Researched over the better part of a decade, Nicholson Baker’s new book, “Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act,” chronicles his efforts to confirm whether or not the United States used biological weapons during the Korean War.
At least, that was the first impetus behind the book. But when Baker (“Vox,” “The Size of Thoughts”) came up against documents that were more redaction than text, “Baseless” became — in his words — a book “about life under the Freedom of Information Act.”
Baker being Baker, “Baseless” is also a genre-transforming blend of history and memoir, offering behind-the-scenes glimpses of Baker’s research efforts, his home life and his worst fears about his own country. That makes “Baseless” essential reading for anyone trying to grapple with the role of the U.S. in global affairs since the end of World War II.
Baker’s title alludes to an early-1950s Air Force project, Project Baseless, that pushed for “combat capability in biological and chemical warfare at the earliest possible date.” Those words — from an Oct. 10, 1951, internal memo from the Air Force’s Atomic Energy, Biological and Chemical Warfare Division — are scrupulously sourced, as are all the other documents that Baker cites in his 50-page bibliography. Baker also draws on newspaper archives where stories on unconventional warfare, far from making front-page headlines, appeared on inside pages “surrounded by ads for budget shoes from John Wanamaker, nylon robes from Gimbels, and Mother’s Day hats from Bloomingdale’s” (details that pithily evoke the homefront character of 1950s America).
The story of “Baseless” starts in 1951-1952, when Korean, Chinese and Russian officials accused the U.S. of conducting “bacteriological warfare.” U.S. officials dismissed this as “nonsense,” but Baker uncovers enough circumstantial evidence to make you have your doubts about that.
One factor lending credence to the Communist accusations is the bizarre form these supposed attacks took. News sources in China, Russia and North Korea ran stories on civilians stricken with fever near the Chinese-Korean border when “masses of feathers and clusters of out-of-season insects and dead voles were appearing in the snow after a single American plane had passed overhead.”
Baker doesn’t buy every Communist conspiracy theory he encounters. But he does ask, “Why, as part of their ‘big lie,’ would the Chinese assert something so improbable? If they were inventing germ-warfare charges out of whole cloth, would they really come up with a story of seven hundred air-dropped dead and dying voles?”
The main obstacle he faces in establishing any definitive truth is the way that American military and intelligence agencies subvert the workings of the Freedom of Information Act. A policy of yearslong delay in releasing documents, along with all that redaction, thwarts journalists’ and historians’ efforts to uncover the facts. Still, Baker finds ample evidence to confirm that U.S. agencies in the 1950s and 1960s worked diligently to find biological and chemical means to destroy Communist nations.
One center of these efforts was Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, where, according to people who worked there, the inventory included “mosquitoes infected with yellow fever, malaria, and dengue; fleas infected with plague; ticks with tularemia, relapsing fever, and Colorado fever; house flies with cholera, anthrax, and dysentery.” Baker furnishes the estimated costs of these weapons (bubonic plague went for 25 cents a pound), and notes that experts believed chemical, biological and radiological weapons offered the best chance of “conquering a nation without destroying it.”
Richard Nixon officially ended this “germ-drunk phase in American history” in 1969. Fifty-plus years later, however, we’re still missing many details.
“It’s disgraceful,” Baker adds, “that in 2019 people who want to write about momentous world events — changes of government, attempted assassinations, war plans — that were discussed at the highest levels of government in 1970, or 1960, or 1952, should have to pick through broken potsherds of redacted documents as if they were dealing with an ancient civilization. You can’t have consent of the governed unless the governed know what they’re consenting to.”
Baker looks to the small things in his own life to get some relief from his nightmarish subject matter, finding sanctuary in the first signs of spring after a long Maine winter (“this sudden prestidigitational tablecloth-pull from dun to green”) or his love of his family. Indeed, readers may grow smitten with his wife themselves when, in response to Baker’s query about what she’s thinking, she replies, “Large, huge thoughts and little tiny ones. … The usual.”
Baker will probably get grief from some quarters for seeing our nation — especially the CIA — in such a bad light. But as he points out, opening the records could put many conspiracy theories to rest.
“We may never have incontrovertible proof,” he says. “But there are thousands of still-classified documents that could help us understand what happened.”
“Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act” by Nicholson Baker, Penguin Press, 450 pp., $30