January 18, 2014

What is the origin of the idea of the "scorched earth" policy?

How far back does it go?

The tactic goes back to ancient times.

The term "scorched earth," according to the (unlinkable) OED is a translation of Chinese phrase jiāotŭ (zhèngcè), with the earliest use in English traced to 1937:
1937 C. McDonald in Times 6 Dec. 12/2 The populace..are still disturbed, in spite of official denials, by wild rumours of a ‘scorched earth policy’ of burning the city before the Japanese enter....
One OED example is comic:
1963 P. G. Wodehouse Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves xvii. 135 The kitchen maid..always adopts the scorched earth policy when preparing a meal.
If you've read the history at the first link, you might think that comic usage is in bad taste, but then you must never speak of "nuking" things in the microwave.


madAsHell said...

What about the French invasion of Russia in 1812??

Napoleon wanted the Russians to stop trading with the British. The Cossacks burned the ground as they retreated.

rhhardin said...

I favor salting.

Michael K said...

Similar to "Carthaginian Peace."

Farmer said...

Stiff Upper Lip doesn't get the credit it deserves, I guess because it's one of the later novels, but it's hilarious.

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

Victor Davis Hanson has written an excellent book on "scorched earth" in ancient Greece. The purpose was to force defenders out into an open battle in order to save their crops.

Gahrie said...

Sherman may not have used the term, but he sure as hell used the tactic. They still hate him in Georgia today 150 years later.

St. George said...

I've been to Carthage, whose site is in the suburbs of present day Tunis.

There is not one stone standing on another stone.



As for Sherman, my understanding is that the main thrust of his attack was through South Carolina. Why there? To punish that state, as its residents were known as particularly ferocious secessionists.

virgil xenophon said...

"Rome Plows"

virgil xenophon said...

PS: We used a modern-day version of them in Vietnam to deforest areas..

traditionalguy said...

The March to the Sea did not start for two months after Atlanta was surrendered to Sherman the August 31, 1864 which was on the day the Macon RR was cut after a two day battle of Jonesboro 20 miles south of Atlanta.

The Confederate Army had left is blocking positions south of Jonesboro and moved north of Atlanta to cut Sherman's RR supply line from Ohio through Chattanooga.

So Sherman waited until the hog killing weather in mid November had passed and the farmer's next years Hams, bacon et al. were processed and hung to smoke. That was his food supply gathered by the bummer's wagons 30 miles either side of his Army's columns headed south for Savannah on an unopposed five weeks march. The bummers tried to steal family silver too.

So Sherman's Army took the food, but did not burn structures except for RR infrastructure, manufacturing facilities and a few wealth politicians' homes. Rural Georgia had very few wealthy homes. Those were mostly found and burned in and around Charleston, SC as vengeance.

The Drill SGT said...

virgil xenophon said...
PS: We used a modern-day version of them in Vietnam to deforest areas..

To be fair the use of plows on jungle was not to deprive the VC of economic benefit, but rather to remove cover.

A scorched earth policy would have destroyed VC rice paddy dikes. In fact, that tactic was rejected on the Red River in North Vietnam by the JCS

Hagar said...

The Germans evacuated northern Norway in WWII and burnt everything behind them to make it hard for the Russian invasion expected to follow.
I am pretty sure we used a Norwegian translation of "scorched earth tactic" for what they did.

Hagar said...

Anyway, I think the OED fell down on that one. The expression has to be much, much older.

traditionalguy said...

When defeat seemed certain Fuhrer decided to punish the German people for failing him and ordered Germany to be blown up.

Few disobeyed Hitler. Those who did were shot on sight by the SS and on Gauleiter's orders.

But his extermination trains taking Europe's Jews to camps kept running faster and faster using up one third of the available transport and fuel well into 1945.

So Hitler did will two policy accomplishments: he killed the Jews of Europe and he destroyed the cowardly Germans.

EDH said...

For all it's worth...

Runnin' too Deep

We scorched the earth, babe
For all it's worth
Last night
You in ecstasy
Now you don't remember me

It's runnin' too deep
It's runnin' too deep for me

The sirens and the curfews
Through the night
Everybody's locked up tight
What's going on
It's been dark for much too long

If heaven looses face
What will take its place

We've torn the treasure from the land
Watched it turn to ashes in our hands

Quaestor said...

I've been to Carthage, whose site is in the suburbs of present day Tunis.

The ruins there are Roman, and not Carthaginian. The remains of the city destroyed in the aftermath of the Third Punic War are miniscule and very rare, just tiny bits and pieces of ceramic. The Romans burnt everything burnable and smashed everything that wasn't. A century later a new city, called New Carthage, was founded on the site by Julius Caesar. It later became the capital of the province of Africa and one of the most populous and wealthy cities in the Empire. One of Novo Carthago's most notable citizens was Saint Augustine. In the 5th century AD the city was sacked by the Vandals, but the ruins you see resulted mainly from 1300 years of Muslim scavenging.

Quaestor said...

I feel a bit guilty about the Muslim scavenging remark (but not too much).

To be fair I must point out that by the mid-8th century climate change (Yes, Mr. Gore, climate change happens, is normal and natural, and happens whether there's increasing CO2 or not.) had altered the shape and depth of the harbour that served Novo Carthago. The Roman wharves were high and dry and useless. The Muslims basically relocated the city to where the deep protected waters were. They accomplished this by dismantling New Carthage stone by stone and building new structures with the salvaged material.

There. Fixed. Please don't jihad me.

Michael K said...

"Sherman may not have used the term, but he sure as hell used the tactic. They still hate him in Georgia today 150 years later."

Many people misunderstand Sherman, probably our greatest general. He conducted war on property, not people. His troops loved him and Joe Johnston, his principal opponent, risked his health to serve as a pallbearer at Sherman's funeral. He died soon after. When his aides chastised hi for risking his life, he replied "Sherman would do it for me."

Sherman avoided civilian and military casualties, unlike Grant. There were very few rapes or murders by his troops. Two rapists in South Carolina were hung by him.

From him, we get maneuver war. Stonewall Jackson might have been his equal but died too soon. Patton imitated his tactics.

virgil xenophon said...

@The Drill Sgt/

Picky, picky, picky...

Yeah, I knew/know all that, but they called "Rome Plows" for a reason, i.e., because nothing would grow back because the root structure was so thoroughly eradicated..

virgil xenophon said...

**"...they were called Rome Plows..."

SGT Ted said...

Ancient armies fed themselves on what they pillaged and foraged for. "Scorched earth" was a desperation tactic to attempt to starve and weaken an enemy army.

Ann Althouse said...

"What about the French invasion of Russia in 1812??"

What about it? Did you go to the first link? Did you see that I said the tactic goes back to ancient times?

The term is different from the tactic. I double checked in the NYT archive and the term first appeared in English in 1937, when it crossed over from the Chinese when the Japanese invaded China in WW2. The OED is not wrong.

Mark O said...

Never discount Jeeves or Wodehouse.

madAsHell said...

Now, we can understand why the OED is un-linkable!

Jim Lindgren said...

The phrase "scorched earth" was common in newspapers going back at least to the mid 1800s. It was usually associated with drought, such as "sun-scorched earth," a phrase that appears several times.

I found dozens of pre-1937 examples at newspaperarchive.com.

The first use in military reporting I found was in 1917, which described a WW I battlefield as "scorched earth." Eau Claire [WI] Leader, September 23, 1917.

Jim Lindgren said...

The first use of "scorched earth policy" I found was July 1937, though it suddenly became a popular term in early December 1937, and the Chinese origin was noted then.

Ann Althouse said...

Jim, I agree that there are examples of "scorched" next to "earth" to refer to droughts and the aftermath of fires, but these are just pairings of words, not the stock phrase "scorched earth" to refer to the tactic (literally or figuratively).

Ann Althouse said...

My assertion is about "the term 'scorched earth.'"

The term "the term" matters, and I began by relying on the OED. Do you think the OED is wrong?