Seventy years ago—on August 6, 1945—the United States dropped a uranium gun-type fission bomb, the first atomic weapon ever used in warfare, on the Japanese industrial city and military center Hiroshima. Just three days later, on the morning of August 9, an American plutonium fusion bomb hit its secondary target, the port city of Nagasaki. Within two to four months, the bombings are estimated to have killed 90,000 to 166,000 people in Hiroshima (only about 20,000 of them soldiers), and 39,000 to 80,000 civilians in Nagasaki. Scores of secondary deaths due to the long-term effects of radiation followed in the months and years to come.

On August 15, Japan announced its surrender to the Allies, which was formalized on September 2 and effectively ended World War II. But whether the bombs are actually what brought the war to a close—and whether that kind of civilian death toll can ever be justified to prevent hypothetical future carnage—remain topics of fierce debate among historians.

NYU history professor Marilyn Young, whose research focuses on U.S. foreign relations, is the co-editor with Japanese historian Yuki Tanaka of the essay collection Bombing Civilians: a Twentieth Century History, which traces the evolution of aerial bombing from 18th-century hot air balloons, the first civilian air raids (on Parisians by Germans) in World War I, and the escalation of sustained blanket bombings of London and Dresden during World War II all the way through to Vietnam and the recent Gulf wars.  

In her essay “Bombing Civilians from the Twentieth to the Twenty-First Centuries,” Young argues that a central fallacy—“World War II ended in a blaze of bombing, ergo, bombing ended the war”—steered military strategy through the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and beyond. Even in what were meant to be “limited” wars fought with limited means, she argues, airpower “came to be understood as a special language addressed to the enemy, and to all those who might in the future become the enemy”—a surefire way of intimidating an opponent into accepting our concessions. Korea and Vietnam ended in a “crescendo of bombing,” acts of devastation that, by her calculation, were “irrelevant to the outcome of the war.” And, over time, American civilians became so accustomed to widespread aerial bombing as a winning strategy that, watching the first Gulf War on television, we were eager to look through “the crosshairs in the hose cone of a descending missile.” All of that, Young suggests, can be traced back to that fateful day in 1945.

To mark the grim anniversary, NYU Stories caught up with this outspoken critic of civilian bombing to talk about how the nature of war was irrevocably changed by Hiroshima.  

—Eileen Reynolds

Marilyn Young

How did the U.S. come to justify killing civilians in World War II—with blanket bombing in Dresden even before Hiroshima? Were there practical differences between the "precision bombing" and "blind bombing" approaches?
I don't think there really was, or is, such a thing as “precision bombing”—even drones can be dumb if the intelligence guiding them is off. The justification in World War II, as in Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, Afghanistan, and Gulf War II, is always the same: to break the will of the enemy, to bring the war to a close more quickly—and thus save lives—to destroy the “infrastructure” that enables the enemy to continue to make war. None of these justifications withstand close examination in my view.

In history class, students are often taught that these bombings brought an end to the costliest war in history—and actually saved more lives than were lost. You write that this is a myth. In your view, what really ended the war?
I urge students to read the arguments on both sides of this issue but am myself persuaded by the historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, who argues that it was the Soviet invasion and the prospect of a two-front war that weighed most heavily with the Japanese. I think most historians would agree that there was no justification for the Nagasaki bomb, which was dropped before the impact of the Soviet invasion and Hiroshima could have been assessed by the Japanese. Many would call the Nagasaki bomb a war crime—I do.

How much of the “peace through persuasion” theory—the idea that aerial bombings destroy enemy morale and encourage surrender—is true in practice?
I don't think they work; the Strategic Bombing Survey post WWII didn't think they worked; they didn't work in Korea or in Vietnam... and so on.

So how did the idea that massive bombings end wars affect strategy and rhetoric in future conflicts (i.e. Korea and Vietnam)?
It was just assumed, I think. Vietnam was a little different: McNamara's idea of coercive diplomacy meant there was a slow build up of bombing until—because it didn't work— before very long, the B52s and saturation bombings were introduced. Korea was massive from the get-go.

Have aerial bombings changed the way civilians think about war?
I'm not sure they have—for Americans, the visuals of bombing are from the viewpoint of the planes, not from the ground looking up. There is little sense of what it is like to be bombed—until perhaps 9/11 and that, thank goodness, was, so far, a one-off.

Do predator drones represent a departure from the blanket bombing approach?
Drones depend on the accuracy of the intelligence targeting them. If the intelligence is off, as it has often been, then civilians will die. Moreover drones are used in two ways: targeted assassinations and “signature strikes.” The latter are based not on known suspects but rather on anyone of military age behaving in a suspicious manner in an area of potential military activity—or a definition equally vague.

Will bombing remain a strategy for most countries at war because of efficiency? Is there a better alternative that some military strategists now argue for?
Efficiency, the desire of the Air Force to have a function, “defense' industries,” habit—you name it. Military strategists generally argue for approaches to war as if they knew what they were doing, as if they knew and were able to control the consequences of their actions. I don't trust any of them.

Is there ever a circumstance in which you can imagine a large-scale bombing to be necessary, or is the entire practice inherently flawed?
No and yes.