In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Chemical and Biological War

  • Introduction
  • Preindustrial Chemical and Biological Warfare
  • Beyond the Cold War
  • Scientific Benefits
  • Tear Gas
  • Environmental Issues

Military History Chemical and Biological War
Marion Girard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0077


Chemical weapons include arms that deploy gas, liquid, or solid substances with the intent of harming, harassing, or killing. They are commonly called poison gases, because those have been the most common kinds of chemical weapons used, although not all chemical weapons are poison gases. Biological weapons are those made from natural or synthetic diseases or substances intended to attack humans or animals and produce illness, thus injuring or killing their targets. Although, broadly defined, chemical and biological weapons have been a part of international warfare since ancient times, most histories focus on the modern, industrialized era, specifically 1915 onward. Chemical warfare was introduced and widely used in the form of poison gas during World War I. It was banned legally and morally during most of the interwar period, and, in general, belligerents were deterred from using chemical weapons during World War II and beyond. Chemical weaponry remains a threat from both state actors and now terrorists, although historians rarely focus on the contemporary period in depth. Biological warfare had been considered, but it was banned during the interwar period and has rarely been tried, and thus it has been the focus of fewer works than chemical warfare. The controversial nature of chemical and biological weapons (particularly the question of whether it is a humane or even acceptable weapon); the classification of both chemical and biological arms as weapons of mass destruction; and their limited use have inspired numerous historical works, especially ones focused on World War I, as well as works of interest to historians that are found in the scientific and policy literature.

General Overviews

There are a number of works that offer overviews of the history of chemical and biological weapons, although not all are monographs, and not are all found in works dedicated solely to historical examinations of chemical and biological weapons. Although it is useful to have sources focusing completely on biological or chemical warfare, having some that examine both topics can help explain the relationship between the two and why they are popularly, militarily, and politically perceived to be closely related. They tend to be seen as more closely related to each other than to nuclear weapons (the other key component of the main trio of weapons of mass destruction). See the Oxford Bibliographies article on Nuclear Weapons for more information on this other weapon of mass destruction.

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