A world war in a day

Last month, I noted a parallel between certain pre- and post-Hiroshima nuclear warfare narratives. Here's an even more common one, this time between the knock-out blow itself and nuclear warfare.

Here's the American astronomer Carl Sagan, from the final chapter ("Who speaks for Earth?") of the 1980 companion book to his acclaimed television series, Cosmos:

By the ninth decade of the twentieth century the strategic missile and bomber forces of the Soviet Union and the United States were aiming warheads at over 15,000 designated targets. No place on the planet was safe. The energy contained in these weapons, genies of death patiently awaiting the rubbing of the lamps, was far more than 10,000 megatons -- but with the destruction concentrated efficiently, not over six years but over a few hours, a blockbuster for every family on the planet, a World War II every second for the length of a lazy afternoon. 1

Compare with Lord Ponsonby in the House of Lords, October 1933:

The next war, if there is one, is going to be as different from the last war as the last war was from the Battle of Hastings. During the four years of the Great War 300 tons of bombs were dropped on this country. In the next war 300 tons of bombs are going to be dropped on the great cities of this country in the first half-hour. 2

And with P. R. C. Groves, in Behind the Smoke Screen (1934):

"Whereas in the late war some 300 tons of bombs were dropped in this country by the Germans, air forces today could drop almost the same weight in the first twenty-four hours and continue this scale of attack indefinitely." That estimate, made by the Air Staff [in 1926], was based on the number and known 'performance' of the bombers possessed by France. Since then the striking power of the French Air Force, which is the accepted standard of measurement in Europe, has been doubled. Hence, and given the same supposition as regards the distance of the objective, it has now a bombing or striking capacity of 600 tons daily. 3

And finally, with Sir Malcolm Campbell, in The Peril from the Air (1937):

But nobody need think that war from the air next time will bear any relation to the happenings of 1914-18. What must be realized is that the development of the air arm has made it possible for an enemy to drop a 1,000 [sic] tons of bombs on London in a single day and night. That is, four times the weight that fell on the whole country during four years of war. 4

There are many more examples that I could supply, but that will do. It's the same rhetorical device, isn't it: take the awful destruction of the last war, multiply it, and compress it to fit a timescale of hours instead of years. (And as time goes by, and technology progresses and forces expand, multiply it some more.) It's an effective one, too, whichever war you are talking about: if you don't find the thought of a world war in a day a sobering one, then you are probably Curtis LeMay or Arthur Harris. So here we see an instance where the rhetoric of the Cold War was developed first for the knock-out blow, long before the Manhattan Project.

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  1. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York and Avenel: Wings Books, 1995 [1980]), 321-2.[]
  2. Lord Ponsonby, Manchester Guardian, 28 October 1933; quoted in Patrick Kyba, Covenants without the Sword: Public Opinion and British Defence Policy, 1931-1935 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1983), 88.[]
  3. P. R. C. Groves, Behind the Smoke Screen (London: Faber and Faber, 1934), 147-8. Emphasis in original.[]
  4. Malcolm Campbell, The Peril of the Air (London: Hutchinson & Co., n.d. [1937]), 49. Emphasis in original.[]

2 thoughts on “A world war in a day

  1. Sounds to me like a reasonably accurate portrayal of the escalating technology: why highlight it as a rhetorical strategy?

    The fact that these "knock-out blow" theories keep coming up false (though we never tested the last one) doesn't mean that its unimportant to understand (and mostly we understand by analogy) the nature of the beast.

  2. Post author

    Well, firstly, I don't mean to imply that it's only rhetoric. A statement can be both true, or believed to be true, and shaped for maximum effect on the audience. Of course these analogies fairly naturally fall out of the technological progress, that's my point (unstated, I guess because it seems obvious to me, and unoriginal because Harold Macmillan made it in the 1960s) -- that the knock-out blow was the interwar equivalent of the nuclear holocaust.

    Secondly, it actually wasn't true for the knock-out blow -- at least, it wasn't yet true. Partly because the knock-out blow proponents overestimated the capabilities of the technology, and partly because they misunderstood how it would be used. For example, Groves went on to extrapolate minimum casualties of 37000 from the first night's raid (without the use of gas), by scaling up the WWI casualties on London caused by aeroplane-dropped bombed. Those sorts of numbers weren't achievable on the first night of WWII (much less in 1934), they weren't until after several years of war had taught the necessary experience and forced the development of more powerful (and numerous) aircraft. (For comparison, the Coventry raid was nearly at the level of Groves' initial attack, 500 tons; but caused only 1400 casualties.) Technology is not destiny!

    And finally, I'm hardly going to disagree with your final statement, since my thesis is all about understanding 'the nature of the beast', in an historical context :)

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