How USA Reversed Its Policy on Bombing Civilians
"From Guernica to Hiroshima: How America Reversed Its Policy on Bombing Civilians"
by Sherwood Ross
When Adolph Hitler's Luftwaffe destroyed the Spanish town of Guernica on April 26, 1937, the slaughter of civilians was broadly condemned in Great Britain and the United States. Winston Churchill, England's wartime Prime Minister, wrote in "The Gathering Storm,"(Houghton Mifflin), "Germany in particular used her air power to commit such experimental horrors as the bombing of the defenceless little township of Guernica." More than 1,650 people were killed and nearly 900 wounded in that assault by Hitler’s Condor squadron.
Arriving in Guernica, New York Times correspondent G.L. Steer reported, "The object of the bombardment seemingly was demoralization of the civilian population." Destroyed in this historic citadel of Basque culture, “not a military objective,” were all of the town's churches save one, as well as both of its hospitals. "The whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end" from a rain of high explosive bombs and incendiary projectiles, Steer wrote. So many buildings collapsed, "the streets were long heaps of red, impenetrable ruins" while farmhouses in the outskirts "burned like little candles in the hills."
Rising in Parliament, Lord Cecil of Chelwood said, "There is no precedent in the history of civilized nations for anything like the bombing of Guernica." The New York Times described the Viscount as the leader of "a chorus of protest in the House of Lords" over the atrocity. ." In the House of Commons, Archibald Sinclair, the Liberal leader, aptly portrayed the bombing as "a deliberate effort to use air power as an instrument of terrorism."
Responding for his Majesty's government, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden said the nation "deeply deplores the bombardment of the civil population in the Spanish Civil War, wherever it may occur and whoever may be responsible.” Historian Robert Dallek observed in “Franklin D. Roosevelt And American Foreign Policy, 1932-45”(Oxford), “In the United States prominent Americans from all walks of life and a large portion of the press joined in a denunciation of ‘the monstrous crime of Guernica,’ while congressional leaders renewed their appeal for the application of the Neutrality Act to (embargo the sale of munitions) to Berlin and Rome.”
Guernica’s destruction was not unprecedented. Japan’s bombardment of Shanghai in 1932 – claiming thousands of civilian lives -- brought upon her a “literal avalanche of denunciation,” the New York Times observed. Admiral Kiochi Shiozawa’s attack ignored the First Article of the Hague Convention, adopted October 18, 1907, which forbade “The bombardment by naval forces of undefended ports, towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings.” The signatories – including the United States — also vowed not “to employ poison or poisoned weapons.” Earlier, on July 29, 1899, a Hague convention – ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1902 – prohibited “to kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army.”
The Shanghai carnage caused Americans “to view the Japanese as ‘butchers’ and ‘murderers,’” wrote Stella Dong in “Shanghai: the Rise and Fall of a Decadent City” (Perrenial). “The single most powerful image from the Shanghai fighting was the picture of a burned baby, arms outstretched, wailing on a stretch of deserted railway track, taken by Paramount News’s H.S. ‘Newsreel’ Wong. It outraged so many Americans that it contributed to the mushrooming of a campaign to pressure the United States government to instigate sanctions against Japan.”
Three years later, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s pilots rained mustard gas on Ethiopia. In his futile appeal to the League of Nations in June of 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie denounced the bombings as “a refinement of barbarism.” He recounted how “soldiers, women, children, cattle, rivers, lakes and pastures were drenched continually with this deadly rain. …In tens of thousands, the victims of the Italian mustard gas fell.”
In 1937, when the Japanese again bombed Shanghai, it was “viewed as an atrocity of the most appalling kind," historian David McCullough wrote in "Truman." Cordell Hull, FDR’s Secretary of State, wrote in his “Memoirs”(The Macmillan Co.), “The League of Nations Advisory Committee, in resolution adopted September 27, (1937) solemnly condemned the bombing of open towns in China by Japanese planes and declared that ‘no excuse can be made for such acts which have aroused horror and indignation throughout the world.’ In a statement the following day we at the State Department supported this finding and said we held ‘the view that any general bombing of an extensive area wherein there resides a large populace engaged in peaceful pursuits is unwarranted and contrary to principles of law and of humanity.’”
Two years later, in his September 1, 1939, appeal at the outbreak of World War II in Europe, President Roosevelt beseeched the belligerents to refrain from the “inhuman barbarism” of attacking civilian centers. In the recent past, he noted, such assaults had “resulted in the maiming and in the death of thousands of defenseless men, women, and children.” These bombings, the President said, had “sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity.” FDR, however, would soon authorize development of the nuclear weapon as well as germ warfare, and sanction terror bombing. Hull, who didn’t hesitate to condemn Japanese atrocities, later praised FDR “for making the tremendous decision to go the length of spending $2-billion in developing the atomic bomb.”
In response to FDR’s appeal, Hitler pledged he would confine his air arm to attacking military targets only. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain asserted, “Britain will never resort to the deliberate attack on women and children, and other civilians for the purpose of mere terrorism.” Shortly, both Berlin and London would scrap their pledges.
The pitiless aerial warfare of World War II had its origin 25 years earlier in the Great War. On May 31, 1915, a German Zeppelin dropped a ton of bombs on London, killing seven and wounding 35, according to “London At War,”(Knopf) author Philip Ziegler. After two years of sporadic attacks, Germany switched to warplanes. In all, 670 Britons were killed.
Toward the Great War’s end, Sir Hugh Trenchard, the “father” of the Royal Air Force, urged bombing to “achieve the maximum effect on morale by striking at the most sensitive part of the German population – namely the working class,” according to historian John Keegan’s “The Second World War”(Viking). In America, air power advocate General Billy Mitchell claimed bombing cities would speed the end of a conflict and was “more humane” than cannon fire and bayonets.
Pulverizing German cities got a boost from the British War Cabinet on May 11, 1940, when it approved “indiscriminate” bombing against civilian objectives. It was further advanced in February, 1942, by the appointment of Chief Air Marshal Arthur (“Bomber”) Harris to head Bomber Command. James L. Stokesbury, in “A Short History of Air Power” (William Morrow and Co.) wrote: “Abandoning the futile attempt to strike at individual targets, they (the British) said, ‘operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population.’ This meant adoption of what the British chose to call area bombing and the Germans called terror bombing. It was a conscious, albeit supposedly temporary, acceptance of the thesis that if you could not hit the German worker’s factory, you could lessen his efficiency by bombing him out of his house.” (Bomber Command earlier reckoned only one bomb in five landed within a five-mile radius of its intended target.)
The gates of Hell parted wider on August 24, 1940, when the Luftwaffe accidentally bombed East London, triggering an RAF reprisal against Berlin the following night, prompting Hitler, in Keegan’s words, to “take the gloves off.” Hitler required little encouragement to do so. His pilots had already killed thousands of civilians in Spain, Poland and Holland. Shortly, the Luftwaffe and Bomber Command would exchange raids on enemy population centers. After the British struck Munich on November 8, the Luftwaffe hit Coventry, the British struck Mannheim, and one night in late December Luftwaffe bombers ignited 1,500 fires in London. On July 8th of 1941, Churchill wrote, “There is one thing that will bring (Hitler) down, and that is an absolutely devastating exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.” Note the use of the word “exterminating,” as if Germany’s civilian population were so many vermin. Great Britain was among those that had approved a League of Nations resolution in 1938 condemning “the intentional bombing of civilian populations.”
CBS broadcast correspondent Edward R. Murrow stirred the hearts of Americans with his rooftop description of Hitler’s “Blitz,” opening with his dramatic, “This is London.” He portrayed the bomb-scarred civilians of the East End as “calm and quiet… exceedingly brave, tough, and prudent.” He brought the horror of Nazi terror bombing (60,000 British civilians perished) to Americans so forcibly his broadcasts were credited with shifting public opinion significantly to the British cause. Yet, reporting on a flight over Berlin on December 3, 1943, he noted bomber pilots were briefed: “Berlin was Germany’s greatest center of war production.” This was quite beside the point, if true, as Bomber Command had much earlier decided it was going after civilians. Murrow depicted the sortie as “orchestrated hell” but did not condemn it as terror bombing. More than 100 foreign correspondents covered the Blitz, undoubtedly generating sympathy for the British. No comparable group of sympathetic journalists later would tell the American and British publics what Bomber Command was inflicting upon German cities.
CBS correspondent William L. Shirer (“Reporting World War II,” The Library of America,) ridiculed as “a line of nonsense” Nazi charges Churchill ordered the bombing of civilians. But he urged the British to do so. “What they must do is to keep the German people in their damp, cold cellars at night, prevent them from sleeping, and wear down their nerves.” As events proved, cellars afforded civilians scant protection.
According to historian Keegan, on February 14, 1941, “the (British) Air Staff issued a directive emphasizing that henceforward operations ‘should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civilian population and in particular of industrial workers’. Lest this point not be taken, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal wrote the following day: ‘I suppose it is clear that the new aiming points are to be the built-up (residential) areas, not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories…”
By contrast, historian R.J. Overy wrote in “the Air War 1939-1945” (Stein And Day), “American air intelligence believed that attacks against key economic systems, such as transport and electric power, would so demoralize the population that the same effects could be achieved without resorting to indiscriminate civilian bombing.” Even when not targeting civilians, though, thousands of them perished under American bombers. In occupied France by one estimate, 67,000 civilians were killed as military targets were struck. One anti-American poster there showed a girl clutching a doll amid the flames while a gloating FDR looked on. It is known French resistance fighters pleaded with the Allies to allow them to demolish a target instead of bombing it. Italian civilians --- 1,000 in Milan alone – were killed wholesale by British air raids targeting them. On one occasion, the Pope made a point of personally comforting the victims.
In May, 1942, Bomber Command struck Cologne, destroying nearly 20,000 homes, killing five hundred, and driving almost half a million people into the streets. Churchill wired Bomber Command his congratulations for a raid that was a “herald” of things to come, Stokesbury wrote. Even as Churchill hailed such raids, George Orwell, then a commentator for BBC radio, denied Britain followed a policy of exterminating civilians. In his broadcast of June 6, 1942 (“Orwell: The War Commentaries,” Pantheon Books), he announced: “These attacks…are not wanton and are not delivered against the civilian population, although non-combatants are inevitably killed in them.” As the tide of the air war turned against Germany, Orwell broadcast, “The people of this country are not revengeful, but they remember what happened to themselves two years ago, and they remember how the Germans talked when they thought themselves safe from retaliation.”
Not “revengeful”? British M.P. Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary after the fire raid of Dec. 29, 1940, popular feeling grew that “similar treatment of the Germans is the only thing they will understand.” And, as Ziegler noted in his book, a Gallup Poll in Central London in the summer of 1941 found 45 percent of the populace in favor of reprisal raids. American journalist Quentin Reynolds sensed “a new and intensified hatred of Germany in the people of London.”
In July, 1942, Bomber Command struck Hamburg’s residential areas, triggering a firestorm in which civilians even in underground shelters were incinerated by flames moving at hurricane force speeds of 150 miles an hour, generating temperatures of 1,400 degrees Farenheit. The bombers left behind “6,000 acres of smoking ashes and rubble, 41,800 people killed, and another 37,000 injured,” Stokesbury reported. In July of 1943, Allied raids on Hamburg killed 5,586 children alone, the “Oxford Companion to World War II”(Oxford University Press) noted.
Hans Rumpf, Germany’s Inspector General of Fire Prevention, made the distinction between initial British and American strategies. In his book, “The Bombing of Germany” (Holt, Rinehart and Winston), Rumpf said the British night attacks systematically struck Hamburg’s neighborhoods with incendiary bombs in the summer raids of 1943 “were clearly of a terrorist nature.” By contrast, “during the day, the U.S.A.F. bombers attacked military and industrial targets in the dock areas, and, in particular, the shipyards and submarine yards” with high-explosive bombs.
At their Casablanca conference in January, 1943, however, Churchill and FDR agreed on a strategic bombing offensive that included reducing the morale of the German people “to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.” For the immediate future, though, the U.S. clung to the policy of destroying military targets only. The shift from pinpoint bombing of military targets to strategic, or area, bombings by the United States got a push from Churchill in 1945, who pressed “for cities in eastern Germany to be made high-priority targets,” according to “Winged Victory” (Random House) by Geoffrey Perret. “(General Carl) Spaatz, commander of the Strategic Air Force, obliged by ordering the Eighth (Air Force) to strike Berlin. Not the industries of Berlin, not the marshalling yards of Berlin, but the city center – the heart of German government and an area of high population density,” Perret wrote.
“(Commanding General, Eighth Air Force, England, James) Doolittle,” he continued, “protested that such an attack would be terrorism, without any justification on military grounds. … Spaatz, however, wasn’t prepared to discuss it. He insisted the attack go ahead.” On February 3, 1945, nearly 1,000 bombers struck city center Berlin, killing 3,000 Berliners and rendering 120,000 homeless. In his autobiography, “I Could Never Be So Lucky Again,”(Bantam Books), Doolittle makes no mention of any dispute with Spaatz or the tragic consequences of the raid.
Significantly, in the portion of his book devoted to his surprise April 18, 1942, raid on Japan, Doolittle pointedly declares his opposition to bombing civilians: “One pilot asked me if they should deliberately head for residential areas to drop their incendiaries. I said, ‘Definitely not! You are to look for and aim at military targets only, such as war industries, shipbuilding facilities, power plants, and the like. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by attacking residential areas.” Doolittle also wrote the American bombing of Dresden was “targeted at the request of the Soviets, (and) resulted in thousands of civilian casualties, for which we were severely criticized in the world’s press for our ‘terror bombing’ of innocent civilians.” If one read only the memoirs of Doolittle, Truman, and Churchill, one might conclude under no circumstances did they ever issue an order to massacre civilians – and, if they did, it was the fault of the Russians.
Churchill liked to convey the impression that he would not respond in kind to Hitler’s terror bombing. M.P. Nicolson’s diary for October 17th, 1940, recounts one such incident in the smoking room of the House of Commons. When Conservative M.P. Robert Cary’s appealed for unrestricted reprisal bombing, Churchill responded: “’My dear sir, this is a military and not a civilian war. You and others may desire to kill women and children. We desire (and have succeeded in our desire) to destroy German military objectives. I quite appreciate your point. But my motto is ‘Business before Pleasure.’ Nicolson added, “We all drift out of the room thinking, ‘That was a man!’”
Colonel Robert Morgan, who piloted the first bomber to complete 25 missions over Europe and who later flew a B-29 over Japan -- wrote: “I will always be proud of the restraint shown in the United States Army Air Forces in those early months of the European air war—the time of the Memphis Belle. The ordnance carried by the B-17s of the Mighty Eighth reflected the humanitarian hopes of our government and our strictly defined and limited mission, which was to attack only military installations, never civilian centers.”
Of the later switch to civilian targets, Morgan wrote, “Nothing and no one was safe – combatants, civilians, women, children, cities, churches, the great historical monuments” (and) “no physical or moral boundaries would be able to check the spread of slaughter.” His remarks can be found in “The Man Who Flew The Memphis Belle”(Dutton).
The argument for terror bombing got a propaganda boost from animator Walt Disney. In “The Disney Version”(Simon and Schuster), Richard Schickel described how Disney embraced the philosophy of Major Alexander de Seversky, the author of “Victory Through Air Power” in producing a film by that name. Film critic James Agee wrote of it, “I noticed, uneasily, that there were no suffering and dying enemy civilians under all those proud promises of bombs.” Agee felt he could not “contentedly accept the antiseptic white lies” of the movie.
Toward the end of the war in Europe, the United States showed “an increased interest in attacks directed specifically at the German people,” writes historian Lee Kennett in “A History of Strategic Bombing”(Charles Scribner’s Sons). On the night of Feb. 13, the British struck Dresden with 2,700 tons of bombs, half of them incendiaries. They ignited a firestorm that killed between 40,000 and 60,000, civilians in the refugee-crowded city. Two days later, American B-17s, unable to find an oil refinery target, plastered Dresden’s smoldering ruins for good measure.
After British and American bombers wiped Dresden off the face of the earth, “Press reports of a new ‘terror raid policy’ aroused behind-the-scene misgivings in the Allied camp,” historian David Eisenhower wrote in “Eisenhower At War”(Random House). He noted Churchill penned a memo to Portal questioning the mission -- one Churchill had personally authorized. Portal threatened to resign and Churchill withdrew the memo.
Kurt Vonnegut, later to pen “Slaughterhouse-Five” but then an American prisoner of war in Dresden, recalled: “Every day we walked into the city and dug into basements and shelters to get corpses out, as a sanitary measure. When we went into them, a typical shelter, an ordinary basement usually, looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead.”
As historian Frank put it, “..the most fundamental point about the history of bombing in Europe is that it had trampled down every moral barrier to the use of massive aerial firepower (though not poison gas)against legitimate targets, even when it was clear that the destruction of the target would entail death for large numbers of noncombatants.”
Policy-makers ignored the critics of nuclear warfare. At the Potsdam conference in July, 1945, following the surrender of Nazi Germany, General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, expressed the hope America would not initiate the use of something as “horrible and destructive as this weapon (A-bomb) was described to be,” David Eisenhower wrote. According to Powaski, after the atomic bombings, Eisenhower told (Secretary of War Henry) Stimson, “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”
Even while the A-bomb was thought to be a tightly held secret, Pope Pius XII in a broadcast address to the opening of the Pontifical Academy of Science in February, 1943, warned it was of the "utmost importance" "the energy originated by such a machine should not be let loose to explode," lest it result in "a dangerous catastrophe."
On March 6, 1944, The New York Times gave page one coverage to a protest by 28 prominent Americans, mostly clergy, against “obliteration raids” on German cities. The protestors called upon Christians “to examine themselves concerning their participation in this carnival of death” and to acquaint themselves with “the realities of what is being done in our name in Europe.” The appeal was a foreword to the article “Massacre by Bombing,” published in the magazine of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation. The article’s author, Vera Brittain, declared, “hundreds of thousands of helpless and innocent people are being subjected to agonizing forms of death and injury comparable to the worst tortures of the Middle Ages.”
As Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, President Roosevelt bore responsibility for America’s massacre of enemy noncombatants. He did not hesitate to create the nuclear weapon, just as he approved the development of germ warfare. In April of 1942, according to “FDR” by Ted Morgan, he authorized production of anthrax and botulism toxins that could be disbursed by bombing. “Roosevelt consistently supported the manufacture and use of the atomic bomb,” Morgan wrote. “At a meeting with Stimson on December 30, 1944, FDR approved the production and testing of the bombs, and the training of the crews of the 509th Composite (bomber) Group.”
The visionary Roosevelt in the Thirties recognized the potential of long-range bombers and favored their production in large numbers. He worked closely with General George C. Marshall, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told reporters at an off-the-record press briefing in November of 1941, if war comes, “we’ll fight mercilessly. Flying Fortresses will be dispatched immediately to set the paper cities of Japan on fire,” historian Frank wrote.
The Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator, both four-engine heavy-duty bombers, carried the burden of the American assault upon Europe. By early 1945, however, the B –29, the latest generation of bombers from Boeing, was available for action against Japan. It was twice as heavy as the B-17, could fly nearly 6,000 miles at a top speed of 360-plus miles per hour, and carried 20,000 pounds of bombs. The Axis had nothing comparable, thus the U.S. could assault them with no fear of reprisal in kind.
When Air Force Major General Curtis LeMay took over the XXI Bomber Command in the Pacific in January, 1945, he decided America’s high-altitude precision daylight bombing of Japanese military targets had achieved only limited success, so he changed tactics. On February 25, 1945, his bombers showered incendiaries on a one-square mile of Tokyo that destroyed some 28,000 buildings. The incendiaries were a mix of magnesium and jellied gasoline that clung to the surface of whatever they struck, human beings included, and burned slowly at a high temperature. According to Colonel Robert Morgan, who flew a B-29 over Tokyo, “We were bombing with the very latest in the grim technology of death by fire – the incendiary M-69 and napalm-packed M-17. Tens of thousands of these projectiles were now falling on the center of Tokyo, turning it into a hell on earth.”
“As the fires spread and conjoined, the stampeding crowds grew. They choked the narrow streets, fleeing from one incinerated block only to collide with another throng streaming in the opposite direction. Great tongues of fire reached out to roast them en masse, like the breath of massive dragons,” Morgan wrote. “As the fires surged into vacuums created by the eaten-up oxygen, wind velocity increased, and scrambling human herds were overtaken by hundred-mile-an-hour firewinds,” he continued. “In their desperation, thousands of men, women, and children flocked towards the rivers and canals that cut through Tokyo, but these only yielded other forms of hideous deaths. Jumpers drowned, were asphyxiated, or were crushed to death by succeeding waves of jumpers. Soon the steel girders of bridges spanning the waters grew white-hot, forcing refugees to jump into water that was itself beginning to boil.”
Sadly, the United States resisted alternative strategies to defeating Japan other than by obliteration from the skies. By early 1945, virtually all of Japan’s Imperial Navy and merchant marine had been sunk and the American Navy had a stranglehold on an island nation that relied on imports to survive. One alternative to extermination bombing might have been to allow the blockade to force surrender. Again, the Soviet Union had previously agreed to hurl its military might against Japanese troops in Manchuria in early August, and did -- an action that further undermined Japan’s will to resist. The Japanese knew from pitched battles in an undeclared war in Mongolia in the late Thirties their Army was no match for the Red Army’s superior tanks and artillery.
In the weeks before the nuclear blasts, the Japanese urgently attempted to convince Moscow to broker peace with America, but Moscow stalled them. The United States -- which had broken the Japanese secret code -- knew of this but was determined to drop the nuclear weapon.
LeMay biographer Thomas Coffey in “Iron Eagle”(Crown), wrote the general began his incendiary bombing campaign believing the destruction of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe, would speed the end of the conflict. LeMay’s approach was so effective, he quickly ran out of cities to incinerate. By June, nearly all the major cities of Japan had been reduced to rubble. Toyama was thought to be 99.5 percent destroyed.
When President Truman wanted to be briefed on the proposed November invasion of Japan, LeMay flew to Washington in mid-June of 1945 to tell the Joint Chiefs he believed Japan would surrender by October as a result of his efforts. He later termed the use of the atomic weapon “anticlimactic.” In his autobiography, “Mission With LeMay,”(Doubleday & Co.), the general argued that as much of Japanese industry was disbursed in private homes, bombing them was the only way to destroy the enemy’s war-making capacity. He recognized civilians would die, but rationalized: “There’s nothing new about this massacre of civilian populations. In ancient times, when an army laid siege to a city, everybody was in the fight. And when that city had fallen, and it was sacked, just as often as not every single soul was murdered.”
LeMay also wrote, “But to worry about the morality of what we were doing – Nuts. … I can recognize no more depravity in dropping a nuclear weapon than in having a V-2 rocket equipped with an orthodox warhead, and shooting it vaguely in the general direction of London, as the Germans did. No difference whatsoever.”
American B-29 bombers between Nov. 24, 1944 and August 15, 1945, flew more than 28,500 sorties in 315 missions on which about 159,000 tons of bombs and mines were dropped on 64 Japanese cities, the New York Times reported. Referring to the bombing of Tokyo on March 9th, reporter W. H. Lawrence wrote, “It marked the first all-out effort to burn down a great city and destroy its people.” In the Tokyo raid, 334 B-29’s leveled 16 square miles of the city containing 267,000 structures, killing 83,000 people, injuring 41,000 more, and prompting Japanese radio to condemn America for butchering civilians.
According to R.J. Overy’s authoritative “The Air War, 1939-45”(Stein and Day), the fire-bombing campaign began in March 1945 “despite Stimson’s moral qualms and Roosevelt’s delusion that the air forces were ‘blowing to bits carefully selected targets’.” Overy asserted the Battle of Britain and the Pearl Harbor attack were used by England and the United States, respectively, as justification. Overy wrote, “the most striking moral paradox of the war years was the willingness of ostensibly liberal states to engage in the deliberate killing of hundreds of thousands of enemy civilians from the air.”
The American fire raids disillusioned Dr. Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-born physicist who drafted the famous letter for Albert Einstein that persuaded Roosevelt to undertake the atomic bomb project. Despite his work on the bomb, Szilard opposed its use on Japan. In an August 15, 1960, interview with “U.S. News & World Report,” he said, “Prior to the war I had the illusion that up to a point the American Government was different (from other countries)” in that it was guided by moral considerations, not expediency…Then, during the war, without any explanation, we began to use incendiary bombs against the cities of Japan. This was disturbing to me and it was disturbing many of my (scientific) friends.”
In the same interview, Szilard posed the hypothetical question of how the United States would have responded if Germany had dropped nuclear bombs on Rochester, N.Y., and Buffalo, but had lost the war. “Can anyone doubt that we would then have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them?” In 1945, the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg prosecuted the Nazi leadership for, among other things, “wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages.”
“These bombardments create the impression that the whole world has gone totalitarian,” wrote Visser t’ Hooft, Secretary of the World Council of Churches.
Einstein -- whose letter of August 2, 1939, first alerted FDR to the concept of the atomic weapon -- spent the rest of his life regretting it, wrote biographer Ted Morgan. In his book “FDR”(Simon and Schuster), Morgan quotes Einstein as stating: “I made one great mistake in my life—when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made… but there was some justification – the danger that the Germans would make them.”
According to historian McCullough in "Truman," the atomic bomb was Roosevelt's project, "his decision, his venture" and FDR left behind no policy in writing concerning it other than a note to Churchill stating, "It might perhaps, after mature consideration, be used against the Japanese, who should be warned that this bombardment will be repeated until they surrender."
McCullough also said Stimson wrote, "At no time, from 1941 to 1945, did I ever hear it suggested by the President, or by any other responsible member of government, that atomic energy should not be used in the war." Similarly, Churchill stated "the decision to use the atomic bomb to compel the surrender of Japan was never an issue. There was unanimous, automatic, unquestioned agreement around our table; nor did I ever hear the slightest suggestion that we should do otherwise."
President Roosevelt knew from the first the atom bomb was an instrument of mass destruction. In “March to Armageddon”(Oxford University Press), historian Ronald Powaski pointed out Einstein’s letter of August 2, 1939, stated in part “a single bomb of this type carried by boat and exploded in port might very well destroy the whole port together with some surrounding territory.” The letter also indicated Hitler’s scientists were at work on such a weapon.
By June of 1942, a British-American partnership was forged to develop the weapon, with the “Manhattan Project” established the following August under command of Brigadier General Leslie Groves, who previously directed construction of the Pentagon. Powaski said the secrecy shrouding the Manhattan Project prevented Congressional and public debate on the use of the atomic weapon. "The final decision of where and when to use the atomic bomb was up to me," Truman said. According to McCullough, Truman said he ordered Stimson to use it "so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children," a statement McCullough said Truman "knew to be only partly true."
On May 31, 1945, those involved in the A-bomb project, gathered in the Pentagon to decide how the nuclear blow should be struck, historian Martin Gilbert noted in “The Second World War,”(Henry Holt and Co.). The parley included nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who headed a scientific team of American and British physicists. Stimson said there was general agreement “that we could not give the Japanese any warning; that we could not concentrate on a civilian area; but that we should seek to make a profound psychological impression on as many of the inhabitants as possible.” Or as General Groves stated, “I had set out as the governing factor that the targets chosen should be places the bombing of which would most adversely affect the will of the Japanese people to continue the war. Beyond that, they should be military in nature…”
Contrary to Groves, President Truman’s diary entry for July 24, 1945, noted he ordered the bomb used “so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop this terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.” About that time, Truman wrote his wife, “I’ll say that we’ll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won’t be killed!”
On August 6, the first nuclear bomb obliterated five square miles of Hiroshima and claimed 70,000 lives, including a score of American prisoners of war held captive there. Within two weeks, about 90,000 were dead and the final count has been put as high as 200,000 souls. On August 9, a nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki killed 74,800 more people, according to Japanese officials. Russia declared war on Japan the same day and six days later Japan surrendered.
In his radio address to the nation on August 9, 1945, Truman declared, “The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” The Vatican condemned the new weapon as a “catastrophic conclusion to the war’s apocalyptic surprises,” noted Gordon Thomas and Max Witts in their history, “Enola Gay,”(Stein and Day), named for the plane that dropped the Hiroshima bomb.
General LeMay defended the nuclear detonations as, essentially, no different from his previous fire bombings: “We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.” He did note, however, the nuclear weapons “brought a strange pervading fear which does not seem to have affected mankind previously, from any other source.” He might have added use of the nuclear weapons triggered an arms race between America and Soviet Russia unparalleled in human history in terms of cost and peril to humanity.
For his part, General Doolittle wrote candidly using the two atomic bombs on Japan was the right thing to do. “In my opinion, it was, for one very simple reason: it saved lives. A land invasion of Japan would have cost both sides hundreds of thousands of casualties,” he wrote. Like many others, Doolittle apparently gave no thought to whether innocent civilians should be sacrificed to spare military personnel. Was it ethical to incinerate Japanese children to spare American fighting men the risk of battle?
In assessing culpability for the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians by aerial bombardment, the Fascist governments of Japan, Italy, and Germany must be held to account. But so, too, must the United States and Great Britain. Their leaders would not have lied to their publics if their consciences had not been troubled.
Until the last year of the war, the United States clung to its policy of striking military targets only. Even with Germany at the point of collapse, and its defeat only a matter of months, the United States acceded to Churchill’s request to bomb non-military targets in Berlin, and contributed to the massacre in Dresden.
Afterwards, America needed no coaxing to launch its own raids of extermination on Japan. The cities picked for nuclear assault were those that had not been “spoiled” by previous raids -- thus the military could better judge how nuclear weapons performed.
It has been argued the United States and nuclear partner Great Britain dropped them as a warning to Soviet Russia, already seen as their post-war rival. In his book on George C. Marshall, “General of The Army,” historian Ed Cray wrote Truman and Secretary of State James Byrnes “saw in the bomb a tool to minimize Soviet involvement in the Far East. Once the bomb was used, Byrnes told his personal secretary, ‘Japan will surrender and Russia will not get in so much on the kill, (and thereby gain) a position to press for claims against China.’”
By the end of the war, more than 7-million Germans and 8-million Japanese had been bombed out of their homes and estimates of the German and Japanese dead have been put as high as 1-million in each country. Of these victims, perhaps 20 percent were children.
Apparently, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman were not deterred in their use of the nuclear weapon by the possibility such use might establish a precedent. They feared Russia might one day obtain it and refused to share its secrets with the Kremlin. Their concern was to win the war, irrespective of future consequences. They did not envision a time years later when an American President named George W. Bush would invade Iraq allegedly in search of nuclear weapons and warn other nations not to develop them at their peril. Or that Americans one day would harbor dark fears of a nuclear device being smuggled into one of their urban centers and exploded.
Today, in an age when law and order over much of the planet is disintegrating, our massacre of civilian populations in World War II provides a precedent for fanatics. Before the outbreak of World War II, the United States condemned the terror bombing of Spanish civilians by Hitler and Chinese civilians by Japan. By 1945, America was inflicting the same barbarity on the Axis on a grander scale. In short, as the United States gained the upper hand and became more powerful, it slid from the moral high ground at the outbreak of World War II to nuclear ground zero by the end of it. Americans rightly deplore the failure of the Japanese to apologize to China for its war crimes or to cite them in the historical record taught to Japanese schoolchildren. Yet America glosses over its own record of terror bombing. Our failure to recognize this fault has impaired our moral vision so that reckless interventions abroad can be colored to appear noble. To deny our terror bombing of German and Japanese civilians was a throwback to barbarian conduct times morally cripples our society and places us in danger of reaping the nuclear whirlwind we have sown.
(A version of this article first appeared in the July/August, 2005 issue of The Humanist magazine, published by the American Humanist Assn., of Washington, D.C. Sherwood Ross is an American reporter and playwright. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
© Sherwood Ross