News | Oct. 1, 2009

President Nixon’s Decision to Renounce the U.S. Offensive Biological Weapons Program

By Jonathan B. Tucker and Erin R. Mahan WMD Case Study 1

The nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union was a prominent feature of the Cold War. A lesser known but equally dangerous element of the superpower competition involved biological weapons (BW), living microorganisms that cause fatal or incapacitating diseases in humans, animals, or plants. By the late 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union had both acquired advanced BW capabilities. The U.S. biological weapons complex, operated by the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, consisted of a research and development laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland, an open-air testing site at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, and a production facility at Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas that manufactured biological warfare agents and loaded them into bomblets, bombs, and spray tanks.

The U.S. BW arsenal comprised two types of lethal antipersonnel agents (the bacteria that cause anthrax and tularemia); three types of incapacitating agents (the bacteria that cause brucellosis and Q-fever and the virus that causes Venezuelan equine encephalitis); and two types of anticrop weapons (the fungi that cause wheat rust and rice blast). The Army also developed two toxins, highly poisonous chemicals produced by bacteria and other living organisms, including a lethal agent (botulinum toxin) and an incapacitating agent (Staphylococcus enterotoxin B). Because microbial and toxin agents had a limited shelf life, they were replenished on an annual basis. According to U.S. military doctrine at the time, the stockpile of lethal biological weapons served as an in-kind deterrent against enemy biological attack and, if deterrence were to fail, provided a retaliatory capability when authorized by the President. The United States also reserved the option of first use of incapacitating biological weapons and anticrop agents, again with Presidential authorization, although U.S. policy in this area was uncertain and poorly defined. READ MORE >>