Bioedge, 22 February, 2014
Reproduced with permission
All of contemporary bioethics springs from the Nuremberg Doctors Trial in
1947. Seven Nazi doctors and officials were hanged and nine received severe
prison sentences for performing experiments on an estimated 25,000 prisoners
in concentration camps without their consent. Only about 1,200 died but many
were maimed and psychologically scarred.
So what did the US do to the hundreds of Japanese medical personnel who
experimented on Chinese civilians and prisoners of war of many
nationalities, including Chinese, Koreans, Russians, Australians, and
Americans? They killed an estimated 3,000 people in the infamous Unit 731 in
Harbin, in northeastern China before and during World War II – plus tens of
thousands of civilians when they field-tested germ warfare.
Many of the doctors were
academics from Japan's leading medical schools.
Well, almost nothing. Twelve doctors were tried and found guilty by the
Soviets in the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials in 1949, but they were all
repatriated in 1956. American authorities dismissed the trials as Soviet
propaganda. Many of the doctors in Unit 731 went on to successful careers in
Japan after the War. The commander of the unit, Shirō Ishii, lived in
relative obscurity but his successor late in the war, Kitano Masaji, became
head of one of Japan's leading pharmaceutical companies.
How did the Japanese doctors escape justice?
A fascinating answer appears in the
Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. The broad outline of the story
has been well documented, even if it is not widely known. To cut a long
story short, the Americans struck a deal with the doctors. They traded
immunity from prosecution for access to scientific information from the
ghastly Japanese experiments – many of which are too grim to detail here.
(If you have the stomach for it, a remorseful doctor describes, at the age
of 90, some of his vivisection experiments in
an article in the Japan Times.)
A report from US scientists who interviewed the staff of Unit 731 and the
surviving records concluded that "Such information could not be obtained in
our own laboratories because of scruples [sic] attached to human
experimentation. . . . It is hoped that the individuals who voluntarily
contributed this information will be spared embarrassment [ie, not tried for
crimes against humanity] because of it and that every effort will be taken
to prevent this information from falling into other hands [ie, the
The authors of the article observe that: "Although it is only conjecture,
it is tempting to read into these statements a further conclusion that the
Americans, contrasting their slow progress at Camp Detrick [a US biological
warfare research facility] with the apparently vast accomplishments of Unit
731, were appreciative of what the Japanese lack of 'scruples' had
The remarkable feature of the investigation of the crimes of Japanese
military doctors was that it was American scientists who foiled attempts to
prosecute them. They won over the US Army lawyers to their point of view. An
Army task force concluded that " "The value to the U.S. of Japanese
[biological warfare] data is of such importance to national security as to
far outweigh the value accruing from 'war crimes' prosecution.""
From a distance of 70 years, what explains this moral blindness? The
article suggests two reasons. First, the Japanese were so ruthless that they
left no evidence, no maimed and scarred survivors, no one to touch the
hearts of newspaper readers, no heart-wrenching stories of torment. They
were all slaughtered. Second, "wartime exigency".
"Wartime exigency does more than simply prioritize national security over
human rights. It urges toughness and decisiveness in decision-making, such
that a moral blindness that would be seen as a deficiency in other times is
instead seen as a virtue and a necessity."
The authors conclude that the American authorities were clearly
"accomplices after the fact" to these appalling crimes.
This article was published by Michael Cook
and BioEdge.org under a Creative Commons licence.
You may republish it or translate it free of charge
with attribution for non-commercial purposes
these guidelines. If you teach at a university
we ask that your department make a donation to
Bioedge. Commercial media must
for permission and fees.