Ethnic Weapons

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Ethnic Weapons

by Britta Fischer & Colleen Meier

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 3, No. 5, November 1971, p. 4 – 5, 19 – 21

The annals of history show that down through the ages man has sought to enlist the aid of chemistry and disease in his conduct of warfare, but it was not until the twentieth century that science made it possible.

1960 Army Chemical Corps Handbook on CBW

It appeared that the United States was going to institute a new policy regarding the use of chemical-biological warfare (CBW) when President Nixon announced on November 25, 1969 that:

  1. The United States will never employ biological weapons; existing stockpiles of germ weapons are to be destroyed. Germ warfare research will be confined to defensive measures.
  2. The Geneva Protocol will be submitted to the Senate for ratification.
  3. The United States reaffirms its renunciation of first-use of lethal chemical weapons and extends the renunciation to the so-called “incapacitating” agents.

Despite these fine-sounding phrases it took another three months for the White House to concede that toxins (chemical products of bacteria) were chemical rather than biological and therefore banned, the existing stockpiles of biological weapons have yet to be destroyed, and the Senate still has not acted on the Geneva Protocol of 1925 banning the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, analogous devices, and biological weapons.

Chemical weapons — including phosgene, chlorine (both poisonous) and mustard gas (which penetrates clothing and causes the skin to blister) were first used during World War I. After the war many nations. repelled by their experience with gases, joined together to support the Geneva Protocol. Although the United States originally introduced the Protocol, it has never ratified it even though sixty other nations have. The ban was observed by all during World War II and the years after, with the exception of allegations made by Korea and China that the U.S. had dropped germ bombs on North Korea in the early fifties. The charges investigated by an impartial fact-finding body including scientists from Sweden, France, Italy, Russia, Brazil and England. The commission concluded, after a lengthy investigation that “the peoples of Korea and China did actually serve as targets for bacteriological weapons. These weapons were used by detachments of the armed forces of the U.S.A., who used for this purpose many and various methods.” For example, plague and cholera carrying fleas, flies, rats, voles (small rodents), and clams were dropped by American planes in those countries in 1952. (A partial transcript of the commission’s findings is available from the Committee for Solidarity with the Korean People, address below)1. The Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported on August 18, 1970 “that a deadly nerve gas (VX) had been used against North Vietnamese troops in Cambodia” in 1969. Throughout the Vietnamese War the U.S. has used massive amounts of tear gas, nausea gas, herbicides and defoliants, even though such substances are banned by the Geneva Protocol.

Now a new kind of weapon is being added to the arsenal of biological warfare. This is the so-called ethnic weapon, a chemical or biological weapon designed to attack specific populations racially distinct from those using the weapon. Ethnic weapons are new and explicitly racist, which is not to say that racist warfare is new, as is evident from the Korean and Vietnamese wars. From the point of view of the military, previous CBW was not as efficient as it might be because the dispersion of agents such as nerve gas is difficult to limit and unpredicted factors such as shifting winds could spread it back to friendly troops. Therefore, ethnic weapons which will not have these side effects are presumably more desirable. Their advent may in fact have made the “conventional” CBW obsolete.  

In the November 1970 issue (note: one year after the ban on biological weapons) of Military Review there appeared an article entitled “Ethnic Weapons” by Carl Larson. We reprint here a shortened version of the article. The sections omitted do not differ in tone and intent from those printed except that they are less directly relevant to ethnic weapons.

“A new generation of chemical weapons seems to be growing out of information collected and interpreted in research centers in both East and West…. Forthcoming chemical agents with selective manstopping power will put into the hands of an assailant a weapon with which he cannot be attacked ….

“Catalysts of living organisms have attracted an increasing interest, and new methods for the study of enzymes have accumulated some imposing, and mostly new, facts. One way to knowledge about the ladders of chemical reactions furthered at each step by a special enzyme is to study what happens when one enzymatic step is blocked. Material for such study is provided by nature and by artificial inactivation of particular enzymes, intentional and accidental…. ”

Since World War I “blood groups were used to map the world population . . . European, Asian, and African populations could be characterized by a number of independently varying gene frequencies…

“Careful analysis of enzymatic reaction patterns to a series of drugs are underway, and we may soon have a grid where new observations of this kind can be pinpointed. One set of reference lines in this grid goes from genes necessary for enzyme production. Another set of lines marks substances turning off and on the making of active enzymes which can, but need not, be alerted.

“Recently, a series of widely debated observations have revealed an enzyme deficiency in southeastern Asian populations, making them susceptible to a poison to which Caucasoids are largely adapted. In such situations, the sketchy grid just mentioned is of some use. One looks for the posibility of the poison-provoking enzyme production, an individual adaptation observed in several instances.

“The poison now at issue is milk. In Europeans, intolerance to lactose, or milk sugar, occurs as a rare recessive trait. Healthy parents, each carrying a single mutant gene, have children approximately one fourth of whom react to milk ingestion with diarrhea, vomiting, malabsorption, and even death. When reports on milk intolerance in various groups of non-European [sic) began to accumulate, it was remembered that malnourished children in East Africa got diarrhea when treated with dried skimmed milk. Then, the enzyme lactase was found to lose its activity in the intestinal mucosa of African infants over the first four years of life.  

“New reports on milk intolerance in Chinese Filipinos, and Indians were met with skepticism U: that the groups studied might not be representative of their peoples. A study reported from the Chiengmai University in Thailand has, however, revealed a widespread lactose intolerance in adults in northern Thailand, the lactase activity getting lost between the first and fourth years of life. By inference it has been found likely that Southeast Asians, in general, are deficient in lactase production….

“A series of enzyme inhibitors and chemically active substances interfering with signal transmission in the brain and spinal cord have been intensely studied since the early fifties ….

“The incapacitant known as BZ derives from a drug which before its present renaissance as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) caused epidemic outbursts of Saint Anthony’s fire in the Dark Ages ….. BZ (has) the capacity to produce transient toxic psychosis, sometimes compared to schizophrenia ….

Psychochemicals would make it possible to paralyze temporarily entire population centers without damage to homes and other structures. In addition, with the small quantities required for full effect of modern incapacitating agents, logistics problems would be minute. The effective dose of BZ-type agents amounts to micrograms.

“It is quite possible to use incapacitating agents over the entire range of offensive operations, from covert activities to mass destruction ….

This “prospect may tempt an aggressor who knows he can recruit from a population largely tolerant against an incapacitating agent to which the target population is susceptible. An innate immunity would offer concealment of preparations and obvious advantages in many tactical situations. When the proper chemical agent is used against intermingled friendly and enemy units, casualties may occur in proportions one to ten.

“Such inferences are barely extrapolations of observed genetic differences between major human populations and of research programs known to be in progress. Widely different opinions have been ventured as to the type of chemical operations likely to be directed against military and the civilian population in a future war. There have been some recent tendencies to stress the wide latitude between incapaciting and the lethal action of BZ-type agents. Friendly troops could use them to dampen belligerence. They effectively slow down physical and mental activity, make the poisoned personnel giddy, disoriented, and more or less unable or unwilling to carry out commands.

“Friendly forces would discriminatingly use incapacitants in entangled situations to give friend and foe a short period of enforced rest to sort them out. By gentle persuasion, aided by psychochemicals, civilians in enemy cities could be reeducated. The adversary would use incapilcitants to spare those whom he could use for slaves. There is little that human biology can contribute to prognoses of that type. . .

“. . . the production of enzymes in the living cell could not be selectively quenched until details of early signal transmission from the gene became known in 1969.

During the first half of that year, several laboratories reported factors engaged in passing over the genetic message from DNA, the primary command post, to RNA which relays the chemical signal. The enzymatic process for RNA production has been known for some years, but now the factors have· been revealed which regulate the initiation and specificity of enzyme production. Not only the factors have been found, but their inhibitors. Thus, the functions of life lie bare to attack.2

Although this article appeared in Military Review, the author is no military man, but a scientist. Carl Larson is a licensed physician and head of the department of Human Genetics at the University of Lund in Sweden. A coworker of his made the following statement about Larson: “I have been his working companion here at the laboratory for more than 20 years and can guarantee that he is an unusually fine person, who is fighting with all possible means against racism, war propaganda and all kinds of oppression.”  

Larson offered the following in defense of his article: “I, Larson, think military action as a substitute for rational negotiation extremely unsound. Chemical warfare is by international law, criminal. I do not recommend crime, major or minor. There are people giving intimate details about virus provoking cellular changes inducive to neoplasm, their motive seems to be that their conclusions, right or wrong, tentative or advanced, should be observed among people qualified to take action (against viruses). They don’t publish in general magazines telling people they don’t like virus and are against cancer…. This is a chilly reality. It is a reality the Military Review thinks worthwhile discussing openly. There was, to my knowledge, no other way to bring this threatening development out into the open in such a way that civilian and military authorities can say No, we won’t have chemical weapons, selective or otherwise, they are simply suicidal.”

It seems rather cynical to offer as a defense the notion that such weapons would be suicidal. Throughout the article he reports and elaborates researches and tactics (which are not even in the strict domain of research) to be used against non-Caucasians. The wording simply cannot be construed to be a subtle warning to the military. Not only has he failed to make clear any reasons why the methods he describes are morally or militarily undesirable but the tone of the article is that of exploitation of scientific facts for clearly destructive purposes.

As an example of how well Larson’s “warning” was understood by an army man, here is an exerpt from a letter received by Military Review in response to the article. ” … the lead article “Ethnic Weapons” is one of the most thought provoking to appear anywhere in some time. The military implications of the research upon which Dr. C.A. Larson reported are doubtless greater than any of us realize at this point. I would hope that the article might stimulate further discussion of this matter.” Col. O.W Martin, Jr. USA.

We can assume that Larson is aware of his contribution to the development of chemical weapons, or that he is very. naive. That is not the point. The much more important question remains of how many other scientists are unknowingly implicated in such projects. At one point in his article, Larson refers to a grid consisting of a plot of genes necessary for enzyme production versus substances which turn off and on the making of active enzymes. In making this type of grid, Army researchers could easily peruse basic research journals and collect pertinent data on genetic and enzymatic research and epidemiological studies. If the Army cannot dredge up all the data it needs, it will hire the rest done.

We already know that the U.S. Public Health Service funds research on inheritance of susceptibility to disease. They have supported work not only on diseases affecting North Americans, but also those affecting foreign populations—Brazilian, French, Canadian, Japanese, African, Chinese, Thai, and peruvian—to mention a few. This is not to say that the Public Health Service is the henchman of ominous military research, but that their surveys may well be used for purposes other than those originally intended. In fact, as the letter below shows, a well-intended effort to end discrimination may pose a dilemma for a scientist in our society:

“Recently, as part of a study of the genetic control of antibody specificity, I tried to collect blood samples from Negroes who had produced certain antibodies. I wrote to many blood banks in many states requesting that they send me as many Negro-derived antibody-containing specimens as they could. The responses have been that if a Negro individual is being investigated at this very moment, then a specimen can be sent to me. Blood bank personnel cannot screen their name files of individuals possessing antibodies to determine what the racial origin of these persons might be because the information does not exist. I find the situation deplorable, for a whole line of productive research may be closed to me or, if not actually closed, I will find that entirely unnecessary obstacles have been placed in its way.”3

In our present exploitative society, the use to which basic research is put is not under the control of the people. The anti-human uses of science can only be prevented across the board in a society whose first priority is the fulfillment of human needs. The pressure for the creation of such a society cannot come from scientists alone, but they should do their part to demystify scientific developments for the public, which in turn should be alert to misuses of science.

Right now, for example, struggle is taking place in San Francisco which shows how scientists can work with other groups to fight the misuse of science. The Army is building a $28 million research facility (Western Medical Institute of Research — WMIR) at the Presidio. Despite official efforts to hush up or distort the real purpose of the WMIR, there is much evidence that the institute is going to be a chemical and biological war fare research facility specializing in ethnic weapons.

The townspeople of Frederick, Maryland did not know that Fort Detrick was a germ warfare research station until several years after it had been built, but people in the San Francisco area are aware of the objectives of the WMIR and have mounted a protest campaign. They have formed a broad Coalition Opposed to Medical and Biological Attack (C.O.M.B.A.T., for short) which is composed of G.I. groups, a women’s group, several groups of Asian background, and scientists’ groups, of which SESPA is one.

The Army cannot seem to agree on the purpose to which the WMIR is going to be put. It has been variously described by officials as a place for team research on “exotic diseases in remote areas of the world where American troops may be stationed” (Army Surgeon General, March 16, 1971 ), as an institute “to study jungle rot and to develop new mosquito repellents” (Public Relations Officer, Letterman, July, 1971) or as a facility whose primary “work will be in tropical skin diseases and how these diseases affect the troops in the field” (General Taylor, director of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command, July 1, 1971). In addition to the Letterman Army Institute of Research there are going to be at least three other similar institutes involved in the formation of WMIR: the tropical medicine division of the Infectious Disease Department of Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, the Medical and Metabolic Research sections of the Research an”d Nutrition Laboratory in Denver, Colo. and the Psychophysiology, Biophysics and Laser sections of the Army Research Lab at Fort Knox, Louisville, Ky. The research facility will have equipment similar to that used at Fort Detrick, Md., a major CBW installation now being phased out, complete with “Biological seals, sterilized air locks, and ultraviolet barriers — devices for closing off building areas against lethal biological agents.”4  Also security clearance will be required for people who work there.

If we accept for a moment the government’s statement that WMIR is a medical research facility, then the question remains, why do we need a research facility for the study of tropical diseases that might affect American soldiers when the President is supposedly disentangling himself from involvement in tropical warfare and about to usher in a millennium of peace?

Since, however, everything suggestes that biological warfare research continues to be done despite Nixon’s pledge against use of lethal or incapacitating biological weapons, we must address ourselves to a number of different problems. Why is WMIR being built for $28 million when Fort Detrick has all the facilities needed? This may indeed mean that the phasing out of Fort Detrick is merely a step taken to pacify and divert the public or is Fort Detrick being dismantled because they now have found better (ethnic) weapons? Is it a coincidence that WMIR is being built in the area of the highest concentration of people of Asian descent in the country? This last question is particularly important to pursue because of its possible direct implications for the people in the area. After all, the research for ethnic weapons will require a lot of background data on specific populations. Also, it will not be done solely at WMIR, but will require the basic research done at the universities, consultants from the universities, and scientists in general who may or may not know to what uses their work will be put. (The importance of this personnel is evident from the rather evasive and illogical answer given by the authorities to the question of local residents, why the institute is being built in a major earthquake zone. Answer, “San Francisco was an optimum area to recruit the kind of mobile scientific talent” required.)5

COMBAT held meetings this summer and distributed a newsletter, COMBAT Ethnic Weapons, describing the nature of ethnic weapons and actions centering on WMIR. Because the initial newsletter was rather long and perhaps somewhat difficult for non-scientists to read, shorter leaflets were subsequently used and organizing efforts are now concentrated in several community groups to reach more people more effectively.

COMBAT put forth three demands:  

  1. That all U.S. stockpiles of CBW weapons in Asia and in the rest of the world be destroyed.
  2. That the U.S. sign the Geneva Accords concerning the use and development of CBW weapons (as interpreted by the U.N.), which it has repeatedly refused to do. Also that the U.S. end all research on CBW.
  3. That further planning and construction of the $28 million WMIR building cease immediately until a CITIZEN’S REVIEW COMMITTEE, made up of representatives from Third World Communities, is formally recognized by the project’s administration and empowered to initiate at any time an on- the-spot examination of the research being done at the center. Also that the military turn over administrative control of all research to civilians.

Although a very important point has been raised in the third demand, namely that of the people’s control over scientific work that affects their lives and the lives of others like them, we disagree with this demand as it stands. By asking for the Citizen’s Review Committee to be formally recognized by the project’s administration” the administration and its actions are actually considered legitimate by the Committee. As such the demand also contradicts the last sentence of the second demand.

Be this as it may, popular control is the intended goal and we wholeheartedly support it. Complete control by the people over WMIR — including the decision over whether it should be built — is a truly revolutionary demand because it represents a genuine need of the people around which they are determined to struggle and to which the system cannot respond with reform measures. To let the people decide would interfere with military priorities; it would also upset the routines of the scientists, in fact it is wholly incompatible with the way decisions are made by “experts” in our democracy.

Nonetheless, or rather because of this situation, actions should center on the demand for people’s control. But this can only be fruitful if people on the inside of WMIR or future inmates such as scientists are involved in the struggle. This means that scientists and non-scientists have to learn to communicate, that scientists have to listen to the needs of the people and make every effort to demystify their work and question their roles. Only through such actions and dialogue can we get closer to Science for the People.

CBW Readings


CBW: America’s Hidden Arsenal by Seymour Hersch, Doubleday Paperback, 1969. A very readable account of the development and use of chemical and biological weapons. Attacks the claim that the research is defensive in nature, pointing to the heavy preponderance of work on delivery mechanisms. Written by a journalist.

The Ultimate Folly by Congressman R.D. McCarthy, Alfred Knopf, 1969

Tomorrow’s Weapons by J.H. Rothschild, McGraw Hill, 1964. This is considered by military men to be a classic exposition on CBW.


Elinor Langer “Chemical and Biological Warfare (I) The Research Program, (II) The Weapons and Polices” Science 155:174–9, 300–304, January 13 and 20, 1967.

Victor Sidel and R. Goldwyn “CBW — A Primer” New England Journal of Medicine 274:21–27, January 6, 1966.

T. Rosebury “Medical Ethics and Biological Warfare” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 6:512, 1963.

J.T. Edsall, J. Mayer, A.W. Galston, R. Romero, M. Leitenburg, V. Sidel et al Chemical and Biological Warfare (A special Issue) Scientist and Citizen 9: 113, 1967 (aug. – sept.)


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  1. “Report of the International Scientific Commission for the Investigation of the Facts Concerning Bacterial Warfare in Korea and China” in CBW in Asia published by the Committee for Solidarity with the Korean People, July 19, 1971, 2490 Channing Way, Room 213, Berkeley, California
  2. Emphasis added by the authors.
  3. Science, April 30, 1971, p. 427
  4. “Presidio Papers” in Combat Ethnic Weapons, Vol. I, No. I, July 1971, p. 11
  5. Ibid.