Bombing Civilians: An American Tradition

News Abroad

Ms. Young is a professor of history at New York University. This excerpt originally appeared in Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History edited by Yuki Tanaka and Ms. Young.

Airpower embodies American technology at its most dashing. At regular intervals, the air force and allied technocrats claim that innovations in air technology herald an entirely new age of warfare. Korea and Vietnam were, so to speak, living laboratories for the development of new weapons: the 1,200-pound radio-guided Tarzon bomb (featured in Korean-era Movietone newsreels); white-phosphorous-enhanced napalm; cluster bombs (CBUs) carrying up to 700 bomblets, each bomblet containing 200 to 300 tiny steel balls or fiberglass fléchettes; delayed-fuse cluster bombs; airburst cluster bombs; toxic defoliants; varieties of nerve gas; sets of six B 52s, operating at altitudes too high to be heard on the ground, capable of delivering up to thirty tons of explosives each. A usual mission consisted of six planes in formation, which together could devastate an area one half mile wide by three miles long. Older technologies were retrofitted: slow cargo planes (“Puff the Magic Dragon”) equipped with rapid-fire machine guns capable of firing 6,000 rounds a minute; World War I– era Skyraiders, carrying bomb loads of 7,500 pounds and fitted with four 20-millimeter cannon that together fired over 2,000 rounds per minute.

The statistics stun; they also provide distance. They are impossible to take in, as abstract as the planning responsible for producing them. In Korea over a three-year period, U.S./UN forces flew 1,040,708 sorties and dropped 386,037 tons of bombs and 32,357 tons of napalm. If one counts all types of airborne ordnance, including rockets and machine-gun ammunition, the total tonnage comes to 698,000. Throughout World War II, in all sectors, the United States dropped 2 million tons of bombs; for Indochina the total figure is 8 million tons, with an explosive power equivalent to 640 Hiroshima-size bombs. Three million tons were dropped on Laos, exceeding the total for Germany and Japan by both the U.S. and Great Britain. For nine years, an average of one planeload of bombs fell on Laos every eight minutes. In addition, 150,000 acres of forest were destroyed through the chemical warfare known as defoliation. For South Vietnam, the figure is 19 million gallons of defoliant dropped on an area comprising 20 percent of South Vietnam—some 6 million acres. In an even briefer period, between 1969 and 1973, 539,129 tons of bombs were dropped in Cambodia, largely by B-52s, of which 257,465 tons fell in the last six months of the war (as compared to 160,771 tons on Japan from 1942–1945). The estimated toll of the dead, the majority civilian, is equally difficult to absorb: 2 to 3 million in Korea; 2 to 4 million in Vietnam.

To the policy makers, air war is abstract. They listen attentively for a response to the messages they send and discuss the possibility that many more may have to be sent. For those who deliver the messages, who actually drop the bombs, air war can be either abstract (in a high-flying B-29 or B-52, for example) or concrete. Often it is a combination. Let me offer an example that combines the abstract with the concrete. During the Korean War, one pilot confided to a reporter that napalm had become the most valued of all the weapons at his disposal. “The first couple of times I went in on a napalm strike,” Federic Champlin told E.J. Kahn,

I had kind of an empty feeling. I thought afterward, Well, maybe I shouldn’t have done it. Maybe those people I set afire were innocent civilians. But you get conditioned, especially after you’ve hit what looks like a civilian and the A-frame on his back lights up like a Roman candle—a sure enough sign that he’s been carrying ammunition. Normally speaking, I have no qualms about my job. Besides, we don’t generally use napalm on people we can see. We use it on hill positions, or buildings. And one thing about napalm is that when you’ve hit a village and have seen it go up in flames, you know that you’ve accomplished something. Nothing makes a pilot feel worse than to work over an area and not see that he’s accomplished anything.

A “hill position,” a “building” (in Vietnam, “hooches,” sometimes “structures”)—not people. For the man with the A-frame on his back, air war can only be concrete. In 1950, in the month of November alone, 3,300 tons of napalm were dropped on North Korean cities and towns, including the city of Kanggye, 65 percent of which was destroyed by incendiary bombs. In Korea, the British correspondent Reginald Thompson believed he was seeing a “new technique of machine warfare. The slightest resistance brought down a deluge of destruction, blotting out the area. Dive bombers, tanks and artillery blasted strong points, large or small, in town and hamlet, while the troops waited at the roadside as spectators until the way was cleared for them. . . .”

Years later, another pilot, flying a small spotter plane to call in napalm strikes in South Vietnam, told Jonathan Schell how he identified the enemy: “If they run away.” He added: “Sometimes, when you see a field of people, it looks like just a bunch of farmers. Now, you see, the Vietnamese people—they’re not interested in the U.S. Air Force, and they don’t look at the planes going over them. But down in that field you’ll see one guy whose conical hat keeps bouncing up and down. He’s looking, because he wants to know where you’re going.” Then, Major Billings continued, “you make a couple of passes . . . and then, one of them makes a break for it—it’s the guy that was looking up at you—and he’s your V.C. So you look where he goes, and call in an air strike.” Once, Billings remembered, he “about ran a guy to death,” chasing him through the fields for an hour before calling in planes to finish the job. Schell thought this amounted to “sniping with bombs,” and Billings agreed.17 For Billings, the people themselves were concrete abstractions, ideas all too literally in the flesh.

In addition to the bombs that were dropped on Korea, there were those that were constantly contemplated but never used. On June 29, 1950, just four days after the war began, the possibility of using nuclear weapons in the event of Chinese intervention in the war was broached in the National Security Council. In June, as again when the subject came up in July at a State Department policy and planning staff meeting, the questions was not so much whether to use nuclear weapons but rather under what conditions they might be used: if there was overt Chinese and Soviet intervention; if their use were essential to victory; “if the bombs could be used without excessive destruction of noncombatants.”18 Talk of using the bomb increased dramatically after the Chinese entered the war in late October 1950, and President Truman’s casual reference to the possibility in a press conference brought a nervous Prime Minister Clement Atlee to Washington on the next plane. A joint communiqué, however, expressed only a sincere hope that “world conditions would never call for the use of the atomic bomb.”

General Douglas MacArthur thought the conditions were ripe in December 1950 and requested permission to drop a total of thirty-four bombs on a variety of targets. “I would have dropped 30 or so atomic bombs . . . strung across the neck of Manchuria,” he told an interviewer, and “spread behind us—from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea—a belt of radioactive cobalt . . . it has an active life of between 60 and 120 years. For at least 60 years, there could have been no land invasion of Korea from the North.” MacArthur’s replacement, General Matthew Ridgway, requested thirtyeight atomic bombs. In the event, nuclear weapons were not used; the destruction of northern and central Korea had been accomplished with conventional weapons alone.

The cease-fire that ended the Korean War followed a crescendo of bombing, which was then taken as proof that airpower was as decisive in limited wars as it had been in total war. The cities and towns of central and northern Korea had been leveled. In what Bruce Cumings has called the “final act of this barbaric air war,” North Korea’s main irrigation dams were destroyed in the spring of 1953, shortly after the rice had been transplanted. “The subsequent floods scooped clean 27 miles of valley below. . . . The Westerner can little conceive the awesome meaning which the loss of [rice] has for the Asian—starvation and slow death.” By 1952, according to a UN estimate, one out of nine men, women, and children in North Korea had been killed. In the South, 5,000,000 people had been displaced and 100,000 children were described as unaccompanied. “The countless ruined villages are the most terrible and universal mark of the war on the Korean landscape. To wipe out cover for North Korean vehicles and personnel, hundreds of thatch-roofed houses were burned by air-dropped jellied gasoline or artillery fire,” Walter Sullivan, former New York Times Korea correspondent, reported in The Nation. J. Donald Kingsley, head of the reconstruction agency, called Korea “the most devastated land and its people the most destitute in the history of modern warfare.”

Freda Kirchwey, in an essay for The Nation, tried to explain the general indifference of the American public to the destruction:

We were all hardened by the methods of mass-slaughter practiced first by the Germans and Japanese and then, in self-defense, adopted and developed to the pitch of perfection illustrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Western allies and, particularly, the Americans. We became accustomed to “area” bombing, “saturation” bombing, all the hideous forms of strategic air war aimed at wiping out not only military and industrial installations but whole populations. . . . A deep scar was left on the mind of Western man, and, again, particularly on the American mind, by the repression of pity and the attempt to off-load all responsibility onto the enemy.

Kirchwey thought that this repression explained the lack of protest “against the orgy of agony and destruction now in progress in Korea.” Nothing the North Koreans, Chinese, or Russians had done “excuses the terrible shambles created up and down the Korean peninsula by the American-led forces, by American planes raining down napalm and fire bombs, and by heavy land and naval artillery.” And now Korea, “blotted out in the name of collective security, blames the people who drop the fire bombs,” which might seem unfair to the military mind but was inevitable:

For a force which subordinates everything to the job of killing the enemy becomes an enemy itself. . . . And after a while plain horror displaces a sense of righteousness even among the defenders of righteousness, and thus the cause itself becomes hateful. This has happened in Korea. Soon, as we learn the facts, it will overtake us here in America.

“The American mind,” Kirchwey was certain, “mercurial and impulsive, tough and tender, is going to react against the horrors of mechanized warfare in Korea.”

The air force reached different conclusions. In 1957, a collection of essays was published whose title declared its thesis: Airpower: The Decisive Force in Korea. The authors of one of the essays in the collection describe an air operation they considered exceptionally successful. Late in 1952, a small group of air commanders set out to demonstrate the extent to which airpower alone could “occupy” territory. Their intention was to show the North Koreans that the United States could “exert an effective form of air pressure at any time or any place, could capture and air control any desired segment of his territory for was long as the military situation warranted.” The campaign began in January 1953. For five days, twenty-four hours a day, “a devastating force walked the earth over a 2-by-4 mile target area” and for six days thereafter nothing in the area moved. After 2,292 combat sorties, “Air forces bought a piece of real estate 100 miles behind enemy lines and ruled it for 11 days.” But on the fourteenth day, “with typical Communist swiftness,” “hordes” of “Red laborers and soldiers” began repair work; six days after the attack, a bypass was in place and rail links had been restored. The bridges attacked had been rebuilt, as had the highways and rail links. Still, the report was certain, “in the gnarled steel and wrenched earth the Communists saw the specter of a new concept in war—air envelopment.” One might imagine that the Americans had a lesson to learn here: that bridges could be rebuilt; that a “curtain of fire” created by such raids could cost the enemy a week’s time, but not stop them. Instead, against the evidence, many in the air force concluded that had such airpower been applied earlier in the war, it would have ended earlier and on better terms.

In what turned out to be the final phase of the talks, President Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons if the Chinese did not sign a cease-fire agreement. It has become part of the Eisenhower legend that this last threat broke the stalemate and, in Eisenhower’s words, gave the United States “an armistice on a single battleground,” though not “peace in the world.” In the event, as most authorities agree, the Chinese may not have even been aware of the threat, much less responded to it. Chinese acceptance of the concessions demanded at Panmunjom (all of them relating to the issue of repatriation of prisoners of war) was granted for reasons to do with Chinese, North Korean, and Soviet politics, not U.S. atomic flashing. Nevertheless, in addition to the Republican Party, many senior officers in the air force were convinced of the value of such threats and the necessity, if it came to that, of acting on them.

Whatever the air force learned from the Korean War, what the politicians drew from it was more specific and could be boiled down to one dictum: fight the war, but avoid Chinese intervention. Unlike Freda Kirchwey, military and civilian policy makers (and, for that matter, the majority of the American public) never, to my knowledge, questioned the morality of either the ends or the means of fighting in Korea. The difficult question that faced administrations, from Kennedy through Nixon, was tactical: how to use military force in Southeast Asia without unduly upsetting the Chinese. President Kennedy’s solution was to concentrate on counterinsurgency, which, as it failed to achieve its end, devolved into a brutal ten-year bombing campaign in South Vietnam.

Copyright © 2009 by Marilyn B. Young. This excerpt originally appeared in Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History edited by Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young. Published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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Lorraine Paul - 4/19/2009

I agree!

Pat Thomson - 4/18/2009

We don't need alternate history to figure this out, as the current leadership is a direct decendant of the leadership during the Korean War. Its hard to believe that the result would have been much different in a unified Korea.

The crux of the discussion should be did we need the overwhelming force on innocent civilians to achieve the goal.

Lorraine Paul - 4/17/2009

Perhaps I don't have subtle shades of grey in some instances due to the fact that it is hard to find them when an empire is in the process of of 'becoming'.

Neither can grey be found in gunboat diplomacy. For example point out the shades of grey in the Opium Wars.

Edmond Dantes - 4/17/2009

Ms. Paul, I do not think anyone can be more black and white than you in these posts. You have narrowed down the complexity of world history into two distinct spheres: aggressive actions of western nations (the victimizer) and actions taken by those (victims) as a result of aggressive western behavior. Western governments, like all governing bodies throughout the course of history, are replete with scandals, crimes, and mistakes. For you to use them and amplify them to cover up or justify oppressive regimes like those of North Korea is truly asinine. Where are your subtle shades of gray?

Lorraine Paul - 4/16/2009

Unfortunately, Edmond there are people contributing to these topics who seem to be peculiarly unaware that all is not black and white. I am merely attempting to point this out to them.

john stegall - 4/16/2009

I fully agree with you, and to clarify my last post (maybe), I think it possible to disagree yet understand why some decisions were made. I am also in no way trying to cricitize the brave soldiers and airmen who carry-out missions of which they had not only no input, but no choice as well.

Coincidentally, on the way to work today I listened to an interview with author/historian David McCollough, and he of course is a lot better equipped to explain his thoughts on hindsight than I am; he said that what a lot of people fail to remember is that all of these "past" decisions were made in their "present," and they were no better at predicting out-comes than we are now.

Not that this precludes any criticism of past leaders (obviously); military leaders are just as human as the rest of us, and it is clear that egos (and politics) have sometimes got in the way of good sense, leading in many cases to useless deaths for questionable gain.

Again, I have no "answers," only the desire to read and learn as much in the hope (fruitless probably) that we will not repeat past mistakes.

Edmond Dantes - 4/16/2009

Ms. Paul, at once you are complaining about the demonizing of North Korea and then claiming not to be an apologist. As usual, you are all over the place. I am just stating the facts. The actions taken by North Korea speak for themselves. Did you bother reading any of the other posts to this piece? You continue to declare the actions of Western nations as the greatest blight on human civilization. Who is claiming the moral high-ground?

Lorraine Paul - 4/15/2009

Mr Brundage,

You cannot predict what would have happened if Korea had remained one united country. For example, I am hoping to travel to Vietnam in the near future. Remember the dire predictions about a 'communist takeover' during that shameful conflict? It did not happen!

Further, as to whether the North or South invaded first, there are conflicting opinions. There is a book written by an Australian journalist, Wilfred Birchett, the name of which escapes me, written at the time. It is probably out of print, but a good Uni library may still have it.

In the future shall we leave alternative histories to books and films, please.

Lorraine Paul - 4/15/2009

Still trying to claim the moral high-ground, Edmond?

What about cluster bombs, landmines, CIA drug running (known to be the largest and most well organised in the world), the destruction of Iraq, Britain selling weapons to Indonesia for use on the Timorese, the US giving names and addresses of 'dissidents' in Indonesia - over 1 million murdered by Suharto's thugs, the only country in the world to be found guilty of terrorism - the USA for bombing a Nicaraguan harbour!

The list is endless, Edmond. However, I am not here to be an apologist for the North Korean government. I just like to think a little before pointing the finger, especially as I have always found the moral ambiguity of western nations to have a modicum of racism included in it!

Donald Wolberg - 4/15/2009

To varying degrees, both as someone interested in history, events and people, and asa once participant is some of these, we all cannot avoid interpretation of the past through eyes and minds of today. The Norden bombsight was a marvelous accomplishment for its time, but that is small solace to the very high losses of B-17 and B-24 aircraft and crews that flew USAAF daylight missions subject to scathing attacks of German fighter aircraft, at least until the P-51 Mustang enered the scene. The British decision to bomb at night, even with higher civilian deaths, eventually led to more precise radar use, but msotly was done because of the decision to lessen British losses. Who was correct is a judgement of the time, no matter what our judgement of now is. A very real argument that the nuclear strikes at Japan saved more than 1 million Americans from having to invade the Japanese mainland. I rcare more for this argument than the other sop used, that the attacks actually saved at least a million Japanese from death. The latter is likely true: the Japanese home army was over two million at war's end; there were still 3-4,000 Japanese combate aircraft and 8-10,000 ready suicide pilots, and the Japanese had stocks of chemical and biological weapons. To my mind, Truman made the tough and correct decision. But I fully understand contrary views. My caution is that we should understand how and why the historic decisions were made.

john stegall - 4/15/2009

I found myself drawn back to this today since I had a little more time on my hands, and a couple more comments and I am done.

My initial reaction is that I do not want to read this book since this excerpt seems so slanted in the direction of just blasting the US military. One small example can be found in the sub-title "An American Tradition," despite the fact that the book is billed as "A Twentieth Century History." The history of bombing is pretty well known at this point, and we arrived a little late on the scene in view of the fact that Germany and Great Britain had been exchanging blows for close to three years before our 8th Air Force really got started, and a lot of it involved civilian targets in what has been called "terror bombing." Most of the efforts of the USAAF in Europe were directed to daylight "pinpoint" missions against industrial targets rather than the indiscriminate night bombing of "city centers" employed by the RAF bomber command. We eventually came around in the Pacific Theater however, and rained tens of thousands of incendiary bombs on Japanese cities, and there can be no concealing the goal of this offensive.

In other words, there is plenty of enough blame to go around, and things look a lot clearer today with the benefit of hindsight. Our military, both during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts really just continued with the bombardament and bombing philosophies developed during the Second World War largely with an eye towards holding down "our" casualties, which is understandable.

I have read heavily on this topic, including a lot of what we now call "revisionist" history, and I think moral absolutes are nearly impossible. I believe it is obvious that targeting civilians is wrong; dropping atomic weapons on Japan was wrong; carpet-bombing in South East Asia was wrong. I think there is ample proof that a lot of the munitions we expended during all these conflicts was wasted—consider the fact that German industrial output continued to increase almost until the end of the war, or read of the massive casualties suffered, for example, at Iwo Jima or on Omaha beach after after thousands of pounds of bombs and shells were expended against a well dug-in enemy.

I also believe that the leaders at the time made, overall, the best decisions they could with the information they had. Let us study and learn but not be too critical of decisions that most of us, thankfully, will never have to make.

Donald Wolberg - 4/14/2009

Excellent observations by Mr. Stegall. The Douglas Skyraider was intended as a WW-II intended aircraft. And indeed, most of the early weaponary in use on the U.N. side early in the Korean War included P-51 Mustangs, F4u Corsairs, the B-29, etc. I do not thing that the B-17 of WW-II carried 17,000 pounds on missions, more likely 4-6,000. B-29 was never used in Europe, and was deployed to the Pacific. Later in the Korean War, the F-86 Saber went up against the early Yak jets and the more advanced Mig-15, and the jet age was born.

john stegall - 4/14/2009

A couple of observations concerning this excerpt—

Skyraiders were not "World War 1 era" aircraft; the original orders were placed late in the Second World War, and first production arrived too late to be put into action until the Korean War.

Additonally, comparisons of total bomb tonnages dropped on some of the countries in Asia versus the Second World War are little misleading (total of bombs dropped on Laos alone was more than the total of Germany and Japan in WW2, for example),since the only reason for this is simply because the newer planes could carry more ordinance. A B52 could carry up to 70,000 pounds of bombs per plane versus a little over 17,000 carried by B17s in the earlier conflict, and while these were clearly not the only bombers employed in the different wars, this example probably suffices.

The main point in my mind is that the only reason "we" dropped more bombs in Korea and Southeast Asia than during the Second World War is simply that we could!

Donald Wolberg - 4/14/2009

One wonders with some amazement (the subject is too serious for wondering with amusement), of the odd take on "history," or what Ms Young sees as "history." As I recall, it was the North that invaded the South and blasted away at Seoul. As Dr. R. J. Rummel reminds us, the data indicates that between 1948 and 1987, somewhere between 710,000 and 3,500,000 civilians were murdered by those in power in the North--more definitive numbers are diffult to resolve since investigations are not allowed to open those graves. The North was responsible for the horrid massacres at Taejon and Wanju in their drive South before the allied forces stopped them at Pusan. The North admitted to the capture of 70,000 ROK soldiers. Unfortunately, it seems that only 8,000 were returned home in the South. During the war, the North, by more clearly delineated U.N. numbers was responsible for the deaths of approximately 1.5 million civilians in the South. It also appears that the North "conscripted" some 400,000 South Koreans into their military (many seem to have served in labor camps building roads, etc.). Data also indicate that between 5-6,000 U.S. POWs were killed in North Korean camps.

One should also not forget that Soviet and Chinese pilots were flying missions in Yaks and Migs, supporting the North Korean aggression and killings. As I recall, they bombed civilian targets with some impunity against a virtually defenseless Sounth, before the U.N. approved resitance could get a substantive force in place.

This very evil and very bizarre failed state that is North Korea, has been guilty of the most heinous state inspired criminal acts. Of course the U.N. repsonse was to act with all means possible. It is unfortunate that Ms Young has not looked at the most significant issue of warfare, primitive or modern: it is always nasty business. The choices are usually clear in the face of aggression. One can resist and respond, or one can surrender. It would seem that in the case of North Korean aggression in the past, and the comical yet potenially deadly insanity that is that failed state in the present, strong responses are necessary. I would suggest the current threst of the North has exceeded that of 1950. There are several thousand North Korean artillary pieces (provided by China and the former Societ Union) within range of Seoul. There are 5-10 nuclear devices in the hands of the North as well as several thousand Chinese and Russian rockets, also capable of the end of a viable South Korea, and even pose a threat to Japan. One can only hope that there are in place adequate military forces and means, as well as the will, to resist such an onslaught. One would also wish Ms Young had been more objective in her view of "history" and not quite so revisionist.

Anthony Brundage - 4/13/2009

In Marilyn Young's account, the Korean war simply "started." Let us not forget that the conflict was unleashed by North Korea in 1950 with the intention of bringing all the people of the peninsula under the sway of a totalitarian government. With their huge preponderance of manpower, they very nearly succeeded. Without the massive use of American airpower, UN forces would have been driven into the sea. The consequence over the last 59 years would have been that millions of Koreans who prospered in freedom in South Korea would have been subjected to brutal oppression and mass starvation. Perhaps Ms. Young believes that the inevitable civilian casualties that resulted from this aerial bombardment was too high a price to pay, but she should not ignore the implications of her diatribe against US airpower.

Edmond Dantes - 4/13/2009

How dare anyone demonize North Korea! Who are we to criticize this socialist paradise?

- The North Korean government allowed over 1 million of its own people die in protracted famines during the 1990s, while the government diverted funds to the military and nuclear programs.
- Over 200,000 people currently reside in concentration camps in North Korea. Most are political prisoners who labor under terrible conditions, fed minimal rations, and are subjected to rape, torture, and execution (see “The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps”). The three-generation guilt-by-association system makes for some delightful reading as well.
- North Korea engages in large-scale, international heroin smuggling. They also produce and sell large quantities of amphetamines and methamphetamines on the international market.
- A 2008 Congressional Research Service report states that North Korea’s “crimes-for-profit” activities, which include drugs, weapons, counterfeiting, fraud, and organized crime, generate over $500 million in profits per year.
- And let’s not forget about the near absence of human rights.

John Connally - 4/13/2009

Too bad America didn't reach its "pitch of perfection" with North Korea.

Lorraine Paul - 4/13/2009

Excellent, Prof Young. This is a timely article in light of recent events.

They say that it is the one who does the harm who hates the longest. This truism is still in evidence today. When one thinks of the Axis of Evil travesty and its subsequent demonising of North Korea, it seems Korea has not reached its use by as the enemy du jour yet!