In 1932 a Japanese army major, Shiro Ishii, returned from Europe convinced that biological weapons were an effective means of fighting war: with flawless logic he concluded that they must be, otherwise the statesmen at Geneva would not have gone to the trouble of banning them. Despite little encouragement the years that followed saw a massive Japanese biological weapons programme of research and manufacture.

Ironically it was the Geneva Protocol's ban on biological warfare that led to the start of the biological arms race.

The British biological warfare project was born on 12 February 1934 at a meeting of the Chiefs of Staff. For two years, a Disarmament Conference in Geneva had been discussing means of finally ridding the world of chemical weapons. Germ warfare had also been included, and in view of this, Sir Maurice Hankley (civil servant and later member of the war cabinet) told the Service Chiefs, he 'was wondering whether it might not be right to consider the possibilities and potentialities of this form of war'.

The Chiefs of Staff agreed, and authorized Hankey to put out discreet and ‘very secret’ feelers to the Medical Research Council to see if they would help. Like the Japanese, the British were prompted to begin work on germ weapons as a result of a peace initiative at banning them. Britain was at the forefront of biological warfare research, which, in reduced form, continues today.

At the end of the war, the Soviet Union pressed for the death penalty for one of the Nurenberg defendants on the grounds that he had first suggested the possibility of germ warfare to the German High Command. For Britain and America this was a highly embarrassing moment. By 1945 they were well aware that they had invested vastly more time and effort into producing these 'forbidden weapons' than the Nazis.


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