A Historical Look at the Genealogy of the WMD Category & Threat

A Historical Look at the Genealogy of the WMD Category & Threat

Tara Maller is a research fellow in the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation. Her current areas of focus include sanctions, diplomacy, intelligence, cybersecurity, terrorism and women in security. Previously, she worked at BrightWire Inc., a NY-based startup, where she served as the managing editor and managing director of Operations, Americas. In 2011, she received her Ph.D. in political science at MIT, where her dissertation focused on information collection, diplomacy and sanctions. During this time, she was an affiliate of MIT’s Security Studies Program and she served as research fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Previously, Maller worked as a military analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, focusing on the Iraq insurgency. She has published articles in The Washington Quarterly, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and PS: Political Science and Politics. She has also written for foreignpolicy.com, CNN.com and The Huffington Post and has appeared on CNN’s Erin Burnett OutFront and Bloomberg’s Bottom Line. She graduated with a B.A. in government from Dartmouth College and received a M.A. in international relations from the University of Chicago. You can follow her on Twitter at @TaraMaller.

In light of the recent discussion regarding a response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, I thought it would be interesting provide a look back at the grouping of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons together categorically and look at the history of the WMD category and the international norms that developed around these weapons.

The term “weapon of mass destruction” has not always referred to the grouping of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Despite the unique histories and differences between nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, the creation of a WMD category brought these three weapons groups together in a way that has had significant policy implications. The construction of the category itself preceded the actual solidification of the notion of the idea of the WMD threat. First, the grouping itself was established, bringing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons under one roof. Second, after years of sitting around on the shelves of international policy experts, the WMD terminology was reconstituted in a manner which framed the category as what is currently understood as the WMD threat.

According to a variety of sources, one of the first early published uses of this term appears to date back to 1937. In a December 28, 1937, article of The London Times, “Archbishop’s Appeal: Individual Will and Action, Guarding Personality,” an excerpt from the Archbishop’s of Canterbury’s “Christian Responsibility” broadcast is reprinted and includes the phrase “weapons of mass destruction.” In it, the Archbishop states,

"Take, for example, the question of peace. Who can think without dismay of the fears, jealousies, and suspicions which has compelled nations, our own among them, to pile up their armaments? Who can think at this present time without a sickening of the heart of the appalling the slaughter, the suffering, the manifold misery brought by war to Spain and to China? Who can think without horror of what another widespread war would mean, waged as it would be with all the new weapons of mass destruction? Yet how fruitless seem to be all efforts to secure a really settled peace. This unofficial use of the term “weapons of mass destruction” was not used in the same way that the term is understood today. In his quotation the Archbishop is not using the term to refer to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, but rather, he is referring to the conventional bombing of cities. While there were earlier uses of the term “mass destruction” with regard to poisonous gas in World War I and other various weapons, this genealogy will focus on the actual phrase “weapons of mass destruction.”

As a result of prior treaties and attitudes about these weapons, such weapons became the focus of United Nations disarmament discussions in the 1940s. As stated earlier, the United Nations first resolution made it clear that one of its main goals was the elimination of such weapons from the weapons arsenals of the world. Following the massive destruction of World War I and World War II, there was a genuine effort by the United Nations to attempt to limit the use of weapons that had the ability to carry out such destruction in the future. The first official use of the term that I was able to locate was in the first resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations, on January 24, 1946. This resolution, called for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.” However, the primary focus of the resolution was to establish a commission to focus on the new issue of atomic energy. A few months later in October 1946, the term appears in an article that reported on President Truman’s welcome to delegates at the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. The article quotes Truman as saying,

"Two of the greatest obligations undertaken by the United Nations towards the removal of the fear of war remain to be fulfilled. First, we must reach an agreement establishing international controls of atomic energy that will ensure its use for peaceful purposes only, in accordance with the Assembly’s unanimous resolution of last winter. Second, we must reach agreements that will remove the deadly fear of other weapons of mass destruction, in accordance with the same resolution. In a December 1946 United Nations General Assembly titled, “Principles Governing the General Regulation and the Reduction of Armaments,” the same goal is reiterated with the same terminology. This resolution, Resolution 41, refers to the January 24th resolution and recommends that the Security Council, “expedite consideration of a draft convention or conventions for the creation of an international system of control and inspection, these conventions to include the prohibition of atomic and all other major weapons adaptable now and in the future to mass destruction and the control of atomic energy to the extent necessary to ensure its use only for peaceful purposes.” However, in both of these resolutions and President Truman’s statement, the only specific type of weapon that is directly referred to with regard to the term “mass destruction” appears to be weapons that employ atomic energy. The use of the term “mass destruction” in this context makes sense, as the dropping of the atomic bomb on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in the “mass destruction” of both lives and property. There is no language in the resolutions that refer directly to either chemical or biological weapons."

Following the original use in the context of a UN General Assembly resolution, the frequency of the term’s appearance increased in the media. From the time of the 1937 article in The London Times, the term does not appear again in that newspaper until July 1, 1946. In the July 1, 1946, article titled “Effects of Two Atom Bombs: British Survey in Japan,” the article quotes a report that was written by British officials who went to Japan to see the effects of the atomic bomb. The article states that the report opens by stating, “His Majesty’s Government consider that a full understanding of the consequences of the new form of attack may assist the United Nations Organization in its task of securing the control of atomic energy for the common good and in abolishing the use of weapons of mass destruction.” The article then goes on to describe the report which details the destruction that resulted from the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, at this point in time, there does not seem to be any precise definition of what actually is included in the category of weapons of mass destruction. However, it is clear that it is primarily being used to refer to the newly created atomic bomb that was used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Once again, the use of this term with regard to atomic weapons makes sense due to the destruction and devastation that resulted from the dropping of the two bombs.

In 1948, the United Nations Commission for Conventional Armaments took further steps to define the term “weapons of mass destruction.” According to UN document S/C.3/32/Res.1, such weapons were defined as, “those which include atomic explosive weapons, radioactive material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future which have characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb or other weapons mentioned above.” However, at this time, the term’s usage was not nearly as commonly understood or used as it is today. As stated earlier, the term “weapons of mass destruction” appeared only once in The London Times prior to July 1, 1946. The term’s use increased in frequency from July 1, 1946 to 1950, appearing in 23 articles in The London Times. In the years that follow, the term’s appearance in The London Times is as follows: 1951-1960: 167 articles, 1961-1970: 71 articles, 1971-1980: 19 articles, 1981-1990: 68 articles, 1991-2000: 508 articles, 2001-2003: 1509 articles.

The term is also found in another important statement issued in 1955, The Pugwash Manifesto. The Pugwash Manifesto was issued by a small group of renowned scientists, including Albert Einstein. The Manifesto opens by stating, “In the tragic situation which confronts humanity, we feel that scientists should assemble in conference to appraise the perils that have arisen as a result of the development of weapons of mass destruction, and to discuss a resolution in the spirit of the appended draft.” It is clear in the Manifesto that the term’s use refers to the nuclear bomb. During the 1960s and throughout the Cold War, the ambiguity of the term during this period is complicated further when it is discussed in the context of other weapons, making it unclear whether or not these are considered part of the category or outside the category. In 1961, the United States and the Soviet Union issue a joint statement regarding disarmament, called the McCloy-Zorin Accords. The accords are adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 1961.

"This statement appears to group NBC weapons together, when it states: To this end, the programme for general and complete disarmament shall contain the necessary provisions, with respect to the military establishment for every nation, for; (a) Disbanding of armed forces, dismantling of military establishments including bases, cessation of the production of armaments as well as their liquidation or conversion to peaceful uses; (b) Elimination of all stockpiles of nuclear, chemical, bacteriological, and other weapons of mass destruction and cessation of the production of such weapons; (c) Elimination of all means of delivery of weapons of mass destruction; (d) Abolishment of the organization and institutions designed to organize the military effort of States, cessation of military training, and closing of all military training institutions; (e) discontinuance of military expenditures.
While official documents and policymakers referred to these weapons in conjunction with one another through Cold War, the main concern when talking about “mass destruction” appears to have centered primarily on nuclear weapons. Even when the three groups of weapons appeared in conjunction with one another, they were part of an intense general disarmament effort at the time – not a specific isolated categorical threat in and of themselves."

The Construction of the WMD Threat

Despite the fact that treaties regarding use and possession of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons existed throughout the 20th century, the construction of the WMD category as a threat did not actually emerge and solidify until the emergence of a new post-Cold War security environment. Prior to this, the early signs of securitization could be seen in disarmament discussions, as these groups started to be discussed together. The association of such weapons with the “uncivilized” and the strong disarmament attitudes at the time of the aforementioned UN resolutions were conducive to laying the foundations for the securitization of the “WMD threat” as we currently know it. Biological and chemical weapons were perceived at the time as being less controllable than other more conventional weaponry, so people viewed them as weapons that could not be contained; therefore, more unintended consequences could result from their use. In addition, there was thought to be more unpredictability and uncertainty with regard to these weapons. As a result of these types of perceptions about the weapons themselves and the association that had developed in previous treaties regarding the “uncivilized” nature of such weapons, the dangers of biological and chemical weapons were grouped together in the WMD category. However, today, the term “weapons of mass destruction” is no longer understood merely as a grouping of weapons, but rather, these weapons constitute a phenomenon beyond a mere categorization – they constitute a commonly understood WMD threat. The next issue to be addressed is how and why such weapons have been turned into this notion of the WMD threat in the current international system.

It appears that the WMD threat, as we currently understand it to be, was not actually solidified and commonly understood until the post-Cold War era, specifically in the early 1990s. It was around this time that the term’s usage also increased drastically in frequency (see London Times appearance numbers above) and began to extend far beyond the vocabularies of only individuals in the government and the defense community. Much of discussion about the WMD threat appears under the first Bush administration, specifically with regard to the Persian Gulf War and the development of a U.S. post-Cold War nuclear policy. In 1990, Vice President Dick Cheney (then Secretary of Defense) argued to Congress that the United States needed to maintain its nuclear arsenal, “because there is a growing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and sophisticated weapons technology in the Third World.” The solidification of the stigmatized threat associated with all three of the weapons contained in this group was significantly shaped through United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 in 1991. While this was by no means the first formal grouping of these weapons, it was the first time that such weapons were grouped and actually turned into a comprehensive security issue in themselves. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, UN Resolution 687 prohibited Iraq from manufacturing or using “weapons of mass destruction,” specifically defining such weapons to be nuclear, biological or chemical in nature. In addition, throughout the Persian Gulf War the Bush Administration appeared to suggest that a nuclear response would be considered in retaliation for the use of biological or chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein. In the Post-Cold war era, the Russian nuclear arsenal was a fading threat, as new concerns developed over stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, specifically facilities that could be buried underground. In 1993, the Clinton Administration embarked on the first review of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and policy of the post-Cold War period. The review resulted in the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The NPR recognized that Russia no longer posed the security threat that it did during the Cold War and consequently called for reductions in the arsenal. Throughout both the first Bush Administration and the Clinton administration there was a focus on the changing security environment in which proliferation of nuclear weapons and WMD to other hostile or “rogue states” became a new central issue. A shift in policy from targeting fixed targets in Russia to a more flexible and adaptive targeting set was one of the main changes from the Cold War to post-Cold War nuclear policy. However, the WMD threat was of key importance in reshaping U.S. nuclear policies. These weapons were used by many government officials justification for maintaining strong nuclear arsenals despite the diminished Russian nuclear threat. In a 1995 Doctrine for Joint Theater Operations put out by the Joint Chief of Staffs, the Pentagon argued that the WMD threat proliferation was growing and the Pentagon set forth detailed plans involving nuclear weapons for specific areas of the world such as the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East. In addition, while these developments were taking place on the policy front, nuclear labs were working on the development of nuclear weapons that could be used to target underground biological and chemical weapons facilities. These types of nuclear weapons became part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in 1996.

The culmination of this reformulation of U.S. nuclear policy resulted in the more recent 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, which updated and changed the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review. While much of the report remains classified, the 2002 NPR renews the focus on developing weapons aimed at targeting underground facilities and a list of rogue states: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, and North Korea. The review also emphasizes the threat of “weapons of mass destruction” as one of the main concerns at the core of the posture. In a foreword to the report, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld writes,

"We have concluded that a strategic posture that relies solely on offensive nuclear forces is inappropriate for deterring the potential adversaries we will face in the 21st century. Terrorists or rogue states armed with weapons of mass destruction will likely test America’s security commitments to its allies and friends. In response, we will need a range of capabilities to assure friend and foe alike of U.S. resolve. A broader array of capability is needed to dissuade states from undertaking political, military, or technical courses of action that would threaten U.S. and allied security. U.S. forces must pose a credible deterrent to potential adversaries who have access to modern military technology, including NBC weapons and the means to deliver them over long distances.

In the actual text of the report itself, the issue of “weapons of mass destruction” is directly addressed. The report states

Nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States, its allies and friends. They provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats, including WMD and large-scale conventional military force. These nuclear capabilities possess unique properties that give the United States options to hold at risk classes of targets [that are] important to achieve strategic and political objectives."

While the 2002 NPR is in many ways a continuation of the development of the post-Cold War nuclear policies that have been emerging since the early 1990s, it also marks a significant departure from the earlier Nuclear Posture Review. The 2002 NPR appears to demonstrate a lack of commitment to nuclear reductions through less of an emphasis on the importance of arms control treaties and more of an emphasis on flexibility for the United States with regard to its nuclear policies. The formulation of post-Cold War policy is significant in the genealogy of the WMD threat because it shows the way in which this category of weapons was invoked throughout the formulation of important strategic U.S. nuclear policy decisions.

While official documents and policymakers referred to these nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in the context of disarmament discussions during the Cold War, the main concern when talking about “mass destruction” during the Cold War appears to have centered on nuclear weapons. The WMD threat was not actually solidified and commonly understood until the early 1990s. I believe that the term’s present day understanding and the stigma associated with all three of the weapons contained in this group was really shaped through United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 in 1991. As demonstrated earlier, while this was by no means the first formal grouping of these weapons, it was the first time that such weapons were grouped and officially turned into a comprehensive security issue. In addition, as seen by the statistics previously discussed, the term’s use increased drastically in the media beginning in the early 1990s. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Resolution 687 prohibited Iraq from manufacturing or using “weapons of mass destruction,” specifically defining such weapons to be nuclear, biological or chemical in nature.

The historical record demonstrates that the construction of the WMD threat as we currently know it has been a pretty recent phenomenon. The association of such weapons with the evil regime of Saddam and its invasion of Kuwait was a pivotal point in the solidification of this grouping and the construction of the taboo associated with WMD. However, this sort of stigmatization through association with “the other” or “the evil” or the “uncivilized” was by no means a new tactic in terms of controlling nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. In earlier treaties controlling certain forms of weapons, the language of the documents frequently referred to the signatories that condemned certain weapons as being the “civilized.” Such language was often invoked in order to frame certain behavior with being part of the civilized world and other behavior as being outside realm of the civilized world. For example, in 1922, the Washington Treaty worked to solidify a prohibition on chemical weapons. According to Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman, in the Washington Treaty, “the ‘civilised powers’ decreed that the banning of chemical warfare should ‘be universally accepted as part of international law binding alike to the conscience and practice of nations.’” Also, in May 1925, the Geneva Protocol outlawed the use of asphyxiating poisonous or other gases and also included the prohibition of biological warfare. Like the Washington Treaty, the Protocol pointed out the condemnation of such weapons in the eyes of the “civilized” world. The United States and other countries view weapons in the WMD category as a dangerous and destructive asymmetric threat posing a threat to unprotected civilian populations due to the indiscriminate nature of these weapons and the potential for terrorists to use these weapons. Hopefully, this background on the normative prohibitions against this weapons category helps put some of the discussion on responding to the use of chemical weapons in Syria into a broader historical context regardless of how one thinks the U.S. ought to respond to such use.