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 Soviets].”
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 achieved.”
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.
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