How the United States Reversed Its Policy on Bombing Civilians

By Ross, Sherwood | The Humanist, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

How the United States Reversed Its Policy on Bombing Civilians


Ross, Sherwood, The Humanist


When Adolf Hitler's Luftwaffe destroyed the Spanish town of Guernica on April 26, 1937, more than 1,650 people were killed and nearly 900 wounded. This slaughter of civilians was broadly condemned in the United States and Great Britain.

Arriving in Guernica, New York Times correspondent G. L. Steer reported, "The object of the bombardment seemingly was demoralization of the civilian population." Destroyed in this historic citadel of Basque culture, "not a military objective," were all but one of the town's churches as well as both of its hospitals. "The whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end" from a rain of high explosive bombs and incendiary projectiles. So many buildings collapsed, "the streets were long heaps of red, impenetrable ruins" and farmhouses "burned like little candles in the hills."

Historian Robert Dallek observes in Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-45, "In the United States prominent Americans from all walks of life and a large portion of the press joined in a denunciation of 'the monstrous crime of Guernica,' while congressional leaders renewed their appeal for the application of the Neutrality Act to Berlin and Rome" so as to embargo the sale of munitions to Germany and Italy.

Rising in Parliament, Archibald Sinclair, the liberal leader in the House of Commons, aptly portrayed the bombing as "a deliberate effort to use air power as an instrument of terrorism" British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden said the nation "deeply deplores the bombardment of the civil population in the Spanish Civil War, wherever it may occur and whoever may be responsible." Along the same lines, Lord Cecil of Chelwood, who the New York Times described as the leader of "a chorus of protest in the House of Lords over the atrocity" declared, "There is no precedent in the history of civilized nations for anything like the bombing of Guernica."

But there was.

During World War I, in response to a series of French bombing raids on German cities, Germany struck back with a zeppelin bombing of Paris on March 21, 1915, which killed twenty-three and injured thirty. A similar bombing of London on May 31 killed seven and wounded thirty-five. By war's end 670 Londoners had been killed by bombs from zeppelins and airplanes.

The British, for their part, used bombers in Egypt, Northwest India, and the Sudan early in the war, bombed Constantinople in 1917, and carried out a major strategic bombing campaign against Germany from late 1917 to late 1918 under the direction of Major General Hugh Trenchard, "the father of the Royal Air Force." According to John Keegan in The Second World War, Trenchard used bombing as a way to "achieve the maximum effect on morale by striking at the most sensitive part of the German population--namely the working class." Sven Lindqvist in The History of Bombing adds that, instead of just focusing on infrastructure targets like railway stations, his pilots were instructed to, in Trenchard's words, "drop their eggs well into the middle of the town generally."

Trenchard influenced American air commander Billy Mitchell, who claimed that bombing cities would speed the end of a conflict and was "more humane" than cannon fire and bayonets. Indeed, after the war Trenchard, Mitchell, and Italy's first air commander, Giulio Douhet, each published articles arguing for strategic bombing of industrial centers and other civilian targets as a way of destroying enemy morale in future wars.

The British quickly put those ideas to work. In 1920 they used bombers to quell the dervish uprising in East Africa led by Somali leader Mohammed Hassan, striking their decisive blow by tricking "the mad mullah" into preparing for an official visit. While Hassan, his lieutenants, and his family duly waited under a ceremonial canopy at Taleex, Trenchard's bombers attacked, killing most of Hassan's family and pursuing him and his followers through the desert. …

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