Ed Russell

"Already Homeward Bound: The Enduring Legacy of World War II

February 5, 1999

by Andy McIntire



Dr. Russell, of the University of Virginia, set out to explicate the interaction of war and environmentalism, two objects of study rarely juxtaposed. The rise of total war, and the shift of warfare in the twentieth century from something practiced solely by armies to something that drew upon all the civilian resources of a nation, enlisted nature itself into military service. This process forms a continuity between World War II and the Cold War with respect to ideology, technology, and institutions.

Housewife in Army helmet attacking bugs He then showed an image from 1946. Note the housewife in military helmet armed with a spray gun attacking household bugs. The caption reads, "Penick Insecticidal Bases . . . Super Ammunition for the Continued Battle of the Home Front."

Traditional Cold War literature has little to say about an image such as this. First, 1946 was early on in the Cold War, before it really got under way. This time is typically seen as a period of demobilization. Second, the Cold War is usually associated with new technologies such as the atomic bomb. The images in this ad are more in the style of World War II, and seem far removed from the terrors of the Cold War.

But professor Russell argues that the ad, and others like it, link World War II to the Cold War. There were both technological and ideological transfers connecting the two vastly dissimilar conflicts.

These linkages frequently disappear because, first, historians tend to periodize wars so that they happen one at a time. This practice implies a period of "normalcy" in between when the nation is demobilized. Moreover, the motives in World War II and in the Cold War were quite different: one was fought against fascism, while the foe in the other (a former ally) was Communism. Finally, we tend to separate war from nature in the way we separate military from civilian: war is seemingly unnatural, whereas peace is the natural state.

The enlistment of mother nature in warfare happened as early as World War I. With massive typhus epidemics spread by lice, and the realization that 90% of US troops had lice, there was the perception that chemical control was crucial. In World War II, pesticide ads listed malaria as an enemy along with Germany and Japan – after all, it killed eight times the number of US soldiers as the Japanese did. Thus disease control, the military believed, was essential; control chemicals were critical.

In a case of technology transfer, the chemicals themselves were often derrived from military agents, such as the nerve gas Tabin. The related agricultural chemical was Parathion. In World War II, DDT was a miracle agent against real insect enemies that spread disease and was credited with preventing major epidemics in the Italian campaign. DDT itself, and numerous other chemical agents, got transfered from military to civilian use throughout the war and the years following. Other technologies, such as the respirators necessary in using such chemicals, formed further direct technological transfers. Military surplus equipment was behind much of the post-war boom in ariel crop dusting, and military pilots did most of it. Ads appeared immediately after the war for aerosal bug bombs developed "exactly as used by the Armed Forces" and depicting a woman's hand using one. Product names, such as "Insect-o-blitz," coopted wartime terminology: "Doom to insects . . . Boom to Sales."

Institutionally, the Office of Scientific Research and Development under Vannever Bush did the most to accomplish such transfers. Bush early saw DDT as useful, and its use in Italy resulted largely from the OSRD's Insect Coordination Committee. The Army Chemical Warfare Service also funded research (and conducted some of its own) into chemicals to be used against bugs. The Insect Coordination Committee at OSRD was transferred even before the end of WWII to the National Research council. The US Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with the Surgeon General, also worked to develop insecticides.

Hence, Russell sees continuity between the Cold War and World War II in the areas of ideology, technology, and institutions. He argues against a civilian/military dichotomy, as well as against a natural/unnatural one. Nature was harnessed, he says, in a military effort with important civilian spillovers.

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