Misplaced Horror


IN THE PAST few years, Harvard and Cambridge have moved to the forefront of the national debate over world armaments and arms control. The publication of Living with Nuclear Weapons at the behest of President Bok and the city-wide referendum last fall on a nuclear weapons testing and production ban are but two of the more prominent and commendable manifestations of this trend. The debate has its darker side, however, and nothing illustrate this better than recent local controversy over a global problem--chemical and biological warfare.

Few actions arouse more spontaneous revulsion than the deliberate use of toxic substances and pathogens against other humans. The thousands of mustard gassed blind and lung burned soldiers returning from World War I (and those that did not return) sparked an immediate world outcry. The result was the 1925 Geneva Protocol outlawing both biological and chemical weapons. The United States did not sign, perhaps as a by-product of the same isolationism that prompted the Senate not to ratify' entry into the League of Nations, but all other major powers were signatories to the treaty World War II saw no large scale use of these types of weapons except in the horrors of the concentration camps.

Unfortunately it seems that revulsion against the microscopic death carriers has not been shared equally among all nations in the last two decades. American use of chemicals like napalm and Agent Orange, while not strictly chemical or biological warfare, must bear part of the blame for touching off a renewed use of chemicals in war. Despite the post Vietnam move toward détente that included a U.S. pushed 1974 Biological Weapons Convention outlawing bacteriological means of war which was signed by 111 nations chemical weaponry appears to be on the rise. Use of the outlawed substances has recently been proven in more instances than at any time since WWI--"yellow rain" in Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan as a result of Soviet-backed or direct Soviet aggression, and by Iraq against Iran. Reports have ranged from "ordinary" use of mustard gas by Iraq to the widespread, unexplained presence of artificial disease-causing toxins in Southeast Asia.

Yet world outcry against these horrible revelations has taken some strange forms. Initial press reaction to the Reagan Administrations condemnation of Soviet "yellow rain" was skeptical at best scoffing at worst. The U.N. has refused to openly condemn the Soviet Union and its allies for their glaring infractions against the biological weapons treaties. And here at home, a Harvard professor earlier this month dismissed "yellow rain" as nothing more than bee feces, while the Cambridge Department of Public Health has tried to stop a local company from manufacturing nerve gas for the Pentagon.

Professor Matthew S. Meselson's attack on the Administration's position implicitly denies the validity of the government's evidence. Meselson contends that the toxins claimed by the Administration to be biological weapons are in fact naturally occurring microbes. Further, he claims that the "yellow rain" may actually be merely the product of mass bee defecation flights and says he was caught in just such a shower while visiting Thailand last month. Yet, while bee feces may create some toxins. Meselson's theory simply does not account for the indication of massive toxins in Southeast Asia.

Also this month the Cambridge health authorities have tried to bar the Arthur D. Little Co. from manufacturing binary nerve gas shells in a North Cambridge laboratory. The weapons, budgeted two years ago in heated Congressional debate, contain two non-toxic substances which combine to make nerve gas only after the weapon has been fired. Before producing any evidence that a health hazard was posed by local manufacture, the department sought a ban, which was promptly overturned by a local court. The city has now actually sought an extension of the ruling in order to try and build a case.

IT IS certainly unfortunate that the U.S. finds itself making these hated devices in violation of both the Geneva Protocol and Biological Weapons Convention. But it is the only hope of deterring further chemical attacks by the Soviet Union. Chemical and biological weapons are qualitatively different from other types of weaponry. A sudden, widespread breakout of mysterious disease--experienced by 50,000 Locations in the period 1976-80 and thousands of Afghan tribesmen since 1980--would not prompt an immediate conventional or nuclear counterattack. Instead, delays would result from time consuming investigation doubt even sickness among the commanders. Faced with such scenarios, and with hard evidence denied by no one (including the Russians) that the Soviet chemical and biological weapons industry employs over 1,00,000 people and busies 14 industrial complexes, the Reagan Administration two years ago took the uncomfortable but correct first step toward deterrence of this type of aggression with a $123 million nerve gas program.

The other half of an effective deferent in any weapons category should be the active search for a verifiable limitation treaty, and this avenue took a hopeful turn last week when Vice President Bush brought a draft chemical weapons treaty to the Geneva talks on general disarmament issues. The Soviet have already rejected it, primarily because of its strong verification measures. Just as in other talks, the Russians have shown themselves to be inflexible over anything which threatens their closed society. This obstacle is significant since even more than in other weapon categories, a chemical weapons treaty would need constant, vigilant verification--any university, lab, or factory could be a potential site for manufacture.

In the end we are left with a now familiar classical dilemma of our age--our government finds itself making devices which nobody wants, everyone fears, and are never intended for use. But we are also left with a type of weapon which, sadly, cannot really escape the cruel dictates of deterrence theory. Despite their admitted horror, weapons which burn lungs, spread plague or shatter central nervous systems still respond to the same "logic" as nukes--if the United States has them the Soviets will be less tempted to use them.

Arguments over "how much" or "when to use" should be welcomed in places like Harvard and Cambridge. Such public forums as the referendum last fall and the Nuclear Study Group's book served a good purpose. Concepts like "no first use" or "no export" for chemical and biological warfare can be debated in forums or specially commissioned studies. But emotional revulsions by city health departments and head-in-the-sand disclaimers from professors serve no one--especially not the Laotians and Afghans dying from Soviet-manufactured "yellow rain."