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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


U.S. must answer for past atrocities

Graphic of the flag of United States of America.
Kurt Strazdins
Graphic of the flag of United States of America.

It was revealed last week that American public health officials intentionally infected about 700 Guatemalans with syphilis and gonorrhea between 1946 and 1948 in an effort to test the effectiveness of penicillin. The study used American tax dollars to pay for syphilis-infected prostitutes to sleep with Guatemalan soldiers, prisoners and the mentally ill. If the prostitutes didn’t infect the subjects, the researchers would then either pour the bacteria over open wounds or inject it by spinal puncture.  

The experiments came to light after Susan Reverby, a professor at Wellesley College, discovered the study’s unpublished findings at the archives of the University of Pittsburgh. Immediately after learning about them, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued an apology to the government of Guatemala, stating they were “”outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health.”” While there’s no doubt that current American officials must feel extremely embarrassed that such an event could occur under the banner of the U.S. government, they shouldn’t be surprised.  

After all, from 1932 to 1972, in what became known as the Tuskegee experiments, the government deliberately denied African American men treatment for syphilis in order to further understand the effects of the disease. After antibiotics were created, the men weren’t informed, and were kept in the dark until the media leaked information about the experiments in 1972.  

Such abhorrent actions by the U.S. government are nothing new; we’re the same country that used Agent Orange in Vietnam, supported violent military dictatorships throughout the world and funded coups against democratically elected leaders throughout the 1980s. Americans like to preach the moral high ground, but this latest development in the long history of U.S.-inflicted abuses shows that we must take a long look in the mirror.

To be clear, the United States is much different than it was 60 years ago. In 1974, Congress passed the National Research Act, creating the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, intended to regulate the use of human subjects, making it necessary for test subjects to give their consent. It would be hard to believe that the United States is currently doing such experiments on unwilling subjects throughout the world, but it’s impossible to forget that it took more than 60 years for the public to find out about this latest atrocity. What else have we yet to find out about? It’s important to remember that at the time of these experiments, the U.S. government was seeking “”crimes against humanity”” charges against members of the Nazi regime for doing similar experiments on human subjects.

For the most part, the United States is a force for good and conducts itself in a much more moral manner than the vast majority of other countries. Nonetheless, Americans shouldn’t be blind to the fact that things like these occur. It’s safe to say we’re no longer injecting people with syphilis, but we do practice rendition, still use water boarding and ally ourselves with governments known for committing atrocities, in addition to the programs the general public has no idea about. It’s essential that we work to prevent such horrible actions from occurring in the future and that we first start by looking at our own troubling past.

— Andrew Shepherd is a political science senior. He can be reached at

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