The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Chemical Reaction

A few years back, President Obama’s “red line” on Syria’s use of chemical weapons drew worldwide attention. In a December 2012 speech, the president stated,

“I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command, the world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”

When Obama made this speech, the civil war in Syria had been raging for more than a year and a half, and an estimated 60,000 Syrians had been killed. That got us wondering: what was it about the threat of chemical weapons that the president and others found so much less tolerable than all these deaths by so-called conventional means?


Richard Price, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, traces the story of the chemical weapons taboo all the way back to 1899. In that year, delegates from the world’s most powerful nations got together in the Hague and hashed out a list of things that would make war fighting more humane, like banning bullets that expand on impact, explosives fired from balloons. and projectiles designed to spread asphyxiating gases. But that last idea was far from the focus of the discussion there, says Price.


“It was a decidedly minor issue, almost a throwaway, because the delegates said, well, nobody has this anyway. So sure, it’s not going to harm any of us to go ahead and come up with this ban.”


But even that early in the history of chemical weapons, it was clear they were going to get special treatment. Unlike weapons from the crossbow to the first firearms to submarines, repulsion at their destructive power came before, not after, chemical weapons had been used, says Price: “Right from the get-go of this weapon, it was tagged as having this moral sensibility around it.”


      More details Tear gas casualties from the Battle of Estaires, April 10, 1918. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Tear gas casualties from the Battle of Estaires, April 10, 1918. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A little over a decade later, World War I broke out in Europe. And while that moral sensibility may have been the thing that kept chemical weapons from being used against civilians, it didn’t keep them off the battlefield. By the war’s end, some historians estimate that 40% of artillery shells deployed were chemical rounds, killing thousands of soldiers on the battlefield. Those that survived often faced life-long health problems.


People worried about how this now very real weapon might be used again in the future. And sure enough, another international agreement was signed banning chemical weapons: the Geneva Protocol of 1925. It was greeted with a whole lot of skepticism, but World War II proved it to be surprisingly effective. Neither side of the war wanted to spend their limited military budgets on something so taboo, and as a result neither the Americans nor the Germans felt they were well-equipped enough to initiate a chemical conflict. Says Price,


“Everybody expects World War II is going to be a chemical war. [But] this really precarious threshold somehow survived, even as virtually every other boundary in World War II was exploded.”


Thirty-five years after World War II had ended, the threshold was crossed but the taboo arguably remained just as strong as ever. Throughout the 1980s, Iraq used chemical weapons in its war with Iran, against both enemy soldiers and civilians. But while the Germans during World War I argued publicly that their use of chemical weapons was more humane than conventional warfare, the Iraqis did no such thing. Price explains,


“The Iraqis refused to admit that they had used chemical weapons, even as abundant evidence emerged to the contrary. They wouldn’t acknowledge it, so they actually contributed in a curious way to the notion that the use of these weapons is aberrant, even as they used them.”


Today, all but six of the world’s nations have signed the latest ban, the Chemical Weapons Convention. But for Price, the strength of the taboo is more a product of history than international law. Over the course of the 20th century, he says, we never got accustomed to images of civilians choking on poison gas the way we did, unfortunately, to images of civilians killed by aerial bombardment. And the longer chemical weapons existed but were not used, the more people believed they should never be used. What started as a kind of dotted line at the turn of the 20th century had by the turn of the 21st century coalesced into a solid red line.


But Price fears that red line has come about at the cost of other forms of warfare becoming more and more acceptable. Tanks, which during World War I era were singled out as the most terrifying military innovation of the time, have joined automatic weapons, grenades, and landmines to become part of the routine of war.


“What’s really fascinating to me is how other things that we ought to also feel horrified at are put into this category we call conventional weapons, which is sort of soothing… [It] means it’s OK to get burnt to death, to get blown up to death, all these other horrible ways is which warfare is conducted.”
Richard Price is the author of The Chemical Weapons Taboo. You can listen to this segment or our entire episode on the rules of war here.