In 1937, Adolph Hitler’s Luftwaffe indiscriminately bombed the Spanish town of Guernica, killing 1,650 civilians. The New York Times reported, “The object of the bombardment seemingly was demoralization of the civilian population….not a military objective.” Soon after, America rightfully denounced the bombing as a “monstrous crime.”
But this wasn’t the first time anybody had bombed civilians. The French, Germans, and British had all partaken in limited civilian bombings in World War I — killing thousands.
In 1925, France and Spain defeated a Berber uprising in Morocco by use of civilian bombings. American volunteers, under French command, bombed the city of Chechaouen, similar in size to Guernica. And from 1926 through 1928, the US Marines utilized civilian bombing to force regime change in Nicaragua. There was no public outcry within the United States for either of these actions. For some reason, these were not considered crimes.
But when Japan bombed civilians in Shanghai in 1932 and claimed thousands of lives, the New York Times reported that those bombings brought a “literal avalanche of denunciation” upon Japan (and rightfully so!) In fact, it is said that the Shanghai bombing caused Americans “to view the Japanese as ‘butchers’ and ‘murderers’.” And again in 1937, when Japan again bombed Shanghai, the bombing was viewed correctly by Americans as “an atrocity of the most appalling kind.”
In 1938, as a result of all of these civilian massacres (and others), the League of Nations unanimously passed a resolution outlawing “the intentional bombing of civilian populations.” In 1939, nearing the outbreak of World War II, FDR made a public plea that the warring parties refrain from the “inhuman barbarism” of bombing civilian populations, acts which “sicken[ed] the hearts of every civilized man and woman,” and “profoundly shock[ed] the conscience of humanity.” As a result, Hitler pledged he would limit his air force to attacking only military targets. And British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stated that “Britain will never resort to the deliberate attack on women and children and other civilians for the purpose of mere terrorism.”
In 1940, however, the British War Cabinet approved plans for “indiscriminate” bombing of civilian German targets even before the Germans had ever bombed British civilians. But Hitler drew first blood with the bombing of British civilians in August of 1940. Then, in a series of back-and-forths, the Germans and British exchanged civilian bombings in the cities of Munich, Coventry, Mannheim, and London.
By July of 1941, Winston Churchill wrote, “There is one thing that will bring [Hitler] down, and that is an absolutely devastating exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.” (Emphasis Added.) Soon enough, the British exterminated 42,000 people in Hamburg.
It wasn’t until 1945 that the United States broke its oath to refrain from the bombing of civilians. With the protest of General Doolittle who went so far as to claim that such a course of conduct would amount to “terrorism,” America went ahead with civilian bombings in Berlin. Then Dresden (killing approximately 60,000 civilians). Meanwhile, in the Pacific theater of the war, the US military brass decided that precision bombing of Japanese military targets was having limited success. Thus, tactics were changed.
Between November of 1944 and August of 1945, 160,000 tons of ordinance was dropped on 64 Japanese cities. 83,000 were killed in Tokyo alone! The Japanese condemned the American bombings of civilians (and rightfully so!).
August 6 will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the United States’ atomic bombing of Hiroshima. On August 6, 1945, 70,000 lives were taken in the blink of an eye– almost all were civilians, including a score of American prisoners of war held captive there. Within a few days of the bombing, 90,000 were dead. And the final count is put at about 200,000.
On August 9, 1945, another atomic bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki. This second bomb killed about 75,000 people.
While we most certainly must assign guilt to the then-fascist governments of Germany, Italy, and Japan for the indiscriminate killings of civilians, we must also hold the United States and Great Britain accountable. After all, by the end of the war, more than 1 million German and Japanese civlians had been killed, and another 7 million Germans and 8 million Japanese had been bombed out of their homes. Of these victims, it is estimated that twenty percent were children.
Before the outbreak of WWII, America was morally justifiable in its condemnation of the Guernica terror bombings of Spanish civilians. Unfortunately however, within years the US itself had perfected the terror on a much grander scale. Therefore, while Americans rightfully object to the failure of the Japanese to apologize to China for its war crimes or to cite them in the historical record taught to Japanese schoolchildren, Americans should not gloss over their nation’s own attendance to terror bombings in WWII (and beyond!).
In fact, the failure of our society to recognize these faults may have impaired our own moral vision to the point where we confuse our reckless interventions abroad as noble and morally righteous endeavors. Perhaps many of our fellow citizens fail to pay sufficient attention to the fact that we too have exterminated hundreds of thousands of civilians, be they Japanese, German, Vietnamese, Panamanian, or Iraqi. How could we still be so outraged by civilian attacks when we participate in such attacks in places like Nagasaki, Fallujah, or My Lai? How could we still be so outraged by barbarism when we participate in it?
Civilians are civilians.