Skip to main content

Poison Gas

March 2023
1min read

Barton J. Bernstein’s “Why We Didn’t Use Poison Gas in World War II” (August/September 1985) was a lucid and enlightening account of the principal factors that led both sides to abstain from the use of chemical and biological warfare.

I was somewhat surprised, however, that he did not mention the practical problems involved in the delivery of chemical and biological agents. I do not profess to be an expert in chemical and biological warfare, but I have talked to people who are, among them my instructors at the Naval Chemical and Biological Warfare School at Fort McClellan, Alabama, which I attended in 1958.

Such weapons must be delivered not only during reasonably clear weather, but also at times when there is virtually no wind. As both sides discovered in World War I, chlorine or mustard gas used in preparation for an attack often backfired with sudden shifts of wind, thereby creating more problems for the attackers than for their enemies. And even if all went well with the initial barrage, there could be trouble later. Pockets of chlorine and mustard gas were often encountered in World War I by advancing troops days after a chemical barrage had been delivered. As late as twenty years after World War I, factory sites that had produced mustard gas were found to be dangerously contaminated. If anthrax or other communicable biological weapons had been delivered against Japan, the American occupation forces would have had to control or eradicate the epidemics that they had created.

In a word, chemical and biological warfare was really practical only if used against a target that the victor did not intend to occupy.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "December 1985"

Authored by: Godfrey D. Lehman

For this crime, she was arrested, held, indicted, and put on trial. Judge Hunt presided.

Authored by: The Editors

During the 1920s the city spurred local rail traffic with an unparalleled run of superb and stylish posters

Authored by: Paul Rosta

When many of our greatest authors were children, they were first published in the pages of St. Nicholas

Authored by: Steve Neal

Thirty years after judging Eisenhower to be among our worst Presidents, historians have now come around to the opinion most of their fellow Americans held right along.

Authored by: Ormonde De Kay

He was the most naturally gifted of The Eight, and his vigorous, uninhibited vision of city life transformed American painting at the turn of the century. In fact, he may have been too gifted.

Authored by: Bill Moyers

A distinguished journalist and former presidential adviser says that to find the meaning of any news story, we must dig for its roots in the past

Authored by: Frederick Allen

Fascinating legal cases such as Hawkins v. McGee are known to lawyers across the land—and to almost nobody else.

Authored by: Elliott West

For many children who accompanied their parents west across the continent in the 1840s and '50s, the journey was a supreme adventure

Authored by: Roger B. White

A hankering for house cars—and trailers and motor homes—has diverted Americans for more than seventy years

Featured Articles

Famous writers including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts turned Sleepy Hollow Cemetery into our country’s first conservation project.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.

Roast pig, boiled rockfish, and apple pie were among the dishes George and Martha enjoyed during the holiday in 1797. Here are some actual recipes.

Born during Jim Crow, Belle da Costa Greene perfected the art of "passing" while working for one of the most powerful men in America.