On 3 February 1917, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany in the wake of Germany’s announcement that she would commence unrestricted submarine warfare again. The notion that Germany would be able to “win” the war against Britain by doing this was popular at the time, but unfounded. It’s not clear exactly what the Germans expected, but “winning” the European war by then was simply a matter of outliving rivals. France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia and the Balkan states were completely spent: Britain was conscripting men for the first time in her history; Germany was starving through her first “turnip winter.” Of all the world powers, only the United States was relatively undamaged by the war, then entering its third year.
Germany certainly hoped for victory, but in this more innocent time “victory” didn’t mean conquering one’s enemies and destroying their capacity and their will for war as it would in 1945. What it meant was another negotiated settlement between leaders in morning coats and top hats; a dignified congress of gentlemen discussing matters before retiring and dressing for dinner. There were to be no unseemly marches of mere soldiers past hastily built reviewing stands as the Americans had in 1865, and no shocking assassinations of emperors as the Mexicans had in 1866 to their Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian I that France had so generously placed on the throne.
But on 3 February 1945, Operation Thunderclap would augur just such portents in Germany. A thousand US bombers hit Berlin over the course of about three hours, plagued by German fighters and pummeled by flak. While Germany was dying and everyone seemed to know it but Hitler, she was still vary dangerous.
Thunderclap wasn’t the first thousand plane raid. That distinction belongs to Operation Millennium in 1942, when the RAF hit Cologne in the heart of the Ruhr with not quite a thousand bombers (though they did send over a thousand, not quite a thousand reached the target). The point of these large raids, as the fictional Otto Thielmann would discover in Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII as he watched Cologne go up in flames, was that it took very large volumes of unguided iron bombs to do what the prewar bomber advocates had insisted would take very little. Technology of the time didn’t allow the kind of theoretical precision that men like Harris and Eaker had promised. But, Cologne also showed that large groups of aircraft could overwhelm Germany’s defenses. Such strikes couldn’t win, but they could enable victory.
Finally, in the height of irony, on 3 February 1924 Woodrow Wilson finally succumbed to the series of strokes that had weakened him for somewhat over a decade. The conflict for which he would be forever identified was long over, though the aftermath and rebound had only begun, but Wilson died after lingering for nearly a year as a complete invalid, and nearly five years as a somewhat feeble old man. While his wartime decision-making will be forever tainted by politics, his record as a reformer and wartime president must also be weighed and colored by his chronic illnesses.