A deal with the devil

Michael Cook
11 Apr 2014
Reproduced with Permission

World War II is often called America's "good war" - a valiant struggle by a freedom-loving democracy against vicious, racist, totalitarian tyrannies. There is much truth in this, but war is a dirty business and even from a good war it is hard to escape with clean hands.

One example of this which has come to light in recent years is the stomach-churning story of war crimes by Japanese doctors.

What happened in Nazi Germany is well-known. After the war, seven concentration camp doctors and officials were hanged and nine received severe prison sentences for performing experiments on an estimated 25,000 prisoners. Only about 1,200 died but many were maimed and psychologically scarred. Reflection on these crimes gave rise to the Nuremberg Code of medical ethics which spelled out doctors' responsibilities towards experimental subjects. This became the foundation of contemporary bioethics.

Every bit as grotesque and gratuitous were experiments performed by hundreds of Japanese medical personnel. In the infamous Unit 731 in Harbin, in northeastern China, an estimated 3,000 prisoners of war of many nationalities, including Chinese, Koreans, Russians, and Mongolians, died. In addition, tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of civilians died in epidemics after the Japanese field-tested germ warfare on them.

Many of the doctors had been sent to China from Japan's leading medical schools at the request of the Army. In return Unit 731 provided medical equipment and abundant opportunities for human experimentation. This has led one Japanese bioethicist to conclude that "the Japanese medical profession itself is guilty of the crime."

So what did the American occupation forces do to bring to justice the Japanese counterparts of the Nazi doctors?


Well, almost nothing. There was one small trial. In 1945 eight American airmen parachuted out of a disabled B-29 bomber over Japan. They were handed over to doctors at Kyushu University for vivisection and all of them died. After the war, 23 of the doctors were found guilty of various charges at a war crimes tribunal. But their sentences were later commuted and all were free again by 1958.

The atrocities in China, whose scale and horror dwarfed the fate of the unfortunate airmen, were ignored. The Soviet Union tried and found guilty 12 of the staff at Unit 731 in the 1949 Khabarovsk War Crime Trials. (Their sentences were remarkably light and all of them were repatriated in 1956.)

But American authorities were determined to cover up the crimes of Unit 731. They dismissed the trials as Soviet propaganda - which they were, of course, because the USSR wanted to embarrass the US. But the story which emerged from the Khabarovsk trials was basically accurate. However, it was not in America's interest to publicise it.

As a result, many of its doctors built successful careers in Japan after the War. The commander of the unit, Surgeon-General Shiro Ishii, lived out his days in relative obscurity. The man who succeeded him late in the war, Kitano Masaji, became head of one of Japan's leading pharmaceutical companies. Several directors of Japan's post-war National Institute of Health had been active participants in human experimentation during the 1930s and 1940s.

How could these men have possibly escaped justice when German doctors like Josef Mengele became by-words for unethical behaviour?

A fascinating answer to this question appeared recently in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. The facts are well documented, even if they are still not widely known.

To cut a long story short, American officials struck a deal with Shirō Ishii and his subordinates. They traded immunity from prosecution for access to information which had been gleaned from the ghastly Japanese experiments. In addition to biological warfare, these had included operations on Chinese prisoners without anaesthetic to practice surgical techniques under battlefield conditions, deliberately infecting prisoners with diseases, clinical trials of non-standard treatments, and testing human resistance to extreme conditions.

The US Army had been investigating biological warfare at Camp Detrick, in Maryland, but progress there was slow and the Japanese experience was quite "valuable". American scientists who had interviewed the staff of Unit 731 and examined their records were envious. They concluded that:

"Such information could not be obtained in our own laboratories because of scruples [sic] attached to human experimentation … It is hoped that the individuals who voluntarily contributed this information will be spared embarrassment [ie, not tried for crimes against humanity] because of it and that every effort will be taken to prevent this information from falling into other hands [ie, the Soviets]."

The remarkable feature of this investigation was this: it was not cynical diplomats or pragmatic soldiers who foiled attempts at prosecution; it was American scientists. It's one more example of how the quest for knowledge can subvert the moral scruples of highly intelligent men.

The scientists won over the US Army lawyers to their point of view. An Army task force concluded that, "The value to the US of Japanese [biological warfare] data is of such importance to national security as to far outweigh the value accruing from 'war crimes' prosecution." It was also highly cost-effective. Two scientists told the Army that Ishii's research had cost "many millions of dollars and years of work" and the US was effectively buying it for a "mere pittance".

From a distance of 70 years, what explains this moral blindness? How could the officials have ignored the need to redress the appalling injustices of ten years of horror, especially in view of the fact that their counterparts in Germany were putting Nazi doctors in the dock?

The article suggests two reasons. First, the Japanese military was so ruthless that it left no maimed survivors, no one to touch the hearts of newspaper readers, no wrenching stories of torment. Heart-stopping testimony from four Polish women who survived Ravensbrück concentration camp was powerful evidence at the Nazi doctors trials. But all of the Japanese victims had been slaughtered. No one was left to display their scars.

Second, "wartime exigency". Many factors were at play: the American reluctance to antagonise the Japanese; the value of the information; keeping Soviet hands off the information. "Wartime exigency does more than simply prioritize national security over human rights," write the bioethicists. "It urges toughness and decisiveness in decision-making, such that a moral blindness that would be seen as a deficiency in other times is instead seen as a virtue and a necessity."

Several historians of these events have concluded that the American authorities were "accomplices after the fact" to the crimes of the Japanese doctors. Bioethicist Jing-Bao Nie has pointed out that Americans have little idea of the deep rage felt by the Chinese over what happened and subsequent Japanese denials. His proposal is that the US make an official apology and offer some compensation for this historical injustice. It seems like a good idea. Six decades of cover-up is long enough.