• U.S.

Foreign News: Confessions & Concoctions

5 minute read

Suppose the U. S. had had a war scare six weeks ago which necessitated the evacuation of cities, the setting up of anti-aircraft defenses near public buildings, the distribution of millions of gas masks to the urban population. Suppose that six weeks later, with the crisis passed, Secretary of War Harry Hines Woodring confessed to Congress that the air-raid precautions had been so badly muddled that had war come, countless U. S. citizens would have needlessly been killed. Unquestionably the gravest sort of scandal would have followed.

In Britain, however, they do things differently. Last week Secretary for War Leslie Hore-Belisha, the man who is rated the livest live wire in the Chamberlain Cabinet, rose in Parliament to declare that the antiaircraft equipment of London during last September’s crisis was in an utterly chaotic state. Mr. Hore-Belisha added many unpleasant details:

“Some of the guns were without dials because the firm which made them went bankrupt. The guns sent from the practice camps in some cases became separated from their instruments. Further, they were sent into action without overhaul. Some predictors were out of order. Electric storage batteries were in some cases run down, although other units at the same time had spare batteries and charging plants. Certain units did not draw their full complement of stores and some stores were found to be deficient.”

To see that just such guns were in order has been one of Mr. Hore-Belisha’s special responsibilities for the past year. Furthermore, had a Hyde Park soap-boxer, any British newspaper publisher or even any member of Parliament revealed such a horrendous condition, he would have been clapped in jail under the Official Secrets Act. What happened to Mr. Hore-Belisha was nothing. His Government immediately got the second vote of confidence in two days (355-to-130), and the War Secretary prepared to send a “simple memorandum” of instructions to section commanders about how to behave in future. Sir John Anderson, Lord Privy Seal, whose duties are to be those of a minister for civilian defense, blamed the whole thing on “enormous” British inertia, called upon all parties to “cooperate to prove that Democracy can function to protect itself as efficiently as a Dictatorship.” Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare, while admitting “many mistakes of omission and commission,” emphasized that His Majesty’s Government did distribute 38,000,000 gas masks to the public, helped dig trenches in which 1,000,000 Britons could have huddled during air raids. The existing trenches and many more are now to be lined and roofed.

Nevertheless, many were the indications that, regardless of how skillfully the Government had handled the matter in Parliament, the Chamberlain Cabinet had not heard the last of the “air-raids precautions scandal.” Thousands received gas masks of the wrong size. There were grave doubts whether they would be effective against even mustard gas. Most of the trenches were pathetically shallow and inadequate. There was profiteering in sandbags and shovels.

Civil Servant Crawfurd Wilfrid Griffin Eady, Deputy Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs and administrative chief of the A. R. P. Department, minced few words when he called the A. R. P. regulations “probably the sloppiest ever produced by any Government Department.” He criticized the Government for its “unwise, unskillful appeal to the masses,” hinted that Britain’s Home Office had deliberately “exaggerated the gas risk.”

That the national A. R. P. administration had focused its attention on the possibility of gas attacks was evident from the titles of pamphlets that in the past year rolled from the presses of His Majesty’s Stationery Office to be sold to the public at from 4¢ to 12¢: Decontamination of Materials, Anti-Gas Precautions for Merchant Shipping, The Protection of Foodstuffs Against Poison Gas, Personal Protection Against Gas. There were growing suspicions that the danger of gas attacks, terrifyingly vivid to an English public which has read H. G. Wells’s The Shape of Things To Come and Air Commodore L. E. O. Charlton’s War Over England, had been exaggerated if not in some cases concocted by the Government. A scared English public that felt it might at any hour be choked to death by a gas shower has undoubtedly become a political asset to the present British rulers who want to come to an understanding with the war-threatening dictators.

In stressing the gas danger, Britain’s A. R. P. ignored the newest and best scientific advice as well as the latest available military evidence. No gas has been used against civilians in either Spain or China. Of the three general types of bombs—explosive, incendiary and gas— the gas bomb is the least effective, hence the least likely to be used. Dr. Francis Arthur Freeth, chief research chemist of Britain’s Imperial Chemical Industries, once said: “The amount of nonsense talked about poison gas is beyond belief.” He recommended that a man would be practically safe from a gas attack if he “got into a bath, smoked a pipe and laughed.”

Professor J. B. S. Haldane in two books rejected the picture of populations being wiped out by gas attacks. Most military authorities quote the low percentage of deaths or even permanent injuries from gas when used in the World War. Most scientists deny that any new mystery gas has been invented or that any could be concocted out of known elements.

Colonel Adelno Gibson, U. S. Chemical Officer, recently estimated that to wipe out Kansas City, 80 tons of phosgene would be needed and that even a slight zephyr would blow the gas away. It would take at the very least a fleet of 40 unimpeded bombers and incredible accuracy to drop such a load effectively. Said Colonel Gibson: “The horror tales of possible wiping out of populations have no foundation in fact.”

More specifically, Chemistry Professor Joaquin Enrique Zanetti of Columbia University said: “Only small areas of New York and London could be gassed.” Military Expert Liddell Hart, in Europe in Arms, rated mustard gas only as a “first-class nuisance.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com