In my previous life as a freelance writer, back in the 80's and early 90's, I did a lot of magazine articles on chemical weapons, particularly about the "binary nerve gas" controversy during the Reagan Administration, and the proliferation of chemical weapons in the 1980's to countries like Syria, Libya, Iraq, Thailand, and others. I had a couple sources in the Pentagon and in disarmament groups like SIPRI. I started work on a book manuscript on the subject, but in 1993, when the Chemical Weapons Convention was signed, interest in chemical weapons plummeted, and I never finished it. I stored it on a floppy disk and left it in a drawer.
Well, recently, given the renewed interest in chemical weapons, I decided to look for it, and found it. So I spent the day today reading through it, doing some research to update the parts that need updating, and preparing it to be published.
So what I am going to do is post the entire rough draft manuscript here, in a series of diaries. I hope it will provide some useful background info on CBW that people can keep in mind when reading about the situation in Syria. And I'd also like to recruit some editors--I'd appreciate any feedback from folks, especially about parts that might not be clear or are hard to understand. It's just a rough draft, so none of it is set in stone.
This chapter is very long. Sorry.
Previous part of manuscript here:
(c) 2013 by Lenny Flank. All rights reserved.
The History of CBW
The use of poisons and microbes to kill enemies in warfare is not a new innovation. The Chinese were using arsenical smokes in battle thousands of years before the first mustard shell was fired. The use of crude forms of chemical and biological weapons can, in fact, be traced almost to the beginning of military history.
The earliest recorded use of poisons in warfare occurred in China. For centuries, the Chinese Empire was far more advanced in its technology than the West, and among the weapons introduced during the early Dynasties were the rocket, gunpowder and poison gas. The Chinese version of CBW consisted of producing arsenic-laden clouds of smoke. Like the other weapons, chemical warfare saw only limited and sporadic use.
In the wars which raged between the city-states of ancient Greece, the Greeks pioneered the use of chemical weapons in warfare. The earliest recorded use of chemical/biological weapons in Europe took place in 600 BC, when the Athenian leader Solon had a supply of Helleborus roots dumped into the stream being used for drinking water by his opponents. Within days, the entire enemy camp had been crippled by outbreaks of diarrhea, and the Athenians easily overpowered them.
The Spartans also made use of poison weapons in their conquests. In 492 BC, a Spartan army took the fortress at Plataea by surrounding it with burning sulphur. The thick toxic fumes forced the defenders to surrender. Similar tactics enabled the Spartans to capture Delium in 424 BC.
In 200 BC, a Carthaginian general assigned to defend his city during a siege was able to win a victory through a clever ruse. The Carthaginians feigned a retreat, abandoning their camp and leaving behind a cache of wine that had been contaminated with Mandragora roots. The marauding troops found the wine and quickly fell under the narcotic effects of the roots. While they were lost in a stupor, the Carthaginians returned and slaughtered them.
In the 12th century, the European Emperor Frederick Barbarossa used a crude form of biological warfare to take the Italian fortress at Tortuna. Barbarossa forced the town to surrender by contaminating its water supply with tar, sulphur and the dead bodies of disease victims. A century later, Mongol invaders used similar tactics to force the surrender of the Crimean fortress at Kaffa. The Mongols catapulted the dead bodies of plague victims over the city walls, touching off an epidemic that wiped out the defenders.
In 1456, the city of Belgrade defended itself against an invading Turk army by surrounding the city with piles of rags that had been soaked in various poisons. When set afire, the rags produced a poisonous cloud that drove away the attackers and lifted the siege.
Perhaps the best-known example of biological warfare took place in 1763, during the French and Indian War in North America. On the orders of British General Sir Jeffrey Amherst, the chiefs of Native American tribes that were hostile to the British were given blankets and other items, ostensibly as “peace offerings”. The blankets, however, had taken from hospitals, where they had been infected with smallpox. The Native Americans had never before been exposed to the disease, and had no natural immunity. The resulting epidemic swept across the country, killing hundreds of thousands and wiping out whole tribes at a stroke. Far more natives died from the white man’s germs than from his bullets.
By the 19th century, military leaders began to investigate the possibility of routinely using poisonous chemicals as standardized weapons. Instead of the makeshift CBW attacks which had been carried out previously, new and more modern methods of utilizing poisons were sought.
This effort was spearheaded largely by the British. In 1855, the British War Office was shown a device containing the chemical cacodyl oxide, which produces toxic arsenic smoke when burned. In the same year, the British General Dundonald drew up a plan to defend the Crimean fortress at Sebastopol using artillery shells that had been filled with sulphur dioxide. The War Office studied both proposals but declined to proceed with the plans, saying that no honorable nation could ever employ such inhumane weapons.
At about the same time, during the American Civil War, John W. Dougherty of New York passed a suggestion to Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to use chemical weapons to defeat the Confederate Army. Dougherty submitted plans for a hollow artillery ball filled with liquid chlorine, designed to release a cloud of poison gas in the midst of the Confederate lines. Nothing ever came of Dougherty’s proposal, but both sides in the Civil War practiced less sophisticated forms of CBW. When the Confederate General Johnston was forced to flee the Union General Sherman near the end of the war, he attempted to slow Sherman’s “March to the Sea” by poisoning local wells with the bodies of dead sheep.
By the time of the Boer War in Africa in 1899, most of the world’s military establishments were conducting serious research into the widespread use of chemical and biological weapons. The British angrily accused the Boers of poisoning local wells with potassium cyanide, but the lingering symptoms reported by the British are not compatible with the fast acting cyanide. It is unlikely that the Boers were using any sophisticated forms of CBW.
The British, however, did use the Boer War to test a new chemical device of their own. This was an artillery shell filled with picric acid, which, after impact, released the explosive gas lyddite. The British encountered a host of technical problems with the new weapons, however, and they proved to be practically worthless.
It was not until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 that chemical warfare came under the most intense scrutiny. During the four-year “war to end all wars”, chemical weapons were transformed from a minor experiment into a lethal and widely-feared method of warfare.
The first use of chemical weapons in World War I was, ironically, ineffective. In August 1914, the French had begun to harass the entrenched German troops with rifle grenades that had been filled with tear gases. The Germans retaliated in August with shrapnel shells containing the eye irritant dianisidine chlorosulphate. By January 1915, the Germans had developed another lachrymator, and used shells containing the irritant xylyl bromide against Russian trenches on the Eastern Front.
By April 1915, however, the German capability had expanded to a scope far beyond that of an irritating nuisance. For years, the giant industrial firm I.G. Farben had been producing a variety of paints and dyes. One of the company’s most lucrative coups was a process to manufacture synthetic indigo. As a by-product, the huge manufacturing conglomerate produced some forty tons of liquid chlorine per day.
The Kaiser soon realized the potential uses of the toxic liquid and, determined to break the stalemated trench war, decided to put the stocks of chemicals to good use. On April 22, the Germans released 168 tons of chlorine gas from hundreds of gas canisters near Ypres, France. The ominous green cloud drifted towards the French Algerian lines, hugging the earth as it went. A British General later described the scene:
“The effect of these poisonous gases was so virulent as to render the whole of the line held by the French division mentioned above practically incapable of any action at all. It was at first impossible for anyone to realize what had actually happened. The smoke and fumes hid everything from sight, and hundreds of men were thrown into a comatose or dying condition. Within an hour, the whole position had to be abandoned, together with about 50 guns.”
Later accounts claimed that the gas had killed 5,000 and injured 10,000 more, but these figures were probably exaggerated by propagandists on both sides. The effect of the attack on the startled Allies, though, was not exaggerated. The panic-stricken Algerians left a huge undefended gap in the lines. The Germans, apparently surprised at the effectiveness of their attack, had failed to provide a reserve force and thus were unable to capitalize on their success.
A lesson had been learned by both sides. The Germans, impressed by the sheer terror caused by their new weapon, called for a fresh supply of chlorine. The Allies, equally impressed, hurried desperately to produce their own chlorine capability.
Dissatisfied with the crude canister method of dissemination, the Germans undertook a research program and by July 1915 had developed a chambered artillery shell that could put a cloud of chlorine into the Allied trenches. The British responded by issuing crude gas masks to their troops and by redoubling their own chemical weapons program. In September 1915, they were able to carry out their first chlorine attack against the Germans.
Shortly after this, however, the Germans were able to maintain their lead in the chemical arms race by introducing a new agent—phosgene. This new gas killed at a concentration of 3200 mg-min/cubic meter. (This means a dose of 3200 milligrams per cubic meter for one minute, 1 milligram per cubic meter for 3200 minutes, or any combination in between. Toxicity figures are given in Lethal Dose 50, and represent a concentration that will kill 50% of those exposed.) Because it had a low evaporation rate and did not form chemical clouds very efficiently, phosgene was most often mixed with chlorine to produce more effective clouds.
The crude British gas masks proved to be equally effective against phosgene, however, and the Germans next introduced the vomiting gas diphenyl chlorarsine to combat the masks. This gas was capable of penetrating the filters on the British equipment. By bombarding British troops with a mixture of phosgene and chlorarsine, the Germans were able to induce vomiting among the troops, thus forcing them to remove their masks and be exposed to the phosgene.
By March 1917, the Allies had perfected their own phosgene capabilities and had introduced the Livens projector to deliver their new weapon. The projector was designed to lob sixty-pound bombs onto the German trenches, each bomb containing thirty pounds of phosgene.
Four months later, however, the Germans introduced a new weapon when they fielded the deadliest of all the gases used in the war. This new chemical was mustard oil. Unlike chlorine or phosgene, which have sharp, easily-recognized odors, mustard is nearly odorless and virtually undetectable. Moreover, victims of mustard poisoning do not show any symptoms until several hours after exposure, after a lethal dose has already been absorbed.
The new chemical took the Allies completely by surprise. The American General Pershing reported to the War Department that a method had to be found to counter the new weapon:
“Since July 18, the British have suffered 20,000 casualties from this gas alone. Five percent have been fatal, fourteen percent have been serious, while the balance have been mild. . . In mild cases, the subject is blind and incapacitated for duty for about three weeks. In serious cases for a considerably longer period. The only defense is prompt use of gas masks and even this only guarantees a reduction in losses.”
When the United States entered the war in April 1917, it found itself completely unprepared for the raging chemical battles. To compensate, General Pershing placed Lieutenant Colonel Amos Fries in charge of a crash program to develop an American chemical arsenal and a CBW defense program. In September 1917, Fries formed the American Expeditionary Force Gas Service, and construction of the first American chemical warfare facility, Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, began in November. American troops in Europe borrowed chemical shells and gas masks from Britain.
On February 25, 1918, the American Expeditionary Force suffered its first mustard attacks. The untrained troops failed to properly utilize their gas masks, and casualties ran to 95% in some units. An inspector from the Gas Service arrived a month later and found US forces to be hopelessly ignorant about chemical defenses. “Many soldiers and officers,” he reported, “were found without proper protection, that is, the respirators were either not in the ‘alert’ position or no respirators at all. None of the dugouts were properly protected against gas. No first aid appliances for the treatment of gassed men were observed.”
By 1918, the US had managed to buy or borrow enough British gas masks to protect its troops, and the facilities at Edgewood Arsenal began to turn out a steady supply of mustard weapons.
The Germans and the Allies continued to throw chemicals at each other for the rest of the war. In all, some 125,000 tons of chemical weapons were used, 58,000 of these coming from the Allied sides of the trenches. Gas warfare produced about 1.3 million casualties, including 91,000 deaths. A single gas shell, on average, produced about twenty times as many casualties as a single high explosive artillery shell.
The use of poison gas in the First World War led to an outcry of international revulsion, and produced several post-war efforts to ban the use of chemical weapons. Despite the signing of the 1925 Geneva Protocols outlawing chemical warfare, however, a number of nations continued to develop and expand their chemical arsenals.
The Russians, who had borne the brunt of the gas casualties in 1916 and 1917, began a crash program to catch up in the CBW arms race. In 1924, Moscow set up a Military Chemical Administration to direct the program, and a proving ground and testing range were built at Shikhany, near Volsk. The new Soviet Union quickly built up a stock of phosgene and mustard weapons.
The Soviets also apparently had few qualms about using their new weapons. Moscow reportedly considered using gas to thwart the 1921 Kronstadt Rebellion, and apparently used chlorine, phosgene and mustard on several occasions during the bitter fight over collectivization in the 1920’s. In the early 1930’s, the Soviets reportedly used mustard to combat rebellious Basmatchi tribesmen in the Central Asian Soviet Republics. By the beginning of World War II, the Soviets possessed a large stockpile of several different chemical agents. Their efforts came to naught, however. The invading Nazis managed to capture the entire stockpile before it could be used by the Red Army.
The Soviet chemical program was echoed by a similar American effort. After World War I, the US War Department made plans to dismantle the chemical warfare program and to end the production of chemical weapons. By June 1919, the Army’s chemical program was down to a mere 3% of its wartime strength.
The US chemical phase-out, however, was vigorously opposed by now-Colonel Amos Fries, who headed the Chemical Warfare Service. Fries lobbied intensely for the establishment of a separate Chemical Warfare Corps under his command. Such a Corps, he argued, was essential to US security. Fries asserted:
“No other invention since that of gunpowder has made so profound a change in warfare as gas is making, or will make in the future. The universal adoption of gas warfare . . . will make that nation which is able to produce and use gas in the largest quantity superior to any other nation on the globe. The United States can reach that position and maintain it.”
Fries was opposed by most of the Pentagon brass, who viewed gas warfare as repugnant, dishonorable and, ironically, not effective enough from a military point of view. In the end, Fries, supported by powerful friends in the chemical industry, won. The Army Chemical Corps was established in January 1920. On the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, the US stockpile stood at 500 tons of mustard.
The rise to power of the Fascists in Europe marked a new level of CBW research. Both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany began large chemical weapons programs and showed little reluctance to use them. When Mussolini’s troops invaded Ethiopia in 1936, they took some 200 tons of mustard with them. The gas proved to be particularly effective against the bare-footed Ethiopian soldiers.
The most important discovery in CBW history, however, was made in Germany completely by accident. In 1936, Dr. Gerhard Schrader of the I.G. Farben conglomerate was investigating the use of certain organo-phosphate compounds as insecticides when he stumbled onto the chemical ethyl-NN-dimethyl phosphoroaminocyanidate.
This accident changed the scope of chemical warfare forever. The new chemical, dubbed “Tabun” by Schrader, proved to be one of the most toxic chemicals ever discovered. According to Schrader’s calculations, the new compound was at least ten times more toxic than mustard or phosgene.
Recognizing the military potentials of Tabun, Schrader turned the chemical over to the Wehrmacht. The Nazis constructed a Tabun manufacturing plant at Dyrenfurth, near Breslau, and turned out 12,000 tons of the new nerve gas between 1942 and 1945.
I.G. Farben, meanwhile, continued its research into the chemical compounds discovered by Schrader, and in 1938 developed the chemical isopropyl methylphosphoro flouridate, known as Sarin. Sarin proved to be even more lethal than Tabun, and, unlike the earlier compound, had no tell-tale odor. In 1943, the Germans built a Sarin plant at Falkenhagen, near Berlin, but the plant’s output was limited by delays and industrial shortages.
The following year, Farben’s research team found yet another chemical, 0-1,2,2-trimethylpropyl methyl phosphanoflouridate, dubbed Soman. This chemical was more difficult to manufacture than the earlier compounds, and the Nazis were never able to begin mass production.
While mustard and phosgene kill by their corrosive chemical properties, Tabun, Sarin and Soman all kill by affecting the transfer of nerve impulses, hence their popular name “nerve gases”. Between the ending of a nerve cell and a muscle cell is a tiny gap known as the synapse. When a nerve impulse travels from a nerve to a muscle, it is carried across the synapse by a chemical known as acetylcholine. After the impulse has been carried, the enzyme cholinesterase is produced to break down the acetylcholine and leave the synapse open for another impulse.
The nerve gases are all cholinesterase inhibitors. By halting the production of cholinesterase, the gas produces a buildup of acetylcholine in the synapse, resulting in the continuous transfer of the same impulse. Responding to the impulse, the muscle contracts and will not relax. The victim of nerve gas poisoning dies as the result of the paralyzing contraction of the body’s muscles, producing death by asphyxiation. Depending on the dosage, death occurs in a time period ranging from less than a minute to an hour or more.
The use of such a devastating weapon by the Nazis would have given them a huge advantage in the war, but Hitler, for some reason, never used his new weapon. It has been suggested that Hitler, who had himself been temporarily blinded by a British mustard attack during the First World War, considered the gas to be too horrible to use, but Hitler has never been known for his humanitarian values. It has also been speculated that Hitler didn’t use nerve gas because he thought that the Allies had deployed it too and didn’t want to risk retaliation in kind, but there is little evidence to support this postulate, either. It is most likely that the gas was never used simply because the Nazis were never able to produce enough of it. By the end of the war, when large amounts did became available, the Germans no longer had any effective means of delivering it.
In the same year as Schrader’s discovery, moreover, the Nazis had begun an experimental program in the utilization of biological warfare. To study the effects of diseases and to test possible agents, the Nazis infected concentration camp prisoners with typhus, plague and other diseases. The biological program was less successful than the chemical warfare program, although the Soviets did accuse the Nazis of trying to spread typhus among Soviet soldiers and civilians. The Soviets, meanwhile, had themselves begun investigating the use of biological weapons, and speculated on the possibility of attacking the Germans with plague-infected rats.
The United States, for its part, was carrying out joint germ warfare research with the British, and had developed workable weapons using anthrax (code-named “N”) and botulin toxin (code-named “X”). By the end of the war, the British had produced over 5 million bomblets filled with anthrax spores. They had also designed a 500 pound cluster bomb filled with botulin toxin. The United States was laying plans to produce 275,000 “X” bombs and a million “N” bomblets per month.
According to some historians, a crude version of a tiny “X” bomb may have figured prominently in the assassination of Nazi concentration camp supervisor Reinhard Heydrich, who was killed by Czech partisans with weapons supplied by the Allies.
During the war, the US was accused by the Axis of dropping Colorado potato beetles over Germany and rice fungus over Japan in an effort to cripple food supplies. The US denied the accusations, but wartime records show that a request was made to allow the bombing of Japanese rice paddies with the herbicide ammonium thyocyanate. The request was made on August 10, 1945, the day after Nagasaki had been atom-bombed.
The most in-depth research into biological warfare however, took place in Imperial Japan. The Japanese BW program was started in 1935 under Lieutenant General Shiro Ishii. Ishii hoped, with the development of biological weapons, to provide Japan with an instrument of world domination. A fellow researcher later recalled that Ishii acted as if BW would allow the Emperor to “conquer the world”.
Most of the biological warfare work was carried out by Imperial Army forces in Japanese-occupied Manchukuo. Biological experiments were carried out by Kwantung Army Detachment 100 at Changchun, Manchuria, and by the Tama detachment at Nanjing, but the majority of the work was carried out by Kwantung Army Detachment 731, based at Harbin. About 3,000 scientists, technicians and troops were assigned to the Harbin BW research station.
Most of the experiments were carried out on Chinese prisoners of war. Thousands of Chinese POWs were infected with tetanus, typhus, cholera, gangrene and plague. Other doctors experimented with blood replacement for wounded soldiers, and pumped dozens of POWs full of horse blood to test their reactions. Some Chinese POWs were used for vivisections. One unit had the task of studying the effects of freezing on humans, and froze dozens of POWs to death. A printer attached to Detachment 731 recalled seeing two Soviet prisoners locked into a freezer chamber. The Russians were kept naked in temperatures as low as a hundred degrees below zero until they died.
Many experiments involved the testing of potential combat weapons. Major Karasawa Tomio told Soviet authorities that, in 1943, he saw ten Chinese POWs tied to poles surrounding a bomblike fragmentation device. The bomb was exploded by electricity and all ten POWs were struck by anthrax-infected shrapnel. A year later, Tomio recalled, he saw ten more POWs infected with plague by a similar device. Lieutenant Colonel Nishi Toshihide confirmed that in January 1945 he saw ten Chinese prisoners infected with gas gangrene by an electric fragmentation device. All ten later died in horrible agony.
On some occasions, the method of infection tested by the Japanese was quite bizarre. One American POW at another camp recalled lying on his bunk when a Japanese officer approached him and ran a feather under his nostrils several times. The POW later found out that such feathers had been dusted with germs.
The Japanese had also apparently reached the stage of testing their research in actual combat. On October 27, 1940, Japanese planes dropped objects that contained fleas on the village of Ningbo, near Shanghai. Over the next several weeks, 99 people in Ningbo came down with plague. Only one survived. In November 1941, a Japanese plane was seen dropping paper packages that contained rice, wheat, cotton and fleas on the village of Changde in Hunan province. The package had been designed by researchers at Harbin. The cotton helped to keep the fleas warm during dissemination, and the grains helped to attract rats to spread the fleas. Six people in Changde died from plague. The Japanese were also dropping mustard gas and other chemical weapons.
Japanese experiments in biological warfare continued right up to the end of the war. “By 1945,” notes researcher John W. Powell, “Japan had a huge stockpile of germs, vectors and delivery systems unmatched by any other nation.” When it became obvious that the Japanese would lose the war, a massive house-cleaning operation was begun to destroy all evidence of biological research in Manchuria. The camp was destroyed in 1945, just after the Soviets entered the war. The remaining prisoners were fed poison for breakfast. Those who survived were machine-gunned and their bodies burned. The camp was dismantled.
When the Soviets overran the camp at Harbin, however, they apparently found enough of it intact to know that something out of the ordinary had gone on there. After an investigation, the Soviet Union concluded that the Japanese had conducted BW experiments with Chinese, American, British and Soviet POWs.
The United States, meanwhile, had been starting its own biological warfare program. In 1941, the War Department had asked the National Academy of Sciences to appoint a committee to determine if biological warfare was feasible. The panel, known as the WAC Committee (for “Warfare, Bacteriological and Chemical), concluded that biological weapons were a realistic possibility. The United States’ first biological research center, Camp Detrick (later re-named Fort Detrick) opened in Maryland in 1943. In cooperation with the British biological research station at Porton Down, the US developed deliverable weapons using anthrax spores and botulin toxin, and also investigated the use of tularemia and psittacosis as BW agents. The US investigation of Harbin uncovered a gold mine of information which would greatly aid the fledgling American BW program. A May 6, 1947, memo from the Occupation Forces in Japan to Washington DC confirmed:
“Preliminary investigation confirms authenticity of USSR investigators and indicate Japanese activity in:
a. human experiments
b. field trials against Chinese
c. large scale program
d. research on BW by crop destruction
e. possible that Japanese General Staff knew of and authorized program
f. thought and research devoted to strategic and tactical uses of BW
Data . . . on above topics are of great intelligence value to US. Dr. Fell, War Department representative, states that this new evidence is not known by US. Certain low echelon Japanese are now working to assemble most of the necessary technical data. . . . Additional information can probably be obtained by informing Japanese involved that information will be kept in intelligence channels and not employed for ‘war crimes’ evidence.“
By 1947, apparently, a deal had been worked out between General Ishii and General MacArthur. In return for the Japanese experimental BW data, the United States would not prosecute any of the researchers for war crimes. A cable to Washington outlined the proposal in more detail:
“Statements obtained from Japanese here confirm statements of USSR prisoners. . . Experiments on humans were . . . described by three Japanese and confirmed tacitly by Ishii; field trials against Chinese took place. . . Ishii states that if guaranteed immunity from “war crimes” in documentary form for himself, superiors and subordinates, he can describe the program in detail. Ishii claims to have extensive high-level knowledge including strategic and tactical use of BW in defense and offense, backed by some research on best agents to employ by geographical areas of the Far East, and the use of BW in a cold climate.”
Apparently this plum was too tempting to pass up, and MacArthur and the US accepted the deal. The State Department pointed out that if the deal became public it would bring “severe embarrassment” to the United States, but the War Department was more worried about keeping the new information away from the Soviets. A War Department memo dated July 1, 1947, noted, “Since any ‘war crimes’ trial would completely reveal such data to all nations, it is felt that such publicity must be avoided in the interests of defense and national security.” Such technical data, the memo pointed out, “will be of great value to the US BW research program.” “The value to US of Japanese BW data,” the memo concludes, “is of such importance to national security as to far outweigh the value accruing from war crimes prosecution.”
Meanwhile, the US BW program was busily looking over the data from Harbin. A December 12, 1947, memo from Camp Detrick noted that the research teams wished to “examine human pathological material which had been transferred to Japan from BW installations.” The memo went on to declare:
“Such information could not be obtained in our own laboratories because of scruples attached to human experimentation. . . It is hoped that individuals who voluntarily contributed this information will be spared embarrassment because of it, and that every effort will be taken to prevent this information from falling into other hands.”
The Soviet Union had, however, already found enough information on its own to confirm its suspicions. In December 1949, the USSR indicted twelve Japanese officers from Detachment 731 for war crimes, and charged them with using prisoners of war as experimental subjects for biological warfare research. All twelve were convicted and sentenced to terms up to 25 years.
During the trials, the Soviets presented evidence that large numbers of Allied POWs had been utilized in the experiments. “As early as 1943,” the Soviet tribunal concluded, “Minata, a researcher belonging to Detachment 731, was sent to prisoner of war camps to test the properties of the blood and immunity to contagious diseases of American soldiers.” One Japanese witness confirmed that researchers had been sent to American POW camps to “study the immunity of Anglo-Saxons to infectious diseases.” In all, some 1400 Allied POWs were taken to a camp at Mukden and used for biological experiments. Over 400 of these died.
The United States, of course, knew all of this from Ishii. To prevent the Soviets from learning of the American BW program, however, the United States denied all rumors of Japanese biological experiments and dismissed the Soviet trials as propaganda stunts. MacArthur kept his word to spare the Japanese researchers any “embarrassment”, and refused to prosecute any of 731’s officers. During the two years of American war crimes trials, Detachment 731 was never even mentioned.
The Japanese data obtained through Harbin and Mukden provided an enormous boost to the American BW program. Japanese experimental data dominated the American program throughout the 1950’s, and the BW agents and dissemination methods studied at Ft. Detrick were identical to those that had been studied at Harbin.
While the US biological warfare program flourished after the war, the chemical warfare program ran into some problems. After the surrender of Japan, another attempt was made to dismantle the Chemical Corps on the grounds that poison gas was no longer a militarily useful weapon. The Chemical Corps fought back, and defended itself by pointing a finger at the Russians. The Red Army had captured both of the Nazi nerve gas plants and, the reasoning went, were by now brewing up thousands of tons of lethal chemicals to use in their quest for global domination.
In the end, the Chemical Corps won. Nerve gas production plants were built at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Colorado. At the same time, the US began producing a new series of biological weapons, including a cluster bomb that was designed to drop turkey feathers that had been dusted with crop-killing germs. Ft. Detrick began a program to breed Aedes mosquitoes, which carry yellow fever. By 1950, Detrick asserted that it could raise half a million mosquitoes per month.
By this time, the US was convinced of the power of its CBW arsenal, and began to integrate the new weapons into its defense plans. In 1949, the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked the Joint Intelligence Group to develop a US plan for a response to any Soviet attack. The plan, code-named “Dropshot”, envisioned the total destruction of Soviet society by a massive air attack, using all available weapons. “Atomic weapons will be used by both aides,” the JIG concluded. “Other weapons of mass destruction (radiological, biological and chemical warfare) may be used by either side subject to considerations of retaliation and effectiveness.”
The JIG predicted:
“By no later than 1955, the USSR will probably be capable of serious air attacks against the United States with atomic, biological and chemical weapons. . . . By 1957, in addition to considerable stocks of already well-known gases, the Soviet Union will be able to produce in quantity the most potent nerve gases at present known and possibly others even more poisonous, and should have developed means of dissemination.”
The Pentagon was only able to produce sketchy information on the Soviet BW program, but it assumed the worst:
“There is no evidence available of the Soviet Union’s present ability to wage biological warfare, but it must be assumed that she possesses now the requisite basic knowledge. . . It must be assumed that by 1957 the Soviet Union’s capability of waging biological warfare will be limited only by the material effort diverted into this channel. . . The Soviet capability of applying a wide variety of biological agents harmful to human, animal and/or vegetable life is practically unlimited.”
The Dropshot planners also speculated on possible delivery methods for Soviet CBW weapons:
“Methods of introduction would probably include infection of food and water supplies, detonation of small bombs at predetermined times, use of natural vectors such as fleas or lice, contamination of the air either directly or through ventilating systems, smearing agents on equipment, counter, or handrails. Animals, crops and humans could be subjected to biological or chemical agents by covert methods without great difficulty to the saboteur.”
The JIG then speculated on the United States’ own CBW capability in the 1950s:
“By 1951 at least one of the nonpersistent nerve gases (GB) along with the persistent agent mustard (HD) will be operationally available. . . Biological: by 1953 several anti-personnel, anti-animal, and anti-crop organisms or chemicals should be available, and there will be acceptable solutions for the problems of storage, temperature and pressure sensitivity, and dissemination. However, employment of such agents is dependent on a period of up to 18 months required to attain quantity production of these weapons.”
By the early 1950’s, the US did indeed have a large usable stockpile of chemical and biological weapons and a variety of methods for delivering them. In 1952, during the Korean War, the Soviets presented what they said was evidence of the American use of biological weapons in North Korea. The US promptly denied the charges, but China called for an “International Scientific Commission for the Investigation of the Facts Concerning Bacteriological Warfare in Korea and China”. The Commission was made up of independent scientists from Sweden, France, Italy, Brazil, the Soviet Union and Britain.
After examining the sites of the alleged attacks, the panel concluded:
“The people of Korea and China did actually serve as targets for bacteriological weapons. These weapons were used by detachments of the armed forces of the United States of America, who used for this many and various methods; some of these are a continuation of methods used by the Japanese Army in the Second World War.”
The Commission cited the dropping of yellow fever-infected mosquitoes, plague-infected fleas, cholera-contaminated clams, and feathers that had been dusted with anthrax.
Unfortunately for the credibility of the report, however, the Chinese chose to flavor it with a good dose of political propaganda. Typical Chinese witness depositions were prefaced with titles like “On the Use of Deleterious Bacteriological Weapons by the Imperialist Forces of the United States and Their Running Dogs.” The US demanded that the charges be investigated by the United Nations. Not surprisingly, since they were then at war with UN forces, the Koreans and Chinese refused to allow any UN personnel onto their territory. The matter had still not been resolved when the war ended.
The Korean War and the continuing Cold War prompted the US to expand its chemical weapons program. The United States, which had refused to ratify the 1925 Geneva Protocols and thus had no legal restrictions on its use of CBW, poured millions of dollars into building a vast arsenal of nerve gas, mustard, and a variety of exotic biological pathogens and toxins. This buildup was accompanied by a massive public relations campaign to make the use of chemical and biological weapons more acceptable to the public. The largest of these campaigns was “Operation Blue Sky”, a media blitz in 1959 that attempted to present CBW as humane, or, as it was often put, “war without death”.
The miracle weapons of this bloodless battle were the new incapacitating agents. The incaps, the Pentagon announced, would make it possible to put whole enemy armies into a nonviolent state of bliss, thus ending the battle without a shot being fired.
The Pentagon poured a lot of money into its “war without death” scheme, and investigated the use of psycho-chemicals like LSD, mescaline, amphetamines and THC as weapons. Only one incap was ever actually deployed in weapons, however. This was the chemical 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, known as Agent BZ. It produces effects similar to LSD, but is more powerful and lasts several times longer than an “acid trip”. The Pentagon liked to tout a film it had shot in the 1950’s to demonstrate the effects of its new wonder drug. In the film, a mouse is placed near a cat’s cage, and the cat quite naturally attempts to pounce on the mouse. In another sequence, the cat is given a few whiffs of BZ. Now, instead of chasing the mouse, the cat claws frantically at its cage in an attempt to flee from it.
The Pentagon produced about 50 tons of Agent BZ and deployed it in 1500 chemical weapons stored at Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas. By 1975, however, doubts had begun to arise concerning the effectiveness of the incaps. Enemy troops might very well throw away their weapons and wander around in a daze. They might just as often go into a homicidal spree, killing everybody in sight. Because of these problems, the Defense Department decided to withdraw the agent from its arsenal, and the 1500 BZ weapons at Pine Bluff were ordered destroyed in 1981.
Meanwhile, research continued into more lethal chemical compounds. The 1960’s, in fact, proved to be the “Golden Age” of chemical and biological warfare research. Between 1961 and 1969, the budget for chemical/biological research jumped from $57 million to $158 million, and reached $350 million by 1969. The United States CBW program employed 14,000 people in six separate facilities. The Air Force centered its research at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, while the Navy’s CBW efforts took place at China Lake, California. Biological warfare research was centered at Ft. Detrick, which occupied 1300 acres and employed 2800 scientists and technicians. The Pine Bluff, Arkansas, chemical research and production facility covered 15,000 acres, while the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, used to field-test CBW munitions, covered an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.
The increase in research and development was matched by an increase in weapons deployment. Between 1952 and 1969, the US turned out thousands of tons of mustard, GB and VX, in strictest secrecy. By 1969, the US had a total arsenal of 150,000 tons of chemical agents, more than had been used by both sides in the entire First World War. Standard American chemical munitions included the 105mm GB artillery shell, the M55 GB artillery rocket, the 500 pound GB aerial bomb, the 750 pound GB aerial bomb, a land mine with a two-gallon capacity of VX, and an aircraft spray tank holding 160 gallons of VX.
As the chemical and biological stockpile increased, the Pentagon expanded its studies of possible dissemination methods. Between 1955 and 1969, the Army conducted open-air tests with mustard, GB, VX and other chemicals at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, and at Ft. McClellan, Alabama. CBW munitions were test-fired at Dugway Proving Grounds.
In 1969, the Department of Defense funded an ambitious study of bird life in a four million square mile area of the Pacific. This program, carried out by the Smithsonian Institution but paid for and administrated by Ft. Detrick, had the goal of locating an island from which birds did not migrate to other islands. The Pentagon was not interested in the birds; it simply wanted to find an island where it could test CBW munitions without the danger of birds carrying live pathogens to other islands.
Apparently not satisfied with this type of testing, however, the Pentagon turned to the practice of testing potential agents on unsuspecting “volunteers”. In one series of secret tests in 1964, eight enlisted men were unknowingly exposed to the incapacitant BZ at an Army base in Utah. Other unsuspecting Army personnel in Germany served as human guinea pigs for the Pentagon’s “Operation Third Chance”, which involved the evaluation of LSD and other potential incapacitants. In January 1953, a civilian in the New York State Psychiatric Institute died when he was secretly given a dose of Experimental Agent 1298, a version of mescaline.
These tests were later expanded. Between 1949 and 1969, the Defense Department later admitted, a total of 239 chemical and biological tests were carried out in open air, using unsuspecting civilians as the test subjects. Sites picked by the Pentagon for its CBW research included the Greyhound Bus Terminal and the National Airport in Washington, DC, two tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and the New York City subway system.
The subway tests were one of the more extensive series. During two weeks in June 1966, Defense Department researchers used a variety of methods to release spores of the bacteria Bacillus subtilis (which mimics many of the characteristics of the anthrax organism) into the crowded subways. In some instances, the spores were simply dumped from the moving trains; on one occasion, the bacilli were ejected from an elaborately booby-trapped lightbulb. The Pentagon later declared that the bacteria were harmless, but no one bothered to monitor the health of their unsuspecting test subjects.
In October 1950, the Pentagon contaminated San Francisco Bay with Serratia marascens, a supposedly harmless bacteria. Within a month, eleven people in the area had been infected with the microbe. One person died. Years after the Pentagon’s experiments, the bacteria still infested the water. In the late 1970’s, San Francisco reported a large jump in the number of illnesses traced to Serratia infection. The area’s infection rate was five to ten times higher than the national average. It is unclear whether this was a result of the Pentagon’s CBW experiments.
Another series of tests, carried out in Florida in 1955, used whooping cough organisms which were released into the open. A dozen people died and over a thousand people were infected.
To defend its massive chemical expansion, the Defense Department pointed out that the use of chemicals in warfare was becoming increasingly more likely. During the civil war in Yemen, Soviet-supplied troops used phosgene and mustard on several occasions in 1966 and 1967. In January 1967, Egyptian forces reportedly killed 155 soldiers in a nerve gas attack on the village of Kitaf, and another 75 were reportedly gassed at Gadafa in May. Bomb fragments found at Kitaf revealed traces of VR-55, a Soviet version of Soman nerve gas.
By far, however, the most extensive use of chemicals since the First World War took place in Vietnam. The Viet Cong guerrillas, firmly entrenched in their tunnels and bunkers, proved nearly impossible to dislodge, and US troops resorted to flooding Viet Cong shelters with lachrymating gases. A favorite tactic was to drop drumloads of CS tear gas over an area just before a B-52 strike, in order to force enemy personnel out into the open. The United Nations objected to this practice, but the United States, arguing the somewhat dubious assertion that it was more humane to gas the guerrillas out and shoot them than it would be to use lethal chemicals to kill them outright, continued to use huge amounts of Agents CS, CN and DM. In 1967 alone, the US shipped over 1.2 million pounds of tear gases to Vietnam. By 1969, this was up to 6 million pounds, and US industry was having trouble keeping up with the demand.
Some reports alleged that the US was stockpiling the nerve agents GB and VX at the Da Nang and Tuy Hoa airfields, apparently to be used as a last resort to defend the positions. In 1970, a Swedish newspaper reported that the United States was actually using VX in combat against Viet Cong rear areas, in an operation known as “Waterfall”. The US denied that it was using any lethal chemicals.
Another massive chemical program in Vietnam was “Operation Ranch Hand”, carried out from 1961 to 1971. In an effort to deprive the Vietnamese guerrillas of cover, the US dumped thousands of tons of defoliants and herbicides on the country, including 11.25 million gallons of Agent Orange. The Air Force also illegally dumped another half a million gallons of defoliants on neighboring Laos, in missions thinly disguised as “reconnaissance flights”.
For ten years, Operation Ranch Hand ruthlessly carried out its unofficial motto—“Only we can prevent forests.” Large areas of Vietnam were completely defoliated, and the fragile jungle life has still not completely recovered from the devastation.
During the mid-1960’s, the North Vietnamese also repeatedly charged the US with spreading plague in Vietnam and of stockpiling biological weapons at bases in Thailand. A US Army Medical Research Team admitted that the number of plague victims in South Vietnam had skyrocketed from just 8 in 1961 to over 1500 in 1965. The World Health Organization counted 2002 cases of plague affecting 22 of the 29 provinces north of Saigon, resulting in 116 deaths. In 1961, by contrast, plague had been reported, in only one province. Officials reported that, during this period, there were no other cases of plague in Southeast Asia except for scattered cases in Burma.
The US denied that it was using biological methods of warfare. The Pentagon did admit that, during the 1960’s, a contract was given to the Travelers Research Corporation of Hartford to develop a way to spread plague by airplane. The US also later admitted carrying out testing for jungle CBW in an area of Hawaii that had been ostensibly set aside for “meteorological and related tests”.
Domestic dissidents, already angered over US involvement in Vietnam, were outraged at allegations of the use of chemical and biological weapons in Southeast Asia. These feelings were inflamed by two incidents involving lethal nerve gas that occurred during this time. In March 1968, a spray tank malfunctioned on a test plane flying over Dugway Proving Grounds, and 20 pounds of VX were accidentally sprayed into the atmosphere. The drifting gas contaminated a large area, settling about 85 miles southeast of Salt Lake City and killing 6500 sheep and 1000 cattle grazing in the appropriately-named Skull Valley.
The Pentagon at first denied that its nerve gas had anything to do with the sheep kill, despite the fact that traces of VX were found in the autopsied sheep. The Defense Department then decided that, while its faulty VX test may have killed some of the sheep, it hadn’t killed them all. The Pentagon never did explain what had killed the rest of the sheep if it wasn’t the gas from Dugway.
In any case, in order to avoid having the details of its nerve gas tests dragged through the courts, the Pentagon agreed to pay off the claims outside of the zone it would admit to.
Protests were also fueled by another incident that happened in Okinawa in July 1969. A leak from a VX aerial bomb stored at the Kadena Air Base, near Koza, Okinawa, disabled 23 GIs and a civilian. Fortunately, no one was killed. The Japanese government, however, was shocked to learn that some 13,000 tons of nerve gas had been stockpiled at Kadena since 1960. The United States had repeatedly denied that any nerve gas was being stored in Japan.
Thus, by November 1969, the United States had come under fire from the United Nations for the use of chemical weapons in Vietnam, had been accused of using biological weapons in Asia, and had been stung by the backlash from two near-disasters involving lethal nerve gas. Since the American biological warfare program had run into a series of problems, and in any case was viewed as inferior to the nuclear and chemical arsenals, President Nixon decided to make a gesture by unilaterally dissolving the American BW research program, renouncing the first use of lethal chemical weapons, and placing an indefinite moratorium on the production of new chemical weapons.
It was purely a public relations move. The biological program, with its emphasis on the dissemination of live pathogenic organisms, was unpredictable and difficult to control. The lethal chemicals which were being renounced were not being used anyway, and the lachrymators and herbicides which were being used were not covered by the directives. Finally, the chemical stockpile had grown so large that any further production was already unwarranted.
In an effort to salvage its BW program, however, the Pentagon shifted its emphasis from the biological pathogens, which Nixon had ordered destroyed, to the bio-toxins, which, some military officials argued, were not alive and therefore not covered by the President’s directive. In February 1970, Nixon closed this loophole by including the bio-toxins in the directive.
During this time, the Pentagon began to make plans to dispose of several thousand tons of obsolete and antiquated gas weapons that were left over from the original post-war expansion. The solution to the disposal problem, which was eventually adopted by the Pentagon was a simple one; the old munitions would be loaded aboard an old boat, towed out to sea, and sunk. Between 1967 and 1969, Operation CHASE (an acronym for “Cut Holes And Sink ‘Em) dumped over 33,000 M55 battlefield rockets into the sea east of Earle, New Jersey, twenty miles from New York City. Each concrete-encased rocket contained 10 pounds of GB nerve gas.
Almost a dozen CHASE operations had been carried out before the National Academy of Sciences, alarmed at the possible contamination of sea water, called for a halt to the dumping. Pointing to the possible effects of a leak near New York, the Academy called for the Defense Department to incinerate the gas instead of dumping it.
While the Army was trying to get rid of old CBW weapons, however, the Central Intelligence Agency was spending millions of dollars to develop more. Over an 18-year period, the CIA spent some $3 million on Project NAOMI, designed to produce new types of biological toxins and delivery systems to be used in covert assassinations. Among NAOMI’s products was a shellfish toxin that was incorporated in the CIA’s suicide devices. One of these devices had been carried by U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, but Powers declined to use it. The Soviets reportedly tested the captured device on a dog, and found that it caused death within ten seconds.
When President Nixon banned research into biological weapons in 1969, the Project NAOMI team was reluctant to give up its lethal toys. CIA Deputy Director Thomas Karamessines, in a memo to Director Richard Helms, suggested that the NAOMI poisons be hidden away in a lab in Baltimore: “If the Director wishes to continue this special capability, it is recommended that the . . . existing Agency stockpile be transferred to the Huntington Research Center.”
The poisons were still in the Agency’s possession after the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention was signed, but the CIA says it disposed of them before the Convention was ratified in 1975.
In another top secret project, called MK-ULTRA, the CIA continued the Pentagon’s research into the incapacitant psycho-chemicals, hoping to produce a drug that could be clandestinely used to control the behavior of selected targets. Other researchers hoped to find a “truth serum” that could be used to interrogate or brainwash defectors and suspected double agents.
The MK-ULTRA staff investigated the properties and effects of a number of drugs, including LSD, mescaline and various types of amphetamines. One series of tests used prostitutes to lure unknowing human guinea pigs to a hotel room, where they were drugged. Another team spent $350,000 to test drugs on four unsuspecting inmates at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. The CIA’s incap program ended in 1970, after the Agency, like the Army before it, found the drugs to be too unpredictable.
The CIA’s research popped up again, however, under circumstances which the Agency no doubt found embarrassing. After the Watergate break-in, former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt dreamed up a scheme to use some of the chemicals from the old MK-ULTRA project on journalist Jack Anderson, thus discrediting Anderson and preventing him from uncovering the Watergate conspiracy.
That plan fell through, but other CIA concoctions did find some use. Botulin toxins from the NAOMI project figured prominently in the bungled CIA attempts to kill Cuban Premiere Fidel Castro. Among the CIA plans to eliminate Castro were cigars that had been loaded with botulin toxin and a booby-trapped scuba tank that would infect him with a number of diseases. All of these plans fell through.
In 1964, Castro accused the United States of carrying out “germ warfare attacks” on Cuban sugar and tobacco crops, in an effort to destabilize the Cuban economy. The US denied it, but several CIA-trained Cuban exiles were later implicated in a bizarre sabotage mission in which sacks of Cuban sugar on a Russian freighter were contaminated with a harmless but foul-tasting chemical. The idea was to make the Soviets reluctant to buy Cuban sugar and thus to cripple the Cuban export economy.
In 1970, Castro charged that the CIA was again using germ weapons to attack the Cuban economy, and the US again denied the charges. Several years later, a former CIA operative admitted providing anti-Castro exiles with supplies of African Swine Fever organisms to be used in attacks on Cuban livestock.
In 1981, Castro accused the United States of spreading Dengue fever in Cuba, but Reagan Administration officials denied the charge and opined that the Cuban outbreak of Dengue was a natural one. A similar charge by Nicaragua’s Sandinista government in 1985 was also dismissed as a natural outbreak.
The United States, meanwhile, was having trouble with chemical weapons in its own cities. Colorado state officials were nervous about the huge supply of chemical weapons stored at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, just ten miles from Denver. Fearing the potential results of a mishap, city and state officials pressured the Pentagon to move the chemicals somewhere else. In 1968, the Defense Department agreed to move the gas, and a 1973 inventory prepared by the arsenal for the EPA confirmed that the weapons had been removed.
Later in 1973, however, the Pentagon stepped in and stopped a proposal for a new runway at the Denver airport. City officials were told that the new runway could not be built because of unspecified “safety reasons”. The Pentagon finally revealed what those “safety reasons” were—the poison gas that had supposedly been removed in 1968 had in fact stayed right where it was, directly in the path of the proposed runway. Some four million pounds of nerve gas were still stored at the arsenal.
City and state officials were stunned. Should a crippled airliner hit the storage facility, they realized, the resulting cloud of gas could kill everyone in a good part of Denver. Officials demanded that all of the gas stored at Denver be removed, and the Secretary of the Army agreed to incinerate the chemicals at the site.
Instead, the Pentagon hemmed and hawed until 1978. By this time, some 888 “Weteye” aerial bombs, each containing 346 pounds of GB, remained at Denver, and ten of these were discovered to be corroded and slowly leaking fluid. The Defense Department declared that the Weteyes were vital for “strategic reasons”, and refused to destroy or detoxify them. Instead, the Pentagon announced, plans would be made to truck them to Tooele in Utah for storage.
This, however, brought a sharp protest from Utah Governor Scott Matheson and Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who didn’t want the lethal nerve gas to be shipped across their states. Both Hart and Matheson urged that the bombs be incinerated at Rocky Mountain Arsenal.
In February 1980, the Pentagon decided not to truck the Weteyes to Utah because the leaks made such an operation dangerous. At the same time, citing reasons of national security, the Department of Defense refused to destroy them. Instead, it announced, they would remain in Denver.
The DOD’s decision prompted a wave of indignant protest, and in 1981 the Pentagon finally gave in and removed the Weteyes. All 888 bombs were trucked to Tooele in August.
The entire Denver episode produced a lot of bad press for the Pentagon. Two other incidents involving CBW facilities, however, received relatively little attention. In July 1972, 53 dead caribou were found near the research center at Ft. Greely, Alaska. Federal investigators concluded that the deaths were not due to natural causes, and suspected that Greely’s CBW research had something to do with it. In a similar incident, 50 wild horses were found dead near the testing site at Dugway, Utah—the site of the 1968 sheep kill. The Pentagon opined that the horses had died of natural causes, but investigators concluded that they had been killed by a rare African disease.
Throughout the 1960’s, while the US was beefing up its chemical and biological programs, the Soviet Union was undergoing a similar expansion. The Soviet buildup continued even after the United States announced its unilateral moratorium in 1969. By the 1990’s, the USSR had four separate centers for CBW defensive and tactical training. Soviet chemical warfare specialists were being trained for a period of five years, compared with six months for their American counterparts, and the USSR had 35 chemical warfare units for every one possessed by the United States. By 1980, according to Defense Intelligence Agency estimates, the Soviets had about 50,000 troops who were trained in CW tactics, decontamination and CBW defense.
The Soviets also apparently possessed a large stockpile of chemicals and a wide variety of methods to deliver them. Eight plants in the USSR were suspected of producing chemical agents. The Soviet arsenal included some 2300 FROG and SCUD short-range missiles and the BM-21 and BM-23 multiple rocket launchers, each capable of delivering Soman or a thickened version of Soman known as VR-55.
The debate over the chemical capabilities of the Soviet Union took on new urgency because of a string of events which began in the mid-1970’s. In August 1975, stories began to filter into the Western press from the Hmong tribesmen of Laos. During the Vietnam War, the Hmong had received training and aid from the CIA and were used to gather intelligence and carry out sabotage actions. When Vietnamese armies invaded their neighboring country, the Hmong were apparently singled out. Frightened Hmong refugees told tales of Soviet-built MiG fighters flying over their jungle villages and dropping a yellowish mist which floated to the ground “like rain”. Within minutes, according to the terrified witnesses, everyone in the village collapsed. Most of them died.
For years, the Hmong reports were dismissed as fabrications or exaggerations. As the number of reports increased, however, concerned Westerners began to investigate the possibility that the Hmong were being subjected to some sort of chemical attack. The Hmong reports became known as “yellow rain”.
By 1979, “yellow rain” reports had been widely circulated within the United States, and angry US officials accused the Soviets of using chemical warfare in Southeast Asia. Exaggerated stories claimed that 60,000 to 100,000 people had been killed by Soviet poisons. Moscow, not surprisingly, denied the charges.
Investigations into the alleged gassings were hampered by the remoteness of the attacked areas. In 1980, moreover, the situation was compounded even further when a new string of yellow rain reports began pouring out of Afghanistan, where Red Army troops were defending the pro-Moscow Afghan government from Muslim fundamentalist guerrillas. The Reagan Administration concluded that the Soviets were using tear gas, phosgene, nerve gas and the mysterious “yellow rain” on the unprotected rebels. The Afghan government, in response, accused the US of supplying CS grenades to the rebels.
As this war of words continued, researchers managed to obtain vegetation samples from allegedly gassed areas in Southeast Asia. The samples bore several small yellow splatters, but the Defense Department was mystified when it was unable to find any traces of mustard, nerve gas or any other known chemical agents in the samples. If the Soviets were indeed using chemical weapons in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, they had apparently developed a totally new agent.
Investigators scrambled to identify the new compound. The investigation took a new turn when Dr. Sharon Watson, a researcher at Ft. Detrick, noticed that the descriptions given by the yellow rain witnesses mentioned internal bleeding as a symptom. Watson pointed out that the natural poisons produced by the Fusarium fungus often produce a weakening of the capillary walls which can lead to internal bleeding. The Fusarium fungus produces a poison known scientifically as a tricothocene mycotoxin. In agricultural areas, the fungus sometimes infests grains and food crops, producing outbreaks of poisoning which is usually fatal. Natural outbreaks of mycotoxin poisoning occur from time to time in Japan, India and Southeast Asia. They also occur in Russia.
Soviet technical journals had long described methods of purifying the tricothocene mycotoxins from Fusarium. This was done, presumably, to help develop a way to treat or prevent the periodic outbreaks of Fusarium poisoning. However, researchers realized, the lethal properties of the mycotoxins might make them attractive for use in weapons.
When the samples from Southeast Asia were re-examined by two university experts, these suspicions were strengthened. Concentrations of three different mycotoxins were found—T-2, nivalenol and deoxynivalenol. Another sample, obtained from Hmong tribesmen by ABC News, was found to contain tricothocenes and polyethylene glycol, an artificial industrial chemical. Two Soviet gas masks captured in Afghanistan were said by the US to contain traces of tricothocenes. Later, however, one of the masks was withdrawn as evidence by the State Department for undisclosed reasons, and the contamination on the remaining mask was questioned by several biologists.
Convinced that it had found the proverbial “smoking gun”, the Reagan Administration accused the USSR of using biological toxin weapons in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, in direct violation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention outlawing such weapons. In September 1981, Secretary of State Alexander Haig announced, “For some time now, the international community has been alarmed by continuing reports that the Soviet Union and its allies have been using lethal chemical weapons in Laos, Kampuchea and Afghanistan. We now have physical evidence from Southeast Asia which has been analyzed and found to contain abnormally high levels of three potent mycotoxins.”
Several independent investigators, however, were not so certain of the Administration’s case. One investigator pointed out that, in the humid Southeast Asian jungles, the samples could have easily become contaminated with molds and spores, including those of Fusarium. In that case, the mycotoxins found in the sample would have nothing to do with alleged chemical attacks. The Fusarium fungus occurs naturally in both Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, and some foliage samples from Laos and Kampuchea showed higher levels of natural mycotoxins than had been present in alleged yellow rain samples.
The mycotoxins had been detected and reported in samples studied by Dr. Chester Mirocha of the University of Minnesota and Dr. Joseph Rosen of Rutgers, not by Army experts. When the Defense Department examined over 80 samples of yellow rain, including one that Dr. Mirocha had concluded contained tricothocenes, it was unable to find a trace of mycotoxins in any of them.
Other scientists cast further doubt on the Reagan Administration’s claim that the USSR was using Fusarium as a weapon. Dr. Saul Hormats pointed out that the concentrations of T-2 mycotoxins reported in the samples were no higher than 113 parts per million. With such a low concentration, Dr. Hormats estimated, it would take a barrage of 20,000 artillery shells or 8,000 tons of bombs to wipe out a typical Hmong village of twenty huts. Hmong witnesses had never claimed to have seen more than four bombs or eight rockets used in any single attack.
And, Dr. Mirocha admitted, tests with tricothocene mycotoxins failed to produce the most spectacular and unique effect attributed to yellow rain—massive internal bleeding. Even injections of T-2 twenty times higher than the lethal dose failed to produce any widespread hemorrhage.
The Reagan Administration’s case was further damaged when several prominent claims were shown to be groundless. The Administration had announced that blood and tissue samples taken from dead Kampucheans proved that they had been killed by mycotoxins, and had asserted that an autopsy performed on a dead Khmer Rouge soldier confirmed this diagnosis. A Canadian team of scientists, however, pointed out that contaminated blood and tissue samples can result simply if the victim eats moldy food and ingests Fusarium spores. The same team re-examined the dead soldier and concluded he had been killed by blackwater fever, a type of malaria.
In January 1982, researchers in Canada and Britain intensified the yellow rain mystery by reporting that the samples they had examined contained large amounts of pollen from plants indigenous to the allegedly gassed areas. The United States confirmed that “most of the samples that are of yellow rain are fairly dry and they have a high level of pollen grains in them.” The Department of Defense was puzzled as to why a CBW weapon would be manufactured with such a high pollen content, but opined that perhaps it was an attempt to improve the dissemination of the toxin:
“The agent, as it comes down, is wet, and at this time the primary exposure appears to be through the skin. . . But as the agent dries, a secondary aerosol effect can be caused by kicking up this pollen-like dust, that is of a particle size that it will be obtained in the bronchi of the lung.”
When Dr. Matthew Meselson, an acknowledged expert on CBW, and a team of biologists examined the yellow rain samples, however, they concluded that the Pentagon’s speculation was “faulty on two counts”: “First, a relatively large amount of energy is needed to form an aerosol from a congealed deposit. Second, the samples of yellow rain examined in the laboratory have shown no tendency to disperse.”
Meselson and the others also found bee hairs and partially digested pollen particles in the yellow rain samples, and concluded, after a chemical and microscopic examination, that the yellow rain samples were identical in every way with the droppings of the large Asian honeybee Apis dorsata.
Working with entomologist Thomas D. Seeley, Meselson discovered that these bees periodically made “cleansing flights” in which the entire hive deposited droppings in a concentrated area. In one such flight, Meselson discovered, swarms of bees in China showered an area of six hectares with a steady rain of droppings for several minutes. While investigating in Southeast Asia, Meselson and his team were caught in several such showers, and confirmed that the bees often flew so high they were not seen or heard.
Meselson gathered a number of yellow-splattered vegetation samples from these cleansing flights and presented them to Hmong refugees without telling them the source of the sample. The Hmong were unanimous in pronouncing them the result of a “yellow rain” attack, confirming Meselson’s suspicion that the Hmong had mistaken the bee flights for chemical attacks, and had simply attributed any deaths from bombing or rocketing to the “yellow rain”. (Similar confusion had occurred before. In 1964, Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia accused the US of spraying his country with a poisonous yellow powder. Apparently, the Cambodians had been showered by the bee cleansing flights and mistook them for American chemical attacks.)
Whether true or not, the Reagan Administration’s accusations came at a convenient time for the Defense Department. At the height of the yellow rain furor, the new binary nerve gas program was bogged down by Congressional opposition. In the wake of Reagan’s finger-pointing, however, Congressional doubters were more inclined to give the binary program another chance.
Whether due to declining use or to the fact that they were no longer needed to justify the binary program, by 1985 the yellow rain reports began to trickle off. Occasional reports told of Soviet troops in Afghanistan using vomiting gases to harass the mujahideen guerrillas. Other reports mentioned the use of a mysterious “knockout gas” that rendered victims unconscious, allowing Red Army troops to move in and annihilate them.
In 1991, the USSR collapsed, and the once-secret Soviet military archives became available to Western researchers. They show no evidence of any chemical weapons being used in Afghanistan or Southeast Asia, though the Soviet Union did have a very large (and very likely illegal) chemical and biological weapons research program throughout the 1980’s.
Laos, however, does not appear to have been the only victim of Vietnamese chemical attacks. During the brief 1979 border war with China, Vietnamese airplanes reportedly dropped a variety of chemical weapons on Chinese forces.
During preparations for the invasion of the tiny nation of Grenada in 1983, US intelligence reports indicated that the Grenadan Army might use stockpiles of CS tear gas to defend its positions. As a result, the US invasion force carried a full CBW defense with it. Several cases of CS were found unopened.
The most recent wide-spread use of chemical weapons, however, took place in the Persian Gulf. After the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, in an effort to take advantage of the situation, seized a large portion of territory long claimed by Iraq. The resulting war dragged on for eight years.
In March 1981, Iranian forces captured the island of Majnoon, a severe setback for the Iraqis. Iraq tried to recapture the island and was repulsed after a bloody fight. In desperation, the Iraqis launched an attack using mustard gas and, a short while later, Tabun nerve agent.
The attack provoked international cries of condemnation, but Iraq continued to use chemical agents in an effort to break the stalemate and end the war. In April 1985, several Iranian soldiers were shipped to Europe for treatment of chemical burns that had obviously come from Iraqi mustard. In February 1986, both sides accused each other of using chemical weapons during fierce fighting near the Fao Peninsula, and a UN team was sent to investigate. At various times over the next few years, United Nations investigators were able to confirm the Iraqi use of mustard, Tabun and Sarin. The Iranians attributed some 50,000 casualties to chemical weapons.
Although Iran apparently possessed stockpiles of chemical weapons, investigators could not establish that the Iranians had actually used any of them. (There were some reports that Iranian troops had used chemical weapons briefly during heavy fighting in 1988.)
Saddam Hussein apparently continued to use chemicals against Iranian troops right up to the end of the war in August 1988. Reports also surfaced charging that Iraqi troops were using mustard and nerve gas against separatist Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq, who had supported Iran in the war. In March 1988, Iraqi forces dropped nerve gas on the Kurdish village of Halabja, killing at least 3,000 civilians and provoking a wave of outrage across the world.
Shortly after the war, the US Congress introduced a resolution calling for punitive sanctions against Iraq for its illegal use of chemical weapons. The White House, under President George HW Bush, lobbied against it, arguing that Saddam Hussein was “a force for stability” in the region against the Iranians. The sanctions were never imposed, and Iraq never faced any punishment from the international community for its CW use. In 2013, a release of declassified documents in Washington DC confirmed what many already suspected—the US government was secretly supporting Iraq throughout the war by providing satellite intelligence on Iranian troop movements and positions, knowingly allowing Saddam to use his chemical weapons more effectively.
In August 1990, Saddam’s forces invaded Kuwait and declared that it was now a province of Iraq, and reportedly moved a supply of chemical weapons into the area. When a US-dominated coalition of forces pushed into Kuwait to drive the Iraqis out, it was widely expected that they would come under chemical attack, possibly by CBW-armed SCUD missiles. The Gulf War ended in February 1991 without any chemicals being used, but, in the aftermath of the war, Kurdish guerrillas and Iraqi dissidents launched an uprising to try and topple Saddam. During this fighting, Iraqi troops were accused of using chemical weapons, including nerve gas and sulfuric acid, on rebel forces.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists from the Muslim extremist group Al Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden, hijacked a number of passenger jets and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A week after the attack, in the atmosphere of anger and fear that followed, a number of letters began arriving at various places in Washington DC, including the offices of two US Senators and at the news departments of the three American networks ABC, NBC and CBS, the New York Post newspaper, and the office of American Media Incorporated, which published the tabloid papers National Enquirer and The Sun. The letters contained anthrax spores. Over the next three weeks, 22 people were infected with pneumonic anthrax, and 5 of them died. The letters contained crudely written threats of “death to America” and “death to Israel”.
While the press and public speculated wildly about Al Qaeda or Iraq being behind the attacks (and some inaccurate reports claimed the anthrax had been “weaponized” with special coatings and additives), investigators using genetic testing confirmed that the letters contained the Ames strain of anthrax, which had been investigated by the US Defense Department as a potential biological weapon in the 1980’s. Over time, the investigation focused on Bruce Edward Ivins, a high-ranking researcher at Ft Detrick who had worked for the US Army 18 years in the biological warfare vaccination program, and who had access to that particular variant of the Ames strain. As the FBI prepared to file charges against him, Ivins committed suicide.
The matter of Iraqi chemical weapons came to the fore yet again in 2003. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9-11, neoconservative strategists in the George W Bush administration, who had long contemplated “regime change” in Iraq, now saw their chance. Using a variety of questionable “intelligence data”, some of it flatly made up by unreliable “sources” who had a stake in Saddam’s removal, Bush argued that Saddam was actively making chemical weapons and, perhaps, nuclear weapons as well, and launched an invasion of Iraq to “disarm him”. No chemical or other “weapons of mass destruction” were found.
That should have been no surprise. The process that Iraq used to make its nerve gas was not very good, and as a result their nerve gas contained a lot of impurities in it, which caused it to begin to break down within just a few weeks. The impure product formed hydroflouric acid, which turned the nerve gas into useless gunk, then ate through the shell casing and caused the shell to leak, making it unusable. Because of these problems, during the Iran-Iraq War the Iraqis had been forced to ship their nerve gas directly from the factory to the front so they could use it quickly before it went bad.
After the US destroyed all his chemical production plants in Desert Storm, Saddam no longer had the ability to make any new nerve gas, and could do nothing but watch helplessly as his entire impure nerve gas arsenal turned, over the course of a few months, into puddles of hydroflouric acid and melted aluminum.
So those in the US military who had worked closely with the Iraqis during the war with Iran, and who already knew how unstable the Iraqi nerve gas was, must have known that Saddam could not possibly have had any nerve gas at all in 2003—it had all degraded within a few months of the end of Desert Storm.
In 2013, the issue of chemical weapons in the Middle East arose again, this time in Syria.