Flown by the Civil Air Transport (CAT)
Flown by the French
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Learning from the Korean War
Fears of biological weapons during the Korean War and the First Indochina War
Ho Chi Minh
The Korean War (1950-1953) and the First Indochina War (1946-1954) were closely linked. A key event in Asia underlying both wars was the 1949 victory of the communist party, led by Mao Zedong, over the nationalist party and the formation of the People's Republic of China (PRC). With the founding of the PRC, and the subsequent entry of Chinese troops into the Korean War, understandings of the First Indochina War began to shift.
Among United States (US) leaders, the events of 1949 and 1950 recast the fighting on the Indochina peninsula from a colonial war in which the United States opposed the French, to a part of the Cold War in which the two governments shared common interests. Even though French leaders remained intent on keeping at least some of Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) as part of their empire, they were content to receive American aid that was earmarked as part of the battle against communism. This aid included fighter and bomber airplanes such as the Hellcat, the Bearcat, and the B-26, which showed up frequently in Việt Minh accounts of the First Indochina War. This technology served as a symbol of the US empire.
Ho Chi Minh and the Việt Minh were likewise careful observers of the Korean War. They quickly understood the implications when the North Koreans and Chinese communists leveled charges of biological warfare against the United Nations forces, led by the United States. These charges have persisted in memory and drew at the time attention from figures such as the biochemist and historian of science Joseph Needham.
Unpacking lesser known fears of biological weapons during the First Indochina War can similarly reveal different understandings of the relationship among bodies, politics, and death. Writing about government techniques to kill guerrillas during a civil war in Rhodesia, Luise White argues that “what made anthrax and parathion and other poisons so lethal-and powerful enough to be talked and written about for more than two decades-was that they inscribed politics and history on to the afflictions and additives that caused guerrilla deaths” (White 2004, 233). In other words, politics can give bodily death a communal, rather than individual, meaning, which enables stories of these deaths to be retained by social memory for long times. While Việt Minh did not die of biological warfare, the fear of such death motivated action and helped reshape Vietnamese spatial imaginaries.
In this path you will first explore the spatial imaginaries that informed fears of, and knowledge about, biological warfare in the Korean War. Vietnamese intellectuals and political leaders, for example, were inspired to draw on existing Sinosphere maps. Vietnamese leaders turned to political, intellectual, and cultural connections to China and Korea for relevant experience with biological warfare. Newer maps of the communist world both reinforced Sinosphere maps and placed Vietnam at the center of newer geographies of revolution. This path then considers an international conference held in Beijing that presented evidence for the charges of US germ warfare in North Korea and China. Finally, it offers some of the images produced in China related to germ warfare, which you can compare to those found in the Việt Minh pamphlet examined in “Resisting Biological Warfare.”
Gathering information about suspected biological warfare.
Committee to Prevent Germs
During the early 1950s, the French seemed to be spreading many things, including insects, but there were no witnesses that could tie them to airplanes and they existed in Vietnam already, so it was hard to say if they were introduced. The only solid evidence was for Cladosporium, a genus of fungi that, the report argued, hadn’t existed in Vietnam before. It was unclear what were the effects, as Cladosporium didn't seem to harm humans, though it was noted that it could damage tomato plants.
The report of the third meeting of the Committee to Prevent Germs noted that at first farmers in the Red River Delta were worried but that there had been no effects since 1952, so they were no longer as concerned and were no longer paying attention. The committee posed the question:
Should the committee publicly denounce the plot of the enemy?
The committee recommended that the Việt Minh wait to make a denunciation until the agricultural and medical institutes could make further investigations.
The committee also developed several standardized forms that were supposed to provide a more rigorous report that could tie strange materials to enemy airplanes. These included the following short “Form A.” Longer forms were also developed that asked more specific questions about the airplanes, time and place of release, agricultural conditions, and potential effects. These more detailed forms also broke down observations according to vector, including insects and powders. Finally, these forms asked if the respondent was sure or not sure about what they had observed (NAV3 PTT ML2 2290).
Such forms aimed to establish the basic facts of biological weapons use. They also sought to determine credibility of the observer. Việt Minh leaders were convinced that the French were using biological weapons but having watched the international reaction to charges of biological warfare during the Korean War, they had some idea of the difficulty of convincing the international community that France, and its patron the United States, would employ such weapons. Scroll over the form to see a translation to English.
A History of American Biological Warfare
Việt Minh pamphlet depicts well-known aspects of the American biological weapons program
The images in the gallery above, also from the Việt Minh pamphlet, depict well-known aspects of the American biological weapons program. Jacob Hamblin's Arming Mother Nature recounts the history of American and British interest in environmental modification and the role biological, chemical, and radiological weapons played in the arsenals of these countries' militaries. As Hamblin shows, by the early 1940s high-level US officials were keenly interested in biological weapons but were unsure of how they would be used in warfare. At the end of World War II, the US government had access to the captured documents of both the German and Japanese biological warfare programs. The Vietnamese pamphlet assumes a close collaboration between fellow imperialist nations, even if the United States and Germany and Japan had only just been at war. The natural result of this collaboration was the continued use of biological weapons over North Korea during the Korean War.
As image four in the gallery above suggests, airplanes were key vectors for biological weapons. Airplanes and microbes resulted in compounding mobilities—mobilities whose velocity and outcomes were augmented, unpredictable, and threatening. In French Indochina, airplanes were a source of mobility, and terror and they were used for example to map as well as to rain bombs down on those protesting colonial injustice. During the 1940s, airplanes in Asia were vectors that transported deadly bombs as well as potentially deadly microbes. During the First Indochina War, the French used US airplanes, a sign of the absent American empire. Moreover, an American air company called the Civil Air Transport (CAT), later renamed Air America, ran supplies for the French. Although leaders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam initially hoped to develop their own air force, they never succeeded and eventually focused their energy on anti-aircraft techniques.
Vectors of Invasion
US military propaganda film about its biological weapons program
How believable were the charges that the French used biological weapons during the First Indochina War?
Reconsider the circumstantial evidence regarding US airplanes used over northern Vietnam and the US military's propaganda film about its biological weapons program.