The Allies' Chemical Close Call during World War II

Article excerpt

Let me respond to Charles J. Conrad's argument against the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention in his April 28 letter ("Chemical-weapons treaty leaves the United States vulnerable to attack"). Mr. Conrad revives an old and popular story that President Franklin D. Roosevelt denied a request from Adm. Chester Nimitz for the use of chemical agents in the invasion of Iwo Jima, thereby causing the 25,000 Marine casualties suffered in the capture of the island.

A number of years ago, while researching an article on the subject, I came to the conclusion that the story had no foundation in fact. Neither Roosevelt's archives at Hyde Park, N.Y., nor the records of the Joint Chiefs of Staff contained the cited correspondence. Let me try to set the record straight.

First, Adm. Nimitz could not have made any such request directly to the president. He would have had to communicate to the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Navy and chief of naval operations, Adm. Ernest King, who would have keelhauled any subordinate officer who was presumptuous enough to communicate directly to the president. King would have brought the matter to the attention of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Only if the chiefs agreed would the issue have been brought before the president. But chemical-warfare policy had been set by the Combined Chiefs of Staff. So Roosevelt would have had to secure Winston Churchill's agreement before allowing any use of gas at Iwo Jima. Adm. Nimitz, like all other theater commanders, had been informed regarding chemical-warfare policy.

Second, the Chemical Warfare Service did argue that the Japanese gas masks were inferior. But the War Department did not agree. In its 1944 handbook, it noted that those masks gave adequate protection against all existing gases. …