Strategic Bombing in World War II

On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany began a war of conquest and expansion when it invaded Poland. Three days later Great Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany. World War II was under way and air power was a new and integral element of military strategy. The Nazi's air bombing raids early in the war shocked U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. As the death tolls rose, President Roosevelt strongly condemned Germany's deliberate bombing attacks on civilians.

"The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population...has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity.... I am therefore addressing this urgent appeal to every Government which may be engaged in hostilities publicly to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations."

-Franklin D. Roosevelt

Hitler paid no heed to Roosevelt's condemnation, however, and by the time the United States entered the war in December 1941 the Allies had rejected Roosevelt's plea as well. Hitler's barbarity terrified Allied citizens and leaders alike. Worried that the Axis powers might prevail, American and British military strategists developed more accurate and more deadly bombing tactics, seeking to cripple both war industries and urban centers, forcing the Nazis to concentrate on defending their homeland.

In February 1942, the British Bomber Command gained approval from Churchill to target Germany's industrial cities and their civilian populations. The policy of dropping bombs on large, typically heavily populated areas rather than narrowly defined targets became known as "strategic bombing." The practice expanded and was utilized by both sides as the war years went on.

While Churchill publicly referred to the policy of "de-housing" German workers, neither he nor Roosevelt told their peoples about the extent or the intent of the Allied bombing of German population centers. The war objective remained, as President Roosevelt stated, "a policy of fighting hard on all fronts and ending the war as quickly as we can on the uncompromising terms of unconditional surrender."

By early 1945, Adolf Hitler's ambitions had been smashed. Allied forces were marching into Germany from the west while the Soviet army was pushing back the Nazis in the east. Nonetheless, to ensure Germany's unconditional surrender and to assist the Soviet advance in the east, the Allies staged one of the largest raids of the war against the German city of Dresden, involving nearly 2,800 aircraft. The firestorm that resulted was visible for two hundred miles. Approximately one hundred thousand Germans, mostly civilians, were killed-the largest loss of life in a single day up to that point of the 20th century. Three months later, on May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally after U.S. and Soviet forces met in central Germany.

The War in the Pacific

In East Asia, the world war had begun with the Japanese invasion of China in August 1937. In the fall of 1937, Japan staged bombing raids against the Chinese commercial center of Shanghai. A few weeks later, the Japanese captured Nanjing, the Chinese capital. As hundreds of foreign residents watched, Japanese troops took part in a rampage of murder, rape, and looting against the civilian population. More than two hundred thousand Chinese were killed and the city was burned to the ground. Japan, like Germany, was on a quest of territorial expansion.

American newspapers reported widely on Japanese efforts to terrorize the city's residents and printed photos of orphaned children and maimed civilians. The American press labeled the atrocity the "Rape of Nanking." Though the brutality horrified the American public, a determination to remain neutral kept America out of the war. This changed on December 7, 1941 when Japan staged a surprise attack on the U.S. navel base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States immediately declared war on Japan, thereby joining World War II.

Events during the next few months of the war deeply hardened American attitudes toward the Japanese. In the Philippines, American soldiers who surrendered were treated mercilessly by their Japanese captors. More than seven thousand American and other Allied prisoners of war died during what came to be known as the "Bataan Death March." In the first thirty-one months after Pearl Harbor, 106,000 Americans either died or were severely wounded in the Pacific war. From July 1944 to July 1945, U.S. casualties rose beyond 185,000. As was feared with the war in Europe, many worried that fierce Japanese tactics might overwhelm American efforts.

By 1944, despite growing death tolls, the United States was working hard to dismantle Japan's island empire in the Pacific. After capturing the islands of Guam, Saipan, and Tinian, the United States built bases for long-range bombers and began an intense air campaign against Japanese cities. As was the case in the air war against Germany, military planners experimented with different bombing tactics in order to maximize the damage inflicted on Japan and force a surrender.

In March 1945, an air raid on Tokyo, Japan's capital, demonstrated the power of the U.S. bombing campaign. The targets were the industrial districts of Tokyo, where factories were often flanked by working-class neighborhoods. Since the labor and morale of Tokyo's workers were viewed as central to Japanese resistance, U.S. officials believed that the "necessity of war" concept justified their decision to strike against Japanese citizens.

More than three hundred B-29 superfortress bombers, each carrying two tons of incendiaries packed in 100-pound and 6-pound gelled gasoline (napalm) bombs, descended on Tokyo. At least fifteen square miles of the city were consumed in the resulting firestorm. A column of superheated air rose into the sky, generating turbulence so strong that it flipped over U.S. bombers flying more than one mile above Tokyo. In the first six hours of the firestorm, more than one hundred thousand Japanese civilians died.

"I think the issue is: in order to win a war should you kill 100,000 people in one night, by firebombing or any other way?"

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War

U.S. General Curtis E. LeMay viewed the attack on Tokyo as a major success. His answer to McNamara's question would clearly be "yes." Before the month was over, LeMay ordered the firebombing of three more Japanese cities. The assaults came to a temporary halt only when the supply of bombs was exhausted. More would follow.

In the spring of 1945, most U.S. strategists assumed that the United States would have to stage a ground troop invasion of Japan's home islands to force the unconditional surrender of their enemy. Japanese resistance was expected to be ferocious. Island battles in the Pacific in 1944 and 1945 gave American military officials an idea of what awaited their troops.

To avoid sending troops to the beaches of Japan, President Truman approved a directive authorizing the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Japanese cities. An ultimatum was issued demanding that the Japanese government surrender unconditionally, though no mention was made of the nuclear bomb or description of the awaiting destruction. When the Japanese did not surrender, President Truman ordered the use of nuclear bombs on the cities of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. These instances marked the first time that nuclear weapons were used in the history of warfare. The consequences were massive. More than 170,000 Japanese died in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or within a few months. More would die in later years as a result of the bombings.

Moreover, the stage was set for the half century long confrontation between two nuclear powers, the U.S. and the USSR, in what is called the Cold War. This first introduction of nuclear weapons significantly changed the course of history.

"I don't fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. The U.S.-Japanese War was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history-kamikaze pilots, suicide, unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race prior to that time-and today-has not really grappled with what are, I'll call it, "the rules of war." Was there a rule then that said you shouldn't bomb, shouldn't kill, shouldn't burn to death 100,000 civilians in one night?"

-Robert McNamara, The Fog of War

This background reading is adapted from readings in Ending the War Against Japan: Science Morality and the Atomic Bomb Copyright, Choices for the 21 st Century Education Program