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Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War

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Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War. By Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad. (Simon & Schuster: 2002. Pg. 416.) ISBN: 0-6848-7159-9.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - August 19, 2002

Germs are everywhere. Some are fairly innocuous. Others can kill you in a matter of hours. Alone they are bad enough, but what happens when governments start to tinker with these germs? What you get are biological weapons that have the potential of being more destructive, at least to human life, than a thousand nuclear blasts. In short, there is the potential that man could create a designer disease that could destroy all human life.

Ah, you think, only the bad guys, like our villain du jour, Saddam Hussein, would tinker with these horrific weapons. If this is what you think, you are very, very wrong. Even the good ol' U.S.A. had a secret, biological warfare department that energetically worked at the task of developing super bugs, that could easily be dispersed over the enemy target, and which could be designed merely to incapacitate the enemy, or to kill them outright. Some biological testing was even conducted on unsuspecting American civilians with supposing non-lethal agents. However, there is some speculation that some of these tests may have resulted in a number of deaths. A fact which the authors go into some detail about within the pages of this book, Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War.

Biological warfare is as old as warfare itself. For example, the historical record is resplendent with accounts of the bodies of plague victims being hurled over the walls of the 'enemy' city. However, it was not until the modern era, that biological or germ warfare became a science - a science that most countries have dabbled in at one time or another. In 1972, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention technically abolished biological weapons, and weapons research. Over 100 countries, including the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed this treaty, pledging to destroy their existing biological weapons stockpiles, and limiting their biological research to purely defensive topics. Does this mean that biological weapons are no longer a threat? No, they are just as much a threat as always. Not all countries signed the convention. And even for those that signed, there is nothing to keep them from working on, or manufacturing biological weapons, as the treaty has no oversight and each country is suppose to regulate their own compliance. Plus, you have the added danger posed by terrorist groups who either manufacture or buy biological weapons of their own...

In Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War, Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad take a hard look at America's long foray into biological weapons research and the men and women who honestly felt that it was their duty to create biological weapons. They look at the growth of Fort Derrick as the center of U.S. biological weapons research, and the numerous times when the U.S. considered deploying the weapons created there.

While the main focus of this book is on the U.S. biological weapon's program, it cannot, however, be viewed in a vacuum. To this end the authors also provide a brief overview of the weapon's programs in other countries and the uses such weapons have been put to in the past. Also discussed is the differences, and similarities, between biological and chemical weapons, and the weaponization of each. Most importantly, they delineate the dangers that these weapons might pose for the future.

Within the scope of this book, the authors also go into great detail about the threat posed during the Gulf War by Iraqi biological weapons, and the threat that they still might pose. Also looked at is the ineffectiveness of the UNSCOM weapon's inspectors, even when they were allowed access to Iraq. In association with this topic, the authors also look at the Anthrax vaccine program that was put in place during this period, and the relevancy that it had.

Biological weapons created and manufactured by nation states is the primary focus of this book. However, no discussion about biological weapons would be complete without also looking at their potential as the 'new' weapons of choice by terrorism. Looking at the two bioterrorism incidents: the 1984 case that occurred in Wasco County, Oregon when members of the Rajnesshee cult contaminated area salad bars with E.coli. And, the much more serious attacks carried out by the group Aum Shinrikyo, who orchestrated two Sarin gas attacks in Japan in 1994 and again in 1995.

The threats posed by biological weapons are legion, and our resources and ability to defend against an attack are limited. In the case of smallpox, even if everyone was vaccinated against this disease - we'd only be protected against 'old-fashioned' smallpox. What if someone out there has manipulated the DNA sequence of smallpox so that the vaccine no longer works. Or what if someone recreated the flu virus the caused the great pandemic of 1918. No vaccine exists for this virus - and the wonder drug, penicillin, does not work against viruses.

Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War is a chilling, well-written book, but is not designed to scare you silly. Rather to point out the history of America's biological weapons research, and to give the reader an idea of the threat that biological weapons currently pose - and the steps that can be taken to minimize their impact should an attack occur. The authors also look at how the public health system might marshal it forces in the event of a biological attack, by looking at the response that was organized in response to the advent of the West Nile Virus.

Written by three newspaper journalists, this book is an excellent example of investigative journalism. The topic is timely, the text is lucid, and technical jargon is kept at a minium. In those cases where its use was unavoidable, the terms are clearly explained. As such, this book offers the general reader a thorough grounding in the history surrounding America's bioweapondry program, and similar programs around the world. This book was clearly written for a general audience, as those already familiar with this topic, will find that while compelling, there is not much new reported in this book that is not already 'common knowledge' within the field. As well, a lot of 'details' are glossed over or totally ignored, leaving you to speculate as to whether the authors really understood what they were writing about, or if they were just rehashing the information they garnered from in-depth interviews, and their own research. These oversight in no way retract from the timeliness, or worthiness of the book - however some readers may find them slightly annoying. Lucidly written, this book contains a detailed set of end notes, and a short, but worthwhile bibliography. What the book lacks, however, is an index - which is an unfortunate oversight. Otherwise, I found it, overall, to be an excellent book that will be of particular relevance for most readers who are concerned, or simply curious, about the threats, past and present, represented by bioweapondry.

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