Yet another often-forgotten Nixon Legacy — and an important moral one, at that — is the elimination of the use of biological weapons that began as a result of his directive in November 1969. Unilaterally, the U.S. discontinued its biological weapons program, shocking those working on the project while giving comfort to activists who had been pushing for exactly that.
Biological weapons were generally seen by the public as unknown mysteries, possible new frontiers for protection but similar to napalm and Agent Orange, the infamous killers of wildlife in South Vietnam. In 1967, scientists at Fort Detrick developed a biological missile warhead capable of use, but controversy over their lasting health effects put the Johnson administration in a quandary. Not long after, prominent journalist Seymour Hersch published the startling expose Chemical and Biological Warfare: America’s Secret Arsenal, focusing the public’s attention on biological weapons tests that the government had conducted in the Pacific Ocean. Congress raised red flags about the secret program while the public demanded answers.
Meanwhile word came from across the pond in Britain that an international convention prohibiting the deadly warfare was possible if the U.S. took strong measures against biological weapons. The new President did so in his first year in office.
RN asked Henry Kissinger to explore the matter. Kissinger got into contact — actually, they ran into each other at an airport — with his well-respected Harvard colleague Matthew Meselson, who had previously encouraged over 5,000 scientists to sign a petition opposing any future development of biological warfare. Thus the scientific community had serious reservations. Kissinger presented his findings to the NSC, which overwhelmingly agreed that biological weapons were unnecessary and RN announced that the U.S. would stop all research.
The weapons research factory at Fort Detrick where most of the program had been kept under the lid, was disbanded and President Nixon ordered Fort Detrick to instead become a cancer research facility. It would establish itself as the premier cancer research facility in the nation.
His decision had the desired affect as the the Biological Weapons Convention was drafted by the UN and opened for signature in 1972. On this day — August 10 — in 1972, RN sent the Biological Weapons Convention to the U.S. Senate for formal ratification.”I believe this Convention will enhance the security of the United States and the world community,” he said. “It will help ensure that scientific achievements in the field of biology will be devoted not to destruction but to the service of mankind.”
Fully implemented in 1975, it, along with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, remains one of the most frequently cited documents by the U.N. in striving toward peace. After all, wasn’t that President Nixon’s foremost goal all along?
Jimmy Byron is a Marketing and Communications Assistant at the Richard Nixon Foundation. He is a second-year student at Chapman University.