- Historic Sites
After The Air Raids
An insider’s account of a startling— and still controversial—investigation of the Allied bombing of Germany
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
George Ball, who had become a director of the USSBS, brought me into the survey in the late winter of 1944 to have charge of the overall economic assessment of the German mobilization effort and the effect thereon of the air attacks. Our first planning sessions were in the partners’ room at 23 Wall Street, in Henry Alexander’s private office, and in the Morgan private dining room. Alexander was the general director of the USSBS. I thereafter took leave from Fortune and went down to Washington to recruit a staff. Then and later in London, with the assistance of Burton H. Klein, an Air Force captain and later a professor at the California Institute of Technology, I assembled one of the more diversely talented groups of scholars ever brought together for a single research task. It was not difficult. As the war came to an end, many highly qualified people were becoming available in civilian Washington. More could be combed out of the armed services and were full of joy at their rescue from the now besetting idleness. The British, more cautious or xenophobic than we, had not used fully the scholarly talent that had taken refuge on their shores from Germany, Austria, and elsewhere in central Europe. These men we also hired; they knew German and Germany well and had a highly motivated desire to serve.
My subordinates, in a manner of speaking, for in the long history of human conflict few in any military formation were so little given to any form of obedience, were a roster of the famous of the next economic generation. Nicholas Kaldor, later Lord Kaldor; E. F. Schumacher of Small Is Beautiful; my old OPA [Office of Price Administration] partner Griffith Johnson; Paul A. Baran, with Paul Sweezy to become the most distinguished and by far the most entertaining of American Marxists; Tibor Scitovsky, another noted economist; Edward Denison, later to become one of the leaders in modern statistical analysis; and many more. Everyone—American, British, erstwhile German or Hungarian—was given a rank theoretically reflecting his previous civilian station in life and told to provide himself with an officer’s uniform, which he then wore without insignia of rank. Some tried to sustain a slightly military bearing.
On April 12, 1945, I was ready to leave for London, where we were to be based, and went back to New York for a small farewell celebration. Toward evening one of the guests, Letty Hamm, wife of my OPA colleague John Hamm, called to tell us that the radio had just reported that President Roosevelt was dead. We assembled that night less in gloom than in shock. We had come to suppose that FDR was forever. He had been so for twelve years, nearly all our adult lives. The following morning I went to Washington on the train with another committed Roosevelt man, Nelson Rockefeller. We speculated on the effect on our future, politically and otherwise. Nelson guessed—as it turned out, rightly—that he would survive.
The next day before dawn George Ball and I left for London from Patuxent, in Maryland, by NATS [Naval Air Transport Service]. Those who have flown only in the modern jet cannot know how unpleasant was an ocean crossing in those primitive bucket-seat planes. It was not the discomfort but the tedium. The better part of three days was required; it was too dark to read, too noisy and too cold to sleep. Endless hours up to Stephenville in Newfoundland; endless hours down to the Azores; a long, long day to Prestwick near Glasgow; a final flight to London. Never did life so nearly stand still as on those journeys. Before departure one had a movie that depicted the procedures to be followed when the plane ditched and filled up with water. If all other recourse failed, one could always turn one’s mind back to that film.
Our London headquarters was in Grosvenor Square, in the offices lately abandoned by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Many who now visit London must wonder how so much of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century city survived the Blitz. The explanation is partly that tourists tend to go to the West End, and it was the City and the dreary proletarian wastelands to the east that got the bombs. But also the destruction was selective, a building or part of a street here and there. Not until one got to Cologne, Hamburg, Frankfurt, or Berlin did one see cities in which every building was an empty, roofless shell. For me they remained an utterly sickening sight. When I first went to India, to Calcutta, I was similarly appalled by the poverty, but after living there a few weeks, I found that my eyes had developed an impermeable glaze; I no longer reacted to the deprivation. The devastation of the German, and later and especially of the Japanese, cities is with me still.
In Germany as in London the bombing had a nasty class aspect. The densely populated working-class districts got the full force of the bombs; often the affluent outer suburbs escaped.