Week of the Bomb: Monday

With the anniversary of the Trinity Test just passed, and the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this week, I realize the atomic bomb has been following me for years. The first book of poetry I ever owned was the anthology Atomic Ghosts, which featured dozens of poets responding to the nuclear age; and after I first moved away from home to a small apartment in Macon, Georgia (to research To the House of the Sun) one of the first things I found at their library was Jon Else’s documentary, The Day After Trinity, which I still watch it at least once a year.

I’ve tried a few times to write poems on the subject, and so far only one has reached the world. But along the way I’ve collected a small library on Robert Oppenheimer and his gang, and the following quotations come from four books that anyone with any interest in the subject should read: The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes; Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, by Richard Rhodes; American Prometheus: The Triumph & Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin; J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds, by Peter Goodchild.

I won’t pretend to judge anyone here, since it always seems much better to understand war, rather than to just be for it or against it. Humanity being what it is, once the discoveries that led to the atomic bomb were made, we simply couldn’t keep ourselves from making it. I don’t say this in praise of human beings, but I do say it realistically: if it hadn’t been used in 1945, it would have at some point after; this is less a dumb chest-bumping cry than it is a sad resignation that this is the best we can do. There is no room for the childish proclamation of one newspaper at the time that never should the “science-explorer … be denied anything needful for their adventures.”[1]

And there is no easy characterization here or anywhere, and today’s post bears this out. Before the atomic bomb was used, we had to convince ourselves it was okay to bomb civilians in the first place, and the following voices offer a thread of just how America went from condemning such action in 1939, to firebombing Japan and Germany only a few years later. I focus on American actions only because I am an American, and it is necessary to understand what your country has done, why they have done it, and how they arrived at the decision to do it. Nowadays Americans left and right are caricatures of thinking people who seem incapable of holding any difficult position at all; and one of those difficult positions is that the firebombing of civilians may have been both horrible and necessary at the same time:


President Franklin Roosevelt, September 1, 1939: The ruthless bombing from the air of civilians in unfortified centers of population during the course of the hostilities which have raged in various quarters of the earth during the past few years, which has resulted in the maiming and in the death of thousands of defenseless men, women, and children, has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity. If resort is had to this form of inhuman barbarism during the period of the tragic conflagration with which the world is now confronted, hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who have no responsibility for, and who are not even remotely participating in, the hostilities which have now broken out, will lose their lives. I am therefore addressing this urgent appeal to every government which may be engaged in hostilities publicly to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities, upon the understanding that these same rules of warfare will be scrupulously observed by all of their opponents. I request an immediate reply.[2]

Infant in Shanghai, 1937, after Japanese bombing

Richard Rhodes summarizes the early opinion on bombing civilians: One of Roosevelt’s first acts was to appeal to the belligerents to refrain from bombing civilian populations. Revulsion against the bombing of cities had grown in the United States since at least the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in 1937. When Spanish Fascists bombed Barcelona in March 1938, Secretary of State Cordell Hull condemned the atrocity publicly: “No theory of war can justify such conduct… I feel that I am speaking for the whole American people.” In June the Senate passed a resolution condemning the “inhuman bombing of civilian populations.”[3]

Bombing of Barcelona, 1938, during the Spanish Civil War

May 27, 1943 order from Bomber Command on the firebombing of Hamburg: The importance of Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany with a population of one and a half million, is well known. The total destruction of this city would achieve immeasurable results in reducing the industrial capacity of the enemy’s war machine. This, together with the effect on German morale, which would be felt throughout the country, would play a very important part in shortening and winning the war. …. [mission is] To destroy Hamburg.[4]

And a flight lieutenant on the bombing of Hamburg: The burning of Hamburg that night was remarkable in that I saw not many fires but one. Set in the darkness was a turbulent dome of bright red fire lighted and ignited like the glowing heart of a vast brazier. I saw no flames, no outlines of buildings, only brighter fires which flared like yellow torches against a background of bright red ash. Above the city was a misty red haze. I looked down, fascinated but aghast, satisfied yet horrified. I had never seen a fire like that before and was never to see its like again.[5]

A nineteen year-old in Hamburg: We got to the Loschplatz all right but I couldn’t go on across the Eiffestrasse because the asphalt had melted. There were people on the roadway, some already dead, some still lying alive but stuck in the asphalt. They must have rushed on to the roadway without thinking. Their feet had got stuck and then they had put out their hands to try to get out again. They were on their hands and knees screaming.[6]

A fifteen year-old in Hamburg: Four story high blocks of flats [the next day] were like glowing mounds of stone right down to the basement. Everything seemed to have melted and pressed the bodies away in front of it. Women and children were so charred as to be unrecognizable. Their brains had tumbled from their burst temples and their insides from the soft parts under the ribs. How terribly these people must have died. The small children lay like eels on the pavement.[7]

Richard Rhodes on the bombing of Hamburg: The firestorm completely burned out some eight square miles of the city, an area about half as large as Manhattan. The bodies of the dead cooked in pools of their own melted fat in sealed shelters like kilns or shriveled to small blackened bundles that littered the streets…. Bomber Command killed at least 45,000 Germans that night, the majority of them old people, women and children…. The bombing of Hamburg was hardly unique. It was one atrocity in a war of increasing atrocities. Between 1941 and 1943 the German Army on the Eastern Front captured and enclosed in prisoner-of-war camps without food or shelter some two million Soviet soldiers; at least one million of them died of exposure and starvation. During the same period the Final Solution to the Jewish Question—the vast Nazi program to exterminate the European Jews—began in deadly earnest after the Wannsee Conference of coordinating agencies met in suburban Berlin on January 20, 1942. Whatever moral issues such atrocities raise, they resulted from the  progressive escalation of the war by all its belligerents in pursuit of victory. (Even the Final Solution: because the Nazis believed the Jews constituted a separate nation lodged subversively in their midst—nationality being defined in the Nazi canon primarily in terms of race—and as such the nation with which the Third Reich was pre-eminently at war. It was Hitler’s particular perversity to define victory over Jews as extermination; the Allies in their defensive war against Germany and Japan wanted only total surrender, in return for which the mass killing of combatants and civilians would stop.)[8]

Hamburg after the bombing

Kurt Vonnegut in his novel Slaughterhouse Five, on the firebombing of Dresden: Every day we walked into the city and dug into basements and shelters to get the corpses out, as a sanitary measure. When we went into them, a typical shelter, an ordinary basement usually, looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead. A fire storm is an amazing thing. It doesn’t occur in nature. It’s fed by the tornadoes that occur in the midst of it and there isn’t a damned thing to breathe. We brought the dead out. They were loaded on wagons and taken to parks, large open areas in the city which weren’t filled with rubble. The Germans got funeral pyres going, burning the bodies to keep them from stinking and from spreading disease. 130,000 corpses were hidden underground. It was a terribly elaborate Easter egg hunt. We went to work through cordons of German soldiers. Civilians didn’t get to see what we were up to. After a few days the city began to smell, and a new technique was invented. Necessity is the mother of invention. We would bust into the shelter, gather up valuables from people’s laps without attempting identification, and turn the valuables over to guards. Then soldiers would come with a flame thrower and stand in the door and cremate the people inside. Get the gold and jewelry out and then burn everybody inside.[9]

Dresden 3
Bodies to be cremated after the Dresden bombing

President Franklin Roosevelt: “We must face the fact that modern warfare as conducted in the Nazi manner is a dirty business. We don’t like it—we didn’t want to get in it—but we are in it and we’re going to fight it with everything we’ve got.”[10]

Air Force General Curtis LeMay, father of strategic bombing, on the fire-bombing of Japanese cities prior to the dropping of the atomic bomb: No matter how you slice it, you’re going to kill an awful lot of civilians. Thousands and thousands. But, if you don’t destroy the Japanese industry, we’re going to have to invade Japan. And how many Americans will be killed in an invasion of Japan? Five hundred thousand seems to be the lowest estimate. Some say a million…. We’re at war with Japan. We were attacked by Japan. Do you want to kill Japanese, or would you rather have Americans killed?[11]

Tokyo on fire

Richard Rhodes: The Strategic Bombing Survey estimates that “probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a 6-hour period than at any [equivalent period of] time in the history of man.” The fire storm at Dresden may have killed more people but not in so short a space of time. More than 100,000 men, women and children died in Tokyo on the night of March 9-10, 1945; a million were injured, at least 41,000 seriously; a million in all lost their homes. Two thousand tons of incendiaries delivered that punishment—in modern notation, two kilotons. But the wind, not the weight of bombs alone, created the conflagration, and therefore the efficiency of the slaughter was in some sense still in part an act of God.[12]

A residential area of Tokyo destroyed

Air Force General Curtis LeMay: Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time. It was getting the war over that bothered me. So I wasn’t worried particularly about how many people we killed in getting the job done. I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, we were on the winning side. Incidentally, everybody bemoans the fact that we dropped the atomic bomb and killed a lot of people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That I guess is immoral; but nobody says anything about the incendiary attacks on every industrial city in Japan, and the first attack on Tokyo killed more people than the atomic bomb did. Apparently, that was all right…. I guess the direct answer to your question is, yes, every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral, and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.[13]

Air Force General Curis LeMay, justifying the bombing of cities and civilians because they were all obviously working for the war effort: All you had to do was visit one of those targets after we’d roasted it, and see the ruins of a multitude of tiny houses, with a drill press sticking up through the wreckage of every home. The entire population got into the act and worked to make those airplanes or munitions of war … men, women, children. We knew we were going to kill a lot of women and kids when we burned [a] town. Had to be done.[14]

American Secretary of War Henry Stimson, on the difficulty of precision bombing of cities with manufacturing sites spread out everywhere: I told him how I was trying to hold the Air Force down to precision bombing but that with the Japanese method of scattering its manufacture it was rather difficult to prevent area bombing. I told him I was anxious about this feature of the war for two reasons: First, because I did not want to have the United States get the reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities; and second, I was a little feature that before we could get ready, the Air Force might have Japan so thoroughly bombed out that the new weapon would not have a fair background to show its strength.”[15]

The charred remains of a woman and child in Tokyo

Robert Oppenheimer recalled Secretary of War Henry Stimson saying that it was: appalling that there should be no protest over the air raids which we were conducting against Japan, which in the case of Tokyo led to such extraordinary heavy loss of life. He didn’t say that the air strikes shouldn’t be carried on, but he did think there was something wrong with a country where no one questioned that.[16]


[1] Kai  Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 323

[2] Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 310

[3] Ibid., 309

[4] Ibid., 471

[5] Ibid., 473

[6] Ibid., 474

[7] Ibid., 474

[8] Ibid., 474

[9] Ibid., 593

[10] Ibid., 476

[11] Ibid., 596

[12] Ibid., 599

[13] Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb,  21

[14] Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 649

[15] Ibid., 650

[16] Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 291