Episode 108 – Rain of Ruin, Part 1

In our first of six episodes on the atomic bombs, we start to answer an important question; where did the idea for the bomb come from? Where did people get the idea that a sufficiently large bomb would enable them to win wars from the air?

Listen to the episode here.

Sources

Biddle, Tami Davis. Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas About Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945.

Douhet, Giulio. Command of the Air.

Dyer, Gwynne. War: The Lethal Custom.

Pape, Robert A. Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War.

Ross, Stewart Halsey. Strategic Bombing in World War II; The Myths and the Facts.

Tanaka, Yuki and Marilyn Young, Ed. Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History.

Werrell, Kenneth P. Death from the Heavens: A History of Strategic Bombing.

A reproduction of the Einstein-Szilard Letter

Images

Russian illustration explaining the use of balloon bombs, c. 1880. The first time such bombs were used was in 1849 against the city of Venice, to little effect.
Russian illustration explaining the use of balloon bombs, c. 1880. The first time such bombs were used was in 1849 against the city of Venice, to little effect.
Searchlights light up London during a zeppelin raid. The caption for the image gives you some idea of the propaganda value these raids had for the Allies.
Searchlights light up London during a zeppelin raid. The caption for the image gives you some idea of the propaganda value these raids had for the Allies.
Plaques like this one helped drive home the idea that anybody who would resort to aerial bombing was a ruthless monster. The solution to said monsters, however, was not to attempt to be better than them but to give them a taste of their own medicine.
Plaques like this one helped drive home the idea that anybody who would resort to aerial bombing was a ruthless monster. The solution to said monsters, however, was not to attempt to be better than them but to give them a taste of their own medicine.
Damage from a German Zeppelin raid against London, c. 1917.
Damage from a German Zeppelin raid against London, c. 1917.
Giulio Douhet, one of the most vocal postwar proponents of bombing. Douhet's ideas inspired other miltary leaders abroad, but his home nation of Italy lacked the resources to make good on his ideas.
Giulio Douhet, one of the most vocal postwar proponents of bombing. Douhet’s ideas inspired other miltary leaders abroad, but his home nation of Italy lacked the resources to make good on his ideas.
General William "Billy" Mitchell, one of the earliest proponents of using bombing to quickly win wars. Mitchell's time in the US Army Air Force was marked with controversy, but he did succeed in getting others in the officer corps to accept his ideas, laying the groundwork for future bombing campaigns.
General William “Billy” Mitchell, one of the earliest proponents of using bombing to quickly win wars. Mitchell’s time in the US Army Air Force was marked with controversy, but he did succeed in getting others in the officer corps to accept his ideas, laying the groundwork for future bombing campaigns.
The US 8th Airforce attacks Marienburg, Germany in 1943. Despite interwar protests against the inhumanity of bombing enemy nations, belligerents in World War II rapidly abandoned their scruples. After all, it's better than doing nothing, right?
The US 8th Airforce attacks Marienburg, Germany in 1943. Despite interwar protests against the inhumanity of bombing enemy nations, belligerents in World War II rapidly abandoned their scruples. After all, it’s better than doing nothing, right?
A B-29 releases incendiary bombs on Yokohama in May 1945. (U.S. Air Force photo)
A B-29 releases incendiary bombs on Yokohama in May 1945. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard prepare the Einstein-Szilard letter to President Roosevelt, warning of the dangers of the German atomic program.
Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard prepare the Einstein-Szilard letter to President Roosevelt, warning of the dangers of the German atomic program.
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3 thoughts on “Episode 108 – Rain of Ruin, Part 1

  1. Gwen Moscoe

    I’m going to be very interested to hear what you have to share with us on this topic, and I promise to keep an open mind and, like you, refrain from judgments but rather approach the questions from the standpoint of facts. That said, as someone whose grandfather was set to support wave one of Operation Olympic before her father was conceived, it hits close to home. I’ve also served in the uniform of both the US Army and US Navy at different times of my life, so I tend to see things from a military perspective. On the other hand, I adore Japan and the topic of the strategic bombings has always broken my heart. I’ve even written about Operation Meetinghouse from the POV of a Japanese child in a work of fiction I wrote some time back.

    So, three things that went through my mind as you set the stage for the topic and which i want to have out there as you engage these topics in more detail.

    1. You explained the tenuous basis of the argument that strategic bombing can break the will of a people without boots on the ground. In general, I absolutely agree with you on the basis of the facts you described. In Japan’s case, though, I believe there were other dynamics at play. I learned about this through my spouse in some lovely discussions we shared with her Asian Studies instructor at Washington State University at the time, Noriko Kawamura. Dr Kawamura is still at WSU according to the interwebs. Dr Kawamura is Japanese by birth and her parents lived in the farming area east of Mt Fuji during the war. She shared stories from her family of seeing the B-29’s circling the mountain as the formed up before their raid (it was a perfect landmark) during the summer of 1945 and realizing the discrepancy between the official government news and what was really happening. The many inhabitants of the rural Kanto were impacted by this sight even if they weren’t in the cities to see the bombings. The evidence of the lies being told them flew over their heads several times a week. The strategic bombing may not have broken the will of the Japanese people by itself, but the willingness of the Japanese people to accept the unique occupation that followed may have flowed from the strategic effort. Given the occupation of Japan is unique in history, it is impossible to ascribe any one factor to how it played out, but I would propose that one must at least acknowledge that things could have been very different had Japan surrendered under other circumstances.

    2. If Japan had surrendered solely due to the declaration of war from Russia and not due to strategic bombing and/or the nuclear bombs, something I could strongly argue would not have been so easy a thing to happen, it would also have been highly likely that Japan would have been split into north and south zones much like Korea…or in Germany’s case east-west. Again, a very different world and a very different modern Japan.

    3. I have seen explanations based on the Air Force survey after the war that Japan suffered a 50% decrease in production due to the firebombing of March 1945. It got worse from there. I’ve read that Japanese industry was highly decentralized at the time and that the loss of neighborhoods as well as the displacement of workers gutted Japanese productivity, I also realize the blockade was having an enormous effect too. I hope you will engage both factors in your discussion of the military effects of the strategic bombings.

    4. I’ve also read that the impact of the bombing on transportation was severe, with the resulting impact on military preparations and production. First hand accounts as described by Gwen Terasaki allude to this. While Ms Terasaki’s book has an agenda, for sure, I believe the descriptions of travel to her mountain hideout and back should be taken as accurate given it also validates what was in the US Air Force report.

    So anyway, I hope you continue to be clear of the evidence on all sides of this topic. Almost everyone sees this as a tragedy. I certainly do. But I hope you will make clear the very different world we might live in had things played out differently. A world where Japan could have been split like Korea. A world where the occupation might have needed to be much more firmly imposed and therefore less accepted and embraced…and ultimately less Japanese in what resulted. A world where an invasion might have actually been necessary, with the resulting far greater loss of life on both sides. In the end, unlike Britain, Japan DID yield without an invasion. Unconditionally and almost universally peacefully once the Emperor spoke. Comparisons between Britain (which didn’t yield) or Germany (which yielded in WWII only to an invasion from two sides) and Japan ultimately must diverge on this single undeniable fact.

    1. Gwen,
      Thank you for the detailed reply — I appreciate you taking the time!

      So, I’ll do my best to deal with these points in the order you raised them.
      1) The more I think about it the more I think that the Tokyo raid in particular and strategic bombing in general deserve their own episode. Like the bomb, there are so many ways you can argue the point back and forth based on the shock value of an attack on the home islands (as your teacher noted) versus the potential recruiting benefits for the Japanese — in particular, if you take a look at the translated diaries of some of the kamikaze pilots (provided in English in Emiko Tierney’s Kamikaze Diaries) you’ll note many of them listed American attacks on civilians as part of the reason they volunteered. I do think you’re right that making it clear how bad the war was going for Japan had substantial strategic value. Also, it’s certainly very easy for us to criticize ethics from the safety of seventy years of remove, but I for one imagine I’d feel differently were I slated to land on Kyushu in November, 1945.

      2) Definitely an accurate point; the only “Soviets over bomb” theory I give serious credance to is that of Tsuyoshi Hasegawa specifically because he paints the emperor as capitulating immediately to avoid exactly that. Which isn’t to say I buy into it totally — simply that I think Hasegawa makes an excellent point that the Japanese rulership would have been terrified of exactly what you describe.

      3) It’s been a LONG time since I read through the Strategic Bombing Survey. I don’t know how strictly accurate the data contained within is, but I can’t imagine it’s too far off. It’s worth noting that the survey has the potential for serious bias, since it was compiled by people with a strong incentive to defend the utility of bombing — campaigning as they were for an independent air force separated from the US Army.

      4) I vaguely recall the SBS stating that destroying transport infrastructure was one of the key goals of American bombing in Japan as part of the strategy of industrial “bottlenecking”, but again, it’s been a long time.

      I will certainly do my best to present a balanced approach; to spoil things a bit for you, the end conclusion is going to be that from my perspective it’s impossible to answer the question of “did it work” definitively. I think in this we’re strongly in agreement; the bomb was a tragedy, but barring almost superhuman knowledge and foresight I don’t see how it could not have been dropped. Like most weapons, once you have it the temptation to use it will always exist, and wars in particular are not known for engendering restraint.

      I also hope to make it clear on the end that this podcast is not at all a definitive look at the evidence, simply an overview — even with 6 episodes and almost 3 hours (by my estimate), I’ve still had to cut a tremendous amount of material. I plan to include a starting bibliography of places to look for more information, and I encourage everybody (especially someone with as much interest in the topic as you) to take a look at those books and, as always, use your own judgment. That is, in the end, what it’s all about — helping people reason about history for themselves, not telling them what to think!

  2. Gwen Moscoe

    Sounds perfect, Isaac. As always, I appreciate so much learning from you things I never knew given my exposure to Japanese history has been seriously incomplete, focused as it is on things military or things anime/manga. I have precious little time to read for fun, and the ability to learn during my 30 minute walk each way to/from work has been greatly appreciated. And because of you, I am learning about China as well since this podcast has grown into subscriptions for others.

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