It’s Hardcore History Addendum.
Well, it is way past time, isn’t it? For just about any content from us. Hardcore History
Addendum shows long overdue. I’ve been working on tying up the loose ends that develop over
a six-part multi-year long, is that even right, series on the Second World War. So, sorry
patience required on that front, but when we wrap that up, we’ll be done with the Second
World War for a while. I need a palate cleanser, a medieval or an ancient palate cleanser for
a while. But at the risk of going down that same road that the History Channel went down
once when they started referring to it as the World War II Channel, the topic of the,
you know, long put off Hardcore History Addendum show here involves the Second World War. But
I couldn’t resist and you’ll understand why when you hear who I’m talking with. It’s one
of the people that you can say, I mean, I know he’s on a book tour right now, but I just, I feel
like we’re the right people to sort of interview him because, well, we’re other history podcasters
and this book is actually more an audio book, although I read the PDF version and I’m sure he’s
gonna sell a ton of copies of this in print, but I think he wants it to be heard and there are
sounds and like he says in the interview, when you hear the principles in the story talked about,
you hear their voice all of a sudden. So that would be really cool. I didn’t realize I was
gonna get so grabbed by the story when I read it, but it’s one of those things that it’s right up
our alley. Same sorts of cultural societal questions that come into play with shows we’ve
done like Logical Insanity or The Destroyer of Worlds. The guest I’m talking about is Malcolm
Gladwell, host of the Revisionist History podcast, which he’s been doing to rave reviews and large
audiences for years. He’s written multiple books, been on the New York Times bestseller multiple
times as a public speaker. He does a lot of stuff and we, you know, in the last Hardcore History
Addendum show we got out was in July. So, I mean, there’s a little bit of a contrast there, but
regardless, when you get a chance to talk to somebody who is a big important person in your
narrow little field, well, too good to pass up. And Malcolm’s coming on the show today to talk
about the new book, The Bomber Mafia. A dream, a temptation, and the longest night of the Second
World War. I read the whole thing. I only was gonna give it enough time to skim because, you know,
working on the sixth part of a six-part series. And it sucked me right in, which I may have told
him in the interview, but it’s the absolute truth. And if the PDF can do that to me, I can only
imagine what, you know, a man who makes a living telling stories in an audio venue anyway does. I
mean, it’s got to be much better. So, check out the interview and by all means check out The Bomber
Mafia if you like the Second World War or just even that weird question about how relatively
cultural and genteel countries, at least in terms of how they were willing to treat, you know, other
advanced countries, went from thinking something like bombing human beings in cities was abhorrent,
awful, never-to-be-attempted behavior into, you know, in like four or five years, people who
thought that this was the proper way to win a war. It’s fascinating. And Malcolm Gladwell delves into
it. And we talked to him right now.
So, let me first tell you that my intention originally, because like most history podcasters, I have a huge
reading list that I’m perpetually behind on. And I was planning on just skimming this and then letting you
tell me about it. But I got sucked in by the quality of the writing and the fascinating aspect of the
story, which is something that we’ve been interested to hear in forever. I mean, I’ve done hours and
hours after that on some of the basic tradeoffs that you talk about, where morality and warfare sort of come
into contact with each other. So I thought I’d ask you, since the title of the book is The Bomber Mafia, maybe
we can start by you explaining to the listeners what The Bomber Mafia is and what it means.
The Bomber Mafia were a group of pilots, airmen, who were at Maxwell Air Force Base in just outside of
Montgomery in Alabama in the 1930s. And they were on the faculty of what was called the Air Corps Tactical
School. So this is basically the training ground for officers in the Air Corps before the Second World War.
And the Bomber Mafia were a group who became convinced they could reform modern war through the use of
bombers, through the use specifically of precision bombing. They felt that if you could drop a bomb exactly
where you wanted to drop a bomb, then all of a sudden, every other element of traditional warfare became
obsolete. You wouldn’t need armies. You wouldn’t need navies. You wouldn’t need anything except for bombers.
And they pursued this idea. First of all, they sketched it out in the 1930s and pursued it well into the Second
World War. And my book is a story of that ultimately failed pursuit of this particular dream about how to remake war.
Now, this was part of an intellectual tradition amongst airmen that that goes far before the Second World War. I mean, you
know, duets command of the air happens almost almost at the same time the Wright brothers are putting planes in the
sky. So this concept of using air power as not just a way to change warfare, but maybe as a more humane development to
warfare was something that was pinging. The one thing I didn’t see in the book and I was curious about it was was was
there any intellectual contact between the theorists in the Bomber Mafia and and other air theorists who weren’t
That’s a really interesting question, which I put to some of the historians at the Air University. And the short answer is we
don’t really know. And the, oh, it doesn’t seem like there was a lot. It seems like a very much because remember, there’s a
slight difference in the in the emphasis of what Dewey was talking about, and what the Bomber Mafia were talking about. The
really caught up in the notion of precision bombing. So they weren’t simply believers in air power. They thought that they
were believers in a particular application of air power, which is this idea that you could do pinpoint bombing. So they were
sort of, they felt that they were departing quite dramatically from kind of conventional air power doctrine at the time. So
you know, what Dewey believed was, he was part of the group that believed, and you know, I’m sure you know more about this than me,
that, you know, the bomber would always get through, that bombers could fly so high and so fast, and were so imperturbable in the
face of anti-aircraft fire and, you know, planes coming to attack them, that they represented a kind of unstoppable force in
warfare. The Bomber Mafia took that one step further. And they said, all of that is true. And if we can put a bomb wherever we
want, then we really can rule the air. Because not only can we get through, but we can, we can, we can, we can debilitate the enemy with
just the barest minimum of planes and bombs. That’s the kind of crucial element of their thinking.
And I was looking at stuff from some of the early 20th century, arms limitation treaties and rules of war stuff, Hague
Convention, those sorts of things. And even back then, the Americans were making sure that there were loopholes carved into the rules and
restrictions on these brand new weapon systems known as bombers and airplanes, to allow for precision bombing. So it seems like from the very
roots of the American intellectual tradition, that precision bombing question has been something that’s been on their minds.
Yeah, so this is, they’re very much, the Bomber Mafia is very much in the spirit of American military thinking going back to the Revolutionary War,
right? There’s always been this belief in American military doctrine, that technology offers a set of opportunities and advantages over
traditional, you know, over the kind of status quo. So they’re in that, they’re very much caught up in that notion that technology could be the
savior of the military mission. That doesn’t, you know, that’s, it’s an odd thing, because, you know, they, they’re the most American of, of
military strategists. But they still, at the end, find themselves on the outside looking in to the American war effort. I mean, they’re, they start out as the
most American of Americans. And then, you know, what happens by the end of the war is they’re not, they’re no longer in charge of our war effort.
They’re, they’re not outcasts, exactly. But they’re pushed to the side.
You know, I wrote down a little synopsis of, I was trying to figure out a good one paragraph way to describe what the book sort of explains. And one of
the versions I have here said, it’s the story of how the US got to the point where it was burning down all of Japan’s major cities, when the original idea
amongst US aviation theorists was specifically to avoid that outcome. Does that sound like a description of what you were explaining?
Yeah, exactly. I mean, they begin the war thinking that the British idea of area bombing was, was monstrous. You know, that in the early days of the, of the European
Air War, you know, the Americans regarded what bomber Harris was doing with the, with the RAF, as a kind of act of moral barbarousness. I mean, they were appalled by what
the British intended to do over Europe. And they, they always had this idea that they were engaged in a much more morally upright mission. That the British
wanted to bomb everything in sight, the Americans were like, no, no, no, no, we’ll go in by day, we’ll pick our targets. And, you know, we’ll avoid
civilian casualties as much as possible. We’ll leave the cities intact, we’ll just take out the bridges, or we’ll just take out the power plants, or we’ll
just take out the most militarily significant target. And so they have this, like, they never, they explicitly think they are trying to avoid this
indiscriminate use of, of, of, of bombing of air power. And yet, by the end of the war, they’re the worst offenders. I mean, it’s, by the way, the nuclear bomb at
the end of the war, is the ultimate expression of the very idea they were trying to defeat. I mean, it’s sort of, the ironies here are just kind of
Yeah, I love that. So I that’s why the subject I originally when I saw the title of the book, I thought this is going to be a book about heavy bombers and all
that. I’m not all that interested in heavy bombers. And then when I got into it and realized, no, this is about the, the moral overtones and how people can set
out on one course and end up on another. And that to me is in my wheelhouse. So I found it fascinating what you wrote. And so it started getting me thinking about
things like the various time period we’re talking about here, where so much of this stuff is theoretical. So you mentioned British area bombing. I mean, to give the
British some credit, nobody really knew how you use these vast fleets of airships and what they were capable of. And I mean, you spend quite a bit of time on the
Norton bomb site, and how much of a difference that makes in allowing people to have a theory of precision bombing that maybe makes some sense, right? If you have this
great targeting weapon, then maybe you can actually hit what did you say a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet or whatever. So talk to us a little bit about the Norton bomb
site, and maybe the weapon system of the B-29 Superfortress and how these things were, were intended to work together to create a sort of an American bombing
approach, if you will.
From the beginning, when the bomber mafia are first conducting these kind of seminars and brainstorming at Maxwell in the 1930s, what they’re thinking of is
entirely hypothetical. So the B-29 is still a kind of, you know, it’s not even, it hasn’t even been imagined yet. But they have this notion in their head of a bomber that
could fly really fast and really high. And that could be, you know, well outside of the range of, of enemy anti-aircraft fire, and much faster than any, you know, enemy
fighter jet, enemy fighter plane that might intercept it. The second thing that they hypothesize is, they, they strongly believe there will be a way to drop to solve the
physics problem of how you drop a bomb, drop a bomb accurately from 25,000 feet or 20,000 feet. They don’t know how to do it yet. But they have this kind of native confidence that by the
time war actually breaks out, we will solve that physics problem. And sure enough, there is this top secret Army project that’s launched in the late 1930s with this
legendary inventor called Carl Norton, to resolve that issue, to figure out how to do it. And, you know, the Norton bomb site, which is now a kind of famous device in the Second World War, was this, was kind of comes
online, right at the time that the bomber mafia is kind of fighting to make their dream real. So they’re given, they’re given two tools at the outbreak of the, or actually not the outbreak, but in the middle of the
Second World War, that can, that allow them to think that their dream can be made real. One is, one is they finally get the B-29, which is, you know, such a, an advancement over the previous generation. And what really makes you think
that you can hit anything from anywhere, because the range is so extraordinary, and the sophistication of it, it’s a step beyond the B-17. The second thing is like, they get the Norton bomb site, and they
you know, Norton, who is this brilliant inventor, convinces the military brass that with the aid of this incredibly intricate analog computer that he has invented, you really can hit whatever target you want to hit from 20-25,000 feet. I mean, he convinces them that is no longer simply a kind of dream, but rather a reality. And armed with those two things, the plane that finally meets their
specifications, and the bomb site that allows them to make, they think, precision bombing a reality, they think there’s nothing stopping the American Air Force. They think, oh, we can win now, right? Like, we can go, we can go over Germany, and then we can go over Japan, and we can just, you know, we could pick off whatever militarily significant targets we want, and there’s not, they’re going to be powerless to do anything about it.
So there’s this kind of moment of extraordinary, unguarded optimism in, you know, 4041, in that, in that, in that window, early in the war, when the Air Force thinks, we’ve, we’ve got the tools now to make this happen.
I’m trying to think about, you know, and this is, these are the unanswerables, like, if you could go to the American public, or the President of the United States, or even maybe the heads of the military, in the mid 1930s, so a few years before the Second World War breaks out, and you could have told them, we’re going to use our Air Force to completely level the cities of our enemies.
I wonder how the reaction would have been different than if you’d had that same conversation at the end of the Second World War in 1945. So the difference in, in what the, the combination of the evilness of the war, and, you know, as everyone likes to point out to me, the fact that the, the Axis powers were bombing people too.
So, so is there a way to compare and contrast the attitudes, the pre-war attitudes of people that if you had shown them photos of what was going to happen to Germany and Japan, because of the bombing attacks? I guess what I’m trying to get to is, is the change in the mentality. Do you think 1930s United States public opinion would have supported something like this?
I’m trying to get to the point where we go from a place where in, even like if we look at the bomber mafia people, they would have been appalled if you’d shown them what, what their weapon systems were going to do. And yet after the Second World War, we really didn’t go back to, okay, this was a one-off, an outlier. We’re going to go back to the idea that you don’t bomb cities anymore.
And instead we started targeting cities with nuclear weapons, including multiple nuclear weapons on a lot of cities. I mean, Moscow was supposed to be hit with like 69 of them at one point. I’m looking, I’m in search of a question here. I guess the, I, yeah, I’m trying to figure out how the attitude changes and then stays changed after we see the results.
I think there is this thing that happens over the course of the Second World War, which is this kind of coarsening of, of, of Western attitudes and this kind of deterioration in our, our kind of moral position.
I think there is no way at all that the American public would have been comfortable in the 1930s with what we did in 1945. They would have been appalled.
I mean, remember the, in the 1930s, we’re, what are we, we’re 20 years out from the end of the First World War, which was, the First World War was the kind of, the weight of that catastrophe was still heavy on the mind of everyone in the United States, in England, across Europe.
I mean, everyone knew someone who died in that war. Everyone was aware of the kind of insane futility of that war. I mean, the, the, you know, these battles that went nowhere, the stupidity of the commanders, there’s this sour taste in people’s mouths, I think, about war.
And I don’t think anyone wanted to repeat that. And if you had said to someone in 35, you know, we’re going to do pretty much what we did in the First World War, only instead of having people kill each other on the ground, we’re just going to burn them to death from the air.
People would have been appalled when they were not ready for that. They wanted an escape from that. That’s the whole point. The bottom, the bottom up here were, many of them were World War I vets, and that, their experience in World War I scarred them.
I mean, like many civilians, they were running from that experience. We’re not as duplicated. I just think after four years of the Second World War, people just, they were so exhausted, and so kind of horrified, and so, that they were ready to try anything at that point.
I agree, there’s something, it is an about face in the space of 10 years, isn’t it? I mean, it’s just kind of remarkable to see. But what the Bahrain Mafia was proposing in the 30s was consistent with, I think, what a lot of Americans would have wanted.
It was an American bombing policy, yes. So, that brings us to sort of a crux figure here, though, that might explain some of this. Let’s talk a little bit about General Curtis LeMay, one of the more interesting American military figures ever, and you talk about him quite a bit in your book. Let’s talk about Curtis LeMay for a second for people who may have no idea who this guy was. What can you tell me if you wanted to give me sort of the boilerplate introduction to Air Force General Curtis LeMay?
Born into poverty in Columbus, Ohio. One of the greatest, without question, one of the greatest aviators of his generation. There was almost nothing he couldn’t do with an airplane, and everyone who was around him realized this.
There’s a story about once, after the first Schweinfurt bombing raid, his group, instead of flying back to England, flew on and landed in North Africa. And they were badly damaged, and they’re all basically on the desert in Morocco or something.
And LeMay gets out of his plane and starts fixing the B-29. So, he could fly them. He was hands down in the 30s considered to be the greatest navigator in the Air Force. He could fix them.
Many of the most important tactical innovations of bombing in the Second World War were invented by Curtis LeMay. If you were interested in how to effectively bomb the enemy in World War II, the genius, without question, of that era was Curtis LeMay.
So, he’s this kind of indomitable, blunt-spoken, unemotional, unsentimental, hard-bitten, always a cigar or a pipe in his mouth, man of incredibly few words.
There’s all these hilarious stories about how he’d sit through a three-hour briefing. Later on, when he’s Chief of Staff of the Air Force, he’s briefed on the Bay of Pigs, and it’s a two-hour long presentation. And at the end, he just stands up and just says, it won’t work, and leaves. That’s it.
I mean, like, three words. So, he’s a kind of really absolutely ruthless. But even those who found him overwhelming or hard to take realized that he was a genius.
If you were to compile a list, you would know this much better than the top five combat commanders in any domain in the Second World War. He’s on the list. There’s no question about that. Fidel, whatever other Ford names you want.
But he is not a member of the bomber mafia. He’s the opposite. He thinks that they’re dreamers and that they’re out of touch with the realities of war. And they’re having some kind of grad school debate about morality when what they should be doing is trying to defeat the enemy.
So, he’s sort of sitting in the wings. And the reason that the United States takes this kind of U-turn in terms of air power policy near the end of the war is that Curtis LeMay takes them on that U-turn.
He just has no patience for this kind of what he believes to be this over-intellectualized, rarefied theory that with a few carefully chosen and carefully placed bombs, you can defeat the enemy. He’s like, nonsense. The way you defeat the enemy is by destroying the enemy.
Everybody’s got a famous Curtis LeMay anecdote that they like. Whether they’re true or not, because the bombing back to the Stone Age one, as you pointed out in the work and as we did in the podcast, was never said by him, but he kind of maybe thought he liked it and was okay with it being attributed to him.
I had one, and again, no one knows if any of this is true, but supposedly if he didn’t like what you were saying, and you could be the President of the United States, he had a tendency to go into the nearby bathroom, leave the door open, start doing his business while you were still explaining things to you.
He’s a fascinating, very colorful character, and yet he’s an interesting dichotomy because on one hand he’s portrayed as this savage kind of person that would target enemy cities and enemy populations during the Cold War without even blinking, and yet when you read a lot of the stuff about him, including his own words, he comes off like his own version of a duet or a bomber mafia where he’s suggesting that half-measures in war end up prolonging the conflict,
and prolonging the conflict ends up increasing the death toll, so in effect being horrific early on and intensely might end up being in the long run the less deadly, less bloody alternative.
I mean, does he strike you as an interesting character that way?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, one of the things I was very careful to do in the book was I didn’t want to take sides. I didn’t want to make LeMay out to be either the hero or the villain, and I didn’t want to make the bomber mafia out to be these kinds of heroic, overly romanticized figures either.
I thought that two sides were engaged in the most impossible of arguments, and to your point, LeMay’s position was that the most moral way to fight a war is to fight it as savagely as possible because that means it will be over quicker, and when a war is over quickly it does a lot less damage than when a war is prolonged.
He thought it was all about duration, that morality was duration. That’s what he thought. Now, is that true? I don’t know. We can’t do the counterfactual.
I will say that there was something about what LeMay did in the summer of 1945 when, having burnt Tokyo to the ground in the deadliest night of the war, in repudiation of the ideas of the bomber mafia, he then proceeds to napalm basically every other city, every other big city in Tokyo over the course of the next three, four months.
It’s the Sherman’s March of the Air. There’s a point in that campaign where I think he’s off his rocker. I don’t think he would tell you he’s shortening the end of the war, but I don’t think that the Japanese weren’t going to surrender after having their 10 biggest cities burnt to the ground.
They’re not going to surrender after having their 50 biggest cities burnt to the ground. I think he created this kind of argument. At the end of the day, I don’t really buy it when it comes to the firebombing of Japan in the summer of 1945.
So you bring up the firebombing, and this is important to talk about. So when I have discussions with people about atomic bomb dropping morality, which is one of the classic discussions, obviously, for the Second World War where morality is concerned, I find so often that we have to have a conversation about the firebombing first.
Oftentimes, people are unaware of exactly how nasty the firebombing was that was going on. And so when an atomic bomb is dropped, they see this as a giant ratcheting up of the experience of the people on the receiving end of these bombs.
But I can’t think of anything that’s orders of magnitude worse than what you talk about with the Tokyo firebombing, which may be the worst bombing of all time. Can you tell us a little bit about it? And then contrast it a little bit with this question of early atomic weapons, because none of us are saying that thermonuclear weapons today are the equivalent of a firebombing raid.
But a 1945 atomic bomb versus what Curtis LeMay could do to you with 100 or 200 B-29s with napalm, not that dissimilar. What can you tell somebody who’s maybe not aware of the firebombings, how they compare to something that they fully understand, which is, you know, a Hiroshima or Nagasaki type attack?
Yeah. So napalm is invented at Harvard in the 1940s, early 1940s, and explicitly to be used against Asian cities because Asian cities were highly flammable, right? The houses were made of rice paper and wood, and they were incredibly close together. There were no fire breaks. The streets were really narrow.
Asian cities, Japanese cities were the perfect cities to burn down. I mean, there were all these calculations done before the war about, you know, if you used fire, how much damage could you do to London? And the answer is not as much as you think. It’s a brick city. It’s got a lot of parks. It’s got wide streets in many areas.
You know, you can burn some of it down, but if you get a full scale attack with incendiary weapons on London, you’re not going to get that far. That’s why the Germans did not go fully incendiary with London. They used a mix of bombs.
Yeah, they tried, though. They tried.
The bomber mafia were given napalm and were told, use it. And Haywood Hansel, who was one of the key bomber mafia leaders, who was in charge of the 21st Bomber Command, which was the bomber command that had the responsibility of bombing Japan from the Marianas, from Guam, the air force bases on Guam and Saipan and Tinian, really wouldn’t use it.
He thought it was immoral. And then LeMay comes in, takes over the command from Hansel and decides he’s going to go whole hog on napalm. And in March of 45, he launches this infamous attack on Tokyo, where he just sends hundreds of B-29s with tons and tons of napalm.
And he burns out, what is it, 16 square miles of Tokyo in one night. Kills, we’re not sure how many, probably close to 100,000 people in one night. Burns them to death, really.
If you were on the ground in the part of Tokyo, of East Tokyo, that LeMay bombed that night in March of 45, I don’t think you would detect a distinction between that experience and the experience of being on the ground in Hiroshima or Nagasaki in August of that same year.
I don’t think it feels any different to be bombed with a nuclear bomb that summer or to be bombed with napalm. There’s a case that made the napalm worse.
I was just going to say that. You don’t have any blast, at least casualties. It’s all burned up.
It’s all burned up. And the stories are—if you want to get into the nitty gritty of this, you want to compare survivor accounts from Tokyo in March and Hiroshima in August. I found the March napalm survivor accounts to be more horrifying. It really did.
So it’s—yeah, you’re right. There is this kind of—we have the sense that the moral, the real moral horror was the atomic bomb in August, and that is just not true.
And also, we dropped two atomic bombs. LeMay bombed 66 Japanese cities between March and August of 45. Sixty-six.
Including a couple afterwards. Let’s not forget the couple after them.
You couldn’t stop. I mean, like, there is no comparison. If you want to get on a moral high horse about American air power in the Second World War, in the Japanese theater, Pacific theater, it’s LeMay who you should be focused on, not the decision to drop nuclear weapons.
What I always tell people is that had we not dropped nuclear weapons—and I’m not defending that policy—but had we not done it, the firebombing was just going to continue. It wasn’t going to spare anybody anything.
So I was trying to imagine the difference between—and you may be able to address this better than I can.
So in Europe, during the bombing of German cities, when either from the German perspective you got very unlucky or the Allied bombing perspective you got very lucky, you created the conditions that were known as a firestorm.
What’s the difference between a Dresden or a Hamburg firestorm and the firebombings in Japan? Because I’m not clear on it.
Yeah. Now, I will preface this by saying that I’m not an expert on the firebombing of Dresden.
My understanding is simply that the difference would be the scale of the—first of all, Tokyo is a good deal larger and more densely populated than Dresden is.
And two, because the city is so much more flammable that you’re going to get—the fires are going to be a lot more intense.
And then what I don’t know, but I strongly suspect as well, that there were many, many, many more B-29s engaged over Tokyo than bombers engaged over Dresden.
I think the scale of the attack is bigger.
And then there’s also these weird things that, by awful coincidence, the night of the bombing campaign over Tokyo, it’s already a windy night.
As you were alluding to, when you drop a lot of firebombs, you create this kind of artificial wind system, this firestorm, which is a kind of rolling ball of fire which consumes everything in its path.
And so it naturally creates its own kind of momentum and field of air rushing forward.
But if you’ve got a—if it’s a windy day, it’s going to be a lot worse.
Well, it just so happened to be a windy day that night in Tokyo.
So it’s like there’s a lot of things going on.
But some combination of those factors, I think, makes Tokyo even more horrific than Dresden.
And that’s, by the way, saying a lot.
Dresden was not a walk in the park.
No, Hamburg either.
And those were 1,000 bombers over Hamburg, I think.
So something I learned in your book that I found fascinating, and I wonder if you have an opinion as to why this might be.
But you were talking about how you were trying to locate a museum or a memorial to the firebombing victims, considering that it’s probably the most destructive aerial raid in history.
And yet I think you had said there was some nondescript building that looked like you’d come out of like a little medical facility.
Why is there no extra attention paid to this on the Japanese side of things when one would look at this and just say the scale alone would seem to merit memorials or remembrances or more conferences or whatnot on this sort of thing?
I mean, it’s a really good question.
I don’t have a good answer.
Yeah, the only real monument to that night is this little private museum in a kind of, you know, small little office building.
I’d say it looks like a dentist’s office on a side street in East Tokyo.
It’s like so far from the museum to the most horrific night in the history of Japan.
It’s nowhere near all the other museums in Tokyo.
I think there is, maybe it’s just a desire to move on.
Remember, the Japanese, after the war, bestowed one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on a foreigner by the Japanese government on Curtis LeMay.
Essentially, it was what he’s helped in rebuilding the Japanese airports.
But think about it.
A guy orders an attack on your capital city in which 100,000 people die under the most horrific circumstances imaginable, and you turn around and 10 years later, you’re giving him the highest award that can be given to a foreigner in your country.
That suggests to me a kind of willingness, eagerness to put the war behind them.
I mean, I just don’t think there was any desire to dwell on that last six months of the conflict.
You know, it just wasn’t, I don’t know, I sort of, and part of me agrees with it.
I mean, sometimes there’s just things like where, I did a podcast episode for my podcast revisionist history last season on the 9-11 memorial.
And I, at the end of it was, I have some real misgivings about that memorial.
I think on some level it’s inappropriate.
So memorials are tricky things, like they’re legitimate reasons not to memorialize horrific events.
You know, I think it’s up to the individual country or city or, so yeah, that was their choice.
Their choice was to move on.
You know, as I was looking at Curtis LeMay, he reminded me of a lot of other wartime leaders of the sort that somebody might argue, you know, when war happens and it gets really dirty and bloody, these are the kind of men you need, right?
The ones who will do whatever it takes.
But what’s interesting is obviously people like that, you know, you think of a George Patton, right?
But George Patton dies right after the Second World War is over.
So you don’t have Patton in charge of Cold War policy, right?
But you have LeMay in charge of Strategic Air Command and all the people who are deciding how the next war, right, the Third World War is going to be fought.
And when we did the podcast on the early history of nuclear weapons, I used a little bit of the XCOM tapes, you know, the secret tapes that John F. Kennedy made during the deliberations over the Cuban Missile Crisis that only his brother knew were being made.
So it’s a secret taping system where guys like LeMay in conversation are being taped.
And LeMay didn’t even have a problem taking a shot at Jack Kennedy’s dad during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I mean, who has the guts to do that?
Is there a difference between having a guy like LeMay who you need in wartime the way you might need a Patton or any one of these other people who might be different figures and might be seen differently in peacetime versus wartime?
I mean, how much are we still living with the decisions and the systems and the assumptions and all those sorts of things that LeMay in 20 years or something of running the post Second World War American air operations?
How much is are we living with General LeMay’s attitudes and whatnot today, even with the legacy of his targeting and his attitudes?
Really interesting question. I, I actually, you know, I.
I am I only know what I know, you know, I haven’t anywhere near your knowledge and background.
No, no, don’t play that game because you’re assuming I know more than I know.
I will say this. In the course of reporting this book, I talked to many people who are currently in the Air Force, quite a lot. Some of them, quite a lot. I mean, I had a long conversation with both the previous chief of staff of the Air Force and the current chief of staff of the Air Force.
And then a number of Air Force historians and I have to say I was overwhelmed at the kind of moral sophistication of their and strategic sophistication of their thinking.
We’ve come a long way from Curtis LeMay.
These are people who, you know, LeMay had a series of ideas that made him in peacetime to be quite problematic. One was this idea of the primacy of the Air Force that he, you know, he’s not really interested in the other services.
When he’s running the Strategic Air Command, he thinks he’s the show. He thinks you can win Vietnam from the air. I mean, you know, I’m not a military person, but I know enough to know that that’s nonsense.
You can’t win. You could not win the Vietnam War from the air. That’s a textbook example of a war that cannot be won from the air. And, you know, Korea, what the Air Force does in Korea, I think, with the spirit of Curtis LeMay very much in mind, is appalling.
I mean, they pull the same trick in Korea. They napalm everything in sight. There’s a moment in the Korean War where they run out of targets. They have burned the ground, everything that can be burned to the ground. Nothing’s left.
And they thought they could win the Korean War from the air, and they couldn’t. So there’s a kind of—LeMay takes what he interprets as his success in the Second World War, and he thinks it applies to all future conflicts, and he’s solely mistaken.
And I don’t think the current leadership of the Air Force is in the grip of that illusion. They are very conscious of the limitations of air power and very aware of their need to coordinate with the other branches in order to wage effective war. So I don’t think the legacy of—I think, if anything, it’s the bomber mafia whose legacy kind of looms over the contemporary Air Force, not Curtis LeMay.
I was just going to go there, and I was going to ask whether or not you thought that maybe the bomber mafia—and people like it in other aerial theory groups—if they weren’t just ahead of their time and they were just waiting for the technology to catch up.
Because in the Vietnam War, you have your first so-called smart bombs near the end of the war that are taking out bridges and whatnot. And then, of course, you see what happens in the early Gulf War type stuff. I mean, is this a case where we can finally almost hit a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet? And does that make the bomber mafia’s assumptions more apropos today than they were at the time?
Yes. So the bomber mafia, I mean, they were 50 years too early, 60 years too early. I mean, now we really can’t do what they dreamt of doing in the National Air Force base in the 1930s.
I had a drink one night when I was reporting my book in the backyard of the old chief of staff of the Air Force at what’s called the Air House in Fort Myer, just across the river from Washington, D.C., and all these top Air Force guys were there.
And they were talking about this very point, and they were comparing Korea to Vietnam to the Gulf War to the present day. And their point was, in the Korean War or the Second World War, if you wanted to take out the row of houses along the street where the chairman of the Joint Chiefs lives and the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs lives and the chief of staff of the Air Force lives, all these kind of military hotshots, and they were like, if you wanted to take out this row of houses in the Second World War, you would have come with—I forgot.
A whole fleet of bombers, because most of the bombs aren’t going to hit it.
And you’re going to have to level—if you want to take out this gathering in the backyard, you’re going to have to level the whole street, because there’s no way you can be sure you can just take out us.
And then they walked me through each war since then. And each war, you get better and better and better. You need fewer and fewer bombers. And then they said, and today, they could take out one of us just sitting around this little—sitting in the backyard, and we wouldn’t even know. We wouldn’t even hear the bomb coming.
Like, that’s how good they are now. Like, they can take out a guy inside a room if they want. So, yeah, that’s what the bomber mafia dream—dreamt of in 35. They were 60 years too early, 70 years too early.
I was having a conversation—I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I’m sorry. I was having a conversation with somebody, and we were talking about what made the First World War a kind of unique experience.
And it revolved around some of the same stuff, because we were talking about the overriding experience that is so overwhelming when you read about it and so impossible to imagine of being under the kind of artillery fire that was common in the First World War.
And the guy said to me, we’re never going to see artillery fire like that again, because it was a function of the lack of accuracy, that you had to have so many guns trying to take out stuff.
He goes, today, you would have one gun, and it would maybe miss once, but it might not miss once, and then it would take out the target on the second hit.
You didn’t need a thousand artillery pieces to neutralize something.
Even in the Second World War, only the Soviets were using the same number of pieces in terms of trying to knock something out.
It was already—the accuracy had already made First World War artillery numbers a moot point.
It was almost counterproductive at that point.
So let me ask—let me ask this about the—you know, because I always feel so sorry for these guys who were ahead of their time or trying to take the moral high ground, you know, and figure out a way to make war less terrible.
What happened reputationally and career-wise to all these guys who Curtis LeMay sort of shoved aside in his desire to be more efficient and get the job done?
Did those guys end their days in sort of obscurity, or were they considered to be failures?
Or what happened to the guys who chose the moral high ground in the end?
Well, it’s LeMay who becomes first head of the Strategic Air Command and then the chief of staff of the Air Force.
None of the bomber mafia, you know, keep rising in the ranks.
They’re shunted aside.
Haywood Hansel, who’s kind of—I portray in my book as really the kind of spiritual leader of the bomber mafia.
His career’s over.
LeMay forces him out of the 21st Bomber Command in January of 1945, and he goes back to a training facility in Phoenix, and then he’s done.
Spends the rest of his life showing up every now and again for seminars at the Air Force Academy, and you can go down the list.
These guys, they did not have a good war, you know, to use that phrase.
They were the proponents of what was considered to be a failed strategy.
So, yeah, they paid the price for this, for being too early.
They weren’t—they were not held up until today.
They were not held up as pioneers.
They were held up as—they were considered to be failures.
So I was going to ask you what those Air Force folk that you were having drinks with today, who were going over the different wars and comparing and contrasting them, what were—
did they have an opinion one way or the other on those guys, on the bomber mafia guys?
And in other words, has the long-term reputation been restored to some degree, or are those guys—
I mean, I guess I’m trying to figure out if I was at the get-together with them, I would say, well, what do you think of those guys?
Did they give you any impressions?
I think they understand.
I think they have enormous respect for what the bomber mafia did.
I mean, they planted the seed that resulted in the kind of air power we have today, right?
This emphasis on precision, which has defined air strategy for the last generation.
It’s the residue of the bomber mafia, the little kernel planted by the bomber mafia back in the 1930s.
So they have enormous respect, I think.
I remember when I was hanging out with all these Air Force guys, they’re obsessed with GPS.
And there’s a guy—and I forgot his name. You probably know his name.
There’s a guy who’s considered to be the kind of father of modern GPS, who worked very, very closely with the Air Force.
And all of these guys were like, oh, you’ve got to go talk to him.
You’ve got to talk to him. You’ve got to do this thing.
This guy, you know, the kind of reverence for somebody who finally gave them the technology that allowed for true precision was—
I mean, it was beautiful to see.
You know, like this idea of this guy who they were talking about wasn’t a military guy.
He was like a nerdy little techie guy off in the middle of nowhere who broke the code to figure out how to harness this particular technology for their purposes.
And they revered him.
So I think when I was chatting, when I was at the Air University talking to all these air historians, air power historians, they absolutely—
you know, they spoke of the bomber mafia like they had known them personally.
I mean, that’s how closely they had studied it, how much they admired them.
You know, it strikes me that one could say potentially that we’re in a similar period now to the way things were before the First World War
and the way things were before the Second World War where the entire intellectual and philosophical framework for—
we’ll just take the Air Force now because that’s what we’re talking about, but you could say the same thing about the ground services or the naval services.
We’re in a situation where there has not been a war fought between the major powers in a very long time.
We’ve had multiple generations of weapon systems come and go since the last time those weapon systems were used against people of similar capabilities.
I wonder if many of the things that are taken as gospel today would be seen—are going to be shown to be failed experiments or dead ends, philosophically speaking,
when the U.S. is—God forbid—but when the U.S. is fighting powers of like capabilities or similar or close to like—
you know, you fight a China, you fight a Russia, you fight a Russia and China together.
Maybe you find out that some of the things that were working so well in an Iraq situation or a Syria situation or a Nicaragua situation with Manuel Noriega
don’t work as well when there are countermeasures.
That’s not a question. That’s just an observation.
So let me ask you this. We’re running out of time here. I’m curious.
What was your favorite aspect of the book that when you wrote it, you’ve thought about it several times since and you keep going back to?
Is there anything in there that just keeps striking you?
Well, actually, before I answer the question, I wanted to respond to your comment because I think you’re—
Yeah, comment. It was no question. Sure.
No, no. It’s really, really, really, really on point.
I mean, think about the application of artificial intelligence systems to warfare.
I mean, that’s their—
That’s number one. Like, you don’t think that’s going to render an entire way of thinking about war obsolete overnight?
What if China built in, you know, full-scale AI into their military systems?
You know, no human-in-the-loop AI.
You throw all of your deterrence theory out the window at that point.
So that would be—yeah, I think we are absolutely on the cusp of another kind of revolution like that.
But in answer, what do I return to?
I return to just to the fact these guys had a dream, you know?
They’re not in a profession that we think of as full of dreamers.
You don’t think of military guys as being attached to some romantic notion.
And it’s useful to be reminded that, in fact, that happens all the time, that that world is as full of people who are willing to kind of think boldly and imaginatively and creatively and courageously about the way they do what they do.
You know, I think it’s a common and damaging and insulting misconception that military people are bloodthirsty and are kind of lack humanity on some level, that that’s why they’re doing the job they do.
I think the opposite is true, that that’s a world that’s filled with people who are as passionate about their kind of moral commitments as anyone else is, as schoolteachers or as pastors or—they have just chosen to operate in a—or maybe they have, because of those moral commitments, have chosen to operate in a world that they feel badly needs them.
That was the thing about the bomber mafia.
They looked at the military world and they said, they need us.
They need people who consider the kind of broader picture here.
And that’s still true today.
That is still true today.
You know, when you mentioned that, I can’t help but think of the whole civilian-slash-scientific apparatus that arose after the Second World War.
It seemed like it didn’t exist, that these groups that would later become, like, to name just one, like the RAND group, right, that those were only within military circles back before the Second World War.
And then it became almost a giant—I mean, today we have DARPA and all those kind of things.
I mean, to me, that seems almost like the inheritors of these small group of theorists that were once upon a time just part of the little military cabal.
Does it seem like they’re natural inheritors to that?
Yeah, that’s interesting.
You know, it’s funny.
It’s like there’s a kind of—I think it’s legitimate to say that there’s a period in modern warfare when the military is not home to the best and the brightest.
I mean, you look at the British military leadership in the First World War or some of the wars previous to that.
These are not—the geniuses aren’t the generals.
There’s some pretty—it’s a pretty desultory group.
If you were a brilliant young mind in England in 1914, you did not go into the army.
You went to Oxford and you studied physics or whatever you did.
And what happens is that World War II in particular makes the military shape again for the intellectually curious and for the—and then in the post-war world, organizations like RAND, it goes one step further.
And you have legit geniuses who are joining the kind of broader war effort.
The RAND guys are the smartest people in the room.
That’s their whole point, right?
That’s super interesting to me, that kind of revolution where—and I think it’s appropriate that the finest minds, some of the finest minds reside in the military world because war is just about the hardest problem we have to tackle as a society.
What did Fred Kaplan call those people?
The wizards of Armageddon, right?
I love that book.
I read that book when I was reporting mine.
I was like, oh my—I couldn’t—I was like—it was just a delight, that book.
Oh, it was a great book.
Just reading about those guys when they were kids and, you know, remembering the phone books and some of these guys, they were crazy intelligent.
So how can people get their hands on this?
It’s a little unusual.
So I read the PDF, but this is an audiobook, right?
So there’s two things.
There is—you can get the audiobook just by going to bombermafia.com and you can download it.
Directly from my company, which is called Pushkin Industries.
There’s also a print version published by Little Brown that will be available wherever books are available starting April 27th.
So I—both are wonderful experiences.
The audiobook is not a normal audiobook.
It is not me reading the book.
It is a fully produced—so, you know, when—like a podcast.
When we talk about Curtis LeMay, you hear Curtis LeMay.
When we talk about Haywood Hansel, you hear Haywood Hansel.
When we talk about the bombing of Tokyo, you hear the bombing of Tokyo.
I mean, it’s a full-on, you know, everyone I talk to, you hear their voice.
So it’s a really—quite a remarkable—if you’re into audiobooks, I would definitely recommend you take that route here.
What a fantastic way to approach it.
Malcolm Gladwell, thank you so much for coming on the program.
I wish you a ton of success with this latest book of yours.
It sucked me right in.
I had a great time reading it.
And it’s, as you pointed out, one of those subjects that is truly worth a little contemplation on all of our parts
because what’s the old line from—was it Leon Trotsky?
You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.
No, thank you so much.
And I have to say, I should—I’d be remiss if I did not say that I am one of your biggest fans.
So this is a thrill and a half to be invited on the—I kind of couldn’t believe it when I saw it.
I was like, wait a second.
I get to go?
That’s like—so I’m over the moon.
So thank you so much for inviting me.
Well, what’s so strange is that to be a history podcaster and to have colleagues who are history podcasters,
I remember so well trying to explain to people what a podcast was.
And now we have history podcaster colleagues.
So thank you so much for coming on the program.
Your success is exhilarating for the whole genre.
That was a lot of fun.
My thanks to Malcolm Gladwell for coming on the program.
You know, he’s one of the few people that could have offered to come on that would have made me talk about a Second World War topic
when that’s all we’ve been talking about for a long time now.
But the book’s great.
The Bomber Mafia.
He writes, if you get the text version, he’s got a very clear style.
And I kind of noticed he writes like he speaks, which for me made the story that much more engrossing.
And I kind of noticed he writes like he speaks, which for me made the story that much more engrossing.
Knowing what I know now, though, I would have downloaded the audio book version.
And you should too, because with the natural sound and the speeches, I mean, that’s the way to go.
Be like his podcast, right? You want to do that.
There’s a reason it’s so popular.
So thanks to Malcolm Gladwell for coming on the show.
As far as we go, we’re still working on it, folks.
That’s all I can ever say.
We’re still working on it.
It’s going to be a long one, though.
I can tell you that.
I can tell already.
And we’ll maybe try to get some more interview shows out.
There’s something out in the interim like this.
The interview shows are easy.
The ones that we want to do sometimes to mix in with them are like mini hardcore history shows.
And I find that I end up stopping work on the main show if I do that.
So I know you’d all rather have me get the big show out.
So I’m working on that.
We’ll see about setting up some more interviews.
Thank you for your patience, your support and, you know, everything else.
Always so grateful.
And we’ll hopefully talk to you soon.