Soviet AIDS

AIDS and the Soviet disinformation campaign

In the 1980s, something called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) emerged. A sexually transmitted disease that eventually developed into Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) bringing down the body’s natural barriers to infection and cancer. As with Covid, there were wild guesses about its origin at the outset. And into this uncertainty, the Soviet Union’s disinformation efforts exploited fear and ignorance with disastrous consequences.

HIV/AIDS came to public prominence initially because of its impact on LGBT communities in the west. But this 1980s pandemic also ripped through Africa infecting millions of heterosexual men and women. In developing countries, as with Covid, conspiracy theories flourished pointing an accusing finger at rich western countries. Soviet intelligence stoked the flames of fear and suspicion.

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The Soviet Union developed an information warfare tool in the 1950s it termed ‘active measures‘. We would now call this disinformation or fake news. This involved pushing the story that HIV had escaped from a US military laboratory in Maryland. The KGB and the Stasi – the East German secret police – collaborated to seed this story among journalists using the Soviet press agency, Novosti, and a network of useful idiots and media outlets – sometimes secretly owned by the Russians.

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This kind of tactic is still employed by Putin’s Russia today. Conspiracy theories are often floated as an alternative or radical or counter-cultural way of looking at things. What Lenin called ‘useful idiots’ – anti-establishment critics hungry for material – are fed narratives that sow disillusionment or mistrust in western institutions including democracy itself. These useful idiots are frequently sourced in academia or among the Twitterati.

The Soviet AIDS theory diverted attention away from animal infection in Africa to American military activity. This found a willing audience among some who felt Africa was being blamed for AIDS. And the Soviets played up on this anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist sentiment. Even more toxic, Soviets pushed the line that the virus had been developed by the US military to deliberately infect minority populations – including within the United States.

Documents now available since the collapse of the Soviet Union are shocking. In one message from the KGB to their Bulgarian secret service counterparts, the objective of the campaign is made very clear:

We are carrying out a complex of [active] measures in connection with the appearance in recent years of a new dangerous disease in the USA, “Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome—AIDS”… and its subsequent, rampant spread to other countries, including Western Europe. The goal of the measures is to create a favorable opinion for us abroad—namely, that this disease is the result of secret experiments by the USA’s secret services and the Pentagon with new types of biological weapons that have spun out of control.

This cynical disinformation campaign by the Soviet Union around HIV and AIDS was only stopped when the virus began to impact people in the USSR. Realising they needed scientific expertise from the west, the Kremlin pulled the plug on the campaign. But it was too late. Infections were already rising rapidly. Even today, Russia has a high rate of HIV infection and while I don’t want to use the word ‘karma’, there is a sad irony that the country which originated so much misinformation – and still does on other topics – is hoist on its own petard, so to speak.

It’s worth noting that Russian disinformation pre-dates the Soviet Union. It was the Tsarist secret police that forged the notorious anti-Semitic document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, written around 1903. This purported to be a manifesto from Jewish leaders outlining their intent to take over the world. It was plagiarised from a number of sources including Machiavelli and was circulated by the Black Hundreds, a violent, pro-tsarist and ultra-nationalist body of thugs. It was also given an extensive print run in the United States courtesy of a useful idiot by the name of Henry Ford (yep – that Henry Ford!). The document was completely bogus – but is still widely believed today.

cigarettes healthy

When cigarettes were healthy for you!

I grew up in a haze of blue smoke in the 1970s generated by a chain smoking father. He’d started puffing at least twenty years before when advertising campaigns by tobacco manufacturers asserted that cigarettes were healthy for you.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, ads in magazines and newspapers often included family doctors announcing what brand they preferred and how the smooth taste was good for your throat. It seems like a sick joke now but back then…it was mainstream.

As if enlisting the medical profession wasn’t bad enough, the cigarette makers also featured healthy people in their ads. This included top sports figures like Joe DiMaggio, one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Despite his heavy smoking habit he lived to 84 years of age before lung cancer finally finished him off.

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One of the main culprits for this kind of advertising associating being healthy with smoking was the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company and its Camel brand. In 1946, it launched a campaign with the slogan: More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.

Doctors were indeed surveyed by the advertising company just after receiving complimentary packets of Camel cigarettes. At the time, the majority of physicians smoked compared to today when the figure is reportedly down to single figures in percentage terms.

Evidence that lung cancer was on the rise was pretty compelling by the 1940s and the link to tobacco had already been made. The use of doctors and sporty types indicates the industry recognised a looming problem. They hoped to overwhelm it with adverts portraying the habit as part of a healthy lifestyle.

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One tactic was to have these informed or healthy people stating that lower quality brands of cigarettes had indeed irritated their throat or lungs. But once they’d opted for Camel or Lucky Strike or whatever brand was featured in the ad – the problem went away. This was backed up with reports and data allegedly compiled by doctors on the improvements seen in their own smoking experience.

References:

Werner C. A., “The Triumph of the Cigarette,” American Mercury 6 (1925): 419–420; W. M. Johnson, “The Effects of Tobacco Smoking,” American Mercury 25 (1932): 451–454; A. G. Ingalls, “If You Smoke,” Scientific American 154 (1936): 310–313, 354–355

Burnham J. C., “American Physicians and Tobacco Use: Two Surgeons General, 1929 and 1964,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 63 (Spring 1989): 1–31

Snegireff L. S. and O. M. Lombard, “Survey of Smoking Habits of Massachusetts Physicians,” New England Journal of Medicine 250 (24) (1954): 1042–1045; “The Physician and Tobacco,” Southwestern Medicine 36 (1955): 589–590