Geneva Protocol Is Signed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Representatives from several nations, including most of the Great Powers, signed a protocol banning the use of poison gas and bacteriological weapons in war.

Summary of Event

On June 17, 1925, representatives from several nations met in Geneva, Switzerland, and signed a protocol to prohibit “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices,” and further consented to extend this prohibition to bacteriological methods of warfare as well. This relatively brief document acknowledged that gas warfare had been condemned by civilized opinion and expressed the hope that the accord would one day become an accepted part of international law. The swiftness with which the agreement was reached was a tribute to the negotiating skills of the U.S. representative in Geneva, Theodore E. Burton, and also to the strong support that President Calvin Coolidge gave to the project. [kw]Geneva Protocol Is Signed (June 17, 1925) Geneva Protocol Weapons;chemical and bacteriological Chemical weapons Bacteriological weapons [g]Switzerland;June 17, 1925: Geneva Protocol Is Signed[06450] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 17, 1925: Geneva Protocol Is Signed[06450] [c]Health and medicine;June 17, 1925: Geneva Protocol Is Signed[06450] Burton, Theodore E. Coolidge, Calvin Ford, Gerald R.

The protocol was a response to the widespread use of poison gas in World War I. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];chemical warfare Poison gas was first used at the Battle of Ypres Ypres, Second Battle of (1915) in April, 1915, when the Germans released clouds of chlorine gas against French positions. Other nations, including Great Britain, France, and eventually the United States, either conducted extensive research or actually used poison gas in battle. Each year of the war witnessed an increase in use of this nefarious weapon. There is no consensus on the actual number of people affected, but after the war, the figures of one million casualties and 100,000 deaths were frequently cited. Although these numbers were undoubtedly an exaggeration, they were readily accepted by the general public. When these statistics were combined with graphic accounts of gas attacks in antiwar poems and novels and with photographs depicting pathetic columns of soldiers with bandages covering their eyes or hideous blisters marring their bodies, the effect on public opinion was dramatic. A significant body of opinion soon began to call for an end to gas warfare.

By the time the delegates gathered in Geneva in 1925, there were already three international agreements on the subject. Even before World War I, several nations had signed the 1899 Hague Declaration, promising to abstain from using “projectiles” to deliver poison gas. Advances in technology, however, later made it possible to disperse gas from cylinders or from aerial bombs. After the war, the victorious Allied governments inserted Clause 171 into the Treaty of Versailles, which prohibited Germany from possessing, manufacturing, or importing chemical weapons. A more extensive agreement was reached at the Washington Disarmament Conference Washington Disarmament Conference in 1921 and 1922, when the Five Powers (the United States, Great Britain, Japan, Italy, and France) adopted Article 5, which banned the use of poison gas in war. All five countries signed the agreement, but it never came into force because France subsequently refused to ratify it over a dispute concerning submarines. Five-Power Treaty (1922)[Five Power Treaty]

The Geneva Protocol was in many respects an unexpected and unplanned success. Originally, the delegates had a rather narrow mandate: to regulate the international arms trade. Although the issue was not on the agenda, Burton suggested that chemical weapons be included in the discussions. Smaller nations did not like the idea of a ban on the export of chemical weapons, because such a ban would help to perpetuate the substantial gap that already existed between the arsenals of the Great Powers and those of the lesser ones. Moreover, enforcement of such a law would have been complicated by the difficulty of distinguishing between chemicals destined for legitimate use and those intended to be converted into poison gas; such uses often overlapped. Finally, some delegates feared that regulating the trade in poison gas would in effect legitimate gas as a weapon by placing it on the same level with conventional weapons.

Responding to these concerns, Burton therefore proposed a total ban on the use of chemical weapons in war, not simply a ban on trade. About the same time, President Coolidge stated that if the delegates in Geneva failed to agree to a ban on use, he would invite them to Washington for a conference in order to achieve that objective. Burton’s proposal was warmly received, however, and the U.S. delegation readily accepted a friendly amendment from the Polish delegate that the prohibition be extended to bacteriological warfare. Initially, some two dozen nations signed the protocol, but several nations, including the United States, had to have their national legislatures ratify it to give it the force of law.

Ironically, the United States, the nation given credit for negotiating the agreement, failed to ratify it. Because the protocol was a treaty, it needed to be approved by a two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate. The protocol had the support of Coolidge, the U.S. Navy, and the War Department and the personal backing of General John J. Pershing, who had been commander in chief of the U.S. forces in World War I. Nevertheless, the military establishments in many countries, including the United States, did not wish to give up the new weapon. Moreover, there were powerful voices that asserted that chemical weapons designed to incapacitate or immobilize were less horrible than other weaponry designed to kill or maim. A particularly telling statistic often quoted by opponents of the protocol was that 25 percent of the soldiers hit by artillery shells died, compared with only 3 percent of gas casualties. In addition, influential organizations such as the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Association of Military Surgeons, and the prestigious American Chemical Society were opposed to ratification. The protocol was deliberated for only one day on the Senate floor before being withdrawn by its supporters, who feared certain defeat. Despite this failure, the protocol came into force in 1928. By the outbreak of World War II, more than thirty countries had ratified it, including all of the Great Powers save the United States and Japan.


Over the decades, there has been a tendency for the public to expect too much of the Geneva Protocol, mainly as a result of several misunderstandings. The agreement did not ban further research, manufacture, or importation of chemical weapons, only their use in war. Significantly, it included neither provisions for verification nor penalties for noncompliance. The wording of the protocol obligated the signees only with respect to those nations that also signed the pact; in other words, it was permissible for a signee to use poison gas against an enemy that was not a signatory. Furthermore, many nations that ratified the protocol did so with the reservation that they would be at liberty to retaliate if an enemy first employed chemical methods of warfare. Many observers have pointed out that this meant the protocol was tantamount to an agreement renouncing first use of chemical weapons, nothing more.

Moreover, diplomats, scholars, and jurists skilled in international law have found some disturbing ambiguities in the agreement. It was unclear whether the protocol banned all chemical agents or only those that were clearly intended to kill, wound, or seriously maim. It was also unclear whether the agreement applied only to international wars or to all wars, including civil wars and undeclared wars such as the U.S. conflict in Vietnam. Some scientists wondered whether references to bacteria should be interpreted narrowly or broadly, as some highly toxic substances exist (for example, among viruses and fungi) that technically are not bacteria.

The Geneva Protocol did not stop the practice of chemical warfare. The first nation to breach the agreement was Italy, which unleashed poison gas against Ethiopia in 1935 and 1936. Japan used gas against China beginning in the late 1930’s. After World War II, the United Arab Republic employed chemical weapons in Yemen’s civil war in 1967; the United States used nonlethal chemicals, such as riot-control agents, herbicides, and defoliants, in the Vietnam conflict during the late 1960’s; and Iraq employed both mustard and nerve gas in the Gulf War with Iran in 1983. During the 1980’s, the Soviet Union was suspected of using chemical weapons in Afghanistan, and Vietnam was alleged to have used chemical agents in Laos and Kampuchea. These allegations, although widely believed, were never authenticated. Such a list of violations may appear formidable, but in the context of a century that produced literally hundreds of wars and atrocities, the use of poison gas and chemical warfare has been remarkably restrained.

Most notably, chemical weapons were not employed in World War II. Most scholars believe that a universal fear of retaliation prevented such use. Nazi Germany was alarmed by the prospect of chemical warfare, fearing that its enemies were much better prepared defensively and offensively. German chancellor Adolf Hitler, who was himself gassed in World War I, reportedly believed this form of warfare to be especially barbaric. In turn, France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union had a healthy respect for Germany’s chemical industry and its scientists and confidently believed that Germany would retaliate with full fury and effectiveness if so attacked. Japan never used gas against European troops in the Asian theater, assuming that U.S. industrial might and technical genius would wreak a terrible vengeance with similar weapons against Japan’s crowded cities.

Most of the belligerents in the war were not adequately prepared, offensively or defensively, for chemical warfare. Stocks of chemical weapons were insufficient for continuous and effective use, and there had been little training of elite military units in the techniques of delivering gas attacks. Finally, much of the war saw the application of blitzkrieg tactics. In a war of mobility, the effectiveness of poison gas was limited, because it worked best on a stable front.

After World War II, fears of chemical warfare partially receded. The atomic bomb replaced poison gas as the “doomsday” weapon. In addition, the major powers shrouded much of their research into new biological and toxic agents in secrecy, thus temporarily allaying the public’s apprehension. The protocol, however, was not forgotten. In 1966, the United Nations General Assembly voted unanimously to observe the principles and objectives of the Geneva Protocol. By 1970, the number of signatories to the treaty had reached eighty-four; the United States remained a significant exception.

On November 25, 1969, however, President Richard Nixon Nixon, Richard [p]Nixon, Richard;Geneva Protocol reaffirmed U.S. support for the Geneva Protocol and renounced first use of lethal chemical weapons. Nixon also renounced the use of all biological weapons, even in retaliation, and stated that the Department of Defense had been ordered to dispose of existing stocks of such weapons. The following year, Nixon submitted the Geneva Protocol to the Senate for consent to ratification, where it ran into opposition from liberal senators. The Republican Nixon administration made it clear that it believed the protocol did not prohibit the use of nonlethal chemical agents. Democrats, however, were upset that the United States was using nonlethal herbicides, defoliants, and riot-control agents in Vietnam; many liberal senators argued that the protocol banned all chemical weapons, not only lethal chemicals.

The stalemate was finally resolved during the presidency of Gerald R. Ford. Senate opposition was stilled when Fred Icke, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, promised that nonlethal chemicals would be used in the future only under stringent limitations. The Senate gave its consent to the protocol by a vote of ninety to zero, and on January 22, 1975, President Ford signed the agreement, fifty years after it had been negotiated. On the day the Senate approved the protocol, it also unanimously approved the Convention on the Prohibition of Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons (1972). This agreement, negotiated principally by the Soviet Union and the United States but open to other countries, was an attempt to update the Geneva Protocol by including scientific advances made over the years and providing for some measure of verification and compliance—two essential components missing from the protocol. Most diplomatic activity since 1975 has revolved around this newer instrument.

The Geneva Protocol has had a mixed history. It did not prevent the use of chemical agents in some conflicts, nor did it prevent research into and production of such weapons. It was, however, taken seriously by most nations. Countries cited the protocol when other nations violated the letter or the spirit of the agreement, and it proved a useful tool with which to embarrass other powers in the propaganda battles of the Cold War. Smaller nations believed that the protocol afforded some modest legal protection against weapons that they neither had nor wished to develop. It became, in the words of Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic senator and vice president, “the basic building block for all efforts to control chemical and biological warfare.” As of 2006, the treaty had 133 signatories, attesting to its vitality and endurance. Geneva Protocol Weapons;chemical and bacteriological Chemical weapons Bacteriological weapons

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, Valerie. Chemical Warfare, Chemical Disarmament. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Brief and readable survey of the subject includes little discussion of the protocol but addresses its impact on later developments. Features extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Frederick J. Chemical Warfare: A Study in Restraints. 1968. Reprint. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2005. Account of the history of the use of chemical weapons and attempts to restrain use by legal measures. Also discusses the “humanity” of chemical warfare. Includes important material about chemical warfare and chemical arms control that is difficult to find elsewhere.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coleman, Kim. A History of Chemical Warfare. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Describes the development and use of chemical weapons from 700 b.c.e. to the beginning of the twenty-first century, with extensive discussion of World War I. Also assesses current attempts to control the use and proliferation of such weapons and analyzes their potential use by terrorist groups.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Croddy, Eric, with Clarisa Perez-Armendariz and John Hart. Chemical and Biological Warfare: A Comprehensive Survey for the Concerned Citizen. New York: Springer-Verlag, 2002. Provides in-depth information on all aspects of chemical and biological warfare and weapons. Chapter 6 includes discussion of the Geneva Protocol. Features selected bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedman, Leon, ed. The Law of War: A Documentary History. Vol. 1. New York: Random House, 1972. A respected collection of the original texts of treaties dealing with the origins, development, and enforcement of the laws of war, including the names of original signatories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haber, L. F. The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1986. Excellent work on how poison gas affected soldiers, governments, military doctrine, and the chemical industry during and after World War I. Meticulously documented, with an excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spiers, Edward. Chemical Warfare. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. Excellent historical survey of the topic by an authority in the field. Focuses on how nations have simultaneously relied on deterrence and disarmament negotiations in order to avoid chemical warfare. Includes copious footnotes and a fine bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Ann Van Wynen, and A. J. Thomas, Jr. Legal Limits on the Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1970. Impressive study of the development and status of international law as it relates to chemical and biological warfare. Contains a brief but excellent section on the ambiguities and limitations of the protocol. For the advanced student.

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Categories: History