“I think it speaks to the undercurrent of distrust of the government and the military,” said Lt. Gen. Ronald R. Blanck, the Surgeon General of the Army, the service that oversees the [anthrax] vaccination program.  “Agent Orange. Nuclear tests in the ’50s. People say, ‘How can you say this is safe?’ Clearly, we have a credibility problem.”[i]

The United States Armed Forces have a long and not-so illustrious history of testing and nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons… on its own citizens. From at least the 1940’s on (and if you want to include Native Americans, we can go back a lot further!), the Department of Defense has conducted experiments on U.S. servicemembers using ‘unconventional’ weapons.[1]  A report prepared by the staff of the Senate Committee on Veteran’s Affairs in 1994 concluded that “[f]or at least 50 years, [the] DOD has intentionally exposed military personnel to potentially dangerous substances, often in secret[.]”[ii] That report followed a Government Accounting Office inquiry into experiments conducted on servicemembers by the Department of Defense.[2] The GAO report detailed many different programs, some of which the DoD still lists as classified, in which servicemembers were given experimental drugs and other treatments without their knowledge or consent. A few of the more stunning examples of experimentation are worth discussing in detail, not simply to attack the Department of Defense or the military establishment, but rather as context because it is against this history that the DoD’s anthrax program was launched. And it is against this background of secret experimentation and tests conducted on coerced subjects that the DoD asks members of the Armed Services to “trust us” with regards to vaccines and inoculations claimed to be safe and effective.


In the 1940’s, the Department of the Navy began soliciting volunteers to participate in a program to test protective clothing. In reality, the program was designed to test mustard and lewisite gases, chemical agents that the United States thought might be used by the desperate Axis powers at the end of World War II. There are some who claim that the tests were done simply to see what effect mustard gas had on soldiers in order to determine the offensive potential of chemical weapons. The truth is likely that these are not exclusive propositions. Either way, the program solicited potential ‘volunteers’ with the promise of two weeks of extra leave or some other similar incentive.[3] “Due to the strategic importance of these experiments [however], the Navy deemed it inappropriate to inform potential volunteers as to the precise nature of the tests.  Instead . . . the . . . volunteers were led to believe that they would be testing uniforms for use in tropical climates.”[iii]  These ‘volunteers’ were sworn to secrecy and threatened with court-martial if they told anyone about the program for which they had just ‘volunteered.’  Of course, at this point, because no one had told them exactly what they volunteered for, it was relatively easy to extract such a promise. It is rather doubtful that most members would have agreed had they known that they were about to be experimented upon with chemical weapons.

Nathan Schnurman was a young sailor who figured he could use the extra few days off. He had just finished boot camp and was stationed at Bainbridge, Maryland, awaiting further orders when he volunteered for the program. He was put on a bus for Anacostia, Maryland, where the experiments actually took place. Young Nathan Schnurman, along with the other volunteers, was given a bunk in a Quonset hut and some blankets for that evening. All of the volunteers were issued protective clothing, including a gas mask, given a physical, and the next morning the experiments began. The protective clothing and masks were fitted and checked and then the ten volunteers were led to the testing building. At this point, the volunteers had still only been told that they were testing clothing for tropical weather.

The building itself was a simple structure with an entrance platform and test chamber. A single door separated the platform from the chamber and an intercom allowed for communication between the subjects inside the chamber and the corpsmen on the platform. The subjects were told that, once inside, a vapor was to be introduced into the chamber and that they were to remain in the chamber for one hour. The subjects were not told what the vapor was, but were told that it might produce a slight irritation on the subjects’ skin, similar to a sunburn. The subjects were admonished not to discuss the experiment with anyone.[iv]

The volunteers were exposed to the vapor for the one hour, as advertised. After that, they were instructed to continue to wear the protective clothing for another four hours, to eat meals and pass the time in their Quonset hut. They later disrobed and were given physical exams to check primarily for burns on the skin. This routine repeated itself the next day. The second day’s physical was the last one that any volunteer ever received as a part of the experiment.

The hour-long gas exposures continued on a daily basis for the next four days without incident, save the departure of a few of the subjects due to painful burns. On one of those days, just prior to the morning’s exposure, plaintiff [Schnurman] was informed by a corpsman that they would be testing mustard and lewisite gas that day.

On the sixth test day, while inside the chambers, plaintiff’s gas mask malfunctioned and plaintiff breathed the noxious vapor being tested. The inhalation of the gas produced extreme nausea and a burning in his eyes, nose and throat. Before being helped out of the chamber, plaintiff regurgitated in his mask. Once outside the chambers and free of his mask, plaintiff continued to experience nausea and dizziness, plus an intense pain in his chest. After further vomiting, plaintiff lost consciousness. No record was made of this incident.

Upon regaining consciousness, plaintiff was informed that he would no longer be needed for the experiment and that he could return to Bainbridge. He was not given any physical examination or treatment with the exception of local treatment for the minor burns on his skin. Plaintiff left the site of the experiment and traveled to his home in Roanoke, Virginia for a ten-day leave.[v]

Mr. Schnurman went on with his life, experiencing long-term health problems. Sworn to secrecy, Schnurman felt that he could not tell his personal physician about the source of his ailments because of his oath and the threat of punishment. Thus, he did not provide essential information to his doctors about his health because of his fears of what would happen to him if he told. This scenario was not uncommon. A Mr. John T. Harrison described to a senate committee how he was sworn to secrecy in 1943 when mustard gas tests were conducted on him.[vi] Because of this, it was not until much later in life that Mr. Schnurman learned of what had been used on him and he filed a lawsuit against the government.

A very similar incident happened to a John William Allen in 1945, according to a statement before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Mr. Allen testified that the real purpose of the testing was to determine how much sulfur mustard a man could take before being overcome: these were known as ‘man-break tests.’  “He was exposed several times to sulfur mustard and was removed from further exposure on May 5, 1945, when he passed out in the gas chamber. A physical examination on May 14, 1945, revealed many wounds as the result of exposure to mustard gas.”[vii]

It is important to understand that these are not isolated incidents. An Institute of Medicine report in 1993 estimated that some 60,000 military members were used as human subjects in the 1940’s to test just for two chemical agents, mustard gas and lewisite, and the majority of these people were not informed about the nature of the experiments, nor were they given proper medical care or follow up after the research.[viii]


During the 1950’s and 60’s, the CIA and the Army engaged in experimentation on U.S. servicemembers, both with and without their knowledge. In several different experiments, the DoD caused servicemembers to unknowingly ingest hallucinogens. Most of the experiments centered around ‘mind control’ and interrogation of persons under the effects of hallucinogens. This was prompted by the perception in U.S. intelligence that China and the Soviet Union had used, and were using, hallucinogens for ‘brainwashing’ and interrogation of prisoners of war. This program was known by the code name MKULTRA. It involved giving LSD and another substance known as quinuclidinyl benzilate, a hallucinogen code-named BZ, to unsuspecting members of both the Armed Forces and civilian communities.

In 1958, Master Sergeant James Stanley responded to a posting on Fort Knox, Kentucky, that solicited volunteers to help the Army develop methods for testing and defending against chemical weapons. Ironically, the volunteers were told they would be testing protective clothing (just as in World War II). MSgt Stanley was transferred to Aberdeen, Maryland, for the testing. He did not learn until seventeen years later that he had been unknowingly given LSD during the program. He found this out accidentally in 1975 when contacted by Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which was conducting follow-up on those who had participated in the 1958 test. Walter Reed wanted to know of any long-term health consequences to MSgt Stanley from his ingestion of the hallucinogen. MSgt Stanley in the intervening years had suffered health problems and hallucinations that he had no explanation for that eventually led to a divorce.

In another instance, Lloyd Gamble, who enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1950, volunteered for a special program to (yet again!) test new military protective clothing in 1957.

He was offered various incentives to participate in the program, including a liberal leave policy, family visitations, and superior living and recreational facilities. However, the greatest incentive to Mr. Gamble was the official recognition he would receive as a career-oriented noncommissioned officer, through letters of commendation and certification of participation in the program. During the 3 weeks of testing new clothing, he was given two or three water-size glasses of a liquid containing LSD to drink. Thereafter, Mr. Gamble developed erratic behavior and even attempted suicide. He did not learn that he had received LSD as a human subject until 18 years later, as a result of congressional hearings in 1975.  Even then, the Department of the Army initially denied that he had participated in the experiments, although an official DOD publicity photograph showed him as one of the valiant servicemen volunteering for “a program that was in the highest national security interest.”[ix]

What is worth noting about these programs, beyond the experimentation on servicemembers without their informed consent, are the arguments offered by the proponents and defenders of these programs. According to Sidney Gottlieb, a doctor and former CIA officer, MKULTRA was established to investigate whether and how an individual’s behavior could be modified by covert means. Dr. Gottlieb testified before Congress that “it was felt to be mandatory and of the utmost urgency for our intelligence organization to establish what was possible in this field on a high priority basis.”[x]  Although many human subjects were not informed or protected, Dr. Gottlieb’s defended these actions by stating, “. . . harsh as it may seem in retrospect, it was felt that in an issue where national survival might be concerned, such a procedure and such a risk was a reasonable one to take.”[xi]

These attitudes persist even today. Dr. Gottleib’s responses in the 1970’s sound remarkably like the reasons offered to justify mandatory vaccination of troops today with unapproved, unlicensed, or investigational drugs. In a television appearance in 1997, Secretary of Defense Cohen held up a five-pound bag of sugar and stated that if the bag were filled with anthrax spores, it could wipe out half of the population of Washington, D.C.[xii] In a later opinion editorial appearing in Army Times, Secretary Cohen wrote that

At least 25 countries, including Iraq and North Korea, now have – or are in the process of acquiring and developing – weapons of mass destruction . . . This is not hyperbole. It is reality . . . The race is on between our preparations and those of our adversaries. We are preparing for the possibility of a chemical or biological attack on American soil because we must. There is not a moment to lose.[xiii]

The truth of these matters will be examined in greater detail later. The point to be made here is that Secretary Cohen’s defense of the anthrax program, and the justification for biological warfare programs generally, distilled to its essence, is nothing more than “the ends justifies the means.” Where matters of national security (Gottleib called it “national survival”) are at stake, it does not matter how we go about defending ourselves, even if it means experimenting on unsuspecting troops, because it involves ‘National Security’.

This is a particularly dangerous path for a number of reasons, some obvious and others not as obvious. While there are any number of moral points of view about using troops in this way, one’s opinion about whether it is right or wrong to experiment on troops in this fashion depends largely on one’s view of individual liberty for the citizen-soldier and the limits of a nation state’s ability to protect ‘itself.’ These arguments inevitably devolve into philosophical debates, punctuated by twelve-letter words and citations to long-dead philosophers, spoken by people far removed from the gas chambers and vomiting victims on their hands and knees; much like Dr. Gottleib’s testimony in an air-conditioned chamber in front of politicians and cameras during the famous Church Committee hearings. More importantly, where ‘military’ or ‘national security’ matters are concerned, the academics inevitably defer to those wearing uniforms with stars on their collars.

It would appear on the surface that this issue was decisively concluded at the end of World War II in favor of the rights of the individual. In August 1947, the Nuremberg Trials of the Nazi Doctors, including those such as Karl Brandt, came to a close, resulting in the death penalty for many of the doctors who conducted such experiments on unwilling prisoners in concentration camps across Hitler’s Reich. It is there that we must turn briefly in order to understand the law of informed consent and how it applies to the military, if at all. But if it seems that his author is ‘laying it on a little thick,’ compare Secretary Cohen’s above remark about the necessity of the mandatory anthrax vaccine program to this one: “We are not conducting these experiments, as a matter of fact, for the sake of some fixed scientific idea, but to be of practical help to the armed forces and beyond that to the . . . people in a possible emergency.” This is from a letter written by Doctor Wolfram Sievers, Colonel in the German Army in November, 1942, to Dr. Karl Brandt, both convicted Nazi War Criminals, excerpted from Prosecution Exhibit No. 263 at their trial.



[1] An Institute of Medicine report looking at the history of mustard and lewisite gas found the Armed Forces researching chemical warfare after World War I and up through World War II. The report even traces some research back before the Civil War.

[2] The Government Accounting Office (GAO) is the watchdog arm of Congress that investigates government agencies. See “Human Experimentation, An Overview on Cold War Era Programs,” U.S. General Accounting Office, September 28, 1994, GAO/T-NSIAD-94-266.

[3] Few things have amazed me more in my time in service than what members of the Armed Forces – even moreso Marines – will do for just a few extra days of leave or liberty. I am still not sure what that says about the military, but leave and liberty are the promise land to most servicemembers.

[i] Steven Lee Myers, Armed Services Opt to Discharge Those Who Refuse Vaccine, N.Y. Times, March 11, 1999.

[ii] Senate Report No. 103-97, at 15 (1994).

[iii] Schnurman v. United States, 490 F. Supp. 429, 430 (E. D. Va. 1980).

[iv] Schnurman, at 431.

[v] Id.

[vi] Is Military Research Hazardous to Veterans’ Health? Lessons from World War II, the Persian Gulf War, and Today, Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, 103rd Cong. May 6, 1994.

[vii] S. Rep. 103-97, at 18 (1994).

[viii] Veterans at Risk: The Health Effects of Mustard Gas and Lewisite, Pechura, C.M. & Rall, D.P. (Eds.) Institute of Medicine, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1993, p. 3-4, 6-8, 50-52, 224-226.

[ix] Id., notes omitted.

[x] Human Drug Testing by the CIA, 1977: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research, Committee on Human Resources, U.S. Senate, September 20-21, p. 169 (1977).

[xi] Id., pp. 169-217.

[xii] Paul Richter, Experts Assess Risk of ‘New Terrorism’ Threat, Los Angeles Times, Feb. 7, 2000.

[xiii] William S. Cohen, Preparing for a Grave New World, Washington Post, Jul. 26, 1999.

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