Historian’s Corner: The Firebombing of Japan

Residential Area in Tokyo Bombed on March 9-10, 1945
Image source: 米軍撮影, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Victor Davis Hanson // Private Papers

Part One: The Question 

On the evening of March 9th, 1945 over 334 B-29 heavy bombers came in low over Tokyo, Japan, on the orders of Gen. Curtis LeMay. They were carrying over 2,000 tons of napalm. In short order, waves of the huge bombers burned out perhaps 15 square miles of the central core of Tokyo. 

The resulting 80,000-120,000 deaths may have constituted the greatest loss of human life in a single day of war. It certainly was the deadliest air raid in history and exceeded the death toll of Hiroshima. 

In the last few years, a number of popular accounts have damned all the fire raids of World War II, especially the British and American raids (both against Dresden and Hamburg and the Japanese cities), as barbaric, inhuman, pointless and counterproductive. They were certainly lethal and often indiscriminate in their targeting. See the highly contentious journalistic account, Human Smoke, of Nicholson Baker (author of the novel Checkpoint in which characters talk incessantly about the assassination of George W. Bush), Sinclair McKay’s The Fire and the Darkness: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945, and Malcom Gladwell’s recent video-book production (The Bomber Mafia).

I wrote about some of the issues in The Second World Wars, and earlier Ripples of Battle (concerning the Okinawa campaign). The arguments pro and con are many but especially hinge on the value of hindsight, the information known at the time to the American generals, and the status of the war in March-June 1945 in the Pacific—and guesses on what it would be like in late 1945 and 1946. 

Almost all recent books criticize the firebombing and do so from a variety of angles:

1) The sheer loss of life was unnecessary;

2) Most of the dead were innocent civilians;

3) The area bombing was contrary to a democracy’s pretense of moral superiority;

4) The bombing was one-sided, asymmetrical, and disproportionate and, in our contemporary terms, “unfair”;

5) There were no militarily significant targets that justified such loss of life;

6) The war was ending soon anyway: in hatred and spite, we obliterated a dying war machine’s home front;

Rather than address these arguments directly in this session, I will list the reasons in Part Two for the raid, and, in Part Three, why later historians have sometimes misunderstood the decision of Curtis LeMay to unleash the B-29s at low level with napalm.

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