Biological and Chemical Terror History
World War II
Between the two world wars, scientists from many nations came
up with ever-more horrible chemical weapons. The U.S. developed seven chemical
agents -- but the winner in this chemical arms race was Germany. First, in
1936, German chemist Gerhart Schrader came up with a nerve agent that came to
be called tabun (later it was called German agent A or GA). Around 1938,
Schrader came up with a new nerve gas several times more deadly than tabun. It
came to be called sarin (later known also as GB).
Also in the 1930s, France, England, Canada, Japan, and Germany
had large-scale biological weapons programs largely focusing on anthrax,
botulinum toxin, plague, and other diseases.
Knowing that the other side could retaliate in kind, chemical
and biological weapons did not come into large-scale use in WWII. But there
were horrible exceptions:
- In 1935, Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia. Ignoring the Geneva Protocol,
which it signed seven years earlier, Italy used chemical weapons with
devastating effect. Most effective was mustard gas dropped in bombs or sprayed
from airplanes. Also effective was the mustard agent in powdered form, which
was spread on the ground.
- The Japanese invasion of China featured both chemical and biological
attacks. The Japanese reportedly attacked Chinese troops with mustard gas and
another blistering agent called Lewisite (named for its U.S. inventor, Captain
W. Lee Lewis, who called it "the stuff beside which mustard gas becomes a
sissy's scent"). In attacking the Chinese, Japan also spread cholera,
dysentery, typhoid, plague, and anthrax.
- Germany used a cyanide-based gas to massacre Jewish civilians in
Lesson learned: While it's hard to get an evil genie
back in its bottle, the threat of retaliation generally keeps nations from
using chemical and biological weapons against similarly armed nations. However,
this does not stop attacks on nations unable to respond with weapons of mass
The Cold War
While the nuclear arms race got the most attention, both Soviet
and Western governments put enormous resources into developing chemical and
biological weapons. Some lowlights:
- In the 1950s, British and U.S. researchers came up with VX, a nerve gas so
toxic that a single drop on the skin can kill in 15 minutes.
- In 1959, researchers at Fort Detrick, Maryland, bred yellow-fever-infected
- Other U.S. biological weapons included antipersonnel bombs filed with
- In the 1980s and 1990s, Soviet researchers came up with the so-called
Novichok agents. These were new and highly lethal nerve agents.
- The U.S. explored the use of psychedelic agents to incapacitate enemy
troops. One of these agents, called BZ, was allegedly used in the Vietnam
- In 1967, the International Red Cross said mustard gas and possibly nerve
agents were used by the Egyptians against civilians in the Yemen civil
- In 1968, thousands of sheep died near the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, a
U.S. bioweapons facility. The agent released appeared to be nerve gas, but
findings were not definite.
- In 1967-8, the U.S. disposed of aging chemical weapons in Operation CHASE
-- which stood for "cut holes and sink 'em." As the name implies, the
weapons were put aboard old ships that were sunk at sea.
- In 1969, 23 U.S. servicemen and one U.S. civilian were exposed to sarin in
Okinawa, Japan, while cleaning bombs filled with the deadly nerve agent. The
announcement set off furor: The weapons had been kept secret from Japan.
- In 1972, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R signed an international treaty banning
the use of biological agents. By 1973, the U.S. reported that all its remaining
biological weapons were destroyed.
- In 1979, the Soviet bioweapons facility in Sverdlovsk released a plume of
anthrax. It killed at least 64 people. If the wind had been blowing the other
way, thousands could have died. Despite the treaty banning biological weapons,
the Soviet program had been going full speed.
- In 1982, the U.S. claimed that Laos and Vietnam used chemical and
biological weapons in Laos and in Cambodia. The U.S. also said that Soviet
forces used chemical weapons -- including nerve gas -- during their invasion of
Lessons learned: Chemical and biological weapons pose a
danger to the health and environment of nations that possess them. Agreements
banning biological weapons are difficult to enforce.