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The Poor Man’s Atomic Bomb


All the major belligerents in World War I save one were party to the Hague Convention of 1899, whose signers had agreed “to abstain from the use of all projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.” The exception was the United States. The idea of outlawing poisonous weapons dated back to the American Civil War, but Alfred Mahan, the naval theorist and an American delegate at the Hague conference, explained that no such chemical artillery had yet been developed and that “until we knew the effects of such asphyxiating shells, there was no saying whether they would be more or less merciful than missiles now permitted.” Mahan added that

it was illogical, and not demonstrably humane, to be tender about asphyxiating men with gas, when all were prepared to admit that it was allowable to blow the bottom out of an ironclad at midnight, throwing four or five hundred into the sea, to be choked by water, with scarcely the remotest chance of escape.1

However, the concerns of the European nations went beyond considerations of tenderness to troops in the field. The emergence of the European chemical industry in the second half of the nineteenth century, especially in Germany, had given rise to fears that lethal gases could be produced as weapons that, if used on the battlefield, would drift with the winds, jeopardizing civilians. They were thus outlawed in advance of being produced.

The first significant gas attack of the war, launched by the Germans at Ypres on April 22, 1915, kept to the letter of the convention, if not its spirit, by releasing chlorine gas from 5,730 cylinders fixed in place, rather than from projectiles. The chlorine formed a thick green-yellow cloud about five feet in height that wafted westward on a breeze toward the Allied trenches and gradually grew to a height of about thirty feet. Soon hundreds of men were choking and vomiting and dying while the rest of the troops fled in panic to the rear. A German officer recalled of the gas attack:

…The commission for poisoning the enemy, just as one poisons rats, struck me as it must any straightforward soldier: it was repulsive to me. If, however, the poison gas were to result in the fall of Ypres, we would win a victory that might decide the entire campaign. In view of this worthy goal, all personal reservations had to be silent. So onward, do what must be done! War is necessity and knows no exceptions.

Following such logic, the Allies established chemical warfare programs, and so did the United States, which consolidated its various new chemical weapons efforts in May 1918 into an Army Chemical Warfare Service. By then, both sides had abandoned the legal nicety of the mode of attack used at Ypres and were firing artillery shells filled with different gases, including phosgene, which was eighteen times more toxic than chlorine, and mustard agent, an oily astringent that wounded or killed by burning skin, eyes, bronchia, and lungs. By the Armistice, in November 1918, the two sides between them had deployed some twenty-two different chemical agents, delivering them by shells, mortars, grenades, and aerial bombs. All told, some 560,000 people fell victim to gas.2

Advocates of chemical weapons insisted that they were humane instruments of war, killing many fewer of their victims than those hit by bullets and high explosives, but the weapons were memorably indicted for their effects, notably in John Singer Sargent’s Gassed of 1918–1919, a searing depiction of a file of troops blinded by mustard gas; and in the poet Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” of 1917, his vivid rendering of the agony of a gas victim. Seen as repugnant on the battlefield, chemical weapons were made all the more threatening by the expectation, arising from the development of the airplane, that they could now be turned deliberately against cities and civilians, including women and children. Critics, military men among them, found that prospect barbarous. General John J. Pershing, the head of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, spoke for many when he declared that “chemical warfare should be abolished among nations, as abhorrent to civilization.”3

According to a poll in 1922, the American public almost unanimously supported an international ban against chemical weapons, and so did a sizable number of Europeans. At Geneva in 1925, an international conference on the arms trade adopted a “Protocol on the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare.” However, although in the next decade some forty nations would ratify the Geneva Protocol, it languished in the US Senate, in effect defeated by a gas lobby including Chemical Warfare Service officers, leading chemists, the American chemical industry, and a number of war veterans who subscribed to the view of gas as a humane weapon. The lobby managed to keep the protocol bottled up in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, contending that a strong chemical arsenal was needed to deter other countries from starting wars.

Despite the lobby’s victory, the isolationism of the era kept military budgets down, including appropriations for the Chemical Warfare Service. Moreover, much of the professional military establishment continued to dislike chemical weapons, finding them troublesome because gas wandered wherever the winds might take it and indecisive because protective clothing and masks could defend soldiers against it. Military leaders also worried about the adverse public reaction to the use of chemicals against civilians.

In World War II, however, fearing that the Germans might once again resort to gas, the United States and Britain adopted a two-pronged policy for chemical warfare that foreshadowed their later strategy for nuclear weapons—a no-first-strike commitment coupled with strong deterrence. President Roosevelt declared that the nation would under no circumstances resort to chemical weapons unless they were deployed against its forces first and that it would then retaliate immediately and fully against the Axis power using them. By then the United States had revived its capacity to wage chemical warfare, building facilities to manufacture mustard, phosgene, and other poisons. The Allies were prepared to drop hundreds of tons of phosgene and mustard gas on German cities within forty-eight hours of an attack.

Roosevelt’s policy of no-first-use was rooted in his conviction that chemical weapons were barbaric and inhumane. Winston Churchill’s view was pragmatic. In July 1944, after the Germans had begun their attacks on England with V-1 rockets, an indiscriminate assault on civilians, Churchill asked his military chiefs for a “cold-blooded calculation” of the payoffs of using poison gas against German forces. “It is absurd to consider morality on this topic…,” he wrote, adding, “In the last war the bombing of open cities was regarded as forbidden. Now everybody does it as a matter of course.” The military advisers successfully persuaded Churchill against first use of chemical weapons, pointing out that the costs would likely include the chemical bombing of British cities by the Germans.4

Before the war, the Chemical Warfare Service, short on funds, staff, and public enthusiasm for its mission, had busied itself with devising peaceful uses for its chemicals, particularly as insecticides.5 Poison chemicals are dual-use technologies. Those lethal to human beings can be used to attack bugs, and those murderous to insects can be strengthened to kill human beings. In fact, in 1936, at a branch of the chemical giant I.G. Farben in Leverkusen, Germany, a chemist named Gerhard Schrader discovered a new lethal agent while trying to devise a synthetic insecticide that would kill weevils in grain silos. Schrader added phosphorous to an organic molecule, thus making a chemical called an “organophosphate”; then, finding it promising as a bug killer, he added cyanide to the molecular mix. Tests on animals, including apes, revealed that as little as a tenth of a milligram of the substance attacked the nervous system, producing dramatic effects, including contraction of the pupils, shortness of breath, convulsions, and finally death.

The German military recognized Schrader’s innovation as the first major advance in chemical weaponry since mustard, code-named it “Tabun,” and encouraged Schrader and I.G. Farben to pursue further work on nerve agents. In 1938, Schrader devised an improvement that became “Sarin,” acronymically named for himself, Otto Ambros, the head of the chemical weapons effort at I.G. Farben, and two officers in army ordnance. After the invasion of Poland, the German army asked I.G. Farben to construct a plant at Dyhernfurth that was intended to produce one thousand metric tons of Tabun per month.

The inventions of Tabun and Sarin inaugurated a new era in chemical weapons, and its story is authoritatively told in Jonathan B. Tucker’s War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda. A chemical and biological weapons specialist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, Tucker advocates the abolition of chemical weapons. His book, a chilling story told with lucidity and restraint, suggests why it has been so difficult to get rid of them. It covers many countries and is grounded in numerous archival sources, including government records and collections on chemical and biological warfare as well as national security. While Tucker’s book is short on analysis, it is outstanding among the histories of chemical warfare because of its focus on nerve agents, its depth of coverage, and, as its subtitle indicates, its range, including chemical warfare in Hitler’s war, the spread of chemical weapons to third-world states, and their possible use by terrorists.

At several points during the war, some of Hitler’s advisers urged that Tabun be dropped by air on enemy cities or used against Soviet troops. Hitler of course had no compunction about gassing Jews to death in concentration camps; he was averse, however, to using chemical weapons, partly because he had been gassed in 1918, while serving in the German army, but, more importantly, because Otto Ambros told him in 1943 that Tabun production was behind schedule and that the United States had likely developed Tabun or could do so quickly and produce it in great quantities.

American scientists had not devised any nerve agents and the Allies had only intimations of the German work. Surprised when they discovered its extent and sophistication, the United States and Britain launched postwar programs of research and development in nerve agents, moving a number of German scientists and engineers to the US, Britain, and Canada. Among them was Gerhard Schrader, who reported that the Soviets had captured the Tabun plant at Dyhernfurth. In 1947, as Soviet–American relations were deteriorating into cold war, President Harry Truman withdrew the 1925 Geneva Protocol from its longstanding pending status before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and that year the United States, Canada, and Great Britain entered into a tripartite agreement that coordinated their respective chemical weapons programs and gave each country access to the findings of the others.

  1. 1

    Peace Conference at the Hague 1899: Report of Captain Mahan to the United States Commission to the International Conference at the Hague, on Disarmament, etc., with Reference to Navies,” July 31, 1899, available online at the Avalon Project at Yale Law School, www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon /lawofwar/hague99/hag99-06.htm. In the final conference Britain also cast a negative vote against the agreement—Hague IV Declaration II—Admiral Sir John Fisher contending that limitations on arms would place “civilized peoples in a disadvantageous position in time of war with nations less civilized or with savage tribes.” See Richard M. Price, The Chemical Weapons Taboo (Cornell University Press, 1997), pp. 32–33, 42. Britain, however, adhered to the Declaration in 1907. See The Hague Conventions and Declarations of 1899 and 1907, edited by James Scott Brown (Oxford University Press, second edition, 1915), pp. 225, 230–232.

  2. 2

    L.F. Haber, The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 239.

  3. 3

    Price, The Chemical Weapons Taboo, pp. 33–34, 82. Price notes that at least five thousand civilians were killed by gas during the war; see pp. 62–63. Army Chief of Staff General Peyton C. March testified to Congress that he opposed chemical weapons because they capriciously followed the winds and thus jeopardized civilians; see US Congress, Senate, Subcommittee of the Committee on Military Affairs, Hearings, reorganization of the army, 66th Cong., 1st and 2d Sess., 1919, I, 93.

  4. 4

    Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman, A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret History of Chemical and Biological Warfare (Random House, 2002), pp. 129–135.

  5. 5

    Edmund Russell, War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring (Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 61–64.

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