Undue Risk

Secret State Experiments on Humans

Book from Jonathan Moreno presents the first comprehensive history of the use of human subjects in atomic, biological, and chemical warfare experiments from World War II to the 21st century.

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In 1994 Jonathan Moreno became a senior staff member of a special commission created by President Bill Clinton to investigate allegations of government-sponsored radiation research on unknowing citizens during the Cold War. The top secret documents he helped to declassify revealed a shocking truth—that human experimentation played an extensive role in this country’s attempts to build and protect against weapons of mass destruction.

In Undue Risk, Moreno presents the first comprehensive history of the use of human subjects in atomic, biological, and chemical warfare experiments from World War II to the 21st century. From the courtrooms of Nuremberg to the battlefields of the Gulf War, Undue Risk explores a variety of government policies and specific cases, including plutonium injections into unwitting hospital patients, U.S. government attempts to recruit Nazi medical scientists, the subjection of soldiers to atomic blast fallout, secret LSD and mescaline studies, and the feeding of irradiated oatmeal to children. It is also the first book to go behind the scenes and reveal the government’s struggle with the ethics of human experimentation and the evolution of agonizing policy choices on unfamiliar moral terrain.

As the threat of foreign and domestic terrorist attacks continues to grow, the need for our country to defend itself against insidious weapons is greater than ever. Can a democracy justify using humans in potentially risky experiments in order to answer scientific questions vital to national security? Exploring the possibilities, Undue Risk highlights a program of human experimentation that is a moral model for all others, civilian and military.


“Between 1949 and 1969, the U.S. Army conducted over 200 “field tests” as part of its biological warfare research program, releasing infectious bacterial agents in cities across the U.S. without informing residents of the exposed areas, Moreno reveals in this chilling, meticulously documented casebook. A professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Virginia, Moreno (Arguing Euthanasia) served on a Clinton-appointed advisory committee that blew the lid off the government’s secret radiation experiments from WWII through the mid-1970s, which involved the injection of unwitting human volunteers with plutonium, uranium and other radioactive substances. His disturbing new book partly overlaps with Eileen Welsome’s The Plutonium Files (Forecasts, Aug. 2), though Moreno’s survey extends further—from Walter Reed’s turn-of-the-century yellow fever research to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study; from army and air force mind control experiments (1950–1975) involving ingestion of LSD and incapacitating chemicals by thousands of subjects, often without their consent, to the compulsory vaccination of Gulf War GIs with botulism toxin vaccine not approved by the FDA that may have contributed to “Gulf war syndrome.” While Moreno duly excoriates the excesses and horrors, his overarching thesis is that human military experimentation is unavoidable, and he commends the army’s current infectious-agent research program at Fort Detrick, Md., as a model for future “ethical” research. Some readers may welcome his coolly detached chronicle as a complement to Welsome’s scathing, far more powerful expos.” —Publisher’s Weekly

“The infamous Nazi medical experiments on human subjects represent an extreme of government arrogance. But many other nations, including the U.S., have done similar if less egregious things, usually in the name of national security. Radiation, chemical agents and disease-causing agents are tested on people who have not given informed consent and may not even know they were test subjects. Moreno, professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Virginia and director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics there, decided to pursue the subject after his service on the presidential Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994 to investigate allegations of government-sponsored radiation research on unknowing citizens during the cold war. He tells of secret medical experiments, some ancient but most during and since World War II, by many nations. ‘If there is a single lesson to be gleaned from the story of military-medical human experiments,’ he says, ‘it is that we can expect them to continue in the future…. I believe it is also true that these experiments can be done ethically.’” —Scientific American

About the author

Jonathan D. Moreno is a Senior Fellow at American Progress, where he edits the magazine, Science Progress.

He is one of 13 Penn Integrates Knowledge university professors at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also professor of medical ethics and health policy, of history and sociology of science, and of philosophy. In 2008-09 he served as a member of President Barack Obama’s transition team.

Moreno is an elected member of the Institute of Medicine/National Academy of Sciences and is a national associate of the National Research Council. He has served as a senior staff member for three presidential advisory commissions, including the current bioethics commission under President Obama, and has given invited testimony for both houses of Congress.

Moreno has served as adviser to many nongovernmental organizations, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He is a member of the Governing Board of the International Neuroethics Society, a faculty affiliate of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, a fellow of the Hastings Center and the New York Academy of Medicine, and a past president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. He advises various science, health, and national security agencies and serves as a member of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s TIGER committee on potentially disruptive novel technologies.

He was an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow, holds an honorary doctorate from Hofstra University, and is a recipient of the Benjamin Rush Medal from the College of William and Mary Law School.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Jonathan D. Moreno

Senior Fellow

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