University of Sydney
‘The Genie and the Bottle’: Postwar Preparedness and the Chemical Weapons Debate in the United States, 1918-1928
For Americans serving in the First World War, the use of chemical weapons came late, but made a deep impression. After the war, within Government and across the land, the experience of meeting — and then making — variants of ‘poison gas’ bred both fear and determination. Professional resolve to prepare for future wars in ways that fully mobilized the resources of science, competed with a passion to protect the ideals that science represented. The wartime creation of the Chemical Warfare Service, and its turbulent post-war history, reveal the deep divisions this tension caused — especially during the mid-1920s, when the United States extensively debated, but failed to ratify the Geneva Protocol.
Whilst these events tell us much about the changing character of American politics, they also tell us a great deal about the postwar goals of America’s wartime scientific leadership. As historians have recently begun to appreciate, the profession of chemistry and the American chemical industry became potent political lobbies. By the close of the 1920s, the popular optimism that greeted peacetime science was clouded by visions of science as a source of new weapons.
This paper will examine a subject often neglected by historians, and will consider how continuing diplomatic distrust coincided with a ‘research revolution’ in military affairs. As we shall see, our knowledge of this period is far from complete, and will remain so until we have a deeper understanding of the tensions that underlay America’s complex relationship with this toxic legacy.