- Behind the Gas Mask: The U.S. Chemical Warfare Service in War and Peace by Thomas I. Faith
By Thomas I. Faith. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014. Pp. x+149. $25.
In Behind the Gas Mask: The U.S. Chemical Warfare Service in War and Peace, Thomas I. Faith traces the history of the United States military’s interest (and lack thereof) in chemical weapons in the decade following the First World War. As a percentage, U.S. soldiers suffered more gas-related casualties than any other belligerent, making the American experience with chemical weapons during the Great War somewhat exceptional. From the demonization of chemical weapons by the press—American and international—to the belief that the Germans had used them first, to the actual experiences of servicemen, the future of this technology was by no means certain. Indeed, it took the remarkable efforts of one man, Amos A. Fries, to create the Chemical Weapons Service and ensure that it was a recognized and funded part of the Army through his tenure as head of the department, from which he stepped down in 1929.
With the nation’s entry into the conflict, the United States was so unprepared for gas warfare that, among other problems, it did not have any protective masks of its own. This lack of readiness would affect the military’s experience throughout the war. In the immediate postwar years, when cuts to defense spending threatened the recently formed Chemical Weapons Service (1918), came the various and predictable alliances “between the chemical industry and Congress” whereby “members of the CWS were able to change threatening military policies while collaterally influencing a variety of public policies, including veterans’ compensation, tariffs on dyes and other chemicals, and capital punishment” (p. 4). Mutually beneficial relationships and lobbying eventually ensured a place for chemical weapons and the tangential services and business opportunities that accompanied equipping the American arsenal, at least through the 1920s.
The book itself has five chapters. The first details various international concerns over the potential of chemistry to change warfare, going back as far as the 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration. Chapter two deals specifically with the American experience on both the battlefield and the home front during the war. This includes various attempts at institutionalizing the [End Page 185] technology within the military itself, and how the American chemical industry rallied to the nation’s defense, so much so that by the end of the war the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland was producing fifty tons of mustard gas per day. This was more “than both the British and French produced per month” (p. 47), although this impressive industrial feat should not be construed as military success in incorporating gas warfare into its battlefield doctrine.
In Chapter 3, Faith details the struggles Fries, his friends in Washington, and chemical interests faced in securing a role for the CWS following the conflict’s conclusion. This was in the face of pressure from politicians and a public bent on curtailing military spending, particularly for chemical weapons. This theme is continued in Chapter 4, which focuses on the first half of the 1920s, as efforts shifted to improving the public image of chemical weapons in response to the threat of funding cuts. Included is the voice of the former commander of the American Expeditionary Force, John J. Pershing, who recognized chemical weapons not so much for their effectiveness during the war—they were less lethal than many other weapons—but for what they might one day become should scientists and industry continue to make them the focus of research and development. The fifth and final chapter “discusses the successes and failures of the CWS during the second half of the 1920s” (p. 5). High points include the adoption of several color-coded plans for use against hypothetical U.S. enemies (Plan Green: Mexico, Plan Yellow: China) and, ironically, the Senate’s failure to ratify the Geneva Gas Protocol in 1926. This left the nation able to develop and stockpile chemical weapons without violating any international agreement. Failures, on the other hand...