Book Review: A Bridge Not Attacked: Chemical Warfare Civilian Research During World War II

Still working on the latest CBRN Operations post, in the interim, here is another book review.

Book Review: A Bridge Not Attacked: Chemical Warfare Civilian Research During World War II

by Harold Johnston , World Scientific Publishing, 2004.

This book is a personal, anecdotal account of some elements of the U.S. chemical warfare program in World War II. This is not an academic work, nor is it terribly well written. Its primary value is as a form of oral history, but beyond that it does not live up to its title, as it is neither a full account of civilian research in WWII on chemical warfare, nor a solid argument as to why chemical weapons were not used. The real reason for the "non-use" in WWII  was actually due to mutual deterrence based on faulty assumptions about each sides retaliatory capabilities, more on that below. This book is actually an account of the author's much later reminiscences (fifty plus years later) regarding his own part in the war as a participant in the US Chemical Warfare Service's CW program. recommends this book only as an ancillary work to more academic explorations of WWII chemical warfare history, of which their are few outside of the three official histories of CWS in WWII (available free here, here, and here).

For a better examination of why chemical weapons were not used, there is no single work focused on the subject, but some research and articles by John van Courtland-Moon are useful, as is Richard Price's book The Chemical Weapons Taboo, though the later tends to delve a little to deeply into philosophy. The truth is, much as Johnston suggests in his round about style, that chemical weapons in WWII created a sort of deterrence in the same vein as the MAD doctrine regarding nuclear weapons, they did not preclude warfare in the same way nuclear weapons can, but they did preclude mutual use (which was perceived as mutual destruction).  Chemical weapons are an odd man out in this way. Most current assessments place CW in the "Weapons of Mass Disruption" category - localized and tactically challenging, but not really strategic weapons of mass destruction. The truth is that conventional explosives and fire bombing were truly Weapons of Mass Destruction in WWII, and chemical warfare was feared as such, more so than it probably should have been. Both sides were prepared for chemical bombing that never occurred, even if either side in Europe might have mustered the ability and will to do it. Price's work speaks to some of the reasons why perception mattered more than reality when it came to the deterrent effect Courtland-Moon explores.

Many authors also focus on Hitler's supposed hatred of chemical weapons (he was gassed in WWI) the real truth was that Hitler and the General Staff/OKW overestimated allied capability.  The Germans actually possessed the most advanced program by far - one dismantled and copied by the US , Britain, and the USSR (US Codename: Operation Paper Clip). Throughout the war the allies were prone to retaliatory threats regarding their CW capability that were actually more of a bluff.  Britain and the US lacked both the CW weapons and the means to deliver them especially during the first half of the war in Europe when allied and German use was most likely. In China, the US blustered, but there was no deterrence as the first use Rubicon was crossed in the 1930s and both sides engaged in CW. As long as deterrence worked between the US and Japan, China's chemical war was ignored.

Of course the bridge was attacked, contrary to Johnston's title. Chemical weapons were used in WWII on the battlefield. CW was used in a limited tactical role by the Germans after Barbarossa, which resulted in a clear threat of retaliation by FDR (and Churchill), leading to a halt of German use and subsequent mutual deterrence. In that case, there was also debate about whether the local commanders who employed chemical weapons had authorization from higher headquarters to do so.  There was much wider CW use in China, by both the Japanese and Nationalist forces. The US also came very close to using chemical agents in the Pacific theater against the Japanese, and might well have if it hadn't been for the Manhattan Project, as the warplan for the invasion of the Japanese home islands included a chemical component - an element the CWS was pushing for, against resistance from MacArthur's staff. 

The Japanese pursued an extensive chemical and biological warfare research effort during the war, and faced with invasion, may also have used CW and BW had it not been for Hiroshima/Nagasaki. The Japanese were particularly concerned about limiting US use in the event of invasion, and actually considered ignoring US tactical use of chemical weapons to avoid escalation to strategic use, which they feared - a further example of the deterrent effect CW had in WWII. But faced with the true force of Operation Downfall, it is hard to imagine a situation where CW escalation would have occurred on both sides.

In  addition to the US program Johnston participated in, the British and Australians also carried out extensive research programs, including testing CW agents on human subjects, mostly prisoners and conscientious objectors who provided consent. These wartime programs were a precursor to  the more infamous and non-consensual Department of Energy human experimentation program in the Cold War. The CW programs of WWII were, in this regard and others,  a precursor to later Cold War efforts. This was especially true as CW formed the early basis for what became a full-fledged theory of mutual deterrence in the Cold War. In this, the WWII era and the role of CW in the war deserves greater study. Some of the material from that period is only now declassified and available, unfortunately it remains largely unexplored. Johnston's account is one of the only works on the period outside of the official histories. 

Even so, in the final assessment, I would not recommend Johnston's book except for certain readers - it is hard to follow and not as comprehensive or focused as its misleading title suggests.  As an adjunct to the official histories however, it is a rare first person account of the CWS program in WWII, and therefore a valuable piece of history.  Categorize it as biography/oral history and a source to be checked against other sources. The book does offers insight into an area of WWII shrouded in secrecy and which, in many ways, presaged Cold War CW, BW, and Nuclear efforts and the fusion of the scientific establishment with state run weapons and research programs more often associated with the Manhattan project.