Final Public Oral Exam: Alison McManus

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
December 9, 2022 - 10:00am
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam

The Other Chemists' War: The Uses, Dual Uses, and Abuses of Chemical Weapons in World War II


Michael D. Gordin, adviser
Angela N. H. Creager
Sheldon Garon
Erika L. Milam
Florian Schmaltz, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG)


“The Other Chemists’ War” positions World War II as a transformative moment in the history of chemical weapons, which fundamentally transformed these poisonous technologies in terms of material and meaning, despite its persistent reputation as a case of chemical weapons “non-use.” Taking a wide view of chemical weapons “use,” this dissertation examines research and development programs alongside strategies for maintaining secrecy. Its two case studies are the G-series nerve agents (tabun, sarin, and soman), developed in Nazi Germany between 1936 – 1944, and the auxinic herbicides, synthesized in the United States and the United Kingdom in the early 1940s and later refashioned into Agent Orange. Each of these novel agents was subject to an imperfect mosaic of information controls, which impacted their military history — that is, their use versus non-use on 20th-century battlefields. In the case of the nerve agents, Allied practices of information control elevated Nazi fears of retaliation and contributed to chemical weapons restraint. In the case of the auxinic herbicides, uneven secrecy regimes had the opposite effect. By muddling scientific priority claims, these mutable information controls paved the way for large-scale production of herbicides by any industrial firm, with consequences for the emerging military-industrial complex and defoliation programs of the Cold War era.

By highlighting acts of chemical prediction and intuition, this dissertation demonstrates that the “non-use” of poison gas in the European theater rested in part on the contingencies of chemical information flow. In turn, this circumscribed “non-use” shaped the stories that contemporaries told themselves about chemical and other weapons of mass destruction. In the war’s aftermath, journalists, politicians, and military personnel increasingly spoke of poison gas as a weapon of power imbalance, most useful in asymmetric conflicts between industrialized nations and those who lacked the means of retaliation. Policymakers on both sides of the iron curtain also framed chemical weapons “non-use” as an instructive model for the atomic age.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Contact Lee Horinko for a copy of the dissertation and the Zoom meeting link and password.

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All are welcome and encouraged to attend.