A postcard from the 20th century


Writing and publishing a printed and bound book is like sending a postcard into the future. (Just possibly, releasing digital materials has the same capability, but I’m not sure?) So here, on my desk, is a postcard from the end of the last century in the form of a copy of Sven Lindqvist’s book A History of Bombing, which was first published in Swedish in 1999 CE and released in New York in an English translation by Linda Haverty Rugg in 2001.

Lindqvist was born in 1932. By the time he published AHOB he seemed well aware of the “postcard-to-the-future” aspect of published books. The short introduction/guide he provided for the book ended with these words: “Once you have seen my century, build one of your own from other pieces.”

AHOB is actually “about” a lot more than just the history of bombing. Maybe the original Swedish version of the title, which was roughly rendered in English as “Bang, Bang, You’re Dead!” captures the spirit of the book a bit better. I would describe the volume as one that provides an account of the development of White, male, imperial aggressivity over the course of the 20th century CE that encompasses the histories of air power, rocketry, aerial bombardment, and nuclear weapons, along with the development of all the theories that arose in the “West” about those notable advances in mega-lethal military technology.


How long is a “generation”? In my family, my maternal grandmother was born in 1888 and my first grandchild in 2008. Thus, an average of 30 years per generation. As it happens, it has been almost exactly that span of time since the end of the “old” Cold War between “the West” and the old Soviet Union. So a whole generation has now grown up in the United States that has no experience of growing up in a Cold War environment, that is, one in which the power of the United States and its allies was kept in check by the counter-power of the Soviet Union and the relationship between those two “sides” was characterized by reciprocal threats (generally implicit not explicit, but always well understood) of “mutually assured destruction” and indeed, the destruction of just about all of life on earth as we know it.

How can we of the older generation explain some of those realities to today’s under-45s? (And equally, importantly, why did we of the older generation not do a LOT more during the past 30 years to eliminate the well-known bane of nuclear weapons from the whole world while we had a good chance to? But let me bookmark that question to return to it later.) I would submit that reading Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing could be a good place to start our explanation– along with, perhaps, a viewing of the 2-hour movie The Day After that ABC relased in 1983.


One of the terms used by the whole extensive clan of nuclear-war “theorists” that emerged during the Cold War was “massive retaliation”. It was a whole theory of how a nuclear war might be fought, or alternatively, how one might use the grisly powerfulness of nuclear weapons to “deter” one’s opponent from starting such a war. Let’s find out what A History of Bombing has to say about it.

So in most books, to locate material related to one particular term you’d go to the Index. Not in AHOB. Here, you go to the slim list titled “Ways Into the Book” that takes up two pages in the space where normally you’d find a Table of Contents. Here’s what this list looks like:

Readers may recall that two years ago, I published an appreciation of one of Lindqvist’s earlier works, ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’, which traced the genocidal nature of “White” imperial projects in Africa. I noted that Lindqvist divided the text of Exterminate not into chapters but into numbered sections, each much shorter than a standard book chapter. AHOB is also divided into numbered sections, 398 of them. Each of the first 22 sections serves as a launch-point for one of the thematic narrative threads that weave their way through the rest of the book. The book is otherwise presented chronologically, with a heavy emphasis on the years 1911 through 1999. So let’s dive into his “Massive Retaliation” thread, which starts at Section 18.


This is a very different way to read a book. But intriguing, thought-provoking, and very instructive.


In Section 18, Lindqvist notes that in January 1796 a French researcher called Charles Cuvier gave a lecture in Paris in which he proved that the species created by God were not eternal but could “become extinct.” And that, he said, was also true of the human species.

But Lindqvist– who later notes the role that Darwin’s more developed theories of evolution played in justifying all kinds of “White” imperial aggression from 1854 on– does not dwell on Cuvier. At the end of Section 18, he whisks us over to Section 36.


In Sections 36 and 37 he tells us of two literary works, published in 1806 and 1826 respectively, that were inspired by Cuvier’s notion of what we might call “human extinguishability”. The first of these was a novel by a French author called Cousin de Grainville, titled Le dernier homme (“The Last Man”). The second was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1826 novel of the same (English) title, which foresaw a world in 2090 in which, per Lindqvist, a “happy world is stricken with an epidemic that drives humanity back to violence, barbarism, and superstition. Science and politics are helpless… Slowly and painfully humankind becomes extinct.” Lindqvist also notes that, “There is no hint that the plague has been intentionally let loose. No one is trying consciously to ‘annihilate his race.'”


We’re then sent to Section 61, which describes a 1901 novel by M.P. Shiel titled The Purple Cloud, whose protagonist undertakes an Arctic exploration during which he releases a “purple cloud” which kills all the rest of humankind. When he returns southward, “He is the last man. He is all-powerful– but he has no one to rule. He can commit any crime he wants– but there is no one to commit crime against… ” He therefore sets to work burning all the world’s cities. (Not clear how he travels between them?) After burning London, Paris, Calcutta, Peking, and other cities he travels to Constantinople to burn it, too. There he finds one young beautiful Turkish woman who has survived: “An inner voice whispers ‘Kill, kill– and wallow!'”

LIndqvist commented: “This peculiar paean to destruction stands as a portal to a century that would burn more cities and kill more people than any century before.”

(One added thing I found out about M.P. Shiel was that though he worked mainly in the London literary scene he’d been born in the West Indies where his father may have been the son of an enslaved mother and his mother may have been a “Free” Black.)


Lindqvist then transports us from the world of literary speculation to the real world of U.S. strategic decisionmaking in the early 1950s. In others of his threads Lindqvist has already explained how the United States had recently carried out massive-scale firebombings of Tokyo, had invested heavily in developing nuclear bombs and various rocketry-based ways of delivering them, and had actually dropped two nukes on large Japanese cities back in 1945. This was definitely a country in which inflicting massive casualties on “the enemy”, including on non-combatant members of the “enemy” society had become entirely thinkable.

In the next stop on this voyage, in Section 277, Lindqvist takes us to the halls of U.S. decisionmaking over Korea, a place where the United States’ possession of a proven nuclear arsenal had notably not deterred the Communist Chinese leaders (who were then allied with the Russian Communists) from sending in a large “volunteer” force to confront the large U.S.-led military presence on the peninsula.

Section 277 starts thus:

Probably no one living in the 1950s intentionally and consciously wanted to destroy the world. But now it had become easier to do it than to avoid it. And perhaps lives could even be saved by threatening to do it.

Why did the U.S. allow more than 20,000 young Americans to die in Korea… even though the U.S. had access to a weapon which, had it been used, would have brought immediate victory?

This question was asked more frequently as the war dragged on…

He reports on the pressure the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force brought to bear. The Navy Secretary argued that, “Americans could not avoid their duty as ‘aggressors for peace’.” The Air Force Chief stated, “Just say the word, and I will destroy Russia’s five atomic nests in a week. And when I stand before Christ… I think I could explain to Him that I had saved civilization.”


The Air Force chief, we learn in Section 279, was relieved of his post. But in the presidential election of 1952 the Republican candidate was the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who won the election on a tough anti-communist platform. In October 1953, Eisenhower approved a new military strategy, NSC-162/2, that stated that the United States would no longer allow itself to be drawn into lengthy, draining conflicts overseas using “conventional” weapons but instead would “deter” potential opponents by threatening them with “massive retaliation” with nuclear weapons.

Lindqvist wrote that this was similar to the way the British had used bomber aircraft to use “air control” to dominate the Middle East between the wars and more recently to try to put down nationalist uprisings, “in Aden, Malaya, Kenya, and so on.” Specifically, the use of bombs in both cases was seen as a way of winning military objectives that was far more cost-effective than sending in large ground armies.

However, there were clear differences between the two types of scenario. First, the British (and the French, and Italians, etc.) all actually used large amounts of air power in their colonial scenarios, whereas under Eisenhower’s strategy the key was to only threaten to use the big weapons. Second, nearly all those colonial uses of air power proved in a fairly short space of time to be politically quite unsuccessful. Within just a few years, the peoples thus targeted had won the political independence that the imperial bombardiers were trying to prevent. (Though they won it only at a horrendously high cost in terms of the suffering the bombers had inflicted.)

So how successful was Eisenhower’s strategy of nuclear deterrence through voicing the threat of “massive retaliation”? Let’s just say it has not been proven unsuccessful at any point until today, though the conflict in Ukraine could turn out to be a tough test for it. (My colleague David Barash recently pointed to a number of cases in which nuclear deterrence did not work, from the perspective that– as in the case of Korea in the early 1950s– the possession by one party of a nuclear arsenal did not deter a non-nuclear-armed opponent from confronting it. Another case he cited was that of Argentina invading the Malvinas/Falklands in 1982. Regarding David’s argument I’d note that in cases of a nuclear vs. non-nuclear powers, the “threat” by the nuclear power of using nuclear weapons against the non-nuclear power would likely not be as credible as would a threat against a known nuclear power. Hence my statement above that massive retaliation has not yet been proven unsuccessful remains, I think, valid in a nuclear vs. nuclear confrontation.)


Lindqvist notes that in 1954 the popular U.S. writer Philip Wylie published a novel, Tomorrow!, that dealt with the aftermath of an exchange of nuclear weapons that included this dire scenario:

Finland was not. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, they were not. Kronstadt melted, Leningrad… they perished… Men swallowed, ate, breathed, sickened and perished in a day, a week, two weeks– men and women and children, all of them, dogs and cats and cattle and sheep, all of them…

The last great obstacle to freedom had been removed from the human path.

I have not read Wylie’s book. At one level, from the way Lindqvist portrays it, it seems like an almost hilarious deployment of the mobilizing concept of “freedom”.

I have to note, too, that from the excerpt Lindqvist included there, the book is a little asynchronous with the narrative of Eisenhower’s introduction of the concept of a massive-retaliation-based “nuclear deterrence”.

Or perhaps not… What Wylie’s text seemed to be conveying was that the United States could survive the outbreak of a nuclear war, and could thrive thereafter. And maybe the credibility and the plausibility– for Americans, but probably not for Lithuanians, etc?– of the concept of nuclear deterrence does depend to a significant extent on the belief that the United States could survive the nuclear war that it threatens to unleash? Worth thinking about.


Motoring right along our “massive retaliation” pathway here in AHOB, in Section 287 Lindqvist notes that in March 1954,the United States detonated the first example of an even more destructive bomb, the first hydrogen (or thermonuclear/fission) bomb, named Bravo:

It unexpectedly released fifteen megatons [of TNT equivalent]… ‘Bravo’ had the strength of 1,200 Hiroshima bombs.

Two weeks later, the air force informed the other branches of service how they intended to use the new weapon. The Soviet Bloc would be attacked with 735 planes armed with nuclear weapons…

The overall impression was that ‘virtually all of Russia would be nothing but a smoking, radiating ruin at the end of two hours,’ reported one participant.


But when Washington’s South Korean ally asked Eisenhower to up the ante against the Russian-supported side in North Korea, the bugaboo of “unthinkability” raised its head. In Sec. 288 Lindqvist cites the Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis as having unearthed Eisenhower’s response to the South Korean request: “When you say that we should deliberately plunge into war, let me tell you that… war today is unthinkable with the weapons we have at our command.”

Lindqvists’s comment on that was: “So atomic war was unimaginable. At the same time, threats of atomic war were supposed to replace conventional warfare and render ground troops unnecessary. It didn’t quite mesh.”


In Sec. 290, Lindqvist notes that in April 1955, an air force general gave the joint chiefs of staff the estimate that, “the combined number of dead for the two opponents in a pair of initial nuclear offensives [would be] seventy-seven million, with sixty million on the Soviet side.” Thus, presumably, 17 million on the American side?

This general and his colleagues tried to ask “nine leading American social scientists” to estimate how this degree of losses would affect “the Soviet will to continue the war.” They could not come up with an answer.


Lindqvist quotes (Sec. 291) one of the founders of the British anti-nuclear movement as concluding that,

the very absurdity of the situation by the spring of 1955 created ‘a moment for hope’… The Korean War was over, the French were preparing to leave Vietnam, Stalin was dead. Both the Soviet Union and the U.S. had new leaders. Both had hydrogen bombs and both knew what that meant.

Large grassroots anti-nuclear movements grew up in Britain and elsewhere. Leaders in the four nuclear powers– France, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union– all moved towards negotiations for disarmament.

But (Sec. 292) they did not move fast enough. In late 1956, France, Britain, and Israel launched the exquisitely planned aggression against Egypt known as the Suez Crisis, and the Russians crushed the (partly US-instigated) uprising in Hungary.


The international climate grew colder than ever. The Russians began building their answer to the fleet of U.S. intercontinental jet bombers, and four years later, in 1960, the Soviet Union announced its counterpart to ‘massive reprisal’…

… Both superpowers had now based their defense entirely on their ability simultaneously to promise and [to] avoid total destruction.


Lindqvist’s “Massive Retaliation” thread runs on through 16 additional sections of his book. It takes us briskly through the continued growth of the anti-nuclear popular movements in the United States and other Western countries and through four notable English-language novels, published between 1957 and 1963, that in this new environment of mutually assured destruction explored what the aftermath of a nuclear war might look and feel like. These were:

  • Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach. (For what it’s worth, this one of the first novels from my father’s collection that I took down from the imposing bookshelf in our family dining-room and started to read. It was not 1957. Maybe a few years later, when I was ten or eleven years old? I was riveted by the bleak picture it painted.)
  • Helen Clarkson’s The Last Day (1959),
  • Mordechai Roshwald’s Level 7 (1959), and intriguingly
  • Another book from Philip Wylie, Triumph (1963).

Wylie had evidently not forsaken the fascination with the novelistic possibilities of nuclear war scenarios that he had explored in Tomorrow!, just nine years earlier. But now, his view was a very much grimmer one. Lindqvist tells us (Secs. 316 and 317) that in the 1963 book Wylie, “wrote of what really happens when a hydrogen bomb explodes.” This time, specifically, it is not just Finland and the other Baltic nations that get incinerated, but it happens in the United States as well. He quotes Wylie as writing that,

as the fireball approaches the earth… the steel in skyscrapers melts and they collapse. But before they have reached the ground, both the buildings and the ground evaporate, and millions of tons of concrete and bedrock turn into a frothing white light. At the same time the radioactivity streams out at the speed of light in all directions…

And this is just a fraction of the destructive capability of this weapon. There is still the firestorm to be reckoned with, the familiar old firestorm they managed to produce by chance in Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo, but which now has become entirely clear… And finally the radioactive fallout has to be taken into consideration…


But despite this level of destructiveness, Wylie still apparently thinks these weapons serve a worthwhile purpose. Lindqvist characterizes Wylie’s view thus: “Well, says Wylie, the evils of Communism are so profound that the free world never understood them… That is why the last surviving human beings in Wylie’s tale of the future think that freedom was worth the cost.”

More deployment of that wriggling, writhing little concept, “Freedom!”


Meantime, while Wylie was writing that text in presumably 1962, Lindqvist reminds us (Sec. 318) that two signal new developments occurred in the real world. Firstly, the Soviets detonated the biggest nuclear weapon ever– a 50-megaton superbomb, equivalent to 4,000 Hiroshimas. Secondly, the Soviets started to station some of their nuclear arsenal in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Lindqvist provides this succinct description of the impact of that move, that led to the well-known “Cuban Missile Crisis” of October 1962:

Lindqvist provides a brief glimpse of the bellicosity of the U.S. generals, as recorded by Pres. Kennedy himself during the internal deliberations in the White House. Then he notes (Sec. 320) that,

There was no ‘massive reprisal.’ Kennedy was strong enough to hold his trigger-happy generals in check. Krushchev was humble enough to back down.He took his nuclear weapons home from Cuba and contented himself with a secret promise from Kennedy that Americans would bring similar nuclear weapons back from Turkey…


At this point, per the “threaded” design of Lindqvist’s book, he sends the reader back to Section 19, which is the launchpad for the whole story of “Flexible Retaliation.” Indeed, as Lindqvist notes in his Introduction: “This book is a labyrinth with twenty-two entrances and no exit.”

However, instead of following instructions my unruly eyes wandered forward to the next section after 320. In it, Lindqvist wrote: “The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 let the air out of the resistance to nuclear weapons. The relief that nothing had happened eased imperceptibly into the illusion that nothing could happen.” Those are my italics. I find that observation very profound.

He then immediately added, “To protest the bombs that were actually being dropped on the Vietnamese seemed more vital than protesting the bombs that threatened– but up to now did nothing more than threaten– to exterminate all of humankind.” (To be honest, that feels a little too elided and glib to me. The protests against the Vietnam war did not really become a big thing in the west for several years after 1962.)


What certainly is worth noting about the Cuban Missile Crisis is that the widespread terror/shock over how close the two superpowers came in 1962 to global nuclear war did jumpstart a number of important threat-reduction processes. These included the initiation of a Washington-Moscow “hot-line” so the two leaderships could have speedy communication about developments– such as a flock of geese flying over a sensitive radar– that might otherwise have triggered an almost-instant nuclear exchange, and later on, a whole structure of other threat-reduction and arms-control measures designed to ratchet down first the growth of their nuclear arsenals, and later yet, their actual size and the riskiness of their configurations. And along the way, a degree of confidence was built up between the two superpowers that finally, in the years 1989-91, allowed the whole, always risky situation of the nuclear-girded “Cold War” to brought peacefully to an end without any further use of the devilish weapons.


And it is that structure of arms-control agreements, confidence-building measures, and even the hot-line itself that over the past 20 years has been substantially (though thank G-d not wholly) torn apart by the successive decisions taken by mainly the U.S. side, but also the Russian side, to pull out of them.

Could the Ukraine Crisis lead us to another version of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but this time with reaction times and “turnaround times” for decisionmakers being very much shorter than they were in 1962?


Two last points about A History of Bombing. First, in the narrative above I followed only one of the breadcrumb trails that Lindqvist had left through his book. There are 21 others, many of them just as engrossing/informative/shocking as that one. They are listed in the two photos I put in above.

Second, did I mention that he provides excellent footnotes? There are 436 of them for his 186-page text.