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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Where did Captain Lewis begin his search for the ultimate weapon? In facilities donated to the war effort by Catholic University of America (CUA) and American University. His search ended when a librarian remembered that the first Ph.D. thesis ever approved at CUA included an experiment that put the candidate in the hospital for a week.

Lewis expanded Nieuwland's work and developed the organic arsenic compound that would later bear his name. In testing, this evil concoction killed dogs, donkeys, and goats by the score and had much to recommend it as chemical weapon, but it also had drawbacks; chief among them was a tendency to break down in water. (As a reader, I wanted to know why this weapon was selected for development and mass production when it had no combat trials. The author wanted to know this also, but the 90-year-old records were sealed shortly after the attack on America on September 11, 2001. Without a change in policy concerning these records, we may never know.)

Could the leaders of the American Chemical Warfare Service really have thought that the Germans had not developed and tested the same compound? Their commitment to secrecy suggests they did believe that the United States was alone in developing lewisite. In fact, however, the German chemical weapons program had synthesized and tested lewisite (along with other organic arsenic compounds) before rejecting it.

In this instance the assumption of U.S. weapons-makers was extremely parochial. During the period in which lewisite was developed, Germany dominated chemistry, especially organic chemistry. (An organic chemical is a compound that contains at least one atom of carbon. Lewisite includes two carbon atoms in its most deadly variant, more carbon in its weaker forms.)

How extensively did Germany dominate organic chemistry? On November 2, 1916, while America remained neutral and World War I raged in Europe, the submarine Deutschland, having crept through the British blockade of American ports, landed at New London, Connecticut. Onboard this unlikely cargo vessel was a shipment of indigo dye and of Salvarsan, the first drug to successfully treat syphilis. America's chemical industry was weak enough and the German need for currency was strong enough that a U-boat carried less ammunition in order to deliver dye to American mills. The following year, America was at war with its dye and drug supplier, and U-boats no longer docked in Connecticut.

Unaware of the German testing and rejection of this purported superweapon, the United States began to produce lewisite on a large scale. The result: hundreds of casualties among soldiers who never left America, poisoned ground in Ohio and Washington, D.C., tons of arsenic-based poison dumped at sea and buried on American soil, and not one enemy casualty.

The story of lewisite shows that even an unused weapon can be lethal. At the end of World War I, the U.S. Army was making lewisite at the rate of at least several tons per day in Willoughby, Ohio. Since the government records are sealed, Vilensky could not determine the exact amount stockpiled by the end of the war, but it is likely that many tons of lewisite and lewisite-contaminated equipment were buried in and around Willoughby as well as near Catholic University and American University, where Lewis and his team did much of their testing and development work.

Although informed opinion concluded that lewisite was impractical for battlefield use, leading American newspapers and magazines reported on lewisite after the war with claims that have their genesis in a Department of the Interior exposition held in Washington. One of the displays included a vial of the "deadliest poison ever known, 'Lewisite.' " On May 25, 1919, the New York Times said ten airplanes carrying lewisite "would have wiped out . . . every vestige of life—animal and vegetable—in Berlin." The article went on to claim "a single day's output [of the Willoughby plant] would snuff out millions of lives on Manhattan Island." Also reporting on the exposition on the same day, the Washington Post said, "one day's output of the lewisite plant was sufficient to kill all four million inhabitants of Manhattan." Less than three weeks later an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer said lewisite was "72 times as toxic as mustard gas." Mustard gas was in fact used during the war with devastating effect by armies on both sides of the conflict. Vilensky quotes these and many other contemporary sources—in which the sense of horror is trumped by a boasting tone—to paint a picture of an age almost beyond the imaginative reach of most people living today, an age in which the label "scientific" was good and the godlike men of science would lead us to a better future.

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