Lessons Learned: The Firebombing of Tokyo

Nuclear weapons are mankind’s unthinkable weapon. But would it surprise you to know that conventional weapons can be just as deadly? I’m Jim Lindsay, and this is Lessons Learned. Our topic today is “Operation Meetinghouse,” the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo on March 9 and 10, 1945. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 left the United States reeling in the Pacific.

The U.S. military lacked the capacity to bring the war to Japan in a sustained way. In April 1942, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle did lead an air raid on Japan. The attack gave Americans a much needed morale boost by showing that the Japanese homeland was not invulnerable.

However, Doolittle’s raid did little damage to Japan itself. Instead of taking the fighting immediately to Japan, U.S. forces spent the first three years after Pearl Harbor “island hopping” in the Pacific. At places like Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan, U.S. sailors, soldiers, and marines slowly rolled back Japanese control. By late 1944, the United States had advanced far enough that the new U.S. bomber, the B-29, could reach Tokyo on a regular basis. The first U.S. bombing raids did minor damage, so U.S. bomber pilots developed new tactics.

They flew low and at night. They also began to use incendiary bombs against Japanese cities, which were largely constructed of wood. These tactics came to their horrific culmination in “Operation Meetinghouse.” Three hundred and thirty-four B-29s dropped 2,000 tons of bombs. The attack unleashed a rare firestorm that fed on itself. Temperatures reached an estimated 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fifteen square miles of Tokyo—equivalent to half of Manhattan—were burned out. No one knows for sure how many people died in the firebombing of Tokyo. The estimates range from 90,000 to well more than a 100,000. That is a death toll equal to, if not higher than, that of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A reporter for the New York Times simply wrote, “The heart of Tokyo is gone.” The bombings didn’t stop with Tokyo.

They continued for the next five months, until Japan surrendered in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some one million Japanese died, the vast majority because of conventional bombing attacks. What is the lesson of the firebombing of Tokyo? Just this: The danger of nuclear weapons should not blind us to the destructive power of conventional weapons.

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 killed more than half a million people. Many of the victims died in machete attacks. An estimated 100,000 people have died in the violence that has rocked Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Perhaps 50,000 people died in fighting last year in Libya. The death toll from war often reaches far beyond the battlefields.

The fighting that has raged in the Eastern Congo since 1998 has killed an estimated six million people. Many of the victims died of malnutrition and disease, problems that can become rampant when violence destroys any semblance of law and order. The destructive power of conventional weapons is not a reason to never use military force.

It is a reason to consider their use carefully and not to underestimate its consequences. The destructive power of conventional weapons is also a reason why countries have a responsibility to protect civilian populations where they can. Here’s a question to consider: what more should the international community be doing to prevent conventional warfare? I encourage you to weigh in with your answers on my blog, The Water’s Edge, which you can find at CFR.org. I’m Jim Lindsay.

Nuclear weapons are mankind’s unthinkable weapon. But would it surprise you to know that conventional weapons can be just as deadly? I’m Jim Lindsay, and this is Lessons Learned. Our topic today is “Operation Meetinghouse,” the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo on March 9 and 10, 1945. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 left the United States reeling in the Pacific.

The U.S. military lacked the capacity to bring the war to Japan in a sustained way. In April 1942, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle did lead an air raid on Japan. The attack gave Americans a much needed morale boost by showing that the Japanese homeland was not invulnerable.

However, Doolittle’s raid did little damage to Japan itself. Instead of taking the fighting immediately to Japan, U.S. forces spent the first three years after Pearl Harbor “island hopping” in the Pacific. At places like Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan, U.S. sailors, soldiers, and marines slowly rolled back Japanese control. By late 1944, the United States had advanced far enough that the new U.S. bomber, the B-29, could reach Tokyo on a regular basis. The first U.S. bombing raids did minor damage, so U.S. bomber pilots developed new tactics.

They flew low and at night. They also began to use incendiary bombs against Japanese cities, which were largely constructed of wood. These tactics came to their horrific culmination in “Operation Meetinghouse.” Three hundred and thirty-four B-29s dropped 2,000 tons of bombs. The attack unleashed a rare firestorm that fed on itself. Temperatures reached an estimated 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fifteen square miles of Tokyo—equivalent to half of Manhattan—were burned out. No one knows for sure how many people died in the firebombing of Tokyo. The estimates range from 90,000 to well more than a 100,000. That is a death toll equal to, if not higher than, that of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A reporter for the New York Times simply wrote, “The heart of Tokyo is gone.” The bombings didn’t stop with Tokyo.

They continued for the next five months, until Japan surrendered in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some one million Japanese died, the vast majority because of conventional bombing attacks. What is the lesson of the firebombing of Tokyo? Just this: The danger of nuclear weapons should not blind us to the destructive power of conventional weapons.

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 killed more than half a million people. Many of the victims died in machete attacks. An estimated 100,000 people have died in the violence that has rocked Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Perhaps 50,000 people died in fighting last year in Libya. The death toll from war often reaches far beyond the battlefields.

The fighting that has raged in the Eastern Congo since 1998 has killed an estimated six million people. Many of the victims died of malnutrition and disease, problems that can become rampant when violence destroys any semblance of law and order. The destructive power of conventional weapons is not a reason to never use military force.

It is a reason to consider their use carefully and not to underestimate its consequences. The destructive power of conventional weapons is also a reason why countries have a responsibility to protect civilian populations where they can. Here’s a question to consider: what more should the international community be doing to prevent conventional warfare? I encourage you to weigh in with your answers on my blog, The Water’s Edge, which you can find at CFR.org. I’m Jim Lindsay.

Thank you for watching this installment of Lessons Learned.

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