D.C.’s Death Valley

Theo Emery, journalist and author of Hellfire Boys, explores America’s race to develop chemical weapons during World War I at American University and the ethical questions raised by such gruesome warfare. And how, a hundred years later, we’re still reckoning with its consequences.

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Nathan Connolly: During World War I, soldiers were stuck in the trenches for months on end. So for the first time, combatants turned to chemical weapons to push ahead and break through the stalemate. And by the end of the war, the US capacity for chemical warfare had surpassed all of its allies in the span of just 18 months. Journalist Theo Emery tells us how it happened.

Theo Emery: Well, there were centuries of treaties that governed laws of war in Europe, and gas warfare had actually been a part of those treaties and those negotiations for a very long time. There was actually a treaty in 1675, the Strasbourg Agreement between France and Germany which prohibited the use of poison bullets. More recently than that there was also the Brussels Agreement in 1876, and the Hague Convention’s 1899 and in 1907 that forbid the use of asphyxiating gasses in shells. So there was a pretty clear, when the Germans used chemical weapons, I guess you could say successfully, for the first time in April of 1915 it was definitely seen as a violation of international law, both the letter of the law as well as the spirit of the law. And there was an immediate very strong reaction on the part of newspaper editorials all across the world, a great deal of outcry over this, and yet all of the combatants then went forward with their own chemical weapons programs.

Nathan Connolly: So Theo, give me some sense of what life was like at American University in these testing facilities.

Theo Emery: Sure. I have to say, it was a very grim existence for these men. It was very dangerous, it was a lot of uncertainty about what kinds of substances they were handling, there was a constant danger of injury, and injuries were actually quite common. They were actually required as well to participate in what were called man tests, and sometimes these were tests where they would put on a gas mask and test how well it was working, but some of the tests also included things like rolling up their sleeve and having different new kinds of chemical agents dropped on their skin to see what the impact would be, and there’s many photos in the National Archives of soldiers with their sleeves rolled up with these blisters on their skin where they’ve been tested with chemical agents.

Theo Emery: So it was very dangerous, kind of grim work. And around 1918 the chemical warfare service recognized that unless they made a little bit more of an effort to kind of improve life for these men, then morale was going to suffer. So they started a whole series of different things to try to frankly improve life for these soldiers and chemists, and so they started a newspaper for example, they started banjo clubs, they had a glee club, they had dances, they had a talent show, they had sports teams. They actually had a very successful football team called The Mustard Gassers, not surprisingly, who apparently beat most, if not all of the other army intermural football teams all around Washington DC. So there was this effort to kind of provide a slightly lighter recreation for the men who faced some really difficult work and very dangerous work on a day to day basis.

Nathan Connolly: Discuss Amos Fries. He found himself appointed chief to the Expeditionary Force Gas Service in the United States. What did he do to prepare for gas warfare?

Theo Emery: After expecting to be put in charge of the roads in France, he’s called into his superior officer’s office and said, “How would you like to be chief of the gas service in Europe?” And he thinks about it, and he says, “Well, somebody’s gotta be the goat, and it might as well be me,” and he accepts it and they hand him, the way he described it, was a thin manila folder which contained everything that the American Expeditionary Forces knew about gas warfare at that point. So he built this up essentially from nothing, mainly from learning from and piggybacking off of the efforts of the French, but especially the British and their efforts at establishing a chemical warfare arsenal and capacity.

Nathan Connolly: After the war, Amos Fries becomes a vocal advocate of chemical warfare. I’m curious about the kinds of arguments he made in favor of using those weapons.

Theo Emery: So on the one hand Fries took the view that chemical warfare was more humane than conventional weapons, and that argument came out of data that was collected by the War Department, that showed that while many soldiers were injured by chemical weapons, very few of them died from them. So to Fries and like minded advocates of chemical weapons, this meant that it took soldiers off the battlefield without killing them or maiming them permanently. So therefore it was a more humane weapon because you weren’t, say disfigured or for that matter, dismembered by something like high explosives or a machine gun. On the other hand, he also made an argument, sometimes in the same breath, that chemical weapons were necessary because you needed to make war so horrible, just so awful that no one would ever want to fight them again. So these are sort of the early seeds of strategic deterrence, which became, you know, a huge factor in the 20th century with nuclear weapons. So he took the view that warfare just, the chemical weapons would make war so awful that no one would want to fight it.

Theo Emery: So he would say these things almost in the same breath. You know, they’re more humane, and at the same time they made the battlefield so awful that no one would even want to go to war. Full of contradictions.

Nathan Connolly: So, I’m really curious to know how America’s experience of developing chemical weapons might have served as a precursor for the Manhattan Project, or even for what Eisenhower would later describe as the dangers of the military industrial complex.

Theo Emery: Well, that’s one of the reasons why I think this history is so important, because in a lot of ways it’s not some kind of atavistic fact of the past, in many ways it’s actually still with us today in ways that I think aren’t that obvious and should be understood a little bit better. So one of them is the fact that, the idea of deterrence, that everyone has to have a weapon in order to prevent anyone from using that weapon is an idea that did not begin with nuclear weapons after World War II, it began with chemical weapons in World War I. So this policy of deterrence, which kind of undergirded, it was sort of the spine of the 20th century and the cold war, is something that came directly out of World War I. Which I think a lot of people have forgotten. But also, a little bit more concretely than that, you’re right, many historians consider the very rapid creation of the chemical warfare service as kind of a precursor, a dry run really, for the Manhattan Project in World War II.

Theo Emery: In fact some of the same people were actually involved with both. The young chemist who was in charge of the plant in Willoughby, Ohio making lewisite was James Bryant Conant, who went on to become president of Harvard, and then became a key figure in the Manhattan Project, and that’s true of other very well known physicists and other scientists who also worked on chemical warfare in World War I and participated in, or assisted with the Manhattan Project in World War II. So I think that’s a real legacy as well.

Nathan Connolly: Take us back to the beginning of the story, where the development of chemical weapons in the United States at American University jumps off. And tell me what happened at American University after World War I, and particularly in the area of DC where the campus was located.

Theo Emery: You know, by the end of the war, American University was almost like a toxic boom town with almost 2,000 soldiers and scientists there. Now, by mid-1918 the War Department had invested about a million dollars in American University in buildings, in an infrastructure, and the plan was that the War Department would either purchase American University or seize it by eminent domaine, along with all the land around the campus that they were using as a proving ground and a testing ground, and they would turn it into a permanent seat for chemical warfare research beyond the war.

Theo Emery: Now, that might well have come to pass, except for something that happened on August third of 1918. And on that morning there were some soldiers who were doing an experiment at an outdoor lewisite still on the American University campus and the pipes clogged, and there was an explosion, and a cloud of lewisite was released from this outdoor still. So it created this cloud that sort of floated roughly southwest across the campus and down a gully and enveloped a house that was just outside the barbed wire fence of the American University experiment station. Well it just so happened that a former US senator lived in that house, who’s a man named Nathan Bay Scott, and he was sitting on the porch with his wife and his sister-in-law when this gas cloud began sweeping toward them, and they got inside the house, but not before all three of them had been exposed to the gas. He wasn’t killed, all three of them had sort of minor injuries, but it became a huge scandal that this research station, inside the city limits of Washington could be so dangerous and that it could affect civilians, including one who was as prominent as Nathan Bay Scott.

Theo Emery: So this created a great deal of tension between the Chemical Warfare Service and the Core of Engineers as well as the commission which governed the city of Washington, and eventually the Chemical Warfare Service had to abandon this plan, and they said, “We’re going to close up the experiment station after the war and we’re going to turn it back over to American University, which is what they did.

Theo Emery: But, they left some things behind. They had shells that were leaking, there were items that they deemed too dangerous to move, so they buried them.

Nathan Connolly: Oh my gosh!

Theo Emery: Well over subsequent decades, all of this land was developed into a very posh neighborhood, it was called Spring Valley, and these were very, very large houses, mansions really, and this history of how this area and the campus was used for chemical warfare was essentially all but forgotten until the 1990s, and in 1993 during construction on a very sort of distant part of Spring Valley, and excavation crew dug up a mortar that had been buried since probably 1918, or early 1919, and this backhoe operator heard gas hissing out of this mortar shell, called the fire department or the police, and they called in the Army, and a state of emergency ensued, and a cleanup began which is actually continuing today, 25 years later.

Nathan Connolly: Oh my lord!

Theo Emery: A quarter of a century, Spring Valley is still being cleaned up from this work of 100 years ago.

Nathan Connolly: Theo Emery is a journalist, and the author of the book, Hellfire Boys: The Birth of the US Chemical Warfare Service and the Race for the World’s Deadliest Weapons.