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Reviewed by:
  • War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to al-Qaeda
  • Milton Leitenberg
Jonathan B. Tucker , War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to al-Qaeda. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006. 479 pp. $30.00.

As indicated in the subtitle, War of Nerves covers more than Cold War concerns. The book also discusses such post–Cold War subjects as the attempts by "non-state actors," or "terrorist" groups, notably the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult and al Qaeda, to obtain and use chemical weapons (CW). Iraq's CW program is anayzed here as well.

The first 100 pages of War of Nerves deal with CW during World War I and World War II. The revulsion caused by the casualties resulting from the massive use of gas by all sides in World War I led to the Geneva Protocol in 1925. This agreement, initiated by the United States, forbade the use of poison gas and bacteriological weapons in war, but it did not ban their production and stockpiling. The Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France ratified the protocol with the reservations that it would not be binding if their enemies or allies of their enemies violated it and that the prohibitions applied only to other states who had ratified the protocol. Italy and Germany ratified without reservations, but the United States and Japan did not ratify the protocol at all. Italy, despite its assent to the protocol, used poison gas in 1935 and 1936 in conquering Ethiopia, the only significant use of gas during the interwar period.

All the belligerents produced sizable stocks of chemical munitions before and during World War II, but apart from the limited use by Japan against China, these weapons were not employed. Field commanders on all sides requested permission to use CW on various occasions, but their requests were always turned down by the most senior military authorities. However, Germany's development of new weapons of this type during the war was the catalyst for what followed. The World War I-era gases such as phosgene and mustard gas are categorized as "first generation" chemical agents. The organophosphorus compounds named Tabun, Sarin, and Soman developed by Germany during World War II are the "second generation," and the "V agents" developed in the 1950s are the "third generation."

After World War II, the United States, Soviet Union, and United Kingdom all scoured Germany for researchers, equipment, weapons, and documents in the field of rocketry, aeronautics, and nuclear and chemical weapons. The U.S. Alsos mission searched specifically for German work in the area of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The Allies had known nothing about the German development and production of nerve agents. Even before World War II ended in Europe in 1945, the United [End Page 116] States, Britain, and the USSR had all independently located their own hoard of chemical weapon spoils. The British found a nerve agent pilot plant, disassembled it, and shipped it home to Porton Down. The United States obtained chemists and production plans. After the war's end, the U.S. Project Paperclip and the British Operation Matchbox recruited additional German weapons scientists, including chemical weapons specialists. The USSR captured, dismantled, and shipped home the German Tabun production facility at Dyhernfurth (Brzeg Dolny), together with a group of German chemists. Within two years, Soviet and captured German specialists had rebuilt the facility near Stalingrad and initiated production. With chemical weapons mated to long-range bombers, Jonathan Tucker writes, "a chemical arms race between the superpowers was almost inevitable. In 1947, President [Harry] Truman withdrew the Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical weapons in war from the docket of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee" (p. 108).

Egypt used small quantities of CW in Yemen in 1963–1967, and Iraq used sizable quantities of CW against Iran and against its own Kurdish population from 1983 to 1989. Despite the existence of the Geneva Protocol forbidding the use of CW, there was essentially no international response to the Egyptian or to the much larger Iraqi use, just as Italy was not sanctioned for using CW in Ethiopia in the 1930s. The United States used massive quantities of chemical...


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