“In the nearly 100 years since this global commitment against chemical weapons was made, only two tyrants have dared to cross the world’s brightest line. Bashar al-Assad has now become the third.”
– Secretary of State John F. Kerry, remarks before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Sept. 4, 2013
In making the case for missile attacks on Syria over the government’s alleged use of chemical weapons, the secretary of state sought to place Syrian President Assad in a rare category: “tyrants” who have used chemical weapons.
We might quibble with the phrase “brightest line,” as some might argue that nuclear weapons would be even more heinous. And, though we unsuccessfully sought clarification from the State Department, we presume the other two “tyrants” are Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (who used chemical weapons against Iranian forces and Kurdish villagers) and Adolf Hitler (who used gas in concentration camps, but notably not on the battlefield, during World War II.) As Kerry put it, “history — I think everyone here knows — holds nothing but infamy for those criminals.”
But Kerry’s claim is incomplete. There are at least three more instances of chemical weapons use since the signing of the Geneva Protocol in 1925 — a treaty spurred by the horrors of chemical weapons use during World War I, when nearly 100,000 soldiers were killed and 1 million wounded through such weapons.
First, in 1934, Italy’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, invaded Ethiopia and used chemical weapons, such as mustard bombs, despite having signed and ratified the Geneva Accord. Emperor Haile Selassie told the League of Nations that there were “tens of thousands” of victims, including women and children, but the League did nothing and the Ethiopian forces were routed. (The Italians claims the use of chemical weapons was justified because of an exception in the treaty that allowed for reprisal against illegal acts of war.)
Then, in 1937, Imperial Japan invaded China and used chemical weapons, including mustard agent by 1939. (The toll from the chemical weapon use is unknown, but an estimated 300,000 people, including civilians, died during the Sino-Japanese conflict.)
Finally, during the Yemen civil war between 1963 and 1967, Egyptian President Gama Abdul Nasser ordered the use of chemical weapons against royalist forces — villagers supporting them. Egypt repeatedly denied using such weapons, but the International Red Cross declared they had been used after forensic examination. Egypt also had signed the Geneva Accord and the United States, preoccupied with the Vietnam war, made little protest.
We should also note that while the United States apparently has not used chemical weapons, it had an extensive chemical weapons program and did not ratify the Geneva Protocol until 1975. President Franklin Roosevelt established a policy of “no first use,” but in 1943 an American ship secretly loaded with mustard agent bombs was destroyed during a German air raid in Italy, resulting in more than 600 casualties and nearly 100 deaths. The civilian toll is unknown.
Update: A reader shared a link to a declassified CIA study showing that the Soviet Union likely used lethal chemical weapons in Southeast Asia and in Afghanistan in the 1970s, possibly killing thousands.
The Pinocchio Test
Kerry, who dined with Assad in 2009 and in 2011 said he had been “very generous with me,” certainly wants to suggest that Assad belongs in a special category akin to Hitler and Hussein. But list of countries and/or tyrants, however, is larger than just three; it’s at least six.
If Kerry is trying to single out leaders who just used chemical weapons against civilians, the practical effect of the three military efforts outlined above is that civilians were also killed by chemical weapons. (Egypt certainly targeted civilians; the case is a little less clear with Italy and Japan.)
For incomplete history in the service of a rhetorical point, Kerry earns two Pinocchios.
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