Chemical Warfare

Yellow Rain.
by Sterling Seagrave.
Evans. 316 pp. $11.95.

To most Americans, the initials NBC stand for a television network or a biscuit company. To the military analyst, however, they denote three nonconventional forms of warfare—nuclear, biological, and chemical—whose assimilation into strategic thinking presents a variety of serious, and indeed frightening, practical and moral problems. Of the three, the danger posed by nuclear weapons has been close to the center of public consciousness ever since Hiroshima, while for most of the postwar era, biological and chemical warfare have receded in notoriety. In the past several years, however, reports have proliferated that Soviet-backed forces in Indochina and in Afghanistan have been using poison gases of various types, and that Red Army units are habitually trained and equipped to operate in a battlefield environment dominated by the presence of bacteriological and chemical contaminants. These reports have given new relevance to a question which has arisen periodically since World War I.

Sterling Seagrave’s book presents the most extended popular account to date of the evidence that the Soviets have supplied and used chemical and biological agents both for quiet assassination of political opponents and for waging war in Yemen, Laos, and Afghanistan. The book has received considerable attention, most notably in the Wall Street Journal, for its graphic depiction of the effects of various toxic agents on Hmong tribesmen in Laos and for the detailed background it supplies to the U.S. accusation that the USSR is waging chemical warfare in Asia. But the book ranges much more widely than this: it includes a history of the development of chemical weapons since World War I, a mordant account of the attempts, mostly futile, to ban their production and use, and the author’s own opinions on what policies the U.S. should adopt. Seagrave does not accomplish his diverse aims in the book with the same degree of success; in general, his analyses are less compelling than his descriptions and historical narrative.



World War I saw the most extensive, although not the first, attempt to make military use of toxic gases. Large-scale chemical warfare began at Ypres in 1915, when the German army staged a surprise attack with chlorine gas which forced the African and Algerian units defending the French line to retreat in disorder. Within a few months, the Allies had developed and equipped their troops with effective gas masks, and had also deployed their own chemical weapons, including chlorine and phosgene, against the Germans. By 1917, however, the Germans had a new and more effective substance, mustard gas, which severely blistered exposed skin and could not be countered simply by the use of face masks. The Russian army in particular suffered a large number of gas casualties before withdrawing from the war after the Bolshevik Revolution. Meanwhile the U.S. had entered the fight; despite lectures on the dangers of gas attack, fresh American troops were unprepared when they met it in practice. By the time the war ended, most of the artillery shells fired were filled with toxic chemicals rather than high explosives.

In the 1920’s, antiwar sentiments which found expression in the Washington Naval Conference of 1921 and the 1925 Geneva Disarmament Conference also helped bring about the Geneva Protocol of 1925, prohibiting the use of poisonous chemical and biological weapons. The Protocol was not ratified by the U.S. Senate, where intense opposition was mobilized by the American Legion, the chemical industry, and the U.S. Army Chemical Corps. That the Protocol was in any case little more than a pious hope was demonstrated in 1936 when poison gas was used in Ethiopia by Mussolini’s forces, even though Italy had ratified the agreement.

Meanwhile, researchers at the I.G. Farben laboratories in Germany had developed a new family of chemicals, the nerve gases, of which a tiny drop inhaled or absorbed via the skin could bring about convulsions and death in a few moments (the World War I generation of gases acted over a period of agonizing hours). This development, which resulted in three new agents known as tabun, sarin, and soman, was kept secret. German production facilities eventually produced some 25-30,000 tons of tabun and smaller amounts of the other compounds. As war approached, all the European powers, with their earlier experience in mind, assumed that gas would play a major role. The British government distributed masks to the entire civilian population; the French supplied the Maginot line with sophisticated antigas defenses; the Soviet Union equipped its army for gas warfare. Only in America did the rundown army of the 1930’s lack minimal stocks of gas.

As it turned out, gas was to play no part in the fighting. Because of the heavy secrecy on both sides, each assumed the other was ahead, and feared to introduce gas warfare lest it be met by worse retaliation. Seagrave attributes part of the German hesitancy to Hitler’s personal aversion to gas, caused by his own experience as a victim in 1918; whatever validity there may be to this surmise, there was no compunction about gassing defenseless Jews in the extermination camps.

Following the war, the German nerve-gas factories were dismantled and shipped off to Russia, along with large quantities of the chemical munitions themselves; the remainder of the German stocks was captured and taken by the Allies. Secret research into nerve gases and other chemicals suitable for warfare, including psychotropics such as LSD, was thereafter conducted on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In the late 50’s and early 60’s, with technological optimism at its height, the U.S. Chemical Corps even led a campaign to publicize the potential value of mood-changing drugs as a substitute for lethal weapons; the public was treated to the sight of cats being squirted with a short burst of BZ ‘gas and then cringing fearfully at the sight of a mouse. But the uncertain results of battlefield use of such agents, under circumstances in which their dosage and aiming could not be controlled, soon made their impracticality evident. In the meantime, more potent versions of the nerve gases were being developed by both the Western Europeans (VX) and the Soviets (VR-55), and research went on to investigate even more toxic substances.

Among the most lethal substances known are fungal poisons, or mycotoxins. Their effects have long been recognized. In medieval times, bread made from grain contaminated with ergot and similar fungi was responsible for millions of deaths involving horrible symptoms including convulsions and massive hemorrhaging. Ergot and its companions were eliminated in the West in the modern period but lived on in Russia, where, following Stalin’s assault on the Kulaks in the 1930’s, Russian agriculture was reduced to such a state that mycotoxin-caused plagues remained endemic. For obvious reasons, research on mycotoxins was important to Soviet medicine, and the Soviets, gaining extensive knowledge of the effects of these substances, also developed the capability for their large-scale biosynthesis.

While research was continuing secretly into chemical warfare, in the West the environmental movement was gaining a large number of adherents. Following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, extensive opposition came to be expressed even to agricultural pesticides. When the U.S. military in Vietnam began large-scale use of chemical defoliants, mainly the mixture of the weed-killers 2,4D and 2,4,5-T, known as Agent Orange, there was mass public outrage, which intensified with reports that the defoliants were producing harmful effects on humans.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, Soviet-supplied Egyptian forces involved in a civil war were said to be engaged in poison-gas attacks against isolated villages. The symptoms reported by observers included the blistering typical of mustard gas, and massive hemorrhaging, not then associated with any chemical weapon known to the West. These reports passed with little public notice, except in Israel, where purchases of gas masks were made on the eve of the Six-Day War after the discovery of Egyptian caches of gas in the Sinai.

In the late 1960’s, the American public became keenly aware of ongoing nerve-gas research when large numbers of sheep died in Utah near the Dugway proving ground, where tests were being carried out. Concern also arose over the storage of nerve gas in above-ground tanks at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver. When the Army announced plans to transport old stocks of nerve gas from their storage places in Maryland and Colorado and to dispose of them at sea, vigorous opposition was mounted by those living along the proposed routes of travel and on the coastline opposite the proposed dumping area. The plans had to be abandoned. (A number of nerve-gas rockets were eventually destroyed at sea, off South Carolina, after the Defense Department surmounted a variety of suits brought by environmentalist organizations.) Amid another storm of international protest, poison gases stored on Okinawa were also disposed of.

In 1969 the Nixon administration put an end to the production of biological weapons and proclaimed a policy of no-first-use of chemical weapons, while reserving the right to use defoliants and riot-control agents in Vietnam. In due course, the ban was extended to biotoxins, chemical poisons produced as the end product of biological processes. A 1972 agreement outlawing the production, storage, or use of toxins was signed by 111 nations, including the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Geneva Protocol was resubmitted to the Senate, where it was finally ratified in 1974.



The U.S. government, then, responded to public protest against chemical and biological agents. The Soviet Union and its allies, however, were subject to no such public pressure. The Chemical Corps, a vital part of the Soviet armed forces, is integrated into the intensively realistic training exercises that prepare the Red Army to operate in an environment characterized by lethal chemical and biological contamination as well as radioactivity. Soviet tanks captured during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 were found to be equipped with a variety of antigas devices; a substantial fraction of Soviet artillery projectiles are filled with chemical agents. In the late 1970’s, reports from Indochina suggested that all this expertise was not only for defensive purposes.

Hmong tribesmen in Laos, who had fought against the Vietnamese and Laotian Communists during the Vietnam war, were continuing their resistance rather than submit to the fate meted out by the victorious Communists. Refugees crossing into Thailand brought accounts of poison-gas attacks made by air on their villages. Victims of the attacks showed a curious combination of symptoms which could not be explained purely in terms of familiar chemicals like mustard gas; they concluded that the agent used was a combination of a nerve gas and a hemorrhaging agent as well as a blistering substance. Accounts by the villagers themselves described the aerial assaults: on the first pass, attacking MiG’s would pour out clouds of red and blue gas; later, the aircraft would return and drop exploding containers of a powdered substance which came down in a form described as yellow rain. The victims would be found dead, their skin blistered and changed in color, with blood streaming out of their bodily orifices; before dying, they went into convulsions. Seagrave estimates the number of such casualties in the tens of thousands.



Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979, very similar reports began emerging from remote areas of that country. Eyewitness accounts described the colored gases, the yellow powder, and the symptoms of the victims. The attacks were often followed by napalm bombing runs which burned off the chemical residues, and Red Army chemical units were observed decontaminating tanks and personnel.

The U.S. State Department sent a mission to Southeast Asia in mid-1979 to investigate the stories. The mission interviewed eyewitnesses among the refugees in Thailand and attempted to obtain physical evidence that could aid in identification of the specific substances involved. A few samples of foliage stained by the yellow rain were recovered from a variety of sources. Among the chemical residues found upon analysis were several mycotoxins and laurel sulfonate, a wetting agent most often used with detergents to speed absorption. More recently, a sample obtained independently by ABC News included mycotoxins as well as the compound polyethylene glycol, a commonly used dispersant that is invariably manmade.

The identification of the mycotoxins was said by the State Department to demonstrate conclusively that the Soviet Union was engaged in chemical warfare in Indochina. Outside scientific experts, however, most notably Harvard’s Matthew Meselson, the chief mover behind the 1972 antitoxin agreement, cited the lack of controls that would show that the mycotoxins on the samples were not normally present in the Indochinese environment, and argued that while a case may have been made, it was by no means a scientifically proven one. A United Nations investigation, pushed by the U.S. and marked by noncooperation on the part of the accused Communist powers as well as by the UN’s habitual reluctance to offend any powerful member, ended in an inconclusive report.



This, with the exception of the most recent developments, is the story told by Seagrave. He makes a powerful case for his claims that the Soviet Union, together with its Vietnamese allies, is waging a barbarous war against its enemies, including their women and children, in Indochina and in Afghanistan, and that the Soviet forces are far better equipped than is the NATO alliance, both physically and psychologically, to wage chemical warfare in Europe.

The reader may not care for the author’s strong emphasis on his personal activities, or for the book’s purple prose (the style is Old Asia Hand). But Seagrave has marshaled a mass of historical evidence, going back to Trotsky’s contingency plan to use poison gas to crush the Kronstadt mutiny and Stalin’s actual use of gas in his forced collectivization campaign, that demonstrates the long-standing Soviet willingness to employ chemical weapons, and he has sifted through voluminous eyewitness accounts of the more recent activities in Yemen, Indochina, and Afghanistan. While there may be no scientifically conclusive proof, which would be virtually impossible to obtain given the circumstances of geography, only someone willfully blind can ignore the weight of the evidence.

Unfortunately, the stark force of Seagrave’s argument is weakened by a second thread he weaves in, an attempt to show that the U.S. is really just as bad as the Russians. He points to the Senate’s reluctance to ratify the 1925 Geneva Protocol, the stockpiling of nerve-gas munitions in the postwar era, and the use of defoliants and riot-control agents in Vietnam.

To test the validity of this equation between America and Russia one need only compare the relentless and single-minded progress of the latter to the agonized waverings of the former. Not only was the U.S. Army woefully unprepared for the reality of chemical warfare in two world wars but, according to Seagrave’s own account, the current generation of GI’s cannot even put on their NATO-issue gas masks properly. His final chapter, which purports to expose the evil designs of the U.S. chemical-warfare establishment, in fact consists of an undigested sequence of newspaper stories from 1968 to 1976 (heavily weighted toward the earlier years); these tell the tale of the Army’s inability to carry out its plans to dispose of stocks of various chemical weapons, primarily because of opposition from a host of environmentalist groups, aroused citizens, and political officeholders who did not want toxic materials even passing through their territory. As for defoliants and riot-control agents, it should be obvious that even where the danger exists of lethal side-effects, the use of such agents is an alternative to more deadly force; by contrast, the mustard gas, nerve gas, and mycotoxins used by the Soviets are lethal weapons pure and simple.



Despite his dim view of American behavior to date, Seagrave recognizes the need to develop an appropriate policy to counter the Soviet threat. This policy must include two elements. First, there is a need to acquire a defense against chemical and biological attack, and this requires research into the nature of the Soviet agents, development of appropriate protective materials and structures for military and civilian targets, and intensive training in their use. Seagrave holds up the examples of the Swedes, the Swiss, and the Chinese, who have all taken this threat seriously and have built shelters to protect the public.

Second, to minimize the probability of attack, appropriate deterrents are necessary. World War II showed that even the Nazis thought twice before attacking with gas when they believed their prospective victims could strike back in kind; the Soviets are at least as prudent as were the Nazis. One proposed deterrent is the development of binary weapons, projectiles filled with relatively harmless chemical which would react and produce nerve gas only after firing. There are, however, a host of technical problems involved in developing binary weapons and it is by no means clear that public opinion will in fact accept their deployment. Seagrave also suggests that any binary weapon that might be developed would be so much less effective than the mycotoxin-based Soviet weapons that it would not work as a deterrent.

Be that as it may, history shows that deterrence is a more effective policy than unilateral disarmament. The current antinuclear campaign in the West suggests that many people find the idea of deterrence morally repellent; but as the dreadful experience of the Hmong people teaches us once again, the alternative to deterrence is not peace but annihilation.

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