Chemical Warfare, 1980s Style

If you want a good, concise history of the US chemical weapons program, you could do worse than read Daniel Kevles’ recent (OK, April) “review”: of Jonathan Tucker’s _War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda_. (That’s not to slam the book at all – I just haven’t had time to read it. )

The review will help refresh your memory about the US CW program (it did in my case, at least.) For example, there’s a good summary about the US production of binary CWs.

p=. *Binaries*

Kevles describes binary CWs:

bq. Arms analysts were now calling the weapons developed since 1915 “unitary weapons,” in contrast to “binary weapons,” which were seen as those of the future. *The unitary variety was chemically complete, containing a single substance ready to do its lethal work. The binary variety consisted of two separate components, neither of which was toxic; they became lethal only when combined in, for example, a shell in flight.* Binary weapons could be stored in domestic and foreign military depots without posing the threats to the environment and public health that had provoked objections to the storage of unitary weapons.

Kevles also explains that President Nixon in 1969 “declared that the United States would restrict further production” of CWs, “keeping those it had only as a deterrent.” However, this pledge (spelled out in “National Security Decision Memorandum 35”: didn’t ban the development of new CWs. And, according to Kevles, it “left open a loophole for the use of binary weapons should they be developed.”

[ I _think_ the key sentence in “NSDM 35”: is

bq. The Secretary of Defense…shall continue to develop and improve controls and safety measures in all Chemical Warfare programs. ]

Anyway, the US conducted research on binaries, but there was a debate as to whether to develop them. According to Kevles,

bq. *The heightened fear of the Soviet chemical arsenal stimulated a decade-long struggle over whether the United States should proceed with the development of binary weapons.* Blue-ribbon defense panels and anti-Soviet chemical hawks contended that the nation’s unitary arsenal was inadequate to deter a Soviet ground attack in Europe; binary weapons, they said, would be more acceptable to the public and to military planners. Some opponents castigated binary weapons just as their predecessors had denounced unitary ones, arguing that their use particularly threatened innocent civilians. Others warned that going ahead with them would jeopardize the disarmament talks on chemical weapons, which Nixon had encouraged and were underway in Geneva. *The opponents held the hawks at bay until, according to reports from refugees, the Soviets used chemical weapons against the mujahideen guerrillas after their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. President Carter had previously blocked funding for binary weapons development. Now, in 1980, he signed an omnibus military construction bill that had passed Congress by large majorities in both houses and that included authorization for a pilot binary program.*

President Reagan finally got congress to approve a binary production program in 1985. Kevles writes that the legislation “passed the Senate easily” because “several senators…were persuaded that the US was falling behind the Soviets.” For its part, the House voted for the program “just a few days after Hezbollah hijacked TWA Flight 847, killing one of five navy men on the plane.”

Interestingly, I ran across “this 1988 article”:,9171,966443-2,00.html from _Time_ about the US decision to resume nerve gas production that year. The author was skeptical of killing the arms control village in order to save it:

bq. The Administration is pursuing negotiations with the Soviets aimed at eliminating both stockpiles and production…*The best way to assure continued Soviet cooperation, concludes a defense official, is by “expressing our resolve to modernize. Only then do the Soviets become willing to talk.” Perhaps. But in the name of deterrence, the U.S. may find itself drawn into a particularly odious and dangerous kind of arms race.*

p=. *End of Binaries*

Kevles explains that

bq. The end of the cold war brought the long US–Soviet chemical arms race largely to a halt. *The key shift came in 1990, when the United States concluded a sweeping bilateral chemical disarmament agreement with the Soviets that committed the two countries to cease production of all chemical weapons, including binaries, and to reduce their chemical arsenals within eight years to five thousand metric tons.*

The text of that agreement can be found “here.”:

For anyone who’s still interested, “here’s a review”: of Tucker’s book that Michael Moodie wrote for _ACT_. Also, Tucker wrote a “very good piece”: in _ACT_ a few months back about the need to strengthen the CWC.

Lastly, here’s Slayer’s 1985 version of Chemical Warfare:

2 thoughts on “Chemical Warfare, 1980s Style

  1. J.

    I hate the term “Poor Man’s Atomic Bomb.” It’s so overused and inaccurate. Anyhoo, on the binary issue, a key argument was that the technology made chemical weapons safer to store and to move on the battlefield. The critics real concern was that, because they were safer, the military would be more prone to thinking of using the chemical weapons. Thus they tried to attack the effort on technical merits and vague arguments about increasing proliferation across the globe.

    May I also suggest you try Al Mauroni’s “America’s Struggles with Chemical-Biological Warfare” (Praeger Publishers, 2000) for an interesting point of view on that timeframe.


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