Did the U.S. Wage Biowarfare Against Nazi Germany? 


One of the very few moments of comic relief to be found in Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War, by New York Times correspondents Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad, concerns what the authors describe as “ America’s only known biological attack.” It occurred in the early 1940s, long before President Richard Nixon formally renounced the use of biological weapons. The target was the Third Reich’s answer to Alan Greenspan, a man with the improbable name of Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht. (A stay in the United States during the 1870s, and in particular Horace Greeley’s editorials for the New York Tribune, had made a deep and favorable impression on the parents of this future president of Germany’s Reichsbank.) Schacht is remembered today, mainly by economists, as a highly successful inflation-fighter and an early practitioner of Keynesian economics. But reading over Schacht’s biography, Hitler’s Banker, published in 1997 by the men’s fashion designer John Weitz (who has a sideline writing World War II histories), leads Chatterbox to conclude that Schacht will more likely be remembered by history for his indestructibility.

As Miller et al. relate it, the revelation that the United States had once attacked another nation with a biological weapon was made at a 1975 hearing on the Central Intelligence Agency chaired by Sen. Frank Church, the man who famously (and accurately) described the CIA of the preceding era as a “rogue elephant.” CIA Director William Colby was being cross-examined about the CIA’s stockpiling of biological weapons, in apparent violation of the Nixon-era ban. Colby said that the CIA’s predecessor agency, the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services, had completed “a successful operation using biological warfare materials to incapacitate a Nazi leader temporarily.” Details didn’t emerge until a follow-up hearing conducted by Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1977, when the CIA submitted a report on its biological weapon stockpile that included the following passage:

Discussions indicate that the perception of the requirement for such capabilities was tied to earlier OSSexperience. This experience included the development of two different types of agent suicide pills to be used in extremis and a successful operation using BW [i.e., biological-weapon] materials against a Nazi leader. In the latter case, Staph. enterotoxin (food poisoning) was administered to Hjalmar Schacht so as to prevent his appearance at a major economic conference during the war. [Italics Chatterbox’s.] This agent was included in the materials maintained for the agency by SOD [i.e., the Special Operations Division at FortDetrick].

Neither Colby nor the CIA report spell out precisely how the staphylococcus bacteria surreptitiously poured over Schacht’s Wiener schnitzel managed to keep Schacht from attending his “major economic conference.” Miller et al. guess that Schacht came down with “chills, headache, muscle pain, coughing, and high fever.” Documentation doesn’t appear to exist about what conference it was that Schacht missed, whether he really did miss it, and whether, if he missed it, it made any difference to the war effort. All we can say for certain is that Schacht, in spite of whatever tummy ache the OSS may have inflicted on him, did not die. He lived until 1970, when he expired at the ripe old age of 93.

Prior to Germs, the CIA’s U.S. biowarfare revelation had apparently escaped the attention of the press and of historians, save for one Ehrhard Geissler, who wrote about it in German in 1999. Oddly, the Times hasn’t reported on the OSS and Schacht even since the publication of its own correspondents’ best-selling book(unless you count one brief mention in a review). Weitz, whose Schacht biography makes no mention of the food-poisoning incident—and who, coincidentally, served in the OSS during the war—told Chatterbox today that he thinks the story is “absolute bullshit.” The OSS, Weitz argued, was “a very exciting and good organization that in its wildest dreams would have not thought this possible.” In a footnote to Germs, Miller et al. have Weitz further arguing that the CIA had a good motive to cook up the Schacht story—it would have made the CIA’s bioweapons stockpiling seem more justifiable. That the OSS’s actions did justify the CIA’s is certainly the thrust of the passage quoted above.

But Chatterbox thinks it’s much more fun to believe that the OSS did target Schacht and, in doing so, chose very poorly. Although Schacht had been hugely important to Germany’s economy during the Weimar era and during Hitler’s rise to power, by 1938, it was Goering, not Schacht, who was running the Third Reich’s economy. Hitler continued to use Schacht as a sort of respectability ambassador to the Western economic powers, but that role would have been pretty well played out once the shooting started. Schacht, whose ties to the Nazis had always been opportunistic, grew increasingly disenchanted, and eventually Schacht became a peripheral figure in Count von Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Hitler. In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer avers that after the war Schacht “clearly exaggerated the importance of his role in the various conspiracies against Hitler.” But it was enough to get him arrested by the Nazis in 1944 and sent to Dachau and also enough to clear him at Nuremberg. (In Hitler’s Banker, Weitz notes that the 10 defendants who heard their sentences immediately prior to Schacht were all hanged.) By the 1950s, Schacht had a thriving business advising Third World countries. When he died in Munich in June 1970, the cause of death was a fall that occurred while he was stepping into formal evening wear.