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Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have been used throughout history. While there are definitional ambiguities, all conceptions of WMD imply societally unacceptable levels or forms of destruction. Despite international efforts to curb their spread, concerns over WMD use have increased since the 1990s.
Definitions and Historic Uses Of The Term
The term weapons of mass destruction was first used in a London Times article (December 28, 1937) in reference to the German aerial bombardment of Guernica, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939): “Who can think without horror of what another widespread war would mean, waged as it would be with all the new weapons of mass destruction?” (p. 9). While the Luftwaffe (the German air force) used only “conventional” weapons in the attack, subsequent definitions have emphasized weapons whose materials and effects violate a societal boundary of what is considered “acceptable” in wartime.
The United Nations Security Council Commission for Conventional Armaments (August 12, 1948) defined WMD as “atomic explosive weapons, radioactive material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future which have characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb or other weapons mentioned above.” Since the Iraq War beginning in 2003, the United States has used the term to refer to chemical, biological, nuclear, and, increasingly, radiological (CBNR) weapons. This remains the most common use of the term, although sometimes it is defined more broadly to include any weapons, including conventional weapons, capable of inflicting mass casualties.
Weapons Of Mass Destruction And Warfare
Chemical weapons include such agents as mustard, sarin, and VX nerve gases, as well as chlorine, hydrogen cyanide, and carbon monoxide. Most chemical weapons are designed to attack the nervous system. They were first used in modern times during World War I (1914-1918) when the French used tear gas during the first month of the war, and during the Second Battle of Ypres (1915) when Germany used chlorine gas in its attack against French and Algerian troops. By the end of the war, more than one million casualties and ninety thousand deaths were attributed to chemical warfare use by all sides. During World War II (1939-1945) the Nazis used hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide in the extermination camps, killing millions. More recent chemical attacks include the U.S. use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War (1957-1975); Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s use both of sarin gas against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and of multiple chemical agents against the Iraqi town of Halabja in 1988, killing up to five thousand Kurds; and Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin gas attacks in Matsumoto (1994) and on the Tokyo subway (1995) in Japan.
Biological weapons are weapons of germ warfare; they include a large number of living agents such as anthrax, botulinum toxin, plague, ricin, smallpox, and typhus. A subclass of biological weapons that could be directed specifically at agriculture includes mad cow disease and swine fever. Although used throughout history, biological weapons have seen limited use in attacks in modern times due to difficulties in creating effective dispersal mechanisms. Exceptions include Japan’s use of biological agents during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and World War II, including a 1943 attack on Changde, China, that involved an attempt to spread bubonic plague. In 1984 members of the Rajneeshee cult infected a salad bar with salmonella in The Dalles, Oregon, sickening nine hundred, and anthrax was disseminated through the U.S. postal system in 2001, killing five.
Nuclear weapons produce their destructive effects through nuclear fission from chain reactions involving uranium or plutonium or from nuclear fusion (the so-called hydrogen bomb). Considered the most destructive of all WMD, nuclear weapons have been used on two occasions, both at the end of World War II. The bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, killed some 80,000 civilians immediately and another 60,000 from radiation by the end of the year. The attack on Nagasaki three days later ultimately killed 100,000.
Radiological weapons, unlike nuclear weapons, have no blast effect. They derive their destructive power from radiation alone and typically depend on an explosive device to disperse the radiation, although radioactive material could also be sprayed from crop duster planes. Radiological weapons have never been used, but Iraq is believed to have tested them in 1987 for possible use against Iran. The plan was abandoned after it was found that the radioactivity dissipated within a week of the weapon’s manufacture.
Due largely to their ability to indiscriminately kill and inflict harm on civilian populations even when the intended target is military, WMD, unlike conventional weapons, have traditionally encountered societal opprobrium. This has led to a number of international agreements to limit their development and use.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1970) seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology beyond the states already known to possess them. A total of 187 parties have joined the treaty. At least nine countries are known or suspected to possess nuclear weapons as of 2006 (the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea). The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty seeks to deter development of nuclear weapons by banning all nuclear explosions. The treaty was opened for signature in 1996. As of 2006, the treaty had 176 members but would not come into force until all forty-four nations conducting nuclear research or possessing nuclear power reactors signed and ratified the treaty; eleven ratifications were still necessary in 2006.
The 1925 Geneva Protocol bans the use of biological weapons, and the 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention bans their “development, production, stockpiling, acquisition, or retention” except for “prophylactic, protective or other peaceful” purposes. The convention has been signed by 162 countries. The United States, Russia, North Korea, and Syria are known or believed to possess biological weapons.
The Chemical Weapons Convention (1997) prohibits the “development, production, acquisition, stock piling, transfer, and use” of chemical weapons and requires all signatories to destroy their chemical weapons and chemical-weapons production facilities. The convention was signed by 140 nations; some seventeen nations are known or believed to maintain chemical weapons stockpiles.
Despite efforts to curb WMD proliferation, real concerns remain. One major concern involves their acquisition by rogue states or terrorist organizations. As of 2006, North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs were deemed threatening, and the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda was believed to be seeking some level of WMD capability.
- Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. 1996. http://www.ctbto.org.
- Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction. 1975. http://disarmament2.un.org/wmd/bwc/.
- Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling, and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction. 1997. http://disarmament.un.org/wmd/cwc/.
- Macfarlane, Allison. 2005. All Weapons of Mass Destruction Are Not Equal. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for International Studies. http://web.mit.edu/cis/pdf/Audit_6_05_Macfarlane.pdf. Times. 1937. Archbishop’s Appeal. December 28: 9.
- Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. 1970. http://disarmament2.un.org/wmd/npt/.
- United Nations Security Council Commission for Conventional Armaments. August 12, 1948.
- Weapons of War: Poison Gas. 2002. FirstWorldWar.com. http://www.firstworldwar.com/weaponry/gas.htm.
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