Very interesting post. The linked Wellerstein posts were great reads too. The “What journalists should know about the atomic bombings” one was interesting. But I was surprised to see that, in it, Wellerstein did not talk about how the atomic bombings served the Air Force’s narrative coming out of WWII: despite the war’s rendering of airpower theory (“the bomber will always get through”) as wrong or at least debatable, the atomic bombings sealed the verdict: strategic bombing works. This is something I’ve read in both Lawrence Freedman’s The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy and in Carl Builder’s The Masks of War: “The immediate impact of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to silence [criticism of the Air Force], at least for a couple of years.” (Freedman, 3rd ed., p. 22); “…with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, few could doubt that air power, with this kind of bomb, could be a decisive instrument of war, all by itself.” (Builder, p. 194).

In fact, this idea – that the Air Force’s desire to convince others that its strategic bombing mission is worthy leads it to sell the “atomic bombs won the war” story – interestingly stands at odds with a quote Wellerstein includes in his piece:

The US Strategic Bombing Survey, a military-led assessment of bombing effectiveness in World War II, concluded in July 1946 that:

Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no [American] invasion had been planned or contemplated.

Which is a pretty shocking statement to read! I’m not saying you have to agree with it; you’re not bound by isolated judgments of the past, and there are good reasons to doubt the reasoning of the USSBS (they were acting in part out of fear that the atomic bombs would overshadow conventional bombing efforts and undercut their desire for a large and independent Air Force).

I don’t expect you to be an expert on this, but I was curious if you had any thoughts on this divergence – why would the Air Force boost the value of atomic bombs in one forum but downplay their value in another. It seems to be that maybe by July 1946, postwar pressures to cut military spending had changed the Air Force Chief of Staff’s calculus, and he thought the Air Force would do a lot better to emphasize conventional bombing’s value as opposed to atomic bombs (maybe because conventional bombing was initially thought to require many more planes than an equivalent atomic bombing force). There’s also the bureaucratic posture of the USSBS to consider: I don’t know the history of it well, so if it turns out it was at odds with Hap Arnold and/or Carl Spaatz, that could explain why the USSBS sounds more down on atomic bombs.

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I wonder whether the Air Force's attitude that atomic bombs prove strategic bombing useful developed in the years after the USSBS was written. The early US nuclear arsenal was pretty small until they figured out production-line techniques (and of course weapons with megaton yields). Until then, the case for a large air force would still involve lots of conventional bombing. Ellsberg talks about the rapidly-changing ideas about nuclear war in his book. I ought to do more reading on the subject.

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