HELLFIRE BOYS: THE BIRTH OF THE U.S. CHEMICAL WARFARE SERVICE AND THE RACE FOR THE WORLD’S DEADLIEST WEAPONS by Theo Emery

Title: Hellfire Boys: The Birth of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service and the Race for the World's Deadliest Weapons, Author: Theo Emery

At a time when we hear about weapons of mass destruction and a possible nuclear attack from North Korea it is interesting to contemplate the origins of such weaponry.  During World War I unbeknownst to most people living in the Spring Valley neighborhood of Washington, DC the United States Army in cooperation with American University set up a chemical proving ground on campus.  The area was known as “Death Valley” or “Arsenic Hill,” while soldiers referred to it as “Mustard Hill.”  The area was long forgotten until January, 1993 when a cache of chemical weapons was found on a construction site nearby.  Throughout the First World War this area was called the American University Experimental Station, augmented by the discoveries of January, 1993 and the overseas news dealing with the chemical attacks in Syria by the forces of Bashir Assad, and the fears raised by ISIS, government officials were prodded into action.  A new book by Theo Emery entitled, HELLFIRE BOYS: THE BIRTH OF THE U.S. CHEMICAL WARFARE SERVICE AND THE RACE FOR THE WORLD’S DEADLIEST WEAPONS investigates the American role in developing chemical warfare and its profound repercussions.

Emery begins by describing what is believed to be the first chemical attack during World War I.  It occurred on April 22, 1915 when the Germans launched their chemical canisters against British and French forces at the Battle of Ypres.  The author offers a vivid description of the attack and its effect on those caught in its gaseous haze.  The attack’s importance centers on the fact that it spawned a “chemical” arms race in a war that already had produced an unmeasurable amount of casualties and devastation, it soon became the “Chemist’s War.”  As Emery describes the development of chemical warfare he does the reader a great service by integrating his storyline into the larger picture of the war.

Image result for photos of gas attacks during WWI

America’s involvement in this arms race starts with the role of the US Bureau of Mines.  Headed by Vannoy Hartog Manning its charge was safety of miners, but also researching poisonous gases seeping from rock formations. From that beginning the United States engaged in an often rocky road to research, develop, and have ready for wartime use a number of toxic gases for the battlefield.  It began with a need for the production of millions of gas masks for troops and civilians.  For this factories, laboratories, along with enlisting the assistance of doctors to study the effects of the gas were put in place.  What emerges is a somewhat shaky partnership between the government, particularly the military, and the private sector, that eventually come to be called the “military-industrial complex” by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  The productive process to meet the German “gas” challenge would involve many different geographic locales across the United States with its headquarters at American University in Washington, D.C.

Image result for photo of Walter scheele German spy

(German spies during WWI)

Many important individuals are introduced by Emery accompanied by short biographical sketches.  Men like Vannoy Hartog Manning who headed the Bureau of Mines; George Burrell, in charge of laboratory research at the American University site; George A. Hulett, a Princeton Professor who sent Manning to study the battlefield situation and the role of gas as a weapon; Major-General William Luther Sibert, who would eventually be put in charge of the army’s gas program; Lt. Colonel Amos A. Fries, an engineer that became the head of “gas services,” and made the important discovery that the United States knew little about gas warfare as it entered the war.  In addition to these men General John J. Pershing plays a significant role as the American commander in Europe as does James B. Connant, in charge of developing the lethal American “mustard gas” program designed to combat what the Germans were bringing to the battlefield.  A number of interesting characters also emerge that include the German spy, Walter Scheele, who to avoid imprisonment worked with the Americans by offering his knowledge of German gas research; Winford Lee Lewis, a Northwestern chemistry professor studies how metal shells corrode from toxic chemicals that led to the creation of lewisite, America’s most toxic weapon; and Richmond M. Levering, an oilman from Indiana who had many dubious business dealings with the government, but was placed in charge of the captured German spy network in the United States.

Image result for photo of james b conant

(James B. Conant, supervised the development of mustard gas)

Emery also devotes a great deal of coverage to the role of regular American troops.  Emery takes us to the trenches of Europe and the research facilities that were created.  In so doing the reader is exposed to an intricate description of what it was like to be caught in a chemical war. One of the most interesting characters is Harold J. Higgenbottom, an early recruit to the First Gas Regiment and through his eyes we see the battlefield in addition to the effects of gas warfare in the field.  Higgenbottom’s buddy, Thomas Jabine is also discussed as he too was one of the first to join the Gas Regiment, and as a chemist he was sent to Europe, but he was gassed near Charpentry in October, 1918 and spent the remainder of the war recovering.

What is important to realize is how unprepared the United States was to engage in a chemical war in Europe.  As “gases” became to be seen as offensive weapons and a major part of the military arsenal, Washington had to catch up, quickly.  In a rather haphazard way, Emery is very effective in analyzing the American approach to chemical warfare.  He offers an effective summation of the allied use of phosgene and chloropicrin gases that were used at the Battle of Arras by the British as the United States declared war on Germany in April, 1917.  Emery offers a vivid description of “Camp” American University from its building expansion, recruitment of chemists, organization, and constant growth.  Further, Emery explains how the government grew frustrated with the private sector and developed its own production facilities, i.e., production of gas masks and later mustard gas.  To the authors credit he explains each chemical and how it was developed, and applied in such a way that a chemistry novice like myself could understand.

One of the most vivid chapters in the book is entitled “Science and Horror,” where Emery describes the first encounters of US troops with German chemical attacks.  Again, through the eyes of Harold Higgenbottom we learn that part of the problem was the poor training and equipment that did little to offset German attacks.  American soldiers suffered ghastly attacks and in many cases they were left to suffer horrible deaths as they lay in the trenches.

Image result for photos of gas attacks during WWI

(WWI gas attack)

There was a great deal of bureaucratic infighting throughout the war between the Corps of Engineers, the US Army, and the Bureau of Mines.  Fries argued for a separate gas service as did General Pershing.  Numerous examples are offered as production was deemed to be unacceptable.  Finally on June 25, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson settled the matter by issuing an executive order placing the Research Division and the American University Experimental Station under the War Department.  All in all, some 2000 chemists were at work across the United States.  To justify this radical change in military strategy the US Army launched a massive publicity campaign to educate Americans on the importance of interjecting chemicals into warfare.  The Germans may have had a head start in chemical warfare but by June, 28, 1918 when President Wilson signed General Order 62 creating the Army Chemical Warfare Service on par with the Corps of Engineers the US stockpile had caught up, and would soon surpass the Germans.  It is interesting to note that by the summer of 1918 American commanders were recommending that 50% of all shells employed in combat have a chemical component.

The final section of the book is devoted to the immediate post-war period that focused on what government policy would be toward the use of chemical weapons, and educating the public that was kept in the dark during the war.  First, was the issue of disposal that led to sinking a great deal of the US stockpile in the Atlantic Ocean.    Environmental concerns really were not even imagined.  Along those lines many corporations vied for parts of the stockpile for their own industries and bidding and the transfer of chemicals to the private sector did take place.  Second, was the the debate led by Secretary of War Newton Baker who opposed the continuation of the Chemical Warfare Service.  The opposition was led by Lt. Colonel Fries who felt it was imperative to maintain stockpiles and continue production as a matter of national security.  Interestingly in 1925 the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous, or Other Gases, and Bacteriological Methods of Warfare was agreed to under the auspices of the League of Nations.  Even General Pershing favored it, but he was unable to convince the US Senate to ratify the treaty.  It took until January, 1975 for President Ford to sign the treaty that the Senate finally ratified almost fifty years later.

Image result for photos of gas attacks during WWI

Emery’s monograph is an important contribution to the field of WWI weaponry as it explains how and why the US integrated chemicals into its arsenal.  This change led the US and many other countries on the road to incorporating new chemical discoveries and their application to war.  All one has to do is listen to the news almost on a daily basis to understand how relevant Emery’s research is to today’s world, particularly when the work of chemists and other scientists that began in 1915 set the US and the world on a path that today is laden with chemical weapons.

Title: Hellfire Boys: The Birth of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service and the Race for the World's Deadliest Weapons, Author: Theo Emery

Advertisements

THE LAST DAYS OF NIGHT by Graham Moore

Image result for photo of thomas edison's inventions

(Edison’s light bulb)

Recently, an old friend recommended the book EMPIRES OF LIGHT: EDISON, TESLA, WESTINGHOUSE, AND THE RACE FOR ELECTRICITY by Jill JonnesWhen I looked it up I came across a wonderful historical novel that seemed to encompass the same material, THE LAST DAYS OF NIGHT by Graham Moore which took a somewhat different approach to the subject matter.  Today we live in a time when technological change is constantly fostering a transformation in our daily behavior and outlook. This change is unparalleled in our history and each day it seems as if another life altering innovation has taken pace.  Many of today’s discoveries have had, in some way, their origin in the late 19th century, described by Mark Twain as the “Gilded Age.”  It is that time period that is the stage for Graham Moore’s latest novel.   The book, which in part reads as a work of non-fiction opens as a poor Western Union man is electrocuted as he works to repair wiring located in front of a building on Broadway in Manhattan on May 11, 1888.  One of the witnesses to this unfortunate death is Paul Cravat, a lawyer, and a central character in Moore’s plot.  Later that day, Mr. Cravath was summoned to the offices of Thomas Edison, a man who for the previous six months was involved in litigation with Cravath’s only client.

Image result for images of george westinghouse inventions

(George Westinghouse)

It seems that Mr. Cravath represented George Westinghouse, a rich engineer and manufacturing dynamo whose production facilities and laboratories were centered in Pittsburgh.  Westinghouse and Edison were involved in patent infringement lawsuits against each other, and Cravath a recent graduate of Columbia Law School and a new partner in the firm Carter, Hughes, and Cravath was dealing with a $1 billion suit Edison entered into against Westinghouse.  The issue came down to who had developed the better light bulb.  Westinghouse argued that he had not stolen anything from Edison’s product and had created a better bulb based on his own research.  The problem for Edison was that his bulb was only effective for short distance since it was powered by a direct current or DC, while Westinghouse was working with another scientist to power his bulb by alternating power or AC which produced light over greater distances.  If Edison was successful in his numerous lawsuits, numbering at least 312, he would then hold a “monopoly on light, as he would be seen as the inventor of the incandescent bulb, which no one else could manufacture.

The story produces a number of historical characters that Moore develops.  Of course we meet the power hungry (no pun intended) Thomas Edison whose financial and political influence dwarfs that of George Westinghouse.  Other important personages include Nikola Tesla, an eccentric Serbian immigrant whose scientific discoveries include furthering the distance that an AC electrical system can deliver.  Tesla’s lawyer, Lemuel Serrell who plays an important role as does Agnes Huntington, a Metropolitan Opera performer that Cravath finds alluring, J.P. Morgan, the richest man in America, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, Cravath’s father Erastus who was not impressed with his son’s work and held to a strict moral code, Charles Batchelor, Edison’s right hand man, and New York City Police Commissioner, Fitz Porter.  By exploring these diverse historical characters Moore takes the reader inside New York society, cut throat industrial competition, and the corruption associated with the politics of the period.

Image result for photo of Niklas Tesla
(Niklas Tesla)

The monologues that Moore presents are very informative as he explains the scientific breakthroughs that Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla produced.  As he does so the author seems to meditate on the values of the “Gilded Age.”  The role of power, money, and domination are all evaluated as well as a somewhat higher moral stance that does not bow to the pressure of achieving success.  To his credit, the author provides a detailed note at the end of the book that explains what is factual in the novel – most of the story – and what is a product of the author’s imagination.

Image result for image of j p morgan

(J.P. Morgan)

In part, the novel reads like a mystery as a number of actions that emerge border on the criminal.  It seems as if certain characters will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.  The legalities of patent law are explained in full and the core of the novel rests on the idea that “Westinghouse created objects. Tesla created ideas, while Edison, was busy creating an empire.”  The result is that each approached “science, industry, and business” in incompatible ways. (105)  The book can also be seen as a morality parable, particularly when one reaches its conclusion.  A story that is the epitome of corporate intrigue, can also be seen as a battle against right and wrong.

Moore writes in a very engaging manner and blends facts with fiction in creating an excellent historical novel that students of the period and the general reader will find fascinating.

Image result for photo of thomas edison's inventions

(Edison and his light bulb)

LENIN: THE MAN, THE DICTATOR, AND THE MASTER OF TERROR by Victor Sebestyen

Image result for photo of lenin

(Vladimir I. Lenin)

For many years historians have laid the blame for the oppressive and authoritarian regime that took root in Russia following its revolution on Joseph Stalin.  Names like NKVD, GPU or banishment to Siberia, political purges were all associated with the Russian dictator.  However, the credit for the darkness that pervaded the former Soviet Union first must rest at the feet of Vladimir I. Lenin.  In 1973 Alexsandr S. Solzhenitsyn published the first volume of his GULAG ARCHIPELAGO, and the famous Russian dissident argued that the origin of Soviet terror and the police state belong to Lenin.  This argument has been accepted by historians and in the latest biography of Lenin since Robert Service’s excellent monograph, Victor Sebestyen’s LENIN: THE MAN, THE DICTATOR, AND THE MASTER OF TERROR has taken that argument to a new level.   According to Sebestyen, in his quest for power, Lenin “promised people anything and everything.  He offered simple solutions to complex problems.  He lied unashamedly.  He identified a scapegoat he could label ‘enemies of the people.’  He justified himself on the basis that winning meant everything…..Lenin was the godfather of what commentators a century after his time call post truth politics.”  Anyone who has paid attention to our current political climate can easily recognize practitioners of this authoritarian approach.

Image result for photo of lenin

(Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky)

Lenin’s greatest crime aside from creating the precursor of the NKVD, the Cheka or the Soviet secret police, is leaving a man like Stalin to assume the leadership of the Soviet Union upon his passing in 1924.  Lenin built a system that rested on the concept that political terror against any opposition was justified for the greater good.  It was perfected by Stalin, but the ideas were Lenin’s.  Sebestyen’s approach to his subject is a very personal one and he explores a number of issues in greater depth than previous books.  He delves deep into the relationship between Nadezhda K. Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife who was vital to her husband and the revolution.  She was in charge of regulating his explosive temper and at times erratic behavior.  Her role was to maintain his health and be a sounding board for his ideas and writing.  Next, the author explores Lenin’s relationship with his long time mistress, Inessa Armand.  For ten years before Lenin died they had an on-off love affair.  She was central to his emotional life, one of his closest aides, and was one of the best-known female socialists of her era.  The three, Lenin, Nadya, and Inessa formed a ménage etois that was accepted by the women involved who had their own strong relationship.

Further, what separates Sebestyen’s approach from others is how he constantly reaffirms that the tactics and system developed by Lenin dominated Soviet rule until 1989, and has reasserted itself in the last decade.  Lenin’s leadership traits seemed to have been handed down in succession from Stalin, in particular to Vladimir Putin.  Lenin set up the Cheka and over the decades be it the GPU, NKVD, KGB or currently the FSB its purpose did not change; “protect the Party and its leadership from any perceived threat of subversion and to dispense revolutionary justice.”

Image result for photos of tsar nicholas ii and family

(The Romanov royal family)

Not long ago Steve Bannon stated that “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too.”  The concept of deconstructing government that forms the core of Bannon’s political agenda rings very closely to that of Lenin.  The parallels are clear and in Lenin’s case, underneath the superficial sophistication and personal charm he periodically put on display, he was capable of acts of appalling evil.  Whether his approval of the use of firing squads to eliminate the opposition soon after coming to power the winter of 1917-1918, or his attitude toward the death of Russian soldiers against the Germans, his refusal to distribute land to peasants as promised and the creation of the Kulak class of land owners who he destroyed, the mass starvation that took place, and Lenin’s response to this terror, were all sacrifices that were acceptable in order to achieve the larger goals of gaining and maintaining power.

Image result for photo of nadya krupskaya

(Nadya Krupskaya)

Sebestyen effectively reviews the spreading of revolutionary fervor in Russia among the bourgeoisie dating back to the Decembrist uprisings of 1825, the assassination of Alexander II, and the arrival of Marxism.  The Marxist ideology did not really apply to Russia because of its peasant economy and majority.  Lenin, brilliantly argued that Russia did not need to have an Industrial Revolution based on the working class as Marx argued, but could redefine Russian needs and developed through many books and pamphlets the justification of a revolution based on the peasantry.  It is interesting to note that Lenin had no great respect for the working classes who he proposed to make the revolution before turning to the peasants.

Early on Lenin was radicalized by the Tsarist police’s murder of his brother Alexander (Sasha).  From that point on he would work to overthrow the Tsarist monarchy.  Though he was brought up in a bourgeois family and periodically lived on estates Lenin had nothing but disdain for the Romanov dynasty.  Sebestyen’s analysis of Lenin’s personality, the courtship of Nadya, life in exile, be it Siberia, London, Paris, Geneva, the creation of the Bolshevik party, the role of Germany, the revolution itself and the years following may be well known, but the author’s insights, sources, and analysis separate his monograph from others.

Image result for photo of inessa armand

(Inessa Armand)

Sebestyen’s examination of the role of newspapers in the revolution is important as he explains how the creation of Pravda and other outlets allowed Lenin to write editorials, and articles, and through a wide circulation was able to disseminate his ideas.  Lenin had the ability to correct others and have them adopt his views as if they were his own, and the ability to inspire optimism and these traits enabled him to disarm the opposition and rally support among the masses.  The use of newspapers, apart from Tsarist incompetence was major factor in creating the conditions for revolution.

The author pays a great deal of attention to fighting within the parties and the development of a between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.  The arguments between the factions were intense and brutal as Lenin did not suffer fools gladly when people disagreed with him.  Sebestyen also does a good job describing Nicholas II’s personality and reign.  The Tsar was a weak individual who was not cut out to sit on the Romanov throne.  “It is no exaggeration to say that every major decision Nicholas II took was wrong – from the choice of a wife, Alexandra, who compounded his own misjudgments, to his disastrous decisions on war and peace.”  It is fair to say that the Tsar did the most service in the cause of revolution!

Lenin believed from 1900 on that a war between the capitalist countries was inevitable.  When it finally came Russia was totally unprepared for a war of attrition.  Within two months 1.2 million men were killed, wounded, or missing.  This is a small sample of the disaster that would follow and led to the February abdication of the Tsar in favor of the Kerensky government and the final elevation of Lenin to power in October, 1917.  Sebestyen drills down deeply in presenting Lenin’s strategy and ability to overcome many obstacles as the revolution approached.  Once it did his willingness to work with the Germans to travel to Russia is brilliant as is his ability to overcome the opposition of Party members.  The chapters entitled; “The Sealed Train,” and “To Finland Station” are emblematic of Sebestyen’s assiduous research and master of historical detail as he describes the negotiations, reactions to the agreement with the Kaiser’s government, and its reception in Russia.  Sebestyen’s ability to integrate analysis into the flow of the narrative is an important aspect of his writing.  Another important component of Sebestyen’s style is the use of notes at the bottom of each page which are also a fountain of historical information and analysis.

Image result for photos russian revolution 1917

(Workers demonstrating during Russian Revolution)

It is clear that once the revolution took place Lenin laid the groundwork to rule by terror.  He was under no allusions when it came to the exercising of power to remain in control of the state.  Lenin’s arguments and promises to the masses and his political opposition immediately went by the wayside as he closed down press outlets, purged those who disagreed, set up the Cheka, and justified his actions to prevent counter-revolution.  At the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921, Lenin argued that “We do not promise any freedom, or any democracy,” he did not disappoint and neither did his successor, Joseph Stalin.

The major figures of this period of Russian history are all presented, examined, and placed in their historical context.  Whether Sebestyen is writing about Leon Trotsky, Georgy Plekhanov, Yuli Martov, Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, Yakov Sverdlov, Maxim Gorky, Nicholas II, Alexander Helphand (Parvus), a number of foreign diplomats and journalists, Joseph Stalin, and of course his wife and mistress we have a balanced account that lends to a greater understanding of the material presented.  Lenin is the key figure as he created the basis for a one man tyranny.  The terror that evolved was systematic and was not Stalin’s creation.

Related image

A key to authoritarian rule was the creation of a “cult of personality.”  Stalin was an expert, Mao took it to even greater heights, but Lenin was the first.  After an assassination attempt where he was wounded three times, a “cult of Lenin” would emerge as he had survived.  This cult was used to rally support and further the Leninist agenda.

“The scholar Robert Service writes that “the forced labor camps, the one-party state…the prohibition of free and popular elections, the ban on internal party dissent; not one of them was to be invented by Stalin…Not for nothing did Stalin call himself Lenin’s disciple.”  But why blame Lenin and Stalin, the foundation and structure of the Russian police state had been established by Nicholas I in the 1820s.”* This is the theme of Sebestyen’s new biography of Lenin which is sure to become one of the standard works of one of the most important figures of the 20th century.

*Joffe, Joseph, “The First Totalitarian,” New York Times, October 19, 2017.

Image result for photo of lenin

(Vladimir I. Lenin)