Archive for January, 2012

Government Sponsorship of Illegal Human Experimentation: Scientific Opportunity or Product of Political Culture?

January 29, 2012


During the Nuremberg Trials held after the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II German scientists were found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for conducting illegal human experiments and for the use of slave labor. The research presented in this paper shows that the crimes committed by German scientists and doctors concerning illegal human experimentation during the holocaust were not unique events that could only have been perpetuated in Nazi Germany. To the contrary, the Americans, British, Japanese, and Soviets also conducted illegal human experimentation in the twentieth century. After the war the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain actively sought to exploit the research conducted in Nazi controlled Germany, often employing the scientists and doctors behind it. Many German scientists were shielded from prosecution, smuggled out of Germany and allowed to work on top-secret government research regardless of their complicity in crimes for which their peers were imprisoned or put to death. The war crimes committed by Japanese scientists and the subsequent shielding of their crimes by the U.S. will also be discussed to show that the German case was not unique. In addition, episodes of illegal human experimentation conducted before and after the war by the U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union will be reviewed to establish its existence outside of Nazi Germany and to show the continuation of these crimes after the development of the Nuremberg Code.

Given the differences in culture and government that existed in the time leading up to, including, and after World War II between the aforementioned nations, the suggestion that Nazism alone enabled certain crimes to be committed which were otherwise impossible outside of its influence can not be true. The Nazi government was a sponsor of illegal human experimentation, but the same can be said of the other governments previously mentioned as well. Presented the opportunity, scientists seem willing to engage in experiments that violate the Nuremberg Code regardless of the political culture of the nation in which they commit them. The heinous nature of the Nazi crimes is not diminished in this realization. Instead an observation is made that the potential for the support of systematic illegal human experimentation is not confined to one form of government. Instead it is the acceptance within any given political culture that the security of the state takes precedence over basic civil rights that allows systematic illegal human experimentation to be perpetuated.

The Nuremberg Code & State Sponsorship

Illegal human experimentation is defined in the Nuremberg Code as any research conducted on a human being without that person’s full consent or when the test subject is not made completely aware of the true objectives and dangers of the experiments. While a consensus did not exist amongst scientists or governments before the end of World War II on what constituted illegal human experimentation, within this research all experiments committed on the unwitting will be classified as illegal in accordance with the guidelines established by the Nuremberg Code.

The Nuremberg Code was created during the Medical Trial to establish ethical human experimentation guidelines, and though the code itself has not necessarily been ratified into law in all countries, the U.S. being a notable example, the ten points contained in the code have been accepted as the international standard by which the legality of human experimentation is measured. The Nuremberg Code was used as the basis for subsequent international and national laws, including the U.S., on human experimentation. During the Nuremberg trials German scientists were charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, criminal categories directly related to activities conducted during the war. As such German human experimentation during the war and the use of slave labor constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity, while human experimentation committed on the unwitting outside of the theater of war by other nations is hereafter referred to as illegal when it violates the Nuremberg code. Persons who were illegally experimented on are victims and will be referred to as such.

The definitions of war crimes and crimes against humanity used in this research are those stated in the charter for the International Military Tribunal during the Nuremberg Trials. War crimes were defined as: “namely, violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity”. Crimes against humanity are: “namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of domestic law of the country where perpetrated.”

Government sponsorship in this research is defined as a government providing financial and material support to the researchers conducting the experiments, including access to victims. The government, or a segment of it, also determines the general areas of research, for instance telling the researchers to focus on the effects of a particular drug or disease. The last major component of sponsorship is providing protection from scrutiny of the experiments and those conducting them in such a way that the courts, the general public, or even bodies governing specific scientific or medical disciplines, cannot determine the legality of the experiments. This also applies to the inability of the victims or their families to seek redress for suffering or loss caused by the experiments.

The Nuremberg Codes states, “The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.” The code also acknowledges the right of an individual to withdraw from their participation in an experiment and the duty of the scientist to stop an experiment if the health of the test subject becomes endangered. Developed at Nuremberg in response to the crimes against humanity committed by German scientists, it set down ten principals to be observed when conducting human experiments. Before it’s creation no universally recognized guidelines existed, a point the Nazi doctors brought up during the trial in their own defense. While the heinous nature of the crimes committed by these doctors should not be overlooked, they did have a point. No internationally recognized law or code expressly condemned their actions. In fact, other countries were performing their own experiments on the unwitting, experiments that caused subjects to suffer and in some cases to die. With no legally established guidelines, issues of right and wrong were left up to scientists to decide.

As with the law no consensus existed between scientists on what constituted humane testing, or even if it was the responsibility of scientists to make such distinctions. The Nazi doctors claimed that under government sponsored research morality and personal responsibility were irrelevant. Hitler’s personal physician, Dr. Karl Brandt stated that what was critical was “whether the experiment is important or unimportant.” This point was raised in a 1992 paper by Professor Lewis Wolpert, former chairman of the Committee for Public Understanding of Science in Britain who said, “It is not for scientists to take moral or ethical decisions on their own: they have neither the right nor any special skills in this area. There is, in fact, a great danger in asking scientists to be more socially responsible.” Given that scientists seem willing to perform human experiments when given the opportunity in violation of the Nuremberg Code, then the responsibility for setting rules falls on society through government. But if the government shields scientists from public scrutiny, then these experiments take on a systematic nature that allows for wide spread abuse.

If the crimes committed by Nazi Germany were so illegal to warrant the Nuremberg trials and death sentences, was it not hypocritical to actively persecute one group of people for the same crimes committed by others regardless of the information they could provide? Is there knowledge so worth having that criminality, including murder, can be ignored? To answer this question one has to understand that similar crimes were already being committed in the United States prior to World War II and that a relationship between government and science had already been established through the Eugenics movement.


The Eugenics movement of the late 1800s to mid 1900s is an episode that bears scrutiny as a precursor to systematic illegal human experimentation. Credit for the term ‘Eugenics’ is given to Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, who used the term to describe the improvement of the human ‘race’ through selective breeding and forced sterilization. Galton tied intelligence to heredity in his book Hereditary Genius, and went on to push for governmental involvement in deciding who could marry and have children. Eugenics is not a science; the ‘value’ of a person is based upon arbitrary cultural standards usually involving racist or class-based stereotypes. During the early 1900s the science of genetics was still in its infancy, but already there was a wide spread belief amongst the scientific community that all human traits could be linked directly to a certain gene. And since genes are passed from parent to child, it was assumed that those children born of ‘inferior’ parents would themselves be naturally inferior. Those targeted for sterilization in Britain and the U.S. included anyone with a mental defect, diseases such as tuberculosis, or those with epilepsy. But the group also included criminals and the poor.

Eugenics quickly caught on amongst the British and American middle to upper middle classes as a way to improve society. Societies promoting Eugenics were established in both countries and polls showed that the public in general supported the idea of sterilization. In the U.S. biologist Charles B. Davenport established the Eugenics Record Office and numerous states passed laws legalizing the forced sterilization deemed to have ‘inferior’ genes. Germany, under Nazi control, was not the first country to enforce sterilization.

Physician Fritz Lenz argued in 1923 that Germany was actually falling behind the United States when it came to sterilization laws. The Heredity Health Courts that were established after Hitler’s ascension to power to determine who should be sterilized mirrored the U.S. Eugenics Records Office. It should be noted at this point that the shift from sterilization to euthanasia and eventually mass murder did not happen in other countries; regardless, the ideas for genetic inferiority and sterilization sprang from the minds of American and British scientists long before Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, before the Nazis controlled the German nation, and before any crimes were committed in that country. To hold the Nazis alone accountable for their sterilization policies is to ignore the fact that the same was happening elsewhere and that those policies had support amongst the American and British public, with forced sterilization laws on the books on the U.S. up to the 1960s, decades after World War II ended.

The Eugenics movements in the U.S. and Germany were conducted in the open, and had wide spread public support. Eugenics was founded on the idea that it was the responsibility of those who saw themselves as superior to ‘fix’ society, in this case by gradually ridding society of those deemed inferior through forced sterilization with the full backing of the government. While a direct link between Eugenics and illegal human experimentation is not established here, this episode does show that science has the ability to be abused on this scale only with full government sponsorship. Once the idea of forced sterilization became law it was able to take on a systematic nature. Scientists and doctors were able to act without fear of prosecution. And if challenged they could point to the government and claim neutrality in discussions of the legality of their actions. This relationship between government and science would also develop another dimension. Scientists would be given the opportunity to conduct experiments that were hidden from the public and where therefore be able to avoid accountability.

Tuskegee Syphilis Study

One such experiment conducted in the U.S. was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which began in 1932, in which almost 400 poor and illiterate black men were made to suffer to effects of syphilis without any treatment. Government organizations aware of the study included the Public Health Service, the Center for Disease Control, and local medical societies, along with the Surgeon General of the Unites States and the American Heart Association. The study was conducted in Alabama, in a poor area with high illiteracy rates and little public medical knowledge available. The subjects were told they had ‘bad blood’, a reference to a folk term used to describe numerous medical problems in the rural south. For forty two years a system was set up to deny these men any medical treatment for their disease; clinics were expressly told not to give them medication even though a cure, penicillin, became widely available in the 1940s. Far from being conducted in secrecy, reports on the study were published in medical journals, with a 30th anniversary paper published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The experiments were finally brought to the public’s attention in 1974 through the work of an investigative reporter. Once the study became known, it was soundly rejected by the same organizations that had conducted it. Victims and their families received cash payments, but no one was ever charged with wrongdoing. Even though the study was started before the existence of the Nuremberg Code, its continuation after 1947 is in direct violation of the code. Yet no medical personnel were held responsible regardless of the fact that the study itself proved that the men experienced more sickness and died earlier because of the untreated disease. And since the men were not told what disease they had, there is the real chance they spread the disease to their sexual partners and even their offspring. However, after the study was made public no effort was made to determine if this had in fact happened.

The U.S. was able to claim the mantle of defender of freedom and liberty after World War II while the Nazi crimes were exposed to the world for the evil that they were. Yet the U.S. had already committed its own crimes, and would continue to, without facing any real consequences for these actions. In the end both governments would share two things in common. It was the government that dictated who the victims were and that scientists were willing to experiment on them. Nazi scientific research was conducted on prisoners in the concentration camps while after the war U.S. scientists experimented on those in mental wards, prisons, children in state care, drug addicts and prostitutes. The fact that the U.S., along with the British and Soviets, would also employ German scientists guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity because of the knowledge gained from the commission of those crimes reinforces the notion that no one political culture is immune from taking on a “security first” dominated mindset.

Illegal Human Experimentation in Germany

After the war the true horrors of the Holocaust became known. Allied troops liberated death and labor camps, discovering one tragedy after another. Millions of people had been worked to death, experimented on or simply killed in a ruthless system never before seen. Those not immediately sent to the gas chambers were often used as slave labor to support the war effort. These slaves worked endless hours with little food, knowing that if they stopped for a minute they would be beaten or shot. Other prisoners were used as human guinea pigs in often-gruesome experiments to study subjects ranging from the effects of pressure on the body to how much salt water a human can ingest before dying. For these crimes many people were punished with life sentences and death. However, those with knowledge deemed important were swept up by the U.S., Russia and Great Britain in an effort to capture the scientific knowledge of Nazi Germany.

This knowledge was considered essential to all three countries. The Nazis had made many technological achievements, and these nations felt that who ever captured it would have the military advantage. How complicit these scientists and doctors were in Nazi war crimes was of less importance than what information and expertise they could provide. The U.S. in particular made great efforts to obtain and protect Nazi scientists. Through projects Overcast and Paperclip hundreds of scientists, doctors and engineers were brought to the U.S. to work on military projects. Some of them would go on to become leaders in their fields and industries.

The most notable example was Hubertus Strunghold, who was brought to the U.S. under Project Paperclip. During the war he headed the Luftwaffe Institute for Aviation Medicine in Berlin and was a Luftwaffe colonel. Strunghold had been well known in the US before the war, and was at the open house for the AAF Aero Medical Center in Heidlberg in 1946. During the war he had been responsible for overseeing medical experiments performed by doctors in Experimental Block #5 in the Dachau Death Camp. When American soldiers liberated this camp they discovered half starved prisoners, human body parts scattered around the labs and other remnants of gruesome experiments.

One set of experiments, conducted by Paperclip scientists Konrad Schaefer and Wilhelm Beiglboeck, involved forcing prisoners to ingest salt water to see how long a downed pilot could survive on seawater. The victims, all Gypsies, were divided into groups. One group received no water at all, while the rest drank either ordinary seawater or partially desalinated water. One observer of the experiments noted that the victims suffered horribly, losing up to two pounds a day. Many of the victims experienced heart seizures and feel into comas. Others had their livers punctured by a long sharp instrument used to drain blood and saltwater. In the end most died. Another experiment, conducted by Siegfried Ruff, Dr. Sigmund Rascher, and Hermann Becker-Freyseng, involved studying high altitude and low pressure effects in which the victims, Poles, Russians, and Jews, were placed in mobile pressure chambers to mimic the affects of parachuting out of a plane without oxygen. The victims experienced terrible agony, starved of oxygen many died of heart seizures while others went insane. Autopsies were performed to study the trauma on the organs. Freezing experiments were performed by forcing victims to stand naked in the open winter air while others were made to lay in tanks of ice water. Dr. Klaus Shilling infected 1200 prisoners with malaria. Once infected the victims were given varying mixtures of strong drugs, from which many overdosed.

While many of these scientists would eventually stand trial, Strunghold would not; instead he was protected from public scrutiny. When first captured Strunghold told his interrogator, US Army Major Alexander, that he had known nothing of the experiments and had only heard of them at the trial. However, during the Medical case the other scientists said he personally received the orders to conduct the experiments, advised on them, reviewed the final reports and even had the power to stop them. Instead of jail Strunghold went on to head the Air Force School of Aviation Medicine then the Department of Space Medicine. He is considered the father of space medicine and has received the Americanism Medal from the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Texas Senate declared June 15 ‘Dr. Hubertus Strughold Day’ and the official U.S. Air Force building in San Antonio named after him.

In addition to the experiments listed above German scientists also infected their victims with diseases. At the Natzweiler concentration camp, for example, prisoners were deliberately infected with typhus to test vaccinations. Others were infected to keep a supply of the disease available. Bullets were dipped in poison and then fired into the bodies of prisoners to study how long it took the poison to kill them. Women at the Ravensbrück camp were infected with gangrene. While the sheer volume of experiments conducted by the Germans dwarfs in scale the Tuskegee experiment, both could only have happened with the active participation of a large number of scientists. And with both the scientists involved that escaped prosecution could only do so because government officials decided their work was more important that justice.

Slave Labor in Germany

Illegal human experiments were not the only crimes of which German scientists that were brought to the U.S. under projects Overcast and Paperclip were guilty of committing. On the night of August 17, 1943, Allied bombers struck the missile factory at Peenemünde near the Baltic Coast. The Germans quickly worked to establish a new production facility in the storage tunnels near the city of Nordhausen in the Harz Mountains. Adolf Hitler had given high priority to the rocket program a few months earlier; in order to comply with his orders to get the program running again thousands of concentration camp prisoners were moved to the site to work day and night to get the factory operating. Many died from dysentery. Others were transported back to the camps for extermination. Once running, Mittlewerk factory was a sight of unrelenting work and abuse. Prisoners were worked until they passed out from exhaustion or died from diseases such as cholera. Those that stopped working were shot, while any prisoner could be beaten for perceived offences by guards and scientists alike. The adjacent camp, Dora, was used to house the prisoners; the American troops who liberated it discovered six thousand bodies scattered outside the caves and the furnaces of Dora left open and smoldering. All the victims were casualties of the brutal conditions inside the factory.

The scientists who ran this factory, and Peenemünde before it, were not merely researchers working to build rockets for the war effort. They were actively involved in the use of slave labor. The chief engineer at Peenemünde, Arthur Rudolph, was already preparing to use Russian prisoners of war in early 1943 when Heinrich Himmler presented him with option of using concentration camp prisoners. Rudolph saw slave labor as both economically practical and advantageous from a secrecy standpoint after witnessing the 4,000 slave laborers at the Heinkel factory north of Berlin in Oranienburg. Once at Mittlewerk Rudolph served as Production Manager, setting the grueling hours prisoners worked and filing sabotage reports with the SS that led directly to prisoners being hanged, often inside the factory itself as a warning to others. Wernher von Braun, who worked for Rudolph, attended meetings where the use of slave labor in rocket production was discussed. Von Braun and Brigadier-General Walter Dornberger, the head of the rocket program, also advocated using slave labor as part of the production calculations. In his role as General Manager Georg Rickhey regularly instigated prisoner hangings inside the plant.

All of these scientists had advocated for and participated in the use of slave labor. Instead of standing trial at Nuremberg all were brought to the United States. Rudolph was stationed in Fort Bliss, Texas after the war where he worked on rockets for the AAF before later becoming Project Director of the Saturn V rocket program. His past almost caught up with him in 1984 when he was found complicit “in the abuse and persecution of concentration camp inmates who were employed by the thousands as slave laborers under his direct supervision” by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations. Rudolph flew back to Hamburg, Germany rather than stand trial. Von Braun had been classified as a potential security threat because of his membership in the NSDAP, the SS, where he was a major, and four other Nazi organizations. He was also sent to Fort Bliss and in 1957 he became the first director of the Marshall Space Flight Center. Another scientist from the rocket program at Fort Bliss, Kurt Debus, had been a member of the SS and SA. Debus once turned a colleague in to the Gestapo for making anti-Hitler remarks. Even though he too had been included in OMGUS Security Reports, in the U.S. he would go on to become the first director of the Kennedy Space Center. Dornberger was shipped to Wright Air Field in Ohio; he would later become a vice-president at Bell Aircraft Company. Rickhey did eventually stand trial on accusations of instituting hangings and a work pace that led to thousands of deaths from exhaustion but he was found not guilty and then the trial was classified. Herbert Axster, who was Dornberger’s chief of staff, also arrived at Fort Bliss but left the U.S. in the early 1950s after accusations were made that he abused slave labor on his estate during the war.

The Japanese Case

The Germans were not the only country in which scientists committed war crimes only to have them covered up by Americans after the war. Imperial Japan established a facility officially named the Anti-Epidemic Water Supply and Purification Bureau, known as Unit 731, in a remote part of the Manchurian Peninsula at Pingfan. The facility was similar in size to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, with rail lines, laboratories, barracks and a crematorium. The Japanese doctors performed horrific medical experiments on prisoners, a mixture of Chinese, Mongolians, Russians, Koreans and even western prisoners of war, under the leadership of Dr. Shiro Ishii. In one set of experiments, prisoners were dissected while still alive. In another, limbs were amputated to study blood loss. The doctors removed organs and rerouted others to see the affects on the victim’s body. And in experiments similar to those conducted by German scientists, prisoners were frozen to death and then defrosted so that doctors could study gangrene. Other prisoners had their limbs frozen but were kept alive. The Japanese scientists also locked their victims inside pressure chambers or put them in centrifuges and spun them around until the prisoners died. Prisoners were hung upside down until death in order to determine how long a person could survive in this condition. Gas chambers were set up to study the effects of phosgene gas. The livers of prisoners were exposed to high levels of radiation. The military also used the facility to test weaponry, using the prisoners as live targets to test flame-throwers and grenades or so that soldiers could test how sharp a sword was. Diseases such as cholera, anthrax and the plague were manufactured at the facility as well. Bombs were filled with the diseases and then they were released on whole villages, killing an estimated 400,000 people.

The scientists at this facility were well aware of the nature of their actions. Dr. Ishii is quoted as saying to his staff, “A doctor’s God-given mission is to block and treat disease, but the work on which we are now to embark is the complete opposite of those principles.” Yet after the war nearly all of the scientists were freed despite that fact that the British and Americans knew what had happened in Unit 731. Evidence was gathered and sent directly to United States President Harry Truman by war crimes prosecutors, but it was never seen again. The reason for this is the same as why many German scientists were shielded from the Nuremberg Trials; the knowledge they possessed was deemed valuable. Immunity from prosecution in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal was given to the Japanese scientists in exchange for the data their research had developed. As was the case with the Germans, the Americans wanted the data before it fell into Soviet hands. So the crimes were covered up. Dr. Ishii died at home after a long career. And unlike the case in Germany, atonement has yet to be made by the Japanese to the Chinese for these crimes.

American & British Crimes Post WWII

The United States would go on to expand the use of human test subjects after the war. Through CIA funded programs thousands of soldiers were exposed to chemical agents originally developed by the Nazis. An as yet unknown number of civilians would be given concoctions of drugs in secret psycho-chemistry experiments. Others had electrodes implanted on their brains to see how scientists could control their bodies. In addition to these experiments chemical and biological agents were intentionally released on the general public to study dispersion patterns. None of the victims were ever informed before hand, and for those that were able to prove these crimes happened justice often came too late or not at all.

Scientists in Nazi Germany and Japan had conducted experiments on unwitting humans and at least some of the scientists involved had been held accountable for these crimes at the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials. Yet American and British researchers went on to mimic these experiments in their respective countries. The Central Intelligence Agency ran several programs, including Bluebird and MKULTRA, in which soldiers and members of the public were given LSD in order to study its effects on the mind. The military tested other drugs besides LSD on soldiers at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland while the British did the same at the British Chemical Defense Establishment at Porton Down, Wiltshire.

At Edgewood soldiers were given Sernyl (known as PCP or angel dust) or other incapacitating agents. Many experienced horrific visions, amnesia, and some would later commit suicide trying to forget what they had been through. While many of the soldiers technically volunteered to be part of experiments, none were told of the dangerous nature of the experiments. The Army’s inspector general, in a 1975 review of the experiments, found that despite the guidelines established for human experimentation the policy was quite often ignored. Soldiers were frequently told they were volunteering for experiments that involved equipment testing when in fact they were being poisoned. The British government in 2006 paid victims of drug tests it performed on soldiers in the 1950s. The soldiers were told that they were part of a test to find a cure for colds. In reality scientists working for MI6, the British equivalent to the CIA, had given the soldiers LSD to test its use as a mind control drug.

In another set of experiments victims received doses of radioactive substances and were then studied to determine the effects of radiation on the human body starting in 1945 and continuing until the 1970s. The studies received funding from the Department of Defense, the CIA, and the Department of Energy under programs MKULTRA, the MANHATTAN Project, and the Boston Project. The unwitting test subjects included patients at hospitals, people receiving treatment from University medical departments, and prisoners. In one study 18 patients were injected with plutonium by doctors at the University of California in San Francisco as part of the MANHATTEN Project. Another experiment involved radiating the testicles of prisoners in state prisons in Washington and Oregon. The men involved were paid a fee for receiving a dose of radiation, for each time a testicle was biopsied and for completing the experiment. As a precaution each prisoner was given a vasectomy. Though the men had volunteered and been paid, a lawsuit in 1976 brought out the fact that they men had received 100 times the maximum recommended dose of radiation. In other experiments clouds of radiation were released into the atmosphere to assess dispersal rates, often affecting populated areas. This was the case when the Hanford Nuclear Facility released radioactive iodine-131 in a project code named GREEN RUN over 8000 square miles that included the city of Spokane, Washington.

Under MKULTRA, children were given injections of radioactive or fed radioactive food at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Minnesota, and John Hopkins. Pregnant women were given doses of radiation as part of their prenatal care at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Also under MKULTRA in 1961 mentally challenged children were given radioactive iodine at Wrentham State School by researchers from the Boston University of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and the Massachusetts General Hospital. While the fate of every victim is not known, amongst the pregnant women who received radiation several had children who died. Regardless, none of these people had given consent. This would be the case in other experiments conducted by other nations as well. The British exposed military personnel to the affects of nuclear testing in the 1950s in Australia. The Soviet Union used German, Italian and Spanish prisoners of war for radiation experiments up to 1962 and performed ‘submersion’ experiments, and Amnesty International has classified their treatment of political prisoners in psychiatric hospitals as ‘torture’.

The examples presented thus far of illegal human experimentation and the shielding of war criminals has largely depended on researchers who have reviewed government documents through the Freedom of Information Act. The total number of victims of illegal human experimentation committed after World War II is not known due to the continued classification of documentation related to this subject. However, the fact that such crimes are documented not only proves their existence; it also proves that the environment for scientists to perform these types of experiments can exist in diverse political cultures.

Science & Government

If these crimes can happen in any country regardless of it’s political culture, are there particular aspects that they share that can tell us if the potential for systematic illegal human experimentation exists? From World War II on all of the previously mentioned countries were either in a state of war or perceived that they were. German and Japanese scientists were sponsored in support of the war effort while the Cold War was used to justify experiments conducted by the U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union. In each of these countries those in government saw the security of the state as being under threat. Once the protection of the state became the primary focus, the experiments that were performed were deemed necessary regardless of their legality. Any concerns for the health and welfare of those that became victims became lost. The state became a sponsor, and scientists were freed to perform experiments without fear of prosecution. At this point these governments shared another aspect. The government decided who the victims would be. The German scientists experimented on concentration camp prisoners. In the U.S. experiments were performed on patients in mental wards and at hospitals, children under state care, prisoners and soldiers. In China the Japanese scientists experimented on prisoners of war and civilians, the Soviets on political prisoners and the British on men in the military. The victims were made such by the government.

It was the government’s sponsorship that created the environment for the systematic nature in which these crimes were committed. But what about the scientists involved? Could the argument be made that they too felt threatened and therefore acted out of a sense of patriotism? Or were their intentions purely academic? Answers to these questions can only come from those involved, and as of today little information is available on the majority of scientists involved. But a few examples do exist of scientists being questioned about how they viewed the nature of their work. The astrophysicist John Simpson, who was part of the MANHATTAN Project cautioned about criticizing the injections of plutonium that were given because without them “radioactive dangers would be greater throughout the world today.” Dr. Karl Brandt, when he was asked about his attitude concerning people dying during human testing replied, “Do you think one can obtain any worthwhile fundamental results without a definite toll of lives?” As for the notion of patriotism Wernher von Braun is quoted as saying he did not care who he worked for as long as they provided the funding. On a more general note insight can be gained from a story told by British physiologist J. B. S. Haldane. His father, also a physiologist, had put the younger Haldane into a coffin to test the effects of certain gases on the boy’s body. In another instance the elder Haldane submerged his son into a freezing lake, an episode in which the boy almost drowned. The fact that his father was willing to risk his life provides an opportune view into the level of risk scientists are willing to take concerning their test subject’s well being.

In order to avoid the risk of condemning all scientists the point must be made that there were those who spoke out against bringing German scientists to the United States. Concerned scientists, military personal and citizens protested the German scientists being allowed to receive citizenship and participate in society. They feared that the Germans would bring the racial hatred of the Nazi doctrine to the U.S. Debates amongst scientists also focused on whether acquiring the knowledge gained from war crimes and crimes against humanity was worth the cost of keeping the Germans out of prison. As for the German scientists who were brought to the U.S., a quote from Dora survivor Jean Michel shows the complexity of their legacy: “…I could not watch the Apollo mission without remembering that that triumphant walk was made possible by our initiation to inconceivable horror.”

As the existence of illegal human experimentation after the war was made public some members of Congress did call for hearings. One case that stemmed from the hearings on American experimentation made it to the Supreme Court. Though the victim, James Stanley, lost the case, in the dissent Justice William Brennan stated, “Having invoked national security to conceal its activities, the Government now argues that the preservation of military discipline requires that Government officials remain free to violate the constitutional rights of soldiers…” At this time no American scientist has ever stood trial for conducting illegal human experimentation under government sponsorship.


The purpose of the research presented here is not to lessen the impact of the crimes committed in Nazi controlled Germany. The horrors of the Holocaust happened on a scale unprecedented in history. But the fact that they have not been repeated in such a large systematic fashion cannot be seen as evidence that they never will again. Nor can it mean that smaller episodes are less significant in terms of their illegality. The number of victims alone is not what should be compared. Consider that the Germans and Japanese committed a larger volume of crimes in a relatively shorter amount of time on people they did not recognize the rights of and that the governments of both countries were open about their disregard for their victims. Their view was that the people experimented on were not citizens and therefore they had no rights. But then what can be said of the U.S. and Britain, countries that experimented on citizens whose rights were never supposed to be in question?

Again the point is not to make one case worse than the other. This research makes no distinction between illegal human experimentation committed during or outside times of war. And war alone cannot be seen as a necessary precondition for their existence, since the Tuskegee Study was not related to war-time activities. The environment in which they are performed is irrelevant. What is important is to recognize that as long as there exists a willingness in any government to put security and military concerns ahead of civil rights, then the environment can exist in which the conducting of these types of experiments is seen as a viable option. Compounding this is that scientists seem all too willing to perform experiments in violation of the Nuremberg Code when they know that the government will shield them from scrutiny.

The total scope of illegal human experimentation is beyond the limitations of this research. Other examples of illegal human experimentation committed by countries not discussed surely exist given that the mindset that sponsors them is one any political culture can assume. Just in the last decade it was revealed that the United States tortured prisoners of the War on Terror. While much of the information about this episode of torture remains today heavily classified, many in academia and the media have asked the question of whether doctors were involved in developing and administering torture techniques.

There is much more on the subject of human experimentation that needs to be studied. The same is true for the post-war rush to acquire German scientists and technology. Just how many scientists have been shielded from prosecution may never be known. But acknowledging the existence and wide spread nature of these crimes does make apparent the necessity for transparency in government and scientific inquiry. For if government is tasked with guiding science, then ultimately it is the responsibility of the citizenry to make sure their government acts in a manner consistent with the law.



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