A History of Weapons "Red Lines"

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Military personnel observe a nuclear weapons test in Nevada, the United States, in 1951. Military personnel observe a nuclear weapons test in Nevada, the United States, in 1951. (U.S. Government/flickr)

From biological weapons to nuclear non-proliferation efforts, John Isaacs, executive director of the Arms Control Center looks at the history of weapons of mass destruction and the efforts to curb their use.



John Isaacs

Comments [34]

Mr. Bad from NYC

Also, just to be clear, the US nuked Hiroshima in the morning, just to make sure the Japanese children would be outside and exposed to the worst effects, because it was terror bombing, just like Dresden.

Was it justified? Probably. The nips would have defended the home islands to the bitter end. In the 20th century CIVILIANS are the target because that is the economic base. There are no "good guys", only 1 bad guy, war, drawing these idiotic, arbitrary boundaries (chemical vs. conventional) is all about political posturing. Calling NBC weapons "evil" is monumental hypocrisy.

Sep. 18 2013 08:57 PM
Mr. Bad from NYC

Beyond the pale... LOL. This is pure PR. Chemical weapons are difficult to store, deliver and maintain. Did you ever hear of the saying "you can't make a virtue out of necessity?".

Chemical weapons are no longer valuable as either tactical or strategic weapons in an age of cruise missiles and TOTAL AIR SUPERIORITY IN EVERY FRIGGIN" THEATER OF OPERATIONS FOR THE LAST 50 YEARS. So it is safe to abandon them and condemn their use for poor countries with limited defensive capabilities. But anyway...

READY TO GET EDUCATED 'MURICA? (I will repost this as necessary)

"In 2009 - the same year former French foreign minister Dumas alleges the British began planning operations in Syria - Assad refused to sign a proposed agreement with Qatar that would run a pipeline from the latter's North field, contiguous with Iran's South Pars field, through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and on to Turkey, with a view to supply European markets - albeit crucially bypassing Russia. Assad's rationale was "to protect the interests of [his] Russian ally, which is Europe's top supplier of natural gas."

Instead, the following year, Assad pursued negotiations for an alternative $10 billion pipeline plan with Iran, across Iraq to Syria, that would also potentially allow Iran to supply gas to Europe from its South Pars field shared with Qatar. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the project was signed in July 2012 - just as Syria's civil war was spreading to Damascus and Aleppo - and earlier this year Iraq signed a framework agreement for construction of the gas pipelines."


THEN THIS, two weeks later:


Sep. 18 2013 08:42 PM
Richard from Levittown

My brother was with the 15th Air Force at Bari, Italy in 1943. A massive German air raid took place while he was there, they caught the harbor with many, many ships. After the bombing many of the personnel close to the bombing were beset with unknown symptoms ( blisters, breathing issues,etc.) Later it was discovered that one of the ships in the harbor (I believe it was John Harvey), had mustard gas aboard. It was kept in secrecy for many years, and when it was discovered, Eisenhower's report noted it was there in the event of a German use of the gas.
I also personally experienced knowing a person who served in World War I and was gassed (he was a relative and I first met him in the 1930's). It was horrible, as a child to see the harm that was done to him. They may be ineffective weapons, but for those harmed by it, I don't think they cared about the effectiveness.

Sep. 18 2013 12:42 PM
J from UWS

There's a 28% chance in ten years that terrorists use a nuclear bomb to destroy a city. That's a 56% chance in 20 years. According to Professor Bunn from Harvard and separately (and coincidentally), a giant survey of terrorism experts across the globe (diplomats, professors) conducted by Senator Lugar. And according to the Cambridge University Center for Existential Risk, this risk is increasing over time not decreasing. I'll gladly have my emails read and phone calls monitored if it helps reduce the chance that NYC and DC disappear.

Sep. 18 2013 12:41 PM
Alison from Inwood

Just a pedantic comment on smallpox in the colonial period.

The infectious linens were passed to Native Americans from Fort Pitt (near Pittsburgh). This occurred AFTER the conclusion of the French & Indian War. The Treaty of Paris was signed in February 1763. The smallpox-laced materials were passed as early as June 24th, 1763. Is is part of PONTIAC'S WAR. Keep in mind, a main catalyst of this war was colonists...or shall we call them land thieves and squatters...encroaching on Native-controlled land. Not just those nasty British...

Contra Jennings, there is no evidence of such tactics during the French & Indian War.

I can recommend Pox Americana (2001) by Elizabeth Fenn, about later Revolutionary war era outbreaks, and smallpox in general.

Sep. 18 2013 11:32 AM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

john from office asked:

>How about Israel, do they use Chemical weapons, we will never know nor will Brian and WNYC ever ask.

john from office is an example of the odd marriage of the extreme right and extreme left. They differ 99.999% of the time, but agree on one particular subject.

To answer you question, john, NO. Israel has NOT used Chemical weapons. But Iraq and Syria have used chemical weapons.

The charges that Israel used White Phosphorous as a weapon is canard. White Phosphorous is used to create smoke screens to obscure an area. If Israel used White Phosphorous, there would have been thousands of injuries due to that agent - injuries on the scale of the Halabja Iraq attack by Saddam Hussein.

Sep. 18 2013 10:43 AM
Taher from Croton on Hudson

The guest is a realist. He works with what is possible.

Sep. 18 2013 10:38 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Nonsense. The reason why there have been less wars is BECAUSE OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS. France and England and Russia have nuclear weapons, so what is a powerful Germany going to do now? There cannot be war against each other because of nuclear weapons, not because of "agreements." Agreements mean nothing, without POWER and ENFORCEMENT to back them up!

Sep. 18 2013 10:35 AM
John A

Man sounds too ideologic. He discards the logic, however unwanted the logic is, of how an 'arms race' occurs. You don't win a logic fight by disregarding the mindset of your opponent.

Sep. 18 2013 10:34 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

There was a very good reason for why so many thousands of nuclear bombs at that time. Because missiles and bombers were very inaccurate, and while a nuclear weapons creates a lot of destruction, if you don't hit a hardened military target with pinpoint accuracy, you still can't be sure if that missile in hardened silo won't come back at you.
Today we have pinpoint accuracy with satellites and all, so we don't NEED so many nukes to make sure we got all the military sites in Russia or China or whomever we theoretically could have a nuclear war with.
With pinpoint accuracy, a few hundred nukes should suffice. That is the main reason why both the US and Russia have decided to reduce the size of those expensive nuclear arsenals.

Sep. 18 2013 10:29 AM
Brian from Brooklyn

What was the status of this red line when the US was enabling and possibly assisting Iraq's use of chemical weapons against Iran? The same WMDs we later invaded the country to remove?

Sep. 18 2013 10:28 AM
Oscar from NY

Didn't we use biological weapons against our own soldiers like nerve, blister,serum, agents, I recall watching the affects of these weapons when i was in the service and was horrified..

Sep. 18 2013 10:27 AM
Bob from Brooklyn

The U.S. used a form of biological warfare against Iraq, when they targeted and destroyed sewage and water treatment plants. What was the strategic value of attacking those plants, if you didn't want to spread disease throughout the general population.

Sep. 18 2013 10:25 AM

Why this discussion on weapons of mass destruction excludes pressure cookers?

Sep. 18 2013 10:24 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

War was a banned too, by the League of Nations, and later by the United Nations, but so what? Wars haven't stopped, though they do tend to be fewer in casualties since WWII in general. As was mentioned, 800,000 in Rwanda were killed by machetes. In ancient times, millions were killed by swords and knives. It would be great to stop all violence, but that's life... and death.

Sep. 18 2013 10:23 AM
Julian from Manhattan

Franklin Roosevelt was not aware of the implications of nuclear weapons because he was dead before they were used.

Sep. 18 2013 10:21 AM

Doesn't elevating the moral decrepitude of one method of slaughter diminish the horror and efficacy of all the others??

Doesn't it help us to feel better about all the more "traditional" methods of massacre??

A MILLION people were efficiently slaughtered in Rwanda over 100 days with the simple machete.

Sep. 18 2013 10:19 AM
genejoke from Brooklyn

"Whadda they expect ME to do about it? It's not MY headache."


Sep. 18 2013 10:19 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

In 1899 we got the first prohibition against weapons that "asphyxiate" soldiers or civilians.It wasn't that they were chemical, but that they could choke people to death that was considered horrible, for some reason. In 1925 chemical weapons that asphyxiate the enemy was banned, not chemicals in general. Most weapons have some chemical components.

Sep. 18 2013 10:19 AM
john from office

All the America haters are coming out. How about Israel, do they use Chemical weapons, we will never know nor will Brian and WNYC ever ask. But USA is always a good whipping boy, tisk tisk, TWO atom bombs over Japan!! How brutal, Monday morning Quarterbacking in the year 2013.

Sep. 18 2013 10:19 AM
Nick from UWS

"Agent Orange was not used to kill humans, and it's not clear if it was a chemical weapon." - What a stupid evasive statement rationalizing the clear use of a chemical weapon. With that kind of thinking, the threat will never be abolished. As if the mass use of a deadly defoliant was a benign act because they said it was a benign act.

Sep. 18 2013 10:17 AM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

Halabja chemical attack by Sadaam Hussein on the Kurds of Halabja Iraq - 5,000 died

The attack killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people and injured 7,000 to 10,000 more, most of them civilians.[1][2] Thousands more died of complications, diseases, and birth defects in the years after the attack.[3] The incident, which has been officially defined as an act of genocide against the Kurdish people in Iraq,[4] was and still remains the largest chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history.[5]

Sep. 18 2013 10:17 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Agent Orange was used to DEFOLIATE FORESTS, and not used directly as a weapon. Maybe that was a side-effect, that it is toxic and can cause cancer, but Agent Orange was not banned by international treaty.

Sep. 18 2013 10:16 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

There is no international law against the use of atomic bombs, napalm, white phosphorus, depleted uranium, and even biological weapons, but there has been since 1899 and more strongly since 1925 a strict ban against the use of chemical weapons. Maybe there should be a ban against all weapons except maybe rocks and sling shots? I don't know.

The UN Charter prohibits wars of aggression, but that did not deter 5 Arab armies from attacking Israel on the day of its rebirth.
Nevertheless, chemicals were SPECIFICALLY banned by international treaty in 1925, and if we can't uphold that, what can we uphold?

Sep. 18 2013 10:14 AM

Why isn't napalm considered a "chemical weapon"?

Sep. 18 2013 10:14 AM
Nick from UWS

"We will not use chemical weapons unless they are first used by our enemies."- Franklin Roosevelt.

What a completely stupid and meaningless statement, that is intended to be sound high-minded but actually indicates zero moral stance.

Sep. 18 2013 10:13 AM

Please address Depleted Uranium weaponry used by the US in Gulf War as previous commenter mentioned. Also … Fracking as chemical weapon?

Sep. 18 2013 10:12 AM

Go, Lord Jeffrey Amherst!!

Kill THOUSANDS and get the top (currently #2) liberal arts college in country named after you!

The kind of hypocrisy only possible in this great United States of America!

Sep. 18 2013 10:11 AM

The German most certainly used chemical weapons in WWII!!

Sep. 18 2013 10:08 AM
Nick from UWS

I think it's extremely important to abolish all nuclear, chemical and bio weapons, so that entire populations are not wiped out for what will later be realized to be the completely stupid moronic reasons that wars are fought for in the first place. Wars should be fought with at the most guns....sticks and knives face to face if possible. Wars should always inflict the most psychological damage possible to those who fight them; they should not be easy. Wars are instigated by morons.

Sep. 18 2013 10:06 AM

US use of Napalm, Agent Orange in Vietnam?

Sep. 18 2013 10:06 AM
MG from Manhattan

So the Mongols had a conception of germ theory and in addition thought that they were immune to the contagion they were handling and catapulting?

Sep. 18 2013 10:04 AM
Francis from Greenpoint

Can you please address the use of depleted uranium by the US. Haven't many countries banned their use?

Sep. 18 2013 10:03 AM
RUCB_Alum from Central New Jersey

I bow to Mr. Bad's knowledge of what efforts would bring about an end to the civil war in Syria. I think that Syria was already a signatory to a chem weapons treaty and they broke that pledge. The UN would be the appropriate place to follow-up on what appears to be the use of chem weapons by Syria. The veto powers of Russia and China lead to doubt over whether action in the UN is worthwhile. Though they may have vetoed passed action on the civil war, we need to see if they would, in fact, block action against Syria for a proven use of chem weapons. So far, the proof that it was Syria -- and not the rebels -- who made this rocket-launched attack of 8/21 that killed over 1,400 has not been shown.

The Congress can override a presidential veto, the UN Charter appears to need revision to permit the override of Security Council vetoes. As it is currently constructed it is far too easy for a single actor to stay the conclusions (and actions) of this world body.

Sep. 18 2013 09:41 AM

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