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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Weapons of Mass Destruction: An Encyclopedia of Worldwide Policy, Technology, and History, 2 volumes by Jeff Larsen, James Wirtz, Eric Croddy (ABC-CLIO) (1-85109-495-4 On-line e-book edition, see publisher) The first accessible reference to cover the history, context, current issues, and key concepts surrounding biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons.

The United States has conducted some 900 atomic tests since 1945 and has stockpiled enough smallpox vaccine to inoculate most of the U.S. population. The topic of weapons of mass destruction is perhaps the most controversial subject of our time. Policy debates require understanding of key issues, concepts, and events.

A collection of information on everything from aerosols to zones of peace, these two volumes cover historical background, technology, and strategic implications of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, thus providing facts, terms, and context needed to participate in contemporary policy debate. This encyclopedia is the only comprehensive reference dedicated to the three types of weapons of mass destruction.
With over 500 entries arranged alphabetically, volume one covers biological and chemical weapons, while volume two focuses on nuclear weapons. Experts from eight countries cover issues related to these weapons, policies, strategies, technologies, delivery vehicles, arms control concepts, treaties, and key historical figures and locations. Entries are written to make difficult concepts easy to understand by cutting through military and scientific jargon. Students, lay readers, scientists, and government policy makers are provided with the broad range of information needed to place today's policy discussions in proper strategic or historical context.
Title Features

  • Over 500 A–Z entries written by 95 international experts, organized in two volumes divided by types of weapons

  • Timeline that covers leading political, military, and weapons-specific events since 1945

  • Excerpts from key international documents

  • Combined index (with volume numbers noted) at the end of each volume

  • Includes numerous illustrations and photographs


  • The only comprehensive reference of policies, events, places, technical terms, and historical context regarding weapons of mass destruction

  • Volumes organized by like weapons so each can be used independently to study the topic or weapon of particular interest

  • Alphabetical listings and combined indexing in each volume provide an increased ability to browse and quick access to specific entries 

Excerpt: The term "weapon of mass destruction" (WMD) is a relatively modern expression. It was probably first used in print media following the international uproar over Germany's aerial bombardment of the Basque city of Guernica in April 1937. (The latter event was famously depicted in Picasso's painting Guernica y Luno.) Only a year before, another Axis power, Italy, had begun using mustard and other chemical warfare (CW) agents in Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia).' During the anxious years leading up World War II, WMD re­ferred to the indiscriminate killing of civilians by modern weaponry, especially aircraft. It also echoed the fear of chemical weapons that was unleashed by World War I, which had come to a con­clusion just a few years earlier.

Following the development of the atomic bomb in 1945, the term "WMD" came to include nuclear and eventually biological weapons. WMD was ap­parently first used to describe nuclear warfare by Soviet strategists. In 1956, during the 20th Commu­nist Party Congress in Moscow, the Soviet Minister of Defense—and "Hero of Stalingrad"—Marshal Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov prophesied that modern warfare "will be characterized by the mas­sive use of air forces, various rocket weapons and various means of mass destruction such as atomic, thermonuclear, chemical and bacteriological weapons. "2 In that same year, the Hungarian Minis-ter of Defense echoed Marshal Zhukov, stating that "Under modern conditions, the decisive aspect of operational planning is the use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction."

When the West learned of Zhukov's speech, na­tional security strategists in the United States and elsewhere became quite concerned. By inference, they concluded that WMD—nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons—were an integral part of Soviet military doctrine. Partly in response to Zhukov's ministrations on WMD, the United States reviewed its offensive chemical and biological weapons program in 1958. The U.S. military was never particularly enamored by chemical or biolog­ical weapons and treated them as a deterrent to be used in retaliation for the use of chemical or biological weapons used by the opponent. By the early 1990s, the U.S. military had abandoned offensive use of these weapons, although it maintained a research and development program designed to produce effective equipment, procedures, medications, and inoculations to defend against chemical and biological attack.

Over the last decade, much has been written about WMD. The meaning of the term itself is somewhat controversial, although there is a formal, legalistic definition. According to U.S. Code Title 50, "War and National Defense;" per the U.S. Con­gress, the term "weapon of mass destruction" means "any weapon or device that is intended, or has the capability, to cause death or serious bodily injury to a significant number of people through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals or their precursors; a disease organism; radiation or radioactivity."' For its part, the U.S. De­partment of Defense has a similar characterization of WMD, although in addition it includes "...the means to deliver [WMD]:"' So, what makes a weapon massively destructive? Is it the type of inju­rious agents involved, namely radioactive, chemical, or biological, or is it that the attack itself produces significant casualties or destruction? Also what would "significant" mean in this context: ten, a hun­dred, or a thousand casualties? What if very few people are actually killed or hurt by at attack? In the latter respect, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has a rather unique and somewhat satisfying interpretation of the term "WMD," invoked when the U.S. government indicted Timothy McVeigh with using a WMD in his 1995 terrorist attack in Oklahoma City. In this case, although the device used was a conventional bomb (employing ammo­nium nitrate-fuel oil explosive), "A weapon crosses the WMD threshold when the consequences of its release overwhelm local responders."'

Some analysts, however, have suggested that various technical hurdles prevent chemical and even biological weapons from causing casualties on a truly massive scale. Some point to the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995, which resulted in eleven deaths, as an example of the limits of WMD. They note that high-explosives have been used with far greater lethal effects than sarin in the annals of modern terrorism. Others are increasingly concerned about the destructive potential of even rudimentary weapons. Analysts today are worried, for instance, that terrorists might try to employ ra­diological dispersal devices or "dirty bombs." These weapons do not detonate with a fission reaction, but rather utilize conventional explosives to distribute radiological materials and contaminate a given area. Few deaths are likely to result from the effects of a dirty bomb, but the consequences—in terms of anxiety, clean-up, and the recognized ability of a terrorist to conduct the very act itself—would likely be far reaching. 

The very presence of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in international arsenals and the po­tential that they might fall into the hands of terrorist organizations guarantees that weapons of mass destruction will be of great policy, public, and schol­arly interest for years to come. We cannot resolve the debates prompted by WMD, but we hope that we and our contributors can provide facts to help the reader sort through the controversies that are likely to emerge in the years ahead. Much that is contained in these volumes is disturbing and even frightening; it is impossible to write a cheery encyclopedia about weapons whose primary purpose is to conduct postindustrial-scale mass murder. The sad truth of the matter is that chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons reflect the willingness of humans to go to great lengths to find increasingly lethal and destructive instruments of war and vio­lence. We are pleased to note, however, that much of what is reported in these volumes is historical in nature and that civilized people everywhere reject the use of chemical and biological weapons. International law is replete with treaties, agreements, and regimes whose purpose is to proscribe the use of these weapons, or mitigate the consequences of any such use. In particular, the world has successfully kept nuclear weapons in reserve for almost sixty years as truly deterrent weapons of last resort.

Our encyclopedia covers a wide range of topics, some historical, some drawn from today's headlines. We describe many of the pathogens, diseases, sub-stances, and machines that can serve as weapons of mass destruction, as well as their associated delivery systems. We also describe important events and in­dividuals that have been influential in the development of weapons of mass destruction and doctrines for their use (or control). We have encouraged our contributors to highlight ongoing controversies and contemporary concerns about WMD and current international arms control and nonproliferation ef­forts intended to reduce the threat they pose to world peace and security. Even a work of this length, however, cannot completely cover the history, science, and personal stories associated with a topic of this magnitude, so we have included abundant ref­erences to help readers take those initial steps for further study of the topics we survey.

From Foreword by David Kay, Senior Research Analyst, Potomac Institute, Washington, D.C., and former Director, Iraq Survey Group (2003–2004):

 The importance of this encyclopedia was underscored by the fact that virtually the only area of agreement in the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign between the two major candidates, President George W. Bush and Senator John F. Kerry, was that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction poses the most serious national security threat with which the next president would have to deal.

While the prospect of chemical, biological, radi­ological, or nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists or regimes hostile to the United States and its friends is indeed a frightening prospect, how many of us understand exactly what this means? When were such weapons first developed? Which states and scientists are leading these developments? Have these weapons actually been used in the past? How often and with what consequence—not only for the populations they were used against, but for those that used them, as well? Do these weapons re-ally give states a decisive edge over their adversaries? How easy are they to develop and use? Does the ease of development or use of such weapons by states, like North Korea, differ from the obstacles faced by terrorist groups, like al-Qaeda? What are the tools available to the United States to halt the spread of such weapons? Have we had any success in limiting the spread of these weapons? Are there any protective measures that individuals can take to lessen their vulnerability if such weapons are used?

These are but a few of the questions that the authors of this authoritative two-volume study at-tempt to answer. This encyclopedia will have enduring importance as states and societies attempt to come to terms with the consequence of the collision of scientific progress with the failure to develop a re-liable global security structure. The initial development of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, as this study makes clear, often involved scientific and engineering breakthroughs of the highest order. The paths to enriching uranium and geneti­cally modifying pathogens are but two examples of such successes, scientific breakthroughs that have made new classes of weapons possible. But scientific progress marches at a very fast rate, leaving behind old, but still dangerous, knowledge. For example, the secrets regarding methods for enriching ura­nium were simply bought by the Iraqis from the U.S. Government Printing Office. That office could not imagine that there was anything important in a 40-year-old project from the dawn of the U.S. nuclear program.

In another remarkable case, uranium enrichment technology was stolen from a commercial company in Holland by A. Q. Khan—a rather ordinary Pak­istani who went to Germany to earn an engineering degree. Khan subsequently used this technology to develop Pakistan's nuclear weapons and then sold the same technology to North Korea, Iran, and Libya. The techniques of gene modification, which less than 20 years ago were the stuff of Nobel prizes, are now routinely taught in American high schools and com­munity colleges and have opened up whole new classes of biological weapons. As this study also makes clear, even the safe disposal of weapons of mass destruction following a state's decision to aban­don or limit their programs presents serious chal­lenges of preventing the weapons and associated technology from falling into the hands of terrorists. The thousands of Soviet-era nuclear weapons and the engineering talent that created them represent a clear and present danger with which the world has not yet completely dealt. The readers of this work will find numerous examples of the lowering of the bar­riers to the acquisition by states and terrorists of these most terrible of weapons.

But this study does not simply present the horrors of a world filled with weapons of mass destruction. It also catalogs and illuminates the various methods of attempting to control and constrain these weapons—including treaties and agreements such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, as well as intrusive inspections, such as the efforts of the United Nations to hunt such weapons in Iraq after the first Gulf War. As will be clear to the reader, such endeavors have had both successes and failures. Much remains to be done to en-sure that their effectiveness matches the problems posed by the proliferation of such weapons. The largest gap in effective mechanisms of control and re­sponse to the acquisition of such weapons is with re­gard to the efforts of terrorists groups to acquire the means of mass murder. While these volumes identify the few efforts made in this regard, it is hard not to come away with a sense of dread for the future. Most control efforts have been aimed at states, not at terrorists operating outside of the control of states. Hopefully students and policy makers using this book a few years hence will be able to record more progress toward meeting this new challenge.

The authors and editors have done an important service by puffing together such an illuminating study at exactly the point when there is a broad political consensus of the importance of the problem. One can only hope that our citizens and our political leaders take the time to explore the depth of information presented here.

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