The Long History of Weapons of Mass Destruction

About the author
Michael Rebehn was formerly openDemocracy’s Science&Technology editor.
430 B.C. Leucippus, born ca. 500 BCE, and his pupil, Democritus, born ca. 460 BCE, are credited with postulating the theory of Atoms and Void.
1346 The Tartars laid siege to Kaffa. During the siege an outbreak of plague infested their men. Before they left, the Tartars used catapults to throw the plague-infested bodies of their dead over the city walls. The plague spread through out the city. Europe’s second outbreak of the plague can partly be blamed on biological warfare.
1518 Hernando Cortes exposed the Aztec people to smallpox. It devastated the native population.
1530s Another smallpox epidemic spread through the Inca tribes as a result of Spanish explorers.
1675 Anthony Leeuwenhoek made the first simple microscope. This enabled him to see bacteria.
1704 Isaac Newton proposed a mechanical universe with small solid masses in motion.
1710 While Russia and Sweden were at war, Russian troops used the cadavers of plague victims to provoke an epidemic among the enemy.
1767 Sir Jeffery Amherst, a British general, gave blankets infected with smallpox to Indians who were helping the French during the French and Indian War. An epidemic broke out, decimating the Indians. This allowed Amherst to capture Fort Ticonderoga.
1855 Louis Pasteur uncovered the existence of germs and their disease capabilities while working with yeast.
1895 Wilhelm Roentgen of Germany discovered x-rays. Studying electrical discharge through rarefied gas, he found that invisible rays came from the positive electrode. They would darken a photographic plate through an opaque wrapping.
1896 Antoine Henri Becquerel of France discovered natural radioactivity when the invisible rays from uranium ore darkened a photographic plate.
1898 Pierre and Marie Curie of France discovered radium and polonium, the elements that constitute most of the radioactivity in uranium ore.
1900 Max Planck of Germany developed quantum theory, which deals with matter and energy on the subatomic level. Frederick Soddy of Great Britain observed spontaneous disintegration of radioactive elements into variants he called "isotopes" or totally new elements. He also discovered "half-life," and made initial calculations on energy released during decay.
1905 Albert Einstein of Germany published the theory of relativity regarding convertibility of matter and energy (E=mc2).
1913 Niels Bohr of Denmark published the theory of atomic structure, combining nuclear theory with quantum theory.
1914 H.G. Wells published the novel, ‘The World Set Free’, in which an atomic war in 1956 destroyed the major cities of the world.
1914-1918 The first wide-scale use of chemical weapons began during World War I. The Germans used mustard gases at the village of Langemarck in 1915. France and Britain soon followed. By 1918, one in every four artillery shells fired contained gas of one type or another.
1925 The Geneva Protocol was set up. It prohibited the use of biological and chemical weapons in warfare. It did not, however, ban the research or production of this type of warfare. The United States and Japan were the only major countries not to ratify the protocol.
1929 Ernest O. Lawrence of the United States conceived an idea for the first cyclotron (atom smasher). John D. Crockcroft and E. T. S. Walton of Great Britain, working in Ernest Rutherford's Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University developed a high voltage apparatus ("linear accelerator") for accelerating protons. With this they studied nuclear reactions (atomic transmutation). They were awarded a Nobel Prize in 1931.
1930 Schrödinger took electrons to be continuous clouds and introduced "wave mechanics" as a mathematical model of the atom.
1931 Albert Einstein urged all scientists to refuse military work.
1930s-1940s Japan experimented with biological agents. They experimented while fighting in China and Manchuria.
1934 Frederic and Irene Joliot-Curie of France discovered artificial radioactivity, i.e. the radioactivity of atoms produced in transmutation experiments. Enrico Fermi of Italy irradiated uranium with neutrons. He believed he had produced the first transuranic element, but unknowingly achieved the world's first nuclear fission.
1938 Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann of Germany split the uranium atom by bombarding it with neutrons and showed that the elements barium and krypton are formed as a result. Lisa Meitner conducted experiments verifying that heavy elements capture neutrons and form unstable products which undergo fission. This process ejects more neutrons continuing the fission chain reaction.
1939-1945 Zyklon-B was the poison used to murder millions of Nazi victims. It was dropped in crystal form, through a small hole in the ceiling, into the gas chambers. The pellets turned into a lethal gas once in air. Previous to its use in gas chambers, Zyklon-B was a common insecticide.
January to May 1939 Many experiments on uranium fission.
2 August 1939 Szilard, Wigner, and Teller obtained a letter from Einstein on the possibility of a uranium weapon; Roosevelt received the letter on October 11, 1939 from Sachs.
3 June 1940 German scientists failed to observe neutron multiplication in the reactor in Hamburg.
January 1941 Based on experiments with a natural uranium reactor, the Germans rejected graphite as a moderator.
July 1941 British 'Maud' Committee reported that a weapon could be made with 10 kg of Uranium-235; U.S. Academy of Sciences endorsed the bomb program.
1942 The British conducted anthrax tests on sheep in Scotland. The island, where the testing took place is believed to still be infected with anthrax spores. It is uninhabited.
May 1942 Heisenberg and Dopel observed the first multiplication of neutrons.
2 December 1942 First nuclear chain reaction at Chicago's Stagg Field by Fermi.
15 March 1943 Oppenheimer moved the bomb development to Los Alamos.
26 August 1944 Bohr presented his memorandum on intentional control of nuclear weapons to Roosevelt.
20 January 1945 First Uranium-235 separated at Oak Ridge.
16 July 1945 U.S. exploded first atomic bomb, the Trinity test, at Alamogordo.
6 August 1945 Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
9 August 1945 Atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki.
9 December 1948 The International Convention Against Genocide was approved by the UN General Assembly.
29 August 1949 First Soviet detonation, in the Ustyurt desert.
3 October 1952 First British atomic detonation, Monte Bello Islands, Australia.
13 February 1960 First nuclear test by France, Sahara desert.
16 October 1964 China exploded first nuclear bomb.
25 November 1969 President Richard Nixon announced a new policy on biological warfare for the United States. The United States pledged to never use biological weapons under any circumstance.
1972 The Biological Weapons Convention was established. The treaty prohibited the research development and production of offensive biological weapons. The Soviet Union and the United States both ratified the treaty.
1973 The entire United States arsenal of biological weapons was destroyed except for seed stocks held for research purposes.
18 May 1974 India set off a low-yield device (10-15 kt) under thye Rajasthan desert.
1979 In Sverdlovsk, a Soviet city, an outbreak of anthrax occurred. It was blamed on contaminated meat. Many believed, however, that the anthrax spores came from a nearby biological weapons facility. 64 people were killed.
1980 Smallpox was believed to have been eradicated world wide.
1980-1988 During the 1980-88 war, Iraq used chemical weapons (e.g. nerve agents and mustard gas) against Iran, killing and blinding many thousands of enemy soldiers. Iraq killed 5,000 Kurds in Halabja by the same means. Writing in the New York Times (31 Jan), Stephen Pelletierre, the CIA's senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, says both sides used chemical agents. ( He also argues that in the case of Halabja, the Iraqis may have been trying to hit Iranian soldiers very near by.)
1989 Dr. Vladimir Pasechnick defected to the United States. He revealed that the Soviet Union had a huge biological weapons program.
3 Apr 1991 The United Nations ordered Iraq to stop its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons programs. Security Council resolution 687 Section C, decided that Iraq shall unconditionally accept, under international supervision, the destruction, removal or rendering harmless of its weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missiles with a range over 150 kilometres, and related production facilities and equipment. It also provided for the establishment of a system of ongoing monitoring and verification of Iraq’s compliance with the ban on these weapons and missiles. Required Iraq to make a declaration, within 15 days, of the location, amounts and types of all such items.
9 Jun 1991 UNSCOM commenced its first chemical weapons inspection.
23-28 Jun 1991 UNSCOM/IAEA inspectors tried to intercept Iraqi vehicles carrying nuclear related equipment (Calutrons). Iraqi personnel fired warning shots in the air to prevent the inspectors from approaching the vehicles. The equipment was later seized and destroyed under international supervision.
21-30 Sep 1991 IAEA inspectors found large amounts of documentation relating to Iraq's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. The Iraqi officials confiscated some documents from the inspectors. The inspectors refused to yield a second set of documents. In response, Iraq refused to allow the team to leave the site with these documents. A four-day stand-off during which the team remained in the parking lot of the site ensued. Iraq permitted the team to leave with the documents following a statement by the President of the Security Council, threatening enforcement action by members of the Council.
1992 Russian President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged that the 1979 incident was related to a microbiology facility.
Jun 1992 Iraq provided its first Full, Final and Complete Disclosure for its prohibited chemical weapons programme.
Jul 1992 UNSCOM began the destruction of large quantities of Iraq's chemical weapons and production facilities.
1993 The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibited the research and production of offensive chemical agents
27 February 1993 The World Trade Centre was bombed. Experts believed the bomb was laced with cyanide but it failed to ignite.
Jun 1994 UNSCOM completed the destruction of large quantities of chemical warfare agents and precursors and their production equipment.
1995 In the Tokyo subway system Sarin gas was released by members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect. 12 were killed, but more than 5,000 were injured.
1 Jul 1995 As a result of UNSCOM's investigations and in the light of irrefutable evidence, Iraq admitted for the first time the existence of an offensive biological weapons programme, but denied weaponization.
8 Aug 1995 General Hussein Kamel, Minister of Industry and Minerals and former Director of Iraq's Military Industrialization Corporation, with responsibility for all of Iraq's weapons programmes, left Iraq for Jordan. Iraq claimed that Hussein Kamel had hidden from UNSCOM and the IAEA important information on the prohibited weapons programmes. Iraq withdrew its third biological Full, Final and Complete Disclosure and admitted a far more extensive biological warfare programme than previously admitted, including weaponization. Iraq also admitted having achieved greater progress in its efforts to indigenously produce long-range missiles than had previously been declared. Iraq provided UNSCOM and the IAEA with large amounts of documentation, hidden on a chicken farm, related to its prohibited weapons programmes which subsequently led to further disclosures by Iraq concerning the production of the nerve agent VX and Iraq's development of a nuclear weapon. Iraq also informed UNSCOM that the deadline to halt its cooperation was withdrawn.
Nov 1995 The Government of Jordan intercepted a large shipment of high-grade missile components destined for Iraq. Iraq denied that it had sought to purchase these components, although it acknowledged that some of them were in Iraq. UNSCOM conducted an investigation, which confirmed that Iraqi authorities and missile facilities had been involved in the acquisition of sophisticated guidance and control components for proscribed missiles. UNSCOM retrieved additional similar missile components from the Tigris river, allegedly disposed of there by Iraqis involved in their covert acquisition.
May-Jun 1996 UNSCOM supervised the destruction of Al-Hakam, Iraq's main facility for the production of biological warfare agents.
Sep 1997 Iraq provided the fifth Full, Final and Complete Disclosure for its prohibited biological weapons programme. An international panel of experts is convened in New York to discuss Iraq’s declaration. The panel unanimously found Iraq’s declaration to be incomplete, inadequate and technically flawed.
Oct 1997 UNSCOM completed the destruction of additional, large quantities of chemical weapons related equipment and precursors chemicals. Iraq had previously denied that part of the equipment had been used for CW production. Only in May 1997, on the basis of UNSCOM's investigations, did Iraq admit that some of the equipment had indeed been used in the production of VX.
1998 The United States began an anthrax vaccination program to immunize all military personal.
Early Feb 1998 Two technical evaluation meetings (TEM) took place in Baghdad, reviewing Iraq’s position with respect to the chemical weapons agent VX and missile warheads. The report of the outcome of the meetings was submitted to the Council. Despite Iraq’s assertions, the team of UNSCOM international experts concluded unanimously that Iraq had still not provided sufficient information for the Commission to conclude that Iraq had undertaken all the disarmament steps required of it in these areas.
8 Apr 1998 The report of the biological weapons TEM was transmitted to the Council. As with the other TEMs, experts unanimously concluded that Iraq’s declaration on its biological weapons programme was incomplete and inadequate.
14 Jul 1998 As a consequence of high-level talks between the Deputy Prime Minister and the Executive Chairman in June 1998, a team of UNSCOM international biological experts was assembled in Baghdad to review for the third time Iraq’s declaration on its biological weapons programme. The experts concluded that the declaration was not verifiable.
5 Aug 1998 The Revolutionary Command Council and the Ba’ath Party Command decided to halt cooperation with UNSCOM and the IAEA pending Security Council agreement to lift the oil embargo, reorganize the Commission and move it to either Geneva or Vienna. In the interim, Iraq would, on its own terms, permit monitoring under resolution 715 (1991).
16 Dec 1998 The Special Commission withdrew its staff from Iraq.
17 December 1999 Security Council adopted resolution 1284 replacing UNSCOM by the United Nations Monitoring Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). The UN Security Council adopted resolution 1284 with four abstentions (China, France, Malaysia and Russian Federation).
February-May 2001 UNMOVIC held consultations with interested Member States on its suggested revisions to the lists of chemical and biological equipment and materials to which the export/import monitoring mechanism applies.
1 June 2001 The Executive Chairman submitted revised lists of dual-use goods to the Security Council. The lists covered items and materials subject to notification to UNMOVIC under the Export/Import monitoring mechanism approved by Security Council resolution 1051 (1996).
September-October 2001 Letters containing anthrax spores showed up around the United States.
16 September 2002 The Foreign Minister of Iraq informed the Secretary-General that Iraq had decided to allow the return of weapons inspectors without conditions.
27 November 2002 Inspections resumed in Iraq.

The information in this timeline has been compiled from the sites of Nuclearfiles.org, UNMOVIC, UNSCOM, and Worldhistory.com.