Know Your Syphilis Atrocities: Who Did America Value Less, Black Americans or Guatemalans?

When the news broke last week that American doctors had

deliberately infected Guatemalans with syphilis in the 1940s

, it immediately evoked the

Tuskegee syphilis study

. One doctor, John C. Cutler, was even involved in both projects.

For students of the pathology of power in America, though, there are important differences between the two cases. It’s easy to be so outraged as to lose track. The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, for one,

gets the key detail about Tuskegee wrong


In the narrative of white malfeasance told by Wright and others, the Tuskegee doctors deliberately infected poor black people with syphilis and then studied the progression of the disease. From there, logically, the story progresses to the development of AIDS in government laboratories, for the purpose of killing off the black race.

This is a powerful myth, but it both over- and underestimates the genuine wickedness of white people. The Tuskegee victims were not infected on purpose; they contracted the disease on their own. And then, for decades, the doctors watched them suffer, performed intrusive tests on them, and let them pass the disease on to their wives and children—even though, a few years into the study, it had become possible to cure syphilis with antibiotics. What Tuskegee really demonstrated was the psychopathic power of indifference, indifference raised to a guiding principle.

In Wright’s version, white people at least cared enough about black people to actively try to kill them. So it goes with AIDS and the crack epidemic as well—better that the CIA should have imported crack to deliberately poison black communities than that it should have merely

protected and abetted the drug importers

, for its own purposes, without caring about the damage one way or the other. Better that AIDS deaths should be a malicious government plot than a

mark of neglect


So the U.S. government did not go around intentionally infecting black people with syphilis. It went around intentionally infecting Guatemalans.

This captures the history of our Latin American policy about as neatly as Tuskegee illustrates domestic policy. In Guatemala, there really was a conspiracy to infect people, to casually manipulate the locals’ lives in the service of the United States’ domestic interests. Things the Yankee experimenters couldn’t do back home were fine to do abroad:

When the prostitutes did not succeed in infecting the men, some prisoners had the bacteria poured onto scrapes made on their penises, faces or arms, and in some cases it was injected by spinal puncture

Then again, the doctors did give the Guatemalans penicillin. That was the point of infecting them, to test what penicillin could do against the disease. Which experiment treated its subjects worse? All that’s clear is that none of the researchers used what they’d learned from what they did to the people in Guatemala to treat the people at Tuskegee.