The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
March/April 2006

The Cold War
Chemical Arms Race



Chemistry for progress, chemistry for the future, biochemistry even better, insist the advocates of science and industry. But chemical progress also has brought much greater danger to society, in the form of toxic chemicals and biologicals, as Vietnam veterans know well. Governments are simultaneously anxious to enjoy the benefits of chemical progress and sensitive to the potentials of these products as weapons.

It is not surprising, therefore, that during the Cold War scientists perfected new and deadly chemical and biological weapons. This goes far beyond Pentagon efforts to craft chemical defenses or Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) experiments with mind- altering drugs. In fact, a chemical arms race took place during the Cold War that rivals the one that occurred with nuclear weapons and ballistic missile delivery systems. That arms race proved as dangerous as any of the others.

Chemicals first appeared in modern warfare during World War I in the 1915 battle of Ypres. However, there are accounts that the Greeks used sulphur fumes against their enemies as early as the 4th century, B.C.E. Chemical developments and the potential for use of chemicals as weapons were well-enough known that the 1907 Hague Convention took steps to outlaw them.

Despite prohibitions, chemical weapons proved a scourge in the war, killing an estimated 100,000 and wounding an additional 900,000 persons. The Washington Arms Conference in 1922 prohibited the use of poisonous gases. The Geneva Protocols in 1925 outlawed chemical and bacteriological warfare. This did not prevent Britain or Italy from using chemicals in colonial wars, or Japan using chemicals and biologicals in China. In World War II, the Germans used chemical and nerve agents in the Holocaust but almost never on the battlefield.

The United States pledged no first use and the British followed suit, but they too possessed these weapons. In a notorious incident at Bari on December 2, 1943, German bombers sank an Allied cargo ship packed with 2,000 mustard gas shells, some of which exploded or leaked. The gas killed almost 100 and injured over 600. But the weapons were not introduced into warfare.

The start of the Cold War brought into play all forms of military technology. Scientific research establishments on both sides of the Iron Curtain were pressed into service, researching defenses and new forms of weaponry. The United States had formed a Chemical Warfare Service in the U.S. Army to fight World War II and demobilized it afterwards, but in August 1946 transformed the moribund unit into the Army Chemical Corps.

The United States signed the Geneva Protocol but never ratified it, and in 1947 President Harry S. Truman withdrew the international agreement from Senate consideration. That year the Chemical Corps issued a detection kit and a newly devised gas mask. The Corps was classified a combat arm because it controlled all American 4.2-inch chemical mortars, weapons specially designed to lob gas-filled shells. Jurisdiction later was transferred to Army Ordnance, leaving the Corps a combat support organization. A laboratory center at Fort Detrick, Maryland, developed new materials, especially biological weapons, and tests were carried out at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah and at lab sites.

In 1950, the Corps began construction of a production facility for sarin nerve gas at Edgewater Arsenal, Maryland. Plants for other steps in the process were constructed at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Rocky Mountains Arsenal in Colorado. Sarin was produced from 1954-57, when stockpile levels were reached and the production line put into mothballs. A 1956 Army field manual stated that the United States was not a party to any existing prohibitions, making chemical and biological warfare permissible under international law.

Meanwhile, the British discovered the essential compounds for the V-series nerve agents, which are 1,000 times more toxic on the skin than sarin, and several times more if inhaled. A pilot plant was planned in 1957, though legal disputes delayed contracting until 1960. Munitions for sarin delivery were standardized from 1954-59, and ones for VX gas were studied but not finalized. Fort Detrick also experimented with anthrax and yellow fever viruses.

In 1955, the Chemical Corps established its own counterpart to the CIA drug experiments, for “psychochemical agents” (K-agents) to incapacitate rather than kill. Estimates of the size of the American stockpile at its peak are as high as 150,000 tons.

Much of this effort was impelled by fears of the Soviet Union’s work in the same fields. As early as May 1949, intelligence reports indicated that the Russians were making extensive preparations for conduct of chemical warfare. Soviet activity was first cited as a justification for budget requests in 1956. In 1951, a former German prisoner used by the Soviets as a scientist, Dr. Walter Hirsch, defected and furnished the United States an extensive account of Soviet activity, including details of labs, agents, and the news that the Russians used prisoners to conduct experiments on weapons effects.

In 1956, Russian Marshal Georgi Zhukov addressed a congress of the Soviet Communist Party, predicting that future war would include the use of massed airpower and rockets, along with chemical and biological weapons. That year a CIA National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) carried descriptions of Soviet chemical plants and predictions of stockpiles, but admitted to relatively little knowledge of Russian biological weapons. Even into the 1960s speculation remained rife.

For example, the 1962 edition of the standard U.S. Army field manual on the Soviet Army discussed Russian chemical troops, their organization, and their equipment, but contained almost nothing about actual weaponry. The NIEs of the 1960s made predictions based on very thin data. Much more is known today than at that time, and the CIA was just beginning to develop sources to penetrate Soviet secrecy. Then it was a matter of a couple of spies, Popov and Oleg Penkovsky, who supplied scraps of information, mainly about Soviet military organization for chemicals, the U-2 aircraft, reading Soviet scientific journals, and the occasional contact with a Russian scientist at such international forums as the Pugwash conferences. Declassified portions of the 1964 NIE on Soviet exotic weapons confirm that the state of American intelligence had not advanced much in the intervening decade.

We now know that as early as 1923 a Russian chemical laboratory in Moscow began work on weapons applications. A year later, the Soviets began setting up a secret facility codenamed “Tomko” that did private work and some under German-Soviet secret agreements (Germany was prohibited from chemical weapons research by the Versailles treaty that ended World War I). The facility became active in 1926. It is believed that several kinds of blistering agents were in production during that decade and that new types of gas were introduced in the ’30s.

The Third Main Administration of the USSR Ministry of Health performed defensive and offensive chemical warfare research. By the late ’30s, the Sixth Administration of the People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry held responsibility for “special chemistry,” including chemical weapons. With successive name changes and relocations within the Soviet hierarchy, this entity emerged during Cold War years as the First Main Administration of the State Committee on Chemistry and, after 1963, of the Soyuzorgsintez All-Union Association.

In August 1944, Russian armies advancing toward Germany captured a chemical warfare plant before it could be demolished. At Dyenfurth, the plant yielded stocks of nerve agents, including tabun and soman, and research data. The plant was dismantled and moved to Russia. German scientists were captured and sent with it. Reports following their return brought the West its first concrete information on Soviet programs.

The Soviets began producing sarin gas in 1958-59, soman in 1967, and VX gas in 1972. There is strong evidence that Egypt used Soviet-supplied chemicals in a counterinsurgency war in Yemen during 1967. The United States used several kinds of incapacitating and defoliant agents in the Vietnam War.

To some extent Soviet efforts were spurred by American espionage ploys. Starting in 1959, Joseph Cassidy, a U.S. Army sergeant run by the FBI, fed Soviet military intelligence with a mixture of real and phony information, including details on a made- up new American chemical weapon, “GJ” gas. The intention was to get Russia to spend money in the chemical weapons arena.

We now know that the Communist Party Central Committee issued a decree on August 17, 1967, providing for preparations for chemical-biological warfare. Soviet chemical troops were strengthened, and the inception of the Russian VX nerve agent program, as well as the beginning of soman production may trace to this decree. A third-generation nerve agent called “foliant” was, in fact, authorized by this decree, according to Soviet chemical weapons scientist Vil S. Mirzayanov’s late-1991 revelations.

In the case of VX, it is relevant that a Soviet research team at Leningrad independently predicted the toxicity of the class of molecules employed in this agent about the same time it was first synthesized in the West. The “foliant” program may also be related to the so-called “novichok” (“new guy”) nerve agents the Soviets apparently developed in unitary and binary configurations during this later period. At its peak, some 6,000 scientists were employed on the Soviet chemical weapons program, though the numbers of overall personnel went much higher. For example, as a “secret city,” Shikhany was divided into two centers after World War II, one of them ostensibly civilian. The military side alone housed 12,000-15,000 civilians and 60,000 military personnel, most of whom supported the smaller cadre of scientists, technicians, and production workers engaged in military work. Soviet stockpile estimates common in the 1980s ranged in the tens of thousands of tons. In the U.S. defense debate, the threat was used to justify the development of a new generation of binary chemical weapons. The budget for chemical and biological weapons went from $262 million in 1980, Ronald Reagan’s first year in office, to $1.4 billion in 1984. Iraq used blistering and nerve agents in its war with Iran and against the Kurds during the ’80s, but there is no clear evidence about the degree to which Baghdad used Soviet expertise in creating its gas-production capability.

At the 1985 Geneva Summit, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to open negotiations on a chemical weapons treaty. Talks began in January 1986. As a goodwill gesture, in October 1987, the Russians permitted an international delegation to tour the Shikhany complex. About the same time, the Politburo ordered a demonstration for its own officials of the various types of chemical agents in its arsenal. There were a dozen.

That December, Moscow issued an official declaration specifying the size of its stockpile at less than 50,000 tons. Lending weight to the numbers used in American discussions, Soviet scientist Lev Fedorov called the statement “another lie. The figure is grossly underestimated.” In 1989, there were some 50,000 personnel in the Soviet Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Protection Troops corps. A multilateral Chemical Weapons Convention was completed in September 1992, and the treaty opened for signature just as Bill Clinton took office as President of the United States in 1993.

By the time this process had reached its end, Moscow had reduced its stockpile to 40,000 tons, the same level maintained by the United States. Subsequent exchanges, technical cooperation in destroying chemical stocks, and bids for American financial assistance have confirmed the size of the stockpile, which is stored at seven sites in the former Soviet Union.

On the biological side, as early as 1928, Josef Stalin approved research intended to find out if typhus could be used as a weapon. In 1933, the Russians established a research lab at Suzdal, at the former Pokrovsky Monastery. Two years later, the lab moved to Gorodmyla Island in Lake Seliger. This laboratory was under the control of Soviet intelligence. The main military research center, set up in 1933, was the Scientific Research Institute of Microbiology at Perkhushkovo, near Moscow. A subsidiary facility at the Leningrad Military Academy followed.

The Russians experimented with primitive aerosol dispensers using powdered and liquid forms of typhus. Gulag prisoners were forced to build an experimental test site on Solovetsky Island in the White Sea. During World War II, when the Germans invaded Russia, the laboratories regrouped at Kirov as the Microbiology Research Institute.

Biological warfare research became the province of the 15th Main Directorate of the Soviet General Staff. The chief of Army medical services, Col. Gen. Yefim Smirnov, led the directorate, with major labs at Sverdlovsk, Kirov, Zagorsk, and Pokrov. A parallel civilian structure existed from the early 1960s within the Main Administration of the Microbiological Industry. Its key facility was the Institute of Immunology near Moscow. A network of “anti-plague stations” throughout the Soviet Union, ostensibly public health research facilities, engaged in defensive preparations.

A 1967 Central Committee decree included instructions for a secret “F Program,” not just the chemical agent “Foliant,” but biologicals “Flute,” “Fouette,” “Fagot,” “Flask,” “Ferment,” and “Factor.” The Odessa institute worked on “Ferment,” which suggests these were not all offensive programs. In 1969, following a disaster at an American test facility, Richard Nixon declared a moratorium on chemical weapons production and possession of biologicals. This was followed in 1972 by the international Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, which prohibited possession of these exotic weapons. For reasons still unclear, Moscow decided, after agreeing to this ban, to continue and expand its biological warfare efforts.

In 1973, Russia created the State Concern Biopreparat which conducted this work, including the construction of new weapons labs such as Omutninsk, Obolensk, Koltsovo, and Chekhov. The civilian agency hid research efforts in this military field, among them design work on using ballistic and cruise missiles to deliver biological weapons.

Also in 1973 Israel gave the United States large amounts of Soviet chemical warfare and decontamination equipment captured in Egypt during the October War. As a result, the United States repeatedly increased the priority given to intelligence collection against the Russian exotic weapons through the rest of the 1970s. 

The Reagan administration charged in 1981 that the Soviets had used biologicals in warfare in Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan, but the evidence for these claims did not withstand scientific verification. By 1984 the CIA reported to President Reagan that increases in the Soviet establishment had taken place under the Biopreparat. By the first Bush administration the CIA became aware of the Soviets’ offensive biological warheads, courtesy of telemetry from Russian missile tests and satellite photography showing refrigerator units at missile silos that were unnecessary for nuclear warheads.

At peak size, the civilian Soviet biological weapons establishment (Biopreparat) included between twenty and thirty facilities and employed 25,000 and 32,000 people. An additional 10,000 worked for the 15th Main Directorate of the General Staff. By some estimates there were as many as 47 labs, test sites, production plants, or depots in the Soviet program.

Vladimir Pasechnik, the first scientist from Biopreparat to come to the West, provided extensive information on the establishment. A researcher at the Leningrad institute, Pasechnik indicated the Soviet effort was ten times larger than estimated by American or British intelligence. The defection of Kanatjan Alibekov (now Kenneth Alibek), a senior Biopreparat scientist, followed in 1992. Alibekov furnished even greater depth to Western knowledge of the former Soviet programs. The new knowledge led directly to joint U.S.-British demands that Russia dismantle all biological weapons programs. In February 1992, Russia announced termination of these efforts. That April the Russian government approved a decree for this purpose. 

The Soviet program resulted in the most serious known incident in biological weapons production. This occurred at Sverdlovsk in March 1979. According to Alibek, the incident resulted from the failure of work crews after a shift change to notice that an exhaust filter had been removed after it clogged. As a result, machines used to dry anthrax spores continued to run for several hours, expelling toxic materials in the exhaust, until staff noticed the fault. Anthrax Disease No. 123 for Soviet biodefense researchers killed either 96 or 105 people, depending on whether you accept Soviet statements or Alibek’s sources. Moscow covered up the incident, which Russian emigres first brought to light six months later.

American intelligence debated whether to accept the Soviet explanation, which was the infections had come from the sale of tainted meat. By mid-1980, the CIA and other agencies agreed on the causes of the incident. Viktor Israelyan, the senior Soviet negotiator in the chemical weapons treaty talks in the 1980s, affirms that the coverup continued through the spring of 1988. In 1992, the post-Soviet government of Boris Yeltsin admitted the truth of Sverdlovsk.

The Sverdlovsk incident calls attention to one aspect of exotic weapons programs that is different from most other military development efforts, one that makes them directly dangerous to citizens. Most weapon systems are tested as mechanical entities: planes fly, missiles are test-fired, artillery guns are sent to the firing range, tank armor is tested to see if guns or rockets will penetrate it. But exotic weapons exert effects directly on living beings. A certain amount of laboratory testing is possible on mice and monkeys. Live tests can be done on ranges with tethered animals, monkeys, pigs, goats, and sheep. But scientists cannot be sure of weapon effects without using human beings.

The “Atomic Soldiers” of the 1950s were not the only victims of Cold War weapons development. Chemicals and biologicals brought their own crop of victims. This is because of the necessity of establishing data in order to make a chemical or a germ into a militarily useful weapon. The speed and pattern of propagation under various weather, terrain, or atmospheric conditions, the typical behavior of a plume from an aerosol dispenser, the same data for an artillery shell or bomb. The Army fired off hundreds of shells at its Dugway test site during the 1950s for this data, which has to be collected for each type of munition and for each form of chemical or germ. Testing is necessary to examine lethality for each type of agent. Animals made up most of the test subjects, but humans also were exposed.

The Army estimates 5,500 soldiers were subjects in its tests; the Navy’s exposure numbers cannot be determined with precision. The British estimate more than 3,000 servicemen were exposed to lethal substances at their exotic weapons center of Porton Down between 1939 and 1989.

But these figures do not account for inadvertent or collateral exposure. For example, the armed services had 4,300 personnel assigned to the Project SHAD, mostly Navy personnel, from 1964-69. Exposure varied a great deal. In some Fort Detrick experiments, soldiers were directly injected with doses of agents, or, having volunteered to help investigate the effectiveness of defensive equipment such as gas masks, were put into air-tight chambers into which live agents were sprayed. In some Dugway tests soldiers were placed at given distances from explosive impact points along with tethered animals for comparative purposes. The dangers were substantial.

President Eisenhower ordered that participants had to volunteer for these tests, but questions about whether prospective volunteers had sufficient information to make proper decisions persist, and the volunteer policy was not necessarily followed in Harry Truman’s administration, or for that matter, those which followed Eisenhower. In the Kennedy-Johnson administrations, military personnel were simply ordered to serve in places they were exposed to toxic chemicals.

In 1977, the Army released data that showed it had carried out 239 open-air tests of agents or substances intended to simulate the behavior of the exotic weapons. British data indicate their research scientists conducted 200 of their own covert experiments. Among these were tests of simulants smuggled into the Kennedy White House in 1962, and into Congress and the Nixon White House in 1969-70. Inserted into the ventilation system, had these agents been real, everyone in the buildings could have been killed. They were carried out without the knowledge of the Secret Service or the Capitol Police.

The British pumped gas into tunnels beneath their Whitehall government center and in the Northern Line of the London Underground. In Operation “Big City” in 1956, the Army and CIA drove a car with an aerosol dispenser in its exhaust system around the streets of New York. Another simulant test took place in the New York City subway system in 1975. In 1964-65, the Army released a simulant at National Airport in Washington, and in Greyhound bus terminals in that city, Chicago, and San Francisco.

That was the second time for San Francisco. From September 20 to 27, 1950, using a Navy vessel, similar spores were sprayed into the air of the city. Air samples were collected at dozens of points in San Francisco to measure how the simulant cloud had propagated.

The simulant used was later discovered not to be harmless after all and that is another problem: the state of technical and medical knowledge when these tests were conducted was far less advanced than today, especially with regard to chemical (or biological) toxicity. One need go no further than to look at Agent Orange or Gulf War Syndrome to understand that.

In British tests, zinc cadmium sulphide was used for fluorescent experiments and cadmium has now been established as a carcinogen. Veterans recall the same substance used on the U.S. Navy tugs involved in the SHAD experiments. In other British tests between 1961 and 1968, more than a million people were exposed to  bacteria including e. coli and anthrax simulants.

A second problem is collateral. The tests exposed many people to potential harm, and no one had asked them to volunteer for anything. In the San Francisco case, one man died of infection linked to the tests; ten others developed infections of a similar sort.

Similarly, a test at Eglin Air Force Base in July 1951 dropped two bombs with an agent based on hog cholera to infect a test group of 115 pigs. More than 90 were infected and most died. No data is available on civilian exposure. 

The experience of Cambridge, Maryland, puts the problem in high relief. A mid-size town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Cambridge is the location of a government agricultural research station. In 1969, the Army conducted 115 open-air tests in the Green Brier Swamp near the town. In 1984, during development of the binary nerve agent, the Army tried to do it again and the town went to court to prevent it. The Army contractor, Arthur D. Little Company, insisted that only a small amount 10 milliliters of toxic chemicals would be used in each test. That amount of some agents could kill 10,000 people. Environmental contamination problems typically went unnoticed in these tests until at least the 1970s.

In March 1969 at Dugway Proving Ground, some 6,400 sheep grazing outside the base in Skull Valley were found dead. Autopsy reports showed that they had been contaminated with VX. The incident created an uproar.

Two months later antibodies for the rare disease Venezuelan encephalitis were found in animals in the area, including buzzards, other birds, rodents, and cattle. Dugway’s budget was cut by 60 percent and scientists were sent to watch for contamination. The incidents became an impetus for the Nixon administration to seek the Biological Weapons Convention that was concluded in 1972. Nevertheless, binary munitions were tested at Dugway in the 1980s, as were ground- and air-launched cruise missiles during the Carter administration.

The chemical Cold War inflicted casualties even though the Superpowers never directly came to blows. It also brought forth some of the most horrific weapons imaginable. Although the Cold War has ended, the genies of the exotic weapons can no more be put back in the bottle than the nuclear ones. In the new age of mass casualty terrorism, the bad guys now have available innovations born at the height of the Cold War. No one can say whether environmental contamination from the   programs, or the weapons themselves, will ultimately prove more harmful to humanity. The path is strewn with the fallen victims of the drive to develop these instruments of destruction.


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