World War II differed radically from traditional European wars. According to military convention, armies met in the open, soldiers killed as many enemies as possible, saved their own lives when they could, and trudged home to await the verdict of history. With the exception of sieges, civilians were regarded as non-combatants and therefore not as legitimate victims; they were generally spared, even in the bloodiest conflicts. Consider the slaughter in World War I. Opposing armies endured four years of artillery, mortars, poison gas, machine guns, rain, mud, rats–the permanent shambles of trench warfare. At dusk on 1 July 1916, the first day of Britain’s grand offensive on the Somme, 40,000 casualties flooded the aid stations, and 21,000 men lay dead on the battlefield. In three months, the Somme cost Britain 419,654 men–killed, wounded, missing, and captured. A year later, France launched its desperate Chemin des Dames counteroffensive, where several centuries earlier Louis Quinze had built a carriage drive along the Aisne river so that his daughters might enjoy an unobstructed view. The French medical corps had prepared for 15,000 casualties on the opening day of the operation; by nightfall 90,000 overwhelmed the facilities. After the Chemin des Dames, “collective indiscipline” occurred in 54 of the 110 French divisions on the Western Front. The Russians quit two months later, the Italians in November. Britain’s Fifth Army collapsed next. But the war dragged on until November 1918, when Germany sued for peace.

The lesson of the Great War was simple: men would never again fight in trenches–the “long grave already dug” in John Masefield’s words. Robert Kee, a British military writer, called trenches “the Concentration Camps of the First World War.” And in The Face of Battle, John Keegan added: “there is something Treblinka-like about almost all accounts of July 1st [1916], about those long docile lines of young men . . . plodding forward across a featureless landscape to their extermination inside the barbed wire.” But despite the war’s horrors, the extermination did not extend to civilians.


If European leaders wanted a second World War, they would have to invent a new way to fight it. France and Germany set out to do just that. Germany succeeded; France failed. The revanchist German General Staff, still licking the wounds of Compiegne and Versailles, introduced radical changes in land warfare, replacing infantry with tanks, artillery with dive-bombers, and trenches with highways. For non-combatants, these shifts posed a serious threat, but the principal danger to them came from a new theater of operations.

As World War I drew to a close, begoggled pilots with white silk scarves wound around their necks dueled mano a mano, much as knights had jousted a thousand years earlier, while bomber crews killed hundreds at a time. In May of 1917, 21 giant Gotha bombers, heading for London, ran into heavy cloud cover and, veering to the south, bombed the channel port of Folkestone and a Canadian army camp, killing 95 and injuring 195, all civilians. A resident of the town described the “bright silver insects hovering against the blue of the sky;” observers “were charmed with the beauty of the sight.” On 13 June Germany dropped 10,000 pounds of explosives on London, killing 162 and wounding 432, all civilians, including sixteen “horribly mangled” children. The Earl of Derby, Minister of War, assured the House of Lords that the bombing had “no military significance” because only civilians had been killed.

By the end of World War I, Germany had dropped 250,000 pounds of bombs on England, killing and injuring 4,830 persons. The meaning of the bombings, which had escaped the Earl of Derby, was by then clear to some British military leaders, and especially to Jan Smuts, a South African general serving in the British War Cabinet. In a report for Lloyd George in 1917, Smuts envisioned future wars: conventional operations would most likely consist of aerial “devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centers on a vast scale.” This was not an entirely novel proposition; other advocates of air power had made similar predictions–among them Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and the Frenchman Clement Ader, both in 1909, Giulio Douhet, a colonel in the Italian army who could not fly, and the American Billy Mitchell who could. According to Lee Kennett’s A History of Strategic Bombing, these men believed that the “quickest way to victory was through terror.” Civilians, they insisted, would never stand up under heavy bombardment.

To destroy cities on a “vast scale,” air forces needed three items: a new bomb, a system that would deliver it to its targets, and public approval of the mass slaughter of defenseless enemy civilians. Late in World War I Germany invented a small, light incendiary bomb as well as a delivery system–the four-engined bomber that attacked Folkestone and London. Public approval proved more elusive than the hardware. But under the pressure of propaganda and war, attitudes, too, would eventually give way. During the 1930’s Europeans began to worry about another World War. Former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin addressed the House of Commons in 1932. “No power on earth could protect the man in the street from bombing,” he said. “The bomber will always get through.” Baldwin added a somber postscript: “You have got to kill more women and children quicker than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.” Churchill predicted in 1934 that London in the next war would become a “valuable fat cow, tied up to attract the beasts of prey.” In 1937 the Luftwaffe tested its bombing technique on Guernica in the Basque heartland, killing 1,500 civilians, an act that, according to Phillip Knightley in 1975, “caused a wave of outrage that has never really subsided.” Guernica, he wrote, “became a watershed in the [Spanish] war.” In 1938, bombers struck Barcelona. Scientific American called the bombings “curtain raisers on insane dramas to come.” Secretary of State Cordell Hull, too, condemned the bombing: “no theory of war can justify such conduct.” Later that year, the RAF ordered 1,360 strategic bombers, and then doubled the order.

On 1 September 1939, the day World War II broke out, President Roosevelt appealed to the belligerents to forgo the “ruthless bombing” that had caused the “death of thousands of defenseless men, women, and children . . . and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity.” Britain, which began mass civilian bombing in 1940, immediately endorsed the President’s appeal; Germany, busy bombing civilians in Warsaw, delayed agreement until 18 September.

At the outset of World War II, the RAF and the Luftwaffe were reluctant to bomb one another. To a suggestion that the RAF bomb Ruhr industry, the Air Minister responded indignantly that “factories were private property.” On 4 September 1939, Britain attacked the German fleet at Wilhelmshafen, warning crews that no bombs should fall on shore and no merchant ships should be hit. Goering wanted to launch a strike against the British home fleet, but Hitler refused permission and Goering had to settle for an October raid on the Firth of Forth. His bombers spotted H.M.S. Hood riding at anchor, a sitting duck, but the pilots passed it up; it was moored too close to the shore. In 1939 neither the British nor the Germans wanted an air war; by 1940, both did.

On 14 May 1940 the Luftwaffe bombed Rotterdam because a communications breakdown prevented bomber crews from learning that the raid had been canceled. The attack killed 1,000 Dutch civilians, although 30,000 fatalities were reported to the world. Britain struck back the next day, sending 100 bombers to the Ruhr.

Two months later the Battle of Britain began, pitting RAF Fighter Command against Luftwaffe bombers attempting to destroy fighter fields and factories. During the summer of 1940 the RAF bombed Hamburg, Bremen, Essen, and a score of other cities. The Luftwaffe steered clear of London until one night in August when a dozen German aircraft, searching for oil tanks at Thameshaven and Rochester, and misled by a navigation error, bombed central London. Bomber Command pounced on the mistake, hammering Berlin for a week; Churchill hoped the Luftwaffe would retaliate by bombing English cities which, as R.H. Fredette notes in The Sky on Fire, would be “less dangerous” for Britain than allowing the Luftwaffe to maintain its attacks on Fighter Command. Goering obliged; more than 300 bombers struck London on 7 September, confirming Churchill’s fat-cow prediction. Fredette maintains that the British “precipitated” the Blitz, provoking Germany into civilian bombing, a policy that the Luftwaffe was unprepared for, and poorly equipped to execute. Germany, Peter Fleming claims in Operation Sea Lion, did not plan the Blitz in advance.

Following the Anglo-French disaster at Dunkirk, and while in the throes of the Battle of Britain, the United Kingdom’s survival seemed at stake. In a minute to his Minister of Aircraft Production in July 1940, a desperate Churchill could see only one way to bring Hitler down: “absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.”

Bomber Command began the war committed to daytime precision bombing of factories, avoiding as far as possible civilian casualties. But in the pitiless world of flak, enemy fighters, inept navigation, bad weather, and routine human error, daylight bombing runs proved considerably less effective than in briefings. Bombing by night did not improve results. Britain had put most of its offensive resources into a wildly expensive and unproved deus ex machina that could not simply be scrapped. Bomber Command analysts got to work, and identified a new and virtually unlimited supply of bombing targets–enemy civilians. Instead of having to pay, feed, clothe, train, and equip British soldiers, only to have them slaughtered en masse, they could slaughter enemy civilians en masse. A few thousand incendiaries would not only raze a factory, but waste the workers, their families, and their housing. Bombers had a new strategic mission: night attacks on factories and workers’ houses; according to Fredette, this area-bombing strategy really meant “city-killing.” Churchill’s controversial adviser, Frederick Lindemann, reported on 30 March 1942 that if the 58 German cities with populations over 100,000 were subjected to area bombing, one-third of the German population “would be turned out of house and home.” Lindemann, soon to become Lord Cherwell, couched his proposal in an adroit euphemism–“dehousing” the enemy, hardly more serious than “delousing” him.

It might seem reasonable to assume that military and politicians decide how to use their weapons. More often than not, however, the weapons themselves determine their uses. And the more devastating the weapon, the higher the price, the greater its role tends to be in the decision-making process.

Sir Arthur Harris, a South African general known informally as “the Butcher”–perhaps because he had been a professional meat hunter in Africa between the two wars–took over Bomber Command in January 1942. He announced a new policy: “the primary objective of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular of the industrial workers”– a prescription for “prolecide.” In The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes remarks that area bombing “was invented to give bombers targets they could hit,” which really means targets they could not miss. The essentials of an area-bombing program were now in hand–a new bomb, its delivery system, and general approval for incinerating civilians–and the stage was set for genocide. Harris decided to run a test of incendiaries. He chose Luebeck, an ancient Hanseatic city on the Baltic, a cultural and historic landmark, a city of picturesque timbered architecture, that happened to be “especially inflammable,” as Webster and Frankland noted in the official history of the RAF. If Luebeck would not burn, no city would. Luebeck settled the issue. For the rest of World War II, incendiaries were the bomb of choice. On 30 May 1942, Harris assembled 1,000 bombers, a fleet of unprecedented size for a massive area attack on Cologne. Not until early 1943 did the RAF develop the technology that allowed it to dominate what Max Hastings, in Bomber Command, calls the age of “automated mass destruction.” By late May 1943 everything was in place. On 27 May, Harris issued Most Secret Operation Order No. 173, calling for “total destruction” of Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city. Operation Gomorrah began on 24 July, and continued for two more days with daylight raids by USAAF Fortresses. A final attack on the night of 27 July dumped another 1,200 tons of incendiaries on workers’ housing.

A new and unforeseen weapon came into play at Hamburg–the firestorm. Martin Middlebrook describes one in The Battle of Hamburg. A thermal column of wind generated heat in excess of 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, melting trolley windows and the asphalt in streets, the wind uprooting trees. When people crossed a street, their feet stuck in the melted asphalt; they tried to extricate themselves with their hands, only to find them stuck as well. They remained on all fours screaming. Small children lay like “fried eels” on the pavement. The firestorm sucked all the oxygen out of the city; a 15 year-old girl said that the brains of people in shelters “tumbled from their burst temples and their insides [extruded] from the soft parts under the ribs.” Rhodes claims that Bomber Command killed at least 45,000 men, women, and children at Hamburg. By contrast, the bombing of Coventry killed 554 civilians and the heaviest raid on London 1,436. Civilian deaths in London during the nine months of the Blitz amounted to 20,083.

Aerial slaughter in Europe reached a climax on 13-14 February 1945 at Dresden. The briefing for air crews misrepresented Dresden as “an industrial city of first-class importance.” Dresden had always been a center of art and artists, one of Europe’s most magnificent cities, itself a work of art; Dresden’s “heavy” industry was the manufacture of porcelain shepherds and shepherdesses. Other industries, according to Kurt Vonnegut, held as a POW near Dresden, consisted largely of hospitals and cigarette and clarinet factories. Harris gave the city and its civilians an all-out scourging with 1,400 bombers carrying high explosives and incendiaries. The following day, 1,350 USAAF heavy bombers attacked the marshaling yards with high explosives. USAAF tactical fighters flew over in daylight and strafed survivors who had sought refuge along the river banks. Estimates of the dead vary from 35,000 to 135,000.

Hastings claims that the impetus for the Dresden raid came from Churchill who had a February meeting scheduled with Stalin and Roosevelt at Yalta. He was anxious to show the Soviet leader that the Allies had been supporting Soviet land offensives for years. The “former naval person,” as Churchill called himself, wanted to know what plans Bomber Command had for “basting” the retreating Germans. Stalin, of course, knew all about Allied support. A better reason for the Dresden bombing is needed. RAF briefing notes suggest one: among the objectives was to show “the Russians when they arrive, what Bomber Command can do.”

Hastings claims that “area bombing was a three- year period of deceit practiced upon the British public and on world opinion”; the areas most heavily bombed were “either city centers or densely populated residential areas which rarely contained any industry.” Nothing comparable to the firestorms of Hamburg and Dresden occurred in Britain, according to Harris’ Bomber Offensive; Germany built “no strategic bombers at all,” he says. The Luftwaffe built 1,000 two-engined bombers which they used for attacks on cities only when they were “not required to support the German army.” At the height of the air war in 1944, Germany produced only 172 strategic bombers compared to the Allies’ total of 7,283. Luftwaffe raids on Guernica, Barcelona, Warsaw, and Rotterdam usually supported land operations. German strategic bombing began and ended with V-2 rocket attacks in 1944 and 1945; the V-2 was designed to avenge Allied bombings, but pathetically inadequate to the task.

In the aftermath of Dresden, Britain began to rethink area bombing. Military and politicians realized that history might judge it with somewhat less enthusiasm than had RAF Target Intelligence analysts. The “estimated” 135,000 who died in Dresden amounted to “more than double the number of civilians killed in Britain by German air action in all six years of the war.” Not even Churchill was immune from misgivings: “the destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing,” he wrote in a critical 1945 memorandum to Air Staff that, under pressure, he subsequently withdrew. Churchill declined to award a peerage to Harris after the war, although he gave them to many lesser generals and officials. The RAF had no more work for him, and in 1945 he moved back to South Africa.


Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, began on 22 June 1941 when two million German troops crossed the Russian border on a front that ran from the Baltic to the Black Sea. For 20 years or more, Hitler had planned to destroy the Soviet Union politically and to convert the Caucasus into a German agricultural colony worked by Russian peasants. A force of 3,000 SS and Higher Police–Himmler’s Mobile Killers (Einsatzgruppen)–accompanied the German armies, their mission to slaughter civilian Jews.

Barbarossa involved preliminary planning, training, and logistics of unprecedented magnitude, by comparison with which, preparations for the Final Solution resemble an afterthought. Martin Gilbert claims in The Holocaust that before 22 June 1941, the actual start of the Holocaust, Jews in western Europe were “virtually unmolested;” in the East, some 30,000 died, 10,000 in individual killings or other types of violence. Another 20,000 starved in Polish ghettos. From 1938 to 1940, Hitler made “extraordinary and unusual attempts” to ship Europe’s Jews to Madagascar, but the project fell through when Germany failed to conclude a peace treaty with France. At the end of 1938, German officials conferred with various nations about facilitating Jewish emigration. Foreign Minister Ribbentrop discussed the issue with the French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet, but they could agree only that “no country wished to receive [the Jews].”

Although attacks on Jews were a cornerstone of the Nazi program from the start, the Holocaust itself seems to have been very much a last-minute decision. On 22 June 1941, none of the SS Killing Centers–Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Maidanek, Sobibor, or Treblinka–was operational. Chelmno, first of the six to open, did not start killing until December 1941. Auschwitz, the worst of the six, was an internment camp for Polish political prisoners until June 1941 when Himmler ordered its conversion. The official order to start the Holocaust was dated 31 July 1941; Goering signed it and Reinhard Heydrich received it. The Wannsee Conference, which set rules and administrative procedures, did not meet until January 1942.

What led the Nazi leadership to commence the Holocaust? On 24 August 1940 German bombers hit London by mistake. Churchill responded with four raids on Berlin in one week. Hitler exploded with infantile rage: “If the British air force drops two or three or four thousand kilograms of bombs, then we will drop in a single night 150,000, 180,000, 230,000, 300,000, 400,000–a million kilograms . . . we shall wipe their cities out!” Hitler, in fact, could not retaliate effectively. Luftwaffe attacks in the last months of 1940 were “a confused arrangement looking much more like the aimless, destructive outbursts of a child.” In a single night, Hitler could not drop 150,000 kilograms of bombs, let alone one million. There was only one thing he could do: start the Holocaust. Some nine months later he did. The New York Times of 13 June 1942 reported that Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s closest confidant and faithful follower, publicly assigned responsibility to American and British Jews for bombing raids on Germany, and declared that “mass extermination of Jews in reprisal” would follow. Goebbels made this speech some three weeks after the 1,000-bomber raid on Cologne, the most devastating raid up to that time.

In the first stage of the Holocaust, the Mobile Killers slaughtered 1.4 million Jews and Gypsies in a year and a half. Another 3.7 million Jews underwent gassing and cremation in the killing centers. It might seem anomalous to associate more than 5 million Holocaust dead with German victims of Allied bombings. They are, of course, neither equivalent nor synonymous: many German workers participated in the war effort and were ardent supporters of government policies, hence hardly innocent. Jews, on the other hand, were completely innocent. The two are similar only as civilians and as victims. How did Germany manage to kill between five and six million innocent human beings without anyone noticing? They had help–from their satellite allies, from Ukrainians, and Balts, but primarily from their enemies: Britain and the United States–their Silent Partners. A month after the start of the Holocaust, Yiddish newspapers in New York published eyewitness accounts of atrocities in Poland that most readers dismissed as fanciful. On 26 July 1942, dispatches in the Boston Globe and Seattle Times reported that 700,000 Jews had been slaughtered in Poland. After that the press stopped publishing massacre accounts, perhaps because the State Department’s Division of European Affairs (DEA) insisted that they were “fantastic” and “totally unbelievable.” In 1946 Churchill informed the Commons that until the war was over he knew nothing of the “horrible massacres which had occurred, the millions and millions slaughtered.” In fact, Churchill had minuted his foreign minister Anthony Eden in 1944: “this [the Holocaust] is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.” As early as 1941, allied leaders, members of the Foreign Office, the State Department, and the Vatican knew exactly what was happening. Churchill, FDR, and Pius XII knew by 1942; every Allied legation, consulate, and embassy had full knowledge. The AJC in February 1942 sponsored a mass meeting in Madison Square Garden with 20,000 in the audience and thousands more standing outside. AFL president Green, Mayor LaGuardia, Rabbi Wise, and Chaim Weizmann addressed the audience. Roosevelt and Churchill sent messages of encouragement. An 11-point program approved by the meeting went to the president. After the demonstration the State Department revealed secret plans for a “preliminary exploration” of the issue.

Five months after the Holocaust began, Romania proposed to release 300,000 Jews. The DEA rejected the offer on grounds that approval would lead to pressure to rescue Hungarian Jews and eventually other Jews under “intense persecution.” Speaking for the State Department, Cavendish Cannon of the DEA said in 1941: “We are not ready to tackle the whole Jewish problem.” In 1943 the State Department still was not ready. Soon after Germany’s Sixth Army surrendered at Stalingrad in January 1943, the New York Times reported that Romania wanted to release 70,000 Jews. Sumner Welles, Undersecretary of State, denounced the offer as “without foundation.” In The Abandonment of the Jews, David Wyman, a former history professor at the University of Massachusetts, maintains that the offer originated with “top level” Romanian officials and was genuine. Later in the spring of 1943, Eden met with Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Sumner Welles, and President Roosevelt to discuss a Bulgarian offer to release 60,000 Jews. If we take “all Jews out of a country like Bulgaria,” Eden said, “the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and Germany. Hitler might well take us up on any such offer.”

In the spring of 1943, Borden Reams of the DEA expressed the State Department’s reasons for rejecting Axis offers to release Jews: “there was always the danger that the German government might agree to turn over to the United States and to Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees.” A danger?

America and Britain repeatedly turned down appeals from foreign and domestic Jewish groups to bomb rail lines, gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz. Bombers “could not fly that far,” Air Force Operations said, but American bombers based in Italy regularly passed close to Auschwitz or even overflew it on their way to German factories–19 times, in fact, between June and December of 1945. Americans even dropped bombs on Auschwitz–by mistake. Wyman calls the Auschwitz area in August 1944 “a hotbed of American bombing activity.” Shalom Lindenbaum described a raid on Auschwitz. “Allied bombers appeared in the sky. It will be difficult to describe our joy. We prayed and hoped to be bombed by them, and so to escape the helpless death of the gas chambers.” Lindenbaum saw an Allied factory raid: “How beautiful was it to see squadron after squadron burst from the sky, drop bombs, destroy the buildings, and kill also members of the Herrenvolk.”

Fully expecting the Allies to bomb Auschwitz and inmates to escape, Himmler ordered a moat dug around the Camp and a second wire fence built with attack dogs guarding the space between the two. Even a token raid on Auschwitz would have forced the diversion of German fighter planes and anti-aircraft units from normal operations to the protection of killing centers and major concentration camps, thereby saving the lives of British and American air crews. Harvard history professor Charles Maier asserts that the decision not to bomb the killing center “rivals in moral ambiguity the bombing of Dresden.”

Apart from bombing, other initiatives for rescuing Jews were available. The Allies could have “sponsored” Commando assaults on killing centers and concentration camps. The BBC could have broadcast warnings to Jews in Poland and Russia, most of whom believed that the SS intended only to “resettle” and “retrain” them. The Allies might have dropped leaflets by balloon or plane over Polish and Soviet cities warning Jews about the killing centers. The Allies put off broadcasts and pamphlet drops until late in the war; such action would have exposed Allied postwar denials of Holocaust knowledge as fraudulent.

What price did Germany pay for extirpating more than five million Jews, stealing their money, their jewelry, real estate, their businesses, selling their hair, their clothing, and removing gold from their teeth, sometimes before gassing? What punishment did Germany receive

for killing an indeterminate number of Gypsies, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals?

What penalties were imposed on Germany for butchering Jewish prisoners of war in German POW camps? Germany paid several billion D-Marks in reparations; a few top Nazi leaders committed suicide to avoid standing trial; a dozen or more second-rank bigwigs were executed, and some lesser functionaries imprisoned–others, of course, ended up in the German government. What price did the United States and Britain pay for their complicity? None.


General Haywood S. Hansell, head of the 21st Bomber Command in the Pacific, specialized in precision bombing and avoiding civilian casualties, policies jettisoned years earlier in Europe. After three months of strenuous efforts in late 1944, Hansell had destroyed none of the nine priority targets assigned to him. H. H. “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the Army Air Forces, sent his chief of staff, Lauris Norstad, to Guam to replace Hansell. On 20 January Major General Curtis LeMay, fresh from bombing Germany and China, took over from Hansell. Norstad gave LeMay an ultimatum: get results with the new B-29 super-bomber or get the sack. Norstad also warned LeMay that an invasion of Japan would kill half a million Americans. LeMay calculated that if his B-29’s could “take care” of 30 to 60 Japanese cities, bombers would win the Pacific war by themselves. In a curious coincidence, LeMay took care of 58 cities, precisely the number of German cities that Churchill’s adviser Lindemann had urged that Bomber Command “dehouse.”

On 3 February, ten days before the Dresden inferno, LeMay introduced the Japanese to B-29’s, to area bombing and firestorming. He dropped 159 tons of incendiaries on Kobe, burning down 1,000 buildings, something less than the breakthrough he had hoped for. On 23 February, he hit Tokyo–172 B-29’s and a square mile burned out. Still not good enough. LeMay reworked his calculations. On 10 March 334 B- 29’s, each with 2 tons of incendiaries, burned out 16 square miles of Tokyo, destroying 267,000 buildings, killing more than 100,000 men, women, and children, injuring one million, and leaving another million homeless.

Robert Guillian, a French journalist, watched as the firestorm, “whipped by the wind, began to scythe its way through the density of that wooden city . . . All the Japanese in the gardens near mine were out of doors or peering up out of their holes, uttering cries of admiration–this was typically Japanese–at this grandiose, almost theatrical spectacle.” LeMay received a telegram from “Hap” Arnold: CONGRATULATIONS. THIS MISSION SHOWS YOUR CREWS HAVE GOT THE GUTS FOR ANYTHING. “It was a nice telegram,” LeMay said. The next day LeMay sent his B- 29’s to Nagoya, on 13 March to Osaka, and on 16 March to Kobe. On 18 March they went back to Nagoya. Why did he stop? “We ran out of bombs,” he wrote in his autobiography.

LeMay at last was getting good results, almost too good. The A-Bomb Interim Committee began to worry that if LeMay kept up the pace he might not leave a major city unscathed, making it difficult to obtain accurate measurements of the bomb’s destructive powers. LeMay subscribed, as did “Butcher” Harris, to the mystique of the bomber–they could win wars by themselves. This was the chance of a lifetime for LeMay and he didn’t want anything to interfere; however, he agreed to place five cities “off limits.”

Tokyo marked the final triumph of World War II area bombing. The US Strategic Bombing Survey noted that almost 90 percent of the Tokyo target zone was residential–12 square miles of workers’ houses in the central city–identified as such and selected by LeMay and staff members. Richard Rhodes points out that twenty years later LeMay still attempted to pass off the Tokyo bombing as industrial. The United States insisted on unconditional surrender, knowing that Japan was highly unlikely to accept. During the winter and spring of 1945, we did not have the bomb and had no idea when or if we would get it. But nuclear weapons appeared to be increasingly important to our postwar strategic posture. We could not bomb Japan after they had accepted our surrender terms without risking universal condemnation; hence, we were in a race to develop the bomb before Japan accepted our terms. As soon as we dropped the bombs, we also dropped our demand for unconditional surrender. On 31 May the Interim Committee discussed the use of the bomb. Secretary of War Stimson summarized the meeting: no warning to Japan; no civilian area to be attacked, and the bomb should make “a profound psychological impression on as many of the inhabitants as possible.” Harvard University president James B. Conant, a Committee member, was more explicit: The “most desirable target would be a vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers’ houses.” Stimson supported Conant’s position, a somewhat surprising reversal for the Secretary who earlier spoke of the “appalling lack of conscience and compassion that the war had brought about . . . the complacency, the indifference, and the silence with which we had greeted the mass bombings in Europe and, above all, in Japan.”

On 2 July, Stimson sent Truman a report on Japan’s military status. Japan, Stimson wrote, had no allies; her navy was nearly destroyed; she was vulnerable to surface and underwater blockade, and terribly vulnerable to air assault on her cities, and on her industrial and food resources. Two weeks after the report to Truman an atomic “device” was successfully detonated in New Mexico, the Trinity test. We had won the race. We could drop the bomb. Immediately following Trinity, General Thomas Farrell, deputy to General Groves, the administrator of the Manhattan Project, said triumphantly to his boss, “The war is over.” Groves gently rebuked his deputy. “Yes,” he said. “After we drop two bombs on Japan.”

Why did we bomb a defeated Japan? Not for military reasons. Some justify the use of nuclear weapons by reference to the likely costs of a land invasion. The United States certainly should not have invaded a crippled, militarily emaciated Japan. But there was no need to use nuclear weapons either. We could have bombed Japan at will; they had neither flak nor fighters left. We could have blockaded them for a decade, or for however long it took to bring them to their senses. We would not lose one man. Farrell was right; Groves was wrong: for all practical purposes, the war was over on 16 July 1945 with Trinity. If President Truman had sent one million young Americans to their death in a mindless invasion, he would have committed a major war crime. The invasion canard was a brilliant public relations ploy; it “laundered” the dropping of two atom bombs.

The reasons for killing so many civilians were political. The United States had emerged victorious from wars in Europe and in the Pacific, and we wanted the world to understand that we were the dominant power on land, on sea, and in the air. Stimson put the bombs in succinct perspective: they were a “badly needed equalizer” to Soviet power. We dropped the bomb on Japan to demonstrate our new power to the Soviet Union. According to Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-born physicist who as much as any man, deserves the honorific, Godfather of the Bomb, the result was “one of the greatest blunders of history.” In the sixth volume of his autobiography, Triumph and Tragedy, Churchill apostrophized the atomic bombings as a “miracle of deliverance.” The bombs may have “delivered” us miraculously from one war, but they delivered us unmiraculously into a Cold War and arms race. To forestall defeat in this thermonuclear competition, the Soviet Union and the United States seeded the world’s oceans with missile-firing submarines, mounted daily thermonuclear “Fail-Safe” raids with B-52 bombers, and planted ICBM’s like winter wheat in their arid zones. The Soviet Union and the United States also decided that if deterrence failed, 100 million deaths each–95 percent of them civilians–would be an acceptable price to pay. Germany broke the civilian bombing barrier at Folkestone and at London in 1917, at Guernica and Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, and at Warsaw and Rotterdam at the start of World War II. There was no turning back then, and there is no turning back now–consider Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Somalia, Bosnia. Civilians are now treated as combatants–which is yet another reason for preventing wars from breaking out in the first place.

Originally published in the October/November 1995 issue of Boston Review