An Enduring Battle about an Old War
By Michael Getler
April 15, 2010
This posting comes with two warnings: 1) It is very long. 2) It is all about one subject, the extensive World War II American aerial bombing campaign against Nazi Germany from 1942 until the German surrender in 1945. It is composed almost entirely of an exchange of views that followed a one-hour PBS documentary titled "The Bombing of Germany" that aired early in February as part of the "American Experience" series.
In an ombudsman's column at the time, I included a detailed, critical letter about the program from David Searles, a viewer in Milford, N.H., and a response from Paul Taylor, senior editor of American Experience. Re-reading that — and, of course, clicking on the link above to the program if you like — is a starting point for anyone wishing to follow this discussion.
After receiving Taylor's response, Searles, clearly a student of this period, wrote again last February with a long and still more detailed rebuttal. That is printed toward the bottom of this column.
The Navigator Enters the Discussion
Meanwhile, a viewer in Gainesville, Fla., Sam Halpert, who flew 35 combat missions as a navigator for the U.S. Army's Eighth Air Force, was interviewed on the program and took part in one of the raids on Berlin that was focused on in the film, wrote to the executive producer of American Experience, Mark Samels, with some sharp criticism of the documentary from another perspective.
Last month, Halpert also contacted his congressman, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who, in turn, contacted PBS President Paula Kerger. The letter from Halpert to American Experience and the responses from Samels and from the film's producer, Zvi Dor-Ner, are also printed below.
This is a lot of material to go through and it involves only the differing objections and assessments of two viewers. Yet it struck me as a powerful, thoughtful and useful exchange, worthy of this follow-up posting, debate and, down at the bottom, my not-very definitive two cents' worth.
So, first comes Halpert's letter. Then, the PBS response to him from Samels and, separately, Dor-Ner, and then the follow-up letter from Searles.
From Sam Halpert to AE's Mark Samels
As a devoted viewer of PBS since its inception, I have benefited from and enjoyed many fine programs through the years, particularly the excellent documentaries. Their portrayal of the pros and cons on the controversial issues of our time have set a standard few can equal. Therefore I considered it an honor when I was asked to participate in a PBS documentary about the bombing of Germany in World War II. I believe I was chosen because I flew 35 bombing missions as an 8th Air Force navigator, a vanishing breed.
I have been well aware of the debate regarding the choice of area (city) bombing by the British Royal Air Force versus the concept of specific target bombing by the U.S. Air Force, and therefore expected an unbiased PBS examination of the issues. I was dismayed to discover that the program was focused on the perception that our Air Force had indeed bombed specific targets, but on the February 3, 1945 mission to Berlin, had somehow immorally "crossed the line" by abandoning target bombing for city bombing leading to the death of thousands of civilians. It was further stated that having once "crossed the line," we continued with city bombing to the end of the war. These opinions were declared unopposed by any contrary view, and without any substantial evidence. This was propaganda piece, totally contrary to my American Experience of that mission.
I am a living witness to the February 3rd mission where your program declares the U.S. Air Force made a Faustian choice to "cross the line" and immorally bomb civilians. I attended the briefing, and flew the mission that day. I remember it distinctly, as it was my 35th and final mission. Our bomb group's target that day were the string of Nazi government buildings comprising the Air Ministry, Reich Chancellery, Foreign Office, Ministry of Propaganda and the Gestapo headquarters. Other bomb groups were sent to bomb Siemens, electric power stations, Tempelhof airport, railway yards and terminals. I have evidence to substantiate this.
The people on the program who testified to the contrary may have been entitled to their spurious opinion, but are not entitled to create their own facts. People believe in what they see on PBS. It becomes a part of our history. It would be an atrocity if these falsehoods, these slurs are not refuted and become believable as our history. Please reply.
From Mark Samels to Sam Halpert
We very much appreciate your kind words about PBS, even as we take seriously your objections to the film. We also thank you for your willingness to participate in the program. And we wish that you could feel better about your participation.
As [Producer Zvi] Dor-Ner's letter [below] makes clear, the film was in no way intended to denigrate the contribution to the war effort made by you or anyone in the Eighth Air Force during the Second World War. Rather, the film was meant to explore the path that took American decision makers and military planners from an exclusive doctrinal reliance on military targets early in the war to the firebombing of Tokyo and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of it. The film makes the case that the history of Allied bombing in Germany, including the bombing of Berlin, is key to understanding that progression. It is a case, as Dor-Ner points out, that is well-supported by military and other mainstream historians.
The film does not dispute your well-documented assertion that your bomber group was assigned ostensibly military targets in Berlin for your final mission. It suggests that the line between civilian and military was very hard to draw. More important to the focus of the program, it makes the point that by this late stage of the conflict, American planners and decision-makers at the highest levels were willing to tolerate civilian casualties in their effort to end what had already been a protracted and brutal conflict.
From Zvi Dor-Ner to Sam Halpert
First, you should know that it pains me that you are unhappy with the film. We have spent a lot of time together; I have delighted in your company and have learned much from you. Your wonderful book about your service, "The Really Good War," helped me understand what a scary and deadly business the air campaign was for the crews. In my eyes you are an unqualified hero, and certainly nothing in the program was intended to diminish what you and your mates in the 8th Air Force did to bring the war to its victorious end.
There is room for an infinite number of films about the heroism of the flight crews and I was disappointed that your effort to create such a program, based on your book, did not pan out. The intention of our film, "The Bombing of Germany," was different. While we intended to acknowledge the heroism of the crews and the suffering of the civilians on the ground, our focus was the evolution of the strategy the combatants employed in fighting the air war.
Before the war, it was conventional wisdom, adopted by nearly all nations, that precision bombing of military targets was the right strategy for a bombing campaign. It was adopted not because it was more humanitarian then bombing civilians but because it was more utilitarian. The notion was that the way to win a war was by destroying the enemy fighting forces; the population was deemed mostly irrelevant.
While the German and the British gave up on the strategy early in the story because they could not execute it, the American Air Force stuck to it. But as you know, better then most, precision bombing was not very precise.
Dor-Ner Continues . . .
To begin with, intelligence was partial and iffy. Where and what were legitimate targets was not clear. Finding whatever was declared a target was another story. In the early 1940s, navigation was a matter of visual identification and 'dead reckoning.' As you describe, to find a place, even one as large as a city, in a mostly overcast northern Europe was an ordeal. To aim at a target within a city through clouds or smoke while being shot at was at best imprecise. And in the medieval cities of Germany, where industrial and residential areas were mixed together, there was tremendous amount of what came to be called collateral damage.
In your book, you write so well about the difficulties of navigation and aiming, and so movingly about crews' attitudes toward killing women and children. Killing women and children was not only considered distasteful by American airmen, but was considered wasteful as well. Unfortunately, the efforts to increase precision did not prove very effective. The first radars, employing 'lead navigators' and bombing by 'following the leader,' were quite inadequate. So, from the beginning, unintentionally, the 8th Air Force drew a lot of civilian blood.
The theory of precision bombing, as formulated before the war, did envisage the possibility of bombing civilians. Under the theory, the bombing of civilians was to be used in the last stages of conflict to push the enemy, over the edge, so to speak, to surrender.
Toward the end of 1944, the US wanted desperately to bring the war to an end. Increasingly, civilian and military commanders were willing to assume that the time had come to shock Germany into quitting the fight.
As we describe in the film, the order eventually came from Eisenhower. It was followed by fierce debate within the Air Force, but the order was executed. The raid against Berlin, your last mission, was part of that. The targets you list in your letter — and the ones we mention in the program — are, to some extent, a fig leaf. They actually include many civilian targets. (Calling a ministry "Nazi" doesn't make it military, because all of Germany was Nazi) All of targets were in civilian centers.
Dor-Ner Concludes . . .
I am sorry you get locked on an interview sentence made by Don Miller that the Air Force had "crossed a threshold" in Berlin. You should look into Don's book, "Masters of the Air," to see additional substantiation for his opinion, and to discover what a great admirer of the 8th he is. And substantively, you should not ignore the bombing of Tokyo two weeks after Berlin, and of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, as very clear evidence of a change of strategy.
The transcript of the program was scrutinized by two historians of the Army War College — not exactly a subversive institution — and passed with flying colors. The opinions expressed in the program are well within the mainstream of historical thinking about this subject. I only hope you can make peace with it . . . and me.
Finally, you should understand that I personally found the decision-making process followed by civilian leaders and military commander to be very reasonable. I think that the Air Force acted appropriately in circumstances of great uncertainty and ambiguity. I don't have any moral criticism of the bombing campaign. I have great respect for the leaders that struggled with this decisions and great admiration for the courage of the crews that had to carry it out. That includes you.
From David Searles
(The following letter from Searles was to the ombudsman after the initial exchange in the Feb. 12 column between Searles and American Experience's Paul Taylor. Although this letter is highly critical, Searles wrote again this month to heap praise on a follow-up American Experience program titled "Victory in the Pacific" that he described as "exceptional for a number of reasons, not least being the solid presentation of vital issues revealed by the best scholarship over the past 65 years.")
On reflection, if the film commits a sin, it tries to do too much in far too short a format. The film is barely 50 minutes in length. If the film had stuck to telling the story of the bombing of Germany in a strictly non-interpretive way, it could have told the story of all the major operations as it did very well for Hamburg and Berlin. I was expecting that kind of treatment to follow through to justify the title. Reduction of Dresden to a sound bite was frankly startling. The film was over before it barely started.
The film also tries to tell the story of the division among strategists over morale vs. precision bombing. One has to go back to WWI zeppelin and Gotha bombing, and the strategic debate between the wars, to do this topic justice. The result: errors of omission, and misconstruing the paper theory of the 1930's as the active theory of wartime.
The film also tries to tell the story of the crossing of the morale divide, and limit discussion purely to European theater bombing. Here the film omits in entirety operations in Japan, as well as the different strategies being employed there for different reasons. It omits in entirety the Manhattan Project, and treats the subject of "crossing the moral divide" as something committed towards the end of the war. In fact, preparations and justifications for that crossing were well in place long before. And the omission of what happened in Japan within weeks of Dresden until the end of the Pacific war leaves the "moral" story dangling in mid-air.
The film does have value, contains facts that are correctly stated, contains good historical analysis by experts, and for any historical novice who thinks that America was never involved in killing civilians, the film might come as quite a shock.
All this being said, there are glaring errors, misstatements or misleading threads:
1) The film begins with the acute understatement that Allied bombing was responsible for "thousands" of civilian deaths through the war. This is a jarring misrepresentation. The actual figure, as the film rushes past later on, was hundreds of thousands ("half a million"). Why make such an error of magnitude up front? Why contradict oneself? Why understate the case as a manner of introduction? Is the film trying not to offend? Is the film on tiptoes for some reason? Alarm bells went off with that one silly remark, right up front.
2) Then the film indicates that the Axis powers demonstrated the will to bomb civilian populations after the commencement of hostilities with Britain, in one case following reaction to the accidental drift of Luftwaffe planes. Actually, that will was demonstrated explicitly by the German bombing of Guernica in 1937, the Japanese bombing of Chungking in the same year, and the Italian poison gas bombing of Ethiopian troops in 1935, well before the bombing of Warsaw and Rotterdam. These events stirred outrage internationally and put the world on notice what the Axis powers were prepared to do. The film mentions nothing of these precursors.
3) The film fails to mention that German "terror" bombing of Rotterdam actually worked: the Dutch capitulated the following day, and allied planners noticed.
4) American military strategists (the United States Army Air Corps Tactical School) came up with the idealistic concept of "precision bombing" in the 1930's. With entry into WWII, officers with the same Corps concluded as part of overall strategic planning that "morale" bombing could be utilized to great effect as a coup de grace towards the end of hostilities. The euphemism for civilian bombing was obvious to all. The option was never off the table, only deferred (Richard Frank, Downfall, here and above). The film's idea that the Allies were somehow constrained into civilian bombing does not tell the whole story.
5) It took very little time in actual warfare before the same strategists realized that "precision" was a fiction. A 1941 report showed that as few as one bomb in five landed within five miles of target (Richard Frank, Downfall). Civilian death was inevitable, and was accepted, as long as one had the intention of going after a bona fide military industrial target. The film makes no such qualification, and leads one to falsely believe that precision bombing was a fact, and "errors" only occurred in bad weather or with use of radar. What the film persists in calling "precision" bombing throughout was actually reduced to the attempt to target military industrial value despite collateral damage.
6) In spite of Roosevelt's aspired principles (frankly duplicitous), he set the Manhattan project in motion in 1941. The entire concept of a nuclear bomb was well-known for its potential destructive yield on a theoretical basis in the 1930's (Richard Rhoades, Making of the Atomic Bomb). This was no tactical weapon, but a weapon of mass annihilation. It had no other application than the infliction of mass death, and one cannot begin to develop the weapon at an expense of hundreds of millions (ultimately two billion 1941-5 dollars) without having bypassed any moral qualm. But the film states, quite specifically, that the bombing of Germany and the change of policy to allow civilian targets made fire bombing of Tokyo and use of the atomic bomb "easier." But the bomb was in planning and development years before the film says that these "new" tactics were employed.
7) The notion is also incorrect that anything aside from pure strategic considerations made the burning of Tokyo and use of atomic weaponry "easier." With all due respect to the scholar, it was the level of integration of cottage industry component manufacture throughout cities in Japan that justified their annihilation. The burning of Tokyo revealed a minor forest of drill presses and milling machines, to the satisfaction of [Gen. Curtis] LeMay. The atom bomb, which would have been used on Germany, was used on Japan to end the war as soon as possible, not because, "Well, we bombed Berlin, I guess we can do anything now." Scenarios of invasion and massive American death made the use of the atom bomb "easier," if not unquestionable.
8) The development of Napalm also took some years of experimentation to optimize in its final form used in Japan, as M-69. Its explicit purpose was for bombing of the wooden frame structures of Japanese cities, aspired to by Marshall (in secret press conference) as early as 1941 (Frank, again). One does not go into research and development well in advance of usage without already being actively engaged in the plan to bomb civilian populations, or at the very least, create the option.
9) As for the English and my comment on nationalistic fervor, the famous quote from Winston Churchill, written July 8, 1940, cannot be more to the point, alluded to vaguely but omitted from the film: [as] "I look around, to see how we can win the war I see that there is only one sure path . . . and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland." (Also quoted in Frank, Downfall) Hardly can one be more fervid.
10) The film is very clear in conveying the impression that the struggles and frustration of total war led to America violating its own principles, over the objections of a few officers, to kill civilians for presumed effect on enemy morale:
Searles Concludes . . .
In actuality, American options to bomb populations were always on the table, from the beginning of the war. Technologies of the worst genocidal type were in full development by the early 40's in various forms (indeed, less efficient incendiaries were already in production in the 30's), and the de facto killing of thousands of civilians was already accepted as a norm from the first bombing raids, when the limitations of "precision" were exposed.
And even though the British did much of the civilian killing, from whom did they buy their bombs and incendiaries? The USA. Are we to believe we are blameless for selling the guns and bullets but not pulling the trigger? We were part and parcel of the genocide from day one. But we had genocidal foes who set the tone.
The almost complete gloss-over of the Dresden incident, where the British first round killed 60,000 civilians and the "precision" American rounds only killed another (estimated) 40,000, including strafing roads filled with refugees, leads one back to the sense that the film is trying to hide something very ugly from view, that the film is reticent to show Americans who they really are: humans, like all the rest, as capable of mass murder as any other country, even if defensively as opposed to offensively.
I still salute the attempts of any scholars and film-makers to spread knowledge, and heartily urge an expansion and editorial reconsideration of this potentially important film. PBS creates overeducated monsters like me, with its fabulous series on War some 20 years ago, I believe by Glenn Dwyer. All that knowledge that gets put out there is not lost. Again, my thanks to you and Paul Taylor for the considerate and detailed reply. I wish you all continued success with the American Experience, generally flawless and fascinating in its presentations.
Anyone born in the 1930s, as I was, will never forget, or cease to be formed in some way by, World War II. There are thousands of books and films about this horrendous conflict. As I watched "The Bombing of Germany," I thought that the producers had done a pretty good job focusing on, and documenting, a subject — bombing strategy versus reality and differences among the U.S. and British approaches — that was definitely worth exploring for a general audience.
As I look back on it now, in the aftermath of the various exchanges reported above, I still feel the film was, on balance, well done and worthwhile, although it is very difficult to tackle such a subject in 52 minutes. But I also feel that many good points have been made in the letters from Halpert and Searles, and in some of the additional explanations by the producers.
Wrong Foot Forward
As a viewer, most of the reservations I had were at the very start of the program when the narrator set an editorial tone that seemed overstated, arguable and unnecessary in contrast to the body of the film in which American intentions and strategy are fought over, defended and eventually evolved in an understandable manner considering the chaos of all-out war.
Here's the opening: "On September 1, 1939, the first day of the war in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an urgent appeal. He called on all combatants to 'under no circumstances undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations.' By the time Hitler was finally defeated six years later, Allied bombs had killed thousands of civilians. And both enemy cities and America's lofty ideals were in ruins."
I didn't come away feeling that way about American ideals and I thought, after watching the film, that the opening was contrived to set up a straw man for dramatic effect. The Roosevelt quote from 1939 is two years before the U.S. entered the war. German forces had already bombed cities in Poland and Holland and invaded neighboring countries and the allies were not thinking of bombing in friendly occupied countries, which is where the war was at the time. And the film makes clear toward the end of the program and end of the war that even Roosevelt, by 1944, "was now prepared to accept massive aerial bombardment."
The introduction, oddly I thought, talks about "thousands" of civilian deaths when it is well known that hundreds of thousands died. And I was surprised at how quickly the Dresden raid, perhaps the most controversial of the war in Europe, was passed over in the body of the film.
I was glad that Sam Halpert wrote to American Experience and, in hindsight, wish that the points he made about targets and orders to the crew were in the film. But the film made it clear that on that Feb. 3, 1944, raid on Berlin, in which some 3,000 civilians were killed, then U.S. air commander Gen. Jimmy Doolittle "did his best to give crews aiming points with clear military value: train stations, marshalling yards, and Goering's air ministry, just 500 meters from Hitler's fortified bunker."
Crossing the Line?
As for the idea that this mission was the one that "crossed the line," a moral threshold that opened the door to more bombing of cities, that is an opinion voiced by Donald L. Miller, an American author of "Masters of the Air War" and history professor. You can argue about that, and that someone should have on the program. But soon after came the raids on Dresden and Tokyo. Conrad Crane, a U.S. Army historian ends the program by saying, "I see this idea of just killing civilians and targeting civilians as being unethical — though the most unethical act in World War II for the Allies would have been allowing themselves to lose."
A U.S. Air Force historian, Richard G. Davis, in a lengthy article [see pages 57-68] titled "American Bombardment Policy Against Germany, 1942-1945" — which was not part of the American Experience program — wrote, "In summation . . . in so far as limitations of equipment and considerations of personal safety allowed, American policy encouraged aircrews to do their best to avoid inflicting harm on friendly civilians. As for Greater Germany, the Eighth offered no quarter. It cannot be over-emphasized that this was in keeping with the overwhelming wartime anti-German sentiment of the Allied governments and their civilian populations. To use the terminology of a later era — the Eighth made the Reich a 'free-fire' zone."