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Biological and Chemical Terror History

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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 concentration camps.

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 destruction.

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 mosquitoes.
  • Other U.S. biological weapons included antipersonnel bombs filed with Brucella.
  • 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 War.
  • In 1967, the International Red Cross said mustard gas and possibly nerve agents were used by the Egyptians against civilians in the Yemen civil war.
  • 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 Afghanistan.

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.

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