Biological and Chemical Terror History

Lessons Learned?

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD

Chemical and biological warfare isn't new. Even in ancient times, war wasn't all swords and longbows. Some examples:

  • 1000 BC. Arsenic smoke used by the Chinese.
  • 600 BC. During a siege of the city, Solon of Athens poisoned the drinking water of Kirrha.
  • 184 BC: In a sea battle, Hannibal of Carthage hurled clay pots full of vipers onto the decks of enemy ships.
  • Dating back to at least the 1100s, there are many examples of hurling the bodies of plague or smallpox victims over city walls.
  • 1400s: Leonardo da Vinci proposed an arsenic-based anti-ship weapon.
  • 1495: The Spanish offered wine spiked with the blood of leprosy patients to the French near Naples.
  • 1650: Polish artillery general Siemenowics fired spheres filled with the saliva of rabid dogs at his enemies.

Lessons learned: Even crude chemical and biological weapons create fear and panic.

Biological and chemical warfare is no stranger to American soil. Examples include:

  • In 1763, British officers came up with a plan to distribute smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania.
  • During the Civil War, future Kentucky governor Luke Blackburn, MD, sold Union troops clothing contaminated with smallpox and yellow fever.
  • Near the end of the Civil War, Grant's army was stalled outside Richmond during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia. There was a plan -- not acted upon -- to attack the Confederate trenches with a cloud of hydrochloric and sulfuric acids.

Lessons learned: Not all bioterror comes from overseas.

Unrestricted use of chemical agents caused 1 million of the 26 million casualties suffered by all sides in WWI. It started with the French and British use of tear gas, but soon escalated to more toxic poisons. Some deadly landmarks:

  • October 1914: German artillery fire 3,000 shells filled with dianisidine chlorosulfate, a lung irritant, at British troops. The shells contained too much TNT and apparently destroyed the chemical.
  • In late 1914, German scientist Fritz Haber came up with the idea of creating a cloud of poison gas by using thousands of cylinders filled with chlorine. Deployed in April 1915 during the battle for Ypres, France, the attack might have broken the Allied lines if German troops understood how to follow up the gas attack.
  • By 1915, Allied troops made their own chorine gas attacks. It led to a race for more and more toxic chemicals. Germany came up with diphosgene gas; the French tried cyanide gas.
  • In July 1917, Germany introduced mustard gas, which burned the skin as well as the lungs.
  • Biological warfare was generally less successful. Most of these efforts focused on infecting enemy livestock with anthrax or glanders.

Lessons learned: The horror of chemical weapons left the world reeling. The Geneva Convention made an attempt to severely limit their future use in warfare.

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.

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.

Iraq attacked Iran in 1980. Soon thereafter, it unleashed chemical weapons: a mustard agent and the nerve agent tabun, delivered in bombs dropped by airplanes.

  • An estimated 5% of Iranian casualties were due to the use of chemical weapons.
  • Soon after the war ended in 1988, Iraq appears to have used chemical weapons in attacks on Kurdish civilians.
  • It was alleged that Libya used chemical weapons -- obtained from Iran -- in attacks on neighboring Chad.
  • In 1991, Allied forces began a ground war in Iraq. There is no evidence that Iraq used its chemical weapons. The commander of the Allied Forces, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, suggested this may have been due to Iraqi fear of retaliation with nuclear weapons.

Lessons learned: Nations that have developed chemical weapons tend to use them during armed conflicts -- unless they fear overwhelming reprisal.

The technology to create chemical and even biological weapons appears to be within the grasp of organized and well-funded groups that use terror to advance their agendas. Some examples:

  • In 1974, acting alone, a Yugoslav immigrant named Muharem Kubergovic warned the Los Angeles Times that he was the chief military officer of a group preparing nerve-gas attacks. Because he said the first target would be "A" for airport, the press dubbed him the Alphabet Bomber. After his arrest, police found chemical weapons hidden in his apartment, including about 20 pounds of cyanide gas.
  • In 1984, federal agents raided an armed camp run by a white-supremacist, anti-Semitic group called The Covenant, The Sword, The Arm of the Lord. The group was alleged to have blown up a natural-gas pipeline and to have committed several other crimes in 1983. After the group's surrender, authorities found 30 gallons of potassium cyanide.
  • In 1984, followers of Bhagwan Shri Rashneesh sprinkled homegrown salmonella bacteria on supermarket produce, door handles, and restaurant salad bars in Oregon. Nobody died, but 751 people became ill. The poisonings were preparation for attacks meant to keep voters home during a local election in which a cult member was running for a county judgeship. Prosecution of cult leaders led to the dispersement of the organization.
  • In 1994, federal authorities charged two members of an anti-government militia, the Minnesota Patriots Council, with planning to use biological weapons for terror attacks. The men were stockpiling ricin, a biological toxin. Both were convicted.
  • In 1994, residents of Matsumoto, Japan, began turning up with symptoms of illness due to nerve gas. There were seven deaths and some 500 injuries. This was a test run for a second attack in 1995 in a Tokyo subway, in which 12 people died and thousands sought medical attention. The attacks came from the apocalyptic Aum Shinrikyo cult, which was also trying to develop biological weapons based on botulism and Ebola virus.
  • In October 2001, an editor at the Florida-based tabloid The Sun died of anthrax traced to a letter. A newsroom employee also contracted anthrax but recovered. Meanwhile, anthrax-laden letters turned up at the offices of ABC, CBS, and NBC in New York. Several employees, as well as a New Jersey mail handler and a child that was in the ABC offices, developed cutaneous anthrax. Anthrax also is found in the New York office of Gov. George Pataki. In the same month, letters containing anthrax arrived at the Senate mailroom. Overall, 19 people developed anthrax infections; five died. Some 10,000 U.S. residents took two-month courses of antibiotics after possible anthrax exposures. The perpetrator(s) of these attacks has not yet been identified. Because the anthrax was of weapons grade or near-weapons grade, it appears to have come from a sophisticated laboratory.

Lessons learned: Terror groups find chemical and biological weapons well suited to their purposes. However, the difficulty of obtaining materials, preparing weapons, and delivering attacks has limited the number of casualties. Despite the relatively low number of actual casualties, biological and chemical weapons can clearly terrify large populations.

Show Sources

SOURCES: "History of Chemical and Biological Warfare: An American Perspective," Jeffery K. Smart, command historian, U.S. Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command, Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland, in Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare * U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases * Chemical and Biological Terrorism: Research and Development to Improve Civilian Medical Response, National Academies Press, 1999, NAP web site * The Henry L. Stimson Center web site.

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