Bombing of Civilians

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Bombing of Civilians. The practice of attacking civilians is as old as warfare itself. Shelling cities by naval or land artillery, for example, long has been commonplace; it continued in the modern‐day sieges of Leningrad and Berlin during World War II and of Sarajevo in the 1990s. Aerial bombardment of civilians—widely predicted even before it began, eagerly by pundits who saw it as a way to avert protracted wars—extended that practice. In the 1930s, Fascists in Spain, Italians in Ethiopia, and Japanese in China offered notable examples, ones condemned by American leaders. Imperial powers also bombed civilians in efforts to curb challenges to their rule. In World War I and at the start of World War II, Germany and Great Britain were primarily responsible for initiating deliberate bombing of cities. As embodied in agreements like the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, legal prohibitions of such practices were clear but unenforceable. The constraints instead were political (fear of condemnation), strategic (fear of retaliation), or operational (lack of resources or bases).

Although a latecomer to the practice, the United States had the history, resources, and attitudes to employ it with unmatched vigor. In operations against Indians, fellow Americans in the Civil War, and Filipino insurgents, earlier American forces often attacked noncombatants. Before and during World War II, the Army Air Corps's doctrine of precision bombing, and widespread media celebration of it, disguised the nation's ability and willingness to bomb enemy civilians, a practice that President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported vigorously, if mostly in private. Though hardly peculiar to Americans, notions of total war obliterated distinctions between enemy soldiers and noncombatants. With bombers like the B‐17 and the B‐29, the United States was technologically supreme in bombing cities and invulnerable to retaliation in kind. Most Americans understood Axis atrocities to provide moral sanction for such actions, which presumably would punish the enemy, forestall his further misdeeds, or hasten war's end. Racial fury against the Japanese further loosened restraints on American forces in the Pacific. Bad weather and technological limitations undercut efforts to strike more limited targets. Some army and navy leaders criticized the bombing that ensued but lacked the power or keen desire to stop it. With notable exceptions, Air Corps leaders, eager for the air force to win the war, worried only when bombing civilians threatened their public image.

As a result, American bombing of civilians escalated during World War II, although British forces attacked cities more zealously in Europe, largely unleashing the famous firestorms at Hamburg (1943) and Dresden (1945). The American contribution came in destroying some sixty Japanese cities, first by incendiary raids and then by two atomic attacks. Over 80,000 Japanese—most civilians—died in one great fire raid on Tokyo in March 1945, with similar death tolls in the August atomic attacks. To the end, official policy maintained the fiction that American forces sought only industrial and military targets: firebombing simply continued the “basic policy of … pin‐point bombing,” the Air Corps insisted; “the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base,” claimed President Harry S. Truman's public statement, as if no city were there at all. The majority of Americans accepted the bombing of civilians as an act of justifiable revenge or regrettable necessity, and bombing Japan's cities did hasten its surrender, though by how much historians disagree.

After World War II, U.S. ability to bomb civilians swelled, but the practice of doing so diminished. Nuclear weapons supremely suited that purpose, as American war plans made clear, but in part because Soviet forces presumably could reply in kind, deterring rather than waging nuclear war dominated American doctrine. In the Korean War, American forces again firebombed enemy cities, but in Vietnam, America's bombs struck civilians of its ally, South Vietnam, more often than North Vietnamese. Congress's decision in 1973 to bar further bombing of Cambodia was a reminder that in the United States, the primary legal restraint on attacking civilians was Congress's power of the purse (the House considered but set aside an article of impeachment against President Richard Nixon for his secret bombing of Cambodia). Technological improvements in the design and delivery of aerial ordinance also diminished attacks on civilians, though less so than American leaders often claimed. Above all, such attacks diminished because no new world war—with all the ferocity, unlimited stakes, and sense of necessity such a war entails—erupted. Perhaps one reason it did not was the chilling record of bombing civilians in earlier wars.
[See also Bombing, Ethics of; Bombs; Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bombings of; Korean War, U.S. Air Operations in the; Vietnam War, Air Operations in the; World War II, U.S. Air Operations in.]


Lee Kennett , A History of Strategic Bombing, 1982.
Ronald Schaffer , Wings of Judgment: American Bombing in World War II, 1985.
Michael S. Sherry , The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon, 1987.
Robert Jay Lifton and and Greg Mitchell , Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, 1995.
Stephen L. McFarland , America's Pursuit of Precision Bombing, 1910–1945, 1995.

Michael S. Sherry