World War II

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.

Very Short Reviews: Eri Hotta’s _Japan 1941_

Hotta Japan 1941

Eri Hotta, Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy (New York: Vintage Books, 2013)

  1. The main question Hotta seeks to answer is why Japan decided to attack Pearl Harbor when most of its leaders did not want war with the United States and believed they could wage such a conflict with only a slim hope of success.
  2. The short answer is that the Japanese leadership’s own decisions brought it to the point where it felt it had no choice but to go to war: “It was as if Tokyo had gotten stuck in the thin end of a funnel” and war seemed to provide “the quickest and surest way of breaking free of that constricting situation.”
  3. Hotta takes into account the great historical forces that made Japan an aggressive power—the role of Western imperialism in stimulating Japan’s own expansionism, the fraught and ambivalent Sino-Japanese relationship, the drift of various Japanese governments that allowed army officers “on the spot” to seize the initiative in China, the unwillingness of Japanese civil society (especially the press) to check the ambitions of the military, and so on—but she is mainly interested in the activities of Japan’s leaders in 1940 and particularly 1941.
  4. One particular problem was the way in which Japanese leaders brought out the worst in each other; for example, Prince Konoe (prime minister from July 1940 to October 1941) provided unassertive leadership that gave free rein to people like the ambitious Matsuoka Yosuke (foreign minister from July 1940 to July 1941) and the inflexible Tojo Hideki (army minister from January 1939 to October 1941) to pursue their own goals.
  5. The Japanese occupation of southern Indochina (July 1941) was the great turning point in the relationship with the United States as it focused American concerns on Japan like never before (concerns inspired by Japan’s adhesion to the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, by Japan’s endless war in China, and by fears about what Japan might next do in southeast Asia), led to important sanctions being imposed on the Japanese, and provided the impetus for the fevered diplomacy that eventually led to war between the two states.
  6. Many of Japan’s leaders engaged in wishful and confused thinking; to name one just one example, the Cabinet believed it needed to go to war with the United States to achieve what diplomacy could not, but it also felt that once the war had started, it would need diplomacy to bring the conflict to a swift end before the United States could crush Japan in a protracted war.
  7. In this context, the bakuryo, the junior officers responsible for strategic planning, played an enormous role—since the civilian leadership did not provide much diplomatic or geo-political guidance, war plans shaped by the bakuryo became the default policy of Japan.
  8. The army and particularly the navy were divided over the wisdom of a conflict with the United States, but neither armed service wanted to sound defeatist and take responsibility for having been the “weak” link that stopped a potential war with the Americans.
  9. In this particular context, the Japanese cultural practice of switching from private to public personas, known as hone to tatemae—“true voice and façade”— led to a great deal of confusion and double-talk as the Japanese Cabinet tried to reach a decision about what to do with the United States.
  10. Although this book is not quite as groundbreaking as the blurb on the back cover would have you believe, Hotta makes a very convincing case that the war was not at all inevitable and that it flowed largely from incompetent Japanese leaders who had become desperate because an endless war in China was impoverishing Japan and threatening to close off its diplomatic options, who failed to communicate well with another, who were committed to saving face, who misinterpreted the international situation, who proved incapable of making a realistic assessment of their nation’s capabilities, who could not understand how the Americans perceived their actions, who pitched their terms far too high when negotiating with the United States, and who imposed a completely unnecessary time limit on negotiations with the Americans.

Hugh Dubrulle

Belichick, Football, and Military History


One Thing after Another strives to remain topical, and the following post is a shameless attempt to capitalize on interest in the Super Bowl. According to the following article from the Wall Street Journal, Bill Belichick is a diligent student of history, especially military history.

One Thing after Another would like to think that Belichick has learned something valuable from reading military history. For example, it might provide him with some insight into leadership. At the same time, it might give him an uncanny ability to dismantle opposing football teams. For sure, the study of military history has helped coaches develop creative playmaking and play-calling. Clark Shaughnessy (1892-1970), who coached a variety of football teams but earned fame mainly with Stanford University and the Chicago Bears, is most well-known for replacing the dominant single-wing offensive formation with a resurrection of the old T formation in the 1940s. Innovations associated with Shaughnessy’s T still survive today. For instance, under the T, the quarterback took the snap from under center (instead of having the ball hiked five yards back directly to either the halfback or tailback as was the case with the single-wing). In the T, having the quarterback handing the ball off to a tailback or halfback allowed him to hit holes in the line of scrimmage more quickly and at greater speed. But what also appealed to Shaughnessy was that the T provided opportunities for more options and more deception. Getting the ball under center, the quarterback could do anything with it. He could run it. He could throw to a receiver. He could hand the ball off to a back. He could throw to a back. This last option was something that Shaughnessy really liked. One of the three backs in the T could become a man in motion before the ball was hiked and thus turn into a receiver. Even if the back who acted as the man in motion did not receive the ball, he could draw defenders away from where the play’s center of gravity was going to be. Where did Shaughnessy supposedly get these ideas? A number of historians have claimed that he was heavily influenced by his reading of Heinz Guderian’s Achtung–Panzer! (1937).  Moreover, parallels have been drawn between Shaughnessy’s use of the man in motion and Erich von Manstein’s famous “sickle cut” (Sichelschnitt) plan that laid France low in 1940. Army Group B’s foray into the Low Countries distracted the Allies who sent their most mobile forces northward to counter it. With the Anglo-French line thinned out by this diversion (and deprived of a mobile reserve), Army Group A shot through the Ardennes, cut the Allied line in half, and drove to the coast.

Did Belichick use his knowledge of military history to fake out the Ravens with that formation where an eligible receiver lined up as an offensive lineman, while another offensive player lined up in the slot but declared himself ineligible? No, of course not. Evidence suggests that Belichick borrowed the formation from the Detroit Lions after watching them on tape (and, of course, improving on their play):

However, the creativity and deception associated with this play–hallmarks of Shaughnessy’s coaching as well–could well be inspired by a thorough familiarity with military history.

Undoubtedly, one can draw a number of analogies between war and football. Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), the Prussian general who was one of the greatest thinkers about armed conflict the West ever produced, asserted in On War that “war is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale.” He refined this definition by claiming that “war is . . . an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”  If boxing or mixed martial arts resemble a duel, football is a duel “on an extensive scale” which employs force to compel the enemy to do our will. In short, football resembles war in a fundamental way. That resemblance has prompted many comparisons. Historians have claimed that football was an outgrowth of the Civil War:

Others commentators have argued that a symbiotic relationship exists between war and football. Each feeds interest in the other, and each becomes a surrogate for the other:

In 2010, the National Interest claimed that Americans’ attitudes toward football shaped their attitudes toward war and not in a healthy way:

This short opinion piece from US News and World Report sought to refute the notion that Americans like football because they are a warlike people:

One Thing after Another does not presume to reach conclusions here about the profundities of the relationship between war and football. However, it would like to point out (yet again) the degree to which the practice of history, which allows one to make useful analogies between the past and the present, can give one an advantage in the most unlikely of areas.

Descent into Hell: Japanese Civilians and “The Bomb”

Hiroshima Bombing Victim

“Would the Japanese have surrendered without Hiroshima?” is the question that opens Jonathan Mirsky’s review of Descent into Hell: Civilian Memories of the Battle of Okinawa.

In some ways, such an opening is unfair to the book. First-hand accounts of Japanese civilian life during World War II have not appeared in English with much frequency, let alone narratives about Japanese civilians literally caught in the crossfire of combat on land. For this reason alone, Descent into Hell should attract the attention of anybody  interested in the fighting that took place in the Pacific theater during this conflict. It does not, however, necessarily answer the question of whether or not the Japanese would have surrendered without the atomic bomb.

The connection between Descent into Hell and Hiroshima amounts to this: Mirsky claims that the book suggests Japanese civilians were devoted to the emperor and unwilling to surrender, so only the atomic bomb could have shaken their will to continue the fight. This argument does not seem to recognize the forces that truly led the Japanese government toward surrender in 1945.

In the last year of the war, the Japanese leadership clearly understood that the United States had obtained the upper hand in the Pacific. Japanese objectives had shrunk since the heady days of late 1941. As American forces began to close in on the home islands, the Japanese hoped to preserve their independence and avoid unconditional surrender by bringing the Americans to the negotiating table. The only way to to that was by inflicting heavy losses on the United States and making the war as terrible as possible. The Japanese no longer had a navy to speak of, and they had few trained pilots at their disposal, but they believed their willingness to take and inflict casualties would allow them to eventually demoralize the Americans. In other words, the Japanese leadership did not seem overly concerned about their own losses. And certainly, one part of this calculation held true: in the Pacific, American losses in 1945 rose dramatically. Once the United States became involved in large-scale ground combat in Normandy (June 1944), its casualties began averaging about 16,000 to 19,000 men per month. Large numbers of these casualties were suffered in the Pacific: Leyte (17,000), Luzon (31,000), Iwo Jima (20,000), and Okinawa (46,000). To put these losses in perspective, the first thirty days of the Normandy campaign, which was extremely hard fought by European standards, led to 42,000 casualties.  (By way of comparison, it is interesting to note that American casualties in Iraq between 2003 and 2012 amounted to about 36,000.)

If the Americans were appalled by the obstinacy of Japanese resistance, they were still capable of applying enormous military pressure on the home islands. Their submarines continued to wipe out the Japanese merchant fleet, their planes had mined Japanese waters and brought the coastal trade to halt, and their bombers had started to lay waste to Japanese cities. Among other things, Japan was running out of food, and in October 1945, after the war was over, famine was only averted by massive American aid.

Yet the Japanese believed they had additional cards to play. The Soviet Union had remained neutral in the Pacific war, and the Japanese set great store on being able to use the Soviets as an intermediary in talks with the United States. There was even some hope that Japan could foment discord between the United States and the Soviet Union whose alliance had always been somewhat awkward. Such thinking was delusional, but it kept the Japanese leadership hanging tough.

At Yalta (February 1945), the Soviets agreed  to join the Pacific war within three months of the conflict ending in Europe. As German resistance collapsed, the Soviets feverishly prepared to launch an invasion of Japanese-occupied Manchuria. They kept these plans secret, of course, from the Japanese. The Americans, for their part, had tested their first atomic bomb by mid-July and were now keen to end the war before the Soviets became heavily involved in Asia. The problem was that the Japanese showed little sign of wishing to surrender on terms that the Americans were willing to accept. The Americans wrestled with what kind of terms they might be willing to concede to the Japanese to bring them to capitulate, but the lure of a quick, unconditional surrender that would not cost many American lives, proved impossibly attractive. The Americans prepared for an invasion of the home islands, but they also deployed their atomic bombs.

The first atomic bomb hit Hiroshima on August 6, and a second bomb fell on Nagasaki on August 9. On the latter date, the Soviets invaded Manchuria. Which of these events convinced the Japanese government to surrender has been at the center of a lively debate. On one side, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, author of Racing the Enemy (2005), has argued that the Soviet declaration of war played the preponderant part in the Japanese decision to capitulate. On the other, scholars like Richard Frank, who is perhaps best known for Downfall (1999), maintain the more traditional view that the atomic bombs brought the Pacific war to an end.

Of course, if one tends toward Hasegawa’s view, then Mirsky’s opening question is irrelevant because the atomic bombs did not really end the war. But even if one does not see eye-to-eye with Hasegawa, Mirsky’s question is still irrelevant. While they might disagree on what prompted Japan to throw in the towel, there is one thing on which all of these historians agree: the feelings of Japanese civilians did not enter into the matter. At the end of the day, it was the Japanese cabinet and emperor that made the decision. As Max Hastings has argued in several of his works about World War II, when it comes to waging armed conflict, authoritarian regimes have this great advantage over democracies: they can exert more coercion against their own people and need not engage in consultation. For that reason, they are capable of extracting more from their populations and suffering losses that more representative forms of government would never countenance. And so it was with the Japanese in August 1945. Read Descent into Hell, and read it for any number of reasons. But it won’t tell you if the atomic bombs were necessary.