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Geneva Protocol on Chemical Warfare

Geneva Protocol on Chemical Warfare (1925).Widespread revulsion against the World War I use of poison gas led to the Geneva Protocol in 1925, restricting chemical warfare. The agreement, ratified by most powers, was rejected by Japan and by the U.S. Senate.

Senators blocked it despite popular belief that gas warfare was immoral and military skepticism of its value. Supporters of stockpiling chemical weapons, including the U.S. Army's Chemical Warfare Service, argued that any ban was ineffective and that possession of such weapons was the best deterrent. Still, U.S. presidents abided by the protocol, and the military did not obtain any toxins between 1922 and 1937.

At the outset of World War II, the allies announced adherence to the Geneva Protocol, but reserved the right to retaliate, a conditional pledge based on mutual restraint. In 1942, the British and Americans changed explicitly to deterrence, threatening massive retaliation if the Axis initiated chemical warfare. (The Nazis used gas to murder millions of Jews and other civilians during World War II, but Allied leaders did not consider that to be chemical warfare.)

The Geneva Protocol was subsequently weakened by its own ambiguous language, and by Soviet and American stockpiling of large quantities of chemical weapons during the Cold War. One of the main problems of enforcing a ban was how to prevent clandestine conversion of commercial pesticide plants to military use. In the 1990s, the Russians finally agreed to U.S. demands for short notice, on‐site inspections, but by then chemical weapons were being stockpiled by fifteen to twenty other nations (Iraq, for example, used them against Iran).

A new Chemical Weapons Convention, prohibiting the production, storage, and use of poison gas, and providing for monitoring of the civilian chemical industry with systematic and also surprise inspections, was signed by President George Bush in January 1993 after ten years of negotiations. Pressed by President Bill Clinton and Senator Major Leader Trent Lott (Rep.‐Miss.), the U.S. Senate overrode concerns from the chemical industry and from conservatives worried about North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and ratified the treaty 74–26 on 24 April 1997. With seventy‐five nations ratifying the treaty, it went into effect on 29 April 1997.
[See also Chemical and Biological Weapons and Warfare.]


Frederick J. Brown , United States Chemical Warfare Policy, 1919–1945: A Study of Restraints, 1967.
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute , The Problem of Chemical and Biological Warfare: A Study of the Historical, Technical, Military, Legal and Political Aspects of CBW and Possible Disarmament Measures, 6 vols., 1971–75.

John Whiteclay Chambers II

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