The morning dispatches bring the unwelcome news that chemical weapons may have been deployed this week in the Mideast, a reminder that the weapons, though long held considered beyond the pale, remain a threat. And, truth to tell, it was not long ago that gas warfare had its advocates even in the U.S. defense establishment.
Behind the Gas Mask offers a history of the Chemical Warfare Service, the department tasked with improving the Army’s ability to use and defend against chemical weapons. After the war, the CWS lobbied hard to include chemical weapons in the U.S. arsenal, arguing that international treaties wouldn’t prevent use of poison gas, and that for all the related horrors, chemical weapons were more humane that artillery and other projectiles.
As author Thomas Faith writes, the arguments fell on mostly deaf ears:
Like all public relations campaigns, however, the CWS’s advertisements did not always reflect reality, and its methods were not always commendable. CWS officers falsely claimed that exposure to poison gas could cure respiratory ailments and insinuated that pacifist and women’s organizations were communist bulwarks. Fries hoped that gas troops would one day fight as part of every army and division in the military, predicting, “Chemical Warfare will endure in the future, despite all opposition.” But while the CWS’s accomplishments during the First World War and the postwar period were significant, the organization and its allies in the domestic chemical industry and Congress failed to mobilize public opinion to support the use of chemical weapons in future wars. The American people remained skeptical that poison gasses were humane weapons, and U.S. foreign policymakers worked to ensure that they would not be used in future conflicts. In the 1920s, U.S. negotiators secured international agreements that outlawed the use of chemical weapons. It took time for the United States and other nations to ratify formal international prohibitions of chemical weapons but, in the interim, strong international norms against their use mostly prevented their employment. The story of the CWS suggests that the autonomy of the national defense partnership known as the military-industrial complex can be limited when policymakers confront pervasive, hostile public opinion.