Pursuing Biological and Chemical Weapons Details through FOIA.

AuthorMcKinley, Vern

The world changed enormously in 2020, presenting the average American with a great deal of uncertainty and fodder for sleepless nights. In his new book Baseless, novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker traces another period of national uncertainty: the U.S. government's mid-20th century experimentation with chemical and biological weapons. The book not only chronicles the efforts by the U.S. government to develop those weapons and the accusations of U.S. adversaries that the weapons were used against their citizens, but it also shows how to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to (sometimes) wrest desired documents from an unwilling government. Baker is a prolific writer of predominantly fictional novels, but the subject matter of Baseless is all too real and nonfictional.

The title Baseless is drawn from "Project Baseless," an early 1950s plan to achieve "a large-scale Air Force-wide 'practical capability' in biological weapons at the earliest possible date, to be used against Russia and China in a total war." Baker uses the word "baseless" throughout the book, in different contexts. The official position of the federal government during the 1950s was that "allegations of biological weapons use in the Korean War" were baseless. Baker deems baseless the arguments presented by the U.S. government for denying many of his FOIA requests and heavily redacting the most useful parts of documents he did receive. At the end of the book, he suggests that without question all U.S. government documents that are "more than fifty years old should be released in full, [with] no redactions."

Historical review / Although the primary focus of the book is U.S. government activity during the Korean War, Baker's story often goes outside that period. Fie explains early in the book:

Wherever I started--say, in February 1952--there was always something before that moment that needed to be explained, and that something led to another perplexity that had preceded the one that I was trying to understand, so that I kept being pushed backward in time when I was trying to go forward. Readers find their journey takes side trips to topics such as aerosol bug bombs and the plan to starve the Japanese into unconditional surrender, both of which happened during World War II.

Baseless does not have a typical table of contents with individual chapter titles and page numbers. Rather, it offers a list of sequential dates in early 2019, when Baker was writing the book. He...

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