Most military historians cite April 22, 1915, the day the Germans used chlorine to kill 5,000 Frenchmen, as the beginning of gas warfare in World War I. A year earlier, however, both sides had set a dangerous precedent by firing tear gas shells and grenades at each other. Still, for nearly fifty years, gas was not systematically used again in warfare, until, late in 1963, the United States authorized tear gas attacks in the Vietnam War. The pattern was the same: tear gas followed by more lethal agents (see my earlier essays in the NYR, April 25 and May 9, 1960). Moreover, in 1963, during the Yemen war, the Egyptians began using mustard gas against the Royalists, and aroused little public protest; by 1967 Egypt was using nerve gas, according to official, but little noted, United States reports and evidence accumulated by the US State Department and Central Intelligence Agency.
Since then, the United States has embarked on the use of gases and chemicals as a standard means of domestic crowd control. The use of gas by police, encouraged by the military, has become as much an index of popular opinion as an anti-personnel weapon. In the mid-1960s the gassing of civil rights protestors in the South, notably at Selma, Alabama, provoked anger and shock in northern newspapers and among white liberals. Yet this same group had found nothing wrong with the use of tear gas in 1962 against whites protesting James Meredith’s entrance into the University of Mississippi at Oxford. In that case, the Justice Department, then headed by Robert F. Kennedy, authorized the use of military nausea gas known as Adamsite, or DM, against the students. To make the weapon more effective, DM was combined in a grenade with a less toxic, but faster acting, tear gas known as CN. Army manuals make it clear that Adamsite is not to be used “in any operations where deaths are not acceptable.”
That the widespread use of gas is now so readily accepted by many white liberals as a means of controlling ghetto riots and student outbreaks seems a clear sign that even stronger agents will be tolerated.
Moreover, the methods of police-style gas attacks raise serious questions. On June 24, 1968, the day Resurrection City was shut down in Washington, a crowd of about 300 youths, largely black, began congregating on a ghetto street corner in protest. A police report noted that “it became increasingly evident that a potentially dangerous pattern was developing…” Specifically, fourteen windows were broken and a few bottles …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.