A Forgotten Holocaust:
May 07, 2007
In order to force immediate surrender and save American lives by delivering a knockout blow to an already staggering Japan, or, as Gar Alperovitz alternatively argues, to brandish U.S. might against and constrain the Soviet Union in Europe and Asia, or, as Tsuyoshi Hasegawa contends, to exact revenge against Japan while limiting Soviet gains in Asia, Truman willingly risked the unthinkable. He did so without even attempting other means to procure Japanese surrender, such as clarifying the surrender terms to insure the safety and continued “rule” of Emperor Hirohito as Stimson and almost all of Truman’s other close advisors urged him to do, but which he and Byrnes resisted until after the two atomic bombs had been dropped; allowing Stalin to sign the Potsdam Proclamation, which would have signaled imminent Soviet entry into the war; or announcing and, if necessary, demonstrating the existence of the bomb. What terrified many scientists from an early stage in the process was the realization that the bombs that were used to wipe out Hiroshima and Nagasaki were but the most rudimentary and primitive prototypes of the incalculably more powerful weapons on the horizon--mere first steps in a process of maximizing destructive potential.
The US resumed bombing of Japan after a two-year lull following the 1942 Doolittle raids in fall 1944. The goal of the bombing assault that destroyed Japan's major cities in the period between May and August 1945, the US Strategic Bombing Survey explained, was "either to bring overwhelming pressure on her to surrender, or to reduce her capability of resisting invasion. . . . [by destroying] the basic economic and social fabric of the country."  A proposal by the Chief of Staff of the Twentieth Air Force to target the imperial palace was rejected, but in the wake of successive failures to eliminate such key strategic targets as Japan's Nakajima Aircraft Factory west of Tokyo, the area bombing of Japanese cities was approved. 
The full fury of firebombing and napalm was unleashed on the night of March 9-10, 1945 when LeMay sent 334 B-29s low over Tokyo from the Marianas. Their mission was to reduce the city to rubble, kill its citizens, and instill terror in the survivors, with jellied gasoline and napalm that would create a sea of flames. Stripped of their guns to make more room for bombs, and flying at altitudes averaging 7,000 feet to evade detection, the bombers, which had been designed for high-altitude precision attacks, carried two kinds of incendiaries: M47s, 100-pound oil gel bombs, 182 per aircraft, each capable of starting a major fire, followed by M69s, 6-pound gelled-gasoline bombs, 1,520 per aircraft in addition to a few high explosives to deter firefighters. 
The attack on an area that the US Strategic Bombing Survey estimated to be 84.7 percent residential succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of air force planners. Whipped by fierce winds, flames detonated by the bombs leaped across a fifteen square mile area of Tokyo generating immense firestorms that engulfed and killed scores of thousands of residents.
Akakaze, the red wind that swept with hurricane force across the Tokyo plain and propelled firestorms across the city with terrifying speed and intensity. The wind drove temperatures up to eighteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit, creating superheated vapors that advanced ahead of the flames, killing or incapacitating their victims. "The mechanisms of death were so multiple and simultaneous -- oxygen deficiency and carbon monoxide poisoning, radiant heat and direct flames, debris and the trampling feet of stampeding crowds -- that causes of death were later hard to ascertain . . ." 
The Strategic Bombing Survey, whose formation a few months earlier provided an important signal of Roosevelt's support for strategic bombing, provided a technical description of the firestorm and its effects on Tokyo:"The chief characteristic of the conflagration . . . was the presence of a fire front, an extended wall of fire moving to leeward, preceded by a mass of pre-heated, turbid, burning vapors . . . . The 28-mile-per-hour wind, measured a mile from the fire, increased to an estimated 55 miles at the perimeter, and probably more within. An extended fire swept over 15 square miles in 6 hours . . . . The area of the fire was nearly 100 percent burned; no structure or its contents escaped damage. "The survey concluded -- plausibly, but only for events prior to August 6, 1945 -- that "probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a 6-hour period than at any time in the history of man. People died from extreme heat, from oxygen deficiency, from carbon monoxide asphyxiation, from being trampled beneath the feet of stampeding crowds, and from drowning. The largest number of victims were the most vulnerable: women, children and the elderly."
How many people died on the night of March 9-10 in what flight commander Gen. Thomas Power termed "the greatest single disaster incurred by any enemy in military history?" The Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 87,793 people died in the raid, 40,918 were injured, and 1,008,005 people lost their homes. Robert Rhodes, estimating the dead at more than 100,000 men, women and children, suggested that probably a million more were injured and another million were left homeless. The Tokyo Fire Department estimated 97,000 killed and 125,000 wounded. The Tokyo Police offered a figure of 124,711 killed and wounded and 286,358 building and homes destroyed. The figure of roughly 100,000 deaths, provided by Japanese and American authorities, both of whom may have had reasons of their own for minimizing the death toll, seems to me arguably low in light of population density, wind conditions, and survivors' accounts.  With an average of 103,000 inhabitants per square mile and peak levels as high as 135,000 per square mile, the highest density of any industrial city in the world, and with firefighting measures ludicrously inadequate to the task, 15.8 square miles of Tokyo were destroyed on a night when fierce winds whipped the flames and walls of fire blocked tens of thousands fleeing for their lives. An estimated 1.5 million people lived in the burned out areas. Given a near total inability to fight fires of the magnitude produced by the bombs, it is possible to imagine that casualties may have been several times higher than the figures presented on both sides of the conflict. The single effective Japanese government measure taken to reduce the slaughter of US bombing was the 1944 evacuation to the countryside of 400,000 children from major cities, 225, 000 of them from Tokyo. 
Following the attack, LeMay, never one to mince words, said that he wanted Tokyo "burned down -- wiped right off the map" to "shorten the war." Tokyo did burn. Subsequent raids brought the devastated area of Tokyo to more than 56 square miles, provoking the flight of millions of refugees.
No previous or subsequent conventional bombing raid ever came close to generating the toll in death and destruction of the great Tokyo raid of March 9-10. The airborne assault on Tokyo and other Japanese cities ground on relentlessly. According to Japanese police statistics, the 65 raids on Tokyo between December 6, 1944 and August 13, 1945 resulted in 137,582 casualties, 787,145 homes and buildings destroyed, and 2,625,279 people displaced.  Following the Tokyo raid of March 9-10, the firebombing was extended nationwide. In the ten-day period beginning on March 9, 9,373 tons of bombs destroyed 31 square miles of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe. Overall, bombing strikes destroyed 40 percent of the 66 Japanese cities targeted, with total tonnage dropped on Japan increasing from 13,800 tons in March to 42,700 tons in July.  If the bombing of Dresden produced a ripple of public debate in Europe, no discernible wave of revulsion, not to speak of protest, took place in the US or Europe in the wake of the far greater destruction of Japanese cities and the slaughter of civilian populations on a scale that had no parallel in the history of bombing.
In July, US planes blanketed the few remaining Japanese cities that had been spared firebombing with an "Appeal to the People." "As you know," it read, "America which stands for humanity, does not wish to injure the innocent people, so you had better evacuate these cities." Half the leafleted cities were firebombed within days of the warning. US planes ruled the skies. Overall, by one calculation, the US firebombing campaign destroyed 180 square miles of 67 cities, killed more than 300,000 people and injured an additional 400,000, figures that exclude the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Between January and July 1945, the US firebombed and destroyed all but five Japanese cities, deliberately sparing Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital, and four others. The extent of the destruction was impressive ranging from 50 to 60% of the urban area destroyed in cities including Kobe, Yokohama and Tokyo, to 60 to 88% in seventeen cities, to 98.6% in the case of Toyama.  In the end, the Atomic Bomb Selection Committee chose Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki as the pristine targets to display the awesome power of the atomic bomb to Japan and the world in the event that would both bring to a spectacular end the costliest war in human history and send a powerful message to the Soviet Union.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1945 the US air war in Japan reached an intensity that is still perhaps unrivaled in the magnitude of human slaughter.  That moment was a product of the combination of technological breakthroughs, American nationalism, and the erosion of moral and political scruples pertaining to the killing of civilians, perhaps intensified by the racism that crystallized in the Pacific theatre. 
In contrast to these responses to the war in Germany and Japan, and even to the ongoing debate in the US about the uses of the atomic bomb, there has been virtually no awareness of, not to speak of critical reflection on, the US bombing of Japanese civilians in the months prior to Hiroshima. The systematic bombing of Japanese noncombatants in the course of the destruction of Japanese cities must be added to a list of the horrific legacies of the war that includes Nazi genocide and a host of Japanese war crimes against Asian peoples. Only by engaging the issues, and above all the impact of this approach to the massive killing of noncombatants that has been central to all subsequent US wars, can Americans begin to approach the Nuremberg ideal that holds victors as well as vanquished to the same standards with respect to crimes against humanity, or the standard of the 1949 Geneva Accord which requires the protection of civilians in time of war. This is the principle of universality enshrined at Nuremberg and violated in practice by the US and others beginning with the 1946 trials, which declared US immunity from prosecution for war crimes.
This is a long essay about the changing ratio of military to civilian casualties written by Historian Mark Selden
Before the Bomb: The “Good War”, Air Power and the Logic of Mass Destruction
Between February and August 1945 the U.S. air war reached an intensity that half a century later remains unrivaled in the magnitude of technological slaughter directed against a people. That moment was a product of the combination of technological breakthroughs together with the erosion of all moral and political restraints on the killing of civilians.
The Firebombing of Japan: A Victim’s Perspective on The Logic of Mass Destruction
U.S. raids on Japanese cities began with James Doolittle’s solitary mission of April 18, 1942, widely hailed as the U.S. response to Pearl Harbor. All sixteen B-25 bombers were lost, however, when they were forced to land in Japanese territory. The U.S. would make no further attempt to raid Japan’s home islands for three years. The full fury of firebombing and napalm was not unleashed on Japan until the night of March 9-10, 1945. LeMay sent 334 B-29s low over Tokyo from recently acquired bases in Guam, Saipan and Tinian. Their mission was to reduce the city to rubble with jellied gasoline and napalm. U.S. bombers carried two kinds of incendiaries: M47s, 100 pound oil-gel bombs, 182 per aircraft, each capable of starting a major fire, followed by M69s, 6-pound gelled-gasoline bombs, 1,520 per aircraft in addition to a few high explosives to deter firefighters. The attack on an area that the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey estimated to be 87.4 percent residential succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of air force planners. Whipped by fierce winds, flames detonated by the bombs leaped across Tokyo generating immense firestorms that engulfed and killed tens of thousands of residents. In contrast with Vonnegut’s cool “wax museum” description, of Dresden survivors, accounts from inside the inferno that engulfed Tokyo chronicle scenes of utter carnage. We have come to measure the efficacy of bombing by throw weights and kill ratios. Here I would like to offer some perspectives drawing on the words of those who felt the wrath of the bombs.
Fleeing the flames, thousands plunged in desperation into the freezing waters of rivers, canals and Tokyo Bay: A woman spent the night knee-deep in the bay, holding onto a piling with her three-year-old son clinging to her back; by morning several of the people around her were dead of burns, shock, fatigue and hypothermia. Thousands submerged themselves in stagnant, foul-smelling canals with their mouths just above the surface, but many died from smoke inhalation, anoxia, or carbon monoxide poisoning, or were boiled to death when the fire storm heated the water. Others, huddling in canals connected to the Sumida River, drowned when the tide came in. . . . Huge crowds lined the gardens and parks along the Sumida, and as the masses behind them pushed toward the river, walls of screaming people fell in and vanished. Police cameraman Ishikawa Koyo described the streets of Tokyo as “rivers of fire. Everyone could see flaming pieces of furniture exploding in the heat, while the people themselves blazed like “matchsticks” as their wood and paper homes exploded in flames. Under the wind and the gigantic breath of the fire, immense incandescent vortices rose in a number of places, swirling, flattening, sucking whole blocks of houses into their maelstrom of fire.” Dr. Kubota Shigenori, head of a military rescue unit, recalled that “In the black Sumida River countless bodies were floating, clothed bodies, naked bodies, all as black as charcoal. It was unreal. These were dead people, but you couldn’t tell whether they were men or women. You couldn’t even tell if the objects floating by were arms and legs or pieces of burnt wood.” Father Flaujac, a French cleric, compared the firebombing to the Tokyo earthquake twenty-two years earlier, an event whose massive destruction had alerted some of the original planners of the Tokyo holocaust to the possibilities of destruction. ‘In September 1923, during the great earthquake, I saw Tokyo burning for 5 days. I saw in Honjo a heap of 33,000 corpses of people who burned or suffocated at the beginning of the bombardment. . . . After the first quake there were 20-odd centers of fire, enough to destroy the capital. How could the conflagration be stopped when incendiary bombs in the dozens of thousands now dropped over the four corners of the district and with Japanese houses which are only match boxes? . . . In 1923 the fire spread on the ground. At the time of the bombings the fire fell from the sky. . . . Where could one fly? The fire was everywhere.’ Nature reinforced man’s handiwork in the form of akakaze, the red wind that swept with hurricane force across the Tokyo plain and propelled firestorms across the city with terrifying speed and intensity. The wind drove temperatures up to eighteen hundred degrees fahrenheit, creating superheated vapors that advanced ahead of the flames, killing or incapacitating their victims. “The mechanisms of death were so multiple and simultaneous-oxygen deficiency and carbon monoxide poisoning, radiant heat and direct flames, debris and the trampling feet of stampeding crowds-that causes of death were later hard to ascertain. . .”