Lessons Learned? The Shameful (and Recent) History of Chemical Weapons Abuses by the US Government
During this unsettling march to war with Syria, political leaders in the US have repeatedly stated that Syria has broken an agreement, put in place at the end of World War I, that chemical weapons are not to be used in warfare. Some may be left believing that chemical weapons have been absent from the theatre of war between then and the Syrian attacks on August 21st 2013. This is not the case. In fact, the US is the biggest abuser of chemical weapons on earth, deploying these weapons across the world right to the present day.
The Chemical Weapons Timeline to World War II
Chemical and biological weapons have been with us since the Spartan Greek’s used sulphur fumes on enemy soldiers in the 400’s BC. They became the tool of imperialism and colonialism from the 17th century and beyond.
In the 18th Century, colonialists seeking to overcome the Native American population distributed small pox infected blankets as ‘gifts’ of peace to native American communities. In 1770, almost 30% of the population was wiped out by small pox infection. In the 80 years of European immigration to the North American continent, the Native American population reduced from 37,000 to 9,000 – largely due to the various diseases and epidemics perpetrated against them. You can read a fuller account of the devastation of indigenous communities here.
At World War I (1914-18), the German army reintroduced chemical weapons, using chlorine gas at the second battle of Ypres. By the end of the war, with all sides deploying mustard and chlorine gas, 85,000 had been killed and 1.2m injured by these toxic weapons.
Between the end of World War I and the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the world went on a bit of a chemical weapons binge. The Russian forces used poison gas against the Bolsheviks (with UK support), Spain and France used mustard gas in Morocco, and Britain tested mustard gas by releasing it against Iraqi populations. Winston Churchill stated that “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes”.
Despite a brief stand off during the first year of World War II thanks to fears of reprisals from all sides, chemical weapons were again deployed in 1942. The Nazi government used Zyklon-B to gas ‘undesirable’ groups such as Jews, disabled people, mentally ill people and dissenters of the regime. By the end of the holocaust, 5.8 million Jews and 5 million other ‘undesirables’ had been killed, including 1.5 million children.
The US Becomes the World’s Worst Chemical Weapons Offender Post World War II
Since the Second World War, the US has led the world in the develo
pment, production and deployment of chemical weapons on both military and civilian populations at home and across the world.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle:
“In 1950, the Army secretly used a Navy ship cruising just outside the Golden Gate to spray supposedly harmless bacteria over the entire city and its outskirts. Eleven people were sickened by the germs in San Francisco, and one of them died.
From 1956 to 1961, the CIA, in a secret behavior modification program called MK-ULTRA, dispatched agents to test the effects of mind-altering drugs such as LSD and synthetic mescaline on unsuspecting people in San Francisco, Mill Valley and other cities across the country. Many of the victims hallucinated, many became sick and at least two deaths resulted from the experiments.
From 1944 to 1974, both the Defense Department and the Atomic Energy Commission conducted hundreds of secret experiments in San Francisco and around the country that exposed unsuspecting patients to dangerous doses of radiation, including injections of plutonium.”
It didn’t stop there. Global Research reports:
“1951: Racist experiments are carried out. U.S. Army researchers deliberately expose African-Americans to the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus to discern whether they are more susceptible to infections caused by such organisms than white Europeans. Also in 1951, black workers at the Norfolk Supply Center in Virginia were exposed to crates contaminated with A. fumigatus spores.”
This list is by no means exhaustive, and you can see the full history of domestic use of chemical agents as weapons on domestic US populations here.
Across the World
The Korean War – 1950-53
During the war, North Korea and China accused the US of using the germ warfare agents they had developed in 1947.
The Vietnam War 1955-1975
The US used Napalm and Agent Orange as their premier chemical weapons between 1965 and 1972. Napalm is “a mixture of plastic polystyrene, hydrocarbon benzene, and gasoline.
This mixture creates a jelly-like substance that, when ignited, sticks to practically anything and burns up to ten minutes.” Kim Phuc, a survivor of Napalm attacks in Vietnam says “Napalm is the most terrible pain you can ever imagine. Water boils at 212°F. Napalm generates temperatures 1,500°F to 2,200°F.”
You will likely remember Kim as a 9 year old naked child fleeing this Napalm attack, her photo becoming one of the defining images of the war.
The US dropped more than 400,000 tons of Napalm on largely civilian areas of Vietnam through the war.
Agent Orange is a toxic chemical herbicide fifty times more concentrated than regular herbicides. It was used by the US to devastate crops and water sources, in efforts to drive out Vietnamese into US controlled areas. The US sprayed 73 million litres of Agents Orange, Blue, Pink, Purple and Green onto Vietnam between 1962 and 1970. According to a War Legacies research paper:
“The herbicides were sprayed over about 24 percent of southern Vietnam, destroying 5 million acres of upland and mangrove forests and about 500,000 acres of crops (a total area the size of Massachusetts). Of these areas, 34 percent were sprayed more than once; some of the upland forests were sprayed more than four times.vi One study found that 3,181 villages were sprayed as well. Areas of Laos and Cambodia near the Vietnam border were also sprayed.”
The Vietnam Red Cross recorded over 4.8 million deaths and 400,000 birth defects caused by the use of Agent Orange.
The US has been directly
and indirectly responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Iraq over generations. We have already covered the testing of weapons on Iraqi populations. When people claim Saddam used chemical weapons on his own people, they refer to the chemical gas attack on Halabja in 1988, which killed at least 5,000 Kurdish civilians. This attack was carried out in the dying months of the Iran-Iraq war, while the UK’s Thatcher government were providing military support to his regime. The Reagan White House continued to maintain Agricultural Credits with Iraq, andblocked congressional sanctions against Iraq.
In the most recent attack on Iraq, the US used White Phosphorous, Napalm and Depleted Uranium in contravention of all conventions.
According to a recent study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health,Fallujah now has a higher rate of cancer, leukaemia and infant mortality than Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Describing the effects on the ground, this report:
‘Young women in Fallujah are terrified of having children because of the increasing number of babies born grotesquely deformed, with no heads, two heads, a single eye in their foreheads, scaly bodies or missing limbs. In addition, young children in Fallujah are now experiencing hideous cancers and leukaemias.’ Researchers found a 38-fold increase in leukaemia, a ten-fold increase in female breast cancer and significant increases in lymphoma and brain tumours in adults.
White phosphorus burns at extremely high temperatures and ignites clothing, fuel, ammunition and other combustibles. If it lands on a person, it can burn through skin and bone. The US used this on Iraq in 2004. The number of deaths and injuries is not known.
The above list is not even a full history, but some of the most notable uses. The US has consistently flouted international conventions on the use of chemical weapons. Whether we are evaluating by death toll, legacy such as birth defects and crises of public health, or environmental impacts: the US it is the worst abuser of chemical weapons on the planet.
Convention? What Convention?
The US has actively dodged conventions on the use of chemical weapons, and when it has seen fit to bother signing them, it has simply ignored them.
In 1907, the Hague Convention outlawed chemical weapons, but the US did not join the convention.
In 1928 (first signed 1925), the League of Nations (early attempt at a UN) produced the Geneva Protocol to prohibit gas and biological warfare; the US refused to join the League of Nations.
In 1947, President Harry Truman withdrew the Geneva Protocol from consideration by Congress.
In 1961, President Kennedy increased spending on chemical weapon development from $75m to $330m.
It was not until 1974 that the US ratified the 1928 Geneva Protocols, having spent the preceding years devastating Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with Napalm and Agent Orange. Yet, by 1985 the US has resumed open air testing of biological agents and supplied these agents to Iraq for the following four years, during the period in which the Halabja massacre occurred.
In 1989, 140 nations condemned the use of chemical weapons at the Paris Conference, initiated by the US after the Iraqi gas attacks which they were in part responsible for; it was later revealed that the US was producing poison gas even as it signed the treaty.
The latest Chemical Weapons Convention was signed by the US in April 1997 and came into force the same day, and we have seen the leve
l of chemical warfare they have engaged in since that date.
The reality is, if we want to take action against the most dangerous violator of chemical weapons in our world – we need to take on the United States. This in no way excuses the use of chemical weapons by any other state or group. But a US government that has devastated regions of Iraq with napalm, white phosphorus and depleted uranium must not be allowed to grandstand on the world stage without mention of these outrageous war crimes. If we are to be serious about such international conventions, they must apply to all nations.