Wed. Feb 21st, 2024

Written by Robert Koehler

I call it the Nazi virus.

Even as we were prosecuting Nazis at Nuremberg for their barbaric behavior, including their notorious medical experiments on death camp inmates, we were, it turns out, conducting our own medical experiments on a vulnerable and unsuspecting population: Between 1946 and 1948, medical researchers with the U.S. Public Health Service deliberately infected almost 700 Guatemalan prisoners and mental patients with syphilis and gonorrhea in order to study the effects of penicillin on the diseases.

What does it take to be a monster? Maybe no more than good intentions and a war to fight — in the above case, a “war” against venereal disease — and, oh yeah, near-absolute power over a group of people who, so easily in such cases, become expendable, at least compared to what we can learn from their unknowing or forced participation in a scientific experiment. Their suffering, their death, is such a small thing compared to human progress. Just ask Dr. Mengele.

Susan Reverby, a professor of women’s studies at Wellesley College and an expert on the infamous 40-year-long Tuskegee experiment, discovered evidence of the Guatemala research last year as she read through some papers left behind by a participant, as it turns out, in both studies, Dr. John Cutler. She only recently published her findings, which precipitated embarrassed apologies from both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to the government of Guatemala and “Hispanic residents of the United States.”

The Nazi virus isn’t something that began and ended with the Nazis. If it did, the Nuremberg Code, defining the ethical boundaries of scientific or medical experimentation on human beings, would not have been necessary. It was adopted by the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1949, in the wake of the “doctors’ trial,” not to protect us from the Nazis but to protect us from ourselves.

“The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential,” the code begins. “This means that the person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, over-reaching . . .”

This is humanity’s minimum standard of good behavior for the powerful, and if we fall below it we enter the morally squishy area of pre-Nazism, which can lead to the unleashing of harm on our fellow human beings, and the human race as a whole, at a level — in the nuclear age — unexplored even by the Nazis.

The recent revelation of our research on Guatemalans 60-plus years ago begs a thorough examination of who we are, a scouring of the public record, and the opening of forgotten or classified documents that may reveal truths at odds with our pristine self-image as a decent, freedom-promoting society. We must know our own secrets — and be fully aware of our impulse to dehumanize those over whom we wield immense power.

And the public record is frightening: “During the last 50 years, hundreds of thousands of military personnel have been involved in human experimentation and other intentional exposures conducted by the Department of Defense, often without a service member’s knowledge or consent.”

Thus begins a 1994 report prepared for the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Examples cited include “thousands of World War II veterans who originally volunteered to ‘test summer clothing’ in exchange for extra leave time, (who) found themselves in gas chambers testing the effects of mustard gas and lewisite.” And Gulf War I veterans who told interviewers “they were ordered to take experimental vaccines during Operation Desert Shield or face prison.”

Most frightening of all is our history of radiation and nuclear weapons experimentation, which one Atomic Energy Commission employee, Dr. Joseph G. Hamilton, a radiation biologist, described in 1950 as having “a little of the Buchenwald touch.”

Experiments, according to a February 1994 article in The Progressive, include: a study at Vanderbilt University in the late 1940s, in which researchers “gave radioactive pills to 751 pregnant women who sought free care at a prenatal clinic”; the exposure of 19 mentally retarded boys at a state school in Fernald, Mass., “to radioactive iron and calcium in their breakfast cereal” from 1946 to 1956; and, from 1963 to the early 1970s, tests in which more than 130 inmates of Oregon and Washington state penitentiaries, who received no warning of the dangers, had their testicles subjected to high levels of radiation.

These are just a few examples. Open the door a little wider — allow Cold War politics into the room — and the moral relativism spreads exponentially. Above-ground nuclear testing over several decades, for instance, has involved millions of American guinea pigs.

The expendable people in all cases are the powerless: the poor, the mentally ill, prisoners, soldiers — and unsuspecting civilian populations generally. They are never given the option of invoking Article 9 of the Code: “During the course of the experiment, the human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end if he has reached the physical or mental state where continuation of the experiment seems to him to be impossible.”

About author

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at


0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
RS Janes
13 years ago

It’s a disgusting history — uh, we were the good guys in the Cold War, right?

As to his last part regarding fallout dropping on civilian populations in the US caused by the high-altitude jetstream, I read years ago that scientists for the Atomic Energy Commission secretly informed the AEC in the late 1950s that every major US city had been exposed to moderate levels of radiation dus to above-ground testing, and this exposure would cause a marked increase in lung, breast and bone cancers in the decades to come. The AEC scientists suggested blaming this increase on something else, otherwise the public might demand we get rid of our nuclear arsenal, or, at least, stop testing it, if it were revealed radiation was killing Americans. A few years later, the Surgeon General released his report on smoking and respiratory cancers, as well as other forms of cancer. Since these types of cancer were usually blamed on the effects of smoking or exposure to tobacco smoke it obviated, in the average person’s mind and that of their doctors, the need to search for any other cause.

Joyce Lovelace
Joyce Lovelace
13 years ago

In hearing about Guatemala, and now reading this, I began to wonder, “what do the people who do these kinds of things think upon reading these stories?” While normal people are enraged and frightened, do they simply think “See, everyone’s doing it. It’s fine!”?

Joyce Lovelace
Joyce Lovelace
13 years ago

John LeCarre had an good quote on NPR today. “Victims never forget. The winners do.” That says a lot toward what is going on today.

I also wonder. What makes the difference between a victim who develops compassion and empathy and one who becomes a bully or criminal themselves?

RS Janes
13 years ago

Joyce, I saw US Public Health Service Dr. John C. Cutler, who was connected with both the Tuskegee Experiment and the Guatemalan syphilis project in a tape on TV. It was chilling to watch this monster try to calmly rationalize the horrible things he had been a part of — like watching the Nazis at Nuremberg excusing their crimes. Here’s part of what he said:

“The Tuskegee study has been grossly misunderstood and misrepresented this way. And the fact was that it was concern for the black community, trying to set the stage for the best public health approach possible and the best therapy, that led to the study being carried out….
“We were dealing with a very important study that was going to have the long-term results of which were actually to improve the quality of care for the black community so that these individuals were actually contributing to the work towards the improvement of the health of the black community rather than simply serving as merely guinea pigs for the study. And of course I was bitterly opposed to killing off the study for obvious reasons.”

Got that? The black men and Guatamalans who were not treated for syphilis and, in the case of the Guatemalans, infected with the disease by Cutler’s staff, were unwittingly sacrificing themselves for future improved health care for their communities. This is what Hannah Arendt meant by the banality of evil; Cutler blandly defending destroying patients lives and betraying their trust to preserve his sacred ‘experiments.’ Josef Mengele couldn’t have said it better.

Ken Carman
13 years ago

Seems delusion is far too common amongst the populace. I have a cousin who told me recently that he thought Blacks came to this country willingly. Of course, he didn’t use “Black.” Not the only place I’ve heard such nonsense. it’s like a drunk who gets caught driving over and over and maybe even kills a family in an accident: always someone else at fault. The “America can do no wrong” crowd are far more in denial than such a driver. And, as a nation, nationalism reaches the point of a mental illness amongst some, and there are those pols all too willing to feed off the madness to get votes. People like Limbaugh and Beck make millions constructing lies for a nation to believe, the kind of lies only the KKK and the Birchers pushed years ago.

Ana Grarian
13 years ago

“willingly” under what circumstances? Lies – if you go you’ll work in the garden of eden and have lot’s of food. Coercion – if you go we won’t do this other horrible thing.
Even if someone does something willingly is it ethical to mistreat them?

Ken Carman
13 years ago

True. However I’ve heard such nonsense spouted here in the South by probable KKK members before.

They had their asses dragged here: ripped from their families.

Many died from crowded conditions, pestilence and some were intentionally thrown overboard for no other reason than lessening the load.

Like the Columbus story, we have never really taught the truth here… and the truth makes us look the opposite from what we claim to be. But mass genocide always does.

I know you probably know this, just after 30 years in the South it pisses me off that lies keep being told, and so many, like that cousin, are willing to accept a lie that supports his racist tendencies.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x