A History of Nerve Agents - with Dan Kaszeta

A History of Nerve Agents - with Dan Kaszeta

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00:01
(techno music) - I was asked to come tonight because I've just written this book, "Toxic, The History of Nerve Agents." And I'm gonna talk a little about it, about this topic, because it hits to the present day with the Navalny poisoning, the Skripal event in Salisbury several years ago now, ongoing chemical warfare in Syria. This is not something just outta history. It's a bit of history from the 30s and 40s that reaches to the present day. And so I'm gonna start this presentation here. Let me see. There we go. There we go. Hopefully, if everybody can see that. I'm here because The Royal Institution asked me and actually I wanna thank all of you. I can see that there's something like 338 of you have joined. I wanna thank them for the opportunity here. And you should, if you feel so inclined, give them a bit of a donation. I'd also like to thank my publisher, Hurst, before we go any further. And tonight's talk, I'm gonna talk a little about who I am. That's not so much.
01:12
I mean, Lisa already covered the highlights of that. I'm gonna talk about the history of chemical warfare really at its beginning, because I wanna put my book in the right, proper context. And then I'm gonna talk about where nerve agents come from. A little bit of what they are. What happened in the 1930s and how they really got their start in the Second World War. There's a lot that happened in the immediate aftermath of the World War, World War II. And then the Cold War and the present day. And hopefully, well, we'll have plenty of time for questions here. And so I'm gonna try to weave a couple different things into this narrative and that hopefully that gets you interested enough and answers some of the basic questions about, why nerve agents are still important. They're not just of historic interest. And I'm gonna start, well, like I said, with a little bit of introduction. I've spent 30 years working in this field. I've evolved into practically the only historian of this subject. You know, I'm not actually a chemist.
02:18
I'm not a chemical engineer. I got into this almost by accident. The US Army stuck me in this and I thought it was the worst thing to ever happen to me, but somehow I've managed to make a career out of it. I'm not here to talk about myself so much. There's a good little introduction to myself in my book and all that. So I'll, you know, and I'm happy to answer questions about my career later on and how it's relevant to all of this. So I wanna start with some history. It's a rare thing to come to The Royal Institution and talk about the history more than the science, but my book is a history book with science in it, as opposed to a science book with a little bit of history in it. And we're now up on the sort of 102nd anniversary, within days now, 102nd anniversary of the end of the first World War. The people who remember it, the people who fought it, they've all passed away. You know, it's going out of human memory. But it's very important in our consciousness, and it's very important in our history, because it was a technological war. The military historians will argue whether or not the Crimean War, the American Civil War,
03:27
was the first so-called modern war. But we all know that the first World War is where we started having things like airplanes, submarines, tanks. Machine guns predated the war, but it was the first huge prevalence of machine guns and machine guns in every side of the conflict, not just in colonial conflicts where one side had machine guns and the other side didn't. So that's the context in that, you know, in the early 1900s, you know, the war starts in 1914, it's a technological era and new things are happening, okay. And you know, various different aspects of technology are being applied to warfare. I mean, it's always been the case in warfare where people try to make better offense and better defense, arms and armor. It goes all the way back to antiquity. But by the first World War we had, you know, by that point we'd had 70, 80, 90 years of a industrial revolution.
04:35
We had lots of science and engineering being applied to this. And so on this slide, you see some of the things that are with us still today. The major navies still have submarines. The armies have tanks. There are such a thing as an Air Force and airplanes. Machine guns are in practically every army. But there's also some things that didn't work out as well. For example, we can talk about chemical warfare, all right. Chemical warfare is one of those things that worked out a bit, but didn't work out so much possibly in the way that people expected. Chemistry was one of these things, just like, metal work and electricity. That was one of those things that was really in a state of transition. And there's this whole chemical arms race that goes on in the first World War. These two gentlemen here, Fritz Haber on the left and Victor Grignard on the right, these are two rival scientists. Fritz is in Germany. Victor is in France. And these two are engaged in what is effectively a war of wits starting late 1914, early 1915,
05:48
to try to take poisonous gases and turn them into effective weapons. And in that context what you have is you have a footprint really, of chemical warfare. Everybody has seen this probably, this famous picture here, the Sargent painting, "Gassed." I've seen the original, it hangs in the Imperial War Museum. And I'm not sure everybody can read the fine print down here. The thing is, the impact in popular culture, the impact in literature, the impact in people's memories of chemical warfare in the first World War are actually broader and deeper than the actual direct impact on the war. And it's something like 20 million people died in that war. Yeah it's, you know, this study here on the bottom. These statistics you see here are taken from something called a "Gilchrist Study" done in the 1920s. You know, where somewhere between 78,000 and 91,000 people died directly from chemical warfare. That's competitively a drop in the bucket.
06:54
More people were killed with cavalry sabers, yeah, going back to an older technology than were killed by by chemical warfare. But we don't think about the cavalry sabers in the first World War, we think that's old technology and we put that beside us. But it was one of those things where at the end of the war it had not really, chemical warfare, the poison gas had none of the chemicals used in that war were game-changers. It's really hard for any military historian to point to a single battle, a single campaign where it was really truly the deciding factor. So it goes down in the annals of military history as a bit of unfinished business. Things were clearly on a trajectory for more and more improvements. There were things that were being worked on at the end of the war that were improvements in chemical warfare, but the war ended, all right. And in the aftermath of the war it's important to see that people learned some interesting lessons from this. And so it's in this period after the war where there was a lot of unfinished business, okay.
08:07
I don't think any nation in Europe thought that this is really going to be the war to end all wars. Everybody was thinking of the next war, almost at the point at which this war was done. In fact, you know, wars were continuing elsewhere on the European continent anyway; a war between Greece and Turkey, the Russian Civil War, these things ground on. But the trajectory technologically was that these things that people had worked on during the war, whether it be Zeppelin airships, or you know, machine guns or aircraft, improvements continued to be made. And countries learned lessons from that first war. And they assumed that these things were all going to get used in the next war. Whenever that next war comes, if it's gonna be five years from now, or if it's gonna be 50, Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, everybody assumed that another war was eventually gonna come. Now this picture you see here is part of the blockade squadron. The British blockade squadron very effectively, with help from the French, bottled up and blockaded Germany. So Germany during the first World War
09:18
couldn't import things. It was cut off. It was reduced to smuggling. Blockade runners were a thing, but by and large, 99, nearly 100% of the commerce into Hamburg and Bremerhaven was cut off. Now, this is important as a context to see where nerve agents came from and the nerve agents come out of a combination of things. I'm gonna take a little while to unpack this, because people always ask why. Why nerve agents? And they happened by accident, but they happened by accident in a context that is, I think, easy to understand if you pick it apart into its pieces. One is this fact that Germany has learned from the fact that it is easily blockaded and cannot rely on imports in the case of another major European war, particularly a war against somebody with a big Navy. Now there's another factor, that's food supply. Now, one of the immediate causes for the end of the first world war was not an overwhelming victory on either the Western or Eastern fronts.
10:24
To be honest, Germany had won on the Eastern front, the Russians had surrendered. There was the whole Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. They'd been able to move their entire, well most of their Eastern front soldiers to the West and were, you know, quite early on in 1918, were actually doing quite well. And so relatively late in the war it could have gone either way, but poor food supply is one of the immediate causes that did for the Germans in the first World War. Military mutinies, because soldiers were not being fed was a thing. So Germany understands that it is only one bad harvest away from collapsing in the war. Logistics are important. You have to feed the population, you have to feed the army. Now what you see on this slide here on the top, right is a Colorado potato beetle, all right. And on the left you can see this diagram of its gradual, you know, spread across Europe, having been introduced accidentally in Bordeaux, having come over in some imported potatoes from the US.
11:29
And so the Germans are absolutely paranoid about this, not just the potato beetle, but other forms of pestilence affecting their agriculture. They have to protect their agriculture. This is a point at which crop protection is very important. And going back to this previous slide, because they are so heavily blockaded, it's important that they come up with ways of protecting their crops that don't require imports. Now you get into this whole interesting issue of pesticides. In fact, I'm not gonna go to that slide just yet. The pesticides of the era are mostly made either from oil, petroleum products and Germany famously doesn't have much of a domestic petroleum supply, or the other great pesticide of the era was nicotine. The same stuff that people smoke in tobacco, guess what? It kills insects. But the state-of-the-art at the time for using nicotine was to dissolve it in kerosene. And kerosene's a petroleum product. So the petrochemicals were extremely important to crop protection one way or the other. So there was a push for import substitution.
12:38
If Germany was going to fight this next war it was gonna have to save the oil for tanks and airplane fuel and diesel fuel for its submarines. And so every bit of oil that wasn't used for crop protection was going to something else. So there was a push to come up with ways and means of doing this. Now Germany in this era, and Germany has always since its unification, particularly since the late 1800s, Germany had been an industrial giant, right. The industrialization of Germany was one of the great accomplishments of the Kaiser Era of Imperial Germany. Its universities were very good. Its industry was very good, in particular, its chemistry departments, its physics departments, top-notch. So this picture here on the left is Willy Lange, he worked in Berlin. And on the right, I wish I had a picture of Gerda von Krueger, a PhD student working for him, a very rare thing at the time, a woman studying chemistry at the PhD level in Germany.
13:55
That's her dissertation there. They worked on phosphorus compounds and they did some work in the late 1920s. We're not even into the Nazi era yet. The Nazis were a smaller political party. They were contesting elections. This is still the Weimar Republic. They come up with this whole new thing. They can't take full credit for it, but they can take good partial credit for inventing a category of chemicals called the organophosphates. And what they come up with is this new category of chemicals. And to synthesize the organophosphates, you're not necessarily using petroleum products. So we have this technical development on top of this, you know, agricultural requirement on top of a geopolitical necessity. Now this leads to some work. Now by this point we're in about 1935 now, the Nazis have taken over. The gentleman you see here in both pictures is Gerhard Schrader. And that funny icon you see there is the logo of the German chemical company IG Farben.
15:08
IG Farben was perhaps 80, or even possibly even 90% of the German chemical industry at this time. The German chemical industry had been very consolidated with a view, possibly depending on which political party came into power, some of the political parties in the Weimar Republic were actually quite left, wanted to nationalize it and run it as a national industry, the socialists surely did. So the chemical industry got consolidated, but it didn't get privatized. So what you had was a very large near monopoly of the chemical industry still in private hands. But it realized that things like crop protection were important, more important than some other things. And so it put this gentleman and a small group of other guys on the issue of developing new chemical compounds based on this organophosphate work done by Lange and Krueger. And so Schrader and his assistant Kleinhans started working in their lab
16:17
synthesizing literally hundreds of chemical compounds from that new family of chemicals. I think during the course of his career and his career spanned the war and even went after the war, by the time the war ended, the Second World War ended, Schrader had synthesized at least 2000 organophosphate compounds, some of which completely useless. His notebooks were found in his dustbin. His dustbin was collected by British Intelligence. His notebooks are therefore down in the National Archives in Kew and I've looked at them and I've counted and there's over 2000 compounds in them. But more importantly, he started actually quite successfully synthesizing some of these compounds. Some of them worked quite well as pesticides. He had a whole protocol. If he thought something was good, he tested on aphids, or even a small sample of Colorado potato beetles that was kept under lock and key to make sure that they didn't escape. And in late 1936, he came across this chemical compound, at the time he called it LD100 and since after
17:31
that took on other names, it was very good. It killed all the aphids. He diluted it, it killed all the aphids. He diluted it again. So he starts engaging in practically homeopathic dilution of this substance and even quite diluted this new substance kills all the aphids. However, it makes it makes Dr. Schrader quite, quite ill. Driving home one night, even though it was dark, his vision dimmed and he gets a torch out of his glove box in his car and he examines himself in the mirror and realizes that even though it's dark out, his pupils are pinpointed. And to this day, that is one of the telltale signs of exposure to nerve agents. And he had a terrible headache that went on for days. He had some memory loss and ended up in the hospital for 10 days. Nobody knew what to do with him. And he was actually disappointed. He felt that this was probably too dangerous a compound to work with. However, he said, "Well maybe if we dilute it enough, "we can still use it."
18:38
So he sent it off for product safety testing in the industrial safety lab at IG Farben where it killed the guinea pigs. It killed a Barbary ape imported from Spain. It killed, you know, even in quite dilute things, it killed all the safety test animals. This caused actually quite alarm bells. One of them things was it inserted a Military Industrial Complex at Germany, one man's alarm bells are another person's idea of interest. So in fact, I think I've probably put this slide in the wrong place, but I'll talk about here. What Gerhard Schrader had done and continued to do while working on these things is he'd come across the intersection of several types of chemistry. He'd been working firmly in this big organic phosphorus chemistry and he started playing with other things, hanging things on sort of the end of one or the other bits of the organic phosphorus molecule. And that very first compound that really became the problem.
19:46
The one that made him sick is in this bit where it intersects with cyanide chemistry and that chemical compound became known as the chemical warfare agent tabun. These other two stars where he starts to intersect with the interesting and odd world of fluorine chemistry are the next two chemical warfare agents in this category, sarin and soma and we'll get to those in a little bit. What you have here, in fact, these chaps are the management, okay. They are in upper management above Gerhard Schrader and what they have done is they have the secret memorandum from Berlin. Berlin has this whole idea that industry is gonna make us new things and new important technology and goods and services to help us win the next war. Germany is spending a lot of money rearming itself and it issues a secret memorandum, Berlin, the Defense Ministry, out to all the heads of industry.
20:54
It takes these guys like Heinrich Horlein and this other chap Otto Ambros, gives them secret security clearances and gives them the secret memo. And this memo is basically a laundry list, it's a fishing list. You know, these are the things we're interested in industry. It has things very boring from better lubricants to better ways of sharpening bayonets to better ball bearings, all the way up to gee, if you have anything that might possibly maybe be useful as a chemical warfare agent, we'd really like to know. And so the minute they see the safety report from Schrader and the dead animals, these guys are on the next train to Berlin and they convinced Berlin that this is an idea worth investigating. Now, Berlin is, you know, the scientists in Berlin, the German army has got some very good chemists of its own, they're curious about this. They don't understand how this stuff works, okay, this new chemical tabun and about a year later a new one, sarin. They're playing around with it, trying to find ways to mass produce it.
21:55
Not with much success at first, but you know, it clearly shows potential as a weapon and they give it to this other guy, Dr. Kuhn, Richard Kuhn. By the way, he got awarded a Nobel Prize in 1938, had to turn it down because by that point Nazi Germany had decided that Nobel Prizes were a foreign plot, you know, they were globalists, can't have that sort of thing. So he was at his work on vitamins that he was doing. He had to turn down the Nobel prize in 1938. But one of the things he did is he figured out how nerve agents work. And so I wanna take a little, you know, somebody's gonna ask in the comments, so I better say how nerve agents work. The human nervous system was not hugely well understood in the 1930s. There's still lots of things we don't know about the nervous system. But I guess one of the ways that you can describe it is that the human nervous system is a chain of electrical circuitry that runs from your brain down through your spinal cord, out to every organ and bit of your body
23:02
and sends signals up and down that pathway. But unlike a proper sort of, you know, artificial electric circuit made out of copper wire or something like that, it uses a hybrid of things. It uses nerve cells which operate pretty much like it's a copper wire, but it's not a continuous chain of nerve cells. There's these gaps between the nerve cells. That's what you see in that diagram there. It's called the synaptic gap And there's these chemical compounds called neurotransmitters that send signals backwards and forwards across this gap. And there's a complex balance of chemicals to send signals and then to stop the signals from going. And so what Kuhn discovered is effectively that there's a thing called acetylcholine. It's one of the key neurotransmitters. It's not the only one, this is a complex area of chemistry. But acetylcholine works in conjunction with this other thing called acetylcholinesterase. Alright, acetylcholinesterase works
24:03
to shut down the acetylcholine after a signal sets. Now nerve agents, what they do, nerve agents are extremely powerful binding agents. What they do, all these different organophosphate compounds, including the pesticide ones, they bind to the acetylcholinesterase so it can't turn off the acetylcholine. And so acetylcholine builds up and you get something called a cholinergic crisis. This idea that the nerve agents shut down your nervous system's absolutely wrong. It causes the other problem. It causes your nervous system go into overdrive. And it was first this guy, Kuhn by the way was chair of the German Chemical Society. Not every one of these scientists I mentioned was a Nazi, but Kuhn certainly was. He was quite a keen Nazi. And actually he developed a third of the nerve agents, this chemical substance called soma, which turned out to be just too expensive to produce, so it was a bit of an oddity. But anyway, that's how nerve agents work. And so this knowledge came about as part of this work here.
25:09
Now we're gonna go to the German government now. What you see on the left there is Spandau Castle and the right is an ammunition storage bunker at a place called Raubkammer. Now Raubkammer was the proving ground for chemical weapons. To this day it's still an artillery range for the German army. Spandau Castle on the left was where the German armies, they called it a gas protection laboratory. And that was the branch of the German army that was designed to do both offensive and defensive work. They were working on trying to find a way to take this chemical warfare agent tabun, that was the first one and was the one that was easiest to manufacture and try to scale it up and turn it into a weapon. The problem was like everything in defense bureaucracy it competed for money with everything else and they weren't getting a lot of money for their work, because money was going into building tanks and making the army bigger, things like that. But then the war happened and on the 1st of September, 1939 the Germans went to war, invaded Poland and all of a sudden now
26:20
that the war's actually happening and people are shooting each other, German industry sees this and quite rightly from their perspective, as a license to print money. Anybody with a cunning (mumbles) to do something for the war effort descended on Berlin. So did, I'm going to go back one, so did this guy Otto Ambros, the guy on the right, always known for his being a very snappy dresser by the way. Otto Ambros is literally the A in sarin. Sarin being an acronym S for Schrader and conveniently the R-I and N for various procurement officers in the German army, always butter up the contracting officer it seems. Otto Ambros basically went and told the German government, told the Third Reich, give us suitcases full of cash and we will give you thousands of tons of nerve agent miracle weapons and basically was the deal. And the German army very quickly signed an open-ended contract that was to the tune of we'll give you as much money as you want as long as you come up with the goods.
27:26
And so I go through this with some great detail in my book. I'm not gonna go into it much here, but what happened was IG Farben built a huge industrial empire involving the equivalent these days of billions of pounds or dollars, at least 12,000 highly skilled, you know, as in sort of degree level employees or higher and many thousands more unskilled labor and many thousands more convict and prisoner labor, building a vast industrial empire and spending a huge amount of money. Not just to build nerve agents, but also to make the other chemical warfare agents, because Germany also wanted to make sure that it had adequate supplies of the older, what we call the first generation warfare agents, the mustard gas, the phosgene, the stuff that was used in the first World War as this nerve agent stuff was not quite a proven thing yet. So IG Farben builds this massive commercial empire to do this. And it builds several factories.
28:34
It builds a nerve agent factory, a place called Dyhernfurth. They are in the process of building a nerve agent factory at a place called Falkenhagen to produce sarin. They don't get very far, because even by the end of the war, they hadn't worked out the mass production route for sarin. I'll spare you some of this, but basically what I will tell you is that a lot of people got very rich on this, including Otto Ambros. He got very rich quite personally on this. This diagram down on the bottom is an attempt to make out an org chart of how this stuff works and how the money went. And in reality, it was much more complicated than that, because on top of everything else, the directors at IG Farben didn't wanna be seen to be directly doing this. So there was a huge web of cover companies, shell companies, joint ventures, deliberate obfuscation, money laundering, tax evasion. It would take me five years and a bunch of German speaking forensic accountants
29:38
to go through the records and the records are there. You can go find in Kew. It's amazing that leaf through them. But what happens is, by the end of the war the Germans have maybe 10 tons of sarin, not much, but they have 12,600 or so probably, maybe a little bit more, but exact inventory is lost of this chemical warfare agent tabun. And so the question is why didn't Hitler use this stuff? And I better answer that because somebody's gonna ask that at the end. And I go into great detail in my book on this, but to summarize, Germany was afraid of retaliation in kind for various reasons that I explain in greater detail in the earlier chapters of my book. Several key figures were convinced that the allies had the same technology. It turns out that they had it. There was reasons why that was a logical guess. I can see how they added two and two and got seven. And so that was part of the problem is that they realized that they thought that the vast weight of American industry in particular,
30:48
possibly the British with ICI, but in particular America with Monsanto and DuPont and Shell Oil and companies like that, they reckoned that the vast weight of the American industry obviously would have come up with a nerve agent. Another factor was because of shortages of rubber, rubber went to tires, the German army was very short on gas masks throughout the whole war. Struggled to fill gas masks to its troops. So it worried about protecting itself and particularly struggles to protect its civilians. It wants to do like Britain is doing and give out gas masks to every household and the entire war it struggles, and struggles greatly to do this. So the idea that, well, we best not start this chemical warfare stuff, because we can't really protect ourselves is a thing. Another factor is, even though there is such a thing as a gas mask for a horse, horses, don't like wearing them. Nerve agents actually absorb through the skin of a horse, not just the respiratory tract.
31:51
So it's hard to protect a horse against nerve agents. And even to the very end of the war, the Germans are very much more reliant on horses than the British or the American army are, so that's a factor. And so, you know, getting into chemical warfare is gonna endanger their logistics. Some people talk about whether or not Hitler is very personally against chemical warfare, allegedly having been gassed in the first World War, don't really know about that. Hitler was also quite one for exaggerating his own war career. Don't know. He certainly had no compunction with using hydrogen cyanide, which is not a nerve agent, but hydrogen cyanide is very much a deadly, deadly poisonous gas used terribly in the concentration camps. So I don't know this, I don't know how much to put behind this Hitler was afraid of chemical warfare thing. I don't know. And there were a lot of other sort of fundamental logistical reasons why chemical warfare
32:59
was gonna be hard for the Germans to pull off, not impossible, but hard. And not to put too fine a point on it, if you think about it, if Germany were to, say in late 1944, early 1945, start to use the nerve agents, it's not going to win the war. It's just going to delay the war. Okay, it might delay the war by months, but even so little as a three-month delay to the war is gonna end up with that first atom bomb being on Berlin, because that was the plan all along. So instead of Hiroshima, it would have been Berlin. So who knows how that would've changed the context of modern history. Towards the end of the war there was a great rush in Germany to hide this stuff, to get rid of it, to stash it away. More importantly, if nothing else, keep it away from the Soviets. So all sorts of interesting things happen in the end of the war, where a lot of resources and manpower tied up shuffling this stuff, moving it further west, further north in Germany to get it away from the advancing Red Army.
34:05
I think some of this was a military plan, 'cause various bits of the military high command, even to the end of the war, were terribly hopeful that they can negotiate a settlement on the West and continue fighting on the East. They could come to some sort of arrangement with the Western Allies and keep fighting the Soviets. Wasn't gonna happen. You know, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt had all agreed that that wasn't going to happen, but you know, the Germans thought that that might be the case. After all, I mean, they managed to pull that off in the first World War. They managed to get Russia out of the war in the first World War. So the idea is that we've gotta keep this stuff away from the advancing Russian army, uh, the Soviet army. So various things happen here. There's an interesting story in my book about a commando raid. Pictured here is Max Sachsenheimer. There was a commando raid on the Sarin factory, because, I'm sorry, the tabun factory, 'cause it got stuck behind Allied lines and it wasn't destroyed yet. So there's a fascinating tale about something called Operation (mumbles). That's also in my book.
35:07
I don't think I have time to really dig deep into detail on that here. And then at the end of the war there's this great epiphany, the Allies, both the Western Allies, you know, France Britain, the United States, in the East the Soviet Union are stunned, shocked, appalled, amazed at these new nerve agents. Now it's a myth that the Allies didn't know about it. The Allies knew about it and filed it away a bit like the Ark of the Covenant in "Indiana Jones," because actually the the Allies had captured a German officer who knew about the nerve agents and interrogated him in 1943 in North Africa. But I don't think they believed him. They wrote up a nice six page memorandum and filed it away and it collected dust for the rest of the war. But at the end of the war there's a massive struggle to exploit the technology of Germany. And that type of exploitation technology certainly extends into chemical warfare. The chap you see on the screen there
36:14
is a very young photograph of a guy named, Edmund Tilley, he's a bit of a ghost. He was a major then a lieutenant colonel at the time we're talking about. That photo is much earlier. He worked for the Intelligence Corps in the British Army, spoke fluent German and it turns out he was the great interrogator and a pretty good detective. He ran around occupied Germany finding these guys and locking them up, including Otto Ambros, who was a very, very evasive character. Otto Ambros had taken something like 19,000 pages of documents and had them buried in the forest. And you know, it was Edmund Tilley who found them and that dug up the paint barrel. And that paint barrel is still to this day in the Imperial War Museum. The papers are down at Kew and I managed to read them. So thanks to Edmund Tilley, I was able to write this book. Now, if anybody here knows anything about Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Tilley, I'd be desperate to find out about him, because I've really drawn a lot of a blank on his career and what he did.
37:17
His exploits in this particular niche are famous and then he disappears out of the record again and I'm just dying to find out about him. Now, the place you see on the right there is a place called Schloss Landsberg, which is where the allies locked up these scientists and interrogated them at great, great length. Some of them, Gerhard Schrader, he sang like a canary. He filled hundreds of pages of the interrogation. Others were, you know, made up stories, made up excuses, told Tilley, tried to tell lies to Tilley. Tilley sort of basically got the truth out of everybody eventually, some of them cracked in 10 minutes. Some it took 30 days, but he did it. But what you end up with at the end of the war is an arms race between West and East. Both sides of the Cold War spend their time absolutely convinced that the other side is ahead in this new chemical arms race.
38:28
The factories were pretty much destroyed, but were captured by the Soviets. The West doesn't realize how thoroughly destroyed they were, assumes the worst case scenario and thinks that, well, okay and they've got intact factories over there. Or the West assumes that. The East has the staff directories and he knows all the people that are working these factories and ticks them off the list and realizes it has very few of them. They've all gone West. Okay, so they're left with guys who turned wrenches and swept up. You know, they have a lot of staff capture, but very few of them know very much about it. The scientists all saw what was going on and fled west, okay. Gerhard Schrader, Otto Ambros, Kleinhans, all these other guys, they're in the west. Only one scientist goes east. I still haven't figured out how (mumbles) ended up in the Soviet Union. Interestingly, he ends up in the Soviet union, not as a prisoner, but as a paid employee. So maybe all along he had perhaps sympathies that way.
39:34
Maybe they blackmailed them. Maybe, you know, who knows, there's a story there I'm told. But what happened was with his knowledge and both East and West having part of the knowledge, an arms race to make nerve agents evolves. What you see here, these photographs here, neither of these buildings exist anymore. But what you see is this is part of the US Industrial Complex to make nerve agents. The US takes this other nerve agent, sarin, which had not been, the secret to making sarin hadn't really, really been cracked, at least not mass producing it and spend seven years and a lot of money to crack the secrets to making sarin and develops a very large chemical warfare arsenal, mostly out of Sarin. Later, in conjunction with the British, a chemical called VX, I just did a huge thread on Twitter about VX today, so some of you may have seen that. The Soviet union, well, this slide here shows part of the US arsenal, the Soviet Union was into it too.
40:43
The Soviet union did the same thing, was further behind. Each side in the war thought the other side was further ahead. In reality, the Soviets were actually right, the West was further ahead. There was a bit of a British angle on this. Most of the nerve agent from the German effort in the second World War was in the form of aerial drop bombs. Britain ended up holding onto those things in an airfield in Wales pictured top left there until a point at which they had to get rid of them. The tale of how they got rid of them, it's you don't wanna know, but it's in my book. Bottom left is a place in Cornwall. It was called CDE, Chemical Defense Establishment, Nancekuke. And that picture there you have is one of the few surviving photographs of the UK sarin factory. It wasn't very big compared to, say the US sarin plant. And actually at the point at which they cracked the code to making sarin, Britain was broke. The Suez Crisis had just happened. It's the late 1950s and sarin turns out
41:57
to be a hugely expensive thing to make. So Britain gets out of the offensive chemical warfare program on the basis that they're gonna specialize in defensive research, share information with the Americans and the Canadians and the Australians. And the idea is that if they ever need offensive chemical weapons, the Americans will supply them. Now, some of this defensive research was not really what you would call ethical by modern standards. You know, this guy here, Maddison, he died as a result of sarin exposure at Porton Down and his legal case dragged on for decades in the court before his family finally got some sort of settlement out of the MoD. His particular circumstances, you know, I mean there's probably a whole book to be written there about Private Maddison. And so what that gets us now is the Cold War happens, basically chemical weapons are a footnote during the Cold War. The great Third World War between the West
43:09
and the Soviet Union never happens. But what happens is a bunch of proxy conflicts all around the world. These so-called brush fire wars, and the Korean War, the Vietnam War, but, you know, dozens of other conflicts as well to where East and West are fighting through sort of third parties. And you get the occasional flare up, occasional hint, aroma of nerve agent use of these conflicts. But I mean, one of them, for example, the Rhodesians, used a commercial pesticide during their quite dirty bush war. There is rumors, probably unsubstantiated, that the Egyptians used nerve agents in a war in Yemen in the early 1960s. It's quite clear that they used the older chemical warfare agent, mustard gas. Now one of the legacies of the cold war is that these industrial complexes to make chemical warfare agents and to test them, you know, in the end to try to get rid of the weapons, we don't need them. All this becomes a huge environmental health
44:17
and safety debacle. The US ends up, even before they get officially out of chemical warfare, they have many thousands of tons of older chemical weapons and they don't know what to do with them. They ended up putting them in old merchant vessels and sinking them in deep spots of the ocean where they still sit. And they did, I think by the standard of the day, a reasonably good job of it, they took the shells and the rockets and all that, encased it in concrete and then put these this encased concrete in the bottom of the ship and then poured more concrete in and then sank the whole thing. So there's lots of stuff entombed five, six, 7,000 feet down, mostly in the Atlantic, a few places in the Pacific. There were a couple of great big industrial accidents. One was a huge, massive fish kill in the Volga River called the White Sea Incident, where basically hundreds of thousands of fish, including very expensive and commercially valuable sturgeon were killed in an accident downstream from the Soviet sarin factory. The photo you see bottom right is an accidental killing
45:26
of sheep outside Dugway Proving Ground in the US in the late 1960s, that really started a chain of events in the US that eventually led to President Nixon in 1969 basically ordering the US to stop testing chemical weapons and putting a moratorium on offensive chemical and biological research. So, you know, President Nixon's legacy is mixed, but his legacy in chemical arms control and environmental stuff is actually quite positive. Now I understand I'm getting towards the end of my hour. I wanna wrap this up. The tale of nerve agents makes its way out of sort of the rump end of the cold War into other conflicts. And actually the most statistically significant use of nerve agents was in the Iran-Iraq War, where the Iraqi military faced by a numerically superior, but less well-equipped Uranian force uses chemical warfare agents, including nerve agents to fight many battles. It's one of the few instances actually in military history
46:35
where you really can point to specific battles and military campaigns where chemical weapons performed as needed by the commanders that use them and actually made a significant operational difference. And this is all happening at a time where the East and the West are negotiating the Chemical Weapons Convention and all that, there was several horrific massacres of largely Kurdish civilians, including places like Halabja, the graveyard picture there is Halabja. The Halabja Massacre is still quite an infamous incident, possibly the largest use of nerve agents. Again, depends on how you compare it to some use of nerve agents on the battlefields near the (mumbles), but that's for another story. But what you get is you get actually chemical arms control out of this. Eventually the end of the Cold War, the realization in the West particularly, that these are not useful weapons. So there wasn't a single military in the West that was advocating to keep these things for battlefield use.
47:40
And so it became much of the rest of the world trying to haggle the Soviet Union into it. And eventually the collapse of the Soviet Union, rise of Boris Yeltsin in Russia, then you get actually in the 1990s the Chemical Weapons Convention and an organization behind it, the OPCW to enforce this. And although there have been instances afterwards, I'd have to say that this is clearly a case mostly good. Most of the chemical weapons around the world have been identified, seized, destroyed, demilitarized under OPCW certification. So there is some good in this story. But what you have is you have a secret program that continues despite the Chemical Weapons Convention and started out in the Soviet union, ended up in post-Soviet Russia, the so-called Novichoks and they rear their ugly head. Also, you have a cult in Japan, in 1990s the Aum cult, Aum Shinrikyo, the Aum Supreme Truth Cult
48:49
used nerve agents in two attacks actually, the lesser known Matsumoto sarin attack. And then the infamous one later on in 1995 in Tokyo. Up to this point it had been really considered that nerve agents were too difficult for so-called non-state actors, terrorist groups to acquire. I would say that Aum is kind of the exception that proves the rule. It was such a large group that it effectively was the equivalent of a small country. At one point they had over 100,000 members. Their membership was heavily intellectual. They managed to assemble a chemical warfare research and development team of PhD level chemists and chemical engineers who were ideological true believers, really wanted to do it. They spent a lot of money. They set up front companies to buy precursor chemicals. They spent a lot of money in cash in the former Soviet Union to get some interesting information on how to make sarin.
49:56
And the information they got on how to make sarin was about 80% correct. It wasn't, you know, it got them a good long way towards making the sarin. They had to do some particular work on that, but I would say the level of effort they put to it, the amount of money they spent, they spent somewhere between 50 and 90 million US dollars at the time, okay. And the amount of money they spent was the equivalent of one of the smaller nerve agent programs from a nation-state standpoint. It wasn't any smaller than the Yugoslav nerve agent program under under Marshal Tito and they managed to make sarin. So just try to say, oh well, nerve guys and non-state actors can't do it. They largely can't. These guys got to enough critical mass where they were the equivalent of a small country. And then we have the Syrian War. You can read my posts in "Bellingcat," where, you know, I spend a lot of time nitpicking the chemistry on this stuff. And there's a whole chapter in my book, on the Syrian War.
51:04
The use of sarin and the nerve agent sarin, is part of a broader context in the Syrian Civil War. The majority of the chemical warfare stuff done in Syria is chlorine. Some of that is the fact that chlorine is less strictly controlled by the Chemical Weapons Convention. And the Syrians have been called out several times on the sarin front and have been slapped around for it. But the international community seems less (mumbles) about chlorine. But there are two particularly big sarin incidents, one in Ghouta involving rockets, that's the left-hand one. And a later one in a place called (mumbles) which involves at least one aerial drops, a bomb, that's the crater thereof. Both involving sarin. And the Syrians, by the way, their program is actually quite old. This is not a new thing for the Syrians. The Syrians have been working on nerve agents since at least the early 70s, possibly the late 60s. And I'm about at the end of my time here, but this stretches into modern day here. The events of Salisbury, Yulia and Sergei Skripal, Charlie Rowley, Dawn Sturgess who died from exposure,
52:14
detective sergeant, Nick Bailey, who was affected by it. So you know, it happens here in the UK. And I'm not sure I have a picture of it. Nope, nope, nope, I don't have a picture of Mr. Navalny, I probably should put one in. The revelation that Mr. Navalny was poisoned, you know, in circumstances that are heavily controlled by the Russian government, that's, you know, this all kind of shows that this is not stuff that is just antiquity. It reaches from every, just, you know, it reaches from the 1930s, from its evil, wicked Nazi origins to today. So there was a thread running from Colorado potato beetles to the streets of Salisbury. And so and this is my shameless plug for my book. Then I'll take some questions. I mean, there's a lot of things going on in my book. It is bad people doing good things. There's good people doing bad things. Gerhard Schrader, that scientist, all he ever wanted to do was protect crops. You know, as soon as he had a chance, he got out of nerve agent weapons, went back to pesticides. There's a couple bad people that did some good things.
53:24
Really, really difficult technology. And I talk about how the technology is actually quite difficult. I talk about the collaboration with industry, because all of these successful nerve agent programs required a combination of etiology in the form of the government that wants to use this stuff and an industry willing and able to cooperate. And even the Aum Shinrikyo thing is, well they didn't have an industry willing to cooperate, so they built their own. Arms races, I've talked about that. There's a whole theme of technology is for good and evil. There are certain chemicals in the nerve agent category that are actually useful as medicines. So it's not like this entire category is evil. So there's a, you know, you can argue the environmental merits of organophosphates as pesticides, but clearly they've helped crop production. I've got spies. I've got secrecy. I've even got a good commando raid in there. I've got some Treasury double doing. Deterrence, yeah, deterrence is a thing.
54:31
Deterrence mostly kept chemical warfare from happening. Most of the possible chemical attacks could have ever happened in history never happened because the other guy was convinced of retaliation kind. And I've got interesting anecdotes and environmental disasters. And so there's something for everybody in "Toxic." And hopefully I haven't stolen my own thunder so much. I'm almost exactly on one hour. There is a link here, by the way. I think this will be available for all of you. If you've used the TOXIC25 at checkout at my publisher, you'll get a, I believe a 20, 25% discount, something like that. That's only for UK delivery. Non-UK customers can still order through Hurst and they will ship. It's not stupidly expensive. North America customers, we are awaiting at some point soon, an announcement for a Oxford University Press to announce the release date for a US and Canadian edition. And on that note, I am happy to take questions. (clapping)

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