Hypocrisy and Terror
The U.S., Britain, and biochemical weapons
by Joe Allen
International Socialist Review, January / February
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
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
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
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
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
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
This type of war research had to be kept secret for fear of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Joe Allen if a member of the International Socialist Organization