154. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant for Science and Technology (Hornig) to President Johnson 1


  • Policy on the Use of Biological Weapons

After an extensive review of the subject, your Science Advisory Committee has recommended in the attached memorandum (Tab A) that the U.S. Government publicly state that it is our policy not to initiate the use of biological weapons.

This recommendation was made prior to the recent adoption by the U.N. General Assembly (91 in favor including the U.S., 0 against, and 4 abstaining) of a Resolution (Tab B)2 calling for the strict observance by all States of the principles and objectives of the Geneva Protocol of 17 June 1925 on the “Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous and Other Gases and Bacteriological Methods of Warfare.”3 This Resolution implicitly associates us with the principle of “no first use” of biological and chemical warfare agents. However, in our statement on the Resolution to the U.N. General Assembly, which made clear that riot control agents and defoliating chemicals are not covered by the Geneva Protocol, we failed to state explicitly what our policy on biological weapons is.4

I believe that our support of the U.N. Resolution goes a long way toward answering the criticism that the U.S. is the only major power that has not signed the Geneva Protocol and the charge that our use of riot gas and defoliants in Vietnam might escalate into chemical and biological warfare. I am afraid, however, that this improved position could be undercut by our failure to be explicit in stating that it is our policy not to initiate the use of biological weapons.

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I understand that you will receive in the next few weeks a petition signed by several thousand scientists relating to our position on chemical and biological warfare.5 This could be handled with the least fuss and controversy if a prior low-key statement of “no first use” for biological weapons were on the record.

I have discussed the problem with Secretary McNamara and Under Secretary Katzenbach, and they both agree that our public position would be much stronger if we clarified this point.

I recommend, therefore, that at a forthcoming press conference, probably in answer to a question, you make a brief statement (Tab C)6 on the U.N. Resolution that would set forth explicitly that it is the policy of the United States not to initiate the use of biological warfare weapons. If you concur, I will clear the statement with DOD and State.

Donald Hornig

Tab A

Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant for Science and Technology (Hornig) to President Johnson


  • Use of Biological Weapons

Your Science Advisory Committee has reviewed the problem of biological warfare and has concluded that we should formalize our policy of “no first use” of biological weapons. In view of public uncertainty as to our policy in this field and the mounting domestic and international concern regarding the use of biological and chemical weapons, the Committee recommends that, at a suitable opportunity, an official statement be made along the following lines:

“As a matter of policy, the United States has never made military use of biological weapons and our policy will continue to be not to use such weapons unless they are first used against us.”

In explaining the use of riot control agents and defoliants in Viet Nam, senior officers of your Administration have made clear that it is against our policy to initiate the use of chemical warfare. There has not, [Page 473]however, been comparable public statement concerning a policy of “no first use” of biological weapons.

The United States is the only major power that did not sign the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which essentially proscribed the first use of biological as well as chemical agents. In the absence of a publicly stated position, this leaves us particularly vulnerable to charges that it may be our intention to employ such agents.

On the basis of a continuing review over the past few years of the various biological agents, both “lethal” and “non-lethal,” that are presently under study by the Defense Department, your Committee has concluded that the problems associated with these agents appear to outweigh any military advantages that might be attained by their use. In general, the risks associated with these weapons are so great and the uncertainties as to their military effects so large that your Committee believes it extremely unlikely that we would, in fact, consider initiating the use of these weapons in a military conflict.

The risk associated with massive use of biological weapons is essentially impossible to predict. In many applications there is the possibility of creating a new focus of endemic infection which might constitute a continuing hazard. In addition, we have scanty experience with the ecological consequences of disturbing the natural biological equilibrium of an area by the introduction of substantial quantities of viable, infectious organisms. Finally, there is at least a theoretical possibility that the use of biological agents on a large scale may result in mutations producing new strains of unusual virulence or even a new form of the disease for which treatment is not available.

At the same time, we have been presented with no scenarios, nor have we thought of any ourselves, in which the military value seems significant. This applies particularly to the so called incapacitating biological agents which are intended to make the subject very sick without killing him. It is not possible at this time to predict the reliability of any of these agents and some would have significant lethality when applied in massive doses to a large population. There is also considerable uncertainty as to how effective such agents might be in reducing the military potential of enemy forces in an actual combat situation.

For these reasons, your Science Advisory Committee concludes that a policy of “no first use” of biological weapons is sound and recommends that it would be advantageous to formalize it in a public statement.

Donald Hornig
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OASD/ISA Files: FRC 330 70 A 6648, 384 1966 Jan-. Secret. Copies were sent to Moyers and Rostow. An attached December 10 covering memorandum from Hornig to Secretaries Rusk and McNamara asked for their Departments’ views on the proposed “no first use” policy with respect to biological weapons. Also attached is a December 15 memorandum from Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense Townsend Hoopes to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff asking for comments by the JCS on the PSAC recommendation no later than December 30.
  2. Not printed; for text of Part B of UN General Assembly Resolution 2162 (XXI), adopted December 5, see Documents on Disarmament, 1966, pp. 798–799.
  3. The United States did not ratify this treaty until 1975. For text, see 26 UST 571.
  4. Reference presumably is to the statement by U.S. Representative James M. Nabrit, Jr., on December 5; see Documents on Disarmament, 1966, pp. 800–802.
  5. See Document 170.
  6. Not printed.