December 8, 2022

“Diabolical” Cold War experiments in US class-action suit

At 81, retired Colonel James S. Ketchum is still mulling over the morality of chemical warfare tests he carried out on US soliders during the Cold War at Edgeworth Arsenal, a research facility near Baltimore.

At 81, retired Colonel James S. Ketchum is still mulling over the morality of chemical warfare tests he carried out on US soliders during the Cold War at Edgeworth Arsenal, a research facility near Baltimore.

In a profile in the New Yorker he discusses the controversial experiments with hallucinogens to disable enemy soldiers. They are now the subject of a class action suit filed in 2009 by the law firm Morrison & Foerster. It claims that its ageing clients suffered “multiple diseases and ailments tied to a diabolical and secret testing program, whereby U.S. military personnel were deliberately exposed, by government and military agencies, to chemical and biological weapons and other toxins without informed consent.” The case will go to trial next year and Dr Ketchum will be a star witness.

The New Yorker says that “The soldiers were never told what they were given, or what the specific effects might be, and the Army made no effort to track how they did afterward. Edgewood’s most extreme critics raise the spectre of mass injury—a hidden American tragedy.”

The profile is not flattering. Ketchum and his associates in the late 50s and early 60s had odd personal lives and dabbled in drugs themselves. They often worked with drugs rejected by the  pharmaceutical industry. One official explained, “The characteristics we are looking for in these agents are in general exactly opposite to what the pharmaceutical firms want in drugs, that is the undesirable side effects.” 

The profile highlights the alleged lack of informed consent. After the Nuremburg Trials, the US Army could hardly ignore the need for consent. But the subjects were soldiers and non-cooperation was rare. “Doctors informed the volunteers in generalities and asked them to sign a consent form—usually long before any specific test was announced. The forms were designed to offer few details; as one version was drafted, the words ‘mental disturbance or unconsciousness’ were replaced with ‘discomfiture.’” 

Ketchum has written memoirs of his experiences at Edgeworth. He wrote of himself:

“Why was a kook like him picked for a politically delicate, high profile, security headache? Here he was cranking literally hundreds of unblemished, freshly washed and combed, bright-eyed young men through a drug machine. Making them nuts for a few hours or a few days, and then, like calves who had been branded, watching them for a short time to be sure they were okay, and sending them back to their pastures. It was such a risk, if you looked at it objectively.”

As he points out, there was no follow-up. Although no one died during the experiments, many men suffered psychological derangement for days or weeks. What happened after they were discharged is unknown.

Michael Cook
Creative commons
Cold War experiments
informed consent