What happened to the US Army’s chemical weapons?
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
Karen Winzoski, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, has published a study which reveals what really happened to the USA’s own chemical weapons.
Her analysis – ‘Opting out of the Iron Triangle, The US Chemical Industry and US Chemical Weapons Policy’ – draws on data from specialist scientific and industrial publications, such as ‘Chemical & Engineering News’, ‘Chemical Week’, ‘Chemistry’, and ‘Chemtech’, from 1959 to 2005.
Recently published in ‘The Nonproliferation Review’, the study reports that the US Army Chemical Corps and the Armed Forces Chemical Association (a group of military officers and industry executives funded by chemical companies) lobbied so successfully that between 1959 and 1964, the Pentagon’s spend on Chemical and Biological Warfare research increased from $35 million to $158 million per year, reaching almost 3 percent of the Pentagon’s budget.
In 1962, Dr Winzoski found that the Pentagon signed contracts with ten chemical manufacturers for research and development of chemical defoliants, such as Agent Orange, for use in the Vietnam War.
But when in 1970, widespread environmental damage was revealed, the Pentagon stopped purchasing herbicides from private firms. The manufacturing process used to make one of the Agent Orange components, also produced a toxic dioxin as a by product. Dioxins appeared to be some of the deadliest chemicals known. Exposure was linked to soft tissue cancers and birth defects in animals.
Studies commissioned by the Pentagon were unable to conclusively determine that returning veterans’ health problems, or birth defects in their children, were caused by dioxin. Nevertheless in 1984 seven chemical firms accepted liability after being sued, and agreed to pay $180 million to soldiers who had experienced Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, as well as to their survivors.
These chemical companies then sued the federal government to force them into sharing costs of the settlement, but they were not successful. This experience left such a bitter taste, Winzoski argues, the business still swallows hard whenever the Government approaches them again for help with similar agents.
Between the 1950s and 1980s, the Pentagon repeatedly sought congressional and presidential support to upgrade its CW stockpile, concerned that the corrosive and deadly chemicals could seep from storage containers. The proposal was replacing old stockpiles with ‘‘binary’’ weapons.
These consist of two chambers filled with two less-deadly precursor chemicals, separated by a glass divide. When a binary missile is fired, the glass fractures, the precursors combine during flight. On impact the shell releases a deadly mixed chemical weapon.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration supported the Pentagon’s binary modernization plan, despite criticism this provoked chemical proliferation. Vice President George H.W. Bush consistently cast crucial tie-breaking Senate votes in favour of binary modernization. In bilateral negotiations with the Soviets in 1989, he maintained that the United States should have the right to modernize its chemical stockpile.
In the fall of 1989, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze asked the United States to unite with the Soviet Union in ceasing production of all chemical weapons immediately. President George H.W. Bush refused; at the time the US stockpile was 30,000 tons of chemical agents, the Soviet Union’s was 50,000 tons.
But back in December 1981, the US Army asked manufacturers to bid for production of chemicals necessary for the nerve agent sarin. The Pentagon also surveyed the willingness of large chemical firms to produce a component of the nerve gas VX.
All of the large chemical companies contacted, refused.
Undeterred, in August 1983, the Pentagon received from the Senate $35 million for the construction of a facility in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where it could produce the necessary chemical precursors itself. Though it acceded to the Pentagon’s funding request, Congress stipulated that to receive further production funds, the Pentagon would have to meet certain deadlines for the production of chemical weapons.
In a last ditch effort to meet the congressional deadline, the Army extracted precursor chemicals from its 1950s-era chemical stockpile. But in January 1990, stocks of thionyl chloride, a precursor of sarin, ran out, and the Army approached two American chemical manufacturers including, a subsidiary of a West German firm, to produce 160,000 pounds of the chemical.
It is incongruous that a firm whose parent company was based in West Germany, was approached by the US Army, because between 1987 and 1989, the United States criticized the West German chemical industry for assisting in the establishment of a CW plant at Rabta, Libya.
Both companies refused the contract.
Left without the supply of thionyl chloride necessary to meet the production deadline, five weeks later the Bush administration ‘offered’ to halt binary production during chemical disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union.
The Soviets were won over by Bush’s apparent ‘compromise’; nevertheless, Bush’s concession was in fact a necessity. The Army was forced to stop production of chemical weapons, rather than wanted to.
On June 3, 1990, less than three weeks after the US ‘offer’ to halt production, George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev completed negotiating the bilateral chemical disarmament treaty.
Dr Karen Winzoski’s conclusion is that the US chemical industry’s refusal to produce necessary precursor chemicals, left the Bush administration with no other option than to fully commit to chemical disarmament.
Dr Winzoski argues there was the tarnished public image and legally costly involvement in the Vietnam war, which the business was still recovering from. Also the chemical industry had grown exponentially, going from a $27.7 billion trade in 1960 to a $295 billion industry in 1989. The most recent offer from the Government ($124.5 million) for the binary modernization project, given much would have been allocated to Department of Defense operated facilities, maybe was just not lucrative enough to sugar the pill.
The business was also influenced by public opposition, as Karen Winzoski illustrates with an example; the editor of ‘Chemtech’ journal recounted incidents occurring in the late 1960s which really impacted – students on one campus had made the Dow recruiter feel most unwelcome, because the company was making napalm.
Dr Karen Winzoski’s analysis reveals the truth behind US posturing on chemical weapons. They appear to be taking the moral high ground. Yet the US Army which had been pushing for chemical weapons all along, had really been left high and dry, deserted by their own chemical industry.
The US public’s negative attitude to such weapons now made the chemical industry so nervous, they turned away from lucrative contracts. But the US Army continued pursuing stockpiles.
Dr Winzoski maintains that the Pentagon did not invoke the Defence Production Act to force the chemical industry into making chemical weapon precursors, because it realized that the chemical industry would use such a legal battle to make sure that Americans realized that it was the Army, not the chemical industry, that was responsible for chemical weapon production.
Ironically, it’s the US chemical industry, and its fear of public reaction, which has proved the bulwark against the US Army’s desire to develop and stockpile this arsenal.
We need to clear the smoke screen which surrounds chemical weapons, wherever they are.