In the “war on terrorism,” President George W. Bush and British prime minister science m Tony Blair seem to be setting their sights on Iraq as a possible target because of its alleged (and unsubstantiated) possession of biological and chemical weapons. It should be kept in mind, however, that the U.S. and Britain have a long history of developing and using these weapons. And, as we shall see, the U.S. today is the leader in such developments.
First World War
“In no future war will the military be able to ignore poison gas. It is a higher form of killing.”
German professor Fritz Haber, pioneer of gas warfare, on receiving the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1919
Every major war has one enduring image that lasts long after the conflict has receded into history. The First World War will be forever remembered for the horror of gas warfare. Nations that so loudly condemn chemical warfare today pioneered its use and ruthlessly killed tens of thousands of soldiers.
Despite the fact that the Hague Declaration of 1899 banned certain types of warfare, including “the use of projectiles the object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases,” the major powers continued to research and develop chemical weapons for future battlefield use. Twenty-six nations signed the Hague Declaration in 1899-except for the United States, which refused to sign, and Britain, which delayed signing until 1907.
While Germany has been historically blamed for initiating gas warfare during the First World War, it was actually France that first used chemical weapons. In 1914, it launched hand and rifle grenades filled with tear gas at German troops. Germany first made large-scale use of chemical weapons the following year, on April 22, 1915, when its troops opened the valves of nearly 6,000 cylinders containing liquid chlorine around Ypres, Belgium. The wind carried the chlorine toward Allied troops, causing a virtual rout of the Allied army. More than 5,000 Allied troops were killed and 10,000 wounded in the battle. The chlorine produced inflammation of the lungs and a buildup of fluid that suffocated the men.
A chemical arms race began on that fateful day. After the Allied defeat at Ypres, the British quickly appointed Major Charles Foulkes of the Royal Engineers as their first “gas adviser.” His job was to quickly organize the British chemical warfare effort without concern for ethics. Soon virtually every leading chemist in Britain was working on gas warfare. The Porton Down facility was built and became the headquarters of the British chemical warfare effort, eventually employing more than 1,000 scientists and soldiers.
The U.S. created the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) in mid-1918, with General Amos A. Fries as its director. The Edgewood Arsenal, a military base near Baltimore, Maryland, became the center for U.S. chemical weapons research, employing more than 1,200 technical and 700 service assistants who tested more than 4,000 poisonous substances. With 218 manufacturing buildings and 28 miles of railway, Edgewood was capable of producing 200,000 chemical bombs and shells per day. It was the biggest military-scientific effort until the Manhattan Project, which was set up in 1941 to build the atomic bomb.
Initially, Germany had the edge in the arms race because of its huge industrial-chemical combination Intercession Gemeinschaft (IG), which had close links to the scientific establishment, particularly to Fritz Haber of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Haber is widely credited as the father of gas warfare. With the British providing the technical knowledge and the Americans the economic might, however, the chemical arms race shifted in favor of the Allies. There were now more than 17,000 chemical troops on both sides of the war effort and phosgene, chlorine, and mustard gases were used extensively.
By 1918, between one-fifth and one-third of all shells fired were filled with chemicals of some type. In the last 18 months of the war, the much-feared mustard gas was responsible for one in six casualties. Mustard gas burned and blistered the skin, then caused slow death or debilitation by stripping the mucous membrane of the bronchial tubes and blocking breathing. There were more than 91,000 deaths and 1.3 million casualties “officially” attributed to gas warfare, but these figures are considered too low today by historians.
While the casualty numbers alone are staggering, the particularly painful death for soldiers caused by gas warfare should not get lost in the statistics. A British army surgeon who performed autopsies on soldiers described the effect of gas on the human body:
The Body showed definite discoloration of the face and neck and hands. On opening the chest the two lungs bulged forwards. On removing the lungs there exuded a considerable amount of frothy light yellow fluid, evidently highly albuminous, as light beating was sufficient to solidify it like white of egg. The veins on the surface of the brain were found greatly congested, all the small vessels standing out prominently.
This was Haber’s much-vaunted “higher form of killing.”
Use of chemical weapons wasn’t only limited to the First World War. Intervening on the side of the White Army in the Russian Civil War in 1919, the British armed them with mustard gas shells, and used the “M” device to produce clouds of arsenic smoke over the Red Army.
The British took advantage of every opportunity to use their new weapons. Major Foulkes, who was sent to India in 1919, pressured the British military to use chemical weapons in their war against Afghanistan: “Ignorance, lack of instruction and discipline, and the absence of protection on the part of Afghans and tribesmen will undoubtedly enhance the casualty producing value of mustard gas in frontier fighting.” The British War Department agreed, sending stocks of phosgene and mustard gas, and British troops were trained in anti-gas suits on the Khyber Pass. Records of the use of these weapons were either not kept or were destroyed.
“Under the rose”
The Governments pronouncement following the Geneva Protocol meant that any actual development had to be done “under the rose” . .. Thereafter all offensive work was done under the heading “Study of chemical weapons against which defense is required. “
“A Brief History of the Chemical Defense Experimental Establishment at Porton Down”
After the First World War, there was widespread disillusionment with gas warfare. In May 1925, under the auspices of the League of Nations, a conference on the international arms race was convened in Geneva, Switzerland. The Geneva Protocol, as it was called, banned the use of chemical as well as biological weapons in any future conflict. “The signing of the Geneva protocol of 1925,” as one observer put it, “was the high-water mark of the hostility of public opinion towards chemical warfare.”
Signing the pact didn’t mean that it was binding, however; governments also had to ratify it. The CWS led the attack on the Geneva Protocol in the United States and enlisted the help of such organizations as the American Chemical Society, which declared, if you can believe it, that “the prohibition of chemical warfare meant the abandonment of humane methods for the old horrors of battle.” In the face of strong opposition, the State Department withdrew ratification of the treaty.
Most European countries ratified the Geneva Protocol, but added qualifying clauses that rendered it worthless. One clause added to the protocol made it non-binding on a country unless the country it was fighting against had also ratified it. Moreover, signatories reserved the right to respond with chemical or biological weapons if they were attacked with them. Crucially, the Geneva Protocol also crucially didn’t prevent researching or stockpiling biochemical weapons; it just banned first use.
The net effect of the Geneva Protocol was not to stop the development of biochemical weapons but to make the research and development of such weapons much more secret. In 1925, future British prime minister Winston Churchill let the cat out of the bag when he wrote of
pestilences methodically prepared and deliberately launched upon man and beast…. Blight to destroy crops, Anthrax to slay horses and cattle, Plague to poison not armies only but whole districts-such are the lines along which military science is remorselessly advancing.
This type of war research had to be kept secret for fear of public opposition.
The Holland Committee, set up by the British government after the First World War to study chemical warfare and Britain’s future policy toward it, recommended that the Porton Down facility be maintained on a permanent basis. Porton Down was going to add the study and development of germ warfare to its agenda. The Holland Committee also made a crucial admission. It concluded:
It is impossible to divorce the study of defense against gas from the use of gas as an offensive weapon, as the efficiency of the defense depends entirely on an accurate knowledge as to what progress is being or is likely to be made in the offensive use of this weapon.
Governments knew from the very beginning that there was no such thing as purely defensive chemical weapons research. As a result, governments gave their scientists a free hand to design the deadliest weapons they could imagine, on the grounds that they first had to be invented before a defense could be prepared.
This approach-producing offensive weapons for “defensive” purposes-would also be applied to germ and other forms of warfare to the present day.
Second World War
It may be several weeks or even months before I shall ask you to drench Germany with poison gas, and if we do it let us do it one hundred percent. In the meanwhile, I want the matter studied in cold bIood by sensible people and not by that particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists.
Winston Churchill to the Chiefs of Staff, July 6,1944
The enduring images of the Second World War are horrifying enough: the Holocaust, terror bombings of major cities, and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. What if the aerial gassing of German and Japanese cities by huge fleets of Allied warplanes was added to this list? This almost happened.
While gas warfare was absent from the Second World War-primarily because of the difficulty of delivering such weapons without affecting your own troops and the possibility of similar retaliation-all of the major powers had stockpiled hundreds of tons of chemical weapons, especially mustard gas, for possible use. It seems that gas warfare was averted by a hair’s breadth. For Britain and the United States, the Second World War allowed their biochemical weapons development programs to reach new and deadly levels.
In 1940, the United States spent $2 million on the CWS In 1941, when chemical rearmament began in earnest, the U.S. increased the CWS budget to $34 million, and eventually to more than $1 billion by the end of the war. From 1941 to 1943, the U.S. opened 13 new chemical warfare plants. The two biggest projects were the Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado. Each cost $60 million to construct. At its peak, Pine Bluff employed 10,000 people and manufactured millions of gas grenades, bombs, and shells, and tons of mustard and chlorine gas-much of it shipped to Britain. Dugway Proving Ground in Utah became a major chemical warfare research and testing base. The U.S also tested aerial spraying of mustard gas. It entered the Second World War with 1,500 spray tanks and ended it with 113,000.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a genocidal racism against the Japanese was whipped up by the military, press, and politicians. One survey found that 40 percent of the population wanted to use gas against the Japanese. The Lethbridge report, drawn up for the American High Command, called for drenching the island of Iwo Jima with poison gas in 1944. The report concluded that “the employment of chemical warfare with complete ruthlessness and upon a vast scale” would be decisive in winning the war against the Japanese. The Combined Chiefs of Staff and Admiral Chester Nimitz approved the report, but President Franklin Roosevelt vetoed it.
After German V-1 and V-2 rockets bombed British cities, Churchill wanted to respond with poison gas. In a letter to the Service Chiefs, Churchill said,
I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would require constant medical attention.
Churchill’s request was studied but determined unworkable. Chief of the Air Staff Sir Charles Portal said that he “was not convinced that the use of gas would produce the results suggested in the prime minister’s minute. It was very difficult to achieve a heavy concentration of gas over a large area.” In one plan, 60 German cities were to be targeted with gas.
Where poison gas wasn’t feasible, there was one weapon that could do the job in the minds of Allied war planners: anthrax. Britain built the first anthrax bomb in 1942. A crude bomb filled with anthrax spores was exploded on Gruinard Island off the west coast of Scotland. The sheep on the island soon began to die. To this day, Gruinard is uninhabitable, and no aircraft is allowed to land there. The British eventually produced 5 million anthrax “cakes” to drop on Germany. One British contingency plan to bomb Germany with anthrax would have resulted in an estimated 3 million deaths. Britain also experimented with the deadly toxin B~IX, or botulism.
The U.S. also massively expanded its germ warfare program during the Second World War. In 1940, the U.S. Health and Medical Committee of the Council for National Defense began to consider “the offensive and defensive potential of biological warfare.” George Merck, of Merck Pharmaceuticals, was appointed director of the War Research Service, which was in charge of germ warfare research.
In 1943, Camp Detrick was opened in Maryland, and it quickly became the center of the U.S. germ warfare effort. The U.S. invested more than $40 million in plant and equipment between 1942 and 1945 and employed more than 4,000 people at Camp Detrick; the Field Testing Station at Horn Island in Pascagoula, Mississippi; the production plant at Vigo, Indiana; and at the Dugway Proving Grounds. At Camp Detrick, anthrax, tularemia, plague, typhus, yellow fever, and encephalitis were tested for battlefield use, as well as various rice, potato, and cereal blights. The U.S. studied the possibility of destroying Japanese rice crops with germ warfare.
In May 1944, the first batch of 5,000 anthrax-filled bombs came off the production line at Camp Detrick. In Vigo, Indiana, the U.S. built a plant that could have produced 500,000 anthrax bombs a month and 250,000 bombs filled with botulism. Fortunately, they were never used.
The U.S. built the largest poison-gas manufacturing operation in the world during the Second World War, producing 135,000 tons of poison gas, or 20,000 tons more than the combined total used by every country during the First World War. The U.S. also began to surpass the British in germ warfare.
While, in many ways, the story of chemical weapons in the Second World War is the story of the war that didn’t happen, it is also true that biochemical weapons became a major part of the U.S. arsenal.
The value to the U.S. of any Japanese BW [bio-warfare] data is of such importance to national security as to far outweigh the value accruing from “war crimes” prosecution.
U.S. intelligence report
Within two years of the end of the Second World War, the Cold War between Russia and the United States began. America’s war planners began to strategize for future battles. Among their conclusions was that in any future conflict, biochemical weapons were as likely to be used as nuclear weapons. Not only was there a massive expansion of traditional military spending, but also in spending for biochemical weapons.
George Merck wanted the wartime germ warfare programs to continue. Camp Detrick became Fort Detrick in 1956-a permanent military research and development institution. The deadliest viruses and gases known to humanity were now added to the American arsenal, including nerve gases such as GB and VX, gases so deadly that a tiny drop on the skin can cause death in less than a minute. The new rivalry also meant that former enemies were rehabilitated and put on the U.S. payroll. This meant that Japanese war criminals who had experimented on human beings were shielded from prosecution.
During Japan’s long and brutal occupation of China during the 1930s and 1940s, a special unit of the Japanese Army, known as “Unit 731,” experimented on Chinese soldiers and civilians with gas and germ warfare. Unit 731, led by General Ishii Shiro, carried out vast war crimes. For instance, they tested the effects of anthrax bombs on human beings and injected Chinese soldiers and civilians with tetanus, smallpox, and plague. Of the human remains studied by the U.S. in 1947, anthrax accounted for 31 deaths; cholera, 50; mustard gas, 16; plague, 106; typhoid, 22; and typhus, 9. Many more diseases were also tested.
The Russians wanted to put members of Unit 731, including Shiro, on trial, but the U.S. granted them immunity. In return, the U.S. got the results of their experiments. As historians Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman have written, “The U.S. was indeed shielding Japanese bacteriologists from war crimes charges in return for data on human experimentation.” This information was hidden for 30 years after the war.
By 1960, the U.S. was in possession of the greatest poison gas arsenal in the world. More than 200 experiments were carried out in U.S. rural areas to test the spread of non-lethal germs. These tests were also carried out in San Francisco in 1950 and in New York in 1966. While the cover for these tests was to study a “defense” against biochemical warfare, U.S. war planners wanted this knowledge for offensive use against an enemy population. The U.S. Army Chemical Corps was dear on civilian targets of biochemical weapons: “The morale of the people in these targets is an all important factor, and will certainly affect a nation’s will to fight. Attack on these targets should be directed toward achieving maximum anti-personnel effort with the least amount of destruction.”
At the height of Cold War insanity, the U.S. government gave a free hand for its scientists to experiment on anything that could possibly further its military prowess. The CIA experimented with LSD for “mind control.” At Fort Detrick, scientists studied the possibility of spreading yellow fever and plague with insects. Anti-crop bombs were built for the United States Air Force to be used in the Third World.
It is also important to remember that the U.S. Iaunched the first biochemical war since the First World War in Vietnam. The U.S. used CS gas against National Liberation Front guerrillas and used defoliants such as Agent Orange. By 1970, “Operation Ranch Hand” dumped 12 million gallons of Agent Orange on Vietnam, destroying 4.5 million acres of vegetation in the Vietnamese countryside and poisoning it for years to come. The slogan of Ranch Hand supporters was “only we can prevent forests.” Agent Orange contained dioxin, one of the deadliest cancer-causing chemicals on earth. The use of Agent Orange by the U.S. has caused agony for hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people and American soldiers and their families.
The practice of poisoning soldiers and civilians continued. Just a decade ago, during the Gulf War, the U.S. gassed untold thousands of its own soldiers as well as Iraqi citizens when it blew up chemical plants and dropped depleted-uranium bombs and shells on Iraq. It also forced American soldiers to take vaccines that had not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration-one of the many culprits for the Gulf War syndrome suffered by thousands of Gulf War veterans that remains barely acknowledged to this day by the United States government.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon announced that the U.S. was halting its chemical and biological weapons program. “It wasn’t an altruistic move,” writes Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project, an organization that provides information on biotechnology abuses, “so much as a way to discourage poorer countries from developing offensive biological warfare capabilities that could rival nuclear weapons in killing power.”
In 1972, at the Biological Weapons Convention, representatives from the United States and the Soviet Union signed an agreement that they would “never in any circumstances develop, produce, stockpile, or otherwise acquire or retain” any biological weapons. More than 80 other counties signed the treaty. While in many ways this was a step forward from previous treaties, it is also clear that the development of biological weapons continued not only in Russia, but also in the United States.
Recent revelations indicate that the U.S. continues to develop such weapons, contributing to an escalating bio-arms race. Writes Hammond:
On September 4,  the New York Times revealed that U.S. Central Intelligence Agency biodefense researchers had tested mock biological bombs and built a real bioweapons production facility in Nevada, activities completely indistinguishable from offensive biological warfare research. The U.S. kept these activities secret, and did nor divulge them in annual confidence building reports to the Bioweapons Convention.
The U.S. is now pouring billions more into biodefense. In the current climate, it is difficult to believe that potential adversaries will not respond with their own investments. After all, the U.S. itself has failed to comply with its arms control commitments. The situation could very easily spiral out of control.
The recent admissions that the U.S. has been researching and stockpiling weapons-grade anthrax calls into question its moral authority to intervene against countries for alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. While the U.S. claims that it possesses anthrax for defensive purpose only, this has always been a cover for developing offensive biochemical weapons.
The U.S. today also has the greatest arsenal of conventional and nuclear weapons. Indeed, Bush recently announced plans to restart nuclear testing. The U.S. conducts biological warfare in Colombia, spraying dangerous fungi (the use of which is banned in the U.S.) over vast areas to destroy illegal drug crops, and it is currently developing allegedly non-lethal weapons to be used for “crowd control”:
The weapons include publicized items such as microwaves to heat the skin, sound generators to vibrate human internal organs, and lasers to overwhelm the senses.
Cloaked in greater secrecy are investigations into chemical and biological weapons. The Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program UNLWP) has entertained proposals to use sedatives, calmatives, opoids…foul smelling substances, muscle relaxants, and other drugs on “potentially hostile civilians” (and combatants). JNLWP has weighed genetically engineered microbes to disable enemy vehicles and machinery or to destroy supplies. Delivery mechanisms studied include backpack sprayers, land mines and binary weapons, mid-air exploding mortar shells for riot control, and as payloads in unmanned aerial vehicles.
The U.S. maintains, says Hammond, “far and away the largest biological weapons defense program in the world,” prompting some international critics to “convincingly argue the U.S. is a chemical and biological weapons control ‘rogue state.”‘ Last July, the U.S. deliberately scuttled verification of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, setting back six years of negotiations in order to protect its secret CIA biological weapons programs from international scrutiny.
The most powerful country in the world proved itself untrustworthy on biological weapons research…. To U.S. enemies the CIA’s work looks like nothing short of a biologicai weapons threat and means that pious declarations about the danger of bioweapons will ring hollow and be interpreted by U.S. enemies as lies-or even threats.
Now, after Bush and the U.S. media tried their best to pin the anthrax scare on Iraq or Osama bin Laden, U.S. officials admit that the anthrax most likely came from a domestic source-possibly even from a strain developed by a U.S. government lab, sent by a disgruntled employee or right-wing extremists. To date, neither Bush nor Attorney General John Ashcroft has declared a war on “homegrown” terror.
America’s own secret bioweapons program
As the controversy rages on over how long the United Nations should continue weapons inspections in Iraq, questions are being raised about the United States’ own stockpile of chemical and biological weapons and new clandestine weapons programs. Activists and scientists are calling for weapons inspections in the United States.
On September 4, 2001, the New York Times printed a front-page article under the headline, “U.S. Germ Warfare Research Pushes Treaty Limits.” While the story got lost in the events of September ] 1, the article revealed that the United States had initiated a secret weapons program that could be in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention, the landmark 1972 treaty that prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of biological agents that have no “prophylactic, protective or other peace purpose.” Signers of the treaty pledged not to develop or obtain weapons “designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.”
The article’s revelations shed light on why the United States, which had been the driving force behind the treaty since announcing its intention to unilaterally dismantle biological weapons stocks during the Nixon administration, rejected a July 2001 protocol that would have provided for regular inspections to verify compliance with the treaty. The Bush administration’s rejection of the protocol left the treaty dead in the water.
During the Clinton administration, the United States initiated classified biodefense programs within the Energy and Defense departments and the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA built and tested a cluster bomb that could spread biological agents over a wide area. The Pentagon’s Threat Reduction Agency built a bioweapons plant from commercially available materials in the Nevada desert to demonstrate the ease with which such a project could be undertaken by terrorists or rogue states without raising suspicions. The Defense Intelligence Agency tried to genetically engineer more powerful anthrax to replicate a Russian strain thought to be resistant to U.S. military vaccinations.
The United States maintains that these programs are defensive, claiming that in order to manufacture vaccines and develop defenses against biological attacks, researchers must first be able to produce the weapons. In the words of one official, the projects are “fully consistent with the treaty.”
But Mark Wheelis and Malcolm Dando, authors of “Back to Bioweapons,” an article in the January/February issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, warn that the implications of this decision are far reaching and dangerous. “U.S. behavior suggests that its biodefense program is even larger than those portions that have been revealed,” they write. “This U.S. exploration of the utility of biotech for bioweapons development is unwise, for the rest of the world will be obliged to follow suit,” creating the conditions for a “global bioweapons arms race.”
Quite a few facilities around the country are doing research on chemical and biological weapons. Among them are the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland; the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground in Utah; the U.S. Department of Agriculture Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York; and the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio. The New York Times named Battelle, a military contractor that analyzes biological information for the Pentagon, as a participant in the ClA’s secret effort to make a more potent anthrax.
While the activities of most of these facilities are shrouded from public knowledge, a small Canadian effort hopes to expose them. The project, called “Rooting out Evil,” is planning inspections of U.S. chemical, biological and nuclear sites like the ones listed above. In February, the inspection team, including Canadian and British members of parliament, a union leader and a professor, will enter the United States and demand “immediate and unfettered access” to chemical, biological and nuclear weapons sites.
Citizen weapons inspections have a D long tradition. Most recently, three Catholic nuns entered an N-8 missile silo in northern Colorado wearing white jumpsuits with the logo “Disarmament Specialists” stenciled on the front, and “CWIT” (Citizen Weapons Inspection Team) written on the back. They occupied the site for several hours, dismantling the tracks that carry the silo lid to its firing position with hammers. They poured their own blood on the tracks and the silo. Despite the prayerful and symbolic nature of their action, they were charged with sabotage and “injury to property” and are facing a maximum sentence of 30 years.
Activists calling for and carrying out inspections of U.S. sites are finding allies within the scientific community. Jonathan King, an MIT biologist, says the United States should welcome inspectors into chemical and biological weapons programs. Scientists at the country’s top universities are signing petitions and drafting codes of ethics for work in this field; some have even outlined a new biological weapons treaty that would make violations a crime under international law. As Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson, once a close adviser to Henry Kissinger, recently told the Boston Globe, bioweapons are a “threat to the species. It rises above considerations of national security, important as they may be.”
Maybe once the U.N. inspectors are finished in Iraq, they can turn their attention to the United States. It seems they would be guaranteed abundant work and generous support from activists and scientists alike.
Frida Berrigan is a senior research associate with the Arms Trade Resource Center, a project of the World Policy Institute.