If you think the United States of America never considered a preemptive strike until the current fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, “Preemptive Strike” is for you.
Author Alan Armstrong practices aviation law in Atlanta. If he researches his cases as deeply as he researched this book, you want him on your side. Five appendices, extensive footnotes, a huge bibliography and an extremely useful index are some indication of the painstaking work that went into “Preemptive Strike.”
Armstrong presents indisputable evidence that, as early as December 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt was discussing a preemptive bombing campaign against Japan, to be launched from bases in China. The point was to distract the Japanese from their merciless campaign in Manchuria, their advances toward the Dutch and French colonies in Southeast Asia – not to mention ours in the Philippines – and to thwart any notions of an attack against the United States.
Joint Army/Navy Board Plan 355 was to send 400 fighters and 150 bombers to fly from bomber bases already under construction in China, where at least 2.5 million gallons of American aviation gasoline had been stored. One of the first intended targets was Nagasaki.
If you think 150 bombers wouldn’t have done much harm to Japanese war production, consider a 1940 report from the U.S. Naval Attache in Tokyo, pointing out that “firefighting facilities are woefully inadequate” and “incendiary bombs sown widely over Japanese cities would result in destruction of major proportions” – as Curtis LeMay’s B-29s demonstrated a few years later.
The bombing initiative never got off the ground, as we know, but Armstrong found out why. The U.S. State Department opposed it on legal grounds, the Japanese discovered it, and U.S. intelligence agencies knew the Japanese knew. No wonder President Roosevelt left the plot out of his “day of infamy” speech on Dec. 8, 1941.
This brief summation doesn’t come close to doing the book justice. It is the detailed story of a campaign that never was, but that might have changed the course of history. It explores the many options, the tough decisions, the political maneuvering behind and surrounding the plan and, while it does so with a historian’s depth and detail, it never loses its sense of excitement, of “what next?” and – perhaps most intriguing – of “what if?”
“Preemptive Strike,” by Alan Armstrong; The Lyons Press; 285 pages, photographs, maps, endnotes, bibliography, index; $22.95.