Arms of Precision and Weapons of Mass Destruction

1898 Battle of Omdurman

I am currently researching the spread of nuclear technology in the developing world, which means I have to confront the politics of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Although I support the NPT, as a historian it is hard to analyze it without some kind of nod to the “haves” and “have nots” aspect of it.  As someone very interested in the history of technology, I cannot help but see parallels with a similar technological regime established at the end of the nineteenth century.  I’m hoping I’ll get some emails or replies to this post, to help punch holes in this parallel, so that when I write the book I can anticipate problems with it.  So here goes:

An international regime to control the spread of nuclear weapons was not entirely without precedent.  Think of the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, is often associated with the “Scramble for Africa” toward the end of the nineteenth century.  That agreement essentially set forth rules of engagement in developing African colonies, protectorates, and other military/economic enclaves.  It is a very well known agreement and, even though it’s often forgotten, it is an important turning point in the history of imperialism.  However…

Perhaps more significant was the follow up declaration set forth in Brussels just a few years later.  It stands today as one of the most significant documents about the proliferation of dangerous technology, and its basic assumptions resound clearly in the nuclear realm.  It set forth a regime of control that rested on fundamentally moral grounds, in this case the quashing of the slave trade.  But it also served two important functions: it reinforced the importance of free flowing commerce while institutionalizing the relationship between the “haves” and the “have nots.”

Looking back it may seem inappropriate to compare a nuclear weapon to a breech-loading rifle, but the effect of the rapid transformation of firearms in the nineteenth century is hard to overstate.  The turn from unreliable flint-lock muskets during the Napoleonic era to accurate, weather-resistant weapons that could be loaded while lying down helped the upstart Prussians to shock the world by defeating first Austria and then France in major wars toward the end of the nineteenth century, creating a German empire that would dominate European politics for decades to come.  And putting magazine-loaded repeating guns into action—such as the famous Gatling gun and Maxim—meant that enemies could be gunned down at the turn of a crank or the squeeze of a trigger.  Combined with other developments of the industrial age, such as railroads and shallow-water steamboats, these weapons gave Europeans an unprecedented degree of colonial control.  And it was not merely Europeans who were concerned: the United States, the Ottoman Empire, and the Shah of Persia all perceived the proliferation of the new “arms of precision” as a dire threat.  These were the weapons of mass destruction of their time.

The effect of the agreement, as historians such as Daniel Headrick have pointed out, was that the Europeans in Africa had the technological edge, and only the more rudimentary (not to say obsolete) lay in the hands of Africans, regardless of whether their governments were legitimate or not.  The most infamous case of this disparity was the 1898 battle of Omdurman, when General Kitchener’s  well-armed troops at Khartoum killed some 10,000 Mahdists, wounded even more, and took some five thousand prisoners, while less than fifty British soldiers were killed.

According to the declaration, experience had proven that the preservation of the African people had become a “radical impossibility” without new restrictive measures against trade in firearms.  Therefore firearms imported to most of sub-Saharan Africa were to be placed into a public warehouse under the control of European governments.  Only older kinds of guns could be sold to Africans, while the new “arms of precision,” such as rifles, magazine guns, and breech-loaders, were kept away from Africans.  This included not just the weapons themselves but all the accoutrements—detached weapon parts, cartridges, caps, or ammunition.  The market for guns in Africa would be strictly limited to ordinary powder and flint-lock guns.[i]

All of this sounds strikingly similar to the safeguard system established by the NPT.  Obviously there have been plenty of opportunities to sabotage the NPT by stretching or breaking the rules, but the system is in place to monitor the spread of nuclear technology and at the very least to establish some kind of paper trail to track down sales.

In retrospect the agreement at Brussels seems like a typical chapter in the history of imperialism, in which Europeans and Americans united in their mutual distrust of black Africans and their mutual desire not to sabotage their own long-term economic interests for the short-term gains of arms profits.  And yet the agreement was practically unassailable on moral grounds at the time, because it was clothed in the language of anti-slavery.  Banning these “arms of precision,” except among colonial police and military forces, served as a means stifling the evil of the slave trade more effectively.

Similarly, it is inconceivable to support nuclear proliferation today.  It is not only a matter of security, but it seems immoral to want more countries to have nuclear weapons.  But this position is itself an echo of history.  Is it possible to shed the imperial trappings, or as we would say today, is it possible to promote world security without reinforcing the inequities between the global North and South?


[i] General Act of Brussels Conference relative to the Africa slave trade, signed at Brussels, July 2, 1890 (London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1892), p. 40.

11 thoughts on “Arms of Precision and Weapons of Mass Destruction”

  1. Jake: It’s an interesting comparison, and one I haven’t seen before.

    What makes the NPT something unusual, though, is its attempt to deal with the inherently dual-use nature of nuclear technology. Haves and have-nots — sure. But is there anything comparable to the dual-use nature, or is this just a statement that says, “Africans don’t get rifles”? Because the latter doesn’t sound like the NPT to me. Even the interpretations that see it as colonial in nature or an infringement on sovereignty (that is, the position taken by India in particular) recognize that there is still a trade-off. And unlike the NPT, your agreement doesn’t have African participation — they aren’t also saying, “yes, we agree to not have rifles.”

    So in that way this strikes me as a typical monopoly agreement, as opposed to something like the NPT, which is more complicated (safeguards, yes, but safeguards on allowable technology — the carrot that is meant to motivate the stick). The NPT signatories also ostensibly agree that they are signing it for common security, even though there are only five legal “haves” in the treaty. The treaty you describe doesn’t quite seem like that to me.

    Just some thoughts. I think it’s wrong to just see the NPT as something that limits — it is also expressly meant to enable, which is the heart of so many of its problems.

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  2. Thanks Alex. Yes, you are right. My project is actually about just that, the uncomfortable line between peaceful application and military ones, and the odd history of policing that line. So you are right to raise the dual use question. There are lots of nutty peaceful applications, by the way. You make a great point about Africans not being signatories in 1890, which is a difference. What I didn’t mention is that guns in general were ok (that’s the closest parallel to dual use), as long as they were old-style conventional ones, i.e. flint-lock, smooth bore. Partly this was due to the fact that banning the older ones couldn’t be enforced, because African blacksmithing technology could easily produce and/or repair such weapons, and you could use stones as ammo. Since rifling tech was only being done in Europe/US, it seemed like something that could be controlled by international agreement.

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  3. Right, but the Africans didn’t get anything out of it — it was one-sided. The NPT is meant to be two-sided: you give up some sovereignty, you give up some global ambition, and in return you get entry to a fun world of peaceful nuclear power AND your neighbor also maybe won’t get the bomb either.

    A stronger parallel to the Africa case would be export control legislation and/or agreements, which are usually not meant to be something that the “have nots” are asked about, and it is really just exclusively about technological denial for that reason. What’s tricky about nukes is that even with export control, there’s a fear that countries will develop them indigenously. That seems to be lacking in the Africa case.

    (That in and of itself says something about the world today versus the world back then! In the 19th century, the idea that an African nation would produce highly-accurate rifles was probably nonsensical enough to not be entertained. Today, the idea that a third-world nation might be producing nuclear weapons is completely on the table!)

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  4. Jake, Alex W. (whom I don’t know but would love to meet since he too is in the DC area!) makes a good point about parity in the diplomatic agreements. But I think there’s another more general rubric under which the “green table” agreements (Berlin conference on Africa), the Brussels agreement, NPTs of all types, and decisions on the use of precision weapons (e.g., see The Social History of the Machine Gun) fall. Consider diplomatic (and other) efforts to control the use of violence (of any type), a central problem in state-building since the early modern period. A key landmark document in that area, and one that was multilateral, was the Peace of Westphalia in 1648–still invoked today. — And later history notwithstanding, Germans (Prussians especially) had a lot of trouble with the use of “precision” weapons in the nineteenth century and forestalled their use on moral grounds for decades, preferring instead a type of military fighting that rested on strategy. — Good luck with this project; as with your other work, it’s very intriguing. Gabrielle Hecht’s new book, Being Nuclear (2012) provides a complementary perspective from the point of view of uranium trade.

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  5. I would note in passing that the quest for nuclear weapons has been driven by the West’s development of precision-guided munitions. For a Third World country, nukes are the only way to off-set the overwhelming advantage that PGMs confer.

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  6. Thanks, Kathy. I didn’t know that the Prussians held back using precision weapons on moral grounds. It didn’t seem to last! And yes, I suppose it all goes back to the Thirty Years War. But Westphalia wasn’t designed to keep certain kinds of technologies in the hands of a few states, at the expense of others, was it? Pardon my ignorance. In 1890, I suppose that what is being offered in return for the military constraint is the supposed benefits of protection, commerce, etc that empire offered, particularly from the evils of slavery as practiced within Africa.

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  7. Thanks for bringing forward an interesting question. While one would want to think that the NPT and nuclear weapons were vastly different from the automatic and precision rifles in the 19th Century – are they really? I understand that the moral arguments that arose from the advancement of cannon to fire over-the-horizon at those unseen was effusive.

    Like the cannon, the military of the Have Not nations cannot afford not to seek parity by obtaining N-weapons. Rogue states (e.g., nK) and those attempting to find a shortcut to regain the world status of times gone by (Iran) must logically push to obtain these weapons. Alternatively, the Have’s know how dangerously close they have come to annihilating themselves, the enemy, and possibly our species both through intentional and unintentional events. It is difficult to give up this edge – when so many will soon be at the Big Table having obtained their own N-weapons – or threatening to do so.

    As for myself, I have no firearms. However, I do trust our local authorities to maintain my safety and that of others. Can we offer protection to Have Nots in such a way as they might feel safe at all times from a Nuclear aggressor, without those protectors being capable of this same massively destructive force?

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  8. Jake–About technology and the TYW. You are correct the the peace settlement did not have to do with technology. It did have to do with control over violence, both in terms of who can use it (the state) and to whom it could be directed (not at civilians, but of course that did not last). If we look at the matter of the control of violence over the long term, then we do then bring technology into the picture in large ways, of course. It seems to me that there’s a continuum here. Charles Thorpe, in The Tragic Intellect, makes the chilling (but very true) comment that with the bomb “science became a central instrument of violence” ans so a “vital resource for state power.” (xii) He points out the Oppenheimer, in his 1948 piece on “The Open Mind” stated that science was not coercive but it was a medium of technological violence. With smart bombs, precision bombing and surgical strikes, violence becomes linked to the preciseness of what science and technology can do. And so as Thorpe and others have demonstrated this development brings up the Weberian question of the role and responsibilities of scientists.

    With regard to the have/have not issue in a state’s access to these weapons, yes, of course the haves are going to restrict the distribution of instruments of violence. One legacy of the Westphalian system was the inevitable, and persistent, imbalance in the distribution of global power.

    The Prussian gun I’m referring to is the Dreyse needle gun. Developed in the 1830s it was not used until 1848, and then only in very limited ways, and wasn’t universally distributed until the Franco-Prussian war, by which time it was superseded anyway. Most military historians overlook the debates about the use of the gun. It’s an instance where precision (in a limited sense; the gun had its problems) is linked to violence, but there’s ambivalence about using it.

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  9. Kathy, this is fascinating. I do like (or rather, dislike–you know what I mean) the notion of scientists as an instrument of violence, an issue so often skirted by scientists insisting on science’s neutrality. In my book on environmental warfare (which will come out, I hope, in Feb), I make a similar point that scientists became tools for extending the concept of total war to the natural environment, using science to harm the enemy through the natural world (bioweapons, radioactive contamination, weather control, etc). The title reflects that: Arming Mother Nature.

    I teach about the Dreyse needle gun in my history of technology class, and I am guilty of overlooking this moral debate. I will remedy that, and I think it will lead to interesting classroom discussion.

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  10. Your book had better come out on time: I pre-ordered it some time ago! — I think we really need to consider how scientists become instruments of violence, and to varying degrees do and don’t recognize it. I’m sure you’ve seen The Day After Trinity. Also take a look at the video on Hans Bethe done at Cornell entitled: “I Can Do That.” It may still be on the Cornell website; my husband gave it to me as a Christmas present years ago (!); I had done my senior thesis on Bethe, and interviewed him (I still have the tape). — Good to teach the Dreyse needle gun; few would even think of doing that. I’m in Germany now, but when I get home I can send you some German sources on it if you would like (I would have to scan them).

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  11. While there are a few similarities, I think the differences are substantial, substantial enough that I wonder how useful the comparison is. As mentioned, the technologies are very different in a key respect — nuclear has many peaceful uses and repeating arms have only military purposes. The NPT guarantees (maybe in quotes) universal access to the peaceful technology, including uranium enrichment and reprocessing (tho this is now being challenged). The point of the Brussels agreement was to prevent wider access to the technology. The NPT included many governments already committed to foreswearing nuclear weapons. The whole point of the Brussels agreement was to prevent African nations from being or becoming Treaty of Westphalia States — it could not be more imperialist, or racist, in intent.

    The more interesting comparison may be with the policies advocated since Pres. Bush’s National War College speech that enrichment & reprocessing technologies now be made forbidden to States not already possessing them. There are still important differences, as in who is supporting such measures (some without them, vice Brussels).

    And I think the argument that current nuclear weapons wannabes are driven by advanced conventional weapons is to ignore a lot of who went first. Use of those weapons in the 1990s led Libya to give its WMD programs up, and Iran had already started down the path, as had North Korea.

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