Deceit, Hypocrisy and Terror — The History of Biological and Chemical Weapons

“I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes. It is simply the application of modern science to warfare and we cannot deny ourselves any weapon that might be used to put down disturbances on the frontier.”

— British Prime Minister Churchill responding to a Royal Air Force request to use mustard gas against Iraqi Arabs in 1920.

The term “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), is used to encompass nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. This term is rather misleading as it should really include other weapons that have killed millions of people, including machine guns, mortars, fragmentation bombs, etc. Of the three, biological weapons have never been deployed on any significant scale and chemical weapons have been mostly ineffective in warfare. They are probably more appropriately classified as weapons of terror.

“In no future war will the military be able to ignore poison gas. It is a higher form of killing.” Fritz Haber, German professor and a pioneer of gas warfare, received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1919.

Attempts to control chemical weapons began with the Franco-German accord of 1675. Then came the Brussels Convention (1874) to prohibit the use of poisoned weapons. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 added to the Brussels accord by prohibiting the use of projectiles that would carry gases. Twenty-six nations signed the Hague Declaration; Britain delayed signing until 1907, while the United States refused. But these prohibitions were ignored during WW 1 and gas warfare killed tens of thousands of soldiers.

During the First World War France was the first to use chemical weapons. In 1914, its forces launched hand and rifle grenades filled with tear gas at German troops. Germany responded with the first large-scale use of chemical weapons on April 22, 1915, when its troops opened the valves of 6,000 canisters of chlorine gas towards the enemy lines at Ypres in Belgium. More than 5,000 French troops were killed and about 15,000 injured. The chlorine produced inflammation of the lungs and a buildup of fluid that suffocated the soldiers.

The Allied powers defeat at Ypres accelerated a chemical gas arms race. The British organized a chemical warfare unit and the Porton Down facility was built in 1915 employing over 1,000 scientists. Soon almost all leading chemists in Britain were working on the chemical warfare effort.

The US established the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) in mid-1918. A military base in Maryland, the Edgewood Arsenal became the centre for US chemical weapons research, employing some 2,000 technical staff whom tested 4,000 poisonous substances. With 218 manufacturing buildings Edgewood was producing 200,000 chemical bombs and shells per day. It was the biggest military-scientific scheme until the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bomb in 1941.

Germany initially led the arms race, but with American economic might it shifted in favour of the Allies. There were soon more than 17,000 chemical troops deployed on both sides and phosgene, chlorine and mustard gases were being used. During WW1 an estimated 124,000 tons of chemicals were used by all parties. Mustard gas was especially feared due to the burns and slow death. Mustard gas was responsible for one in six casualties in the last 18 months of the war and accounted for 80% of the chemical casualties. There were 91,000 deaths and 1.3 million casualties (injuries) officially attributed to gas warfare of WW1. Chemical weapons caused about 3% of the estimated 15million casualties on the Western front. So despite its intensive use, gas was of little military success in WW1.

After the First World War the British intervened in the Russian Civil War in 1919 and armed the White Army with mustard gas among other weapons. Also in 1919 the British military used their chemical weapons against rebel Afgans. The British believed that “the absence of protection on the part of the Afgans and tribesmen will undoubtedly enhance the casualty value of mustard gas”. Major Foulkes, Royal Engineers.

The widespread knowledge of the inhuman suffering caused by chemical weapons led to hostile public opinion and to disillusionment with gas warfare. The signing of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 banned the use of chemical and biological weapons in any future conflict. The Geneva Protocol was not binding however and did not forbid the stockpiling or research on chemical weapons, just banning first use. In the face of strong opposition from the American Chemical Society, Chemical Warfare Service and other groups who argued that, ” prohibition of chemical warfare meant the abandonment of human methods for the old horrors of battle”, the USA withdrew from ratification of the treaty.

Many European countries did ratify the Geneva Protocol, but most added qualifying clauses that made it worthless. The effect of the Protocol was not to stop the development of biochemical weapons, but to make the research and development more secret. In 1925, the future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote of the ” pestilences…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.”

The British Government maintained the Porton Down facility on a permanent basis and added the study and development of germ warfare to its agenda. Research had to be kept secret for fear of public opposition.

Despite the conventions banning chemical weapons the Italians used them during the war in Ethiopia in 1935-36 and several new chemicals were developed for use in weapons, Sarin, Soman, VX and Tabun the first nerve gas discovered in 1936.

” 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 meantime, I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by that particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists.” Winston Churchill to the Chiefs of Staff, July 6, 1944.

Except for the use of chemical weapons by the Japanese in China during WW2 (1938-42) gas warfare was largely absent from the Second World War. This was mainly due to the difficulty of delivering such weapons without affecting your own troops. Britain and the US continued to advance their biochemical weapons programs to new levels and stockpiled hundreds of tons of such weapons for possible use. The massive terror bombings by conventional weapons of major cities and the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and other horrors of WW2 almost included the use of chemical weapons.

In 1940, the US spent $2 million on the CWS. In 1941, chemical rearmament began in earnest and the US increased the CWS budget to $34 million and to more than $I billion by the end of the war. From 1941-43, the US opened 13 new chemical warfare plants. Each cost $60 million to construct. At its peak one of the biggest projects at Pine Bluff Arsenal in Colorado, employed 10,000 people and manufactured millions of gas grenades, bombs shells and tons of mustard and chlorine gas. Much of this was shipped to Britain. The US also tested aerial spraying of mustard gas. It entered the Second World War with 1,500 spray tanks and ended it with over 113,000.

The Lethbridge report, drawn up for the American High Command in 1944, called for drenching the island of Iwo Jima with poison gas. The report stated that “the employment of chemical warfare with complete ruthlessness and on a vast scale” would be decisive in winning the war. The Combined Chiefs of Staff and Admiral Chester Nimitz approved the report, but President Roosevelt vetoed it.

After German V-1 and V-2 rockets bombed British cities, Churchill wrote, ” I may certainly 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.” In one plan 60 German cities were to be targeted for gas attack, but while Churchill’s request was studied it was 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.”

While Allied war planners thought that poison gas wasn’t feasible, they thought that anthrax was. Britain built the first Anthrax bomb in 1942. A crude anthrax bomb was exploded on Gruinard Island off the west coast of Scotland. The sheep on the island soon died. To this day the Gruinard is uninhabited and no boats or planes are allowed to land there. The British eventually produced 5 million anthrax “cakes” to drop on Germany. One plan was to bomb Germany with anthrax, which would have resulted in an estimated 3 million deaths. At this time Britain also experimented with the deadly toxin B-IX or Botulism.

The US massively expanded its germ warfare program during the Second World War. In 1940, the US Council for National Defence began to research the ” offensive and defensive potential of biological warfare.” In 1943, Camp Detrick in Maryland was opened and became the centre of the US germ warfare effort. The US invested more than $40 million in plant and equipment between 1942-1945 and employed over 4,000 people. Anthrax, tularemia, plague, typhus, yellow fever and encephalitis were tested for battlefield use, as well as studies into the possibility of destroying Japanese rice crops with germ warfare.

In May 1944, the first batches of 5,000 anthrax-filled bombs were produced. Later, these plants 500,000 anthrax bombs a month and 250,000 bombs filled with botulism.

Fortunately, they were never used. During the Second World War the US built the largest poison gas manufacturing operation in the world, 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 value to the US of any Japanese (bio-warfare) data is of such importance to national security as to far outweigh the value accruing from ‘war crimes’ prosecution.” US Intelligence Report.

After the end of WW2, the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union began. Planning for future conflict the US undertook a massive expansion in traditional military spending, as well as spending for biochemical weapons. Japanese war criminals who had experimented on human beings were put on the US payroll and shielded from prosecution.

In 1956, the now Fort Detrick became a permanent military research and development institution allowing the wartime germ warfare programs to expand. The deadliest viruses and gases known were now added to the American arsenal, including nerve gases such as GB and VX, gases so deadly that a tiny drop

During Japan’s long and very brutal occupation of China through the 1930’s and 1940’s, a special unit of the Japanese Army, known as ‘Unit 731,’experimented on Chinese soldiers and civilians with gas and germs. Unit 731, led by General Shiro, carried out war crimes that killed hundreds of people. The Russians wanted to put members of Unit 731, including Shiro on trial, but the US granted them immunity. In return the US got the information on the results of their experiments. This was hidden from the public for 30 years after the war.

By 1960, the US was in possession of the greatest poison gas arsenal in the world. More than 200 experiments were carried out in US rural areas to test the spread of germs. At Fort Detrick, scientists studied the possibility of spreading yellow fever and plague with insects. Anti-crop bombs were also built for the US Air Force to be used in Third World Countries.

During the Vietnam War the US used CS gas and defoliants such as Agent Orange. By 1970, “Operation Ranch Hand” had dumped 12 million gallons of Agent Orange on Vietnam, destroying 4.5 million acres of vegetation in the country and poisoning it for years to come. Agent Orange contains dioxin, one of the deadliest cancer causing chemicals on earth. The use of this chemical has caused agony for hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and other people.

In 1969, President Nixon fearing a chemical arms race by poorer countries announced that the US was halting its chemical and biological weapons program. In 1972, the Biological Weapons Convention was held and representatives of the Soviet Union and the USA 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 countries signed the treaty. While this was a step forward from previous treaties, again the US and the USSR continued to develop biological weapons.

On September 4, 2001 the New York Times revealed that ‘biodefence’ researchers working for the US C.I.A. had tested mock biological bombs and built an actual bioweapons research and production facility in Nevada. The US kept these activities secret and did not divulge them to the Bioweapons Convention.

Recent admissions that the US has been researching and stockpiling weapons grade anthrax calls into question any moral authority the US to intervene against countries for alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. The US claims that it possesses anthrax for ‘defensive purpose’ only, not developing offensive biochemical weapons. Information revealed later was to shatter these US claims.

The US sold the technology and materials Iraq needed to develop weapons of mass destruction. According to US government records released in October 2002, the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Type Culture Collection sent germ samples directly to Iraq in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. At the time the US supported Iraq in its war with Iran. These exports were legal and approved under a program administered by the US Commerce Department. UN weapons inspectors later determined these were part of Iraq’s biological weapons program.

Records shown to the US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs-which overseas American exports policy-reveal that the US, under the successive administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Snr, sold materials including anthrax, VX nerve gas, West Nile fever germs, botulism to Iraq. Other bacteria sold included brucella melitenis, which damages major organs and clostridium perfringens, which causes gas gangrene.

In early 2003, it was further revealed that US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had secretly helped Saddam Hussein build his arsenal of chemical and biological weapons during his war with Iran. The CIA knew that Iraq was using chemical weapons, but Rumsfeld-at the time a pharmaceutical industry executive- made it possible for Hussein to buy from these US firms.

These details came to light as a result of State Department documents dealing with the Iraq-Iran war (1980-88) being released under the Freedom of Information Act. President Reagan made Rumsfeld his envoy in 1983 and sent him to arrange secret military help to prop up Hussein’s regime. Rumsfeld arranged for Iraq to receive billions in loans to buy weapons and CIA Director William Casey used a Chilean front company to supply Iraq with cluster bombs.

“The US maintains far and away the largest biological weapons defence program in the world, prompting critics to convincingly argue the US is a chemical and biological weapons control rogue state.” Edward Hammond from the Sunshine Project, an organization that investigates biological abuses.

The US has at present more than a million munitions armed with mustard agents, mostly artillery shells stockpiled in eight states and Johnston Atoll. Taking into account all chemical weapons agents, the US has more than 31,000 tons of chemical weapons material encased in millions of munitions at these nine sites. In addition the US has vast and not accounted for quantities of “non stockpile chemical material.” The US is also the world leader in research into biological warfare technologies.

In July 2001, the US deliberately blocked the verification of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in order to keep secret its CIA biological weapons programs from international scrutiny. In 2002 the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and refused to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and 1997 Mine Bans Treaty. The US has also imposed limits on inspections of its facilities that are contrary to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The US is the most powerful country in the world and has the greatest arsenal of conventional, nuclear and biochemical weapons. It is also the most hypocritical and untrustworthy nation, refusing to abide by international treaties, pouring billions into ‘biodefence’ and keeping its biological weapons research secret. Other countries are following the US policies and the situation with biochemical weapons could be spiralling out of control.