WMD: Where Did the Phrase Come from?

History Q & A

Mr. Mallon is a student at George Mason University and an intern at HNN.

The origin of the term Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) is almost as elusive as Iraq's weapons themselves. In 1925, the Geneva Convention prohibited "the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of bacteriological methods of warfare." It did not prohibit the manufacturing and stockpiling of chemical or biological weapons. In 1972, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) prohibited the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons.

The term Weapons of Mass Destruction was first used in the London Times in 1937, according to Robert Whealey, writing on H-Diplo. It was used to describe a Luftwaffe German air force attack on the town of Guernica, Spain. The attack reportedly lasted for 3 hours and destroyed 70 percent of the town and killed a third of the population. The attack was ordered by President Franco of Spain to crush the Basque resistance to Nationalist forces. Documents discovered after World War II suggest that Guernica served as the testing ground for a new military tactic -- blanket-bombing of a civilian population to demoralize the enemy. When the London Times reported the bombing of Guernica the paper was referring to the devastation caused by the blanket bombing. Although the phrase "Weapons of Mass Destruction" was used to describe the massive amount of damage by conventional bombs, it was not associated with biological or chemical weapons as it is today.

The term became popular in the United States after World War II. It was used to refer to the atomic bomb and later the hydrogen bomb. The term WMD is used to describe different types of nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological weapons. The news media have recently expanded the definition of WMD's to include planes and suicide bombs. WMD's are different from conventional weapons because of the amount of damage they can inflict.

The use of the term WMD seems to have varied over the last 50 years. Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks it has become all encompassing and now includes any and every type of weapon capable of killing a large number of people.

Interestingly, while we distinguish between nuclear and conventional weapons President Harry Truman did not. In a speech to students in the 1950s he stated that there was no real difference between the weapons; one simply had a bigger punch. His successors evidently disagreed.

In 1953 shortly after taking office Dwight Eisenhower secretly threatened to use nuclear weapons against North Korea to force negotiations. The fear nuclear weapons inspired brought the North Koreans to the table.

In the 1960s the Joint Chiefs on several occasions recommended the use of nuclear weapons to bring victory in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson refused to entertain the suggestion.