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Poison Gas in This War

WHAT HAS HAPPENED to gas warfare? Will gas be used before the war ends? These questions have been asked for the past two year and it is more important than ever now for us to know the answers. If gas is to be used, we must be prepared for it. If there is little chance of chemical warfare, we need not worry about gas masks, decontamination materials and all the complicated and expensive business of gas defense, but may use our energy for other important work.

Until Japan entered the war the question, “Why hasn’t gas been used?” was a good one. With Japan’s entrance, the question is answered partially, because the Japanese have been using gas for a long time against the Chinese. The Chinese government has announced that on more than eight hundred occasions since the summer of 1938 the Japanese have fired gas shell and dropped gas bombs upon their unprotected nationals. These attacks, however, were small, reports were sketchy, and there has been much skepticism concerning the actual use of gas. 

In 1938 the Chinese protested to the League of Nations that the Japanese were using gas and filed indisputable evidence with the League Secretariat. In 1939 I had many interesting conversations with Lieutenant Chiang Wego at Maxwell Field, Alabama, and later at Fort Knox, Kentucky, where we were stationed together. He assured me that much gas had been fired by the Japanese against his people. Lieutenant Chiang is son of the Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Recent reports have left us little doubt that gas is being used in increasing quantities against the Chinese. Last October the gassing of Ichang, a town on the Yangtze, brought eye-witness accounts and photographs of gassed soldiers showing the characteristic blisters of gases, such as lewisite or mustard. None of the Japanese attacks so far has been on a grand scale. Probably they were made to develop technique or service-test the weapon, or, as in the case of Ichang, to relieve hard-pressed forces.

There is not the slightest doubt that if the Japs are willing to adopt chemical warfare on a small scale, they are prepared to go into it in a big way when it suits their purpose. Japan is not bound by any international agreement forbidding the use of gas against us, nor is there any prohibition which prevents our using gas on the Japanese. All good people who still believe in international honor and good faith should understand that the United States has refused to tie its own hands with an anti-gas treaty. We are not a party to any anti-gas agreement with the nations we are fighting.

In seeking an explanation for the non-use of combat chemicals in Europe there are these considerations which are important. Britain cannot afford to start chemical warfare so long as any doubt exists as to her ability to maintain complete air superiority over the British Isles, or until invaded. Germany has not yet needed to resort to this powerful weapon. In some of her campaigns the use of gas would have hindered German advance rather than helped.

Great Britain has a relatively small area, thickly populated, with industry well centralized within easy range of airfields in Europe. Aero-chemical attack would cause little physical destruction but would cause great panic––would strike at the mind and spirit of the people, and result in disastrous delays in the production of war materials.

It is well established that indiscriminate attack on a civil population is not worth the effort. All attacks of that sort so far have succeeded only in stiffening their backbone. Strategic bombing must be directed against the industrial effort, to stop the production of essential war supplies––or interfere with distribution. A serious delay in turning out certain materials probably would be decisive. It is here that the chemical plays its part. Attack with mustard gas invariably causes delay and confusion. Bombardment with high explosives causes destruction. Combine the two and you have the most effective method of stopping industry. The British know this. They prefer not to cope with mustard-gas bombs and mustard sprayed from high altitudes with no warning until the casualties appear. 

The Germans on the other hand have had no occasion to use mustard gas (mustard is still the most important of all the combat chemicals). Until the winter campaign in Russia, they had advanced steadily. Freezing weather prevented use this winter, for effectiveness is reduced at low temperature. Mustard gas would have retarded the advance of the Germans themselves if they had placed it on ground over which they intended to move last summer and fall. England is the only place where Germany might have found chemicals useful, and since August, 1940, they have not had superiority in the air over England.

Why didn’t the French, the Belgians and the Dutch use gas in the retirements that preceded their defeat? Why didn’t the Poles use it? Why haven’t the Russians used it? There may be two reasons. First, Britain, realizing the dangers of an air chemical war on her tight little island, may have besought upon her allies not to use it. This is very likely. Or, these countries may not have been prepared to embark on a chemical war. They may not have had enough gas to justify starting its use in competition with Germany. Further, France, Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, England and Italy all ratified the Geneva Protocol which forbade the use of gas. Until Munich the “peoples of good will” set great store by treaties. All of the democracies believed that they could obtain agreements between nations which would be binding on national honor. Having signed the gas treaty, they failed to make proper preparations in case it were broken.

This explanation does not hold with regard to Russia, because the Soviet Union for years has maintained a strong chemical-warfare service. There have been many reports that Russia was building up large-scale production of war gases. Russia has less to fear from chemicals than her opponents and more to gain by their use. It is my own belief that no more effective means could have been adopted during the summer and early fall to retard the German advance than the large-scale use of mustard gas and lewisite on the areas from which the Soviet armies withdrew.

Perhaps Russia was influenced by her allies or decided that poison-gas production in Germany, coupled with production in the captured countries, would provide too great competition. I believe this reasoning was incorrect, for the Soviets stood to gain so much by delaying the German advance. Long delays could have been obtained by the use of great mustard-gas barriers.

“Will gas be used before the end of the war?” My own answer to that question is––yes. Without a doubt we must be well prepared for it. Every step must be taken to ensure that this nation is not only able to meet chemical attack defensively but is able to retaliate with a chemical offensive that will overshadow that of any possible opponent. Fortunately we are better equipped to wage chemical war than any other nation. We have the raw materials. We have the plant capacity and the technical brains. For us, gas is the ideal weapon. Failure to take advantage of gas is pushing too far our national delusion that we can play the part of the “white knight with the shining sword” and get away with it, especially when being opposed by a gang of international cutthroats. Besides, the white knight’s sword makes a nastier mess when stick in the enemy’s midriff than does a heavy dose of gas.

The most important of all the principles of war is surprise. It is the principle on which the bets are ultimately paid. Our enemies have used surprise most effectively in the past. Perhaps the big surprise this spring will be large-scale use of gas by airplanes. That’s the way it will be used, when chemical warfare really starts.

It is stupid to think that because gas hasn’t been used by the Germans it will not be used. Never in the history of warfare has a successful weapon been abandoned until it has been proved no longer effective. No one doubts the effectiveness of chemicals, which during the First World War caused about a fourth of all casualties. Every nation fighting today is prepared to use gas. Every soldier carries a gas mask as a part of his regular equipment. Tremendous stocks of gas munitions are being built up by the Axis. For years the Japanese have been conducting a careful service test of chemicals against the Chinese, using mustard gas, lewisite and at least one nauseating irritant. Undoubtedly they have determined the effectiveness of these agents in various situations, and developed skill in their employment. Is it reasonable to believe that this unscrupulous enemy will fail to use gas against us and our allies?

The Germans, with their tremendous chemical industry, have not been idle. Their armies contain chemical troops completely trained to use gas and equipped with all of the gas weapons. These troops masquerade under the name of smoke troops (Nebeltruppe), the name used to designate units handling smoke in the 100,000-man army permitted by the Treaty of Versailles. The name still persists, but the units handle chemicals in the German army in the same way that our chemical-warfare units do.

Besides the enormous stocks of gas available to the Germans through their own great chemical industry, there are also available to them large chemical-warfare establishments and stocks of gas shell which they took over from Czecho-Slovakia in 1938. The French also had several large poison-gas plants. Italy has had a well established chemical-warfare service for many years. It will be recalled that not so long ago Italy engaged in successful aero-chemical operations against the unprotected Ethiopians. All of this strength is available to Germany and her allies. Make no mistake, Germany and Japan will not fail to use the chemical weapon when it suits them.

The military regulations and handbooks of all the nations fighting in this war lay great stress on gas defense. This implies the likelihood of gas offense. I firmly believe that the gas offensive will come before the end of the war. I think it will come very soon. When it does come, it will be initiated with greatest surprise and on a scale never before witnessed. The Axis will not make the mistake made in 1915, when gas warfare was started by the Germans as an experiment, nor again in 1917, when mustard gas was first used in a tentative way. Massed airplanes, carrying tons of gas, will drop their chemical from the sky in amounts that may prove overwhelming. On the ground special chemical troops will join the artillery in hurling hundreds of thousands of chemical projectiles at their targets. Chemicals will be used as a surprise weapon to produce the decision. It is against such chemical attack that w must be prepared. 

This article appeared in the April 27, 1942 issue of the magazine.