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No, They Didn’t

In response to:

Who Killed Frank Olson? from the February 22, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of the Errol Morris Netflix film Wormwood [NYR, February 22], dealing with the death of a US Army and CIA scientist, Frank Olson, Michael Ignatieff wrote:

Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, and other unnamed persons at the highest levels of the American government ordered the death of [Frank Olson] because they feared he knew too much about US biological warfare during the Korean War and about the torture and execution of Soviet agents and ex-Nazi “expendables” in black sites in Europe during the early 1950s.

Dulles, Helms, et al. absolutely did not order Frank Olson killed because “he knew too much about US biological warfare during the Korean War” because there was no biological warfare carried out by any agency of the US government during the Korean War, or for that matter by anyone else.

The false allegation was disproved as long ago as 1998 when documents from the Soviet Central Committee Archives that had been sent to Mao Zedong and to Kim Il Sung in the month following Stalin’s death in 1953 were obtained from the Soviet Presidential Archive. They were published in 1998 in the Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Eric Olson was provided with copies of the documents in 2003, and they were also supplied to Errol Morris by a Harvard University student whom Morris had employed as a researcher in preparing his film. After reviewing that publication as well as three others, Morris’s research assistant assured me that he understood that the Korean War biological warfare allegations were false, and that he felt certain that Morris would not attribute the use of biological warfare to the US.

More recently, Chinese documents became available, and additional Soviet-era documents were published by the Soviet archive RGANI. All of these were re-published in a Cold War International History Project monograph in March 2016.

Milton Leitenberg
Senior Research Scholar
Center for International and Security Studies
School of Public Policy
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland

Michael Ignatieff replies:

Never having claimed to be able to plumb these murky depths, I am happy to take Milton Leitenberg’s word for it.