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.1

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.2 Already civilian police departments have discarded CN, the standard tear gas agent, and are using a more painful, faster-acting military tear gas known as CS (the S informally stands for Super). The next step is Adamsite. That gas, at a concentration of .00038 milligrams per liter (about 1 in 30 million parts), can produce headaches, pain, nausea, and vomiting within seconds; ten minutes’ exposure to 3 milligrams per liter can be fatal.3

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 and other missiles were thrown at police officers and squad cars. No police or bystanders were injured, yet the police responded with a barrage of 1,346 tear gas canisters and grenades (the figure is the official police estimate). The youths scattered, leaving behind the neighborhood women and children.

Gas is not a discriminating weapon, as a bystander’s letter to the Washington Post reveals:

I was an eyewitness to the senseless and indiscriminate use of the gas against children and adults who were merely sitting or standing on the steps of their respective apartment buildings…I saw a kid of about 12 years old walking briskly to get home, when without any type of warning a policeman shot gas at his heels, causing him to scream and run…. Without any provocation, I saw the police fire pellets on the north side of the street at persons on the steps—driving them inside. Again, the gas was shot on the south side of the street, this time bursting in front of my apartment and the picture which Washington did not see in the papers was of my mother, age 102, and BLIND who sat wiping her eyes with a cold cloth while I, a heart patient, had to battle the effects of the gas.

This incident was not an isolated one. Only a few days earlier, at 2 A.M., Washington police responded to the random stoning of some passing cars near Resurrection City by firing dozens of tear gas canisters into the area. Prevailing winds spread the gas throughout the enclosure. Many of the area residents woke up in panic, and nine were taken, some of them unconscious, to a nearby hospital. No one was arrested. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy later told a reporter: “In all of the tear gassing and other military attacks we have experienced in the South, none was ever as vicious as this attack on Resurrection City.”

Super tear gas also was used in vast quantities during the disturbances in Chicago before and during the Democratic Convention. The gas, in many cases, was discharged simply to slow down some protestors so that the police could strike them with their nightsticks at closer range. The Walker Report, Rights in Conflict, gives many examples of the misuse of tear gas by Chicago policemen. On Wednesday, August 28, police gassed a crowd of demonstrators on a bridge in Grant Park. The Walker Report quotes a National Guard medical orderly as saying that shortly after the gassing, “Two forces of police arrived, one from the Michigan Avenue side of the bridge and one from the south on the east side of the bridge. They immediately waded into the crowd with clubs swinging indiscriminately, driving them off the bridge and away from the area.”


The biggest supporter of the increasing use of gases and chemicals in civil disturbances has been the Pentagon. A former Defense Department official once told me that “by using gas in civil situations, we accomplish two purposes: controlling crowds and also educating people on gas…” so that “we could control the public outcry” against chemicals which hinders their usage in wartime. “If one could change the environment of public opinion about CBW [chemical and biological warfare],” the official said, “we might be able to use something that otherwise would be ruled out.” Regular Army troops have played an important role in many big city riots, including the 1967 outbreak at Detroit. The sight of men in military uniform wearing gas masks and throwing tear gas canisters is readily accepted by the public. The military, on its part, has set up a permanent riot control command center inside the Pentagon (under the direction of Lieutenant General George R. Mather4 ), and there are some 400,000 National Guard troops trained and ready for riot duty. City police often find themselves outmaneuvered and outmanned by the protestors; the main role of the military has been not to provide additional training and manpower for the police, but to be a force in its own right.

Indeed, the future of riot control is largely in the hands of the military. The Institute for Defense Analyses, a Pentagon-managed consortium of academics, has long been a leader and proponent of the use of nonlethal gases and other weapons for crowd control. No potential weapon is ruled out by the IDA. A recent IDA study paper contains the following: “Present nightsticks, of course, have been modified in a variety of ways. There is a little Japanese device made up of three telescoped thin-walled tubular sections that may be flicked out rapidly into a whip-like weapon. This specialized stick resembling a radio antenna is meant for use by plainclothesmen. Incorporating tear gas dispensers into the nightstick is a very attractive application since it widens the officer’s capabilities without adding to the weight or to the number of items that he must carry.” Science marches on—although the use of such weapons is left to the judgment of each police officer.

In view of all this, it is alarming that since late 1966 police have been relying increasingly on a new kind of chemical weapon, the toxic substance known as Mace. This chemical is manufactured by the General Ordnance Equipment Corporation (GOEC) of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is supplied to police units in several different aerosol spray containers ranging from a miniature fountain-pen type gadget that can spray as far as 6 feet to a large canister that can spray 30 one-second bursts as far as 30 feet. The New York Times reported that as of May, 1968, more than 250,000 cans of the spray have been sold to 4,000 police departments in the United States.

There is a staggering amount of evidence that the chemical can cause permanent injuries. Mace is composed of slightly more than 1 percent 2-chloroacetrophenome, a tear gas known as CN; 4 percent kerosene; 5 percent 1,1,1-trichloroethane; and a Freon propellent. CN produces intense irritation of the membranes lining the inner surface of the eyeball, irritation of the upper respiratory tract, and irritation of the skin. Acute inhalation of kerosene can produce lung irritation and even pneumonia; small amounts have proven fatal to children. Trichloroethane similarly can cause irritation of the eyes, mucous membranes, and lungs. In high concentration it can cause death from heart or lung failure.

Freon is the trade name of a group of fluorinated hydrocarbons widely used as refrigerants and propellents. According to an unpublished study by Dr. Alan L. Pearlman of the Harvard Medical School, the agents are inert chemically but pose several hazards bearing on the safety of Mace. Freezing of the skin is possible after repeated sprayings. At least two youngsters died after inhaling Freon-12; their deaths were attributed to freezing of the larynx and subsequent asphyxiation. Pearlman further notes that “the most serious potential hazard of Mace lies in the use of Freon propellents to produce an aerosol containing CN, kerosene and tricholoroethane.” The Freon manufacturer specifically warns, according to Pearlman, that “even though a propellent and an active ingredient are harmless individually, use of the active ingredient in aerosol form may be irritant or even toxic…the exceedingly fine particles of an aerosol may reach parts of the respiratory system that would not be reached….”


Dr. Lawrence Rose, a San Francisco ophthalmologist, recently reported that he treated nine cases of eye damage resulting from Mace sprayings. Severe burns of the eyes occurred in three cases, and at least one victim developed a permanent corneal scar and a decrease in vision. Four victims had second degree skin burns of the eyelids and face with severe blistering and deep redness of the eyes. In a 1967 report compiled by the California Department of Public Health, twenty-three injuries to policemen and one fireman were cited as resulting from exposure to Mace; these included eleven cases of conjunctivitis, five cases of chemical burns, and four cases of dermatitis. Only those cases treated by a physician were listed. Moreover, doctors testing Mace in California found that the victim’s blood pressure rose as much as 100 points in seconds. There is no evidence that Mace is chemically responsible, but doctors attribute the rise in blood pressure to the fear, rage, and shock felt when a victim is struck by Mace.

Officials of GOEC respond to criticism by noting that their product causes “no lasting aftereffects” and “will not cause permanent damage to the eyes or mucous membranes.” This was the conclusion, they say, of a series of tests conducted by the Hazleton Laboratories, Inc., of Falls Church, Virginia (a firm that also does research on chemical and biological warfare for the Pentagon). But only two tests were conducted by Hazleton at GOEC’s request and neither duplicated the conditions under which Mace is most often used. In one test, a drop was placed in the eye of six rabbits; no permanent damage was evident. In another, three monkeys were sprayed by Mace at six feet, again with no permanent damage. Critics of the test, however, point out that Mace is often sprayed into a victim’s eyes at a distance of six inches, not six feet. Thorough clinical tests have yet to be made, although the manufacturer persists in advertising that his product will temporarily disable victims “without permanent injury or marking contact.”

The Public Health Service has been exceedingly cautious about Mace, in spite of many requests for guidance by doctors. In May, US Surgeon General Dr. William H. Stewart sent a weak warning to state, county, and city health officials that Mace’s ability to maintain its irritant activity “clearly increases the possibility of more than transient effects to the exposed individuals.” Yet no further tests have been undertaken by the government, and the Food and Drug Administration has thus far refused to include Mace under the Federal Hazardous Substances Labeling Act because it is not a household product. The Army’s main chemical warfare base, the Edgewood Arsenal near Baltimore, Maryland, investigated the chemical and ruled it not operationally suitable for its men.

Despite the PHS warning, only a few police departments have rescinded permission to use Mace. Indeed, some have gone to great lengths not to do so. In San Diego, a female deputy mayor was given a one-second dose of Mace, and pronounced herself okay; Mace remains in that city’s police arsenal. Similar tests have been cited to permit the use of Mace by police in many other communities. The situation is headed for the courts. At least four civil damage suits have been filed recently against police departments for having used the chemical; some plaintiffs have also sought damages from the GOEC. Lawyers seem increasingly interested in the legality of Mace and its use; the chemical was discussed during the midwinter meeting of the American Trial Lawyers association in San Francisco last month (February).

Mace and other similar products are now on sale to the public and are advertised as promoters of law and order. In one advertisement that appeared last May in the Cincinnati Enquirer, potential buyers were advised to “Defend Your Family From Criminal Attack” by buying the chemical that “Stops Attackers In His [sic] Tracks!” Other advertisements show the contorted face of what appears to be a Negro and stress that “You May Be His Next Victim.” The Washington Post reported last September that the American Nazi Party (now known as the National Socialist White Peoples Party), was using direct mail, telephone, and advertisements to sell Mace as part of what it calls “Negro control equipment.” The group’s catalogue urges potential customers to “Stock your home NOW—with weapons for the coming race war.” A spokesman told the newspaper that the Party had no trouble getting supplies of the chemical. Mace and similar materials are also on sale to college students in big cities; distributors use local student salesmen to push the product. Mayday recently reported that one shop in Washington now sells a line of Mace and similar chemicals ranging from a tiny $2.50 tear gas tube to a six-inch canister capable of spraying a 20-foot stream. Customers are sold Mace in canisters costing $14.98, although the canisters are marked “For Police Use.”

One factor behind the growing public sale of such chemicals is the high profit; sprays costing $1 or so to produce are being sold at prices ranging from $7 to $15. Thus what initially began as a Pentagon-inspired gimmick to ease the public’s abhorrence toward chemical weapons may end as another weapon in the public domain. The mass marketing of chemical sprays may be just around the corner. Some results already have been noted: Mace is being used in a growing number of armed robberies.

Like tear gas, Mace becomes a punitive weapon in the hands of the police. For example, one youth recently wrote that he and others were shoved into a plate glass window outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago during the Convention. After they fell, he said,

the police moved back a few feet and took out their cans of Mace. In hunched, gun-slinger stances, they moved up and down the barricade, squirting steady streams at us. The Mace hit me on the neck, chin and forehead…. I ducked down; and as I did, I heard the screams of those directly behind me who up to then I’d shielded.

The Walker Report cites in detail a half-dozen other police abuses involving Mace during the Convention. In three of the cases, police sprayed newspapermen with Mace after learning who they were. One reporter described turning to watch police hurl tear gas at a crowd of protestors. As he turned, he “was doused in the face with an immobilizing spray. Momentarily frozen in his tracks, the reporter was then struck hard in the ribs with a blunt object. He fell to the ground and was dragged across the grass by the shoulders. He was finally dropped and someone started kicking him. When he looked up, he saw light reflecting off several helmets.” The Walker Report also quotes one passerby who inadvertently was caught in the midst of some demonstrators outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel during the height of the disturbance. “I was crowded in with the group of screaming, frightened people,” the witness said. “We jammed against each other, trying to press into the brick wall of the hotel. As we stood there breathing hard…a policeman calmly walked the length of a barricade with a can of chemical spray in his hand. Unbelievably, he was spraying us.”

Similar abuses have been frequent in the Oakland-San Francisco Bay area. In Suffolk County, Long Island, last summer, black community leaders charged that seven- and eight-year-old children were sprayed with Mace during disturbances. One rights leader, after caustically noting that police advise victims to wash their eyes out with water after a Mace attack, told a New York Post reporter how a small youth was sprayed and added: “Has the little boy been told by his parents, ‘if you are sprayed with Mace, ask the policeman to please wash your eyes out’?” Not all abuses involve demonstrators or police confrontations, however. The Associated Press reported the following incident on April 3, 1968, in Waterbury, Connecticut: “A group of parents called for the arrest of two policemen who used the chemical spray Mace to break up a crowd of children surrounding a fight between two girls yesterday.” The dispatch said twelve children, ranging in age from nine to fifteen, were sprayed.

The American experience, then, has been a steady increase in the kinds of chemical weapons used, and a steady deterioration in the police restraints on the use of the weapons. Chemicals have become not a means of averting trouble, but just another way for police units to handle civil disturbances; in effect, just another weapon.5

There are other weapons for the future. Scientists are now working on a variety of anesthetic dart guns or hypodermic syringes for possible riot control use. A recent study sponsored by the IDA told of an attempt “to find a dart-weapon system which could be safely, effectively and acceptably used by the police on people. Success may be near. At the most recent demonstration…a dart containing apomorphine as the active drug was shot into the thigh of a volunteer medical student. In 75 seconds the victim felt chilly, became glassy-eyed and suffered a drop in blood pressure. In less than three minutes he was nauseated, and five minutes later was acutely ill. Vigorous vomiting, it is thought, will immobilize any suspect.” More than 30,000 dart guns and rifles already have been sold to veterinarians, cattle handlers, and dog catchers. There are no federal regulations as yet regarding the manufacture and sale of such devices, in spite of the high danger from infection, overdose, and severe physical injury in case of poor marksmanship.

Police often argue that Mace and tear gas save lives because, without them, guns and rifles would be used. But this argument is far from convincing. An argument could be made for the chemicals in cases where police are struggling with a known criminal armed with a lethal weapon, but these cases are rare. As we have seen, chemicals and gases are used largely in riot control and often are employed as punitive measures in cases where police would not even consider pulling a gun. Thus Mace is not used chiefly as a substitute for harsher methods; it is rather a new method of attack on sizable groups that can be used freely by the police; indeed, it is often used to make groups of people more vulnerable to attack with clubs.

The policeman is armed; all potential combatants are aware that he carries a gun whether it is drawn or not. That, in itself, is enough of a deterrent in most situations. A careful study by the Washington Post shortly after the April riots last year demonstrated that manpower, not firepower, was most effective in containing ghetto riots. Similarly, as Mary McCarthy pointed out in these pages (NYR, December 19, 1968), the London police substituted numbers for weapons in dealing with the October 27 anti-Vietnam War protest at Grosvenor Square. The police set up heavily manned lines that the demonstrators could not or did not want to disrupt; in return the protestors were permitted to break some laws as officials adopted a deliberate policy of leniency. Injuries were relatively few, given the strong feelings of most of the demonstrators. In London, police professionalism was sufficient to control the crowds. In America the use of Mace and tear gas by the police has often turned a demonstration into a riot.

The Pentagon is winning its battle in public relations; chemical warfare has become more and more acceptable to Americans. The technique was simple: to find a use for gases and chemicals in a situation where one could predict a favorable climate of public opinion, such as containing a ghetto or student riot. For the military, the next few years have exciting possibilities—the chance to test in the streets some of the more exotic chemicals and biological weapons available.

This Issue

March 27, 1969