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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, 2012, 352 pp.

In Cataclysm Herman S. Wolk argues that Gen Hap Arnold counted upon the B-29 campaign as a means to an end (i.e., the continued future of the Army Air Forces [AAF] and the effort to make it an independent service). The author does not indicate that Arnold himself ever openly promoted strategic bombing as the decisive tool for victory and, thus, a proof of concept. However, he does convincingly present the case—through Arnold’s actions—that privately he thought that the strategy of air bombardment and the AAF’s participation in creating a sea blockade could bring about the war’s end without a costly ground invasion of the Japanese home islands.

The book includes an introduction and seven chapters, the introduction and last chapter acting as bookends. In the introduction, Wolk identifies his goal of uniquely examining the interconnected roles that General Arnold played in the development and deployment of the B-29 and the establishment of Twentieth Air Force as well as the strategies and policies of an air campaign whose design could have ultimately led to the defeat of Japan. He also notes that his study draws on a source little used in the examination of that defeat—the wartime accounts of the Japanese themselves, a source that gives particular credence to his thesis. In the final chapter, “Who Was Hap Arnold?,” Wolk addresses the impact of Arnold’s determination to bring about an independent Air Force, including his futurist vision of a radically different aviation technology. The central chapters cover the general’s career from his early days in aviation to the period immediately following the Second World War. Each chapter develops the unfolding story of policy, strategy, and command that emerged from the debate about whether an air campaign and naval blockade could bring about a Japanese surrender or whether a ground invasion was necessary. Of course, the successful use of the atomic bombs rendered that debate moot.

Within the central chapters, Wolk details Arnold’s relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt and his cabinet members, such as Harry Hopkins, his struggle to ready the B-29 for operational deployment in spite of numerous technological problems, and his successful establishment of Twentieth Air Force as an independent command under his direct leadership. The general’s willingness to replace the Twentieth’s operational commanders when he felt they were not producing the desired results demonstrates his emphasis on the success of the Pacific air campaign. In Gen Curtis LeMay, Arnold found a commander who would lead the XI Bomber Command and produce those results. LeMay’s shift from high-altitude precision bombing to low-altitude area incendiary bombing brought about the destruction of Japan’s dispersed urban industries and, Wolk maintains, the collapse of its will to continue prosecuting the war. Though not the factor that brought about surrender, Wolk convincingly argues that strategic bombing and the AAF’s involvement in the sea mine campaign were key elements in setting the stage for Japan’s capitulation when confronted with the destructiveness of the atomic bombs.

I found this book repetitive at times, particularly in its first half, but I also found it an enlightening and enjoyable read. As the author observes in the introduction, this study is not an operational history but an examination of policy, strategy, and command. As such, Wolk’s narrative of Arnold impressed me. The general’s impact on the air campaign in the Pacific theater and the interconnected drive to maintain operational independence for Twentieth Air Force laid the foundation for the creation of an independent postwar Air Force. Cataclysm is a welcome addition to literature on the air campaign in the Pacific, the debate over the effectiveness of a strategic air campaign, and Arnold’s vision of how—through the contributions of a wartime campaign—the AAF could transform itself into a coequal service.

Jeff McGovern

Tucson, Arizona

"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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