Ninety years ago, the nation found itself with memories of the horrors of World War I still fresh, and worries of the possibilities of a new world war on the mind.
The year 1930 found America 12 years distant from WWI, and nearly another 12 from the Pearl Harbor attack that launched the country into World War II.
While a new war was just a possibility, the odds of it being worse than “The War to End All Wars” was a given, considering technological advances in warcraft that allowed rapid and accurate deployment of weaponry, including the toxic gasses used in the battlefields of Europe in the late 1910s.
The Red Cross, which had far too much experience in dealing with the casualties of those attacks, was actively seeking ways to minimize the impacts of possible future gas attacks. An item on the editorial page of the Jan. 30, 1930 Jackson County Journal detailed the effort thusly:
“The International Red Cross is preparing for the next war. One of the certainties about the next war on a large scale is that poison gas will be used on a larger scale than ever before. War is no longer an affair of kings and hired armies – it is whole nations against whole nations. The aggressor in the next great war will not wait for the enemy to assemble an army but will try to wipe out a whole city by dropping poison gas from the clouds. What the Red Cross is looking for is some means of detecting the most minute trace of poison gas in the air. A prize of $2,000 is offered to the successful inventor. And we call this a civilized world!”
World War I had seen extensive use of gas by both sides on the Western Front; a particularly feared weapon was mustard gas.
Exposure to even tiny amounts could cause huge blisters, and high amounts could strip flesh to the bone. It was an insidious, long-lasting agent that caused temporary blindness and blistered the lungs.
Mustard gas wasn’t particularly effective at killing, but it was very effective as a terror weapon that knocked soldiers off the frontlines, often with effects that lasted throughout their lives. During WWII an estimated 90,000 to 100,000 fatalities were caused by chemical weapons, mainly phosgene, which caused death by choking. Additional non-fatal chemical attack casualties topped more than 1 million.
During the Great War, the U.S. lost 1,462 service personnel to gas attacks, and reported another 72,807 wounded in action.
But despite the fears voiced in the Jackson County Journal in 1930, gas was not widely used in WWII. The Japanese did deploy gas attacks in China, but worked mightily to cover them up.
As to the U.S., the hesitance to deploy chemical weapons in World War II is often attributed to the 1925 Geneva Protocol outlawing gas. The U.S. did sign on to that pact, but the Senate never ratified it.
Memories of gas attacks in WWI, and the widespread sentiment that the use of gas was immoral and unethical, seemed to be the main persuaders against the use of such attacks in WWII – although in Europe, both sides may have backed off for fear of retaliatory gas attacks.
The only strong sentiments in some corners for the use of gas came with reports of the appalling casualty levels of American fighters digging out last-stand Japanese forces in the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. It was pointed out that the use of gas in the Pacific could give Germany a rationale to repeat the chemical nightmare of World War I in Europe.
The public remained against the use of gas by a wide margin.
In the end, the plea by the Red Cross for an early detection method for gas attacks was something of a moot point.
And thankfully so.
There was plenty of horror to deal with without throwing gas attacks into the mix.