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  • Writer's pictureMarkie Miller

Book Review: The Great Secret

Writer Jennet Conant has produced several books at the technology-war interface. Her grandfather, James Bryant Conant, was a Harvard organic chemist, president of the University, member of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), first chair of the National Science Board and first ambassador to the then new Western Germany. She had access to his personal records. But she also had a chance to analyze his purposes. (James Bryant Conant’s only only appearance in this book is that he was an outside member of the advisory board of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.) This is another of those books. Its about a major German air raid on the Bari, Italy harbor in December, 1943 that led to a devastating explosion of a ship loaded with tons of mustard gas, and the attending immediate and long term results of this on sailors, dock workers and others. The allies kept the attack secret for many years, in spite of the positive things discovered about mustard gas exposures. The author makes the point that the medical impact of exposure to mustard gas on sailors as a result of the Bari explosion led to the use of nitrogen mustards as anti-cancer drugs, with one of the American officers at Bari taking the lead in starting what became Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, in New York.

The title of this book is initially somewhat misleading, in that it takes the author at least 150 pages to get a reader’s attention. Her point is that the allies led by Winston Churchill and aided and abetted by first General and later President Eisenhower, kept information about the release of huge numbers of tons of mustard gas in the Bari harbor following German air raids on December 2, 1943 a secret. The British didn’t admit that there was mustard gas there even though their medical personnel knew it; the Americans, whose ship it was that carried the mustard gas into the harbor, studied the matter and made use of the information through the efforts of a young officer, Steward Alexander and transferred at least the pathological information to one of his superiors, Cornelius ‘Dusty’ Rhodes. But they too kept an embargo on the devastating effects on their military personnel of exposure to mustard gas until it was pushed out in the 1990’s. An initial reason for this being so secret was that the allies were suspicious Hitler would use gas if they did and this they wanted to avoid. (In fact Hitler’s staff including Goebbels and Bormann did want the Wehrmacht to use gas, but Hitler wouldn’t approve it because ‘he thought the allies had many more weapons than the Germans did’. (This was part of the testimony of Fritz ter Meer and Otto Ambros in the Farben trial at Nuremberg.) Later, the embargo had a devastating impact on how the former military were treated in both countries after the War. It took hard and dedicated directives by individuals to get the story out.

I ran into the secretiveness of the chemical warfare work in the US long after the War when I tried to understand some of the basic stereochemistry of the fluorophosphonate nerve agents as part of my study of the Farben trial a Nuremberg. Many matters were kept secret about the chemical warfare services build up of sarin, soman, and VX in the US, the disposal of nerve agents confiscated at the end of the War from the Germans, research and development in the chemistry of compounds with C-P bonds, and even efforts to keep the American chemical warfare arsenal in some sort of ready shape in the early 21st century. The Russians, who signed a non-proliferation treaty on chemical weapons with the US 1989 have probably continued manufacturing their novachuks. In the poisonings of Igor Navalny it has been said by German physician/scientists including Angela Merkel, that the poison used in Siberia was a new Novachuk. This was confirmed by the Center for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (CPCW) in the Hague. And the Russians were sanctioned for their use, and their manufacture at the Institute of Organic Chemistry in Moscow. (See State Secrets by Vil Mirazayanov.)

Ms. Conant’s efforts catches fire (so to speak) when she focuses on the aftermath of the Bari bombings. Those chapters that deal with cancer chemotherapy, sleuthing out the impact of nitrogen mustards on tumors specifically as applied to Hodgkins’ disease and leukemia, writing about the beginnings of Sloan Kettering, outlining the efforts of “Dusty” Rhodes to make that happen, and partially dealing with the US Chemical Warfare efforts during WWII make for good reading. Her delineation of the developments in cancer research up to and including the work during the early 70’s is useful and probably new.

The book is worth reading if one’s field involves any of the topics highlighted. I knew of Standard Oil’s (Ethyl Corporation) cooperation with Goering and the 3rd Reich – “Rockefeller, you take the petroleum products, we’ll take – through BASF and Bayer chemical developments.” But I was less aware of Opel and all General Motors contributions to the Nazis in the 30’s that probably mean Rockefeller, Howard, and Sloan needed to be added to the Henry Ford- Charles Lindberg bad guys lists. My late friends that lived through the Rotterdam and London bombings in 1940 will be excused if they never buy an American car brand again.

But the book would have been better served if more time had been spent on chemical warfare, and less detailing the Bari Harbor mess. The author could have well used a chemist collaborator too. Reposted with permission.

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