The Warmongers' Poisoned Chalice

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Review of 'The Final Frontier', Dominick Jenkins, Verso £19

As the US prepares to invade Iraq, ostensibly to stop Saddam Hussein using biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, a historical account that looks at how the United States played a central role in the development of such weapons is very timely. The book begins in July 1921 with New York in ruins following a bomb attack, the majority of its inhabitants wiped out by poison gas. Theoretical ruins, that is, as although the bombers really did fly over the city, the whole attack was nothing more than a spectacular stunt staged by the US air force to persuade the American people that they should support a massive build-up of military air power.

It's not just air power though. The reference in press reports to poison gas played upon people's fears about chemical weapons following horrific accounts of how such weapons had been used in the First World War. What Jenkins goes on to show in the rest of the book is how a significant section of the US establishment sought to use such fears to justify their own development of such weapons on a grand scale.

After 11 September 2001 the US government used its 'war against terrorism' as a means of furthering its imperialist ambitions. Jenkins shows that in the first part of the 20th century the US establishment used similar fears about the threat of invasion from a hostile power--Germany in this case--to justify its entrance into the First World War. In fact, despite the excuse that the US was forced into the war by German submarine attacks on ocean liners like the Lusitania, its entrance was practically guaranteed by the fact that US munitions factories had been producing the vast bulk of the armaments used by Britain and her allies, making huge profits in the process. A good deal of this book is taken up with looking at how one section of the US army, the Chemical Warfare Service, sought to use fears about German poison gases as a justification for the US to develop its own weapons.

If Germany was the most visible enemy, behind all the propaganda coming from the US establishment there was fear and hatred of a far more serious threat--the workers' revolution in Russia led by the Bolsheviks. Here was not just a foreign menace but also the enemy within. Poison gas and the threat posed by socialism became intertwined in the pronouncements of the times, such as in a speech by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 when he worried how 'in other parts of Europe the poison spreads--the poison of disorder, the poison of chaos. And do you honestly think, my fellow citizens, that none of that poison has got into the veins of this free people?'

In fact, popular opposition to a new arms race and the horrors of chemical warfare were harnessed by a strong disarmament movement to put the warmongers on the defensive for a while. At the height of hostility to chemical weapons in 1922 the Chemical Warfare Service was forced to disband its more overt operations and instead began concentrating research into the development of insecticides. Jenkins shows how under capitalism the war drive at the heart of the system dominates and distorts science. The most sophisticated technology on the planet becomes a means to destroy rather than save life. The cynicism, but also the sheer brutality of the ruling class is shown by the circumstances surrounding the US decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were dropped even though Japan had already effectively surrendered. Jenkins argues that one of the reasons President Truman used the atomic bomb was to give him a winning card in negotiating with Stalin. Truman delayed his Potsdam meeting with Stalin and Churchill until after the atomic bomb had been dropped. On a ship crossing the Atlantic to the meeting, he told an associate, 'If it explodes, as I think it will, I'll certainly have a hammer on those boys.' Such is the nature of the system we seek to change.