Harris' letter was entered into the record by Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was speaking about the controversies at the time about the ongoing classification even 50 or more years after the fact of documents pertaining to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan war crimes. In particular, the 1990s had seen a growing campaign to expose the activities of Japan's World War II biological warfare experiments and subsequent operational bacteriological and chemical warfare campaigns, which have collectively come to be known under the rubric of the campaign's most notorious brigade, Unit 731, led by Lt. Gen. Shiro Ishii.
The kick-off for the controversy was the publication in the Oct. 1981 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of "Japan's Biological Weapons: 1930-1945 - A Hidden Chapter in History," written by Robert Gomer, John W. Powell, and Bert V.A. Roling. Feinstein entered the entire article into the Congressional Record, along with another letter from historian Sheldon Harris, who had written a book on Unit 731 and the U.S. cover-up of their activities. According to Harris and Gomer/Powell/Roling, the U.S. had amnestied the Unit 731 scientists in order to get at the unethical data from human experiments on prisoners, data derived from intentional infliction of disease followed often enough by vivisection. The 731 survivors were incinerated or buried in mass graves.
Historians have documented the massive amount of destruction of records by the Japanese military, including many if not most of the records for Unit 731 and associated units. Professor Harris's letter references the U.S. destruction of records, and not the larger, and even more problematic destruction of records by the Japanese authorities.
The Japanese government denied any biological/chemical war crimes, while the U.S. slowly declassified some incriminating documents, but would not come out and say what the U.S. had done in relation to the Japanese doctors and scientists. Some of the Unit 731 personnel were tried in 1949 in a special war crimes trial by the Soviet Union. Much of what we know about Unit 731 and associated biological and chemical warfare divisions comes from this trial, which for years was derided in the West. (Google Books has republished a free ebook of the Soviet transcripts from the trial.)
In January 1999, President Bill Clinton, "in accordance with the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act (PL 105-246)... established the Nazi War Criminal Records Interagency Working Group (IWG)." But it wasn't until May 2000 that Congress, "as part of the Intelligence Authorization Act for 2001... extended the IWG's life to December 2004 through passage of the Japanese Imperial Government Disclosure Act, P. L. 106-567." The IWG's name was accordingly changed to the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group. According to the IWG website, declassification of U. S. Government records related to imperial Japan's war crimes then became an official part of the IWG's mission.
The IWG ended its declassification mission in March 2007 (extended from an original 2004 ending date). It subsequently published a final report to Congress in September 2007. Some resources have been placed online for researchers, primarily Select Documents on Japanese War Crimes and Japanese Biological Warfare, 1934-2006.
While over 100,000 previously unclassified documents related to Imperial Japan's biological warfare program were reportedly released via IWG's efforts, no further discussion or elaboration took place regarding Professor Harris's documentation of the destruction of records held by different U.S. military agencies.
The following is the text of Professor Harris's letter, which can be found online as part of the Congressional Record, or also here. It can also be accessed here.
GRANADA HILLS, CA,
October 7, 1999
Hon. SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN,
Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, DC.
DEAR SENATOR FEINSTEIN: Several Asian American activists organizations in California, and organizations representing former Prisoners of War and Internees of the Japanese Imperial Army, have indicated to me that you are proposing to introduce legislation into the United States Senate that calls for full disclosure by the United States Government of records it possesses concerning war crimes committed by members of the Japanese Imperial Army. I endorse such legislation enthusiastically.
My support for the full disclosure of American held records relating to the Japanese Imperial Army’s wartime crimes against humanity is both personal and professional. I am aware of the terrible suffering members of the Imperial Japanese Army imposed upon innocent Asians, prisoners of war of various nationalists and civilian internees of Allied nations. These inhumane acts were condoned, if not ordered, by the highest authorities in both the civilian and military branches of the Japanese government. As a consequence, millions of persons were killed, maimed, tortured, or experienced acts of violence that included human experiments relating to biological and chemical warfare research. Many of these actions meet the definition of "war crimes" under both the Potsdam Declaration and the various Nuremberg War Crimes trials held in the post-war period.
I am the author of "Factories of Death, Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932–45, and the American Cover-up" (Routlege: London and New York; hard cover edition 1994; paperback printings, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999). [Note: a revised edition was published in 2002 - ed.] I discovered in the course of my research for this book, and scholarly articles that I published on the subject of Japanese biological and chemical warfare preparations, that members of the Japanese Imperial Army Medical Corps committed heinous war crimes. These included involuntary laboratory tests of various pathogens on humans—Chinese, Korean, other Asian nationalities, and Allied prisoners of war, including Americans. Barbarous acts encompassed live vivisections, amputations of body parts (frequently without the use of anesthesia), frost bite exposure to temperatures of 40–50 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, injection of horse blood and other animal blood into humans, as well as other horrific experiments. When a test was completed, the human experimented was "sacrificed", the euphemism used by Japanese scientists as a substitute term for "killed."
In my capacity as an academic Historian, I can testify to the difficulty researchers have in unearthing documents and personal testimony concerning these war crimes. I, and other researchers, have been denied access to military archives in Japan. These archives cover activities by the Imperial Japanese Army that occurred more than 50 years ago. The documents in question cannot conceivably contain information that would be considered of importance to "National Security" today. The various governments in Japan for the past half century have kept these archives firmly closed. The fear is that the information contained in the archives will embarrass previous governments.
Here in the United States, despite the Freedom of Information Act, some archives remain closed to investigators. At best, the archivists in charge, or the Freedom of Information Officer at the archive in question, select what documents they will allow to become public. This is an unconscionable act of arrogance and a betrayal of the trust they have been given by the Congress and the President of the United States. Moreover, ‘‘sensitive’’ documents—as defined by archivists and FOIA officers—are at the moment being destroyed. Thus, historians and concerned citizens are being denied factual evidence that can shed some light on the terrible atrocities committed by Japanese militarists in the past.
Three examples of this wanton destruction should be sufficiently illustrative of the dangers that exist, and should reinforce the obvious necessity for prompt passage of legislation you propose to introduce into the Congress:
1. In 1991, the Librarian at Dugway Proving Grounds, Dugway, Utah, denied me access to the archives at the facility. It was only through the intervention of then U.S. Representative Wayne Owens, Dem., Utah, that I was given permission to visit the facility. I was not shown all the holdings relating to Japanese medical experiments, but the little I was permitted to examine revealed a great deal of information about medical war crimes. Sometimes after my visit, a person with intimate knowledge of Dugway’s operations, informed me that "sensitive" documents were destroyed there as a direct result of my research in their library.
2. I conducted much of my American research at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. The Public Information Officer there was extremely helpful to me. Two weeks ago I telephoned Detrick, was informed that the PIO had retired last May. I spoke with the new PIO, who told me that Detrick no longer would discuss past research activities, but would disclose information only on current projects. Later that day I telephoned the retired PIO at his home. He informed me that upon retiring he was told to ‘‘get rid of that stuff’’, meaning incriminating documents relating to Japanese medical war crimes. Detrick no longer is a viable research center for historians.
3. Within the past 2 weeks, I was informed that the Pentagon, for ‘‘space reasons’’, decided to rid itself of all biological warfare documents in its holdings prior to 1949. The date is important, because all war crimes trials against accused Japanese war criminals were terminated by 1949. Thus, current Pentagon materials could not implicate alleged Japanese war criminals. Fortunately, a private research facility in Washington volunteered to retrieve the documents in question. This research facility now holds the documents, is currently cataloguing them (estimated completion time, at least twelve months), and is guarding the documents under ‘‘tight security.’’
Your proposed legislation must be acted upon promptly. Many of the victims of Japanese war crimes are elderly. Some of the victims pass away daily. Their suffering should receive recognition and some compensation. Moreover, History is being cheated. As documents disappear, the story of war crimes committed in the War In The Pacific becomes increasingly difficult to describe. The end result will be a distorted picture of reality. As an Historian, I cannot accept this inevitability without vigorous protest.
Please excuse the length of this letter. However, I do hope that some of the arguments I made in comments above will be of some assistance to you as you press for passage of the proposed legislation. I will be happy to be of any additional assistance to you, should you wish to call upon me for further information or documentation.
Sincerely yours,In a March 30, 2007 Memorandum for the "Director, US Army Records Management and Declassification Agency" on the matter of "Japanese War Crimes - Record Search at Fort Detrick, Maryland", William H. Thresher, Chief of Staff at US Army Medical Command, referenced the Harris charges of destruction of records at Fort Detrick. Thresher was responding to a request from the Headquarters, Department of the Army (HQDA) "for information concerning records of interest to the Nazi/Japanese War Crimes Interagency Working Group (IWG)."
SHELDON H. HARRIS,
Professor of History emeritus,
California State University, Northridge
It is worth noting that this memorandum was written even as the IWG had just finished its declassification project.
Thresher wrote, "In early 2007, the USAMRIID [US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases] performed a thorough search for any remaining responsive records, including records regarding Unit 731, and found no records." The search included "the Commander and other senior personnel."
Thresher then turned to allegations by Professor Sheldon Harris concerning possible destruction of records at Fort Detrick. He reviewed the controversy:
Professor Harris, in his letter, dated 7 October 1999, stated that the recently-retired Public Information Officer at Fort Detrick (Mr. Norman Covert) told Professor Harris that upon retiring he was told to get rid of documents relating to Japanese war crimes.
The USAMRMC [US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command] is unaware of any authority at Fort Detrick or the USAMRMC requesting destruction of any responsive original records, or of copies of Fort Detrick or USAMRMC documents not previously provided to Dugway or NARA.Professor Harris died on August 31, 2002. To my knowledge, this is the first time anyone has written about his 1999 letter to Senator Feinstein detailing his charges about the destruction of records by US military officials. If it were up to the powers that be, this would be an example of government censorship lost in the whirlwind of moving events. But it seems an episode worth reviving, if nothing else as a documentation of an important episode in the history of exposing U.S. and Japanese biological warfare history.
A few years back, Norman Covert confirmed to this author his contention that his commanding officer at Ft. Detrick was the superior officer who told him to destroy the weapons.
And there the controversy stands to this day.