- Toxic Exposures: Mustard Gas and the Health Consequences of World War II in the United States by Susan L. Smith
World War II, Poison Gas, Chemical Warfare, Military History, Experimentation
The Second World War was, in lives taken, the bloodiest war in history. The belligerents showed little restraint as they bombed cities, attacked food supplies, and raced to develop ever-more devastating weapons. Yet surprisingly, there was one weapon that they largely refused to bring to the battlefield: poison gas. The world had already seen a horrifying gas war—the First World War—and a logic of mutually assured gassing mostly succeeded in preventing a sequel. Japan used some gas in China (scholars debate how much) and Germany infamously gassed its internal enemies. But, by and large, when it came to combat, the poison stayed in the cannisters.
Yet even if gas did not engulf the battlefields, it mattered in other ways. Susan Smith's thorough and illuminating book digs deep into the archives to tell the story of the predominant gas in the U.S. arsenal, mustard gas. As she shows, even an unused weapon can have a fascinating history.
There are three ways mustard gas mattered: in tests, in its disposal, and in nitro-gen mustard's postwar medical use. The first subject, testing with mustard gas, rightly consumes half of Smith's book. To prepare for a possible chemical war, the U.S. [End Page 233] military tested mustard gas and similar toxic agents on tens of thousands of its own uniformed men. A study requested by the Department of Veterans Affairs in the 1990s estimated that 60,000 servicemen were used. Smith, citing subsequent research, writes that the true number was "likely much greater" (p. 25). And she notes that many more military personnel—men and women—were exposed to poison gas during their training, sometimes on purpose.
Experiments were of three types. Some subjects had mustard agents applied to their skin—this was known as the drop or patch test. In the more ominous "manbreak test," scientists put men wearing protective clothing in gas chambers until they faltered. Still other men were subjected to field tests—they fought mock battles as planes sprayed real gas on them.
This was damaging and it was dangerous. "I was burned severely on my face, neck, some scalp, my ankles and the back of my legs were purple," remembered one test subject, adding that his back and groin were also burned (p. 39). Exposure to mustard gas left scars both physical and psychological. Cancer, eye problems, lung damage, and skin abnormalities were among the lifelong effects some endured. The men had, on paper, volunteered for the tests, but Smith notes that they did so in the context of a strict command-based hierarchy and without informed consent. Many later explained they had never been warned about the pain or long-term consequences they were risking.
Smith is not the first scholar to discuss poison gas testing in the United States, but she has dug deeply and added considerable context and detail. Her most important discovery is that at least nine of the studies were race-based. Scientists wanted to know whether Puerto Ricans, Japanese Americans, and African Americans would fare differently against gases than whites. Their motives are hard to discern but Smith argues, plausibly, that they suspected nonwhites to be more resistant to gas. If they could scientifically confirm this (they could not), then they could advocate for the use of nonwhites as the "preferred American chemical soldiers of the Second World War" (p. 66).
That discovery of Smith's, which she first published in a 2008 article, has had considerable impact. In 2015, the National Public Radio reporter Caitlin Dickerson used Smith's research to broadcast a high-profile story about the poison gas experiments, stressing the race-based ones. Dickerson's reporting won a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award (which unfortunately credited Dickerson's research team with Smith's discovery). The broadcast also...