In 1956, the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration pressed sedition charges against John W. Powell, his wife Sylvia, and Julian Schuman, after grand jury indictments, sought by federal prosecutors, were handed down against the three North Americans who had published the germ warfare allegations. However, prosecutors failed to get any convictions. Rather than producing the self-incriminating evidence that turned up years later due to Freedom of Information Act requests, the US military refused to provide any archives or witnesses to the court. All three defendants were acquitted of all charges over the next six years, after a judge dismissed the core of the case in 1959, due to insufficient evidence.
Powell was born in Shanghai, where his mother was rushed to a hospital in a rickshaw for his delivery. A year later, Powell's parents decided Shanghai was unsafe for an infant, so they sent him to be reared by his mother's family in Hannibal, Missouri. In 1917, Powell's father, John B. Powell, had co-founded the China Weekly Review, modeled after the influential American political journal The New Republic and featured original reporting, reports on China-related subjects, and opinion.
In the middle of his journalism education at the University of Missouri, Powell rejoined his father at the China Weekly Review. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Powell joined the Office of War Information, the military's journalism arm, as a news editor. In 1943, he was sent to Chungking, in far southwestern China. For eight years after World War II, from 1945 until June, 1953, Powell published the journal, first as the China Weekly Review and later, when revenues declined, as the China Monthly Review.
Powell met his wife Sylvia in 1947 while he was in Shanghai opening up a news bureau for the Office of War Information, and they married soon afterwards.
After returning from China, the Powells bought an old house on Potrero Hill in San Francisco, California, fixed it up, and sold it for a profit. They settled into a pattern of buying, rehabilitating, and reselling fourteen houses and several apartment buildings. "It was kind of rough," John Powell has said, "Obviously, I couldn't get a job on a newspaper. I tried various things, working as a salesman, selling teaching aids to schools."
Eventually, the couple bought a home on Church Street, in San Francisco's Mission District, and lived there for thirty years; the house had a storefront where they also ran an antique business for about fifteen years.
In the Red-baiting 1950s, the federal government initially accused Powell and his wife of treason. On April 26, 1956, the couple, along with an associate at the China Monthly Review, learned that a federal grand jury had charged each of them with sedition. Each count was punishable by up to twenty years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The most damaging charge was that the defendants had falsely reported that the United States had engaged in germ warfare during the Korean War, and that North Koreans had forced American prisoners of war to read published reports of these charges as part of indoctrination processes and brainwashing.
In their coverage of the breaking news, the San Francisco Chronicle, among other news publications, used two-inch-high bold type on its front page, exclaiming "S.F. JURY INDICTS WRITER – SEDITION". The grand jury had charged Powell with a dozen counts of sedition and a count of conspiring to commit sedition. His wife and Julian Schuman, who had been Powell's associate editor, were also charged with a single count of conspiracy. The Powells responded to the charges by asserting they had properly reported on what was said by Chinese officials and troops coming from the front lines of the Korean War.
Powell's trial, which ended in a mistrial, took place in 1959 at the federal courthouse in San Francisco, the same venue where Marie Equi had been tried and convicted of sedition in 1918. The treason charges against Powell were formally dismissed in July, 1959, and two years later, in 1961, US Attorney General Robert Kennedy finally dropped the sedition charges.
In an effort to set the record straight about US involvement in biological warfare in Asia, Powell published an article entitled "Japan's Germ Warfare: The U.S. Cover-up of a War Crime" in the October/December, 1980, issue of the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. An editor from UPI told Powell his story was "old news," and it was not picked up by the mainstream media. However, with the documents he had obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Powell was able to further vindicate himself after publishing another article showing his earlier reports in the China Monthly Review to be accurate. The second article, "Japan's Biological Weapons, 1930-1945," was published in the October, 1981 edition of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It wasn't until 1989 that a detailed account of the Japanese biological warfare appeared, when British journalists Peter Williams and David Wallace published their book, 'Unit 731: Japan's Secret of Secrets' (London: Hodder and Stoughton. Published in New York the same year as 'Unit 731: Japan's Secret Biological Warfare in World War II). Even today, 50 years after the Japanese death camps, United States intelligence still refuses to make public certain information, However, documentation has established that in October, 1951, in the aftermath of General Douglas MacArthur's "Home by Christmas" campaign, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff had delivered a secret order to start germ warfare in Korea on a limited, 'experimental' scale. Another Joint Chiefs of Staff directive (JCS #1837/29), issued on February 25, 1952, authorized "larger scale" field tests. Despite such documentation, incontrovertible proof that the US actually engaged in bioterrorism in Korea has not yet surfaced.
Powell's articles in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists eventually led to the broadcast of segments on the CBS investigative news show 60 Minutes and ABC's 20/20. Powell's reporting had brought widespread public attention to the use of germ warfare, which helped pressure the United States Congress to hold hearings from prisoners of war in 1982 and 1986.