By Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and
Simon & Schuster, 382 pp, 2001
Germs is a sleek, fast-paced
overview of America's attempts to deal with biological weapons. Various
groups, such as a cult from India and terrorist outfit in Japan, have
acquired germs and converted them to weapons. Nations have done the same,
such as the former Soviet Union and Iraq. The federal government has been
aware of this threat since World War II. How has the government handled
it? What have government officials, scientists, and bureaucrats done to
That's what this book answers, and it's not
The book begins with the first known
biological attack on American soil, and it didn't come from an enemy
state, but a supposedly peaceful cult that originated in India. The cult
had moved to an Oregon town and established a mini-county complete with
its own little government and schools, including a medical lab. As the
cult grew, it tried to win control of the local county board, but was met
by stiff and bitter resistance from the locals. So its leader purchased
salmonella germs, weaponized them in the medical lab, and infected salad
bars all over the county. Hundreds became sick, and it was a couple years
before law enforcement figured out who was responsible.
This episode, which happened in the
mid-1980s, showed how damaging a biological attack could be. It produced
fear, distrust, and near-panic in the local community.
The authors show that germ warfare programs
started as early as the 1920s in the Soviet Union. America's germ warfare
program started during World War II. Japan killed thousands of Chinese
during that war with anthrax, typhoid, and plague. Saddam Hussein's labs
have produced tons of anthrax since the late 1980s, and didn't use them
during the Gulf War because President Bush threatened to nuke Baghdad if
they did. And the Soviet Union, which along with the United States signed
a treaty banning offensive germ weapons, produced hundreds of tons of
anthrax, smallpox, and plague, experimented with killer viruses like
Marburg and Ebola and AIDS, and possibly created a hybrid germ combining smallpox
and Ebola that was immune to vaccines and antibiotics. Here's what we know
of the Soviet program: it employed 30,000 people in more than 100
facilities and cost $1 billion per year. One facility alone produced 300
tons of anthrax every 220 days, enough to wipe out the earth's population
several times over. It didn't surprise me that the Soviets lied about
their program, because they lied about everything, but hopefully it opened
up some eyes of gullible folks who lionize communism and despise
capitalism and freedom.
That's one of the lessons of this book.
Treaties don't mean squat. Evil countries like Communist Russia and Iraq
flout them at will, while the good guys, like the United States, abide by
such treaties. In fact, after President Nixon signed the treaty, the U.S.
germ program became purely defensive as it figured out ways to defend
American soldiers and civilians from germ weapons. The authors suggest
this hurt even our defensive programs by de-emphasizing germ warfare. In
fact, I believe signing the treaty put the United States in danger.
Why is that? Because even today, after
years and years of hard work, the U.S. is no better prepared for a
biological attack than it was in the 1940s. The U.S. has no reliable germ
detectors, not enough vaccine or antibiotics, and too few facilities and
personnel to deal with an attack. It takes way too long to even identify
when an attack or outbreak takes place. When the West Nile virus hit New
York in the mid-1990s, it was first misdiagnosed. All the experts missed
it. A zoo pathologist in New York made the breakthrough that identified
the illness as the West Nile virus.
If an attack happened here, emergency rooms
would be overrun, antibodies would run out, and thousands would die. It'd
be a hundred times worse than 9/11.
The federal government is aware of this and
working toward a solution. But the result, so far, has been pork barrel
projects and an unorganized mess. Perhaps this new Homeland Security
department proposed by President Dubya will help. Don't hold your
Those who believe the federal government
can protect America from biological weapons will be saddened and scared by
this book. The only thing preventing America's enemies from using them is
our nuclear arsenal. Think about that when peaceniks demand that the U.S.
destroy its nuclear weapons.
This is a sobering book. The authors have
done some good work. Let's see if any good comes from it.