War of Nerves

In their book Chemical Warfare (1921), the American authors Amos A. Fries and Clarence J. West argued that “chemical warfare is an agency that must not only be reckoned with by every civilized nation in the future, but is one that civilized nations should not hesitate to use.” As Jonathan B. Tucker makes clear in War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to al-Qaeda, Fries’s advocacy for chemical weapons was part of a heated international debate that was among the aftereffects of World War I.

The background for that debate included international agreements negotiated in The Hague in 1899. They had prohibited the use of “poison or poisoned weapons” as well as “the use of projectiles, the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.” These agreements, however, were insufficient to prevent a tipping point that took place in the late afternoon of Thursday, April 22, 1915. Following a heavy German artillery bombardment near Ypres in Flanders, Belgium, a massive chlorine gas assault was launched on the Allied trenches. From then on, chemical warfare in World War I escalated in hideous ways. By war’s end in November, 1918, Tucker reports, the combatants combined had released “more than 124,000 metric tons of 39 different toxic agents, delivered primarily by some 66 million artillery shells.” These chemical weapons had killed about ninety thousand people. The gas attacks left nearly a million more blinded or otherwise disabled. One of the victims (who recovered fully) was Adolf Hitler, who would inflict even greater destruction on the world, including the gassing of millions of Jews, but not through the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield because he did not think that he held the upper hand in such weaponry.

In World War I, chemical warfare had not given either side a permanent advantage despite escalation in the variety and toxicity of the poisons that were used. Nevertheless, Fries, an American general in the Great War, and like-minded international advocates still contended that chemical weapons could give nations a competitive military edge. He buttressed this argument by claiming, in his survival-of-the-fittest way, that chemical weaponry, “when properly safe-guarded with masks and other safety devices,” would give to “the most scientific and most ingenious people a great advantage over the less scientific and less ingenious.”

Countering arguments such as Fries’s were international negotiations such as the deliberations by the League of Nations, which resulted in the adoption of the Geneva Protocol on June 17, 1925. The signatories agreed to ban the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons, but, significantly, they did not outlaw production and stockpiling of them. Apparently the signatories felt that use should be outlawed, but they still found it sensible to retain chemical weapons for defensive purposes. Tucker indicates that about forty nations signed the Geneva Protocol, although Japan and the United States did not. Meanwhile, in cooperation with the Soviet Union for a time, Germany went forward, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, with its clandestine military buildup, which included chemical warfare research and development. After Hitler came to power in 1933, German science put the Third Reich on the cutting edge of these lethal advances.

With IG Farben scientists such as Gerhard Schrader and Otto Ambros in the vanguard, experimentation in Nazi Germany gradually developed more deadly poisons, such as the nerve agents tabun and sarin. Not only were the effects of these agents and their successors increasingly difficult to detect until it was too late, but antidotes to neutralize them were extremely hard to find. If efficient warhead delivery of these chemicals presented problems that the Germans did not solve completely, it is still fortunate that Nazi Germany did not unleash its chemical arsenal during World War II, for Tucker shows that the Germans had a clear tactical advantage over the Allies in this field. German intelligence, however, was unable to confirm that the Allies lagged behind in the development of chemical weaponry, and thus Hitler, contrary to the advice of close advisers, never ordered their use.

Scarcely had World War II ended in 1945 when the Cold War began. The rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States and the allies of both became...

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Booklist 102, no. 11 (February 1, 2006): 11.

Issues in Science & Technology 23, no. 1 (Fall, 2006): 93-95.

Library Journal 131, no. 1 (January 1, 2006): 135.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (February 12, 2006): 13.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 50 (December 19, 2005): 57.

The Wilson Quarterly 30, no. 2 (Spring, 2006): 108-110.