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.

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Don Williams - 6/26/2003

See http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/05/27/1053801392708.html

an excerpt:
"The use of the WMD phrase in its present meaning took off after September 11, 2001, becoming a vital part of the Bush Administration's rhetoric of confrontation and the basis for the pre-emptive strike against Iraq.... Conventional dictionaries have yet to catch up with WMD. According to the web encyclopedia, Wikipedia, during the Cold War WMD referred only to nuclear weapons.
....The resemblance of the rise and fall of the use of both phrases to stockmarket bubbles is not surprising. Stockmarket bubbles, like word bubbles, or fevers, occur when the normal, reasonable discourse of markets becomes irrational as a boom develops, driven by a kind of rising mass hysteria which finally implodes on the emptiness of its own rhetoric.

The pathology of market manias was famously analysed 150 years ago by Charles MacKay in his Memoirs of Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Modern media can spread extraordinary delusions with unprecedented speed. Anyone with a radio or a mobile phone is part of a crowd. Words and phrases, and the spin doctors who use them, now have a power undreamt of when MacKay's contemporary, E. G. Bulwer-Lytton, wrote his aphorism about the pen being mightier than the sword. WMD may yet turn out to have been words of mass delusion.

Don Williams - 6/25/2003


Don Williams - 6/25/2003

LSSU notes that the list consists of words
"Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness" --see http://www.lssu.edu/banished/archive/2003.php

"Many nominators point out that any weapon, used effectively, does a lot of destruction. “A few thousand machetes in the hands of an army in Africa can lead to mass genocide,” writes Howard Stacy of Atlanta, Georgia.

Similar complaints noted here : http://www.fire.org.uk/BBC_News/News2003/February/bbc120203.htm

DISPUTED DEFINITION (TWO): Colombia's Vice President Gustavo Bell Lemus told the UN that small arms are also WMD, because bullet fatalities "dwarf that of all other weapons systems - and in most years greatly exceed the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki".

Hmmm. We better let John Ashcroft discuss that with the NRA

NYGuy - 6/25/2003


What is your point:

"Irony Note: Picasso's Guernica was covered, in deference to Republican Party interests, for certain announcements pertaining to Iraq."

This was a propaganda piece. If you care about what you say why not highlight the bombing of London and the heroic, and successful resistance of the Brits against the world's dictatorships.

It certainly is a more inspirational message of good over evil on a grand scale, vs. the everyday horrors of local thugs.

NYGuy - 6/25/2003


You are really going off the deep end.

I heard that when Leckie was born some nut in his city raped a women and years later Clinton was elected President.

"Not quite our Bruckheimerian Clinton and Broderick, but an adumbration of the arrigance of things to come, to say the least.

Another brillant post.

Dane Lynch - 6/25/2003

I wrote a paper a few years ago pertaining the United States and their offical policy on chemical and biological weapons between the World Wars.

I seem to recall the term 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' showing up in my sources much earlier than 1937. I will have to look back at my paper and sources now.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 6/25/2003

The covering of Guernica at the UN, I agree, was telling; I suspect those responsible were thinking it was no different from covering up "MADE IN CHINA" on box labels at a courier company His Nibs visited in St. Louis. But from whom are they hiding disturbing messages? And why the on-going reversion to the collapse of a distinction between nukes and conventional explosives that characterizes the push for a resumption of nuclear weapons development? The latter, I think, rests in an awareness that indeed an ethical distrinction exists that trumps the alleged continuum of destructivesness, and a need to distract from the very real understanding that once we use'em, others will feel no moral restraint.

In another posting on this website World War One propaganda was aired. Back in 1923--making use of wartime propaganda techniques that were largely a spur to the postwar advertising industry, by the way--and deploying then-cutting edge technology, a film history of St. Louis was produced that was intended to rally electoral support for what up to that time was the largest bond issue ever undertaken by a US city.

The film, titled, "The Spirit of St. Louis," essentially screened the vision of a city's past promoted by elite interests, and ended with a huge wedding celebration of descendants of 18th century French urban progenitors on the lawn of a sprawling Gothic estate, Alice Roosevelt in attendance by the way, and the program included young dancers in gauzy costumes performing modern dance.

The overwhelmingly working class audiences of St. Louis laughed at it. The bond issue passed mainly because of old-fashioned horse-trading among the local pols. It was still a sophisticated film for its day, and even had a touch that Karl Rove would find familiar and approve of: The town's leading plutocrat, standing on the steps of the local historical society, as an aeroplane landed nearby and an actor dressed as the city's alleged French founder leapt out of the cockpit and walked up the steps to shake hands with His Eminence.

Not quite our Bruckheimerian Bush on the carrier Lincoln, but an adumbration of the arrigance of things to come, to say the least.

Most ordinary folks get it, as they got it then. The difference is the impact of media concentration, the narrowing of public discourse, the dispersal of the old neighborhoods in which class solidarity could be sustained, and the transformation of elections into technical manipulation at the margins and legal machination. I suspect ordinary folks "get" the character of difference between nukes and TNT. But there are no genuinely public or non-niche venues in which discussion would reveal this.

JS Narins - 6/24/2003

Well, when Truman and Eisenhower were in charge, the truth of nuclear weapons was still unknown.

Someday someone may neutralize our nuclear threat, and we'll have to hope they don't consider us in need of liberating, and if we keep acting like this, we likely will be.

Irony Note: Picasso's Guernica was covered, in deference to Republican Party interests, for certain announcements pertaining to Iraq.

I guess they thought it would be too much of an insult to Picasso's spirit to read the announcement in front of the painting. The great master would have been pleased.

Imagine the rage if they just declared this monstrosity right before 'Guernica?'