Academic journal article The Historian

"It Would Be Very Well If We Could Avoid It:" General Pershing and Chemical Warfare

Academic journal article The Historian

"It Would Be Very Well If We Could Avoid It:" General Pershing and Chemical Warfare

Article excerpt

Although he commanded the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I, at a time when the battlefield use of poison gas was prevalent, little has been written about John J. Pershing (1860-1948)'s impressions of chemical weapons. Pershing facilitated the development of the US Army chemical warfare program, but supported international agreements designed to prohibit chemical warfare after the war ended. Tracing the evolution of Pershing's opinions on chemical warfare sheds light on the ways in which people in the United States interpreted the morality of chemical weapons in the early twentieth century.

The First World War is a watershed event in the history of chemical warfare. Called the first industrialized war, the belligerents made battlefield use of several new methods of warfare, which included poison gas. When the United States joined the fighting in 1917, it fielded an army that utilized poison gas as its allies and enemies did. Thus the activities of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) became entangled in the legal and ethical debates surrounding the use of chemical weapons in the aftermath of World War I.

John J. Pershing, born on a farm in Missouri in 1860, attended West Point from 1882 until 1886 and was commissioned an officer in the cavalry. Starting in 1898, Pershing served in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and in the Philippines during the insurrection. Fie rose to command the Mexican punitive expedition against Pancho Villa in 1916, and served as commander of the AEF when the United States went to war in Europe from 1917 until 1918. After the war, Pershing was awarded the rank of General of the Armies of the United States and became the US Army Chief of Staff. He also served as chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission and was a US advisor at the Washington Conference on the Limitation of Armaments (1921-1922).

Pershing commanded the US Army at a time when chemical warfare was new to the United States. The use of chemical weapons evolved into one of the most controversial aspects of World War I as negative stereotypes about chemical weapons persisted over the course of the fighting. In his book on the origins of these stereotypes, Richard M. Price argued that one "very plausible explanation for the origins of the ostracism of chemical weapons is their close kinship to poison, a method of warfare thought to have been condemned throughout the ages as treacherous and cowardly." (1) After the first successful poison gas attack by the Germans at Ypres in 1915, British commander Sir John French (1852-1925) said that he regretted "the fighting has been characterized on the enemy's side, by cynical and barbarous disregard of the well-known usages of civilized war." (2) Barbarous and uncivilized were characterizations that would be repeated throughout the First World War with regard to chemical weapons.

Those who worked most closely with chemical weapons tended to believe that anti-gas sentiment was misguided and that, over time, the use of poison gas would become acceptable, just as the use of bayonets, bullets, and bombs had. One of the leaders of the US Army chemical warfare effort under Pershing during World War I, Amos A. Fries (1873-1963), wrote in 1919 that "there is a popular notion that gas warfare is the most horrible method of warfare ever invented, and that it will be abolished because it is so horrible. And yet it is not horrible." (3) Fries' subordinate Earl J. Atkisson (1886-1941) predicted that negative public opinion would prove fleeting, because mustard gas did not compare unfavorably with other aspects of war. "War is abhorrent to the individual," Atkisson wrote in 1925, "yet he accepts blowing men to pieces with high explosive, mowing men down with machine guns, and even sinking a battleship in mid-ocean with its thousand or fifteen hundred men being carried to certain death.... However, to burn the skin of a man outrages all his civilized instincts. …

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