The Ugly Side of Post-WWII American History

Stephen H. Unger
November, 24, 2017

The 1937 bombing of Guernica by German and Italian planes during the Spanish Civil War, killed about 500 people (mostly civilians) [1]. Over 42,000 civilians were killed in a July 1943 bombing of Hamburg [2]. The bombing of Tokyo by US planes, on the night of March 9-10 1945, killed over 100,000 people (mostly civilians) [3]. This is considered to be the single most lethal bombing raid in history (with the possible exception of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

While the Guernica attack was widely regarded as an atrocity, (commemorated by a classic Pablo Picasso painting), the Tokyo bombing, 8 years later, 2 orders of magnitude more deadly, was noted only as a very successful operation [4]. How did this change in thinking come about?

Night versus day

Participation in wars numbs our sensitivity to brutality. In the case of WWII, the attitudes of top ranked American military officers underwent a gradual transformation as the war went on. The British, under Churchill, almost from the outset, used their bombers in night-time raids on residential areas, considering civilians to be legitimate targets. The US air force, opposed to the targeting of civilians, initially used its bombers only against military and industrial installations, despite the fact that this required daylight bombing, which was much more dangerous.

It was not until early in 1943 that the P-51 Mustang [5], a long-range, high performance fighter plane, was deployed to provide very effective protection for bombers penetrating deeply into Germany. This made possible daylight bombing without major losses of bombers. But it came too late. By that time, the losses of bombers had already persuaded the Americans to join the British in bombing civilians--mainly at night--which was much less dangerous.

(Subsequent studies indicated that the bombing of factories and transportation facilities was much more effective in defeating Germany than was bombing residential areas.)

Use of the A-bomb

By July, 1945, Japan was clearly defeated. Both its navy and its air force had been virtually wiped out. The only significant issue was the terms of surrender. The key element was the fate of the emperor. Concern that he might be treated as a war criminal motivated resistance on the part of the Japanese military to the idea of surrender, even after the emperor himself expressed his desire, at any personal cost, to end the slaughter of his people.

By this time the atomic bomb had been successfully tested. Top-level military officers, including Admiral William Leahy (the President's Chief of Staff), General Dwight Eisenhower, Admiral Chester Nimitz, and General Curtis LeMay, all opposed using the atomic bomb against Japan [6]. They argued that, even without the bomb, or the Russians attacking Japan, or an invasion, Japan was within at most a few months of surrendering.

A conclusion formally reached by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey in its Summary Report (Pacific War): "Japan would have surrendered [by late 1945] even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war [on August 8], and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated" [7].

Nevertheless, President Truman refused to offer assurances about the emperor, or to even consider negotiations; he insisted on unconditional surrender. After use of the A-bomb, and the capitulation, the emperor was left unmolested as the token head of state.

Killing people in Asia

Rather than ushering in an era of peace, victory in WWII seemed to whet the appetite of the US government for war. In 1950, in a situation where no significant American interest was at stake, and where the leadership of both sides was of an unsavory nature, the US intervened in a civil war in Korea. Over 36,000 Americans were killed in this war, which lasted about 3 years. There was massive bombing, with no serious effort to restrict it to military targets [8]. (Killing civilians in their homes was now considered OK by those in charge.) Out of a 1950 North Korean population of a little under 10 million, about a million civilians, and 300,000 combatants were killed [9].

The encore was the 14-year war in Indochina. Again the US intervened to support a ruthless, unpopular government. Starting with 900 troops in 1960, US troop levels in Vietnam peaked at 536,100, in 1968 [10]. By 1973, over 58,000 Americans had been killed [11]. Estimates (these are very crude) of Indochinese (Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian) deaths are, respectively, 2.5 million, 0.8 million, and 1 million [12]. Note that the government, as is often the case, did not try very hard to estimate the number of people it killed.

Behind the scenes

In 1953, between the Korean and Indochinese wars, the US, via the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), collaborated with the British in a coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran, headed by Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh [13]. This empowered the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who remained in power until the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

The democratically elected president, of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, was ousted by the CIA in 1954. This led to the imposition of a brutal regime, and eventually about 200,000 deaths [14].

The US organized and funded the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, and the CIA made a number of attempts to assassinate Prime Minister Fidel Castro [15].

During the 1980s, the CIA sponsored the Contras, a terrorist group fighting the democratically elected government of Nicaragua, and also involved in drug trafficking [16]. The Contras regularly murdered people, including teachers, farm workers, nurses and nuns. The US government also supported many vicious governments in other Latin American countries, such as the Pinochet regime in Chile [17], and the Argentine dictatorships [18].

Global domination

After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 the US became the world's sole superpower. Since then it has been engaged in unending conflicts, not only in the Middle East, but all over the world. The generic enemy is now the "terrorist". Somehow this war against terrorists has allied us with the most undemocratic, brutal, nations, such as Saudi Arabia. This crusade was accelerated by the 9/11 outrage. Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 killers were citizens of Saudi Arabia, 2 of the United Arab Emirates, 1 of Egypt, and 1 of Lebanon. None came from any of the countries we have been attacking ever since (including Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan).

The 2017 US military budget is over $580 billion ($825 billion if we include related items such as Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security, which are not in the Department of Defense budget.) [19]. Our war related expenditures exceed the sum of the military budgets of the next 11 highest spenders: in descending order, China, Saudi Arabia, India, Great Britain, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Germany, France, Italy, Brazil [20]. (The 2017 North Korean military budget of $7.5 billion places it way down, in position-26, but this understates their military power significantly [21].)

Currently, there are a little under 200,000 US troops stationed in bases all over the world: 39,000 in Japan, 35,000 in Germany, 24,000 in South Korea, 12,000 in Italy, 8400 in Great Britain, 5800 in Kuwait, 5500 in Bahrain, 2200 in Turkey, etc. [22]. Why? Who, for example, are we protecting Great Britain or Italy from?

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, we have been, and continue to be, involved in wars and other military actions in countries all over the world.


After the 9/11 attack, the US, under the Bush administration, used torture on a significant scale, at Guantanamo Bay prison and elsewhere. President Obama, tho claiming to have ended this practice, said that he would not support an investigation of torture under his predecessor's administration [23]. In the absence of a thoro investigation, we have no way of knowing if torture is still going on more secretly, and, in any event, secrecy and the failure to punish those responsible makes it more likely that the present, or a future, president will resume the use of torture on an even larger scale.

Murder by presidential decree

In 2010, President Obama initiated a new type of action in the war on terror. This entailed a committee meeting weekly at the White House to present the President with a list of people, which might include American citizens, considered to be "Senior Operational Leaders of Al-Qa'ida or An Associated Force". The President decides which of these people should, without any legal due process, be executed [24].

This procedure was used to authorize the killing of American born citizen Anwar Awlaki. The execution was carried out via a drone strike in Yemen in September of 2011. Two weeks later, Awlaki's 16-year old son was killed in another drone strike, and his 8-year old daughter was among those killed in a January 2017 US commando attack in Yemen [25].

Under any reasonable interpretation of the US constitution, the killing of Awlaki by the US government grossly violated provisions of the fifth and sixth amendments. Several other Americans have been killed this way. More broadly, drone strikes have been used to kill thousands of other people outside of combat zones. So now there are precedents that the present, or any future, president can use to justify killing Americans (and others) on a larger scale, without due process.

What can we do?

It is indeed tragic that the country founded by people such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine, is now in what appears to be a perpetual state of war, ruthlessly killing people all over the world. And there is no easy way to turn things around.

Perhaps, recognizing that we are on a disastrous path, enough people might organize nonviolently to consider fundamental changes in our political system. One conceivable approach that would, among other advantages, greatly reduce the role of money in politics, would be to replace elections for public office by random choices, analogous to the way jurors are selected. Such a system was used successfully in Greece two thousand years ago [26]. Doubtless, there are other ways to address this very difficult problem.


[1] Wikipedia, "Bombing of Guernica"

[2] Wikipedia, "Bombing of Hamburg in World War II"

[3] Wikipedia, "Bombing of Tokyo"

[4] Sherwood Ross, " How The US Reversed Its Policy On Civilian Bombing", Top Scoops, August 4, 2008

[5] David Buckingham, "Effect of the North American P-51 Mustang On the Air War in Europe", 8/27/1999

[6] Gar Alperovitz, "The Decision To Use The Atomic Bomb: Part I"

[7] "United States Strategic Bombing Survey: Summary Report (Pacific War)", July 1, 1946

[8] Dwight Garner, "Carpet-Bombing Falsehoods About a War That's Little Understood", NY Times, July 21, 2010

[9] "Korean War Casualty Information North/South Korean & Chinese Casualties", Korean War Educator

[10] "Vietnam War Allied Troop Levels 1960-73"

[11] "Vietnam War casualties", Fandom

[12] John Tirman, "Why do we ignore the civilians killed in American wars?", Washington Post, January 6, 2012

[13] Saeed Kamali Dehghan, Richard Norton-Taylor, "CIA admits role in 1953 Iranian coup", The Guardian, August 19, 2013

[14] Elisabeth Malkin, "An Apology for a Guatemalan Coup, 57 Years Later", NY Times, Oct. 20, 2011

[15] "Assassination attempts on Fidel Castro", Wikipedia

[16] "CIA involvement in Contra cocaine trafficking", Wikipedia

[17] "Military dictatorship of Chile (1973-90)", Wikipedia

[18] "Dirty War", Wikipedia (Argentina)

[19] "U.S. Military Budget: Components, Challenges, Growth ", The Balance, August 10, 2017

[20] "Defense Spending by Country",, 2017

[21] "2017 North Korea Military Strength",

[22] Kristen Bialik, "U.S. active-duty military presence overseas is at its smallest in decades", FACTANK, August 22, 2017.

[23] Scott Shane, "U.S. Engaged in Torture After 9/11, Review Concludes", NY Times, April 16, 2013

[24] Glenn Greenwald, "Chilling legal memo from Obama DOJ justifies assassination of US citizens", The Guardian, Feb. 5, 2013

[25] "Anwar al-Awlaki", Wikipedia

[26] Stephen H. Unger, "Government by Jury", Ends and Means, July 8, 2013

Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

Don't forget to replace (at) with @ and (dot) with the symbol .

Return to Ends and Means to see other articles that you might find interesting.