World War II

Why are There No Indians in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk?

With respect to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, there is a fair amount of “What about-ism” these days. What about Churchill? What about the French? As One Thing after Another has pointed out in a previous post, some critics are unhappy that Nolan did not include the stories of various figures or groups in his film. Now it is the turn of those who complain that Nolan has left Indians out of his tale.

One Thing after Another has a two-part response to these criticism. First, Nolan’s ambition consisted of presenting the experience of Dunkirk, not relating the story of a battle in the round like, say, The Longest Day, or other such films associated with “blockbuster history.” In doing so, Nolan took British memories of Dunkirk as a plucky evacuation and recast them into a harrowing survival story (military historian Robert Citino claims this movie presents the best rendition of what helpless infantry must have felt like when attacked by Stukas). As this blog has argued earlier, many of Nolan’s critics appear to desire a semi-documentary that details the doings of everybody on the beach when that was never his ambition. In large part, they desire this treatment because they want his film to bear the large and unwieldy load of rectifying British amnesia about the contributions of others during the evacuation (and the entire war for that matter).

And that brings us to the second part of this blog’s response. In the New York Times, Yasmin Khan complains that Dunkirk allows Britons to continue ignoring the imperial dimension of World War II. Why, then, did Nolan not show Indian troops at Dunkirk or present the narrative through Indian eyes? The answer is that there were probably very few Indians at Dunkirk. When World War II broke out in September 1939, the Indian Army had just over 200,000 men on the rolls. According to Khan’s India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War, 53,000 Indians enlisted in the army during the first eight months of the war. In other words, when the Dunkirk evacuation occurred, the Indian Army still numbered under a quarter million men, not enough to spare many soldiers abroad, guard the volatile North-West Frontier, and maintain domestic order. Not surprisingly, then, the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) order of battle for 1940 reveals that there were no Indian combat units in France. Khan and others have pointed out that elements of the Royal India Army Service Corps (see photo above) were present in France and made it to the beaches for evacuation. But the RIASC only ever sent four companies to Franceabout 1,000 men. This unit would have constituted a drop in the bucket compared to the 225,000-odd British troops stranded on the beach. As for the lascars, those Indian sailors who constituted around a quarter of the British Merchant Navy’s strength, the evidence seems to indicate that they were not as numerous at Dunkirk as Sunny Singh believes. A large majority of British troops rescued from the beach were picked up by the Royal Navy’s smaller warships (destroyers, minesweepers, and so on) or vessels pressed into service by the Royal Navy (mainly ferry boats or those involved in Britain’s coastal trade). The latter, to judge from W. J. R. Gardner’s The Evacuation from Dunkirk: “Operation Dynamo”, 26 May-4 June 1940, the standard reference work on the subject, were captained by officers from the Royal Navy Reserve, and they generally appear to have been manned by British crews.

India’s enormous contribution to the British Empire’s war effort (as chronicled recently by both Khan’s excellent book and Srinath Raghavan’s India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia) came later and elsewhere in the form of men, resources, and production. The Indian Army, which grew to just under 2.5 million men, played a very significant role in the Middle East, a commitment that spilled over into North Africa and thence to Italy and Greece. This force also proved particularly important in driving the Japanese out of Burma (now Myanmar). These missions were generally in keeping with the traditions of the Indian Army which consisted of safeguarding nearby imperial interests, including the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and southeast Asia (the one big exception came during World War I in the fall of 1914 when about one-fifth of the BEF in France consisted of Indian troops). And that is part of the reason why India’s contribution to the war has often been overlooked by both Britons and Indians; each has their reasons for ignoring the British Empire during World War II. British memories of the conflict stress how Britons heroically fought “alone” against the Germans for 18 months after France collapsed. This memory also tends to emphasize the action in Europe; there is less interest in the imperial dimension of the war because the empire is now dead and gone. At the same time, as Khan explains in her book, Indians also do not seem particularly interested in the role they played during World War II, largely because that role is difficult to incorporate in the nationalist narrative about India’s movement to independence in the 1940s. How does one tell the story of the almost 2.5 million Indian soldiers who faithfully did the British Empire’s bidding just a few short years before India’s “tryst with destiny”?

There is a movie yet to be made about Indians’ contribution to World War II that deals with the complexity of their relationship to the conflict and the British Empire. Dunkirk is not the setting for that movie. Such a film should be set in the Middle East or North Africa. Better yet, it it should take place in Burma, where eight of the thirteen infantry division that served in Bill Slim’s 14th Army were Indian. Their victories at Imphal and Kohima in the spring of 1944, which dealt Japan its greatest defeats on land during World War II, led to the recovery of Burma. It’s pretty clear that a British audience would not show much interest in such a film. But would Indians be in the mood to watch a movie that showed them in the service of an empire that they believe they are well rid of?

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Its Critics

If you pay attention to movies, you know that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which was released in the United States on Friday (and on July 13 in Britain), has been a tremendous hit with film critics, winning a fresh score of 92% at Rotten Tomatoes. Media outlets across the political spectrum appear to agree in conferring high honors on Dunkirk. For example, The Guardian acclaims it as “Nolan’s best film so far,” describes it as a “visceral piece of film-making,” and compares Nolan to Stanley Kubrick. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal, which usually doesn’t find itself on the same side of most issues as The Guardian, praises Nolan for having “created something new in the annals of war films—an intimate epic.”

The world, of course, would not be what it is if somebody wasn’t critical of Nolan’s choices. A handful of critics have complained that the film does not have much of an emotional core because there is little character development, and One Thing after Another can understand where they are coming from; Dunkirk is an inspired piece of filmmaking, but it is not perfect. One Thing after Another, however, is less forgiving of more political criticisms of the movie. In a mixed review that admires Dunkirk’s ability to immerse the audience in the experiences of the protagonists but criticizes the lack of character development, Jacques Mandelbaum in Le Monde (one of France’s pre-eminent newspapers) takes Nolan to task for turning his movie into “a purely English history.” “In this film, where are the 120,000 French soldiers also evacuated from Dunkirk?” Mandelbaum asks. “Where are the other 40,000 who sacrificed themselves to defend the city against an enemy superior in arms and in numbers?” Mandelbaum would like to rescue the story of Dunkirk from its status as an exclusively British epic; the narrative he desires to see is a Franco-British one. This narrative would stress the courageous efforts of French troops at Lille and Dunkirk who bought time for the men on the beach—both French and British—to be rescued in a joint Allied operation. It would also express the pathos of the relations between allies who were now fated to go their separate ways—the British saving themselves to fight another day and liberate the Continent, the French succumbing to defeat and the tender mercies of Petain and German occupation. This type of criticism of is intelligible. France has its own story to tell about a battle that took place on French soil and involved hundreds of thousands of French troops who generally acquitted themselves in a courageous fashion. One can understand how tiresome it must feel to have this tale usurped or appropriated by the British. Yet there is more than one way of looking at Dunkirk, and many of these ways do not involve surveying the battle in its totality. Nolan is clearly interested in using Dunkirk as the setting for a timeless survival story. In so doing, he recasts the traditional British memory of Dunkirk which stresses the virtues of pluckiness, improvisation, courage, and the stiff upper lip. Instead, Nolan’s Dunkirk is a grim, austere, and often terrifying story where men must face terrible choices as they run a gauntlet of nightmares. As The Guardian puts it, Dunkirk is not so much a war movie as a disaster film; the characters, often with limited means, try to evade or, at most, mitigate the great harm of war. Indeed, Dunkirk reminds One Thing after Another of Samuel Hynes’ The Soldiers’ Tale (1998) with its evocation of the soldier as helpless victim before the often indiscriminate and sweeping reach of modern war (see Slate‘s comments to this point). At the end of the film, one of the characters, now safely in Britain, gets hold of a newspaper, and in a sometimes faltering voice, reads aloud Winston Churchill’s famous June 4, 1940 oration in the House of Commons (commonly referred to as the “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches” speech). How strange and incongruous these words sound in the mouth of an exhausted British soldier who has done everything he could to escape a French beach, surviving rifle fire, artillery bombardment, strafing, bombing, and the sinking of several vessels. This moment makes us aware of the degree to which Nolan seeks to overturn the story that has dominated British memories of the evacuation.

At bottom, Dorothy Rabinowitz’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Review (as opposed to the positive film review by Joe Morgenstern which is cited above) suffers from the same kind of problem as Mandelbaum’s criticism. Rabinowitz accuses Nolan of “dumbing down” the story of Dunkirk because he did not supply the full historical context for the evacuation. Churchill, she complains, never makes an appearance in the film and, as she points out, it’s almost impossible, unless one already knows the story of Dunkirk, to see that the British characters in the film are pitted against Nazi Germany. Rabinowitz attributes the worst motives to Nolan by dwelling on his desire to make a “universal” and “relevant” story that neither gets bogged down in “politics” nor seems “old-fashioned.” She concludes that these aims show how little Nolan thinks of his audience; he does not wish, she argues, to tax their intellect too much. Like Mandelbaum, she wants a more complete story, but her version would involve Churchill, the discussions of the British cabinet, the conferences of generals and admirals, a full accounting of what occurred on the beach, and so on. In graduate school, One Thing after Another learned that a book reviewer should generally criticize a work on the basis of its arguments, not for neglecting to cover the topic that the reviewer wished the author had tackled. That piece of advice seems particularly apposite in this case. Rabinowitz appears incensed that Nolan did not depict Dunkirk the way she would have done it. As we have already seen, Nolan’s goals are far different from hers. She is interested in presenting what amounts to a history lesson in semi-documentary form. He is more concerned with the experience of individuals who try, each in his own way, to deal with the disaster at Dunkirk. Again, there is more than one way to portray this story.

One Thing after Another will go further, though, and argue that in other cases, Rabinowitz’s preferred approach to telling a World War II story has already been tried and found wanting. From the early 1960s, starting with The Longest Day (1962), and continuing until A Bridge Too Far (1977), Hollywood was plagued by “blockbuster history” films about World War II (to use Stephen Ambrose’s phrase). These movies, which also included The Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), were huge productions that involved enormous casts and long running times. They interlaced the big picture with the little one, attempting to integrate the stories of politicians and generals with common soldiers. They could be entertaining and compelling in spots, but they generally faltered under the weight of their own ambitions. Film critics do not consider them great films, and historians do not think of them as great history. This sub-genre, then, has already been done before and, by most accounts, has failed. Why would Nolan want to give Dunkirk the blockbuster history treatment which is what Rabinowtiz seems to demand of him? Perhaps this is what Nolan meant when he said he did not want to make an “old-fashioned” war film.

Mandelbaum and Rabinowitz ought to understand that one can see the story of Dunkirk from a variety of perspectives. In recognizing that fact, they should ask themselves, first, if Nolan has seized upon an interesting and worthwhile perspective and, second, if he has related his tale well. Most critics, it appears, have answered “yes” to both questions.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

How the Western Allies Won World War II

Phillips Payson O’Brien, How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Phillips Payson O’Brien opens How the War was Won with a provocative statement: “There were no decisive battles in World War II” (2). What he means by this assertion is that World War II was not won at so-called “decisive” battles like El Alamein, Kursk, or Midway. Rather, what really proved decisive was the attrition waged on what he terms “super-battlefields” (e.g. the Atlantic Ocean or the skies of Germany) in which each side employed primarily air and sea power to destroy enemy equipment in pre-production, production, and deployment (5). This book is not a history of World War II; it looks at one very important aspect of the war, the production and destruction of military equipment, and draws significant conclusions regarding strategy and the way the Western Allies won the war. As the subtitle suggests, massive investments in air and sea power yielded enormous dividends and played a huge role in destroying the Axis powers. As O’Brien puts it,

The struggle throughout the air-sea super-battlefield determined the outcome of every land battle in the war. In the first case it determined the vast majority of World War II munitions production. It then, limited, in some cases most severely, the types of each weapon that could be built, and just as important, the amount of built equipment that was able to reach the fighting area. Finally, when it came to the land battles, the ability to control or deny control of the air space over the fighting almost always proved decisive (6).

Before the war, although most powers had only the haziest notion of how they would use air and sea power, they instinctively understood that that they had to manufacture large numbers of aircraft and naval vessels. In the United States, this commitment to air and sea power was also driven by interservice rivalry. The machinations of Admiral Ernest King, commander-in-chief of the US fleet and chief of naval operations, proved decisive in obtaining an enormous amount of material for his branch of the service (and not only making a mockery of the so-called “Germany first” strategy but also ensuring that the US Navy would be able to mount its own drive in the central Pacific independent of the army’s offensive in the southern Pacific). By 1944, the US Navy’s air arm was slightly larger than the Luftwaffe and only smaller than the RAF and the USAAF. In any event, among all the belligerents, according to O’Brien, the proportion of productive capacity devoted particularly to air forces is staggering. For example, after surveying the statistics, he judges that in July 1944, the month that German munitions production reached its zenith, well over half of armaments and ammunition output went to the Luftwaffe and over two-thirds was devoured by the German air force and navy combined (27). If anything, the proportions for Great Britain, the United States, and Japan were even higher. Indeed, the United States devoted so much industrial might to air and sea forces that these commitments were a primary consideration in limiting the army to 100 divisions.

This investment in air and sea power, O’Brien argues, was warranted. For sure, enemy weaponry could be wrecked on the battlefield. However, aircraft and naval vessels could deny to the enemy the resources necessary to build this weaponry; wreck the facilities where this weaponry was constructed; and smash this weaponry as it traveled to the battlefield. This is exactly what the British and the Americans sought to do with increasing success as the war dragged on. Germany and Japan could have coped with their battlefield losses of tanks, artillery, and so on. To cite just one statistic (the book is full of startling figures), between July and August 1943, that is, during the Battle of Kursk, widely considered an especially destructive battle, the Germans lost 1,331 armored fighting vehicles on the entire Eastern Front; such a figure only represented about 11% of such vehicles produced by Germany that year. Far more serious were the losses of weaponry (particularly aircraft) and fighting strength lost off the traditional battlefield

O’Brien focuses on three strategic initiatives: the Battle of the Atlantic, the Anglo-American Combined Bombing Offensive (CBO) against Germany, and the US Navy’s drive against the Mariana archipelago. Each required an enormous amount of equipment, and each, he argues, proved decisive. As O’Brien puts it, “any discussion of the air-sea victory of the United States and the United Kingdom must start with control of the movement of supplies and raw materials across the Atlantic Ocean” (232). The stakes were high for both sides. While the Arsenal of Democracy was not vulnerable to German bombing (unlike German industry which was susceptible to Allied air attack), its products were exposed to German assault as they passed across the Atlantic to Britain. If the Germans could have prevented enough supplies from crossing the ocean, they could have prevented the build up of Anglo-American force in Britain, turned on the Soviets (whose productive power was inferior), and won the war in Europe. As O’Brien argues (and this type of argument appears throughout the book), even if the Germans had no hope of winning the Battle of the Atlantic, their substantial investment in U-boats made a great deal of sense. First, it allowed them to destroy an enormous amount of American equipment before it ever reached Europe. O’Brien calculates that by sinking over 20% of the bauxite (the ore used to make aluminum) that the United States attempted to ship to Britain in 1942, the Germany navy destroyed more Allied aircraft in pre-production than the Luftwaffe shot down in combat between 1942 and 1943. At the same time, U-boats also destroyed more American army equipment in transit than the Germany army did on the battlefield in 1942. Second, the U-boat offensive compelled the British and the Americans to spend billions of dollars on merchants and escort vessels—money could have been devoted to something else. Third, it led to the diversion of Allied strategic air power (in 1943, half of the bombs dropped by American strategic forces and one-fifth of those dropped by the British were placed on German submarine targets). In this battle of material and technology, however, the Allies had the advantage. As O’Brien argues, “Victory for the Allies was made possible by the British pushing the boundaries of modern warfare fully. It required technological superiority, for example with radar and sonar, superb operational analysis of the science of convoy speed and size, great shipbuilding resources, excellent training, and, eventually, a significant air component” (230). Allied victory on “superbattlefield” of the Atlantic “marked the end of any possibility for Germany to win the war” (230).

Many readers may not be particularly surprised by O’Brien’s narrative of the Battle of the Atlantic (although his quantification of the Allied effort certainly does put matters in perspective), but his attempt to rehabilitate the CBO will probably prove much more controversial. A number of prominent historians have characterized the Allied strategic bombing of Germany as ineffective and immoral (for an especially prominent example, see the review of Richard Overy’s Bombing War). O’Brien starts from the premise that the RAF’s strategy of laying entire German cities to waste was unproductive but that the USAAF’s targeting of key industries exerted a much greater impact (other scholars, and Overy again is a good example, do not see much of a distinction between the two air forces in practice). O’Brien concedes that the Allied strategic bombing campaign of 1943 was a failure. However, he argues that as the air forces of the Western Allies adjustrf (particularly the United States) and brought more force to bear on Germany, they eventually made an enormous contribution in 1944 and 1945 to the collapse of Nazi military power.

O’Brien argues that American bombing, which targeted aircraft manufacturing (particularly fighters), hydrogenation plans, ball-bearing production, and eventually transportation networks, had far-reaching consequences for Germany. Such bombing destroyed a number of aircraft before they ever became operational and compelled the Germans to disperse their aircraft industry, leading to greater inefficiency and lower quality manufacturing. The bombings also effected momentous changes to the allocation of resources (that is, when resources could still be allocated, for the bombing of the transportation network eventually brought the German economy to a standstill when factories could no longer obtain coal or raw materials). A large amount of German labor was shifted from manufacturing (especially in the aircraft industry) to the repair of various facilities. The Germans also had to produce enormous quantities of concrete to construct flak towers, shelters, and other structures necessitated by the bombing. The V-2 program, the most expensive weapons program the Germans developed during the war, was accelerated in response to the bombing as well. Fighter aircraft, as well as flak and anti-aircraft ammunition, became top priorities (the production of bombers virtually ceased by 1943). Finally, the Nazi regime had to redistribute existing forces (aircraft and flak) from the Eastern and the Mediterranean fronts to Germany. That meant that German ground forces increasingly had to operate without any air cover whatsoever. All of these changes availed the Germans nothing. The Luftwaffe entered a death spiral. Allied fighters escorting bombers over Germany shot down large numbers of enemy fighters. The pressure to produce new pilots (along with the decreasing supply of high-octane fuel) meant that the Luftwaffe spent less time on training than ever before. Badly prepared pilots flying poorly manufactured aircraft were not only shot down in ever larger numbers but also experienced huge non-operational losses. Meanwhile, the tactical and operational mobility of the German army was reduced (due to lack of fuel and the absence of air cover), and Germany suffered huge losses of armored fighting vehicles to Allied aircraft. O’Brien calculates that in 1943, the Germans lost a greater proportion of their military equipment in the air war over Germany than on the Eastern Front (314). Of course, in 1944, matters only grew worse for the Germans due to Allied strategic, operational, and tactical air superiority. Strategic bombing really began to undermine the German economy in the second half of the year. At the same time, the Germans lost more equipment during the Normandy campaign (at the fighting at the Falaise pocket) than they did during Operation Bagration in Russia (which was roughly concurrent), largely because Anglo-American bombers and fighters ruled the skies over France. O’Brien, then, produces much evidence to support the view that the Anglo-American strategic bombing campaign was truly the equivalent of a second front and then some.

The story is somewhat similar when O’Brien describes the US Navy’s offensive through the central Pacific toward the Mariana islands and the demise of Japanese fighting power. O’Brien rates Japanese industrial might rather highly; according to his figures, Japan produced about as much weaponry as the Soviet Union did in 1942 and 1943 (fewer tanks but many more ships). King might have lied to get the United States to devote more production to the Pacific theater, but it is clear that Japan was a very significant threat that made it very difficult for the Americans to hew to a “Germany first” strategy. Indeed, the United States eventually committed enormous amounts of air and sea power to the Pacific.  The United States did manage, however, to deal a number of heavy blows to the Japanese even before American industry hit its stride and covered the sea with ships and the sky with planes. The Battle of Midway was a great blow to the Japanese because they lost four aircraft carriers. O’Brien, argues, though, that the fight at Guadalcanal did more to undermine Japanese power because of the heavy losses inflicted on the navy’s air arm. This grinding, attritional battle led to the combat deaths of many experienced pilots who were compelled to operate from distant bases that were themselves at the end of a very long logistical tether. Non-operational deaths were also extremely high. Although the Japanese proved extremely good at replacing aircraft (and then some) up until the second half of 1944, the loss of pilots proved catastrophic. The pressure to produce pilots as well as shortages of high octane fuel (due to the success of American submarines in sinking Japanese tankers who brought oil from the Dutch East Indies) led to reduced training and poor pilot performance. American superiority in the air supported what became a huge superiority at sea. O’Brien points out that the American naval assets devoted to the capture of the Marianas (which he sees as the decisive victory of the Pacific theater) were absolutely huge. Spruance’s 5th Fleet included 7 aircraft carriers, 8 light aircraft carriers, 7 battleships, 8 cruisers, 12 light cruisers, and 67 destroyers—ships worth a total of $2,500,000,000 in 1944 dollars (the equivalent of America’s spending on ground forces for all of 1942). The 15 aircraft carriers were armed with almost a thousand planes. A total of 46 tankers supported the fleet, carrying 4,500,000 barrels of oil, 8,000,000 gallons of aviation fuel, and 275,000 barrels of diesel. On the American side, the Pacific war had become capital-intensive, and the number of troops employed was actually quite small (although casualties were very high among the soldiers or Marines who saw combat). O’Brien argues that once the Marianas were captured, “the war was over strategically” (422). China, the Philippines, and just about any other island in the Pacific became irrelevant. The Americans could use aircraft based on the Marianas to bomb Japan as well as to interdict trade between Japan and its imperial possessions. Japan entered a terminal decline as its imports were sunk and factories were destroyed.

The implications of O’Brien’s arguments for the historiography of World War II are great. First, he elevates the significance of naval and especially air power over armies. Second, as his opening line suggests, he stresses attrition on the air-sea “super-battlefield” at the expense of traditional land battles. Third, he emphasizes the contributions of Britain and the United States to Axis defeat and, by implication, downgrades the Soviet Union’s efforts. Fourth, he underscores the degree to which the Allies won because they destroyed Axis mobility at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. O’Brien suggests that two very different types of forces waged World War II. On the one hand, armies required a great deal of manpower but proved relatively cheap to put in the field. On the other, navies and air forces proved far more capital-intensive and technologically sophisticated in relation to the amount of manpower employed. The former looked somewhat to the past while the latter pointed to the future.

Elements of O’Brien’s argument may seem familiar, but they are buttressed with batteries of statistics that are presented in such a way as to make the reader look at matters in a new light (e.g. the development and production of the V-2 “cost Germany in relative terms as much as the Manhattan Project cost the United States” [340]). Since so much rides on statistics in this book, the question becomes, of course, are these statistics correct? This reviewer is not qualified to dispute O’Brien’s numbers, but it is worth pointing out that elements of the author’s arguments do rest on calculations and speculations of different sorts that other historians expert in the field might dispute. Other scholars are sure to take issue with the absence of the Soviet Union from most of this book. While O’Brien’s purpose consists of explaining the contribution of Anglo-American air and sea power to Allied victory, the title of his work suggests that this power was preponderant in defeating the Germans. Without investigating the Soviet Union to the same extent as the Western Allies, it is hard for the reader to know for sure. Finally, the stress on material factors (i.e. the production and destruction of munitions) tends to provide a lopsided view of the war. While O’Brien’s account does analyze strategy, it does not consider the significance of operations and tactics to the outcome of the war. For example, had the Japanese concentrated their carrier forces in the first half of 1942 instead of dispersing them in a series of fruitless raids and operations, the Americans very well could have been the ones to lose all of their carriers at Midway—and that would certainly have exerted a huge influence on the course of the war.

These quibbles aside, O’Brien’s work is an important reconsideration of the war if for no other reason that it reassesses the relative contributions of the Big Three to the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Hugh Dubrulle

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

It Would Have Been Extremely Difficult to End the Pacific War with “Diplomacy”

In a recent article appearing in the History News Network, Peter Van Buren attempts to use the bombing of Hiroshima as lesson that teaches us what happens when states rush to embrace military solutions instead of diplomatic ones. This lesson is especially valuable, he claims, because “many worry” that our nation “has largely moved past diplomacy as its primary foreign policy strategy.”

The main thrust of Van Buren’s argument is that in the summer of 1945 the United States did not give peace a chance. Since then, he claims, the dominant narrative in America has not remembered that there were various alternatives to ending the war. Instead, the choice is remembered as a stark one between a costly amphibious assault and the atomic bombing. As he puts it:

The debate over whether the atomic bombings of Japan were the only alternative to a land invasion is one of the most contested among modern historians. . . . The dominant American narrative is the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a smaller price to pay than the greater loss of life anticipated under an invasion; in a grim calculus, the bombings were practically an act of humanity.

He goes on to point out that, in June 1945, Emperor Hirohito directed his Supreme War Direction Council to begin formal peace negotiations with the United States through the Soviet Union (which was not at war with Japan yet). There were grounds for optimism that such an approach might end the war, he implies, because “the gap between what the U.S. expected out of an unconditional surrender and what the Japanese realistically hoped for out of a lightly negotiated one was not significant.” But since the Americans were not inclined to negotiate, this opportunity was missed, the atomic bomb was dropped, and thousands of civilians died as a result.

One Thing after Another has discussed the bombing of Hiroshima before, so it does not feel compelled to relitigate the various means by which the United States could have ended he war in the Pacific. However, this blog does feel compelled to point out that Van Buren’s account does violence not only to what happened in the past but also to the way in which historians have treated this episode. For one thing, the debate among scholars is not “framed as binary, invasion or bomb.” Almost all of the recent scholarly works on the bombing recognize that the United States had several potential means of ending the war: blockade, conventional strategic bombing, amphibious assault, Soviet entry into the war sooner than later, and modification of the demand for unconditional surrender. (For a succinct summary of these options, see J. Samuel Walker’s Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan which was first published in 1997). As One Thing after Another has already pointed out, each of these alternatives suffered from political, military, or ethical problems (Michael Bess methodically outlines the moral difficulties in Chapter 10 of Choices under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II [2006]).

The claim that the emperor’s initiative in June 1945 somehow indicated diplomacy might have worked gives too much credit to the Japanese. There was a substantial difference between what the United States expected from unconditional surrender and what the Japanese hoped to obtain from a negotiated one. In Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (2005), Tsuyoshi Hasegawa has this to say about the Japanese move (which the Americans learned of through “Magic” intercepts) and the reaction of the United States:

It was indeed important, as [U.S.] Naval intelligence suggested, that the Japanese government indicated its willingness to terminate the war, and that this initiative came from the emperor himself. But this does not immediately lead to the conclusion that the Japanese government was prepared to surrender. The Japanese would have to travel a long road from willingness to terminate the war to actual acceptance of surrender. The crucial question is, On what terms was Japan prepared to surrender? On this question the government was hardly united; in fact, it could not come up with specific conditions. Even though Anami [War Minister], Umezu [Chief of the Army General Staff], and Toyoda [Chief of the Navy General Staff] went along with the emperor’s wish to seek Moscow’s mediation, there was little chance that they would have accepted conditions that contained disarmament, Allied occupation, and war crimes trials. Although Hirohito took the initiative, he himself admitted that the failure of Moscow mediation would serve as a good excuse to rally the nation behind a last-ditch defense [126-127].

In other words, the Japanese did not seem ready to beat swords into ploughshares just yet. They wanted peace—but they were badly divided on the terms. In any event, they would have found America’s conditions objectionable. At the same time, the Japanese also appeared to hope that they could use the negotiations (if they failed) to mobilize the Japanese people. This situation seems somewhat analogous to what the Hampton Roads Conference revealed about the North and South’s stances in February 1865. The Confederacy (like Japan) very much wanted to end the war—so long as it could obtain terms that were unacceptable to the Federal government (recognition of Confederate independence and perpetuation of slavery—although there is some dispute among scholars about how far Lincoln and Seward were willing to bend on the latter point). Jefferson Davis was more than happy to use the conference’s failure to rally Southerners who now fully understood (if they had not already) that peace on Federal terms was unpalatable.

Speaking of analogies, Van Buren’s brief essay shows the dangers of employing these types of comparisons (this blog suffers from a perpetual wariness of analogies). Given the right situation, there are many good arguments for employing diplomacy instead of force. In fact, there are probably a number of analogies that Van Buren could have referred to. The story that led up to Hiroshima, however, is not one of them.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Review: Robert Gildea’s Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance

Robert Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015).

For a work that is not a history of memory, Robert Gildea’s Fighters in the Shadows is still very much conscious of the way the French remember the Resistance movement of World War II. The introduction of this book is concerned almost exclusively with the emergence of the “central myth” of Resistance that was perpetuated by Charles de Gaulle and how it later succumbed to competing narratives. De Gaulle’s nationalist myth claimed that 1) the story of the Resistance could be traced in a straight line from the point when de Gaulle made his famous 1940 BBC radio address (where he called upon the French to continue resisting after their armies had been defeated) to the liberation of Paris and his famous march down the Champs-Élysées in 1944; 2) the vast majority of the French had supported the brave few who had taken up arms (and pens) against the German occupation; and 3) while the Anglo-Americans had provided valuable assistance, France had liberated itself and thus “restored national honour, confidence and unity” (3). While this myth persisted for some time, others grew alongside it or eventually supplanted it. The Communists, who had played an important role in the Resistance, always had their own myth that stressed their significance, the terrible suffering they had undergone during the occupation, and the kind of world that they had fought for. After de Gaulle’s death, another narrative emerged that emphasized the importance to the Resistance of foreign anti-fascists and especially foreign Jews (6). Other narratives that saw light of day in these years included those that highlighted the degree to which most Frenchmen had been “time-servers and cowards if not traitors” (5) or those that depicted Jews in France as victims rather than resisters. Most recently, one of the more influential fables has portrayed the French as a people moved by the Enlightenment, the rights of man, and humanistic values to support the small minority who rescued Jews from persecution. At the end of the introduction, Gildea clearly expresses a desire to right the balance of memory so that it more accurately reflects the past:

The dominant narrative of resistance today is a humanitarian and universal myth of the struggle for the rights of man, which allows a greater role for women and rescuers of Jews, and a lesser role for freedom fighters with Sten guns. The memories of resisters of dissident communist, foreign and Jewish origin survived as group memories but not as dominant narratives. One of the aims of this study is to bring these back into the mainstream. (19)

For these reasons, Gildea is far more interested in the politics and experience of the Resistance than he is in the Resistance’s military effectiveness or contribution to Allied victory. Fighters in the Shadows, then, speaks more to French history than the history of World War II. At the same time, the main themes of this work revolve around the diversity, divisions, and difficulties that characterized the Resistance throughout the war. What Gildea seems to indicate is that one should not be surprised by the bitterly contested leadership battles, the arguments over military strategy, the disputes over the movement’s political direction, and the overall lack of military effectiveness. Rather, what is truly astonishing is that the Resistance accomplished as much as it did, de Gaulle made an almost seamless transition to power in 1944, and France was able to contain civil discord as much as it did in the aftermath of the liberation.

Gildea is at his best in describing the experience of resisters—the motives that inspired them to join the Resistance, the institutions that served as the foundations for their organizations (“trade unions and businesses, universities and museums, churches and refugee groups”), the various forms of resistance they engaged in, the political objectives they sought to attain, and the means by which they sought to achieve these objectives. Chapter 7 (“In and Out of the Shadows”) is especially interesting in probing the ambiguity of Resistance, where there was always a “tension between appearance and reality, trust and treachery, and the absence of laws apart from those dictated by circumstance” (179). This theme meshes well with the confusion and conflict that characterized the Resistance from the beginning. Many of those who were appalled by German victory and determined to resist the occupation were perplexed about what to do. Those on the right stayed their hand for the moment because they thought (or hoped) that Petain was playing a deep game against the Germans and would eventually find a way to eject the occupiers from the country. Those on the left, especially Communists, did not wish to take up arms against a state that was an ally of the Soviet Union. Even after it became clear that Petain was incapable of using his power as a shield to protect the French people (as he had promised) and even after Germany invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941), the Resistance was plagued by divisions rooted in its miscellaneous composition. Aside from their important ideological disagreements, resisters came to the movement from diverse backgrounds (e.g. conservative army officers, leftist veterans of the Spanish Civil War—foreign and native, women seeking to stretch gender norms, and Jews, many of whom were foreign nationals). These people displayed variegated temperaments and expressed divergent aspirations. They also performed a wide variety of duties—collecting intelligence, leading protests, producing propaganda, conducting attacks, sabotaging industry, rescuing Jews, and smuggling downed Allied airmen. Gildea notes that the different circumstances in the Occupied Zone (nominally ruled by the Vichy government but run by the Germans) and the Free Zone (administered by Vichy alone until November 1942, when the Germans occupied the rest of the country) produced movements that applied themselves to contrasting tasks (in the former, the Resistance undertook “practical” jobs like collecting intelligence, while in the latter, it was more involved in propaganda). Not surprisingly, the various Resistance groups were divided over strategy, organization, and leadership. Broadly speaking, Communists aimed at sparking a national insurrection when the time was right so that they could eject the Germans from France and install a leftist regime. Many to the right of the Communists objected to this plan because they saw such a move as suicidal (the Germans were much better armed than any Resistance group) and had no wish to further the Communists’ objectives. Arguments about strategy (which were heavily influenced by politics) often intersected with those about leadership. Many Resistance groups understood the advantages of coordinating their efforts through some sort of national association. However, they were reluctant to lose their autonomy and expose themselves to extensive German infiltration. Those who led the larger movements had leadership ambitions of their own. Even resisters who had no such ambition felt trepidations about serving any overseas master, including de Gaulle. Some feared that he was a stooge of the British while others worried about what kind of plans a conservative, Catholic general might have for France’s future.

The story of the Resistance, of course, is inextricably tied to that of de Gaulle and the Free French. Gildea also covers De Gaulle’s story which is nothing short of remarkable. In June 1940, he was a mere brigadier general and former junior minister in the Reynaud Cabinet—without friends or following in Britain. In August 1944, he marched through Paris, the uncontested leader of the French nation. De Gaulle had to overcome a number of opponents and obstacles to achieve this goal. Although they recognized him as the leader of the Free French very early (in late June 1940), de Gaulle’s relationship with the British was always strained, and Churchill often wondered if the Frenchman was worth supporting. The Americans, who always seemed inclined to make a deal with Vichy authorities rather than replace them (particularly in North Africa), expressed much hostility toward de Gaulle. Meanwhile, at least in the early years, de Gaulle struggled to attract soldiers to his Free French force which was always smaller in number than Vichy’s armies (i.e. the Armistice army and the Army of Africa). Once the Allies conquered North Africa (Operation Torch, November 1942), and the Free French were merged with the Army of Africa, de Gaulle faced competition from General Henri Giraud for overall leadership of the Resistance. Finally, de Gaulle’s efforts to subordinate the Resistance to the Free French enjoyed a brief success before suffering a calamitous reverse in June 1943 when his intermediaries with the Resistance, Jean Moulin and Charles Delestraint were captured by the Germans (shortly thereafter, Moulin was either tortured to death or committed suicide after undergoing a terrible ordeal, while Delestraint was held in captivity until he was executed at Dachau in April 1945). De Gaulle’s links to the Resistance never recovered from this disaster.

The only partial reestablishment of ties between the two accounts for the behavior of the Resistance during the Normandy invasion—all groups more or less “went their own way” with only some obeying orders from the Free French (378). The results were often catastrophic as poorly trained and badly armed maquisards were shot to pieces by battle-hardened German troops. In spite of these problems, de Gaulle proved a masterful politician who outmaneuvered his opponents and manipulated the Allies. Most important of all, he fashioned a myth about his relationship to the metropolitan Resistance that had just enough of an air of verisimilitude to convince both the French and the “Anglo-Saxons” of his indispensability. It is this myth, which formed the basis of a post-war consensus in France, that Gildea seeks to counter by stressing the claims of others to pre-eminence, namely those “resisters of dissident communist, foreign and Jewish origin.”

At times, Gildea’s discussion of obscure figures (or those not widely known in the United States), particularly in Chapter 1 (“Awakenings”), can be both exhaustive and exhausting. This kind of detail, however, is obviously a product of his intense interest in the topic. Moreover, it helps convey the diversity of backgrounds and motives that characterized the Resistance throughout its short existence. In investigating both the low (the experiences of individual Resistance members) and the high (the machinations of de Gaulle along with those of his allies and competitors) as well as describing the links between the two, Gildea has done a great service. Surveys of the French Resistance written for an English-speaking audience are far and few between (the only recent work that comes to mind is Olivier Wieviorka’s The French Resistance, which originally appeared in French back in 2013 before being translated and published in the United States in 2016). Americans hoping to learn about the Resistance may find Fighters in the Shadows challenging because of its extensive cast of characters (and the lengths to which Gildea goes to represent their thoughts and experiences). However, Gildea carefully keeps the reader on track, especially in the conclusion of each chapter where he summarizes his arguments. Those who read to the end will be rewarded with a nuanced understanding of the French Resistance in both history and myth.

Hugh Dubrulle

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Review: Richard Overy’s The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945

Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (London: Penguin, 2013).  

Richard Overy is one of the leading historians of World War II alive today, and while he has written on a number of topics associated with that conflict, the fighting in the air is his area of special expertise. While The Bombing War is not as comprehensive as some of his other works, such as the The Air War, 1939-1945 (1980), it is one of his most powerful books. For those interested in the topic of strategic bombing during World War II, The Bombing War is indispensable. It balances the meticulous research and broad vision that only an expert of Overy’s caliber can produce.

One of Overy’s purposes in writing The Bombing War is to provide “the first full narrative history of the bombing war in Europe” (xxiv). This narrative, he argues, is more complete than previous efforts because a) it covers all of Europe, b) it integrates bombing into the “broad strategic picture” (xxiv), and c) it links the narratives of those who did the bombing with those who were bombed. Overy’s other main objective consists of “re-examining the established narratives on the bombing war” which have been shaped, especially in the British and American cases, by official histories (xxv-xxvi). (The United States The Army Air Forces in World War II, which consisted of seven volumes, was published between 1948 and 1958, while Britain’s four-volume equivalent, The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, appeared in 1961). Overy has conducted this re-examination by studying the “private papers of individuals and institutions” as well as parts of the official record that “were originally closed to public scrutiny because they raised awkward questions” (xxvi). At 642 pages of small, densely printed text, The Bombing War is long (maybe overlong), but it never loses sight of two related theses. First, strategic bombing during the war never lived up to the hype of its proponents; there was a big discrepancy between promise and achievement. Second, strategic bombing, as practiced during the conflict, was a bludgeon that did not achieve enough to justify the enormous collateral damage that it inflicted on both lives and property.

Overy’s story begins with a discussion of World War I and the interwar period. Here, he focuses on two major developments that helped make strategic bombing possible during World War II. The massive mobilization of World War I as well as the rhetoric that followed afterwards led everyone to assume that the next war would be “total” and that civilians would naturally be targets in this conflict. This discourse meshed well with assumptions among airmen and statesmen that urban conurbations of the modern era were particularly susceptible to dislocation from aerial bombing. Based on little evidence, those who contemplated the course of air war in the future believed that industry was vulnerable to destruction and that civilians living in big cities would panic easily. These attitudes, however, did not make strategic bombing during World War II inevitable; Overy argues that it was only events during the war that made such a thing possible.

Among the many limits that prevented airmen from immediately and deliberately dropping bombs indiscriminately on civilians in 1939 was the fact that many air forces believed that their primary mission consisted of supporting the army in a ground-attack role. And indeed, Overy argues that two incidents widely seen as initiating “terror” bombing during the war—the Luftwaffe’s bombardments of Warsaw and Rotterdam—were not that at all. In both cases, he claims that German aircraft sought out enemy ground forces that happened to be ensconced in or near urban areas. These two attacks resulted in large numbers of civilians being killed. The air assault against Rotterdam proved especially tragic since German and Dutch forces were then negotiating the surrender of the city but could not get word to the Luftwaffe fast enough to halt the air attack.

The first real strategic bombing campaign took place over the skies of Britain between 1940 and 1941. Overall German strategy was muddled from the start, constantly shifting from one objective to the next. On the eve of the Battle of Britain, Hitler could not decide whether to encourage the British to enter negotiations, invade southern England and dictate a settlement, or use ships, submarines, and aircraft to impose a blockade on British ports. As Overy puts it, “Hitler opted for all three possibilities, and achieved none of them” (68). Whatever the case, all three required the Luftwaffe to play an important role and demanded a heavy commitment from Hitler’s airmen. Forces, however, were frittered away as “the German offensive hovered between trying to gain air superiority against the RAF, preparation for invasion, contributing to the blockade by sea of British trade, degrading Britain’s industrial war potential and vague expectations of a crisis afflicting the enemy’s morale” (611). The failure to fix on an appropriate target and destroy it (along with the inability to match ends with means) accounted in large part for the frustration of German aims. This frustration occurred in spite of Britain’s weaknesses in civil defense (which were not made good until the latter part of 1941) and huge deficiencies in the RAF’s night-fighting capacity.

Although, as Overy points out, each strategic bombing campaign of the war differed in a number of ways, the German attack on Britain was emblematic in that it was planned and launched on the fly; almost no research or preparation for such an effort had been performed during the pre-war period (which accounts for the strategic confusion). This problem would also plague Allied campaigns throughout the conflict. The German campaign was also important in that it stretched notions of what was considered permissible during the war. The British in particular subjected the German campaign to very close scrutiny. In some cases, RAF’s Bomber Command learned important lessons (e.g. dense concentrations of incendiaries mixed with high explosive bombs were particularly useful in destroying large parts of towns). In others, the British misconstrued with the Luftwaffe had been up to (e.g. they assumed Germans were engaged in mere terror bombing). In still others, the RAF totally missed the boat (e.g. the British ramped up their bombing of German cities in the hope of demoralizing civilians and dislocating the economy without pausing to think that the Germans had failed to do the very same thing in the very same way).

With these observations in mind, it should come as no surprise that Overy is extremely critical of Bomber Command’s own effort against Germany and occupied Europe. Initially, the RAF’s campaign was too piecemeal, light, inaccurate, and scattered to have much effect. Starting in late 1941, however, the British more or less decided on the area bombing of German cities in an attempt to demoralize, dehouse, and decimate German civilians (which is what they thought the Germans had attempted to do to them). Although Britain’s political and military leadership always felt ambivalent about this decision, the appointment of Sir Arthur Harris as the head of Bomber Command in February 1942 gave the force an aggressive and intractable advocate who was fully committed to the air war against German civilians to the exclusion of all else. Nonetheless, progress was stymied by a number of shortcomings. There was a lack of appropriate, heavy four-engined bombers (as late as 1942, the number of Avro Lancasters was limited). The British were also plagued by “the slow development of target-finding and marking, [and] the dilatory development of effective electronic aids, marker bombs and bombsights.”  And then there was “the inability to relate means and ends more rationally to maximize effectiveness and cope with enemy defenses”—a problem that had also hampered the Germans (300). Despite its ineffectiveness, Bomber Command was allowed to persist in its campaign which swallowed a very large proportion of available British resources (about 7% of total British man-hours during the conflict)—no small victory for Harris and his subordinates who sought to safeguard their bailiwick.

The entry of the United States into the war did not change the British situation a great deal. The Americans made clear that they would not divert bombers from their factories to supply the British. Not surprisingly, considering the many demands placed on the United States, it took the Americans some time to organize, equip, and train a large bomber force that could exercise any influence in the European theater. The Allies made much fuss about a “combined offensive” and “round-the-clock” bombing (Americans during the day, British at night), which seemed to suggest that their bombers acted in concert. The truth of the matter was that their campaigns operated merely in parallel and did not reinforce each other at all. The Americans did not think much of bombing cities for the sake of depressing German morale. They were more interested in employing daytime precision attacks and destroying specific targets that would slow down German production (although Overy admits that when visibility was limited, American blind bombing was just as indiscriminate as anything Bomber Command did). Overy intimates that although American forces experienced difficulty in finding the bottlenecks that could bring the German economy to a halt, they expressed a much more thoughtful and sophisticated approach to bombing than Harris ever did. Bomber Command continued its nocturnal attempt to destroy city after city in the hope that the cumulative destruction would eventually end the war somehow.

In the end, Overy argues, Allied strategic bombing did not end the war, but it did influence the manner in which Germany was defeated. In early 1944, American forces finally made a commitment to using the bombing campaign as a means of destroying the Luftwaffe in the skies over Germany. The delay in reaching this decision was not determined by technology; it was also a matter of placing commanders in the European theater who shared that vision. By that date, Carl Spaatz (commander of US strategic air forces), Jimmy Doolittle (Eighth Air Force), and William Kepner (VIII Fighter Command) occupied the key American positions in Europe and agreed that it was necessary to combine “the indirect assault on air force production and supplies through bombing with the calculated attrition of the German fighter force through air-to-air combat and fighter sweeps over German soil” (361). Initially spearheaded by P-47s with drop tanks (the P-51s came later), fighter loosely accompanying American bombers sought out German aircraft, leading to huge air battles with massive casualties on both sides. It was a campaign of attrition for which the Germans were ill-suited. Two major developments occurred as a result. First, the Germans redistributed resources—personnel, fighter aircraft, and anti-aircraft guns—to the homeland on a large scale to counter this threat. These were resources that could not be deployed on other fronts to support German ground forces (including anti-aircraft weapons which could double as anti-tank guns). Second, having forced the Germans to concentrate their aircraft in Germany, the Americans proceeded to destroy the Luftwaffe, shooting down enormous numbers of planes and killing their pilots. By mid-year, the Americans had achieved air supremacy over France and Germany. And then strategic bombing lurched forward on a much larger scale than ever before; three-quarters of the total tonnage of bombs dropped on Germany fell between September 1944 and May 1945. The Allies persisted in heavy bombing largely because they were worried that the Germans might suddenly produce new weapons that could turn the tide (the V-weapons as well as the Messerschmidt Me 262 jet fighter certainly gave them reason to think this way). They also hoped that more bombing could bring the war to a swifter end—the British thinking that obliterating more cities would tip Germany over the edge while the Americans believed that the destruction of oil and transportation targets would undermine the German war effort. Still, German productivity reached its height in the last three months of 1944, when bombing was extraordinarily heavy. Allied victory eventually came at an extremely high cost to victor and vanquished, but the impact of bombing was only one of several factors that defeated the Axis powers.

Many readers familiar with the topic will have seen parts of this narrative before, but Overy presents a version of the story that is very much his own in which a number of key arguments, great and small, are modified. Overy’s book is particularly interesting when it comes to discussing civil defense and the impact of the war on civilians, something that most histories of strategic bombing do not study in a systematic way. The Bombing War stresses the degree to which different circumstances obtained in different countries. For instance, civil defense in Britain was characterized by friction between the voluntarist tradition of a free society and the centralizing tendency of the state. In Germany and the Soviet Union, however, the party saw civil defense mainly as a means of political and social mobilization. Whatever the case, the experience of civil defense was similar to that of the bomber forces in that its preparations were incomplete upon the war’s outbreak; capacity and sophistication generally grew as the war continued. It is hard to make generalizations about bombing’s impact on the various peoples of Europe, though, as every country was different. Overy points out that a good case could be made that bombing helped topple Mussolini in 1943, but he proceeds to argue that the collapse of the Fascist regime had more to do with its overall inability to cope with the various stresses of modern war. In cases where the state or party was more or less equal to the challenges of fulfilling civilians’ needs (e.g. Britain and Germany), heavy bombing generally did not enhance or undermine the population’s will to resist. If anything, it made civilians more reliant on the authorities which reduced the potential for dissent. The picture Overy paints of civilian populations under sustained air attacks is one of anxiety, exhaustion, and deprivation. Moreover, these populations were highly mobile as they left destroyed urban areas in search of shelter, food, and working utilities. It is not surprising that people in such a position would turn to the state for succor.

Conquered territories, particularly in western Europe, found themselves in a unique position. Generally hostile to the German occupation, they initially supported the Allied bombing of military targets. The RAF hoped that a campaign in these regions would damage German military installations (e.g. submarine pens) and slow down production in factories that had worked on German contracts. Later, in preparation for the cross-Channel invasion, the Allies sought to destroy most of northern France’s transportation infrastructure (and once troops had landed in Normandy, heavy bombers were used for ground support). In these regions, the British always saw bombing as a propaganda act that could demoralize collaborators and give resistance a boost. Unfortunately, once the RAF began bombing France and the Low Countries without restriction in February 1942, opinion in these countries turned against the British initiative. Just as they were in Germany, Allied bombings tended to be inaccurate and destructive, resulting in many civilian casualties (almost 60,000 French civilians were killed by Allied bombs). In the conclusion of his chapter on the bombing of occupied Europe, Overy notes, “Bombing was a blunt instrument as the Allies knew full well, but is bluntness was more evident and more awkward when the bombs fell outside Germany” (606).

Not surprisingly, Overy concludes that strategic bombing as practiced during World War II was a crude, wasteful, and illegal strategy. Moreover, it was a failure on its own terms. It sought to win the war singlehandedly by destroying the enemy economy, demoralizing the enemy population, and deracinating the enemy’s political system. In all of these areas, the impact of bombing was limited. Strategic bombing’s main contribution to Allied victory—the destruction of the Luftwaffe—was almost incidental. The obsession with the “weight and scale” of attacks, rather than accuracy, paved the way for post-war nuclear arsenals that sought to do the same thing but on a much larger scale. This approach to strategic bombing would prove a dead-end; precision-guided munitions, Overy argues, were the “way forward” (613). We can be thankful, then, that “profound changes in available weapons, the transformation of geopolitical reality and post-war ethical sensibilities have all combined to make the bombing war between 1939 and 1945 a unique phenomenon in modern European history, not possible earlier and not reproducible since” (633).

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Hugh Dubrulle

NOTE: This essay reviews the Penguin UK version of Overy’s book, not the Penguin USA edition (entitled The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe 1940-1945). The latter was heavily edited and is much shorter than the former. The reviewer recommends that you purchase the British version.

Obama in Hiroshima: Does the United States Owe Japan an Apology?

Hiroshima Bomb Cloud

Yes, One Thing after Another realizes that the title of this post is tantamount to clickbait. The White House has assured the press that President Obama’s upcoming visit to Hiroshima will not involve an apology to Japan. Rather, Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security advisor, has argued that Obama “will offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.” What Rhodes means is that the president will share his thoughts on nuclear non-proliferation. As the Washington Post has pointed out, since he took office in 2009, Obama has evinced great interest in reducing world stockpiles of nuclear weapons. In some areas since then, he has met with success, in others, not so much.

Even if Obama does not choose to make an apology in Japan, his visit has inevitably initiated all sorts of conversations about the United States, Japan, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. One discussion revolves around how the United States and Japan remember the bombing differently. An interesting contribution to this debate comes from Carol Gluck, a professor Japanese history at Columbia University, who has argued in Slate that “the Japanese ignore everything before Hiroshima and the Americans ignore everything after Nagasaki.” At the same time, Obama’s visit has reopened the hoary question of whether dropping the atomic bomb was justifiable. And it is to this issue that One Thing after Another proposes addressing itself.

Before we can assess anything, however, we must devise some sort of moral yardstick by which to measure the bombing of Hiroshima. Over time, the West developed what Michael Walzer has described in Just and Unjust Wars as the “war convention,” a “set of articulated norms, customs, professional codes, legal precepts, religious and philosophical principles, and reciprocal arrangements that shape our judgments of military conduct.” This convention is complex, and its application is tangled, so for the purposes of brevity, it makes sense to refer solely to its most important principles. First, “once war has begun, soldiers are subject to attack at any time (unless they are wounded or captured).” Second, “noncombatants cannot be attacked at any time.” Third, both of these elements of the convention are modified by the principle of double-effect that excuses the commission of an act which pursues a good end but whose side effect is some great harm. According to the principle of double-effect, such an act is permissible if it fulfills the following criteria (as defined by Walzer):

  • The act is good in itself or at least indifferent, which means, for our purposes, that it is a legitimate act of war.
  • The direct effect is morally acceptable—the destruction of military supplies, for example, or the killing of enemy soldiers.
  • The intention of the actor is good, that is, he aims only at the acceptable effect; the evil effect is not one of his ends, nor is it a means to his ends.
  • The good effect is sufficiently good to compensate for allowing the evil effect; it must be justifiable under [Henry] Sidgwick’s proportionality rule.

Sidgwick’s proportionality rule itself amounts to the following: 1) it is impermissible to inflict harm or destruction which does not tend materially to victory, and 2) the contribution of this harm and destruction to victory must outweigh the bad effect of this harm and destruction.

At this point, we could simply write that the United States egregiously violated the war convention by killing roughly 60,000 to 80,000 civilians (another 20,000 Japanese soldiers who garrisoned Hiroshima were also killed), and in some ways, we would be fully justified in doing so. But such a statement would refuse to recognize the context within which the act took place and drain the situation of its complexity. In 1941, the Japanese government had started an unnecessary war that it did not know how to avoid and, even worse, did not think it could win (which, according to Just War Theory, invalidates jus ad bellum, the right to go to war). In 1945, when confronted by the fact that the war was lost, the Japanese Cabinet refused to accept the obvious political consequences of its inevitable military defeat. For sure, the cabinet was divided, and there was a peace party within the government. Yet that peace party did not direct policy, and the government never indicated in an official, unequivocal way that it was interested in ending the war. In the meantime, both the United States and Japan had been brutalized by a series of vicious battles that had raged across the Pacific. A number of factors contributed to this brutalization, including racism on both sides, the inculcation of the modern Bushido code among the Japanese, and the nature of close-quarter combat.

Even by the spring of 1945, when it should have been clear to everyone that Japan had no chance of winning the war, the Japanese government placed its faith in two strategies. First, it sought to make the conflict as ghastly and costly as possible so as to bring the United States to the negotiating table. Second, it struggled to ensure that the Soviet Union would continue to adhere to the Neutrality Pact it had signed with Japan in 1941. Both were vain hopes, and it is clear that the Japanese government was engaged in unethical behavior by continuing what was clearly a futile conflict.

We cannot use Japanese wrongs, however, to justify American ones. Yet Japanese behavior placed the United States in a predicament that was difficult to resolve. The United States wanted to end the war as soon as possible. This desire stemmed in part from a desire to avoid extensive casualties which had mounted since the middle of 1944. The Normandy invasion, which led to constant contact with the Germans in Western Europe had contributed to a sudden tripling of American combat fatalities per month. Indeed, between June 1944 and April 1945, the number of American servicemen killed in action hovered in the 13,000-20,000 range per month (by way of comparison, a total of only 6,700 American troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined since 2001). The Battle of Iwo Jima (February-March 1945) alone cost the United States 26,000 casualties, including almost 7,000 combat dead. Okinawa, which lasted from April to June 1945, was even worse: 12,500 KIA and roughly 43,000 wounded. About two-thirds of total American combat deaths in World War II were suffered in the last year of the conflict alone. These figures, of course, do not include the Japanese servicemen who were killed for the sake of continuing a war to no purpose: 20,000 on Iwo Jima and some 100,000 on Okinawa. Nor do they account for the enormous number of civilian deaths that resulted from Japanese activities in China and Southeast Asia: 100,000 to 200,000 people per month.

President Harry Truman and his advisors, however, also wanted to force a Japanese surrender before the Soviets entered the Asian war (as stipulated at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945) and began laying claims to portions of the Far East. Before the Manhattan Project had developed the atomic bomb into an effective weapon, the Americans had seen Soviet entry in the Asian war as a useful way of bringing additional pressure on the Japanese to surrender. As the date of Soviet entry into the conflict grew closer and closer (unbeknownst to the Japanese), however, American leaders expressed grave concerns about how that entry would change the political situation in the Far East. Whatever one thinks about American policy toward Asia since 1945, it should not be hard to see that allowing the increase of Stalin’s influence in that region would have been pernicious.

But how could the United States achieve its objectives? Many of the options that presented themselves to American leaders were problematic and unethical. First, they could continue the blockade of Japan (which included the aerial minelaying campaign against Japan’s coastal waters). However, the American Joint Chiefs of Staff believed a blockade would not end the war until 1946 and that, in the meantime, the United States would continue to suffer significant casualties. Such fears were not misplaced; for example, while operating off the coast of Japan in March 1945, the aircraft carrier USS Franklin was struck by two Japanese bombs, igniting a huge fire on the hangar deck that killed 800 sailors and wounded almost 500. At the same time, the moral justification for blockade is difficult to make. Blockades subject entire national populations—civilians and servicemen alike—to shortages of necessities such as food. And it is almost always the case that in the distribution of scarce calories, the needs of servicemen are prioritized over those of civilians. In other words, blockades clearly harm noncombatants.

The United States could also have continued the strategic bombing of Japan by conventional means. General Curtis LeMay, who headed XXI Bomber Command, which bore the primary responsibility for bombing Japan in 1945, believed that such means were sufficient to end the war, but the Joint Chiefs were not so sanguine. They did not feel that conventional bombing alone could win the war, and they suspected that LeMay’s advocacy served to promote the creation of an independent air arm (at that point, the United States Army Air Force was a branch of the army). Moreover, it is difficult to argue that the American conduct of strategic bombing up that point had been particularly ethical. While engaged in an indiscriminate area bombing campaign against Japanese cities, XXI Bomber Command had employed incendiaries extensively. Japanese urban areas were ravaged by fire, and while industrial production declined, hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were also killed. The firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 alone destroyed 16 square miles of the downtown area and killed around 100,000 civilians. LeMay’s understanding that “we were going to kill a lot of women and kids” but that it “had to be done” only indicates the extent to which years of life or death struggle had blunted all the belligerents’ moral sensibilities.

As a means of ending the war, Truman and his advisors also considered modifying their demand for Japan’s unconditional surrender. A number of American statesmen believed that if the Japanese received guarantees that their emperor could remain in power, they would be more inclined to end the war. Not only that, but the occupation and rebuilding Japan after the conflict would be facilitated by retaining the emperor. Unfortunately, a number of sound objections appeared to this change in course. Some worried that modifying unconditional surrender would offer hope to the die-hard portion of the Japanese Cabinet that believed the longer it held out, the more concessions it could wring from the United States. Others were concerned that jettisoning the policy of unconditional surrender would weaken the American public’s support for the war and undermine the morale of American troops who were preparing for the invasion of Japan’s home islands. Finally, some American leaders expressed concern that if Japan did not surrender unconditionally, the Japanese would not be forced to come face to face with the fact that they had lost the war—with noxious consequences for the future. These Americans drew an analogy with World War I: because Germany had suffered no defeats on its own territory and because it had agreed to terms, the German public had become susceptible to the Nazi and right-wing argument that its army had not really lost the war—rather, it had been “stabbed in the back” by the Social Democratic government that had negotiated a peace with the Allies. That myth, of course, had terrible consequences for Germany and the rest of Europe. In a number of ways, then, the American demand for unconditional surrender was based on the desire to forge a sound peace.

Finally, the United States contemplated an amphibious assault on Japan itself which the Joint Chiefs believed was the only surefire way to end the war. The first target would be Kyushu (Operation Olympic), the southernmost of Japan’s four home islands. If such an attack did not convince the Japanese to surrender, at least it would provide the Allies with a useful base from which to conduct further operations (such as Operation Coronet, which would have landed Allied troops on Honshu). An attack on Kyushu would have been the Allies’ largest Pacific operation to date; American planners calculated that they would need about three-quarters of a million men to overcome Kyushu’s garrison of 350,000 soldiers. The main reason the United States displayed some trepidation about this operation was because of the potential for large casualties. The story concerning the size of American casualty projections is complicated and vexed. Numerous staffs produced varying numbers at different times while accounting for a diversity of circumstances. Making such projections was extremely difficult, and Truman never got a clear, unambiguous number from the Joint Chiefs. Not only that, it appears that George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, and Ernest King, Commander-in-Chief of the US Fleet (and Chief of Naval Operations), kept the highest estimates from Truman (which reached 500,000 casualties)—partly because they believed such projections were exaggerated, and partly because they did not want Truman to get skittish about an amphibious assault on Japan. Even so, Truman saw projections that ran from 30,000 to 250,000 American casualties—large, but not enough to prevent him from ordering Olympic to move forward.

As the foregoing should make clear, none of the options on the table for bringing the war to a close was without its problems. America placed its hopes of ending the war as soon as possible on Olympic, but continued with the blockade and bombings for the sake of supporting the assault on the Japanese home islands. The insistence on unconditional surrender, however, would continue. What is interesting about the atomic bomb is that Truman and his advisors never really discussed this option in the same way that they discussed the others. They always assumed that if the United States could produce a workable bomb, that bomb would be used because it would end the war quickly with a minimum of American casualties. It was for this reason that Truman never actually gave an order for the atomic bomb to be used. The American military bureaucracy simply completed its development of the weapon and deployed it on Tinian (near Saipan) in preparation for the Enola Gay’s famous mission.

At this point, we should note that the atomic bombs’ role in bringing the war to a close is an open question among some scholars. The first operational atomic bomb was eventually dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The Soviets invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria on August 8. On August 9, the United States dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Disentangling the significance of these events is extremely difficult. For sure, the atomic bombs were awe-inspiringly destructive. But at the same time, Soviet entry into the war convinced the Japanese Cabinet that attempts to play the Soviets off against the United States or use the Soviet Union as an interlocutor in negotiations with the Americans were now futile. In judging the morality of the bombs’ use, we will have to assume the bombs were efficacious while recognizing that there is some debate on the matter.

So how do we assess the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima?

Japan needlessly prolonged a war it could not win. The Japanese government’s unwillingness to surrender put the United States in a difficult position. All of the Americans’ options for ending the war were either costly or inefficacious. Most presented significant ethical challenges and would have led to enormous loss of life. Truman found himself confronted by a series of insoluble questions. We can give him credit for wanting to bring the war to a quick conclusion. Although he thought mainly in terms of American lives and interests, ending the war in early August 1945 was a blessing for millions upon millions of people. Had the United States not dropped the bomb, the war probably would have dragged on for some time, and even more people would have died. As Michael Bess points out in Choices under Fire, because of the atomic bombs, the Soviet Union ended hostilities against Japan after little more than a week of fighting, Operation Olympic never went forward, the blockade of Japan ended, and conventional bombing was halted. Each of these would have proven quite costly in terms of human life had they continued. In the brief fighting that took place in Manchuria, the Soviets inflicted 84,000 combat deaths on the Japanese army while suffering 12,000 of their own. The Soviets also captured over 2,500,000 Japanese nationals living in China of whom 350,000 died in captivity. Had the Soviets kept driving southward, not only would the number of KIAs increased dramatically on both sides, the number of Chinese civilian deaths, which averaged around 200,000 per month, would have risen. Bess calculates that if the war had continued until September 15, 1945, another 850,000 people would have died as a result of fighting between Soviet and Japanese forces in China. Had Operation Olympic gone ahead, Bess, following Richard Frank in Downfall, figures that about 30,000 American servicemen would have been killed along with some 200,000 Japanese troops and almost 400,000 civilians—a total of 630,000 people. Finally, had the bombing and the blockade dragged on into early 1946, the Japanese would have begun to experience death by famine (this famine was only averted under American occupation by massive emergency imports of food). Bess figures such deaths would have reached the 1,000,000 mark. If we engage in a utilitarian calculation of lives lost against lives saved, Bess finds that the 340,000 or so civilian fatalities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the highest estimate available for such deaths) sit in the balance against much more than that—somewhere between 850,000 and 1,800,000.

The counterargument to these points would sound something like this. The United States dropped two atomic bombs that probably killed somewhere around 200,000 civilians. This act was morally wrong. Where Truman and his advisors failed was in never actually stopping to think about the moral implications of either using or not using the bombs. Their violation of the war convention cannot be justified by the fact that it ended the war; that would use the ends to justify the means which is morally problematic. In any event, Truman did not necessarily intend all the good ends that resulted from the atomic bombs. Truman was not thinking about saving Japanese, Soviet, or Chinese lives when the bombing of Hiroshima took place; he was worried about Americans. In this situation, one must measure Truman’s intentions, not the inadvertent consequences of his actions. In other words, the United States was directly responsible for the 200,000 Japanese civilians that they killed but only indirectly responsible for the hundreds of thousands of other people who were saved. From this perspective, Truman presents us with a strange inversion of double-effect. The act of bombing Hiroshima was wrong and illegitimate. Its direct effect was morally unacceptable. Moreover, Truman aimed at the evil effect which was the means to his end. Yet it was the side effect of his actions that “compensated” for the evil effect.

So what is the answer? Bess convincingly argues that there is no answer. The war confronted Truman with a choiceless choice. For sure, Truman and his advisors did not perform their due ethical diligence, but just about every decision he could have made would have been morally suspect and led to huge losses of life. He could only bring the war to a rapid conclusion—which was a mercy for millions of people—by committing what amounted to an atrocity. Bess puts it this way:

When a moral choice entails using weapons of such cruelty, when it confronts us with loss of life on this scale, when all the options are so patently unspeakable, our moral faculty understandably cracks and groans under the pressure.

If it doesn’t, there is something wrong.