The Nazi Virus

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

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.”