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Toward Hiroshima—And Beyond


ISSUE:  Summer 1988
The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon. By Michael S. Sherry. Yale. $29.95.

In addition to protest and hyperbolic prophecy, the 40th anniversay of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki three years ago brought forth renewed and unresolvable speculations about the number of American and Japanese lives saved by the avoidance of further conventional firestorms from the air, naval bombardment, and invasion of the Japanese homeland. Michael Sherry’s excellent study of American air power from early flight through the advent of the nuclear age does not finally settle the issue, but it establishes in lucid detail that the atomic bomb in both its nature and its deployment did not, at the moment of its first use, seem an entirely unconventional aerial weapon. At the same time, belief that the bomb (in Churchill’s words) would offer “a merciful abridgment of the slaughter in the East” and avert “a vast, indefinite butchery” simply echoed exaggerated claims for the efficacy of air power that had been common since the beginning of the century. Uncertain that the initial attacks would produce surrender—even allowing for the Soviet Union’s late entry into the Pacific war—the United States was prepared to continue the aerial war and to land ground forces. Hence the paradox of the first nuclear weapons: like bombing in its other, increasingly brutal forms, Sherry argues, the atomic bomb “triumphed not as a weapon of shock that obviated a protracted struggle, but only as a climax to it.”

Air power strategy from the outset offered unrealistic promises of quick, decisive blows that would so demoralize or incapacitate the enemy as to render ground combat obsolete. More Utopian formulations, some of them adumbrating later strategic nuclear arguments, predicted that terror of bombing would bring about global peace. On the other hand, as the early enthusiast of air strategy, Giulio Douhet, admitted in The Command of the Air (1921), bombing produced the risk of a more horrifying attrition warfare and the temptation to seek vengeance in place of or alongside victory. Indeed, in his science fantasy The War in the Air (1908), which looked forward to aspects of the Pacific war with uncanny prophecy, H.G. Wells had already imagined a world conflagration in which air power produced not quick capitulation but a hellish descent into “universal guerrilla war.”

Theory and fiction aside, the practical exercise of air power required several decades to achieve even measured success. In World War I the exchange of attacks between England and Germany democratized suffering but made no decisive contribution to strategy except to inflame interest in building more adequate strategic forces for the future. During the 1930’s proponents of air power in the United States gained less from observing the inconclusive results of foreign aerial bombardment in Ethiopia, Spain, and China than from their own development of the doctrine of precision bombing, which held that the destruction of an enemy’s key economic and technological components would crush his will to fight. In Sherry’s view, the doctrine grew from a combination of factors—the Air Corps’ need to justify professional independence, America’s apparent immunity to air attack, the politics of domestic antimilitarism, and the desire for a more humane form of warfare. However sound in theory, precision bombing nonetheless required for its success a delicate balance of such factors as defense and evasion, weather, wise target selection, and bombing accuracy, a balance that was to be achieved only sporadically in World War II. Over the course of the war, as a result, Americans came to view bombing not as a means of rapid intimidation or economic strangulation but as a means of annihilating enemy homelands. Just that application of strategic bombardment against “undefended” cities which the Hague Conference of 1907 intended to outlaw had become the essence of modern air strategy.

Sherry gives a good account of the Allied application of air power to German targets, noting especially how the doctrine of precision gave way in practice to night area attacks by radar, as in the great incendiaiy raids on Hamburg and Dresden that in the first instance targeted laborers themselves as an element of the state economic structure and in the second targeted population as such. But his primary focus, for obvious reasons, is on Japan, where the American doctrine of air power received its fullest test. The European and Pacific theaters were not unrelated. In addition to the obvious problems of best allocating resources against the separate Axis powers or of borrowing from Bomber Command models for incendiary raids against the Japanese, United States air strategy itself effectively yoked Europe and the Pacific before the war even began.

On the one hand was the longstanding strain in relations between Japan and the United States and on the other the example of Munich. Conflict across the Pacific, dating from at least the Russo-Japanese war and made critical by Japan’s aggression in China, led to immigration controversy, racist propaganda on both sides, periodic war scares, and the Washington Conference of 1921 establishing ratios of naval tonnage. As Sherry notes, airman Billy Mitchell’s celebrated, if misleading, demonstration that same year that air power could sink battleships played a part in American willingness to limit its own naval power. More to the point were Mitchell’s arguments that bombers could deter a Japanese attack on the Philippines and, if necessary, be launched in a strategic raid on the largely paper and wood structures of Japan’s crowded cities, an idea that would prove central to the rise of later incendiary attacks. Because of a combination of factors—the collapse of the Philippines (especially MacArthur’s failure to protect the squadrons of B-17’s recently based there as part of the grand strategy), the inability to make bombing runs out of either China or Russia, and Japan’s initial devastating victories in Southeast Asia—strategic (as opposed to tactical) air power, apart from the early Doolittle raid on Tokyo, appeared late in the Pacific war relative to the important place Sherry shows that it played in strategic planning.

Eager to avoid any appeasement of either Germany or Japan and willing to disguise intimidating offense as national protection, Roosevelt ordered a rapid air force buildup in 1939—40. As Sherry demonstrates, he thereby took “a leaf from Hitler’s notebook” in that the Fuehrer’s Luftpolitik— his illusory threat of air power in the Munich crisis—was classic Clausewitzian doctrine yoked now to air strategy. As Captain Laurence S. Kuter wrote at the time, “Germany enforced her will upon England and France at Munich . . . without the intermediate stage of death and destruction.” Roosevelt’s concept of deterrence, shared by Secretary of War Stimson and Chief of Staff Marshall in sometimes more grand forms, sought not aggressive conquest but the protection of Allied interests throughout the Pacific. By the time air power could be effectively applied, however, much more was at stake and the technology of destruction greater—but, in Sherry’s view, strategic doctrine was no clearer.

The fundamental problem was that faith in air power, throughout its short history, had never generated strategy capable of translating defeat into surrender, a fatal flaw that reached nearly absurd proportions by 1945 as General Curtis LeMay, now employing the superior B-29s, contemplated running out of suitable urban targets for firebombing without having effected Japan’s surrender. Even so, Sherry’s claim that LeMay brought America “the pleasure of revenge in the guise of military necessity” is too strong. He rightly argues that America’s immunity to attack and its comparative lack of territorial ambitions allowed air strategy to develop peculiar characteristics of bureaucratic rationalization, command distance and moral detachment, and fascination with the mastery of technique. But his lack of adequate comparison to the rise of other national air powers makes Sherry’s belief in this form of American exceptionalism hard to prove, even though the case is clear that the size and dispersal of the American machinery of war underlined two temptations latent in aerial bombing itself—to follow technology wherever it led and to operate the most destructive weapons as though by remote control.

In this respect, The Rise of American Air Power is as much about the psychological effect on the bombers as on the bombed. “As lavish with machines as the enemy was with men,” Sherry remarks, “Americans appeared to themselves to practice restraint, to be immune from the passion to destroy that characterized their enemies and from the urge to self-destruction as well.” However, because Sherry generally neglects the role of naval and ground forces—and gives entirely inadequate mention to enemy aims, means, and war psychology—it is difficult to credit his claim that the air war was carried out by “fanatics,” by which he means men governed primarily by megalomania and cold rationality. It is harder yet, absent a sufficient moral context for the war from both the Axis and the American points of view, to accept his designation of American bombing, “rich with the emptiness of strategic reasoning about how to win the war and of the desire even to formulate it,” as “evil.”

These forceful opinions to the side, Sherry’s book is not in the least tendentious. The portraits of key figures such as Henry Arnold and LeMay are finely rendered, as are his analyses of the cultural aspects of air power. His extraordinarily effective interplay of sociological and psychological inquiry amidst discussions of military practice dictates no single interpretation, and his acount of both the firebombing and atomic attack on Japan precisely lays out the confusing web of issues that bore on the final resort to what amounted to air terror in conjunction with precision strikes, conventional combat, and intricate diplomatic maneuvers to extract unconditional surrender. Air strategy—or the lack of it—was critical to all surrounding decisions. As Sherry convincingly demonstrates, moreover, the atomic bomb, like preceding air power innovations, had its own technological and bureaucratic momentum. Relatively little thought was given to not using it; once it was used and appeared to achieve its strategic potential, it was embraced as simultaneously awful and necessary.

Awful, necessary, and yet, in Sherry’s view, inadequately justified and ultimately immoral, a product of fear and fantasy that has condemned us to endless strategies of terror. But his failure to include consideration of enemy capability and the higher level of theory at which air strategy merges with politics makes his brief antinuclear epilogue disappointing. Neither the role of conventional bombing since 1945 (as in the fruitless doctrine of “graduated response” in Vietnam, an example of Sherry’s thesis of inevitable escalation that continually fell prey to politics) nor the manifold effects on strategy of global nuclear armament in the space age are examined. Massive conflict, one might contend, has been averted by just that nuclear strategy that Sherry chooses to characterize as a “sin.” Still, Sherry’s history is rich and brilliantly detailed in its combination of military, political, and social concerns. No account of contemporary strategy in the age of Armageddon can afford to ignore this provocative study of the rise to dominance of air power in America.

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