Thomas I. Faith is a historian at the U.S. Department of State. He answered some questions about his book Behind the Gas Mask: The U.S. Chemical Warfare Service in War and Peace.
Q: When was poison gas first utilized as method of warfare? Which country was the first to adopt it?
Thomas Faith: At the outset of World War I, France, Britain, and Germany began to investigate the use of various types of chemical weapons. The French army used tear gas grenades in battle against the Germans in August 1914, but in such small quantities that their German opponents failed to notice. In October the Germans fired artillery shells filled with a chemical irritant at the British near Neuve-Chapelle, and in January 1915 the Germans launched an assault against the Russians on the eastern front using eighteen thousand tear gas shells, but in both cases the weapons failed to have any effect. The first successful use of poison gas in World War I came when German Pioneer Regiment 35, under the direction of chemist Fritz Haber, released a lethal cloud of chlorine gas from storage cylinders at Ypres on April 22, 1915—routing and killing the British, Canadian, French, and Algerian soldiers positioned there.
Q: What was the public view of chemical weapons in the United States after World War I? How did this effect military policy on these weapons in future conflicts?
Faith: The immediate experience of chemical warfare during the First World War resulted in a wide diversity of views about chemical weapons. Most in the United States were aware that chemical weapons had caused soldiers a great deal of suffering and were responsible for a large proportion of casualties. Policy makers worked to reduce the potential for future chemical warfare by marginalizing chemical weapons development in military policy, and seeking methods of restricting gas warfare internationally. Those who believed that chemical weapons were nonetheless critical to national security, however, worked to ensure that the military remained prepared for chemical warfare despite opposition. Poison gas policies in the United States were ultimately shaped by these competing interests.
Q: What influence did the chemical industry have on the Chemical Warfare Service?
Faith: The Chemical Warfare Service and the U.S. chemical industry influenced each other. Businesses that aided national defense could use patriotism to appeal to consumers, and chemical manufacturers advertised the work they did for the Chemical Warfare Service during the war, and afterward, as proof that they provided an essential national service. Partners in the U.S. chemical industry worked to ensure that the Chemical Warfare Service remained an independent service within the army under the National Defense Act of 1920. Afterward, they collaborated on research projects related to poison gas weapons, such as the development of insecticides and law enforcement tools. By working together, the chemical industry and chemists-in-uniform were able to change adverse military policies, influence veterans’ compensation for gas-related injuries, and extend tariffs on dyes and other chemicals. The Chemical Warfare Service brought scientists, businessmen, soldiers, and national policy makers together in the service of the same cause, foreshadowing the collaboration that President Dwight Eisenhower would later term the military industrial complex.
Q: What was the general view of chemical warfare and the CWS within the military itself?
Faith: During the war, the U.S. military detested facing poison gas on the battlefield and also avoided using it extensively. According to Chemical Warfare Service officers it was necessary “to go out and sell gas to the Army.” After considerable effort, the military gradually accepted the Chemical Warfare Service and chemical warfare. Chemical weapons began to be included in war plans in the mid-1920s and the Chemical Warfare Service saw improvements to its anemic post-war budget through the end of the decade.
Q: What new developments were made in chemical warfare after WWI? How were these developments significant to conflicts in the following decades?
Faith: After World War I, chemical warfare research in the United States staggered forward insofar as resources and policy makers would allow. The Chemical Warfare Service developed improved gas masks and other defensive equipment. They also further developed non-lethal chemical weapons, such as smoke-producing agents and tear gas devices. The most important post-WWI development occurred outside the United States, however, when nerve gasses were developed in Germany in 1936. Each new technological development since World War I has further-complicated mankind’s relationship with chemical weapons and ultimately resulted in successful international efforts to restrain chemical warfare.