The “Unintended Consequences” of America’s Arsenal

America loves its bombs: they always seem to come out of nowhere.

By Michael SherryFebruary 13, 2014

    The “Unintended Consequences” of America’s Arsenal

    American Arsenal by Patrick Coffey. Oxford University Press. 336 pages.

    “HAVING FOUND THE BOMB” — there it was, behind those trash cans around the corner! — “we have used it,” President Harry Truman said in his August 9, 1945 radio address about the United States atomic bomb attack “on Hiroshima, a military base” (he wouldn’t acknowledge it was a city). What meaning Truman attached to those words is uncertain since War Department wordsmiths drafted most of what he said before the bomb was used. Truman and his advisers certainly had other reasons — some announced and some not, and many not embraced by all — to use the bomb: hasten victory over Japan; crowd the Soviets out of that victory; close off any need for a land invasion; placate a war-weary and grumbling public; punish Japan for being the racial upstart that started the war and had “starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war” (as Truman put it); demonstrate America’s power for the postwar world; prove that the vast funds secretly spent had a payoff; show that air power can win wars.

    But Truman’s famously crisp sentence did encapsulate a recurrent American attitude toward the fearsome weapons the United States developed: they came to us almost accidentally, inadvertently, “found” in that cornucopia which modern science and technology provided. Even scientists who helped develop the atomic bomb could mirror that thinking in their use of passive verbs: “a plutonium bomb was dropped” — by whom? did it just drop and sit there? — “on Nagasaki,” the chemist Glenn Seaborg wrote in his diary for August 9, 1945. That attitude persisted even as leaders like Truman praised the American genius that made the bombs, thus acknowledging that deliberate and costly effort, not something inadvertently “found,” led to the bomb. That attitude also reflected a longstanding stance of Americans toward their participation in war: the United States never wants to go to war, but others (the Germans twice, the Japanese, the North Koreans, the North Vietnamese, al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein) forced its hand, just as German progress in nuclear theory and technology forced the United States to start its a-bomb program. (“What you are after,” President Franklin Roosevelt told an aide who approached him about starting the American program, “is to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up.”) Americans oscillate, as Truman did, between professions of their inadvertent engagement and displays of their prowess.

    Patrick Coffey’s American Arsenal: A Century of Waging War offers a brisk account of the development of key weapons and technologies, from poison gas to drones, in that arsenal. Sent in 1969 as a draftee to the Aberdeen Proving Ground to work on the Redeye anti-aircraft missile, and now a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, Coffey has a knack for explaining technological and strategic developments in language any reader can follow. Once they amassed nuclear weapons by the thousands,

    The United States and the Soviet Union were like two gunslingers facing each other in the street, but with an important difference: if a gunslinger draws first and aims well, he will live and his enemy will die. In the nuclear gunfight, the bullets would travel slowly enough — thirty minutes or so — that the enemy could shoot too, and then both gunmen would die.

    Many of his stories are fascinating, gruesome, even lurid, and some are largely unknown, like the German aerial attack in 1943 on the Italian port of Bari that struck a U.S. cargo ship secretly loaded with just-in-case mustard gas. He is forthright about the destructive consequences of the weapons he examines — not only the fiery and explosive ones, but also others like Agent Orange used in South Vietnam. He renders judgment tartly. Regarding “Star Wars” — a pipe dream sold to an extremely gullible President Ronald Reagan — he insists that Edward Teller’s “advice to Reagan would be worse than amateurish — it was at first manipulative and later deceitful.” Coffey also fluently synthesizes much of the enormous scholarship devoted to some of his topics. He gets some things wrong: it is not true that in 1950 the United States was “without a military draft” — conscription briefly ended in 1947 but resumed thereafter, although with few inductions until the Korean War broke out in 1950. And his swift romp through so many weapons makes his book read a bit like an account of  “greatest hits (and disasters) of American weapons.” But there’s no harm in such a book, and this one is more accurate and interesting than many others.

    Yet why Coffey tells these stories, beyond their intrinsic interest, is unclear. They march along with almost no commentary or analysis. Perhaps there’s something to be said for a book that leaves its arguments implicit, or lets its readers fashion their own. But it means that no strong thread connects the chapters to each other, or even the parts of a given chapter to each other, and Coffey never brings to the surface that tension between inadvertence and prowess — never takes it on as a challenge to understand. “Each of this book’s chapters illustrates the unplanned nature and the unintended consequences of America’s military transformations,” he writes. But did we think otherwise? Any history has its “unplanned nature” and “unintended consequences.”  History zig-zags. Humans never quite know where they are heading and often end up at “unintended” places, and we see that in some of Coffey’s stories. But that truism about the past obscures just how “planned,” “intended,” and deeply desired were the consequences of America’s arsenal. Coffey’s formulation inadvertently echoes Truman’s formula, which Coffey quotes three times (leaving out the “have” the first time) but never examines.

    Coffey should have peeked at H. Bruce Franklin’s 1988 book War Stars: The Superweapon in American Imagination, a biting account of how Americans (and others) imagined and desired the fiendish weapons they later developed. Those weapons came about through active and extraordinarily expensive efforts to translate ideas into weapons. Of course weapons-makers sometimes went down dead-end streets, as in the effort during World War II, nicely recounted by Coffey, to attach tiny incendiary bombs to thousands of bats that would set fire to Japan’s cities. More revealing than the failure was the impulse behind it — that burning up Japan’s cities was both a legitimate and necessary way to defeat it, a dream come true should it happen. Some Americans had had that dream long before World War II. Napalm, the B29 bomber, and the atomic bomb accomplished what those silly bat bombs could not do.

    Rich, powerful nations get what they want, at least often enough to make it misleading to put their efforts into the box of “unplanned nature” and “unintended consequences,” which often turn out on closer inspection to be intended ones simply kept under wraps or misleadingly publicized. Despite the U.S. Army Air Forces longstanding doctrine of precision bombing, its leaders and scientists had worked for years on techniques to firebomb Japan’s cities before doing so in the spring of 1945, and then covering their tracks in public by insisting that the firebombing was simply “pin-point, incendiary bombing.”[1]

    Only on the gross scale of history does it make much sense to speak of “unintended consequences.” It surely was not an intended consequence of the Nazi development of the V-2 rocket that it would jump-start an arms race in military rocketry after the war. It surely was not an intended consequence of all the American bombing during the Vietnam War that the United States would lose that war. But those don’t seem to be the “unintended consequences” Coffey has in mind. Surely it was an intended consequence that the United States would unleash terrible destruction on Southeast Asia.

    “Effective weapons have a way of forcing their use even if they do not fit their services’ doctrines — America’s AAF [Army Air Forces] would embrace napalm and the atomic bomb in World War II, for example.” We know what Coffey means — leaders and commanders grab on to new things that seem to work. But his formulation has no human agency, as if the weapons themselves do the forcing through some mysterious power of their own. It’s the same way that people now often speak about computers — they make me do this or that, rather than I use them to make myself do this or that. This is technological determinism, long challenged by scholars and others, yet persistent, especially in accounts of military technologies. Technological determinism was popular earlier in the 20th century, often encapsulated within terms like “march of science” and “march of technology.” As the historian Charles A. Beard put it in 1927, “technology marches in seven-league boots from one ruthless, revolutionary conquest to another, tearing down old factories and industries, [and] flinging up new processes with terrifying rapidity.” In our postmodern era, with its dismissal of history as linear and causation as traceable, technological determinism would seem to be a dead duck. But it lives on in vernacular understandings, if not in academic scholarship, just as there is still a steady stream of exhibitions, websites, advertisements, and the like that carry the “march of technology” stamp. It does, after all, offer an appealing way to explain change. For generations overwhelmed by the advent of incomparably destructive weapons — or incomprehensible computer systems — it expresses a powerful sense that “we” are not in control, or in control of those who are in control.


    Truman’s “having found it” statement echoes today in common reactions to the latest advances in military technology, like the electronic Hoovering done by the National Security Agency and other agencies, or the drones that execute presumed terrorist enemies (and sometimes others). Most of us feel nervously helpless before the “march of technology” that produces these things, as if they emerge almost without anyone willing them into being — as if they are more “found” than made. The invisibility and relative bloodlessness of recent weapons make it even easier to shrug our shoulders than it was for Americans to learn of the atomic bomb, whose mushroom cloud and death toll were inescapable. We know better, of course, just as Truman did: highly purposeful people and organizations (not just in the United States) make these things work now, just as they made the atomic bomb work. But now the fruits of their efforts are so invisible and so defended by the claims of national safety that we hardly know what to say. We surrender to technological determinism — if it can be made, it will be, and if it is, it will be used.

    Never mind that, as Coffey shows, “we” have contemplated all sorts of weapons without making them (bat bombs!), and made all sorts of weapons without using them (gas and bacteriological weapons after World War I), or used them briefly and then withheld them (nuclear weapons). It turns out that “having found” a weapon, “we have” not always “used it.” Never mind, too, that sometimes the march of technology almost halts. The Air Force’s B-52 was designed in the 1940s, first flown in 1952, and featured in films like Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. (Slim Pickens famously rides an H-bomb down from the bomb bay of a B-52.) But it still flies, and it may remain in service into the 2040s. To be sure, it flies in vastly reduced numbers, and it’s been gutted and refitted to meet current operational needs. But this would be like a warship built in the 1880s still serving in World War II. The march of technology is inexorable, except when it isn’t.

    Which may bring a certain mordant relief to readers of this book. Compared to all the destruction unleashed in 20th-century wars, our age appears almost benign. Electronic surveillance is dangerous to law and liberty, but it does not slaughter hundreds of thousands. (Its defenders would say it prevents such slaughter.) Drones kill a few here, dozens there, perhaps hundreds on occasion, but yield no mushroom clouds with masses of people frying under them. Terrorist attacks are frightening and deadly, but one robust battle in World War I or World War II killed far more than all those attacks (so far) combined. Of course, if a nuclear weapon was lashed to a big drone — it would be easy to do, merely mimicking the thousands of nuclear weapons long ago lashed to intercontinental rockets — it would be a different story.

    Near the end of Sidney Lumet’s 1964 movie Fail Safe — a film that can still scare my students — the U.S. president (Henry Fonda) is on the phone with his Soviet counterpart when an American nuclear attack on Moscow, the outcome of a computer glitch and a rogue officer’s action, starts to unfold. To avert all-out nuclear war, the president has decided to unleash a similar U.S. attack on New York City to prove that the attack on Moscow was unintended. “We put it there, Mr. Chairman,” the agonized president says of the hair-trigger system of destruction each has, “and we're not helpless. What we put between us, we can remove.” Wrenched out of the film, those words can sound trite. But since then, nations and leaders have only acted haltingly on their message. Readers of American Arsenal will be sharply reminded why they should do more, and why we should push them to do so. “The next arms race has only just begun,” Coffey ends his account.

                [1]Quoted in Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (New Haven 1987), 290.


    Michael Sherry, the Richard W. Leopold Professor of History at Northwestern University, is the author of, among other books, In the Shadow of War: The United States Since the 1930s (1995).

    LARB Contributor

    Michael Sherry, the Richard W. Leopold Professor of History at Northwestern University, is the author of, among other books, In the Shadow of War: The United States Since the 1930s (1995) and is currently writing Go Directly to Jail: The Punitive Turn in American Life.


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