Lies from the Korean War, and Why They Still Matter

Here I sit just north of Austin, Texas wondering if, when, and why the North Koreans will attack us with nuclear weapons. The “if” will depend on whether their rockets can reach this far. The “when” appears to sometime after Wednesday, April 10, 2013. The “why” may be related to the presence of Samsung manufacturing facilities owned by South Koreans in the Austin metropolitan area. But to fully understand their animosity towards the United States, we have to go back to events which occurred during and just after the Korean War.

On November 28, 1953, one of the most bizarre events of the post-Korean War/Cold War era occurred when US Army Captain Frank Olson fell to his death from the window of a hotel in New York City.

Frank had been a biological warfare specialist employed at Fort Detrick in Maryland during the Korean War. While the specifics of his work have never been revealed, he was clearly involved in biological weapons (BW) research, including the use of anthrax as a BW weapon.

On or about Wednesday morning, November 18, 1953, Frank unknowingly ingested LSD which had been put into his drink by Dr. Sidney Gottlieb at a retreat for members of the CIA’s Special Operations Division. Following this dose of LSD, Frank became depressed, and he subsequently expressed a desire to get out of the germ warfare business. Ultimately he was taken to New York City to see a CIA psychiatrist for treatment of his LSD-induced mental state. On November 28, he fell from the window of the hotel where he was staying and died on the sidewalk below.

His family originally was not informed about the dose of LSD; the official story was that in his depressed mental state Frank had jumped out the window causing his own death. However, following the Church Committee hearings of 1975 into the domestic activities of the CIA, his family learned about the LSD episode. Frank’s body later was exhumed, and an independent autopsy was performed. It was then discovered that Frank’s body had injuries that must have occurred prior to his plunge from the window, suggesting that Frank had been assaulted in the room and thrown out the window to his death.

When Frank Olson’s family subsequently sued the federal government for his wrongful death, President Ford’s chief of staff and a senior White House assistant were key players in the discussions and negotiations which followed. You’ve probably heard of them – Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. 1

Why was Frank Olson killed?

During the Korean War, the North Koreans and the Chinese had accused the United States of using BW weapons, including anthrax. Some captured US Air Force personnel, including officers, had actually confessed to using such weapons. The United States has always denied the use of BW in Korea, but there is credible evidence that BW weapons were indeed used during that conflict. 2

If the United States had used biological weapons during the Korean War, Frank Olson should have known about it. When the captured Air Force personnel who had signed the confessions were repatriated in the fall of 1953, the United States asserted that they had been tortured and “brainwashed” and that their confessions therefore had been “false”. Frank Olson’s change of heart, LSD-drugging by the CIA, and death occurred shortly after the repatriated prisoners had recanted their confessions. It is possible that the chain of events leading to Frank’s death was intended to silence him so that additional facts regarding America’s use of BW in Korea would never be known. 3

On July 2, 2008, The New York Times published an article entitled “China Inspired Interrogations at Guantánamo”. 4  According to the article, our heroic interrogators at Guantánamo have been using techniques similar to those used during the Korean War to extract the “false” confessions from Air Force personnel regarding germ warfare and other atrocities. The article suggests that the confessions extracted at Guantánamo therefore also are false.

Other commentators, such as Professor Alfred McCoy and author Naomi Klein, have written extensively about our enhanced interrogation techniques and have addressed their “torture” aspect. For example, in Chapter One (“The Torture Lab”) of Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, she discusses the history of CIA experimentation programs leading to MKUltra which were at the heart of America’s past, present, and future interrogation/torture programs. Interestingly, these programs were started to address the aforementioned confessions made by US servicemen during the Korean War:

[On June 1, 1951] … a trinational meeting of intelligence agencies and academics [was held] at Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The subject of the meeting was growing concern in the Western intelligence community that the Communists had somehow discovered how to “brainwash” prisoners of war. The evidence was the fact that American GIs taken captive in Korea were going before cameras, seemingly willingly, and denouncing capitalism and imperialism. 5

Those American GIs were also confessing to engaging in acts of biological warfare.  It was ultimately determined that these CIA-endorsed experiments did not accomplish what they apparently were designed to do – determine how the Communists “brainwashed” our troops:

In fact, a large part of the scandal, when it finally broke, was that the CIA and Ewen Cameron had recklessly shattered lives with their experiments for no good reason — the research appeared useless: everyone knew by then that brainwashing was a Cold War myth. The CIA, for its part, actively encouraged this narrative, much preferring to be mocked as bumbling sci-fi buffoons than for having funded a torture laboratory at a respected university — and an effective one at that. 6

Previous evaluations of “brainwashing”, the MKUltra Program, and our enhanced interrogation techniques have been based on the unstated premise that the Korean War confessions were “false”. But the physical and documentary evidence suggests that the confessions were not false, and the circumstances of Frank Olson’s death also suggest that he was murdered to prevent him from corroborating that fact.

If the United States did, in fact, use biological weapons during the Korean War, the CIA was at least aware of, and perhaps intimately involved in, their deployment. For that agency to then posit that “brainwashing” was the reason for the confessions would have been a lie. For the same agency to then fund experiments to legitimize the concept of brainwashing to help cover up that lie, in the process wrecking countless lives and driving people mad, has got to be one of the most cynical misuses of power in our nation’s history.

It also suggests that the real goal of the CIA’s experimentation was not to keep our troops from making “false” confessions but to keep them from telling the truth. Were this to be the case, all the allegations concerning how enhanced interrogation has “saved lives” may be manifestly untrue. Had Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld shown due diligence in their investigation of the death of Frank Olson, they should have discovered this. I believe they did. And that possibility makes their use of, and enthusiastic support for, such techniques during the “War on Terror” all the more suspect.

The aforementioned July 2, 2008, New York Times article included a link to the study report “Communist Attempts to Elicit ‘False’ Confessions from Air Force Prisoners Of War” by Albert D. Biderman, M.A. The final sentence of Biderman’s report reads as follows:

Unlike the cynical Nazis who merely perpetrated the Big Lie, the Chinese Communist personnel whom our prisoners encountered in Korea were required to live the Big Lie. 7

I ask you, who actually are required to “live the Big Lie”: the Chinese, the North Koreans, or the citizens of the United States, who are prevented by their government from learning the truth because of “national security” concerns?

How many lies have you counted so far? I count at least three potential whoppers:
1.    The United States did not use biological weapons during the Korean War.
2.    The Chinese and North Koreans brainwashed our troops, causing them to sign false confessions.
3.    Our enhanced interrogation techniques are based on a program which was designed to encourage people to tell the truth.

Perhaps our “big stick” diplomacy can delay the outbreak of another war on the Korean Peninsula, and perhaps it cannot. In my view, it’s past time for the United States to confess to its war crimes of over 60 years ago and to atone for our national sins. It’s also past time to determine the true circumstances of Frank Olson’s death and the true rationale and outcome of the CIA’s programs which led to our current interrogation techniques. Doing so might delay or prevent a war, and it might also help uncover more of the fundamental lies of the “War on Terror”.

  1. Executive Intelligence Review []
  2. Endicott, S.L. and Hagerman, E., The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1998). []
  3. The New York Times []
  4. The New York Times []
  5. Klein, N., The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Picador, New York, 2008), p. 39 (Kindle edition). []
  6. Ibid, 44. []
  7. The New York Times []

Howard Uhal is a Vietnam era veteran of the US Army and a former nuclear submarine officer. He has held various positions in the nuclear and environmental industries and has degrees in Geology and Environmental Systems Engineering. He can be reached at: htuhal@gmail.com. Read other articles by Howard, or visit Howard's website.