Notes on the Logic of Escalation in 1945

Of all the branches of inquiry concerned with the human realm, history is closest to the physics of gravitation. Of course, the history of the science itself is of great interest. Not only was Einstein himself the statesmen of modern science par excellence, one who gained international acclaim just as Europe descended into barbarism; the science itself came to weigh heavily on the midcentury as it transformed the global balance of power beyond recognition. Or, so it seemed. Hiroshima, if not Trinity, has been seen ever since as a caesura in history, cleanly splitting away the prenuclear era from the nuclear age. The advent of nuclear weapons, we are told, transformed the affairs of great nations. It is, of course, not lost on historians that the job of caesuras is to hide continuities. But in what follows we will suggest a more radical reconsideration of time in history that goes beyond critiques of lazy periodization.

The geometry of Newtonian physics is simple. The time dimension is independent of and orthogonal to regular three-dimensional Euclidean space. It is exterior to this space. That is to say, the world clock sits outside space so to speak and ticks away in august contempt at the goings-on within. There is nothing any observer can do to slow the march of time. Relativity jettisons this Cartesian framework. Time is no longer independent of and orthogonal to three-dimensional space. Rather, the fabric of the physical world in which particles and observers wander is posited as a fundamentally four-dimensional object called spacetime. There is no world clock. Instead, each observer carries their own clock that ticks at a different rate from that of other observers—not in a free-for-all but depending mathematically on the observers’ relative velocities. Time-dilation occurs every time an observer encounters another who is undergoing relative acceleration. Curvature does the same job in general relativity that acceleration performs in special relativity. In both, each observer performs their own 3+1 decomposition of spacetime in accordance with their own reference frame. The difference is that whereas the spacetime of special relativity is flat, that of general relativity is curved. And it is precisely the curvature of spacetime that us mortals call gravitation.

So there is time-dilation for historical actors in a straightforward physical sense. But there is also time dilation in a metaphorical sense. To wit, the world clock ticks faster in some periods than others. That is, the diachronic logic of history unfolds faster in certain periods so that a whole decade or century’s worth of goings-on can get compressed into a single year. For instance, the shape of the second half of the last century was determined to a great extent over the winter of 1942-1943 when the Soviet-German struggle reached a military decision. Had a different decision been reached that winter the world would’ve looked rather different from there on. Similarly, the architecture of global power was largely sorted out and the geometry of the Cold War more or less fixed in 1943-1945 when the great powers divvied up the world among themselves, as Kolko documented in The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943-1945. This meant that the specific configurations of perceptions, agendas, power and dependence during the latter half of the hegemonic struggle conditioned the path-dependent evolution of the world system to a far greater degree than other periods of similar length. Similar observations apply to the decisions of 1917-1918, the world economy in 1931, deterrence in 1938, the resolution of the German question in 1962, volatility pricing in 1987, the unraveling of the Soviet empire in 1989, the Syrian war in 2012, the Iraqi war in 2006, and so on and so forth.

Historians’ great sleight of hand has been of course to split the twentieth century into prewar, interwar and postwar periods, as if history stopped unfolding in 1939 and started up again in 1945. The principal effect of this parlor trick is to bracket the war years as an exceptional period and thereby repress their memory. It thus allows contemporary visionaries, both liberal-capitalist and social democratic, to symbolically inscribe their vision of world order into 1945. So we have proponents of the Global New Deal appeal directly to the master signifier of 1945 with just as much self-assurance as the intellectuals attending to the plutocrats at Davos. Adam Tooze pointed to the absurdities of the enterprise on the pages of the London Review of Books that we need not reiterate here. Instead, we need to ask what sort of story of 1945 emerges if we pay attention to the actual goings-on in that year.


After months of twiddling his thumbs in Kharagpur, where he presided over the hare-brained scheme of bombing Japan from forward bases in China, Curtis LeMay was finally ordered to Guam around New Year’s Eve. It had taken the US navy years to fight its way back to Guam. All this time LeMay had been waiting to unleash the Twentieth air force on the Japanese home islands. Now he was finally within striking distance.

The strategy for strategic air war had presumably been decided by the Joint and Combined Chiefs. Strategic air war had failed to subdue Germany for years. And the air force was no longer loudly selling the gospel of victory through air power. Not that it had abandoned the doctrine. The air force was still committed to the vision of a decision from the air. It was just that no one took it seriously any more. Too much had been promised and too little delivered for too long. The dark prophecies of a knockout blow from the air that had so worried observers during the interwar years had failed to materialize. No one now expected a great nation to capitulate on account of the terrors of aerial bombardment. The overall war plan in the Pacific was instead to use the air weapon to soften-up the Japanese home islands in preparation for an amphibious invasion while the navy wrapped up the island hopping campaign. This was then the last chance to make the case for an independent air force. If a decision could yet be reached from the air against Japan, the future of the air force would be assured. Could strategic air war secure surrender?

Curtis LeMay was convinced that he could bomb the Japanese into submission. His formula for victory was simple: If you killed enough of them, they will yield. Strategists of air war back in Washington had worked out the doctrine of precision bombing. Particularly at the beginning of the air war against Germany, the Americans conducted daylight sorties against industrial and infrastructure targets while the British perfected indiscriminate area bombing in the dark. Over time, British air strikes became relatively more precise as that of the Americans became more indiscriminate. By the time the strategic air war against Japan got underway, the American air force was targeting densely populated areas in German cities with abandon, relying on “blind bombing” by radar for three-fourths of their missions. Curtis LeMay was on the other end of this learning curve.

It was the civilians at the Committee of Operations Analysts who had been pressing for ‘area incendiary attacks’ against Japanese cities for months. A report dated 4 September 1944 titled “Economic Effects of Successful Area Attacks on Six Japanese Cities” demanded ‘incendiary attacks on congested urban areas’ that were expected to cause ‘great economic loss, measured in man months of industrial labor’. It recommended scheduling the ‘planned destruction of all six cities within a period of a few weeks’.

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The civilian scientists expected area incendiary attacks to create extremely destructive firestorms like the one that obtained in Hamburg and Dresden. That’s what they wanted to see in the Japanese campaign.

Norstad arrived at the new headquarters in Guam on 6 January 1945, a day before LeMay. His instructions were to relay a new emphasis on incendiary attacks. The strategic bombing of Japanese cities however began with precision targets. It got off to a rocky start. The weather played havoc with scheduling the sorties. The results of the initial campaign in January were unimpressive. Washington again pressed for incendiary attacks. Norstad suggested targeting the most densely settled area of Kobe. LeMay promptly delivered on February 3. The Kobe fire raid was demonstrably more successful than earlier tests. But at the end of the month the results were not much more impressive than those of January. LeMay ‘woke up’ to the fact that he ‘hadn’t gotten anything much done’. With an eye on the clock, Washington demanded maximum effort.

Around this time LeMay got his first delivery of napalm. But merely napalm wasn’t enough to trigger the conflagration long sought by Washington. Our man needed ‘several radical methods’ to raze Tokyo. On March 9, he ordered 300 B-29 bombers to conduct a massive area incendiary attack on Tokyo under the cover of darkness. The B-29s were to carry an all-incendiary payload and fly at low altitudes. First, advanced bombers carved out an “X” of flames across one of the most densely packed districts. Subsequent sorties fed and broadened the fire for three hours, pouring gasoline and chemicals into the inferno. Pillars of fire raced across the district, generating tremendous winds and pushing temperatures above a thousand degrees Celsius. The great fire evolved and mutated, gaining new fury from the oxygen and combustibles it seized. The carnage lasted all night. Sixteen square miles of eastern Tokyo was completely burned out. Piles of bodies ‘looking like misshapen lumps of charcoal’ lay strewn about. A ‘sickeningly sweet odor’ hung over the devastated moonscape. More than a hundred thousand people were killed in the great firebombing of Tokyo.

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Firebombing of Tokyo, 9 March 1945.

‘Emboldened by his success,’ Sherry notes, ‘LeMay immediately set out to repeat it’. Nagoya was firebombed the very next day, followed in rapid succession by Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya again. All the ingredients of the Great Firebombing of Tokyo could not be reassembled every time. But the results were impressive. ‘LeMay’s March triumphs excited expectations for a knockout blow, delivered by bombers before invading troops need storm ashore’. As he informed Norstad, this was the opportunity for ‘proving the power of the strategic air arm’. Here then was the logic of escalation in 1945.

Dozens of Japanese cities would be razed to the ground over the next few months. But the champions of strategic air war, both airmen and civilian operations analysts, never spelled out how victory could be achieved from the air. They saw air war ‘less as a strategic process aimed at victory and more as a technical process in which the assembly and refinement of means became paramount’. Sherry was in fact being too kind when he wrote that ‘perfecting the technique of war became an end to itself’. For the metric of success in the strategic air war was not even targets destroyed but payloads delivered.

Hiroshima did not come out of the blue. With or without the atomic bomb, the American way of war had already converged on a strategy of killing cities. The atomic bombings were later credited with securing Japanese surrender and thereby saving the lives of American soldiers who would’ve died in a Japanese Normandy. As Hasegawa showed by interrogating the archives in Tokyo, Moscow, and Washington, this was all baloney. What kept the Japanese from capitulation was the unilateral American demand of unconditional surrender. And in the event, it was Zhukov’s destruction of the Kwantung army, rather than the destruction of Japanese cities, that undermined the war faction in Japan and thereby precipitated surrender.

The real counterfactual is not what would’ve happened without the use of the bomb. The real counterfactual is what would’ve happened had the Anglo-Saxon powers, as they briefly contemplated early in 1942, raised two hundred divisions instead of going all-in on strategic bombing in the grip of ‘technological fanaticism’. Would Germany have not been conquered in 1942-1943 with a combined Allied offensive on two fronts? How many million lives would that have saved? in Russia alone? Would dozens of cities not have survived in Germany and Japan with little effect on the outcome of the war? Were not the war crimes of 1945 entirely unnecessary? May we not in fact speak of Anglo-Saxon cowardice?

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