Firebombing and Forest Imperialism

Danny Stock

This week, Professor David Fedman ’04 visited Topher Dunne’s WWII class to discuss his bilingual website, his most recent (award-winning) book, Seeds of Control: Japan’s Empire of Forestry in Colonial Korea*, his work as an executive producer on the upcoming documentary Paper City (on the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo), and his various perspectives as a historian with a particular focus on East Asia and WWII. David’s virtual visit to campus fell on Senior Prank Day, which led to some lively discussion with the class—composed of primarily seniors—about his time at GDS.

“It was an absolute pleasure to beam-in to my old stomping grounds at GDS,” David said. “Though I wasn't able to visit in person, a couple of things were plain to see: GDS students are as sharp as they come and they are lucky to call Topher Dunne their teacher. I certainly wouldn't be making a career as historian if not for the early support and encouragement of Topher, C.A. Pilling, and so many other GDS faculty.”

Particularly noteworthy in the discussion—and its starting point—was the lamentable fact that Americans tend to know so little about the United States’ military campaign in Japan apart from the atomic bombings. David said, “I’ve always been so struck by the fixation Americans have on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and how that’s often at the expense of an appreciation of the bombing campaign as a whole: the 66 other cities that were burned to the ground before atomic bombs were used.”

David asked the students for their takes on Americans’ particular fixation on “the bomb.” Among the several ideas shared, there was general agreement about the symbolic nature of the atomic bombs that has captured the narrative in the United States. Nick Penniman ’22 suggested that they were a “symbol of American power over Japan.”
David agreed, noting that the “heroic tale” behind the Manhattan project “feeds into the broader and remarkably entrenched narrative of the ‘good war.’ This triumphalist account that the United States’ actions were beyond reproach, that they were beating back fascism in Europe and totalitarianism in Asia…[Yet,] the targeting of civilians by the U.S. Army Air Forces should raise unsettling moral questions about the role of civilians in total war.”

For those unfamiliar with the violent history, you can watch the class recording, visit, or make plans to view Paper City. One particular statistic David raised feels important to name here to provide a sense of how little most Americans know about the final years of American military engagement during WWII and the importance of learning more: 100,00 civilians perished on a single night—March 9, 1945—when 330 American B-29s dropped incendiary bombs on Tokyo.

David is an Assistant Professor of East Asian history at UC Irvine. After graduating GDS, he received a BA in history from Brown University followed by a PhD in history from Stanford University. 

*University of Washington Press, winner of the George Perkins Marsh Prize for best book in environmental history

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