Biological Warfare: Vannevar Bush’s “Entering Wedge” (1944)

by Alex Wellerstein, published July 25th, 2012

At the end of 1944, Vannevar Bush and James Conant, the atomic administrators at the Office of Scientific Research and Development and the National Defense Research Committee, were starting to worry about what to do about the bomb. Not in the near term — but what to do about it after World War II.

How do you regulate a totally new technology — both domestically and internationally? Where do you begin, in thinking about it? Especially when the technology in question is the atomic bomb, a weapon that seemed to pose insuperable existential questions and seemed capable of revolutionizing not only war, but the idea of nation-states themselves?

General Leslie Groves, James B. Conant, and Vannevar Bush, in August 1945

Bush and Conant, for their part, spent a lot of time looking for analogies: using their experience with other regulatory regimes to inform their understanding of an atomic regulatory regime.

This wasn’t their first technological rodeo: Bush had been deeply involved in radio technology regulation in the 1920s, and Conant was a veteran hand when it came both to chemical warfare and, as it happened, the regulation of rubber. (One of the many control approaches they pursued was that of patents, which I’ve written about pretty extensively.)

But even more pertinently, they worked openly on the problem of regulating biological warfare, with the secret goal of using this as a trial balloon for the types of regulations they’d recommend for the atomic bomb.

The weekly document is a letter from Vannevar Bush to James B. Conant, dated October 24, 1944, on the problem of the long-term control of biological warfare— not just because Bush thought it was important, but because he thought it would help make sense of what to do with the bomb.1

Click image for the PDF.

Bush started it off by referencing a “recent memorandum” to the Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, which they had sent at the end of September. In that memo, Bush and Conant warned that secrecy wouldn’t be a long-term international solution for the bomb, and strongly recommended that Stimson start seriously making moves towards some means of international control of the bomb. Stimson wasn’t yet sure, though (he would later become convinced).

He then continued:

I have been giving some thought to another subject recently, and possibly it offers a means of approaching this one [the bomb]. Everyone is now agreed, I think, that biological warfare is not likely to break out in the European Theatre. In the Far East the situation may be more dangerous, especially if chemical warfare is started, but even there I believe that any large-scale biological warfare is highly unlikely for the present war. In fact, excitement on the matter in this country has died down. 

In the world of the future there may be some danger that biological warfare would be developed in secret by a future aggressor and suddenly sprung upon the world. This depends, I suppose, upon how biological matters develop, but the possibility is already there in some forms.

Bush considers biological warfare to be somewhat of a dead, but scary, letter.  Since it was looking like it would be irrelevant to the current conflict (Bush either didn’t know or didn’t consider the BW use by Japan again the Chinese to fall under this assessment), it could be talked about relatively openly. Thus they could explore some of the salient questions about the atomic bomb before the bomb itself was outside of secrecy. Pretty clever, Dr. Bush.

The exact plan Bush was shooting around was as follows:

Now it seems to me that this would be far less dangerous if there were full interchange between biological scientists all over the world, especially if this occurred through an international organization, with frequent international conferences on epidemiology held in all of the large countries in turn, and with a central organization collecting public health information, with particular emphasis on the prevention of epidemics. Under such circumstances if one country were developing the military aspects of the matter on a large scale in secret there would be a fair chance, I believe, that it would become known.

Certainly any county that did not have ideas of aggression somewhere in the back of its mind would be inclined to join such an affair genuinely and open up the interchange, unless indeed there is more duplicity in the world than I am inclined to think. It may be well worth while to attempt to bring this about.

The plan, then, was to have complete scientific interchange as a regulatory mechanism. If the work being done is talked about openly, then there would be no “secret arms race.”

This is an idea that was quite popular in many circles at the time regarding the bomb, as well. Niels Bohr in particular argued very strongly for this form of “international control”: if you got rid of secrecy, he argued, you’d be able to see what everyone was doing, and if all the relevant scientists dropped of the face of the Earth all of the sudden, you’d know they were developing WMDs.2

It’s an optimistic idea, one which puts a little too much stock, I think, in the communicative power of scientific exchange. An invitation to a conference is not a verification mechanism. It doesn’t take into account the ability of states to stage entirely shadow programs, or to have scientists who are happy to be duplicitious to other scientists. It somewhat naively subscribes to the idea of a transnational scientific community that is “above” politics. Even by World War II such a notion should have been seen as somewhat old fashioned; certainly the Cold War showed it to be.

Still, the goals were laudable, and as a way for thinking through international scientific control, it wasn’t the worst approach. Bush and Conant’s greatest fear with respects to the bomb was a “secret arms race.” They really thought this could not end with anything but mass destruction for all. At least a non-secret arms race, they argued, would keep people from doing anything too stupid.

Bush closes the letter with this wonderful paragraph:

You will readily see that I have in mind more than meets the eye, and am thinking of an entering wedge. However, I would very much like to explore with you this particular thing on its own merits, and also from the standpoint of what its relationship might be to other matters.

Bush was interested in the control of biological warfare, but he was more interested in thinking about the bomb. Biological warfare would be his “entering wedge” in approaching the issue of scientific control, knowing that soon enough they’d be worrying about something he considered even bigger.

  1. Citation: Vannevar Bush to James B. Conant (24 October 1944), Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, RG 227, microfilm publication M1392, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d. (ca. 1990), , Roll 5, Target 8, Folder 38, “Bush, V. (1944-45).” []
  2. The full, more formal plan can be found in Vannevar Bush and James B. Conant, “Memorandum on the Future of Biological Warfare as an International Problem in the Postwar World,” (27 October 1944), Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1108 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 6, Target 6, Folder 77, “Interim Committee — International Control.” []

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9 Responses to “Biological Warfare: Vannevar Bush’s “Entering Wedge” (1944)”

  1. Patrick McCray says:

    Hey Alex…interesting. The idea of looking to past agencies and regulations as a model for dealing with the future has some other examples. When the US was trying to respond to Sputnik in 1957-58 it considered a range of options for the new space agency and, in doing so, looked to the AEC as one possible model. Somewhere, I have the reference for this if you wish. Cheers,

    • It seems like the standard model for dealing with new things, which makes sense.

      What I like about the bomb case is that Bush and Conant really groped around. BW was one analog they thought about, but there were others — I’ll write on them another time. My favorite, though, was that they considered narcotics a good way to think about regulating domestic research — e.g., doctors can get heroin with a license, etc. Drugs and nukes… two things you don’t usually see together in a government document.

      • Tim says:

        Thanks, Alex! Examining Bush and Conant’s attempt to use biological weapons as a model for nuclear technology control at a distance of nearly 70 years shows that analogies sometimes conceal as much as they reveal. The significant differences between today’s global nuclear and biological arms control regimes shows that different dangerous/beneficial technologies need to be treated in different ways because they are, well, different.

        All this reminds me of how people in today’s nuclear community (and I’m guilty here too) tend to try to understand cyberwarfare using the whole raft of nuclear concepts (signalling, deterrence, escalation, verification, etc.) The technical differences in the deployment, employment, attribution and effects of these two very different weapons categories means that in this instance too, analogies probably hurt more than they help.

        • One of my on-going projects is trying to find a useful framework to (qualitatively) talk about the differences between the various sciences and technologies that make up modern WMD threats. I think I’m making some headway towards a useful model, but it builds on having 60+ years of WMD proliferation history as input data, which of course Bush and Conant completely lacked. I’m impressed they did as well as they did, at the time.

  2. Blake says:

    Sorry this is apropos of nothing, but do you know anything about I.I. Rabi’s proposition shortly after the war to use American nuclear capability to force an ultimatum on the rest of the world (ie. the Soviets) to abandon their nuclear ambitions under threat of attack? I cannot remember for the life of me where I read about it and I can’t really find anything about it anywhere now. It seemed to be the only possibility (albeit and obviously wildly remote one) for actual worldwide nuclear non-proliferation, as, if I remember right, his ultimatum would’ve included the necessary immediate disarmament of the US once other nations acquiesced.

  3. Will Thomas says:

    Alex, do you know Waqar Zaidi’s work on liberal internationalism? In a similar vein, he discusses the transplantation of the idea for an international “air police” (dating back to just after World War I) into postwar efforts to internationalize control of atomic weapons. He argues that atomic scientists picked up the idea from, I guess you would call them diplomacy intellectuals. He has a PhD thesis written at Imperial, and an article in Past and Present. I did a blog post about it back in 2011.

    • That’s interesting, Will.

      The international control period that I find most interesting is before the bomb was itself public. There you get such an interesting mix of ideas about it. I’m not completely sure that I buy the thesis that the atomic scientists, at that point, were heavily influenced by the diplomacy intellectuals — Bohr, Bush, and Conant, plus those at Chicago, seem to me to have developed a lot of these ideas indigenously while in a secrecy bubble. (Which isn’t to say they weren’t influenced — Szilard was definitely an “air police” fan, but there I’d put H.G. Wells as the key influence…)

      But I could totally buy it for the post-World War II campaigns, where international control takes on a much more explicitly utopian, internationalist bent.

  4. [...] He had a much greater influence on the Los Alamos scientists, like Robert Oppenheimer, and Bohr’s line of thinking can be seen very plainly in the Acheson-Lilienthal Report that Oppenheimer would later contribute to. At the heart of Bohr’s approach was the free exchange of scientific information and scientists — an end of secrecy, he argued, would make it impossible to have a secret nuclear arms race. (This was the same opinion that Vannevar Bush and James Conant had independently come to, as remarked previously on this blog.) [...]

  5. […] James B. Conant’s wartime work is usually thought of as being part of the Second World War, but what I’m interested here is what he did during the First. During World War II, Conant was part of the scientist-administrator cabal that launched the National Defense Research Committee, the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and the Manhattan Project. He was Vannevar Bush’s right hand man, an interested, similarly-thinking scientist who tried to take the long view of things. And as President of Harvard since 1933, he commanded a lot of academic clout. He was at the Trinity test. He and Bush bent Roosevelt’s ear about making the bomb, and later trying to control it. […]

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