A Military History

By David Miller

St. Martin's. 480 pp. $27.95


The History of America's Secret Germ Warfare Project

By Ed Regis

Henry Holt. 259 pp. $25

Reviewed by John Prados

In what sometimes seems like a trick played by time, a decade has flashed past since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It will not be long until a decade has also gone by since the Soviet Union disintegrated, disappearing into that dustbin of history with which Soviet leaders sometimes threatened their foreign enemies. These events of 1989 and 1991 neatly frame the endgame with which the long Cold War drew to a close. We are at a curious pass today, one sufficiently removed from the intense competition of the Cold War that the whole begins to come into view, yet close enough so that much that happened (or did not) during that conflict remains secret, shrouded in mystery.

Despite the best efforts of custodians of secrecy, the real story is starting to seep out. New pieces of the puzzle appear as initiatives are undertaken such as the one a few years ago at the Department of Energy to release Cold War records or as controversies such as one during Bill Clinton's first administration, over human participation in dangerous experiments, force the release of information. In Russia a trickle of documentation from the former adversary is beginning to put a real face on the Soviet enemy. In both countries, participants in the Cold War, which endured for up to 45 years, depending on how you count them -- the longest sustained conflict in recent memory -- are now willing to come forward. This is fortunate, for history is in danger of losing these memories even as it struggles to access the documentary records. In short, it is time to do the careful empirical spadework necessary to assemble a true history of the Cold War. Our books for today furnish uneven help in that regard.

In the longer sweep of Cold War history, a number of themes will be relevant. The United States and Soviet Union, two superpowers imprisoned by the destructiveness of their nuclear weapons, could not afford to war against each other. Instead they engaged in a furious armed race while organizing alliances to combat the opponent, first in Central Europe, then in the Eurasian peri-phery. Regional conflicts the world over became subsumed in the superpower competition and gained or lost importance as they were perceived to be related to it.

David Miller's The Cold War: A Military History, a long but curiously sparse book, is primarily preoccupied with the arms race and the face-off between the powers in Europe. Miller, a prolific compiler of assorted reference works, presents this book as "an attempt to paint an overall picture of some of the military factors involved." In doing so, his work neglects many of the elements we expect to find in a new history of the Cold War. The result is disappointing.

There is little narrative in this "history," which reads very much like another reference book or indeed the loads of policy studies ground out by think tanks every day of the Cold War. Perhaps the best of what we get here is Miller's capsule account of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's origin and evolution. The 1949-1950 advent of that treaty is taken as the start of the Cold War, however, which leads to slighting all the early post-World War II crises. The Berlin Blockade and airlift, for example, get a total of two paragraphs (following about 250 pages of weapons system surveys), and many other key events are not mentioned at all. The preoccupation with Europe also shows poorly: There is nothing on Africa or regional conflicts, on the numerous covert operations and guerrilla wars conducted by both sides, not even on the Cuban Missile crisis, a hugely important Cold War episode. The only coverage of Vietnam is of the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972, and that because it involved B-52 aircraft, regarded as strategic weapons.

Even in the author's main area of concern Miller's coverage is uneven. The Cold War contains extensive discussion of NATO mobilization plans and the recently revealed Warsaw Pact attack options for the European Central Front, but these subjects are treated separately and in isolation. There is no analysis of how ground-force tactical doctrine changed over time (the United States alone had several standard approaches during this period), how this affected the plans or indeed how the two sides' plans might have played out against each other. A major fear of the nuclear age, the danger of war by accident or miscalculation, epitomized by the war scare of 1983, receives no discussion at all. Also passed over, except for a data table in the appendices, are the numerous submarine incidents that could have led to complications, while surface naval and aerial incidents are not treated at all. Meanwhile the effort to discuss all weapons systems of all powers leads to a narrative that is not really a history of the Cold War but one of assorted countries' weapons inventories.

Another element the Miller volume hardly touches upon is chemical and biological weapons. The latter type is the main subject of The Biology of Doom, Ed Regis's engaging expose of the drive to make possible germ warfare -- what some proponents asserted to be a higher form of killing. Regis investigates the origins of the genus, so to speak, tracing claims of the efficacity of biological weapons back to scientific work in the early 1930s actually done to debunk such proposals. Using both declassified documents and people's recollections, he goes on to provide the best account yet of U.S. research and efforts to produce biological weapons.

British and Canadian researchers had significant influence on early American developments, including the design of a standard weapon casing and the provision of production facilities. Japanese World War II programs also helped solidify U.S. determination to proceed, by furnishing the first concrete evidence of the effects of germ weapons on human beings. Regis shows in detail how U.S. operatives collected this intelligence from the Japanese.

The active U.S. biological weapons program began in late 1942, initially at Edgewood Arsenal, then at Camp (later Fort) Detrick, Md. The earliest production plant was nicknamed "Black Maria." The first American germ weapon test to involve human subjects took place in July 1955 at Dugway, Utah. Prior to that, experts used to joke that we had a lot of information about how a city full of monkeys would be affected by these weapons but none about their impact on people. In regard to allegations that the United States used germ weapons in the Korean War, recently revived in a study by Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, Regis demonstrates that the first real U.S. tests took place too late to figure in the conflict. He categorically rejects that claim. Although the story trails off in the 1960s, and the author succumbs to the temptation to lump CIA chemical experiments (the misuse of LSD that led to the death of an Army scientist who actually worked on biological weapons) with the germ program, his account remains entertaining and informative. This is a fine first cut at a hitherto shadowy subject.

John Prados is an historian of national security based in Washington. His most recent book is "The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War."