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Why We Didn’t Use Poison Gas in World War II
In a conflict that saw saturation bombing, Auschwitz, and the atom bomb, poison gas was never used in the field. What prevented it?
August/September 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
As the war continued, the Chemical Warfare Service chafed under FDR’s imposed restraints. In mid-December 1943, after the bloody Pacific Battle of Tarawa, which had cost the United States more than thirty-four hundred casualties in four days, Maj. Gen. William N. Porter, chief of the Chemical Warfare Service, pleaded with Army superiors to start using gas. In view of American air superiority, he argued, there would be no danger of Japanese reprisals. “We have an overwhelming advantage in the use of gas. Properly used gas could shorten the war in the Pacific and prevent loss of many American lives.”
He could find some popular support for his view. “We Should Gas Japan,” declared the New York Daily News, and the Washington Times Herald asserted, “We Should Have Used Gas at Tarawa” because “You Can Cook ’Em Better with Gas.” But such opinion was in the minority; about 75 percent of Americans still opposed initiating gas weapons.
Porter’s pleading proved unsuccessful within the Army—primarily for military, not moral, reasons. Maj. Gen. Thomas T. Handy, of the Army’s Operations Division, explained that the use of gas against Japan might provoke Germany “to gas in retaliation.” The war was, Handy argued, a two-theater struggle; likely advantages, no matter how attractive in the Pacific, would be outweighed by the likely disadvantages in Europe, the primary theater. “The difficulties inherent in amphibious operations [in the forthcoming D-day landing] against the continent are tremendous and no action should be initiated which would provide the Germans with an excuse for using gas as a defensive weapon against such operations.”
Shortly before the D-day invasion the British military chiefs began worrying that the decision by Gen. Dwight D. Elsenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, to use white phosphorus would violate the 1925 Geneva Protocol—which Britain, unlike the United States, was bound by—and might unleash German retaliatory gas attacks. “It is difficult,” the Ministry of Defense warned, “to draw a firm line between the use of white phosphorus for smoke and as an incendiary (which is legal) and its use primarily against personnel (which may be illegal).” Elsenhower refused to back down. By the time the issue percolated up to Churchill on June 21, the early assault on Normandy was over, and apparently the prime minister decided against appealing the matter to Roosevelt.
After the war an Army chemical-warfare expert concluded that the use of gas by Germany could have delayed the Allied cross-Channel attack by six months. “Such a delay,” he noted, “could have given the Germans sufficient time to complete the new V-weapons, which would have made the Allies’ task all the harder and England’s long range bombardment considerably worse.”
Furious at the V-I assault on Britain, Churchill wanted to “drench the cities of the Ruhr” with gas.
About a week after D-day, Germany launched a massive V-I assault upon Britain, killing twenty-seven hundred people, injuring ten thousand, and damaging the homes of more than two hundred thousand. Eager to punish Germany and hoping to deter future rocket attacks, Prime Minister Churchill wanted to “drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany [with gas] in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention.” He informed his military advisers: “It is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it in the last war without a word of complaint from the moralists or the Church. On the other hand, in the last war the bombing of open cities was regarded as forbidden. Now everybody does it as a matter of course. It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women.”
Recognizing that he was threatening to cross what many defined as a moral threshold, Churchill indicated that he would use gas only if “it [is] life or death for us, or [if] it would shorten the war by a year.”
His directive to military advisers was blunt and chilling: “I want a cold-blooded calculation made as to how it would pay us to use poison gas. … I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by that particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across now here now there.”
British military advisers soon dashed his hopes. They argued that gas warfare would divert aircraft from the more effective strategy of bombing Germany’s industries and cities. Britain’s gas attacks would not be decisive, they feared, and Germany would probably retaliate with devastating effect against England and might also use gas elsewhere in Europe and possibly against Allied prisoners of war.
Churchill complained to an associate that he was “not at all convinced by this negative report,” but he reluctantly yielded. “Clearly I cannot make head against the parsons and the warriors at the same time,” he lamented privately.