Military Attitudes on the Chemical Weapons Taboo: Evidence from the Pacific Theater
44 Pages Posted: 11 May 2022 Last revised: 6 Mar 2023
Date Written: January 31, 2023
Little is known about military attitudes toward weapons taboos, or the durability of non-use norms in wartime. Chemical weapons are a key case given public revulsion and clear international prohibitions. We explore soldiers’ attitudes in a salient setting: the Pacific theater of World War II. We draw on a declassified survey covering a representative sample of enlisted US soldiers in Hawai‘i in 1944. This unique context, during a total war against an adversary that had employed chemical weapons, represents a hard test for the chemical weapons taboo. Up to 91% of soldiers supported using chemical weapons against Japan, including 24% who favored initiation and 67% who favored retaliatory use. To understand the influence of military instruction, we exploit a novel regimen still used in basic training, which saw some troops exposed to lachrymatory gas. We find exposure to chemical weapons in training reduced support for use. Visceral experiences can mobilize support for weapons taboos in otherwise permissive environments.
Keywords: Chemical Weapons, Norms, Taboos, World War II
JEL Classification: D91, F51, F52
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation