How Lobbyists Normalized the Use of Chemical Weapons on American Civilians

Or, how we learned to stop worrying and love the gas.

Anna Feigenbaum | An Excerpt from: Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of WWI to the Streets of Today | Verso | November 2017 | 22 minutes (6,015 words) 

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Just as some in Europe argued that chemical weapons were a mark of a civilized society, for General Fries war gases were the ultimate American technology.

With his thick moustache and piercing, deep-set eyes, General Amos Fries’s passion shone through as he spoke. In a 1921 lecture to military officers at the General Staff College in Washington, DC, Fries lauded the Chemical Warfare Service for its wartime achievements. The US entered the chemical arms race “with no precedents, no materials, no literature and no personnel.” The 1920s became a golden age of tear gas. Fries capitalized on the US military’s enthusiastic development of chemical weapons during the war, turning these wartime technologies into everyday policing tools. As part of this task Fries developed an impressive PR campaign that turned tear gas from a toxic weapon into a “harmless” tool for repressing dissent.

Manufacturers maneuvered their way around the Geneva Protocol, navigating through international loopholes with ease. But these frontier pursuits could not last forever. The nascent tear gas industry would come to face its biggest challenge yet, in the unlikely form of US senators. In the 1930s two separate Senate subcommittees were tasked with investigating the dodgy sales practices of industrial munitions companies and their unlawful suppression of protest.

General Fries’s deep personal commitment to save the Chemical Warfare Service won him both allies and critics, often in the same breath. Already known for his staunch anticommunism and disdain for foreigners of all kinds, Fries was an unapologetic proponent of military solutions for dissent both at home and abroad. A journalist for the Evening Independent wrote that Fries was often “accused of being an absolute militarist anxious to develop a military caste in the United States.” But to those who shared his cause, Fries was an excellent figurehead for Chemical Warfare. A family man, a dedicated soldier, and a talented engineer, Fries was the perfect face of a more modern warfare.

Just as some in Europe argued that chemical weapons were a mark of a civilized society, for General Fries war gases were the ultimate American technology. They were a sign of the troops’ perseverance in World War I and an emblem of industrial modernity, showcasing the intersection of science and war. In an Armistice Day radio speech broadcast in 1924, Fries said, “The extent to which chemistry is used can almost be said today to be a barometer of the civilization of a country.” This was poised as a direct intervention to the international proposal for a ban on chemical weapons, as preparations for the Geneva Convention were well under way. If chemical weapons were banned, Fries knew it would likely mean the end of the CWS—and with it his blossoming postwar career.

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A full-scale multimedia marketing campaign to promote ‘war gases for peace time use.’

To save the CWS from extinction, Fries would need his own army—one that would fight with rhetoric and social capital. On August 9, 1919, Fries wrote anxiously to his friend and colleague Major Charles Richardson, who had also served in the war. After clearing up the issue of a bedroll thought to be lost at their last visit to the Yale Club, the general moved on to more pressing matters: “The Chief of Staff is trying to kill the Chemical Warfare Service.” While Fries wanted to see the military’s new interests in chemical weapons expand, there were others in the military who thought it unnecessary and wasteful to keep the division alive. Now a corporate executive, Richardson responded to Fries with some sound business advice: “Use your utmost endeavours to get engineer societies, lawyers, doctors, or any other professional you wakened to the gravity of the situation.”

William H. Chadbourne, a lawyer and former major in the CWS, joined the campaign efforts. On August 12, 1919, he wrote to Fries, “It is time for all of us to get together who realise the importance of gas warfare and the danger that this country may be caught napping again.” Fries promptly responded by putting Chadbourne to work: “Anything you can do to aid in letting Congress know that a lawyer is considered to have at least as much brains as an infantryman, will, incidentally, help the Chemical Warfare Service.”

Over the autumn of 1919, Fries worked with Chadbourne and Richardson to secure a network of publicists, scientists, and politicians to rally for their cause. They strategically began a full-scale multimedia marketing campaign to promote “war gases for peace time use.” On September 23, 1919, Chadbourne sent Fries an outline of the proposed promotional plan he and Richardson had devised, which included the creation of an association to bring briefs before the Military Affairs Committees of the House and Senate as well as to “get in touch with various scientific and other bodies.” Second, it called for arranging for writers and publishers to cover stories on the benefits of chemical weapons, led by Major Popp, “an enthusiast” and “hard worker” with “good manner and address.”

The trade press provided the first and largest forum for the spread of the tear gas gospel. In the November 6, 1921, issue of Gas Age Record, Theo M. Knappen profiled Fries, the “dynamic chief” of the Chemical Warfare Service. Knappen wrote that Fries had

given much study to the question of the use of gas and smokes in dealing with mobs as well as with savages, and is firmly convinced that as soon as officers of the law and colonial administrators have familiarized themselves with gas as a means of maintaining order and power there will be such a diminution of violent social disorders and savage uprising as to amount to their disappearance … The tear gases appear to be admirably suited to the purpose of isolating the individual from the mob spirit … he is thrown into a condition in which he can think of nothing but relieving his own distress. Under such conditions an army disintegrates and a mob ceases to be; it becomes a blind stampede to get away from the source of torture … Nobody can travel very fast in a narrow street or in the midst of obstacles with streams of burning tears flowing from his eyes … An advantage of the milder form of gas weapons in dealing with a mob is that the responsible officer need not hesitate to use his weapons.

In the future, Knappen predicted, when breaking up a demonstration, tear gas “will be the easy way and the best way.”

This early promotional writing struck a careful balance between selling pain and promising harmlessness. Its psychological impact set tear gas apart from bullets: It could demoralize and disperse a crowd without live ammunition. Through sensory torture, tear gas could force people to retreat. These features gave tear gas novelty value in a market where only the billy club and bullets were currently available. Officers could disperse a crowd with “a minimum amount of undesirable publicity.” Instead of lasting traces of blood and bruises, tear gas evaporates from the scene. Its damage promised to be so much less pronounced on the surface of the skin or in the lens of the camera.

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Fries and his team dismissed veterans’ testimonies, claiming these were exaggerated tales.

But the idea of transforming wartime weapons for peacetime use was not without its critics. In a 1922 letter to the New York Times, US Army veteran A. Reid Moir argued that gas was not only inhumane but “hellish.” He wrote, “Is it humane to lie in excruciating pain, with stomach swollen by the expansion of gas, and with lungs eaten by the deadly vapor to cough up one’s life in an agonizing convulsion[?]” Fries’s team had carefully constructed comebacks for such objections. Borrowing loosely from medical statistics, Fries and his team constructed a trio of retorts. War gases, they claimed, killed only one-twelfth the amount of fatalities caused by bullets. Second, only half of disability discharges were from gas. Finally, they argued that there was no medical proof of permanent injury from gas exposure and that serious injuries were very rare.

Twisting the numbers, Fries and his team dismissed veterans’ testimonies, claiming these were exaggerated tales. They went so far as to publicly declare that “every imposter is beginning to claim gassing as the reason for his wanting War Sick benefits from the government.” This approach provided the groundwork for the decades of legitimizing less lethal weaponry to come.

US-CRIME-POLICE-RACE-UNREST

Ferguson, Missouri, November 24, 2014. Photo credit: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

Never far from Fries’s lenient use of statistics were his colonial rationalizations. Fries’s writing and speeches are littered with references to white supremacy. In his lecture at the General Staff College, Fries told young soldiers, “The same training that makes for advancement in science, and success in manufacture in peace, gives the control of the body that hold the white man to the firing line no matter what its terrors. A great deal of this comes because the white man has had trained out of him nearly all superstition.” It is this training, for Fries, that sets him apart from the “negro” as well as the “Gurkha and the Moroccan.”

While it would be easy to write Fries off as an anticommunist, racist, and military extremist, the potency of his views arose from his intellect as much as his ignorance. After graduating seventh in his class from West Point in 1898, Fries had entered the academy by acing an exam held by Congressman Binger Herman and went on to impress his superiors and inspire his army subordinates. In the words of his peers, Fries took a situation in which “the entire civilian population,” as well as the army, stood against his pro-gas campaign and ignited in people an “earnest conviction” that these chemicals were the solution to law enforcement and political control in a time of economic depression. Instead of being seen as a form of physiological and psychological torture, tear gas became rhetorically cemented in much of the public imagination as the humanitarian alternative to live ammunition.

Into the next century, tear gas would become the most widely used less lethal technology. It would transform into part of today’s $1,630,000,000 global industry in less lethal weapons, with rapidly expanding markets in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. But for all that to unfold, Fries and his compatriots would first need to build up a commercial market for tear gas.

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The art of twisting scientific testing into advertising copy.

Beyond trade publications, radio speeches, and news features, Fries and his network also staged large-scale product demonstrations. On a balmy July day in 1921, Fries’s old friend and colleague Stephen J. De La Noy, brought large supplies of tear gas to a field near downtown Philadelphia. Here he enacted the power of war gases in peacetime by inviting members of the city’s police department to experience its effects. Inviting reporters to record the spectacle of 200 policemen faced with tear gas, De La Noy set the stage for an enticing media story.

A reporter from the New York Times described how the gas “thrice sent [the police] into hasty and wet-eyed retreat.” As the demonstration continued, Philadelphia’s police superintendent selected “a battalion of his huskiest men … with instructions to capture six men who were armed with 150 tear gas bombs.” They fared no better than the first bunch, as “three times they charged, but each time were driven back, weeping violently as they came within range of the charged vapour.” Afterwards, police officials told the Times that the demonstration “undoubtedly proved the value of tear gas in police work.” The gas, they concluded, would likely replace “means hitherto used to subdue mobs and criminals.”

Strikers Tear Gassed

Tear gas used against striking workers of the Spang Chalfant Company, Ambridge, Pennsylvania, June 11, 1934. Photo: Getty Images.

This early demonstration spawned a major national and international campaign for the use of tear gases by law enforcement agencies. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s both the CWS and commercial manufacturers peddled their products to police departments, National Guard, prisons, and private security firms. This marks a turning point in what is today called the “militarization of the police.” “A few police armed with this weapon could disperse a mob easily and destroy the impact of a mass demonstration,” historian Daniel P. Jones argues. “The dramatic increase in the power of police forces in handling mass disturbances certainly meant a loss of power to any group opposing established order.”

Just as demand needed to be secured, so did supply. To jumpstart the commercial market, Fries donated samples from the CWS to friends—many of them former soldiers—who had become entrepreneurial executives in gas munitions companies. Perhaps the most outspoken of these was Colonel B. C. Goss, who had worked in the chemical warfare division during World War I. A respected chemist and decorated military man, Goss founded the Lake Erie Chemical Company in Cleveland, Ohio. As general manager of one of the largest companies in this new industry, Goss knew profits would follow perception. He wanted to be the single manufacturer supported by the US military, and sought to use his wartime credentials to make this happen. Goss solicited help from his old CWS buddies and learned the art of twisting scientific testing into advertising copy.

On April 15, 1926, Goss wrote to Fries requesting that he contact the Chicago Superintendent of Police, Morgan A. Collins, “calling his attention to the fact the there are many possible new uses and new chemicals which are admirably suited for use by police departments [sic], with which you would like to have them made acquainted, and that you would appreciate it if he could arrange to have me give a brief talk to the National Convention of Police Chiefs at Chicago.” Fries, uncomfortable with this request but committed to Goss, delayed his reply. Busy preparing for a confidential show at Edgewood Arsenal, Fries “hesitated about writing to the Chicago Chief of Police for fear of possible unfavorable reaction.” He thought it better if the superintendent could telephone him, at which point he could then recommend Goss as a keynote speaker, making the matter appear more casual. “You know my great personal interest in what you are doing,” Fries reassured Goss. “As fast as your products are available, send them along to us for testing.”

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Tear gas was in fact intentionally designed to be shot at point-blank range into people’s faces and bodies and was indeed recommended for use inside buildings.

Goss wasn’t the only one monitoring his public perception. Fries wanted to keep his special relationships with commercial manufacturers sweet, without causing a stir with the War Department. These exchanges between Goss and Fries paralleled a growing PR industry in the United States. In these still early days of military-industry exchange, what connected state and commercial organizations was not only knowledge and technology transfer but also communications strategies. Building social networks and embedding endorsements into marketing was as important as generating revenue. Goss and Fries were exchanging both profit and perception. In ways that continue today, this concern over public perception functions at multiple levels. At the organizational level, it operates to keep workers in line (seen in Fries’s wariness of upsetting his superiors). On the level of business transactions, it is what shapes a sales personality and branding strategy (seen in Goss’s courting of police chiefs). And on a more public level, it fuels media strategies and shapes rhetoric (as in Fries’s production of the language and concept of humanitarian weaponry).

Within a year, the CWS was providing tests of Lake Erie’s commercial products. The company’s new tear gas weapons were set to undergo scrutiny at Edgewood Arsenal in the winter of 1927. While Goss was soliciting military endorsements, he wanted to make sure the tests were carried out in a way that provided the best possible outcome. This was no ordinary tear gas. “These Shells are intended to be used, namely, for firing directly in the faces of rioters or mobs, at short range by guards,” Goss wrote, checking in with Fries on February 17, 1927, to recommend that testing be done only with the one-inch Very Pistols instead of the ten-gauge. He promised, “These one-inch shells really have a terrific wallop.”

Protesters managed to pull down a wall connecting Gatuekera

Nairobi, Kenya, October 26, 2017. Photo: Getty Images

On February 25, the CWS reported the results of Lake Erie’s “Blind-X Shell” tests. In the opinion of the board, this tear gas was of no use in the outdoors, as Goss had noted in his letter. Yet the gas “would seriously injure if fired in the face of a person under 20 feet,” making it useful for “warehouses or other large rooms.” The report recommended that “the charge must be received full in the face or on the body to be effective” and that this gas “will be effective against unarmed individuals, but will only stop a determined and armed individual when fired point blank.”

While the Lake Erie “Blind-X Shells” tests were just one in a long series of munitions tests to take place at the Arsenal, the results speak toward common misperceptions about how tear gas is handled. Today when canisters are shot at people’s heads or into rooms or cars, it is seen as an accident or against-protocol use. However, these tests show that tear gas was in fact intentionally designed to be shot at point-blank range into people’s faces and bodies and was indeed recommended for use inside buildings and for firing at close proximities. It is important to bear in mind that these Blind-X Shells were not early prototypes of aerosol sprays—those were found in police billy clubs and pen devices that fired tear gas. In these early versions of tear gas sprays, a “secret” nozzle concealed in the object would fire out a short spurt of these chemicals. Far more aggressive than these miniature blasts of liquid, Very Pistols were flare guns adapted to carry tear gas shells. Each shell was a cylindrical cartridge with a one-inch diameter, roughly the size of today’s D battery. This was considered an “excellent” and desirable feature of tear gas because of its ability to cause “walloping” pain.

Second, the test results explicitly stated that the product would be effective against “unarmed individuals.” Again, it was not an anomaly or ethical mistake for police to fire upon unarmed protesters at close range in enclosed spaces. This function was embedded in the very design of these tear gas weapons. Causing injury to unarmed civilians was an intended outcome of manufacturing these tear gas shells.

Today, companies claim to manufacture safer and safer forms of tear gas and less lethal weapons. But what does it really mean to improve on the safety of a device designed to cause harm? Is it truly an accident when a product developed to shoot people in the face is used to shoot people in the face? If you follow the hyperlinked trails of less-lethal-weapons patents into the past, you will see the mystifying language of safety and protocols erode. Yet the design and purpose of these technologies remains the same.

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I hope in the spring to be able to go back and then take advantage of your offer to do a little golf out at the Country Club.

As the use of tear gas by law enforcement officials grew, tensions between the roles of commercial manufacturers and the CWS mounted. Just one month after the February 1927 tests, Goss panicked over leaked information. Edgewood Arsenal had purchased hand grenades made by Lake Erie Chemical Company for technical trials. As Edgewood’s technicians consisted of men who, like Goss, where also involved in commercial companies, testing at the military facility meant that competitors gained access to new tear gas developments— including rival company Federal Laboratories.

Colonel Goss could not contain his panic over the prospect that Federal Labs would steal its new noxious formulas. “I should like to point out to you again,” he wrote General Fries in haste, “that this very thing is a source of danger to our interest, if in ‘technical personnel,’ Oglesby and the others who are, I understand, under contract with Federal Laboratories, are included.” A man of science, of war and of commercial interests, Colonel Goss struggled to maintain friendly connections with the CWS and focus on the profits of his budding business. Meanwhile, on the other side of this military-industrial exchange, General Fries grew impatient with Goss and increasingly protective over what kinds of support he could offer from his position inside the Chemical Warfare Service. “I have read and re-read your letter through several times,” he replied to Goss, “and I am at a loss to understand your attitude in the matter of testing grenades … I cannot understand how you can expect to have us put you in a preferred class when we go into the market and purchase your product.” Dismayed that Lake Erie was advertising unpatented products on the open market, Fries wrote, “No reputable firm, in my mind, would build up a market for a product which they were not able to fill indefinitely.”

Tacoma Lumber Strike

The lumber and mill workers strike, Tacoma, Washington, 1935. Photo: Getty Images.

In 1929, Goss again found his interests tangled up with the CWS, this time with General Gilchrist, Fries’s successor. Angry once again at the spread of technical information, Goss wrote Gilchrist, “We have hitherto kept the composition of our Gas a trade secret … [it] was not developed by the Chemical Warfare Service, but in our own laboratories and Dr Clark, chief chemist of the Eastman Kodak Company … told me that in his opinion, the composition was more effective.” When Goss later sought copies of another set of technical reports from the Chemical Warfare Service, this fuzzy division between the commercial and military sectors came to the fore. “I regret very much to be compelled to inform you,” Gilchrest responded, “these reports are strictly confidential and cannot be removed from Edgewood Arsenal.” Yet, weaving back into informality, Gilchrest’s ends his letter amicably: “I hope in the spring to be able to go back and then take advantage of your offer to do a little golf out at the Country Club.” These old-boys’-club connections continue to characterize arms-trade exchanges today. As performed sociability infuses business transactions, partnerships are formed and broken around mutated visions of trust and loyalty.

Goss’s frustration with the CWS mounted. In July 1931, conflicting interests arose once more, this time around the military sale of gas grenades. “It is common practice with these National Guard outfits to give away Grenades to any Police Department or Prison, or almost anybody else that asks for them,” Goss complained, “Which, of course, has an exceedingly bad effect on our business.” Goss’s intervention yielded positive results: the chief of the Militia Bureau issued instructions to the National Guard that the sale of tear gas “for any purpose other than that for which it was issued to the State” was not permitted.

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You were gassed with the best of will!

By the late 1920s, both Lake Erie Chemical Company and Federal Laboratories were deeply embroiled in labor struggles and international conflicts. In addition to their close military ties, representatives from these companies fraternized with industry executives and local police forces. They followed news headlines of strike disputes and sent their salesmen into high-conflict areas. In a 1936 article for the Nation, Frank C. Hanighen explained, “Firms engaging in this sort of business do not wait for strikes to commence. They go after the business before trouble breaks out and persuade industrialists to arm, regardless of the consequences to the workers.”

Mr. John W. Young, president of Federal Laboratories, wrote to one of his agents that he had seen “a notice in Sunday’s Herald Tribune that they were expecting labor trouble at the Panama Canal.” He advised his salesmen, “This paper lists the Callahan Co., Shirley Peterson, and Gunther as contractors … I think if these people are properly solicited they can be convinced of the importance of carrying tear gas on hand in Panama. I suggest you follow this through.”

In the United States, the use of tear gas to break up political protest was also gaining ground. On July 29, 1932, the largest “practical field test” (as Edgewood Arsenal called it) of new tear gas technologies occurred when National Guard troops stormed the Bonus Army encampments in Washington, DC. A group of veterans lobbying to receive their overdue wartime payments, the “Bonus Army” was living and protesting outside the capitol. During the National Guard’s offensive eviction, tear gas smoke and fire engulfed the encampment. Two men were killed in the bloody eviction and two infant children were said to have asphyxiated from tear gas inhalation. Official reports of the incident claimed otherwise, but the Bonus Army saw this as another government cover-up. Their ballad “No Undue Violence” mockingly testified:

“We used no undue violence”—
So, Baby Myers, be still!
Though it isn’t quite plain
To your little brain,
You were gassed with the best of will!

For the Bonus Army, tear gas became known as the “Hoover ration,” a further sign of growing economic disparity in America. But for police chiefs, industrial owners, and consulates around the world, the eviction of the Bonus Army was an opportunity to demonstrate the power of their riot-control products.

The Lake Erie Chemical sales team included photos of the Bonus Army demonstrations in its highly illustrated product catalogues. These promotional materials also depicted scenes of smoke chasing away strikers from Ohio to Virginia. Lake Erie’s tagline, “One man with Chemical Warfare Gas can put to flight a thousand armed men,” ran across the bottom of all its promotional communications, as it made promises to provide “an irresistible blast of blinding, choking pain” that would “produce no permanent injury.”

While manufacturers were busy extolling the harmlessness of their product line, hospitals were filling up with people suffering from tear gas injuries. Reflecting on this gap between marketing and reality, Heber Blankenhorn of the National Labor Relations Board told the Nation, “They say these tear gas bombs do not hurt. I happened to see one of the men hit by one of these and all that could be seen of his face, when I saw him in the hospital, was one eye glaring at me and something like a mouth—when he tried to call for water, more blood and sputum came out than anything else.”

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They glued together the shredded files of tear gas salesmen.

As the 1930s brought on the Great Depression, the United States saw a heightened use of tear gas to quell economic protests. It was not long before the tear gas industry’s role in strikebreaking drew attention. Government investigations came in the form of two Senate subcommittees. One, chaired by Senator Robert Lafollette Jr., investigated the private sales of tear gas to industrialists for strikebreaking purposes. The other, Senator Gerald P. Nye’s Special Committee Investigating the Munitions Industry, examined the national and international trade in munitions, which included the sale of tear gas by commercial manufacturers, particularly Lake Erie Chemical Company and Federal Laboratories.

As chair of subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, Senator LaFollette—or “Young Bob,” as he was often called—was busy investigating corporate corruption and the repression of labor strikes. A progressive Republican from Wisconsin and son of the much-loved and respected “Fighting Bob” LaFollette Sr., Bob Jr. was born into his reputation as an advocate for labor rights. LaFollette’s subcommittee investigation included scrutiny of the use of tear gas and other industrial munitions against strikers. A dedicated bunch, they chased after subpoenaed executives. They glued together the shredded files of tear gas salesmen. And they traveled tirelessly up and down the country gathering testimonial evidence from policemen, guards, and the strikers they had gassed.

Women On Strike

American police use tear gas against women pickets at the Newton Steel Company, Monroe, Michigan, June 10, 1937. Photo: Getty Images.

Senator Lafollette had been informed by the Department of Commerce’s National Bureau of Standards that the Chemical Warfare Service “had charge of the development of this product and its use for civil as well as military purposes.” Bureau director Lyman J. Briggs, the man in charge of overseeing commercial standards for products, believed the CWS was linked to the commercial manufacture of tear gas. There was little reason to suspect he was mistaken. Briggs, known to be an easygoing man, made no judgment or assertion of value in his brief letter to the senator. He simply stated that the CWS was involved “in civil and military” uses of tear gas.

But acting Chief Lieutenant Colonel Haig Shekerjian of the CWS knew better than to admit such intimate relations to a man investigating the repression of civil rights. Shekerjian wrote back to the senator that very same day to assure him: “This understanding is incorrect inasmuch as the Chemical Warfare Service is responsible solely for the development and use of chloroacetophenone for strictly military purposes, and has no information concerning the production of this material in the United States, or cost, thereof, other than the production and cost of the small quantities manufac- tured by this Service from time to time for military training purposes.” Attempting to untangle military and commercial interests, Lieutenant Colonel Shekerjian wanted Lafollette to believe that the CWS had little to do with the production and sale of tear gas munitions.

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Mr. Young reluctantly admitted that no tear gas had ever been sold to strikers.

Shekerjian’s claim was in some ways true. The CWS was not allowed to manufacture gas munitions for public or commercial sale. Its supplies were held primarily for research and testing purposes for war preparation. Only under special circumstances where conflict suddenly arose could they deploy tear gas to the National Guard, federal prisons, or military outposts abroad. The CWS was, in strictly legal terms, a separate entity from the few companies selling tear gas at the time. This was, of course, only the official story. In reality the CWS was deeply embroiled in bringing tear gas from the trenches to the streets.

Senator Lafollette’s investigators traveled around the United States interviewing witnesses, subpoenaing files, and at times even rifling through the trash, ashes, and shredded papers of sales agents’ files. Between April 1936 and July 1937, the committee had taken 333 witnesses’ testimony and amassed hundreds of exhibits, included incriminating letters and images of blood-stained tear gas canisters. The subcommittee found that between 1933 and 1937, over $1.25 million (about $21 million today) worth of “tear and sickening gases” had been purchased “chiefly during or in anticipation of strikes.”

Nye’s investigation turned up similar findings regarding the business practices of tear gas salesmen. On Tuesday, September 18, 1934, Mr. Young, president of Federal Laboratories, stood before Nye’s committee. Senator Clark turned to the question of the relationship between industrialists and tear gas manufacturers:

senator clark: Is there any limitation on whom you sell that tear gas or sickening gas to, or do you just sell it to anybody who comes along and wants to buy it? …

mr. young: The limitation has been put on there by ourselves, primarily, Senator Clark. In other words, let us say that there was going to be a local strike in some town. The police department of that town happens to be on the side of the industrialists. They buy tear gas, but the strikers, those on the other side, cannot buy tear gas. Is that the operation as a result of your rules?

Mr. Young reluctantly admitted that no tear gas had ever been sold to strikers and went on to explain to the senators, much to their annoyance, how mob psychology worked.

But it wasn’t only the tear gas manufacturers who used PR to fight their case. Kiplinger Finance magazine observed of LaFollette’s committee hearings, “Senate tear gas and strikebreaking disclosures will have the effect in Congress next year of promoting federal regulation of traffic in arms, bombs, and other strikebreaking implements. There will be much agitation against corporations using them. Publicity will be the weapon.”

This publicity often worked in Lafollette’s favor, as reporters were drawn to the cover-ups and conspiracies exposed at the hearings. This prompted complaints and personal attacks on Lafollette from those who supported strikebreaking. Lafollette’s investigation team was called “useless” and sometimes told to “close up and shut up”; one particularly enraged citizen deemed it a “communistic programme to steal from those who have $$$ and give to those who have not.”

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Most of these personal elements of the military-industrial complex are intentionally hidden from public view. Uncovering such informal meetings and exchanges in the present is a highly dangerous and difficult task…. But in historical archives, such secrets lay there for the taking.

In the end, the Chemical Warfare Service evaded blame. While the interrogation lights fell on commercial manufacturers, the military’s confidential status shielded them from accountability. This perhaps comes as no surprise. Obfuscation is key to the operation of the military-industrial complex.

In the early 1920s, the value of defense and security industries was a small fraction of what it is today. The smartphones, computerized logistics systems, and high-speed jet transportation that makes business transactions possible today barely resemble the telegrams and forwarded letter chains of the 1920s. Yet the human connections—the friendships, the loyalties, the competitive streaks and little white lies—that created the less lethal market then, remain fully intact today.

WWI World War One 1914 1918 Battle of Estaires 1918

British troops blinded by tear gas during the Battle of Estaires, April 10, 1918. Photo: Getty Images.

These are the human elements that shape market transactions, creating both supply and demand. They are often what get lost in debates surrounding “police militarization” and the political economy of the global military-industrial complex. Undertaking the very important task of showing how larger structures operate all too easily leads us to forget that every system is made up of decision-making parts. Some of those parts are people; others are the policies, prototypes, and patent laws in which people become entangled. In addition to the spectacles and scandals that get revealed in newspapers and courtrooms, it is these everyday secrets and lies that carry insight into how such seemingly benign encounters are precisely what build profit at the expense of human well-being.

Most of these personal elements of the military-industrial complex are intentionally hidden from public view. Uncovering such informal meetings and exchanges in the present is a highly dangerous and difficult task, as the repercussions facing whistleblowers and investigative journalists make clear. But in historical archives, such secrets lay there for the taking. Declassified and “freed,” this once-confidential information tells tales of the friendships and rivalries that have grown into world-changing industries.

* * *

Perhaps not surprisingly, tucked among Fries’s personal files is a membership form for the Ku Klux Klan.

The story of Amos Fries and his entrepreneurial social network is a cautionary tale. It reveals the origins of the dangerous relationship between the escalation of police force and the profitable pursuits of riot-control manufacturers. As true in the 1920s as it is today, protest became an opportunity to “field test” new weapons. Austerity and injustice were mobilized as excuses to sell, research, and develop weapons designed for use against civilians.

In the years since Amos Fries brought military tear gas to the policing of protest, public safety has become ever more dictated by business models for risk and security. Economic interests and the pursuit of private profits fuel these models. Under these conditions, the repression of political communication itself becomes a commodity. It is traded and sold in the feed the less lethal industry. This industry expands so long as protest stays criminal and the police can be persuaded to purchase more and more military-grade goods.

Looking back toward the nascent military-industrial complex of the 1920s and 1930s helps unravel the evasive alliances that work to dehumanize interaction, commodify repression, and elude accountability. While Fries’s power was contested and had its limits, his ideologies shaped the military transfer of tear gas for civilian use. His dangerously myopic visions of “good” and “bad” Americans legitimated the deployment of chemical weapons to crush popular uprisings.

In 1935, Fries testified to Congress, “There is no room in this country for any ‘ism,’ or any word ending in those letters, except ‘Americanism.’” Perhaps not surprisingly, tucked among Fries’s personal files is a membership form for the Ku Klux Klan. Although in his archives it is left blank, the form is accompanied by a personalized membership solicitation letter praising Fries’s initiative to ban the teaching of communism in public schools. The letter, typed on “Women of the Ku Klux Klan” stationary, pledges “to support Major Fries and his committee to the fullest extent.”

Fries’s militarized, white-supremacist vision saw the duty of a “true American” as “the protection of our country against any foreign dangers whatsoever, whether it is from aliens outside, or not.” His campaigning served as a precursor to the era of McCarthyism that followed. As anticommunist sentiment and rallying for World War II spread through the United States, both Nye and LaFollette were trampled in its path. Nye was both a labor rights and anti-corruption advocate, as well as an isolationist—a stance no longer tolerated as the United States entered the war. While many celebrated Nye for his progressive politics, his anti-war sentiments led to accusations of anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, LaFollette’s passionate work in the senate also drew to a dismal close. Despite many attempts to distance himself from communist organizations, LaFollette’s fate was sealed by Senator Joseph McCarthy himself, who in 1946 unseated the much-loved Young Bob in a surprising victory. Demoralized and exhausted by accusations against his character, LaFollette took his own life. “According to close associates,” Patrick Maney wrote, “LaFollette had McCarthy on his mind when he committed suicide in 1953.”

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Reprinted from Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of WWI to the Streets of Today by Anna Feigenbaum. Copyright © 2017 by Ashley Dawson. With permission of the publisher, Verso. All rights reserved.

Editor: Dana Snitzky