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A true propagandist

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Thursday, 18 January 2007

Last year Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett's extended autobiography Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist was released receiving generally favourable reviews from writer Ross Fitzgerald in The Australian and academic historian Stuart Mcintyre in the on-line magazine New Matilda.

I have been interested in Burchett for some time and decided to do some research recently, while on a Fulbright fellowship in the US, into the most controversial aspect of his career, the role he played in spreading the claim that the United States had dropped biological weapons - infected insects - on North Korea and China in 1951 and 1952 during the Korean War. It is a claim the Chinese uphold to this day.

This accusation was a controversy during the early Cold War and goes to the heart of a long-running dispute in Australian intellectual life about the late Burchett's credibility. His supporters claim he was a rebel journalist reporting from the “other side”: his denouncers see him as a propagandist hack working for the Communist bloc.


Evidence that emerged from the Soviet archives well after the fall of communism in Russia - first translated by the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun and subsequently reviewed and published in a number of well regarded academic journals - may well close the case. It strongly suggests the claim that the Americans engaged in germ warfare during the Korean War was a well orchestrated hoax, co-ordinated by Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung, the Chinese and North Korean dictators, to embarrass the Americans and turn global opinion against them.

The evidence is 12 documents from the Soviet archives, including high-level memos between senior officials as well as a memo to Mao. The correspondence to Mao from the Soviet government states that the “accusations against the Americans were fictitious” and recommends that Mao cease “accusing the Americans of using bacteriological weapons in Korean and China”.

Other memos between Soviet officials discuss Chinese and North Korean attempts to fabricate evidence of germ warfare, which was to be shown to sympathetic scientists, lawyers and journalists from the West. More neutral observers from international organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross or the World Health Organisation were refused entry to China or North Korea to investigate the claims.

Further evidence of the fraudulent nature of the accusations is presented in Jung Chang's and Jon Halliday's recent biography Mao: The Unknown Story. They draw on interviews with Soviet officers who were in North Korea at the time and who claim there was no evidence the Americans carried out germ warfare during the Korean War. So what we seem to have is a Chinese and North Korean conspiracy, not a US conspiracy as Burchett often claimed.

During the early 1950s the germ warfare accusations were a fairly effective propaganda tool used to discredit the US not just in the Soviet Union and China where it received more attention than any other aspect of the Korean War, but also across Europe where it was used by Paris protesters in 1952 to lambast the visiting American military commander Matthew Ridgway as the “bacterial general”.

It is often cited that Burchett's extensive reporting of this accusation in the West was central to its expansion. Like the reports of Western scientists and lawyers who were shown fabricated evidence, Burchett's writings supposedly added credibility to the claims that the US had dropped germs on Korea and China.


Spreading claims that a nation has used, in today's parlance, “weapons of mass destruction” is a very serious undertaking, and, if falsely asserted, should surely vastly diminish one's credibility. So was Burchett merely caught up in this hoax or is his guilt more serious?

Burchett not only repeated in shrill tones the claims of the Chinese and North Koreans that germs had been dropped by the Americans using carriers such as insects, he also told the reader in his various writings that he had investigated the case himself and concluded it as true after talking to eye witnesses who had seen strange insects in northern Korea.

He also claimed at one point to have personally sighted strange bugs supposedly alien to Korea. Burchett writes, “One [bug] was an inch [2.5cm] long with a trailing abdomen and pincer like jaws, the other was smaller, like a very slim house-fly.” Elsewhere Burchett recalls the story of an American prisoner of war who ate a fly to prove that there were no germs dropped on North Korea and supposedly died the next day after suffering terrible fevers.

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First published in The Australian on December 23, 2006.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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