By Neil Harris
THE KOREAN War was at its fiercest in 1951, following the “third phase offensive”, which began on New Year’s Eve 1950. The Korean People’s Army, aided by Chinese volunteers, had driven the Americans back across the 38th parallel, although the war was not to reach stalemate for another two years. The Americans were panicking and as General Macarthur admitted in his memoirs, planned to use nuclear weapons in the hope that the radioactive fallout would hinder the North Korean war effort. A recent find in FBI archives has escaped the shredder and made it to the internet, shedding a new and sinister light on this episode.
The happy accident of FBI involvement saved the document (100-HQ-93216, serial 461), which would probably have disappeared if the lead agencies; the US Army and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had the decision over whether to declassify.
The FBI had come to have a role in all this after it was given the job of vetting state employees in nuclear weapons development. J Edgar Hoover, building up his anti-communist FBI empire, developed this into a liaison role between agencies and soon the FBI had an office in every atomic facility and an element of control over the development process.
McCarthyism was in full swing; state employees were feeling the pressure from politicians and anti-communist witch-hunters, and all the time the FBI was watching and listening. The United States Government office memorandum is dated 20th April 1951 and reflects this. Both are as forgotten now as the cause of the memo: a V P Keay wrote to a Mr A H Belmont, about Representative Albert Gore (Democrat) and a rabble-rousing speech he had made in the US Congress. This demanded the creation of “a belt containing radioactive material being laid down across Korea which would dehumanise the area” and which seems to echo Macarthur’s plan to use atomic bombs to form dead zones and prevent supplies and reinforcements getting to the front.
Representative Gore was pushing this in the press and may have been doing so on behalf of the military. In the memo, it looks as though he had confronted a Dr Paul McDaniel of the AEC and when he wasn’t happy with the answer he got, brought it up with an “Agent Bates” from the FBI’s “liaison section”.
McDaniel said that a commission set up in 1948 to “examine the possibilities of using radiological warfare in such a way”, had submitted its final report on the 11th April 1951 and indicated that while “it was possible for an area to be completely ‘dehumanised’ by using radiological agents, ‘it was not practicable’.”
A list of reasons were given: the AEC didn’t have “sufficient waste materials” and currently didn’t “have provision for producing such agents”, nor did it have the ability to ship them and anyway the AEC had no intention of “greatly curtailing the present production of plutonium” in order to create them. In any case “research would have to be done to develop a radiological agent of sufficient strength to last long enough”. In short, they were quite busy enough building hydrogen bombs and the FBI took the hint.
McDaniel was, in any event sceptical: “He pointed out that as a practical matter any zone that could be ‘dehumanised’ would be of no use to our forces for advancing and could be flown over or gone around by the enemy”. The writers of the report were more hopeful, indicating: “Such a possibility as the use of radiological agents should not be completely abandoned but should be kept in mind for future discussions,” which of course it was, because in the era of Ronald Reagan, the Americans developed the neutron bomb, which was a refinement on these rather crude ideas, in that it was designed to kill people but leave property unscathed.
And so from April through to May, the document passed from office to office, each time acquiring a new stamp, date and initials. Every so often a bureaucrat would add an underlining here or a scribbled emphasis there. Nowhere did anyone record any objection or see anything wrong in what was proposed. One even added the helpful suggestion, written in by hand – “Biological warfare” – and presumably the FBI took this up with other agencies, who were to be more careful with 60-year-old documents.
The half-life of plutonium is about 24,000 years, which means it would have been over 100,000 years before there would be any appreciable reduction in the amount of radio-activity, although there would still be a soup of various decaying radio-active elements long into the future. In any event plutonium is a highly poisonous chemical in its own right. The Americans, of course, would have just left the Koreans to sort it all out as they did in Vietnam with Agent Orange.