weapon of mass destruction

This term for a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon is older than you might think. It actually dates to 1937, before the existence of either nuclear or biological weapons. It was first used by the London Times on 28 December of that year:

Who can think without horror of what another widespread war would mean, waged as it would be with all the new weapons of mass destruction?

This original reference is to aerial bombing of cities, which had become a reality that year in the Spanish Civil War, chemical weapons which had made their appearance in the First World War, and other modern weaponry.

By the 1960s, weapons of mass destruction had became a jargon term of the arms control community, narrowing in meaning to refer to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. From the American Political Science Review of 1961:

This revision should aim not only at banning nuclear weapons but also other weapons of mass destruction of the so-called ABC family (atomic, bacteriological and chemical).

It pretty much remained an arms control jargon term until 2002, when events in Iraq brought the term into the public eye.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

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