Mike the Mad Biologist

Sunday Sermon: Freeman Dyson on Total War

Many of you will know of Freeman Dyson as a world-class physicist. But he was also assigned to RAF Bomber Command during World War II. Here are his thoughts on bombing of urban areas, from Disturbing the Universe:

At the beginning of the war, I believed fiercely in the brotherhood of man, called myself a follower of Gandhi, and was morally opposed to all violence. After a year of war, I retreated and said, Unfortunately nonviolent resistance against Hitler is impracticable, but I am still morally opposed to bombing. A couple of years later I said, Unfortunately it seems that bombing is necessary to win the war, and so I am willing to work for Bomber Command, but I am still morally opposed to bombing cities indiscriminately. After I arrived at Bomber Command I said, Unfortunately it turns out that we are after all bombing cities indiscriminately, but this is morally justified, as it is helping to win the war. A year later I said, Unfortunately it seems that our bombing is not really helping to win the war, but at least I am morally justified in working to save the lives of the bomber crews. In the last spring of the war I could no longer find any excuses.


  1. #1 SLC
    March 18, 2007

    It has been known for a long time that bombing non military targets is a waste of ordinance and bomber crews. The notion that just bombing urban areas for the purpose of inflicting maximum causalities does not force ones’ opponent to throw in the sponge (e.g. London, German cities). Unfortunately, far too much effort, especially by the British in WW2 was expended on such bombing.

  2. #2 Brian
    March 18, 2007


    Not that I think it was justified, but it was pretty effective.

  3. #3 SLC
    March 18, 2007

    Re Brian

    The nuclear bomb was several orders of magnitude greater then conventional bombs, even incendiaries. However, if the bomb had been available and had been dropped on Japan in 1942, I’m not so sure that it would have ended the war at that time.

  4. #4 Colugo
    March 18, 2007

    Freeman Dyson made some bizarre remarks on his WWII experience, in this case about being on the receiving end of bombing:

    “The events of September 11 brought to mind another vivid and uncomfortable memory. I am sixteen years old, lying in bed at my home in London on a noisy night in September 1940. I am violently hostile to the British Empire and everything it stands for. I hate London, the citadel of oppression, with its grandiose buildings sucking the wealth from every corner of the world. I lie in bed listening to the bombs exploding and the buildings crumbling. What joy to hear, after each explosion, the delicious sound of buildings falling down, the great British Empire audibly crumbling. The joy far outweighs any fear that my own home might be hit, or any pity for the people in the falling buildings. How many sixteen-year-olds all over the world are now seeing on television the pictures of the World Trade Center buildings collapsing, and feeling the same joy that I felt in 1940. I find it easy to imagine the state of mind of the young men who so resolutely smashed those planes into the buildings. Almost, I could have been one of them myself.”

    Physicist David Deutsch responds to Dyson

    RJ Rummel on Allied bombing during WWII

    Dresden: ‘Firestorm’ by Marshall De Bruhl

    Hiroshima: ‘Downfall’ by Robert B. Frank

  5. #5 Ratel
    March 19, 2007

    The bombing of Hiroshima did not save one single American life. The Japanese were already trying to find a way to end the war and it was only a matter of time before it would have ended anyway even without a ground invasion of the home islands.

    The bombing of population centers seems to have the opposite effect of what the bombers are hoping for. Rather than weakening resolve it seems that it unites the people being bombed against the people doing the bombing.

  6. #6 Garrett
    March 19, 2007


    What the Japanese leadership needed was an excuse to surrender without losing face. The atomic bombs gave them that excuse. You’re right in that it would have likely ended shortly thereafter anyway, but the number of US soldiers and sailors killed or wounded in another couple of weeks or so of even one-sided war would have been many more than 0. Probably far fewer than the number of Japanese civilians killed in the two atomic bombings.

    (For the record, I think the bombing of Hiroshima was justified, but Nagasaki was not. It takes more than three days to figure out what happened, to get that information to the people in charge, to mull over the decision, and to get the surrender out to the other side. Though I would have chosen a primarily military target instead.)

  7. #7 Mike the Mad Biologist
    March 19, 2007


    The Japanese government had, for two weeks before Hiroshima, contacted the U.S. about a surrender. The Japanese government stipulated that the Emperor not be deposed. Because of the U.S. government’s insistence on unconditional surrender, the offers were rebuffed. At the time, many in the U.S. military didn’t think the casualties that would be suffered by the U.S. justified the use of the bomb (the commander of the 8th Air Group was one; Stimson, the Sect. of War was another). Why Truman did it will always be a mystery (and probably there are multiple reasons), but one has to be an attempt to intimidate the Soviets.

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