I am currently researching the history of the U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) during the Great War and the 1920s for a book manuscript. When the United States formally entered the war in 1917, its Army was woefully under-prepared for gas warfare. Mere months before the declaration of war a group of civilian chemists, researchers at the Department of the Interior, military physicians and engineers were cobbled together into an organization to investigate problems associated with chemical warfare, work with British and French allies, and help the Army prepare. The organization was formally consolidated into the CWS in 1918. Studying the U.S. Army’s struggle to adapt to this new method of war illuminates key dimensions of military planning and policy formation related to the adoption of new weapons technologies. However, these gas warriors could not compensate for the time, resources, and experience they lacked, and the American Expeditionary Force suffered a higher percentage of gas casualties on the battlefield than any other army during WWI.
The CWS’ transition to a peacetime military organization after WWI represents a critical turning point in the history of chemical warfare, when U.S. chemical warriors had to confront widespread negative views about chemical weapons in the United States. As the military shrank to accommodate its diminished budget after the Armistice, the Department of War and Congress targeted the chemical weapons program for elimination. Civilian peace activists lobbied against chemical weapons as manifestations of the evils of war and the Department of State pursued international agreements to prevent chemical warfare in future conflicts.
Amos A. Fries, the Chief of the CWS, led his fellow officers in an extensive public relations campaign to promote chemical warfare and ensure that the CWS remained an independent service within the army under the National Defense Act of 1920. Afterward, the CWS continued to work to convince other members of the military and the American public that chemical weapons were more advanced and humane than projectile weapons and that poison gas research had peacetime applications. By working in concert with allies in the chemical industry and Congress, members of the CWS were able to change threatening military policies, while collaterally influencing a variety of public policies, including veterans’ compensation, tariffs on dyes and other chemicals, and capital punishment. Like all public relations campaigns, however, the CWS’ advertisements did not always reflect reality. CWS officers falsely claimed that exposure to poison gas could cure respiratory ailments and insinuated that pacifist and women’s organizations were communist bulwarks.
While the CWS’ accomplishments during WWI and the post-war period were significant, the organization and its allies in the domestic chemical industry and Congress failed to mobilize public opinion to support the use of chemical weapons in future wars. The American people remained skeptical that poison gasses were humane weapons and U.S. foreign policy makers worked with other nations to ensure that they would not be used in future conflicts. Available soon from the University of Illinois Press, Behind the Gas Mask: The U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Service 1917-1929 is an institutional history that illuminates the relationship between innovation, memory, and public policy.