"We tolerate no scruples"

A summary history of 20th century bombing of civilian populations

by Ken Sehested

Every year on 6 August much of the world remembers the first-ever atomic bombing, of Hiroshima, then of Nagasaki. Few remember, though, that the US firebombed more than 60 other cities (using the recently invented incendiary substance known as napalm), including Tokyo, where the deaths of more than 100,000 (mostly by fire, destroying 16 square miles of the city), rivaling the fatalities caused by the Hiroshima attack.

Despite the Hague Convention of 1907, where European powers agreed to forbid the use of aerial bombardment of civilian populations, the prohibition was rarely observed. Both German and English aircraft killed at least 2,000 civilians during World War I.

The first egregious case of such bombing occurred in 1937 in Guernica, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War. Adolph Hitler supported the fascist Spanish General Francisco Franco. An estimated 1,000 Guernica civilians were killed—an atrocity that inspired the artist Pablo Picasso his famous “Guernica” painting, which still stands as an icon addressing the barbarity of modern warfare.

Right: Remains of the Urakami Roman Catholic Cathedral in Nagasaki, Japan, the second city struck with an atomic bomb on 9 August 1945. A Cathedral mass was underway when bomb exploded nearby.

During World War II, neither Allied nor Axis powers hesitated from using the bombing of civilian populations as a tactic of war meant to “demoralize” the respective enemy’s citizens. Two of the most notorious cases were Germany’s “blitzkrieg” of London and other British cities, killing an estimated 40,000 civilians; and the British and US bombing of Dresden, which had few military targets, causing fatalities that number anywhere between 18,000-100,000. (The estimate is uncertain since the city was then flooded with refugees from elsewhere.)

“In November 1941 the Commander-in-Chief of [British] Bomber Command said he had been intentionally bombing civilians for a year. ‘I mention this because, for a long time, the Government, for excellent reasons, has preferred the world to think that we still held some scruples and attacked only what the humanitarians are pleased to call Military Targets. I can assure you, gentlemen, that we tolerate no scruples.’” [Dominic Selwood, Dresden was a civilian town with no military significance. Why did we burn its people?” —Telegraph]

After the war, General Curtis LeMay, commander of US bombers in Pacific theatre during World War II, later said: "I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal." [see “Deadly WWII US firebombing raids on Japanese cities largely ignored,” Japan Times]

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