The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia and China have a history of bogus claims about U.S. biological warfare

Claims designed to weaken international resolve to sanction Russia for invading Ukraine are classic communist propaganda

Gutted cars left in the wake of an air raid on the village of Bushiv, west of Kyiv, on March 4. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)
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The U.N. Security Council recently convened an emergency meeting to discuss Russian allegations of secret U.S. biological warfare programs in Ukraine, with China signaling its support for an investigation. Historically minded observers might register some deja vu; Russia and China have sung this exact tune many times before.

Seventy years ago, both powers (plus North Korea) brought virtually identical charges to the United Nations, and they have been making similar claims on and off ever since. Bogus biowarfare allegations are straight from their Disinformation’s Greatest Hits album.

The revival of this strategy suggests a concerted effort to weaken the coalition of forces aiding Ukraine’s defense, distract from Russian atrocities in Ukraine and prepare Russian (and possibly Chinese) citizens for protracted conflict.

It all began with balloons. When the United States launched the Marshall Plan in 1948 to rebuild postwar Europe and expand Washington’s influence, it earmarked a large chunk of money to combating communist propaganda. In those tense early years of the Cold War, Americans feared the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin was exploiting postwar chaos to advance the Kremlin’s reach, with propaganda and subversion as preferred weapons.

So Marshall Plan posters and pamphlets highlighted American generosity and preached the value of European unity in the face of Soviet threats. One stunt included tying leaflets articulating these themes to balloons. The winds carried them from west to east, drifting over communist territory. Across the Iron Curtain, however, state-controlled media outlets claimed the balloons carried biological weapons, including beetles that were said to be decimating potato fields.

This was classic atrocity propaganda designed to stimulate moral outrage. The campaign sought to foment doubt about U.S. intentions and sow division across Europe, to weaken American efforts to build an anti-communist bloc on Russia’s western flank. Within the Soviet sphere, allegations of American atrocities were used to justify the imposition of repressive internal security measures and to explain away scarcities of food and other necessities.

In the 1950s, the campaign intensified with the outbreak of war in Korea. Divided along the 38th parallel at the end of World War II, the Korean Peninsula had become a Cold War battleground, with Soviet and American client states in the north and south, respectively.

The fragile peace exploded June 25, 1950, when North Korean troops invaded South Korea, capturing Seoul. The United States assembled an international coalition, under U.N. authority but commanded by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, to repel the North Korean forces.

But when MacArthur pushed deep into North Korean territory, Chinese intervention followed, and a war of attrition set in. Soldiers’ corpses clogged trenches along the 38th parallel. By January 1951, public opinion everywhere soured on the conflict. About two-thirds of Americans wanted the United States to “pull out” of Korea. While President Harry S. Truman had easily persuaded the U.N. Security Council to denounce the initial North Korean attack, he now struggled to get even a watery condemnation of Chinese aggression out of the United Nations.

Mao Zedong, leader of the People’s Republic of China, saw an opportunity to weaken the resolve of the international coalition fighting in Korea. He pushed his scientists and propagandists to manufacture tales of U.S. germ-warfare attacks. Stalin amplified the disinformation campaign with the Soviet Union’s formidable propaganda machine — which at the time had an astonishing $1.5 billion budget, according to U.S. intelligence.

The campaign came in waves, with varied allegations. Early on, China announced that the United States was secretly running a biowarfare laboratory in Japan, then still under U.S. occupation. According to Chinese media, the American lab was run by the notorious Shiro Ishii, the former head of Japan’s Unit 731, which had conducted gruesome biological experiments on Chinese victims during World War II, killing thousands.

In this case, the disinformation campaign spun threads of truth into a darker tale. The fact that the United States shielded Ishii from a well-deserved war-crimes tribunal in exchange for information about Japan’s biological warfare programs lent credence to China’s allegations. So did the U.S. failure (until 1975) to ratify the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting chemical and biological warfare.

Stories of a germ-warfare campaign became more imaginative over time. State media and top government officials from China, North Korea and the U.S.S.R. told of American agents disseminating diseases through pancakes, cutlery and an ever-expanding list of creepy-crawlies: grasshoppers, rats, snakes, frogs and so on. North Korea even claimed that people with leprosy were marching across the border.

The allegations gained traction when captured American pilots admitted to dropping germ-warfare bombs. (They recanted once freed.) China also procured voluminous technical reports using manufactured or circumstantial evidence. These convinced an international scientific commission, headed by the respected biochemist Joseph Needham, that biowarfare attacks had indeed occurred — even though the scientific team was denied access to alleged attack sites.

China’s Foreign Minister, Zhou Enlai, lodged formal complaints against the United States. In March 1952, he informed the United Nations that the United States had sent 448 aircraft to drop biological weapons. The North Korean Foreign Minister, Lee Dong Hen, claimed his country experienced 400 germ-bomb attacks. The charges were repeated on many other occasions, but the numbers kept changing: 995 sorties, 804 attacks, six towns here, a few dozen there.

Russian state media, meanwhile, folded biological-warfare allegations into a feverish “hate-America” propaganda campaign. As much as half of all international news disseminated by the Soviet press pushed the theme. Seasoned American observers saw this as an attempt to deflect attention from communist atrocities, including the 1940 Katyn massacre of 22,000 Polish officers by Soviet security services, which kept resurfacing in the news, commanding public attention into the early 1950s. Other American analysts feared the Kremlin was preparing its citizens for war with the West.

The germ-warfare campaign was one of the biggest lies of the Cold War.

Historical research after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. confirmed as much. “The accusations against the Americans were fictitious,” the U.S.S.R.’s Council of Ministers admitted in secret deliberations in 1953. Sources from China likewise disputed the allegations. Moreover, research in declassified American military documents revealed that the United States did not then possess the capability to launch biological warfare attacks in the manner alleged by Russian, North Korean and Chinese propaganda.

But the disinformation campaign won plenty of adherents, including among Americans. Indeed, just a few years before he died, Truman felt the need to deny it to a member of Congress.

The biowarfare campaign resurfaced in various forms thereafter, with North Korea regularly rehashing debunked Korean War claims. In the 1960s, communist governments accused the United States of triggering a cholera epidemic in Hong Kong. Later, a KGB disinformation campaign blamed the AIDS epidemic on American biowarfare. More recently, China linked the coronavirus outbreak to U.S. military activities, centering them — yet again — on a biolab, this time in Fort Detrick, Md. The claims were amplified by Russia and North Korea, just as they had been in the 1950s.

So the Ukraine biowarfare conspiracy is just the latest incarnation of a decades-long disinformation theme. Is it all a “false flag” operation to excuse possible Russian use of chem-bio weapons in Ukraine, as the Biden administration suggests? It’s hard to say, though the U.S. explanation sounds like counterpropaganda to knock Russia off guard.

Past Russian-Chinese germ-warfare allegations have had two simpler objectives. First, they were directed at their own populations to mobilize them for conflict with the West and to explain away failures in their regimes, including food shortages and public health deficiencies. Second, the disinformation campaigns targeted world opinion. They sought to sow doubt and confusion about U.S. motives in the international community, to weaken coalitions allied against them, and to stimulate internal dissent in the United States itself. As well, they deflected attention from their own misdeeds.

Similar motives apply today. Russia needs to explain its collapsing economy to its people, and it needs to chip away at the international sanctions regime responsible for that collapse. It also wants to mitigate moral outrage at the rising toll of civilian causalities in Ukraine. China gains, too, by pushing charges that diminish U.S. prestige.

That Tucker Carlson and the like are amplifying the Ukraine biolab conspiracy is a bizarre twist; far-right voices are pushing one of communism’s longest-running propaganda themes. By so doing, they are likewise advancing the core objective of Kremlin disinformation, to foment division within the United States and weaken American resolve to aid Ukraine’s defense.

It’s an unexpected sign of the campaign’s success. Almost certainly, then, Russia and China will sing the biowarfare tune for a long time to come.