The government tried to put journalist John W. Powell in prison half a century ago for reporting that the U.S. Army had used germ warfare in Korea. He’s still convinced it’s true.
Fifty years ago this spring, at 3:15 in the morning on April 26, 1956, the phone rang in the home of San Francisco journalist John W. Powell and his wife Sylvia. A network radio news reporter was on the line, eager to flesh out a story he was working on.
Despite the ungodly hour, the call didn’t surprise Powell. As he told reporters at a press conference a few hours later, he and his wife had been busy answering the phone day and night since the previous afternoon, when a federal grand jury had charged them, to their astonishment, with sedition.
The story dominated the front pages of that day’s newspapers. The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, gave it the huge, above-the-flag banner headline the paper then regularly used to boost newsstand sales. “S.F. JURY INDICTS WRITER – SEDITION,” it read in two-inch-high bold type.
The articles noted that the jury had charged Powell with 12 counts of sedition and one count of conspiring to commit sedition. His wife had been charged also, with a single count of conspiracy, as had a man named Julian Schuman, who’d been Powell’s associate editor. They were the first journalists charged with sedition since World War II, and the implication was that they had been in league with international communism.
This was the beginning of one of the most extraordinary criminal cases in San Francisco in the last century. It was an especially dramatic example of the anti-Communist hysteria of the period, the McCarthyism that had created an ongoing “American inquisition,” as a historian later called it, in which writers were especially vulnerable. More important, though, the case laid the foundation for later investigations that revealed one of the greatest secrets of World War II, a secret the U.S. government wanted to keep hidden forever.
Sedition is an extremely serious crime. Each count the Powells faced was punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine—this when elegant homes in San Francisco were selling for $35,000. Just as significant, it was akin to treason in its suggestion of disloyalty to America and the stigma that engendered.
The specific charges were chilling. The government alleged that the defendants, in their capacity as journalists working at an English-language journal in Shanghai, China, during the Korean War, had published false reports designed to impede American military operations and promote the success of the country’s enemies, Communist North Korea and China.
The most damaging charge was that the defendants had falsely accused the United States of using germ warfare during the Korean War, and that the North Koreans had forced American prisoners of war to read copies of the publications containing these charges as part of a brutal process of indoctrination and even brainwashing.
This was something most Americans couldn’t stomach. Despite America’s demonstrated willingness to use horrific anti-civilian weapons—the firebombing of Japanese and German cities in World War II, for example, and of course the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—they couldn’t conceive of their government doing anything so evil as spreading terrible diseases to kill civilians.
Anyone who made such charges had to be a Communist, they believed. There was no other explanation.
In those dark days of the McCarthy era, fear dominated the national psyche, much as it does today. Then it was fear of Communists, not Islamist jihadis, but the psychology was similar, and so was the official response. It’s worthwhile, then, to look back at the Powells’ remarkable case not only because it was a historic attack on journalists’ freedom to publish, but also for what it reveals about our current situation.
The case and its aftermath also remind us that events often don’t turn out as expected. None of the prosecutors foresaw, for example, that by bringing charges they were giving Powell the impetus to vindicate himself. It would take more than 20 years, but eventually he would be back in the news, making headlines around the world and appearing as the central figure in a 60 Minutes exposé of U.S. involvement in biological-weapons development and the nation’s collaboration with Japanese war criminals.
My several interviews with Powell took place in the second-story Mission District flat he’s occupied for four decades—alone since May of 2004, when Sylvia died at the age of 83. Stone rubbings and other artwork they brought from China fill the walls. Two of the rooms, his office and the large living room, are lined with books floor to ceiling, the remnants of his father’s 4,300-volume library, in its time one of the best English-language collections in Asia.
We talked at a large wood table in the center of his high-ceilinged kitchen. Old-fashioned utensils, collected when he and Sylvia operated an antiques shop in the storefront downstairs, hang from hooks, and there’s an ancient wood-burning cooking stove at one end of the room that he uses for heat on cold days.
Powell’s not a big man—a reporter once described him as a “slightly built, bespectacled writer"—but he’s got a steadiness of manner and dry sense of humor that hint at the stubbornness that led him to stand up to the U.S. government. At 87, he’s as intellectually curious as ever, follows the news closely, rails regularly at the incompetence of the Bush administration—and remains adamant that what he wrote a half-century ago was true.
Powell’s connection with China began in 1917, when his father, John B. Powell, co-founded the China Weekly Review, in Shanghai. It was modeled after the influential American political journal The New Republic and was a mix of original reporting, digests of other reports on China-related subjects, and opinion.
The younger Powell, who’s been known as “Bill” all his life, was born in Shanghai on July 3, 1919, after his mother was rushed to a hospital in a rickshaw. A year later his parents decided it wasn’t safe for an infant in turmoil-ridden Shanghai, so they sent him home to Hannibal, Mo., to be reared by his mother’s family.
He returned to Shanghai for a year in 1926, when he was 7, and again in 1940, when he took a leave of absence from the University of Missouri’s famed school of journalism to join his father in Shanghai.
“I was halfway through school, so I decided not to tell him,” he said. “But I think he was glad I came, because when I left a year later he tried to dissuade me. But I wanted to go back to school, which of course I never did because the war came.”
After Pearl Harbor, Powell joined the Office of War Information, the military’s journalism arm, as a news editor. In 1943, he was sent to Chungking, in far southwestern China. The Japanese had driven the erstwhile government, the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang Party, to this distant redoubt, while they occupied the major cities of the country’s eastern provinces.
The United States strongly supported the Nationalists as both allies in the war against Japan and a bulwark against Mao Tse-tung’s Communist forces, which then controlled much of rural northwestern China.
Working in close proximity to Chiang’s government-in-exile, however, Powell and the other Americans in the area saw that the U.S. was betting on a bad horse.
“It was obvious it was not really a functioning government,” he explained. “It was hopelessly corrupt and ineffective.”
Soon after U.S. bomber pilots dropped an A-bomb on Hiroshima, Powell flew to Shanghai. His father had continued publishing the Review after the Japanese takeover of the city, but when war was declared the Japanese threw him into prison and shut down the magazine. Barely surviving on starvation rations, he’d lost half his weight, and injuries to his feet had led to gangrene. Repatriated in a 1942 prisoner exchange, he lost both of his lower legs and never regained his health, dying in 1947.
Young Powell went to the Review’s former offices and found the place looted of everything, including his father’s splendid library (fortunately, much of it was later recovered).
Powell resigned from the OWI and went to work. Two months later, on Oct. 20, 1945, he published the first issue of the reborn China Weekly Review, pledging to “aim at the same high standards of journalism and to follow the same basic principles of truth and accuracy as those established in 1917 by its founders….”
He was 26 years old.
For eight years, until June of 1953, Powell published his magazine, first as a weekly and then, when revenues declined, as a monthly.
The early issues are filled with reports on developments in China that, in retrospect, were establishing conditions for the Chinese Communist Party’s eventual takeover: the pervasive corruption and fascistic thuggery of the Nationalists; fiscal mismanagement and escalating inflation that were making investment in China risky and wiping out savings; oppressive feudal landlordism in rural areas; and, of course, the ongoing civil war.
When Communist forces finally moved into Shanghai in mid-1949, Powell, like most Shanghailanders, warily welcomed them, not because he shared their ideology, but because he was disgusted with the Kuomintang and believed only the Communists had the discipline and determination to restore China to health.
By that time Bill and Sylvia Powell had met, married and had their first son, John. She’d come to China in 1946 to do relief work, and, as fellow residents of the International Settlement, an enclave for Americans and Europeans, they’d quickly become acquainted and then, in 1947, wed.
Sylvia Powell was from Portland, Ore., where her father was an insurance company executive. She’d graduated from Reed College and then gone off to China to do relief work where it was desperately needed.
She and Bill clicked from the beginning. They complemented each other, her enthusiasm and warmth providing a natural balance for his intellectualism and dry wit. In the years to come, through all the difficulties, they never wavered in their devotion to each other.
Following the Communist revolution, the Review began to develop a complex set of positions on Far Eastern affairs. The journal opposed European neocolonial efforts in the area, and it encouraged the United States not to isolate China. Powell’s great hope was that Sino-American relations would take a non-confrontational course and that China would not become America’s new Cold War enemy.
But powerful forces in the United States were furious that this country somehow had “lost” China. Members of this formidable “China Lobby,” as it was called, were determined to rewind the tape of history by bringing down the new Chinese government and restoring to power Chiang Kai-shek, who’d fled to Taiwan.
Still, many influential Americans agreed with Powell, and for a while there was a possibility that the U.S. government might see the wisdom in cultivating the Chinese as trading partners. Then, on June 25, 1950, North Korean troops launched a carefully prepared and devastating invasion of South Korea, swarming over the 38th parallel at numerous points. War had begun on the Korean Peninsula, and any possibility of a softening of U.S.-China relations was obliterated.
Powell abhorred the war. He viewed it, however, as an internal civil conflict between the oppressive Syngman Rhee regime in the South and the equally onerous Communist North and urged the United States to stay out of the conflict and let the Koreans settle it themselves.
Many historians now point to the success of modern democratic, capitalist South Korea as proof that President Harry Truman’s decision to enter the war was correct. But at the time few people in war-weary America felt confident about it.
More than 2 million people died in the war, most of them civilians killed during U.S. bombing raids on North Korean cities, a fruitless effort designed to break the nation’s will. Hundreds of thousands of Korean soldiers on both sides died, and more than 30,000 American soldiers perished.
Powell’s opposition to the war and to what he called “hysterical anti-communism” in the United States began to make him enemies in this country. In July 1950 Time magazine, whose publisher, Henry R. Luce, was a dominant figure in the China Lobby, called him “an outright apologist for Communism.”
And nothing angered the members of the China Lobby and others in the rightist anti-communist camp more than Powell’s reporting on Chinese and North Korean allegations that the United States had dropped bacteriological weapons on North Korea.
Using both Chinese and American sources, Powell reported that, at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had shown conclusively that a secret scientific unit of the Japanese Imperial Army had tested biological weapons—anthrax, typhus, smallpox and the like—on prisoners of war, some of them American. According to the Soviets, the United States not only had gained access to the results of the unit’s work, but also had refused to prosecute its leaders as war criminals.
There was no doubt that the U.S. was engaged in biological-weapons work at that point. Many major American news vehicles, including Life magazine and The New York Times, had reported on American bio-war efforts beginning in 1946. The official American position was that bacteriological weapons would be used only in defense against an attack.
Powell didn’t buy that—germ warfare is an offensive tool, with little practical defensive use. Powell had seen what were described as empty germ canisters and had heard witnesses reporting that those canisters had been dropped into North Korea. And a smallpox epidemic had broken out in the north in 1951. He was convinced.
What Powell did not know was that the North Koreans were using his articles as part of an effort to convince American prisoners of war to denounce their own government. A number of captured fliers confessed that they’d dropped germ weapons on North Korea. They would later say they had been forced by their captors to read Powell’s stories.
That would form the emotional core of the case against him.
The Powells finally shut down the Review and returned home in August 1953. They rented a small flat in San Francisco. By this time John was 6 and their second son, Tom, was 4. (A third son, Campbell, was born in 1957.) Bill tried to make a living as a writer, but with his reputation that was “hopeless,” he said. Sylvia took a job as a secretary.
Powell did give occasional talks. Despite the Korean War, many Americans, including business leaders, were interested in his notion that America should engage China by lifting its trade embargo and resuming diplomatic relations and were put off by the witch-hunt atmosphere of McCarthyism.
Britain, France and other countries had resumed trade with China since the Korean Armistice, Powell noted. The United States is hurting only itself by not joining them, he said. “We can’t stop the modernization and industrialization of China,” he told a Portland, Ore., group in September 1953.
By this time, though, returning American POWs were telling of forced indoctrination and group study designed to turn them against their country. One of the journals supplied by the Chinese for the prisoners to study had been the China Monthly Review.
Subpoenaed to appear in Washington, D.C., before the Senate Internal Security subcommittee on Sept. 27, 1954, Powell had to listen as he was called a “murderer” and part of a “secret communist cell.” Then, a parade of former POWs testified that the Review was “must” reading in Korean prison camps. As Newsweek reported, “One witness told of a U.S. officer whose death resulted from abuses inflicted after he declared the Review ‘wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.'”
Powell refused to participate in the hearing, citing the Fifth Amendment and accusing the committee of attempting to entrap him. Asked if he was a member of the Communist Party, he replied, “I do not think I am called upon to tell you whether I am a Republican or a Democrat or a Communist or anything else.”
The next day, the chairman of the subcommittee, William E. Jenner (R-Indiana), “declared he would ask the Justice Department to press treason charges against [Powell],” Newsweek reported.
Three months later, in December 1954, a road show version of the subcommittee came to San Francisco, this time chaired by Sen. Herman Welker (R-Idaho) and again featuring ex-POWs as witnesses. It issued subpoenas for both Bill and Sylvia Powell. Anticipating the summons, he left town to avoid being served, but she was forced to appear. As her husband had earlier, she stood on the Fifth Amendment, refusing even to give her husband’s name. “I cannot give you my husband’s name because of the atmosphere of this hearing,” she said.
Asked to state where she worked, she pleaded not to be required to respond, saying, “It might cost me my job.” Directed to answer, she replied, “The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.” An hour and a half after the hearing, she was fired.
By this time pressure was mounting to charge the Powells with something, but it was difficult. The U.S. Justice Department had been unable to identify a particular treasonous act with at least two witnesses, as required by the Constitution, and sedition charges could be applied only to acts that took place within the United States.
Finally, after prodding by the FBI, the Justice Department convened a federal grand jury that indicted Bill Powell on 12 counts of sedition and him, Sylvia Powell and Julian Schuman, who like Sylvia had been an associate editor at the Review, on a single charge of conspiracy to commit sedition.
The essence of the charges was that Powell had falsely accused the United States of aggression in Korea, of using germ warfare, of stalling truce negotiations and of underestimating American casualties. Powell’s purpose, the government maintained, was to impede the American military and help its enemies. The conspiracy charges against all three defendants were based on their having worked together at the Review.
As Stanley I. Kutler states in his book The American Inquisition, about the political trials of the 1950s, “The indictment was a culmination of the political assault on Powell the government had conducted since his return.”
Bail was set at $5,000 each for the Powells and $3,000 for Schuman.
“What would you do if you awoke one morning and found out you had to raise $10,000 by the following day?” Sylvia Powell asked reporters interviewing her and Bill the next day in their small cottage on Potrero Hill.
Fortunately, they had received many offers of assistance. Some had offered money, others to care for their children. “It takes something like this to realize how good people are,” she said.
It would be nearly three years before the Powells’ case would come to trial, and in that time they raised $40,000 altogether for their defense, a huge sum in those days. Many people came to their aid, including the writer Jessica Mitford and many other writers and artists. The folksinger Malvina Reynolds’ husband Bud gave Bill Powell carpentry pointers, which, along with what Powell learned from books, enabled him to make a living refurbishing and reselling old houses.
Several people sent them monthly donations, including a Menlo Park couple, Oscar and Olive Meyer. Olive Meyer, who owned a business that sold science kits to schools, also gave Sylvia a full-time job. Another friend, Marge Frantz, worked tirelessly arranging fund-raising dinners and seeking contributions.
Bill Powell later told of taking his Volkswagen to be serviced. The garage owner had read about their case in the newspaper and offered to service the car regularly at no charge. “You’ll need your car,” he said.
The person who donated the most, however, was Doris Brin Walker, their lead attorney, who worked virtually pro bono for years on their behalf. Other lawyers played major roles, including Charles Garry, who later would become famous as the attorney for the Black Panthers, and A. L. Wirin, an attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, but they had to be paid.
Walker’s strategy was simple enough: She insisted that what the Powells had written in their magazine was true and that the defense would prove it. The quandary was that the government controlled the information the Powells needed.
Paradoxically, Kutler notes, “this situation ultimately proved equally troublesome for the government.” That’s because, when the defense issued subpoenas to the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Departments of State and Defense and various high-level Korean War generals seeking classified information about the conduct of the war and bacteriological weapons, the government didn’t want to release anything.
In addition, the United States lacked diplomatic relations with China and North Korea, which meant that the Powells’ lawyers could not obtain visas and thus could not depose witnesses there. This put the State Department on the spot: If no visas were issued, the case would be dismissed.
Finally, in January 1958, the government relented, and Wirin became the first American to travel to the new China under a valid passport. He interviewed 50 witnesses, some of whom claimed they saw American planes drop containers of insects, while others testified that the insects carried deadly diseases. But, he later told the judge in the case, Lewis F. Goodman, the witnesses refused to appear unless the United States and China negotiated a judicial-assistance agreement. The government was unwilling to do that.
When the trial finally began, on Monday, Jan. 26, 1959, everyone involved expected a sensational examination of the issue of germ warfare as well as a lengthy tussle over evidentiary matters. Dozens of reporters were present, and outside the federal courthouse on Seventh Street television news crews had set up cameras.
In his opening remarks, U.S. Attorney Robert H. Schnacke told jurors, “The magazine [the Review] was one of the major weapons of war used to control the minds of American prisoners” captured in Korea. He read into the record several excerpts accusing the Americans of spreading smallpox, cholera and plague germs, as well as Powell’s charge that the use of bio-war “surpasses the savagery of Hitler Germany and Hirohito Japan.”
In his opening statement, Garry, who argued the case for the defense, stated that Powell himself had seen evidence of germ warfare and that the defense would prove his reports on the subject were true if they could get witnesses here from China. Otherwise, he argued, the Review articles in question were simply news reports and personal opinion based on evidence Powell believed was credible, all protected by the First Amendment.
The trial took a dramatic turn on Jan. 30. When Schnacke asked witness Page Taylor, an Army private and POW for 33 months, whether he ever saw the Review distributed in the camps, Walker objected. The question raised issues outside the scope of the sedition laws, she said.
Judge Goodman dismissed the jury to hear arguments on the point. He then agreed with Walker, ruling that the sedition laws apply only to acts committed in the United States.
Schnacke, seeing his case going up in smoke, vigorously defended his contention that testimony on use of the magazines for indoctrination purposes should be permitted. “I think the evidence actually does establish acts of treason,” he said.
Goodman picked up on the word “treason,” saying that Baylor’s testimony would be admissible under a treason indictment. “I would agree with you that the evidence so far presented in this case would be prima facie—I’m not ruling on what a jury would do—would be prima facie sufficient to sustain a verdict of guilty under the treason statute.”
When the Oakland Tribune hit the streets that afternoon, the headline read, “Judge Says Powells, Aide Guilty of Treason.” Another paper’s headline read, “Powell Flayed by Trial Judge.”
The next morning, the defense immediately called for a mistrial. “The prejudicial effect [of the articles] simply cannot be overestimated,” Walker told the judge. Schnacke, aware that an appellate court would agree with that position, offered no objection.
Goodman granted the mistrial, but not before he’d furiously excoriated the newspapers: “How can any defendant have a fair trial when a newspaper makes a false statement that a judge ‘flayed’ the Powells and said they were guilty of treason when no such thing happened?”
Schnacke then charged the Powells and Schuman with treason and asked that they be held without bail, since it was a capital charge. Goodman refused the request. Get an indictment first, he told Schnacke.
Outside the courtroom, Charles Garry lashed out at the prosecutors, saying the “phony charge of treason” was “dirty pool.”
As it turned out, there were no further indictments. The sedition charges lingered for two more years, until May 1961, when the new administration of President John F. Kennedy allowed them quietly to be dropped. The government had never had a case.
The Powells could finally relax. For years they had been living under constant surveillance, knowing their phone was tapped, that the FBI was interrogating their friends and relatives, that their every move was watched.
For the next 20 years or so, they lived quietly in San Francisco, raising three boys, fixing houses, and operating their antiques store. When Sino-American relations improved, as Powell had always hoped they would, they returned to China for a visit as honored guests of the state.
Bill Powell never stopped trying to vindicate himself, however. He obtained a great boost in 1966, when Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act, which made it much easier to obtain government documents.
In 1977 he turned the antiques store over to Sylvia and walked upstairs to his book-lined office, where he began researching American involvement in biological warfare full-time, sending out hundreds of FOIA requests. Ultimately he collected more than 20,000 pages of formerly secret documents.
He then put together a case, offering definitive proof of one of the charges he’d made nearly 30 years earlier: that the Japanese, working in secret laboratories and camps, had tested toxic germs—smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid, dysentery, anthrax, botulism and other scourges—on more than 3,000 prisoners of war, including some Americans. After the war the American government had kept these war crimes secret, in part to prevent the information from reaching the Soviets and in part to use the results of the research for the U.S. biological-weapons program.
His first article, titled “Japan’s Germ Warfare: The U.S. Cover-up of a War Crime,” appeared in the Oct.-Dec. 1980 issue of the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. The mainstream media failed to pick up the story. A UPI editor told Powell it was “old news,” he said. His second article, “A Hidden Chapter in History,” which appeared in the October 1981 issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, also nearly disappeared. Again Powell tried to get American papers interested in it, but none bit. Finally he got a call from a reporter with a daily in London who just happened to subscribe to the bulletin. “Is this for real?” she asked.
That’s all it took. When her article appeared, papers in this country immediately picked up the story, and it became an international sensation.
Millions of Americans learned about Powell’s revelations when CBS News broadcast Morley Safer’s 60 Minutes report on Japan’s secret laboratories, which featured a lengthy interview with Powell.
Much additional information about America’s biological-warfare programs has surfaced since then, including several books on the subject. Nobody has been able to dig up incontrovertible proof of Powell’s charge that the United States used bio-weapons in Korea, however.
“There’s no smoking gun,” he said recently, “at least not from American records. The Chinese, of course, would say they have plenty of smoking guns.”
Powell stopped working on the story several years ago, but other journalists and academics continue to research it. In their 1998 book The United States and Biological Warfare, Canadian historians Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman make the most sustained case yet that the United States did use BW in Korea. Endicott, who was born in China of missionary parents, has studied the matter for 20 years and made five trips to China. He is perhaps the world’s foremost authority on the subject.
Endicott knows Bill Powell personally and is familiar with his work. Reached by phone at his home in Toronto, he said that at one time during the 1980s they had contemplated doing research together, going so far as to meet in Toronto. That’s when Endicott suggested Powell do some digging in U.S. government files.
“He went right down to Washington, and that’s when he stumbled on the Japanese connection. He did a wonderful piece of sleuthing there.”
Asked if his work and Powell’s own investigations were vindication of the sedition charges, he replied, “Yes, they’re a definite vindication.”
Researchers and journalists continue to contact Bill Powell. A few years ago a two-man Korean film crew showed up at his door. They were working on a documentary for South Korean television about American use of BW in North Korea and wanted to interview him. The truth, they told him, is just starting to come out in their country.
“This story isn’t dead by any means,” Powell said.
In the meantime, he lives a quiet widower’s life, enjoying the frequent company of his youngest son and his family, who live next door, and the many friends who drop by to visit or invite him to dinner. He’s says he’s satisfied with the work he done, that he’s revealed enough secrets about America’s involvement in germ warfare to vindicate himself and his wife. And in the process he managed to shine some light on a dark chapter in the nation’s history.