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Cataclysm: General Hap Arnold and the Defeat of Japan

Cataclysm: General Hap Arnold and the Defeat of Japan by Herman S. Wolk. University of North Texas Press, 2010, 352 pp.

Herman S. Wolk, senior historian of the Air Force, now deceased, examines the legacy of Gen Hap Arnold in his book Cataclysm, an analysis of Arnold’s role in the strategic bombing campaign that led to Japan’s surrender in 1945. With the creation of Twentieth Air Force, the general laid the foundation for a postwar strategic Air Force. Commanded by Arnold himself and reporting directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Twentieth flew B-29s that operated first from China and then the Mariana Islands, overcoming numerous technical and operational obstacles to play a decisive role in ending the Pacific war. Wolk credits this achievement to Arnold’s drive and determination, which helped establish the Air Force not only as an independent service but also as the nation’s premier strategic deterrent force in the postwar period.

Cataclysm clearly shows that Arnold himself never claimed that strategic bombing was the sole determinant of victory, but he did believe that a combination of bombing and naval blockade would defeat Japan without the need for either an invasion or the use of atomic weapons. The author describes Arnold’s struggle to get the B-29 ready for operational employment despite numerous technological problems, his success at establishing Twentieth Air Force as an independent command, and his willingness to replace Haywood Hansell with Curtis LeMay as an operational commander when the bombing campaign initially produced disappointing results. LeMay’s shift from high-altitude daylight precision bombing to nighttime low-altitude area bombing that employed incendiaries against Japan’s highly flammable cities had the desired effect: destruction of urban industry and a downward spiral in civilian morale. This bombing offensive, combined with strikes by carrier aircraft, gunfire from warships, submarine attacks on Japanese shipping, and a mining campaign in which the Army Air Forces played a significant part, brought Japan to the brink of destruction.

Would Japan have surrendered if the United States had not dropped atomic bombs or if the Soviet Union had not entered the Pacific war? Was the targeting of civilians in firebombing raids necessary when maritime isolation had already largely ruined Japan’s economy? Did Twentieth Air Force’s late entry into the war against Japan justify the Air Force’s postwar claims to strategic primacy among the nation’s armed services? The author touches on these questions but does not squander ink on counterfactual arguments that are ultimately counterproductive. A variety of factors contributed to Japan’s defeat, and Cataclysm clearly demonstrates that strategic bombing was one of them.

Hap Arnold had the determination to win the administrative battles that gave Airmen the weapons and organization they needed to contribute to victory. He also had the vision to lay a foundation for the future by creating an independent Air Force and preparing for the technological challenges that future might bring. Wolk notes Arnold’s recruitment of Dr. Theodore von Kármán to lead a team of scientists in the compilation of lengthy reports entitled Where We Stand and Toward New Horizons. As the author also observes,

Arnold emphasized that he did not “hold any brief” for a permanent Air Force. It was conceivable, he said, that a mighty Air Force, like that employed in World War II, would no longer be required. However, a well-trained, fully equipped force able to use the new technology would be needed. Most importantly, and following von Karman’s prescription, the nation required a dynamic, well-financed research and development program: “If we fail to keep not merely abreast, but ahead of, technological development, we needn’t bother to train any force and we needn’t make plans for an emergency expansion: we will be totally defeated before any expansion could take place” (p. 236).

The Air Force chief of staff selected this well-written and thoroughly researched book for inclusion in his professional reading list. I highly recommend Cataclysm to students and scholars of World War II as well as the Air Force community as a whole. It should be available in the professional reading section of base libraries.

Frank Kalesnik, PhD

Air Force Research Laboratory History Office

Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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