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Dew of Death: The Story of Lewisite, America's World War I Weapon of Mass Destruction
Dew of Death: The Story of Lewisite, America's World War I Weapon of Mass Destruction
Joel A. Vilensky
Indiana University Press, 2005
240 pp., $24.95

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Neil Gussman


Weapon of Self-Destruction

An American weapon that has never killed an enemy but still claims innocent victims.

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But the story doesn't end there. Vilensky goes on to tell how this untried weapon spread across the globe. In the years between the world wars, most military leaders were averse to using chemical weapons but needed to have these weapons in case the other side used them. So most of the major combatants in World War II built up stockpiles of chemical weapons that were never used. As in World War I, the only lewisite casualties in World War II were plant workers who made the poison and soldiers who "volunteered" to test the weapons. The greatest production—and the highest death toll—by far was in the Soviet Union, with stockpiles the precise extent of which, Vilensky says, cannot be accurately determined but were surely in the tens of thousands of tons.

These Soviet stockpiles have been buried, dumped at sea, or are still waiting to be neutralized and disposed of. And the tale of horror continues. Japan, China, Canada, and other countries as well as the United States and Russia are still dealing with lewisite-blighted ground and poisoned citizens nearly 90 years after it was hailed as the most deadly weapon in the American arsenal.

This brief and thoroughly chilling book shows how men of good intentions under the pressure of war can make errors in judgment that haunt the world long after they are gone. Vilensky connects America's two largest WMD programs to one man: James Bryant Conant. In the summer of 1918, Captain Conant moved lewisite from development to mass production facilities, hoping that lewisite could at last bring an end to the terrible conflict. When the war ended sooner than expected, Conant returned to civilian life and went on to become president of Harvard University. Then during World War II, he became administrative head of the Manhattan Project. In that role, Conant used many of the procedures that he developed as production chief for lewisite to aid in development and production of the first atomic bomb. And this time, Conant oversaw the production of a weapon that was infamously effective.

Vilensky opens a window into the world of science at war, how discoveries become weapons, and how weapons can harm those who wield them. His modest original intent was to explain the origins of a compound called British Anti Lewisite (BAL) that was developed as an antidote to lewisite. BAL has been used to treat nervous disorders for half a century and has been much more useful in this role than as an antidote to a poison gas never used against British troops. His persistence and curiosity led to a book that will have an important place in the literature on this ghastly form of warfare.

Before launching into the text of the book, the reader will see that politics and WMDs are never far apart. Richard Butler, former head of the United Nations Special Commission to Disarm Iraq, writes in the foreword that chemical weapons were not used in the latter half of the 20th century with "two notable exceptions." They are Iraq in its war with Iran and the United States in Vietnam. Butler says that the United States used defoliants with the intent to harm enemy soldiers and has been lying about that use ever since. From its foreword by a controversial weapons inspector to its very thorough bibliography, Vilensky's book is interesting, provocative, and frightening.

Neil Gussman writes about the history of chemistry for The Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.

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