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Bomb them Back to the Stone Age: An Etymology

Just after 9/11, the United States allegedly threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age” unless it joined the war on terror. In his forthcoming book, Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf attributes the ultimatum to Richard Armitage, who flatly denies it. Sounding slightly less sure, President Bush says he was “taken aback by the harshness of the words.”

Harsh, maybe, but hardly original. Journalists, fifth-grade bullies, and maybe even diplomats have been worrying that phrase almost as long as “my bad” or “at the end of the day.” If Armitage actually used those words he should be hauled before the International Cliché Tribunal.

The threat’s triteness, however, may offer a clue to its real significance. To become a cliché, a figure of speech has to begin with enough freshness, irony, or dead-on accuracy to get repeated until its original gist wears off. So what did this expression mean, and who said it first?

The quote is usually attributed to Curtis LeMay, the scowling Air Force general who incinerated two thirds of Japan’s cities in World War II and was disappointed when Kennedy wouldn’t let him do the same to Cuba. In his 1968 memoir he suggested that rather than negotiating with Hanoi, the United States should “bomb them back to the stone age,” by taking out factories, harbors, and bridges “until we have destroyed every work of man in North Vietnam.”

LeMay, however, had cribbed it from a June 1967 column by humorist Art Buchwald, who used the phrase to caricature the Goldwater Republican attitude toward Vietnam. The 1964 “Daisy Girl” ad had already tarred Republicans as inveterate bombers, but the joke came from Buchwald’s association of bombing with time travel.

The Kennedy and Johnson administrations talked of winning in Vietnam by nation-building it “into the twentieth century.” Particularly after World War II, U.S. officials tended to rank countries by a single measure, technology, and to express progress in terms of time. Rural, unmechanized countries were feudal, primitive, or backward while industrialized countries, like Britain, lived closer to our time zone, off by maybe a few minutes. Communism’s lumbering one-way march through history was an “alien time sense,”Life magazine explained. Americans treated time like “raw material for whatever project is before us.”

The ability to help friendly countries skip ahead in time by dispensing technology and foreign aid gave Washington a valuable weapon for winning allies. Its controlling vote in the World Bank and multilateral agencies allowed it to decide which countries advanced, and how fast. In Pakistan, the United States built hydroelectric dams, steel mills, airports, and a small atomic reactor.

But there was another strategy deployed in Asia, the one Buchwald lampooned and LeMay advocated. Nations could be wound back like clocks. Twentieth century accoutrements headed the list of bombing targets, and American reconnaissance planes flew regularly and visibly over Pakistan. When the prime minister visited Washington in 1966, Johnson presented him a framed color photograph of his country taken from the window of a Saturn rocket.

Leaders of Musharraf’s generation grew up identifying the United States with the excitement, speed, and energy of modern technology, while also being conscious that America felt it owned modernity, that it had a right to decide who lived in the future, and who in the past. Armitage may never have said anything about the stone age, but when he phoned in September 2001 to ask if Pakistan was on our side, Musharraf heard the assertion of an old prerogative. Washington was calling to tell him what time it was.