the city to see just how
far the bacteria were spread by the wind itself. For one whole week, September 20th through
September 27th, the government sprayed bacteria into San Francisco, monitoring how widely
they were dispersed. Not only were the bacteria used believed to
be harmless to humans, but another benefit of both strains of bacteria was their extreme
rarity in San Francisco or even California for that matter. That would make any reports of infections
easy to track. With seven days of spraying, nearly the entire
city received 500 particle minutes per liter of air breathed, meaning that almost all of
the 800,000 people in San Francisco at the time inhaled 5,000 or more particles per minute
during the several hours that the germs remained airborne. The government concluded that a sneak attack
using chemical or biological weapons was entirely feasible against an American city, and that
such an attack could result in the infection of the majority of a city. The entire exercise had gone off without a
hitch, and was a great success in revealing America’s vulnerability. Yet just days after the end of the spraying,
trouble began to pop up. A few days after the end of the test a 75
year old man named Edward Nevin contracted a urinary tract infection and fell extremely
ill. Just a month earlier he had gone a successful
prostrate gland surgery and was well on his way to recovery until the mysterious illness. Running several labs on Nevin, the hospital
was shocked to discover serratia marcescens, an extremely rare bacteria that had never
once been recorded in the hospital before. By mid October, the bacteria had spread to
Nevin’s heart and he died. Over the next six months ten more patients
were admitted into the hospital with infections caused by Serratia marcescens, though all
ten would recover. A panic ensued as doctors and researchers
tried to discover the cause of this sudden outbreak, fearful of a larger event on the
horizon. Yet no source could be identified, and thankfully
for the people of San Francisco the small outbreak seemed to disappear just as mysteriously
as it had started. The US government though took note of the
outbreak, conducting it’s own 4-man investigation into the matter. Their tests were supposed to help discover
the best way to protect people from an attack, not to actually make them sick. General William Creasy spearheaded an effort
to reassess the pathogenic nature of Serratia marcescens, and in a two-page report the investigators
explained that the bacteria was not an ideal simulant after the San Francisco illnesses. A bacteria that had previously been thought
to be completely harmless, had instead been found to be potentially fatal. Yet other government scientists concluded
that the bacteria was only fatal in extremely rare circumstances, and only for those with
severely weakened immune systems such as Edward Nevin’s. They went on to justify its use in continued
testing by saying, “On the basis of our study, we conclude that Serratia marcescens
is so rarely a cause of illness, and the illness resulting is predominantly so trivial, that
its use as a simulant should be continued, even over populated areas.” Thus government testing of biological agents
would continue for 25 years, all conducted in the dark. It wouldn’t be until 1969 when Richard Nixon
signed a law banning the testing of biological weapons that the experiments would stop, yet
the public wouldn’t even find out about the testing until the mid 1970s. Edward Nevin’s grandson would go on to sue
the US government over his grandfather’s death, though he would lose that lawsuit. A casualty in the US’s eagerness to prepare
for the worst case scenario, the death of Nevin was ultimately the only verified link
between severe illness or death and the US government’s biological testing on its own
cities- and in the eyes of a wary military on guard against an attack on its people by
an actual deadly microbe, a price worth paying. Do you think the US and other governments
still test weapons on their own populations? Oh, and if you found this video interesting,
make sure you watch our other video: Weapons Even The Military Made Illegal. See you next time!

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