restricted access 3. Better to Cry Than Die? The Paradoxes of Tear Gas in the Vietnam Era

From: Toxic Airs

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50 Tear gas, a nonlethal chemical weapon typically used for riot control, presents several paradoxes. Tear gas is not a gas but a micropulverized powder that causes uncontrollable tears, irritated breathing, and escalating pain when inhaled in sufficient concentrations. Although classified as nonlethal, powerful tear gases burn skin, induce nausea, and, though uncommon, can result in death by asphyxiation.1 Tear gas’s greatest paradox, however, may be that American police forces face few regulations on its use, and citizens can purchase military-grade supplies over the internet, yet international protocols forbid the use of tear gas as a weapon in war, despite its proven ability to limit deaths. Why is tear gas considered globally a humane domestic police tool but forbidden as a weapon in international warfare? Paradoxical domestic and international policies for tear gas emerged in the United States during the Vietnam era, between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s. US soldiers applied nearly fifteen million pounds of tear gas during the Vietnam War—enough chemical to coat all of Vietnam with a field-effective concentration. In the first years of US military deployments in Vietnam, two justifications prevailed for tear gas use in war: what I call the home argument and the humane argument. The home argument refer3 BETTER TO CRY THAN DIE? The Paradoxes of Tear Gas in the Vietnam Era Roger Eardley-Pryor Better to Cry Than Die?–––51 enced domestic use of nonlethal chemicals by police forces, especially as a technological fix for domestic race riots then sweeping the nation.2 The humane argument identified tear gas as a compassionate technology that saved lives rather than ended them. But after American troops launched tear gas to flush Vietcong out of tunnels and kill them, the military abandoned the humane argument in the face of public opposition and advocated a tactical argument for tear gas in war.3 By 1970, political opinion had shifted against using nonlethal chemical weapons in war. The burgeoning environmental movement’s general consternation over chemicals and a series of alarming incidents involving lethal chemical weapons dovetailed with growing disapproval of American actions in Vietnam, including the use of chemicals to flush out and kill people.4 These chemical anxieties coalesced into support for what might be called a slippery slope argument, which eventually overpowered the home, humane, and tactical arguments for tear gas in war. The slippery slope argument identified nonlethal chemicals as dangerous gateway agents to be banished from international combat before the proliferation and reintroduction to war of lethal chemical weapons. Most studies of chemical weapons focus on lethal chemical agents, or, as in the case of Vietnam, on chemical herbicides.5 This chapter examines why Americans in the Vietnam era initially endorsed nonlethal tear gas in war, but eventually banned it from international combat, all while considering tear gas a necessary and legal tool at home. It explains how paradoxical policies for this chemical weapon developed after domestic and international uses intersected with complex racial, environmental, and antiwar social movements. The shifting status of tear gas also coincided with growing skepticism about the promises of science and technology during this era.6 Due to such skepticism and to the American military’s excessive use of tear gas in Vietnam, American policymakers eventually prohibited the use in war of a nonlethal chemical that domestic police have used freely since the early twentieth century. In April 1975, President Gerald Ford officially renounced as a matter of US policy the first-use of tear gas in war except in very prescribed circumstances.7 This new policy only restricted the military ’s tear gas applications in combat; it had no bearing on the use of tear gas by domestic police forces against American citizens. Chemical Nonviolence? German scientists first synthesized the tear-inducing chemical CN (choloracetophenone ) in the late nineteenth century. During World War I, all bel- 52–––Roger Eardley-Pryor ligerent nations, including the United States, weaponized CN and launched tear gas munitions in battle before they escalated to lethal chemical weapons . Following WWI, veterans of the US Army’s Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) encouraged domestic police forces to adopt military tear gas as a nonviolent tool to control widespread labor unrest and race riots.8 Between 1919 and 1921 alone, at least twenty-nine violent strikes and riots necessitated federal military intervention to restore civil order. By the end of 1923, police in six hundred cities possessed tear gas and celebrated its effective use against civilians. Only a...


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