If President Obama has been slow to respond to reports that chemical weapons have been employed in Syria, thereby crossing his “red line” and creating a “game-changer” for U.S. policy, he’s not the first chief executive to procrastinate on the issue. Woodrow Wilson was well aware of Germany’s use of chemical weapons in World War I at least as early as May 1915 — two years before American entry — when he offered a compromise to Germany and Britain: Germany should cease using chemical weapons in exchange for Britain’s ending of its blockade of neutral ports. Both nations rejected his proposal.
More worrisome to Britain and France as well as many Americans was Wilson’s address before the Senate on Jan. 22, 1917, when the nation was still a nonparticipant. In what was derisively dubbed the “Peace Without Victory” speech, Wilson seemed not eager to penalize Germany at war’s end — in spite of its inhumane chemical-weapons tactics.
” … it must be a peace without victory. It is not pleasant to say this. Victory would mean peace forced upon the loser, a victor’s terms imposed upon the vanquished. It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand. Only a peace between equals can last.”
When Wilson formally asked Congress for a declaration of war in April 1917, his message concentrated solely on Germany’s decision to employ unrestricted submarine warfare, no matter that the loss of lives from this “warfare against mankind” paled in contrast to the deaths from chemical warfare from one battle alone on April 22, 1915: To wit, the Germans released 168 tons, contained in 5,700 cylinders, of chlorine gas, killing an estimated 5,000 and injuring 10,000.
Not surprisingly, American troops were totally unprepared for chemical warfare. Protective gas masks were also primitive. Although one government unit dedicated to “noxious gases” was created shortly after American entry, it wasn’t until more than 14 months later — June 1918 — that the War Department established the Chemical Weapons Service (CWS), which finally made a full-court press on the matter. With several divisions, the CWS concentrated on research and production. In the Washington, D.C., area, my institution, American University, was a leader in the effort (much to the chagrin of later Northwest Washington residents concerned about chemical contamination of their soils).
Under the CWS, the United States produced 935 tons of phosgene gas (stronger than chlorine) and 711 tons of mustard gas. Cylinders holding from 30 to 70 pounds of the gases were devised. Thanks to the Brits, a projectile device was developed to complete the firing. Chemical rounds were also fired from big guns, with ranges from five to 10 miles.
Near war’s end, American scientists invented a powerful gas, Lewisite, that appeared even more deadly than mustard gas because it could penetrate clothing. Some 20,000 pounds were produced and stockpiled but never employed, as a result of the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918.
All told, chemical weapons in World War I resulted in a total of 92,000 deaths on both sides, with more than 1.2 million injured. Of the 272,000 American casualties, 72,000 were attributable to gas, with 1,200 deaths.
In his January 1918 enunciation of “the Fourteen Points” that were to be his preferred basis for ending the war, Wilson made no reference to the abolition of chemical weapons, although “absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas” was Point No. 2.
Not until Oct. 13, 1918, shortly before the Armistice, did the United States, in conjunction with the British, employ chemical weapons. One of the Germans temporarily blinded in that attack and forced to return to Germany was a 29-year-old infantryman by the name of Adolf Hitler.
Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.