According to this source, "Some historians have identified flaws in the [U.S. Strategic Bombing] survey, based on contemporary evidence." I have unsuccessfully searched the internet for these historians and am curious if anyone here can help me find them and explain the specific flaws in the U.S. Strategic Bombing survey. Thanks.

3 Answers 3


That article kind of glossed over a rather complicated subject. The oft-quoted conclusion of the Strategic Bombing Survey packed many separate claims into one sentence, and different historians have identified flaws with different parts.

Giving conventional air power too much credit.

Firstly, the methodology employed by the Strategic Bombing Survey is not beyond reproach.

U.S. military interrogators rarely asked carefully focused questions about the Russians or about the contingent nature of Japanese feelings and plans . . . [The Strategic Bombing Survey] did not directly take up the impact of the Russian attack or a clarification of the Emperor's role.

Alperovitz, Gar. The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb. Vintage, 2010.

And yet, the Survey confidently asserts, "Japan would have surrendered . . . even if Russia had not entered the war". How?

In reality, the Survey was borne amid a pissing contest between the Army Air Force and the Navy. The former was angling to become an independent service; the latter to maintain its carrier based air force. Interservice rivalry occupied most of the Survey's attention - and inevitably coloured their analysis as well as conclusion. Even news reports from 1946 questioned how much of their finding were political.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Survey underplayed all factors besides the conventional strategic bombing campaign and the naval blockade. Of particular note, the Survey danced around the Soviet entry's impact - a factor other historians identified to be of prime importance (see below).

Analysis too optimistic for testimonial evidence.

This is probably the angle your source was pursuing.

Remember, the Strategic Bombing Survey claims that Japan would've surrendered "in all probability prior to November 1". The Survey relied extensively on testimonies from top Japanese leaders; however, several historians have analysed their records and concluded that the author, Paul Nitze, significantly overreached relative to the answers he received:

Nitze had, indeed, pushed well beyond the available evidence gathered by the Survey. In particular, both Newman and Bernstein, in examining the Survey's postwar interrogation transcripts of high-ranking Japanese officials, concluded that the evidence for the so-called "pre-November" claim was weak and that significant counterevidence had gone unacknowledged in the Survey's reports.

Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi. The End of the Pacific War: Reappraisals. Stanford University Press, 2007.

What's interesting here is that Bernstein and Newman are actually from different parts of the historiography spectrum. Newman believes the atomic bombs were necessary and Bernstein did not. Nonetheless, both reached the conclusion that the evidence available to Nitze did not support his bold counterfactual prediction.

However, these flaws do not necessarily undermine the Survey's conclusions.

Contrary to the impression your source wanted to convey, much of the criticisms do not actually contradict the conclusion that Japan would've surrendered even without the atomic bombings. For example, despite his previously cited objection to the Survey, Bernstein nonetheless concurred with Admiral King, US Chief of Naval Operations, that:

Had American leaders been willing to risk prolonging the war, there is no question that a naval blockade, as King later wrote, "would in the course of time, have starved the Japanese into submission through lack of oil, rice, medicine, and other materials".

Bernstein, Barton J. "Understanding the Atomic bomb and the Japanese Surrender: Missed opportunities, little-known near disasters, and modern memory." Diplomatic History 19.2 (1995): 227-273.

In fact, Bernstein actively argued for an early surrender:

In view of the great impact of Soviet entry . . . in a situation of heavy conventional bombing and a strangling blockade, it does seem quite probable - indeed far more likely than not - that Japan would have surrendered before November without the use of the A-bomb but after Soviet intervention in the war.

Bernstein, Barton J. "Compelling Japan's surrender without the a‐bomb, soviet entry, or invasion: Reconsidering the us bombing survey's early‐surrender conclusions." The Journal of Strategic Studies 18.2 (1995): 101-148.

In other words, Bernstein reached the same conclusion as the Strategic Bombing Survey, even though he disagreed with their reasoning. Likewise, in his famous dissection of the Survey, Robert Pape went so far as to assert that:

Contrary to the assertion of the Strategic Bombing Survey that bombing was so effective that . . . surrender would have occurred at exactly the same time, in actuality the naval blockade, invasion threat and Soviet attack ensured that surrender would have occurred at precisely the same time even if there had been no strategic bombing campaign.

Pape, Robert A. Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. Cornell University Press, 1996.

  • mind that "strategic bombing campaign" does not equate the nuclear bombs. The main and most crippling part was the intensive and incessant firebombing of Japanese cities, which did far more damage than the 2 nuclear devices employed. Without that firebombing Japan would likely have been forced to surrender after a lengthy blockade and ground war on Japanese soil, but it would have been extremely expensive in both equipment, time, and a massive death toll.
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 5:01
  • @jwenting I have added "conventional" in front of "strategic bombing" to make clear that's what the SBS meant.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 5:19


What were the flaws in the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey?

According to this source, "Some historians have identified flaws in the [U.S. Strategic Bombing] survey, based on contemporary evidence."


A key allied strategy in WWII was strategic bombing. Large bombers capable of delivering many air to ground munitions designed to engage not the enemy but rather the enemy’s ability to wage war. Destroy entire industries important to the waging of war. Unlike tactical bombers or fighter planes which are used to attack enemies warriors and weapon systems.

The US vision of strategic bombing was low level daylight raids which maximized the ability to destroy the target. This strategy also was the most costly vision of this capability, as low level daylight bombers were the most vulnerable. The British for example opted for high altitude night time raids questioning the advantage of the American vision when measured against the cost.

The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) was a series of reports compiled after WWII by a reportedly independent board. The report was requested by President Roosevelt and assigned to the army air corps by the secretary of war. The Air Forces five star General Hap Arnold was ultimately tasked with executing the order. The board consisted primarily of civilians. The "survey" included 208 volumes on the European War and another 108 volumes for the Pacific. The total survey comprised thousands of pages. The conclusions were favorable of the American strategic bombing vision, calling it "decisive" and observing Germany and Japan were in near collapse at the end of the war prior to there surrenders. Their ability to wage war taken from them. That Japan was actually seeking to surrender prior to the dropping of the nuclear bombs by the United States and that Germany could no longer sustain itself prior to VE Day.

Short Answer:

Critics maintain the survey's conclusions paint an overly optimistic value of America's strategic bombing vision during WWII. That it reflects the Army Air Corps view of the value of day light low altitude strategic Bombing in its conclusion and not the data documented in the supporting volumes. Calling America's strategic bombing "decisive" in winning the wars when at best it's critics contend it was but one of many contributing factors. At worst critics of the survey claim America's strategic bombing campaigns were ineffective. They go further in saying the USBS began a revisionist and flawed paper trail, that Japan and Germany were so demoralized by the effectiveness of America's Strategic Bombing that other components of the war were unnecessary. Including but not limited to the Atomic Bombings of Japan.

Detailed Answer:

In Europe it's critics make note that the German economy hit peak wartime production(1944) two years after America's Strategic Bombing began. That many of America's targets, such as ball bearings production, did not appreciable hurt Germany's manufacturing. That tank and aircraft production increased while being specifically targeted by American daylight strategic bombing raids. That Strategic Bombings greatest claimed success, destroying Germany's oil production 1944, in truth had more to do with Russia overrunning important oil fields in Eastern Europe. (Romania changed sides in the war Aug 23, 1944, The Romanian fields at Ploiești were retaken by the Red Army in August of 1944. The loss of territory in eastern Europe accounted for more than half of Germany's oil production drop off in 1944.

Ploiești (Ploiești) was a significant source of oil for Nazi Germany. The Allies made Ploiești a target of the Oil campaign of World War II and attacked it repeatedly,such as during the HALPRO and Operation Tidal Wave at a great loss, without producing any significant delay in operation or production. Ploiești was captured by Soviet troops in August 1944.


The United States first daylight raid over European soil, against petroleum wells was June 11–12, 1942.

Munition's Production by Year (in Billions)

 1935-39  1940  1941  1942. 1943  1944            
 2.4      6.0   6.0.  8.5.  13.5  17.0-(peak)           


 1938  1939  1940  1941  1942  1943  1944         1945            
 351   384   387   412   417   426   437-(peak)   310          

Tank Production

 1938  1939   1940   1941   1942    1943            1944                        
 370   1,888  3,623  5,530  11,601  18,956-(peak)   4,406

Aircraft Production

 1939   1940   1941   1942    1943    1944            1945                        
 1,928  7,829  9,422  12,822  20,599  35,076-(peak)   7,052

Oil and petroleum supply of Germany in the Second World War

 Year   HomeCrude    HomeSynthetic  Import    Total 
 1939   888          2,200          5,165     8,353    
 1940   1,465        3,348          2,075     6,888    
 1941   1,562        4,116          2,807     8,485    
 1942   1,686        4,920          2,359     8,965    
 1943   1,883        5,748          2,766     10,497     
 1944   1,681        3,962            961     6,504    


In Japan it's critics make note that America's vision of Strategic Bombing was an utter failure. That daylight strategic bombing of military and manufacturing sites was abandoned almost immediately in favor of high altitude night raids against cities. That only about 10% of daylight strategic bombing munitions hit anywhere near their targets.

The United States strategic bombing of Japan's home islands didn't even begin until June 1944 and like in Europe it was just one of a number of factors which contributed the Japan's defeat.

The American Bomber Summary Survey states that "Approximately 800 tons of bombs were dropped by China-based B-29s on Japanese home island targets from June 1944 to January 1945. These raids were of insufficient weight and accuracy to produce significant results."8 XX Bomber Command had failed to achieve the strategic objectives that the planners had intended for Operation Matterhorn, largely because of logistical problems, the bomber’s mechanical difficulties, the vulnerability of Chinese staging bases (see Operation Ichi-Go), and the extreme range required to reach key Japanese cities.


Munition's Production by Year (in Billions)

 1938-39   1940   1941   1942   1943   1944            
 0.4       1.0    2.0    3.0    4.5    6.0-peak            


 1938  1939  1940  1941  1942       1943  1944  1945               
 232   247   255   259   260-peak   257   252   207

Aircraft Production

 1939   1940    1941    1942    1943    1944            1945            
 4,467  4,768   5,088   8,861   16,693  28,180-peak     8,263                

Broadly critics cast the USSBS Report as a “Boondoggle” who's conclusion paid little attention to the data it itself collected from the effects of bombing raids over Japan or Germany.

The Washington Merry Go Round. Pearson, Drew. Washington Post, (September 13,1945). “One of the armies best boondoggling projects”

That the independent civilian board members were politically appointed and sometimes coerced into rubber-stamping Air force positions by a military bureaucracy seeking to support it's own agenda. That position being, airpower was the decisive instrument in winning the wars. The USSBS critics are supported in this contention in the writings of JK Galbraith, one of the directors for the United States Strategic Bombing Survey. Who wrote in 2004:

A Cloud Over Civilisation JK Galbraith
The strategic bombing of German industry, transportation and cities, was gravely disappointing. Attacks on factories that made such seemingly crucial components as ball bearings, and even attacks on aircraft plants, were sadly useless. With plant and machinery relocation and more determined management, fighter aircraft production actually increased in early 1944 after major bombing. In the cities, the random cruelty and death inflicted from the sky had no appreciable effect on war production or the war.
These findings were vigorously resisted by the Allied armed services - especially, needless to say, the air command, even though they were the work of the most capable scholars and were supported by German industry officials and impeccable German statistics, as well as by the director of German arms production, Albert Speer. All our conclusions were cast aside. The air command's public and academic allies united to arrest my appointment to a Harvard professorship and succeeded in doing so for a year.


Question (Part II):
I have unsuccessfully searched the internet for these historians and am curious if anyone here can help me find them and explain the specific flaws in the U.S. Strategic Bombing survey. Thanks.

Here are some of the critics I found. There are lots of scholars on both sides of this debate as it dovetails into the broader debate over Atomic Bombing of Japan.

Here are some of the Historians I found.

Quote: the American Strategic Bombing Survey’s critique of the efficacy of bombing, no longer seems tenable.

Quote page 104: The United States Strategic Bombing Survey a comprehensive immediate postwar study of the effects of airpower on Germany and Japan by specially selected military and civilian experts. The tone of each separate report tends to reflect the individual biases of different authors, and the claims trumpeted in the summary volumes( written by those most committed to the decisiveness of airpower) are not always matched by the individual reports describing actual targets, but the analysis of bombing results is very detailed.

Quotes: That the USSBS so overstates the effectiveness of Strategic Bombing as to paint the use of the Atomic Bombing unnecessary. ...
The revisionist thesis, presented first by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey and later modified and expanded by Gar Alperowitz, argues that the United States persisted needlessly with its policy of unconditional surrender (over Japan).
the reality also supports a more traditionalist view: Japan was not ready to surrender, they would not have done so in the immediate future, and the decision to use the atomic bomb was made on military grounds. Thus, the issue of Japanese surrender is at the forefront. Why would the Japanese surrender? The answer, as it is normally presented, is that Japan's war economy had collapsed and she could no longer continue resisting because her people were near starvation. The statistics for this are nebulous, and there is very little support for this in the testimony of captured Japanese leaders after the war. In actuality the statistics seem to show that prior to the very end of 1945, things were going fairly well for Japanese agriculture. Even in 1945, when every perceivable stress had been placed on the Japanese, the situation was such that they probably could have sustained themselves for another six months to a year. By arguing that Japan was not on the verge of mass starvation, the cornerstone of the revisionist argument is removed. Starvation was the motivation for their scenario, and without it, the scenario as a whole seems significantly less likely. .

  • Christopher Clary

The Starvation Myth: The United States Blockade of Japan in World War II

Synopsis: The USSBS includes data which support it's critics in it's volumes if not it's conclusions. Namely the limitations of strategic bombing in the European and Pacific Wars.



One can find flaws in anything with 20/20 hindsight.

if there were flaws, does it really matter now?

if the flaws were found during the war, would it have changed anything?

The answer is no across the board.

The "doctrine" of the time was, strategically dehousing the enemy population will destroy their industrial potential (wrong, as evidence by Germany's surging output through 43 and 44), and demoralize the population to the point of surrender (wrong, as evidence by no one surrendering to bombardment, ever, in any war.)

But what else were we going to do, when the enemies were hundreds or thousands of miles away, and bodies of waters apart?

We bomb the heck out of them! That's what!

Did strategic bombing win the war for the Allies? it definitely helped.

But should it have? that's debatable. Had the Germans devoted more resources to air defense (just air defense, more figthers, fewer bombers, a much augmented pilot training program) and used those resources more effectively (fewer models, fewer flak, no atlantic wall, more air fields, more radar, more fighters in occupied western europe), there was every reason to believe they could have made the bomber offensive unsustainable (they came close even without any of that). And that would have meant a lot of wasted R&D on a dead end strategic weapon... kind of like the V-1 and V-2...

Strategic bombing actually worked a lot better against Japan, because 1. Japan is an island nation that relies on a working transportation network for supplies. 2. their aeronautic technology was not developed enough to counter high altitude bombing. But they did have that warrior spirit thing on their side...

Just remember this... if you plan to commit war crimes, win. If you don't plan to commit war crimes, surrender before the first shot is fired.

  • 5
    Please address the question asked. Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 22:01
  • I did. in case you didn't catch my meaning: The Survey was TOTALLY IRRELEVANT! 99% of the time, people are going to do what they have already decided to do. And this is one of those time. So whatever the result said would not have materially changed anything. Nor could it have affected the post-war second guessing Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 22:04
  • ultimately .. the only thing that matters where war crimes are concerned is.. WIN. Against most cultures, if you lose, you are a war criminal Commented Dec 19, 2018 at 22:16
  • "no one surrendering to bombardment, ever, in any war" Serbia in 1999?
    – Tomas By
    Commented Dec 28, 2018 at 8:02
  • 1
    @sofageneral No, you completely avoided the question. The question was not about the Allied bombing campaign. It was about the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, which was a report created after the war was over. You said absolutely nothing about the USSBS in your answer, addressing the bombing campaigns. You said it was irrelevant in a comment, which is completely wrong, since that's what the question was about. Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 23:51

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