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U.S. Chemical Weapons Diplomatic History

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U.S. Chemical Weapons Diplomatic History

American soldiers who temporarily lost their eyesight in a World War I poison gas attack.

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Updated December 07, 2012

December 2012 brought concerns that Syrian forces loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad were mixing chemical weapons to use against opposition rebels. Those reports prompted a harsh warning from U.S. President Barack Obama that the United States will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons.

The U.S. has crafted a body of military and foreign policies against chemical weapons. It has avoided the use of chemical weapons in two world wars and numerous smaller wars, has joined with other nations in condemning their use, and has regarded countries that use them as rogue nations.

Here is an overview of the United States' anti-chemical weapons foreign policies.

Chemical Weapons And Diplomatic History

Germany committed the first chemical weapons attack in history during World War I. It used chlorine gas against Allied soldiers along the Belgian front at Ypres on May 22, 1915.

Early chemical weapons included chlorine and phosgene gases, both choking agents, and mustard gases, or blister agents. Famous pictures depict World War I soldiers, victims of mustard gas, with bandages around their blinded eyes. Chemical weapons have grown to include blood agents, such as hydrogen cyanide, and nerve agents like sarin.

Combatants used and estimated 124,000 tons of chemical weapons in World War I, killing some 90,000 troops and injuring more than 1 million others.

The Geneva Protocol

The horror of gas attacks and the subsequent maiming of its survivors prompted nations to attempt outlawing their use in the 1920s. In 1925 many nations signed onto the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and Bacteriological Methods of Warfare. The ban was a prohibition on the use of gases in warfare, not its development or stockpiling. Thus, production continued.

Some nations interpreted the language of the Geneva Protocol as a "no first use" agreement, meaning that they reserved the right to retaliate with chemicals if they had been first attacked with chemicals.

Arguments in America erupted, with proponents of gases saying they were humane and essential to U.S. security, and others saying they were inhumane and had no place in the U.S. arsenal. The U.S. did not sign the Geneva Protocol until 1975. By 2000, 132 nations had signed the protocol.

World War II

Most combatants expected someone to release chemical agents in World War II, especially since Italy had done so in its war with Ethiopia in 1935. British civilians specifically trained in the use of gas masks during the German blitz of London, and even American civil defense agents urged gas mask training in case of an attack on the mainland.

The memories of gas attacks in World War I were too vivid, however. No belligerent nation used chemical weapons during World War II.

That did not mean, however, that they did not produce and stockpile them, which they did. Rocket-capable nations also began looking at missiles as delivery systems.

U.S. Unilateral Effort

By 1969, the United States was taking criticism from other nations for using defoliants, such as Agent Orange, in Vietnam. Member nations charged that the U.S. was skirting the treaty; even though it was not a signatory, the U.S. had adhered to the protocol in principle.

That criticism prompted U.S. President Richard Nixon to reject the further use of such biological weapons, which were becoming categorized with other chemical weapons. He also ordered the destruction of U.S. stockpiles of the biologicals.

The U.S. unilateral effort led to a larger international movement to halt the proliferation of biological weapons. The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons (BTWC) resulted in 1972. The convention led to a treaty in 1975.

Aftermath Of Iran-Iraq War

Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces used chemical weapons against Iranian troops and Iraqi civilians during the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988. That chemical usage caused the United States to fear Iraqis would use them again when Americans invaded Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, 1991.

Those wars, plus the possibility of loose chemical agents throughout the former Soviet Union after its demise in 1991, prompted new efforts to control chemical weapons.

In 1993 the Chemical Weapons Convention convened in Paris. It created the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and set about drafting protocols to ban the development and stockpiling of chemical weapons, plus the destruction of existing weapons. Based in The Hague, the OPCW began operations in 1997 with inspections and oversight for member countries.

Both the U.S. and Russia agreed to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997. By signing on, they pledged to destroy their stockpiles of chemical weapons by April 2007. Neither country accomplished that, and the CWC granted them an extension to April 2012. That deadline also passed without full completion, although the U.S. had reportedly destroyed 90% of its stores.

Printed Source: John Whiteclay Chambers, II, ed., "Chemical and Biological Weapons in Warfare," The Oxford Companion To American Military History (Oxford University Press, 1999), 112-114.

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