March 8

This Day in History

Cold War

Mar 8, 1982:

United States accuses Soviets of using poison gas

The United States government issues a public statement accusing the Soviet Union of using poison gas and chemical weapons in its war against rebel forces in Afghanistan. The accusation was part of the continuing U.S. criticism of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

Since sending troops into Afghanistan in 1979 in an attempt to prop up a pro-Soviet communist government, the Soviet Union had been on the receiving end of an unceasing string of criticism and diplomatic attacks from the United States government. First the Carter administration, and then the Reagan administration, condemned the Soviets for their intervention in a sovereign nation. Because of the issue, arms control talks had been tabled, the United States had boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and diplomatic tension between America and Russia reached alarming proportions.

Reports that the Soviets were using poison gas and chemical weapons in Afghanistan only intensified the heightened tensions. The U.S. government's official statement charged that over 3,000 Afghans had been killed by weapons, including "irritants, incapacitants, nerve agents, phosgene oxime and perhaps mycotoxins, mustard, lewisite and toxic smoke." Evidence to support these charges was largely anecdotal and a number of U.S. scientists had serious doubts about the data put forward by the Reagan administration. Some critics charged that the accusations were a smokescreen behind which the United States could go forward with further development and stockpiling of its own chemical weapons arsenal.

The U.S. attack must have seemed mildly ironic to the Soviets, who had pilloried America for the use of defoliants and other chemical weapons during its war in Vietnam. By 1982, many Americans were referring to Afghanistan as "Russia's Vietnam."

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