One of the aims of war is to demoralize the enemy, so that peace or surrender becomes preferable to continuing the conflict. Strategic bombing has been used to this end. The phrase "terror bombing" entered the English lexicon towards the end of World War II and many strategic bombing campaigns and individual raids have been described as terror bombing by commentators and historians. Because the term has pejorative connotations, some, including the Allies of World War II, have preferred to use euphemisms such as "will to resist" and "morale bombings".
The theoretical distinction between tactical and strategic air warfare was developed between the two world wars. Some leading theorists of strategic air warfare during this period were the Italian Giulio Douhet, the Trenchard school in the United Kingdom, and General Billy Mitchell in the United States. These theorists were highly influential, both on the military justification for an independent air force (such as the Royal Air Force) and in influencing political thoughts on a future war as exemplified by Stanley Baldwin's 1932 comment that the bomber will always get through.
One of the aims of war is to demoralise the enemy; facing continual death and destruction may make the prospect of peace or surrender preferable. The proponents of strategic bombing between the world wars, such as General Douhet, expected that direct attacks upon an enemy country's cities by strategic bombers would lead to rapid collapse of civilian morale, so that political pressure to sue for peace would lead to a rapid conclusion. When such attacks were tried in the 1930s—in the Spanish Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War—they were ineffective. Commentators observed the failures and some air forces, such as the Luftwaffe, concentrated their efforts upon direct support of the troops.
Terror bombing is an emotive term used for aerial attacks planned to weaken or break enemy morale. Use of the term to refer to aerial attacks implies the attacks are criminal according to the law of war, or if within the laws of war are nevertheless a moral crime. According to John Algeo in Fifty Years among the New Words: A Dictionary of Neologisms 1941–1991, the first recorded usage of "Terror bombing" in a United States publication was in a Reader's Digest article dated June 1941, a finding confirmed by the Oxford English Dictionary.
Aerial attacks described as terror bombing are often long range strategic bombing raids, although attacks which result in the deaths of civilians may also be described as such, or if the attacks involve fighters strafing they may be labelled "terror attacks."
German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and other high-ranking officials of the Third Reich frequently described attacks made on Germany by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) during their strategic bombing campaigns as Terrorangriffe - terror attacks.[nb 1][nb 2] The Allied governments usually described their bombing of cities with other euphemisms such as area bombing (RAF) or precision bombing (USAAF), and for most of World War II the Allied news media did the same. However, at a SHAEF press conference on 16 February 1945, two days after the bombing of Dresden, British Air Commodore Colin McKay Grierson replied to a question by one of the journalists that the primary target of the bombing had been on communications to prevent the Germans from moving military supplies and to stop movement in all directions if possible. He then added in an offhand remark that the raid also helped destroy "what is left of German morale." Howard Cowan, an Associated Press war correspondent, filed a story about the Dresden raid. The military press censor at SHAEF made a mistake and allowed the Cowan cable to go out starting with "Allied air bosses have made the long awaited decision to adopt deliberate terror bombing of great German population centres as a ruthless expedient to hasten Hitler's doom." There were follow-up newspaper editorials on the issue and a longtime opponent of strategic bombing, Richard Stokes, MP, asked questions in the House of Commons on 6 March.
The controversy stirred up by the Cowan news report reached the highest levels of the British Government when on 28 March 1945 the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, sent a memo by telegram to General Ismay for the British Chiefs of Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff in which he started with the sentence "It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed...." Under pressure from the Chiefs of Staff and in response to the views expressed by Chief of the Air Staff Sir Charles Portal, and the head of Bomber Command, Arthur "Bomber" Harris, among others, Churchill withdrew his memo and issued a new one. This was completed on 1 April 1945 and started instead with the usual British euphemism for attacks on cities: "It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of the so called 'area-bombing' of German cities should be reviewed from the point of view of our own interests....".