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Transparency On Chemical Weapons

February 6, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 6

We appreciate recent C&EN articles on continued attempts to rid the world of lethal chemical weapons that were discovered, and first made in quantity, by German organic chemists in the 1930s. Considering the fog of war, it isn’t surprising that the U.S. captured ~2 tons of tabun, and probably a lot more, in Bavaria in mid-1945 and brought this to the U.S. for storage. But that we waited until 2011 to destroy the millions of lethal human doses of tabun makes little sense (C&EN, Nov. 21, 2011, page 24). The disposal technology has existed for years.

In addition to chemical weapons treaties with the rest of the world to destroy chemical weapons as promptly as possible (C&EN, Nov. 28, 2011, page 29), citizens have a right to know how much input they had when these stockpiles were accumulated in the first place. It’s well-known that Otto Ambros (SARIN—Schrader, Ambros, Rüdiger, Van der Linde), jailed by Nuremberg trial No. 6 (IG Farben trial) for crimes against humanity, came to the U.S. at the military’s instigation to assist in the manufacture of tabun and sarin. What isn’t known is what, if any, citizen input was solicited regarding decisions to stockpile such weapons.

We know that the fluorophosphinates were manufactured in Alabama, among other places, and that Ambros consulted for/with J. Peter Grace. But which chemical executives were responsible, and at what level were decisions about chemical weapons made?

What is also unknown is the fate of tons of lewisite manufactured by the Army Chemical Corps under James Bryant Conant’s direction at the Ben Hur Site in Willoughby, Ohio, in 1918.

Rumor has it that lewisite was aboard a ship heading for France when World War I ended and that the ship was scuttled as a result of the armistice. To our knowledge, that has not been confirmed. Where did this go?

Those of us who have studied the Nuremberg trials realize that the U.S. Army made individuals culpable for decisions taken under the Nazi regime. For us to better understand how governments interact with scientists in the future, it would be well if those who made these decisions in the U.S. in the past were more exposed, so their backgrounds and motivations might be better understood.

Presidential decisions have ethical consequences, and although historians have analyzed President Harry S. Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons in 1945 ad nauseam, we have done nothing of the kind with regard to chemical weapons. We think it is time this is done.

By Douglas C. Neckers
Bowling Green, Ohio

Gordon W. Gribble
Hanover, N.H.



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