Document 20: Can We Outlaw Poison Gas? (Washington, D.C.: Women's International League for Peace and Freedom [1927]). The Records of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, U.S. Section, 1919-1959, Swarthmore College Peace Collection (Microfilm, reel 33, frames 281-84).

Document 20: Can We Outlaw Poison Gas? (Washington, D.C.: Women's International League for Peace and Freedom [1927]). The Records of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, U.S. Section, 1919-1959, Swarthmore College Peace Collection (Microfilm, reel 33, frames 281-84).


        In 1925, the League of Nations called a conference in Geneva to discuss reducing the international traffic in arms as a way to limit the possibility of future wars. At this conference the American delegation introduced and signed a resolution adopted by the Conference to ban "the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous, or other gases." The U.S. Section attempted in this pamphlet to enlist public support to put pressure on Congress to ratify the treaty. The treaty was never ratified by the U.S., having been returned to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 1927, where it stayed for twenty years.[21]

Can We




Published by


522 Seventeenth Street N.W.

Washington, D.C.


If the United States Refuses to Ratify the

        Poison Gas Protocol, What of It?



        It would directly encourage investing huge masses of capital in chemical materials for making war. It would mean enlisting the incentive of profit-making, on a vast scale, in favor of wars. It would lead to diverting precious time and money, that might go into scientific investigation on behalf of life, to work for destruction and death.


        It would be the deliberate acceptance for our own use of methods that at heart we condemn. The use of poison gas EVEN FOR REPRISALS was opposed at Geneva by Japan, Italy, Great Britain, and the United States.


        It would be a moral disaster of the first magnitude, for it would be a direct vote of no confidence in other peoples. If the nation, which prides itself on moral leadership is not ready even to abandon the use of poison gas and disease germs against non-combatants this would be a heavy blow to the peace movement throughout the world. The peoples might well ask, "What hope then is there?"


        It would be an act of national self-stultification through which we would lay ourselves open to the charge of inconsistency and even insincerity if we ourselves refuse to take a position which we have urged upon the other nations of the world.

        What is the record of the United States with regard to poison gas warfare?

        1. We proposed a treaty which was adopted by the Washington Conference[A] prohibiting the use of poisonous gasses [sic] in war.

        2. By Article VII of this treaty, which was unanimously ratified by the United States Senate on March 29, 1922, the U.S. accepted a moral obligation to secure universal acceptance of these principles.

        3. Acting under our influence the five Central American Republics signed a treaty in Washington on February 7, 1923, containing the same provisions.

        4. We participated in a Pan-American Conference[B] at Santiago in 1923, which adopted a resolution recommending the reiteration of this prohibition.

        5. Finally, in pursuance of a uniform policy, with the approval of the President, the Army, the Navy, and the State Department, and professing that it was in the interests of humanity and peace, we proposed the treaty, signed at Geneva on June 17, 1925, which is now before the Senate for ratification.

        6. We imposed upon Germany, Austria and Hungary by the peace treaties of 1921 a binding obligation not only not to use poisonous gasses, but not to manufacture or import them.

        "If the pending treaty is not adopted, in all sincerity and fairness we should enter into negotiations with these countries (Germany, Austria and Hungary) and say that we relieve them from an obligation which we are unwilling to accept."
            --Representative Theodore E. Burton of Ohio in the
            House of Representatives, January 19, 1927.

Is the Use of Poison Gas Necessary in a Military Sense?

        Hear what responsible American authorities say about it.

        The General Board of the U. S. Navy reported at the Washington Conference that it believed it "to be sound policy to prohibit gas warfare in every form and against every objective." General Pershing was Chairman of the Sub-Committee of experts representing five powers at the same Conference, and this Committee recommended that "Chemical warfare should be abolished among nations as abhorrent to civilization" and as "fraught with the greatest danger to non-combatants and demoralizing the better instincts of humanity."

        The Hon. Hamilton Fish of New York was one of the three members of the American Legion who drew up the preamble to their constitution. Last January in the House of Representatives he made the following statement:

        "As a member of the American Legion and as one of its supporters I deplore the fact that the American Legion has gone on record against this treaty" (The Poison Gas Protocol). "At the same time I do not believe for a moment that that represents the view of the rank and file of the veterans of the World War. (Applause.) I am absolutely confident that I can go before any American Legion Post in the United States and get 90% of those American Legion members to vote for the passage of this treaty to abolish poison gas in any future war. (Applause.) There is no question about it."

        M. Paul Boncour, chairman of the French delegation at Geneva, said:

        "I desire to say that France gives her spontaneous, immediate, and whole-hearted adhesion to anything which can be done to prohibit chemical warfare."

* * *

        "The military regulations of France on the conduct of larger units begin with these words: 'Faithful to the international undertakings which France has signed, the French Government will, on the outbreak of war, and in agreement with the Allies, endeavor to obtain from enemy governments an understanding that they will not employ gas as a weapon of war.'"

Is Gas a More Humane Weapon than Shrapnel?

        No, not because it is necessarily worse to be gassed than to be shot or, even as bad, but because gas will be used against vastly greater numbers and those the most helpless and sensitive. Trench warfare is ghastly. What will it be when a city like New York or Paris is sprayed from the air with poisonous and incendiary gasses?

Can Poison Gas be Outlawed?

        Forty-four nations have voted "yes" by accepting a treaty to do this very thing. The United States has urged this policy, the Senate has approved it, but when it comes to taking the final step it lags.

        "Nations rejoice in the fact that they have courage to fight each other. When will the time come that they have courage to trust each other?"-- Coolidge.

And If the Poison Gas Protocol Were Ratified?

        The United States would lose nothing so far as the power of self-defense is concerned. Gas and disease germs are of no use except for attack. They are needed only for wars of aggression.

        The Preparatory Disarmament Commission of which the U. S. is a member has agreed that the agencies for sudden aggression are the most dangerous form of armaments. It has drawn up plans for their strict limitation and control. This is the danger of preparation for poison gas warfare; it is "provocative" armament, of which Secretary Hughes says, "Provocative armament threatens aggression, breeds distrust, stimulates competition in arms and leads to war." In a letter to Senator Borah, December 10, 1926, General Pershing wrote:

        "I can not think it possible that our country should fail to ratify the protocol which includes this or a similar provision. Scientific research may discover gas so deadly that it will produce instant death. To sanction the use of gas in any form would be to open the way for the use of the most deadly gasses and the possible poisoning of whole populations of non-combatant men, women, and children. The contemplation of such a result is shocking to the senses. It is unthinkable that civilization should deliberately decide upon such a course."

War Would Remain Sufficiently Horrible to Make Any
People Capable of Reasonable Self-Direction
Desire to Escape It.

        It is not necessary to retain the possibility of a chemical war for the sake of scaring people. War was Hell, as General Sherman said, even in the Civil War period, and it is no "nicer" today.

        At least a certain measure of reciprocal disarmament would have been won. Mr. Hughes has said, "Every single step that can be taken would have an important psychological effect as well as direct material consequence. A measure of prevention is better than none."

        Though the effort to prevent war would not have been advanced, at least it would not have suffered an immense set-back. It would be a great encouragement to aggressive militarism all over the world if the strongest and safest country of all refused to go even so far as to dismantle the chemical works at Edgewood and elsewhere and to renounce bacteriological warfare.

What to Do About It?
Write to Your Senators Today to Vote to Outlaw Poison Gas
Pass This Leaflet On

A. The Washington Conference was an international diplomatic meeting in 1921 to avert a naval arms race between the principal maritime powers -- Britain, the United States, Japan, France, and Italy. China, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Belgium were also represented. The resultant treaty in 1922 put a stop to naval competition by limiting the battleship strength of the five powers.
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B. The Pan-American Conference was the Fifth International Conference of American States, held in Santiago, Chile, in 1923.
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