Tuesday, January 12, 2016

'Joy in the Journey' or 'Ends justify the Means' ?

WWII is widely regarded as the very nadir in human morality.

We usually point to the wartime behavior of  three of modernity's supposed outliers, Germany, Japan and the USSR, to prove that claim.

But that lets modernity off way too lightly, because WWII was modernity's war, from beginning to end.

And so to adapt Lewellyn Barker' famous phrase re the insulin discovery, the war provided 'blame enough for all' for  those enraptured with modernity : insider and outlier alike.

We came that close..to saying Auschwitz and Penicillin in the same breath

No wartime dictator ever sunk as low as FDR did when he formally made life-saving medical research one of the key 'weapons of war' inside Vannevar Bush's OSRD, along with napalm and the atomic bomb.

Certainly, in actual practise, America never treated the medical needs of enemy POWs and enemy civilians anywhere as badly as the Big Bad Three tended to do.

But it was a near run thing.

Because the (foiled) original intention of America's OSRD, together with Britain's MOS, egged on by their prospective medical scientific establishments, was to deliberately keep the life-saving successes of penicillin from 1940 through to early 1944 a secret from their public and the enemy until it could be unleashed as one of the Allies' secret weapons on the D-Day beaches.

They were fully supported in this by FDR & Churchill and by some of the weaker (medical) reeds in the military - the American military commanders, at least, eventually thought much otherwise .

Lawyer talk

Their original intention meant  making only enough wartime penicillin to quickly send "moderately wounded" "Allied" "frontline" troops back into active combat.

If the Allied could do this far faster than the Germans could with their wounded - due to the German reliance on the fast-fading curative powers of the once wonderful sulfa drugs - it would be as if the Allied had sprouted extra 'virtual armies' in Normandy.

But the words in quotes are really all Lawyers' cant.

They meant that there would be no wartime penicillin for frontline service personnel so badly wounded as to be headed back to Civvy Street - or an early grave. None for wounded or infected non-combat Allied personnel. None for Allied POWs in enemy captivity and certainly none for enemy POWs.

None for civilians on the Allied Home Front; none for civilians in liberated or enemy nations.

If the OSRD had succeeded, twenty years on the word 'Penicillin' would be right up there (down there ?) with Hiroshima, Dresden, the Katyn Forest and Auschwitz.

Why has no one ever questioned why medical research was allowed to become a OSRD weapon of warfare ?

In all other nations - from Britain to Japan and beyond - national medical research funding was not formally placed within an agency with the extremely narrow mandate to only fund research and development of war-winning military weapons that could be put into combat before the war ended.

Agreed, all government agencies in WWII were involved in the war effort - but only a very few were exclusively oriented to the warfare and combat part of the overall war effort.

Civilians with better food and better medical care worked better and thus indirectly aided the war effort --- all nations did this and it wasn't kept a secret - far from it, these efforts became part of their propaganda directed internally and externally.

But to keep the clinical successes of history's best ever life-saving medicine (and penicillin's beta lactam family is still the world's major infection fighting medicine, eighty eight years after it was first discovered) a secret from suffering humanity was unprecedented.

Even the Nazis didn't keep their (few) wartime successes with sulfa drugs a top secret.

Most of the blame goes to America and Britain's white protestant middle class medical establishment, highly conservative  in their politics and infused with the vagaries of popular eugenics.

I should point out that two Nobel prize winners for penicillin - Alexander Fleming and Howard Florey, publicly agreed with this policy, over and over, even as others could see by early 1944 that Pfizer's success with mass producing natural penicillin had rendered the OSRD-MOS proposal moot.

Blame FDR's for being, as usual, too clever and sneaky, by half

But it all began with a sly decision by FDR, who didn't realize the consequences of this tiny part of the overall executive order setting up the Vannevar Bush's OSRD (Office of Science Research & Development).

He merely wished to clip the wings of a rival for his hold on the wartime presidency : Paul V McNutt, the federal Security Administrator.

McNutt's biographer argues that the widest notions of the term 'security' defined the New Deal, FDR, McNutt and indeed the entire Democratic Party from about 1935 to about 1965.

If the Democrats were all about being the best party to provide Americans with security at home and abroad, there couldn't be two men holding the security blanket for America.

As Administrator of the all important "Security", McNutt had come that close to openly challenging FDR for the Democratic Party nod in 1940 and he had the looks, the proven administrative ability and the stage presence to have mounted a tough effort in 1940 (or in 1944.)

FDR adroitly kept the traditional Public Health aspects of the wartime FSA agency under McNutt's control : so he kept command of the very important but hardly blood-stirring efforts to see that Home Front Americans were healthier and hence more productive non-combatants.

But the more glamorous life and death war-oriented medical research contracts that had been under his FSA wing, as originally directed by the Council of National Defense in late 1940, were now all transferred to the new OSRD.

Dawson differs

Only one doctor, (Martin) Henry Dawson, spent the war consistently bucking the male medical-scientific establishment on their approach to penicillin.

Bucked it in its insistence on first perfecting Man-made penicillin (and thus wrestling it away from Women tending fungus growths like tender newborns) before mass producing for a wartime world just filled with people dying from infections penicillin could cure.

Dawson insisted to Florey associate Norman Heatley  in early December  1941 that  impure (but perfectly safe) natural penicillin had already proved it could save many lives, and particularly given that now the entire world was at war and suffering that the American government should take it away from the stalling pharma companies and mass produce natural penicillin itself .

To Dawson, the noble ends - winning the war against Hitler, did not justify means that involved years more of deliberate delay in giving life-saving penicillin to dying patients all over the world.

To Dawson, how the Allies won the war ('the joy in the journey' in Christian-talk) was even more important than simply winning the war.

And not just for the obvious moral reasons either.

The Allied war effort was badly suffering, both inside the Allied Nations and in Neutral/Occupied nations, over many doubts about the ongoing moral conduct of the leading Allied nations  ---versus all their high sounding talk about their new Atlantic Charter and their new sacred Four Freedoms.

Mass producing a life-saver, during a total war, and giving it to all, foe and friend alike, would be just the ticket to assuage these doubts and genuinely unite the world around defeating Hitler and the Axis....

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