Where Did the War on Cancer Come From?

Did you ever wonder whether Western culture focuses on destroying rather than preventing cancer, and talks about it with all the language of a war against an enemy, just because that’s how this culture does things, or whether the approach to cancer was actually created by people waging a real war?

This story was not actually a secret anymore, yet I didn’t know much about it until I read The Great Secret by Jennet Conant.

Bari is a lovely Southern Italian port city with a cathedral where Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas) is buried. But Santa being dead is far from the worst revelation from Bari’s history. Bari forces us to remember that during World War II, the U.S. government invested heavily in researching and manufacturing chemical weapons. In fact, even prior to U.S. entry into WWII, it was providing Britain with huge quantities of chemical weapons.

These weapons were supposedly not to be used until the Germans used theirs first; and they were not used. But they ran the risk of accelerating a chemical arms race, of kickstarting a chemical arms war, and of causing horrendous suffering through accidental mishap. That last bit happened, most horribly in Bari, and most of the suffering and death may lie ahead of us.

When the U.S. and British militaries moved into Italy, they brought their chemical weapons supplies with them. On December 2, 1943, the port of Bari was packed with ships, and those ships were packed with the tools of war, ranging from hospital equipment to mustard gas. Unbeknownst to most people in Bari, civilians and military alike, one ship, the John Harvey, was holding 2,000 100-lb mustard gas bombs plus 700 cases of 100-lb white phosphorous bombs. Other ships held oil. (Conant in one place quotes a report on “200,000 100-lb. H [mustard] bombs” but everywhere else writes “2,000” as do many other sources.)

German planes bombed the harbor. Ships exploded. Some part of the John Harvey apparently exploded, hurled some of its chemical bombs into the sky, raining mustard gas onto the water and neighboring ships, and the ship sank. Had the whole ship exploded or the wind been blowing toward shore, the disaster could have been far worse than it was. It was bad.

Those who knew of the mustard gas said not a word, apparently valuing secrecy or obedience above the lives of those rescued from the water. People who should have been quickly washed off, because they’d been soaked in a mix of water, oil, and mustard gas, were warmed with blankets and left to marinate. Others departed on ships and would not wash for days. Many who survived would not be alerted to the mustard gas for decades. Many did not survive. Many more suffered terribly. In the first hours or days or weeks or months people could have been helped by knowledge of the problem, but were left to their agony and death.

Even as it became undeniable that the victims packed into every nearby hospital had suffered from chemical weapons, British authorities tried to blame the German planes for a chemical attack, thereby heightening the risk of jumpstarting a chemical war. U.S. doctor Stewart Alexander investigated, found the truth, and cabled both FDR and Churchill. Churchill responded by ordering everyone to lie, all medical records to be altered, not a word to be spoken. The motivation for all the lying was, as it usually is, to avoid looking bad. It was not to keep a secret from the German government. The Germans had sent down a diver and found part of a U.S. bomb. They not only knew what had happened, but accelerated their chemical weapons work in response, and announced exactly what had happened on the radio, mocking the Allies for dying from their own chemical weapons.

Lessons learned did not include the dangers of stockpiling chemical weapons in areas being bombed. Churchill and Roosevelt proceeded to do just that in England.

Lessons learned did not include the dangers of secrecy and lying. Eisenhower knowingly lied in his 1948 memoir that there had been no casualties at Bari. Churchill knowingly lied in his 1951 memoir that there had been no chemical weapons accident at all.

Lessons learned did not include the danger of filling ships with weapons and packing them into Bari’s harbor. On April 9, 1945, another U.S. ship, the Charles Henderson, exploded while its cargo of bombs and ammunition was being unloaded, killing 56 crew members and 317 dock workers.

Lessons learned certainly did not include the danger of poisoning the earth with weaponry. For a couple of years, following WWII, there were dozens of cases reported of mustard gas poisoning, after fishing nets dislodged bombs from the sunken John Harvey. Then, in 1947, a seven-year cleanup operation began that recovered, in the words of Conant, “some two thousand mustard gas canisters. . . . They were carefully transferred to a barge, which was towed out to sea and sunk. . . . A stray canister still occasionally emerges from the mud and causes injuries.”

Oh, well, as long as they got most of them and it was done “carefully.” The little problem remains that the world is not infinite, that life depends on the sea into which these particular chemical weapons were towed and sunk, and into which far vaster quantities were as well, all over the earth. The problem remains that the chemical weapons last longer than the casings that contain them. What an Italian professor called “a time bomb at the bottom of Bari harbor” is now a time bomb at the bottom of the earth’s harbor.

The little incident at Bari in 1943, in several ways similar to and worse than the one in 1941 at Pearl Harbor, but far less useful in propagandistic terms (nobody celebrates Bari Day five days before Pearl Harbor Day), may have most of its destruction still in the future.

Lessons learned supposedly do include something significant, namely a new approach to “battling” cancer. The U.S. military doctor who investigated Bari, Stewart Alexander, quickly noticed that the extreme exposure suffered by Bari victims suppressed white blood cell division, and wondered what this could do for victims of cancer, a disease involving out-of-control cell growth.

Alexander didn’t need Bari for that discovery, for at least a few reasons. First, he had been on the path toward the same discovery while working on chemical weapons at Edgewood Arsenal in 1942 but been ordered to ignore possible medical innovations in order to focus exclusively on possible weapons developments. Second, similar discoveries had been made at the time of World War I, including by Edward and Helen Krumbhaar at the University of Pennsylvania — not 75 miles from Edgewood. Third, other scientists, including Milton Charles Winternitz, Louis S. Goodman, and Alfred Gilman Sr., at Yale, were developing similar theories during WWII but not sharing what they were up to because of military secrecy.

Bari may not have been needed to cure cancer, but it did cause cancer. U.S. and British military personnel, as well as Italian residents, in some cases never learned or learned decades later what the source of their ailments likely was, and those ailments included cancer.

On the morning after the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, a press conference was held at the top of the General Motors building in Manhattan to announce a war on cancer. From the start, its language was that of war. The nuclear bomb was held up as an example of the glorious wonders that science and massive funding could combine to create. The cure for cancer was to be the next glorious wonder along the same lines. Killing Japanese people and killing cancer cells were parallel achievements. Of course, the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just like in Bari, resulted in the creation of a great deal of cancer, just as the weaponry of war has done at an increasing rate for decades since, with victims in places like parts of Iraq suffering far higher cancer rates than Hiroshima.

The story of the early decades of the war on cancer recounted by Conant is one of slow and stubborn insistence on pursuing dead-ends while constantly predicting imminent victory, very much in the pattern of the war on Vietnam, the war on Afghanistan, etc. In 1948, the New York Times described an expansion in the war on cancer as a “C-Day Landing.” In 1953, in one example of many, the Washington Post declared “Cancer Cure Near.” Leading doctors told the media it was no longer a question of if, but when, cancer would be cured.

This war on cancer has not been without achievements. Death rates for various types of cancer have dropped significantly. But cases of cancer have increased significantly. The idea of ceasing to pollute ecosystems, ceasing to manufacture weapons, ceasing to haul poisons “out to sea,” has never had the attraction of a “war,” never generated pink-clad marches, never won the funding of the oligarchs.

It didn’t have to be this way. Much of the early funding for a war on cancer came from people trying to paper over the shame of their weapons dealing. But it was exclusively the shame of U.S. corporations having built weapons for the Nazis. They had nothing but pride in having simultaneously built weapons for the U.S. government. So, moving away from war did not enter into their calculations.

A key funder of cancer research was Alfred Sloan, whose company, General Motors, had built weaponry for the Nazis right through the war, including with forced labor. It’s popular to point out that GM’s Opel built parts for the planes that bombed London. The same planes bombed the ships in the harbor of Bari. The corporate approach to research, development, and manufacturing that had built those planes, and all of GM’s products, was now to be applied to curing cancer, thereby vindicating GM and its approach to the world. Unfortunately, the industrialization, extractivism, pollution, exploitation, and destruction that all took off globally during WWII and have never eased up, have been a great boon for the spread of cancer.

A key fundraiser and promoter of the war on cancer, who literally compared cancer to Nazis (and vice versa) was Cornelius Packard “Dusty” Rhoads. He drew on the reports from Bari and from Yale to create a whole industry in pursuit of a new approach to cancer: chemotherapy. This was the same Rhoads who had written a note in 1932 advocating the extermination of Puerto Ricans and declaring them to be “even lower than the Italians.” He claimed to have killed 8 Puerto Ricans, to have transplanted cancer into several more, and to have found that physicians took delight in abusing and torturing Puerto Ricans on whom they experimented. This was supposedly the less offensive of two notes known to a later investigation, but generated a scandal that revives every generation or so. In 1949 Time Magazine put Rhoads its cover as “Cancer Fighter.” In 1950, Puerto Ricans purportedly motivated by Rhoads’ letter, very nearly succeeded in assassinating President Harry Truman in Washington, D.C.

It’s unfortunate that Conant, in her book, maintains the pretense that Japan did not want peace until after the Hiroshima bombing, suggesting that the bombing had something to do with creating peace. It’s unfortunate that she doesn’t question the entire enterprise of war. Nonetheless, The Great Secret provides a wealth of information that can help us understand how we came to where we are — including those of us living in the current United States that just found $740 billion for the Pentagon and $0 for treating a new deadly pandemic.

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