American Military Aviation in the Interwar Years and After: Some Historical Reappraisals

Posted on Thu, June 13 2013
Martin B-26B Marauder Flak-Bait

In 1987, the historian Michael S. Sherry published a groundbreaking and controversial book titled The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (Yale UP, 1987). Sherry in effect reinterpreted the history of American air power in a way that was more contextually based and fiercely critical. The result was not to every military historian’s liking because it deviated so dramatically from what was considered the master narrative of American air power, which traditionally had focused on combat tactics and weaponry, and which had neglected the broader implications of air power and its employment. Moreover, Sherry upset the “Good War” narrative (mistakenly from Studs Terkel’s ironically titled The Good War: An Oral History of WWII) that emphasizes the heroic side of war and downplays its destructiveness, death, and tragedy. Thus, The Rise of American Air Power could be seen as representative of what has been termed the “New Military History,” an attempt to bring military history into line with other academic historical endeavor. In a larger context, historian Peter Paret has written in Parameters: The Journal of the Army War College, “the New Military History refers to a partial turning away from the great captains, and from weapons, tactics, and operations as the main concerns of the historical study of war. Instead we are asked to pay greater attention to the interaction of war with society, economics, politics, and culture.” (Autumn 1991,10) The recent publication by military historian Mark Clodfelter of Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945 (U of Nebraska P, 2010) is a fitting occasion to reconsider some of the ideas put forth by Sherry a quarter century ago. In his book Clodfelter argues that consciously or unconsciously the developers of American air power theory and strategy were a reaction to a Progressive (as in Progressive Era) way of thinking. Clodfelter argues that the advocates of progressive air power, looking back on the slaughter brought about in WWI, believed that air power could put an end to an enemy’s ability to wage war by destroying its industrial, communication, and transportation centers. Clodfelter also points out that the airmen wanted a reformation of the U.S. defense structure and they believed that a separate autonomous air force was a necessity if the country was to carry out such precise aerial warfare. In addition, the airmen believed that an independent air force would be capable of winning future wars entirely on its own, without the assistance of armies or navies. While Clodfelter should be lauded for his attempt to place the study of American air power in a wider context, his view of it in regard to American Progressivism is somewhat narrow. Progressivism is a multifaceted and often contradictory movement typically characterized by activism for social justice, political reform, and efficiency. It may be difficult to tie American air power to a single motivation. Nevertheless, I would like to follow up on Clodfelter’s (and Sherry’s) ideas in light of recent historiography, and in particular to focus on what might be termed the unintended consequences of early American air power theory. (Technology’s accidental aspects have been examined most notably by historian Edward Tenner in Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences [Vintage, 1997]). Two psychological facets of un-intention are “cognitive dissonance,” and “groupthink” (terms developed later by the social psychologist Leon Festinger (When Prophecy Fails, 1956) and the research psychologist Irving L. Janis (Victims of Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, 1972); these describe various states of single-mindedness and collective rationalization in group behavior. Festinger had studied under Kurt Lewin at the University of Iowa and during WWII he had worked for the National Research Council Committee on the Selection and Training of Aircraft Pilots at the University of Rochester. Janis had worked on problems of military morale during WWII for the U.S. Army. In 1951 when he was a professor at Yale University he published Air War and Emotional Stress: Psychological Studies of Bombing and Civilian Defense under the auspices of the RAND (Research and Development) Corporation). Both men made revolutionary contributions to the way that social scientists comprehend and explain complex patterns of human motivation and behavior, particularly as they apply to organizations. In her book Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton UP, 2002), Tami Davis Biddle explains how cognitive theory relates to military decision making. Biddle believes that “All decision makers use cognitive processes to make sense of their complicated and stressful environments. … rather than revisit the original choice, decision makers discount, misinterpret, or ignore new information … in addition to seeing what [they] want to expect to see, and not seeing what [they] find too stressful to absorb, [they] often see what it is in [their] interest to see. Decision makers with powerful organizational goals or self-interests may discount or minimize incoming information that conflicts with those interests, and highlight information that supports them.” (4-5) In a very broad sense, the work of Festinger, Janis and others on cognitive processes in organizational thinking so aptly summarized by Biddle go a long way toward explaining what happened to air power theory during the interwar years and throughout WWII.

General William "Billy" Mitchell


Contributing to the “cognitive dissonance” and “groupthink” mentality of the strategic bombing theorists was their feeling of superiority, a kind of “cult of the airmen” mentality. This mindset was characterized by their feelings of elitism—their “us versus them” position— in regard to the regular Army establishment, which wanted them to concentrate on tactical air power or battlefield support. Another quality was their belief in superior knowledge in being able to pilot an aircraft; that only airmen really understood the potential of air power and that those outside their select group, even if they were military men, did not have the requisite experience require to wage aerial warfare. Add to this the aura of “prophet” that surrounded General William “Billy” Mitchell, their erstwhile leader during the 1920s, and you begin to understand the cultish dimensions of the air power theorists. If one accepts Biddle’s line of reasoning, the so-called American air prophets of the interwar years were so convinced of the rightness of their cause that they ignored or dismissed any evidence to the contrary that did not conform to prescribed views. More than that, they refused to test their ideas empirically in more than a superficial fashion, and trusted that the military aviation technology that supported their ideas would more than make up for any mistakes in their thinking. Moreover, American air power theorists were unable or unwilling to admit that enemy technologies might be developed to counteract their theoretical plans, even while the testing of such technologies were going on underneath their noses. Another, perhaps more significant factor was the desire of the airmen to form an independent air service, free of interference from the army, and able to carry out its own independent mission. Whatever the reasons, the theorists failed on a number of fronts. For example, the apparent truth of the received wisdom that “the bomber will always get through,” initially espoused by British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in a 1932 speech to Parliament, was accepted without question by the bomber advocates. In fact, a year later, assistant chief of the Air Corps Brigadier General Oscar Westover reiterated Baldwin’s claim: “No known agency can frustrate the accomplishment of a bombardment mission.” Subsequent events proved these undisputed assumptions questionable at best. With their eyes securely fixed on precision bombardment, the airmen ignored the role of fighter aircraft in combat. A lone voice for the role of fighter aircraft was that of Claire Lee Chennault, an Air Corps officer assigned to instruct at the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, Alabama. Chennault believed in fighters and their role in a coordinated ground-air aerial defense system. In his memoir, Way of a Fighter (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1949), Chennault recalled that in 1933 bomber versus fighter test, “fighters intercepted and ‘attacked’ the bombers by day and by night, using high, intermediate, and low altitudes on every attempt that was made.” While one should perhaps take what Chennault says with a grain of salt, it is apparent (in light of later developments) that the airmen did not place much emphasis on fighter aircraft either as effective countermeasures to bombers or as protective bomber escorts. (23-24) Likewise, the bomber advocates never envisioned or easily dismissed defensive countermeasures like RADAR (Radio Direction and Ranging, which was being developed primarily in Great Britain during the 1930s, and FLAK (Fliegerabwehrkanone, or antiaircraft artillery). RADAR was used effectively in the Battle of Britain to track German aircraft and direct Fighter Command to scramble and attack them. FLAK became a significant part of German air defenses during WWII and was used to direct lethal artillery fire from the ground to the air against attacking Allied.


Martin B-26B Marauder Flak-Bait

Although not as iconic as the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, the Martin B-26 Marauder Flak Bait, a medium bomber, survived 207 operational missions over Europe, more than any other American aircraft during World War II.


Moreover, the lessons of the Spanish Civil War, which might be considered a major laboratory for aerial warfare in the interwar years, were largely ignored by American strategic bombing theorists. In “The Spanish Civil War: Lessons Learned and Not Learned by the Great Powers,” military historian James S. Corum (The Journal of Military History, April 1998) writes that “the interest shown by the Air Corps as a whole in the major air war of the period can be described as minimal.” (318)

Giulio Douhet


Corum goes on to say that “Several of the Army officers offered the conclusion—clearly unwelcome in the Air Corps—that the strategic bombing of enemy cities and industries had had no decisive effect in Spain and that civilian populations had quickly learned to adapt to bombardment from the air, a judgment that contradicted the theory of the popular air power prophet Douhet.” (Douhet’s il dominio dell’ariaThe Command of the Air—published in 1921 and made available in English translation in 1923 advocated the bombing of population centers as well as industrial targets and the use of incendiaries and poison gas.) Other army commentators noted the lack of bombing accuracy—the inability to hit specific targets. “This completely accurate analysis”, Corum says, struck right at the heart of the Air Corps’ doctrine which emphasized the destruction of small, specific industrial targets such as power and transformer stations in order to paralyze an opponent and shut down his industries.” (322) The Air Corps Tactical School’s insistence on a strategy of high-altitude precision bombing of strategic targets, or what became known as the “industrial web theory,” in which the destruction of one critical industry—power plants, oil refineries, ball bearing factories, etc.—would create a choke-point that would severely limit or curtail the enemy’s war-making capacity and eliminate the need to take out the enemy’s entire industrial output or harm civilians. This idea was fine in theory, but it suffered from a number of deficiencies. As Stephen L. McFarland points out in America’s Pursuit of Precision Bombing, 1910-1945 (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995) the theorists at ACTS did not have access to accurate intelligence about potential foreign enemies; they based their ideas on data from American cities. Moreover, the theorists pinned their hopes on the Norden bombsight, as yet unproven in combat and tested only under the most optimal conditions. (See McFarland, 89-104)

Norden Bombsight Norden Bombsight Prototype, 1923.


Finally, and ironically, the theorists believed that by targeting critical industries, the death of civilians by what was euphemistically termed “morale bombing”; i.e., the idea that the enemy population’s will to fight would be severely compromised by attacks on civilian centers, could be avoided. (In a largely Isolationist country like the United States in the interwar years, the idea of using air power as anything other than a defensive weapon was repugnant.) There were attempts to limit the bomber—the Hague Rules of Aerial Warfare drafted in 1923, for example, made it illegal to employ aerial bombardment to terrorize civilians or damage private property. The use of bombardment would only be legitimate if it were directed at military objectives. Moreover, the bombing of towns, villages and dwellings or building adjacent to military forces was prohibited. The Hague Rules were never ratified, largely because of the objections of the military. Nevertheless, the theorists walked a fine line in their advocacy of precision bombing. Evidently, they did not consider (or chose to ignore) the fact that the “industrial web” might be in the midst of population centers or that factories, power plants, oil refineries, etc. might employ thousands of civilian workers. Nevertheless, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s belief in strategic air power gave the theorists the green light to proceed. The culmination of Air Service-Air Corps-USAAF air warfare planning—AWPD-1—came from the Air War Plans Division, made up of former officers from the Air Corps Tactical School. AWPD-1 (Air War Plans Division Plan 1) put great emphasis on pinpoint strategic bombing at high altitude. Stephen McFarland notes that “the American air war in World War II was the fruit of six staff officers working with adding machines … largely without intelligence information, divorced from the exploding bombs, burning fuel, smoke, and torn flesh of war. They based their calculations on practice bombings flown in clear weather and at low altitudes. Practice bombings were only one bomb at a time, making multiple passes to achieve higher accuracy. In wartime, enemy defenses would make such practices impossible.” (103) The shortsightedness of the theorists in these matters was to play a significant role when the United States entered WWII. After fitful attempts at high-altitude precision bombing, the USAAF was forced by the very circumstances that the theorists had ignored during the interwar years to resort to what became known as “area bombing,” or the bombing of population centers in which strategic targets were located. Despite the fact that there were strategic targets in these areas, the result usually was a high civilian casualty rate. Regardless of the type of bombing employed, the air attacks were wrought at a terrible cost. In Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War against Nazi Germany (Simon & Schuster, 2006) historian Donald L. Miller points out that “There were two sets of victims in the European bomber war: those who were bombed and the men who bombed them.” (21) The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 305,000 Germans were killed and 780,000 wounded. In addition, 485,000 residential buildings were completely destroyed by air attack and 415,000 heavily damaged. Accurate American bomber and bomber crew loss statistics are very hard to come by, but estimates for the USAAF 8th Air Force put bomber and fighter crew member losses at 44,000 and heavy bomber losses at more than 4,000. In Japan, the idea of high-altitude precision bombing was abandoned completely in favor of the low-altitude incendiary bombing of Tokyo in March 1945 and other Japanese cities. The civilian death toll was steep: estimates place the number at 330,000 to 400,000. Bomber crew casualties were not as high in the Japanese bombing campaign as in the European Theater of Operations. Estimates run at more than 2,600. In some respects, the genie had been let out of the bottle when writers like H.G. Wells wrote apocalyptic works about aerial warfare. His novel The War in the Air (1908) imagined the German bombardment of New York City by airship. (Historically, one could cite the Austrians’ haphazard attempt to bomb Venice by balloon in 1849 as a significant step in initiating aerial warfare.) From there it was only a matter of time and improved technology until fiction became reality.

London In London (December 1940) St. Paul's Cathedral survived Nazi Germany's sustained bombing campaign on British cities, aka "The Blitz."


In World War I, for example, Germany bombed Britain with Zeppelins (1915-16) and Gotha aircraft (1917). The German bombardment of Guernica in the Basque region of Spain in April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War was another pivotal event, as were the Japanese bombing of Chunking (now Chongqing) during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), and the German bombing campaign against British cities (“The Blitz” and later the V-Weapons attacks) during World War II. In the actual warfare of WWII, the precise, clean warfare envisioned by the interwar year strategic bombing theorists ran up against the contingencies of wartime. These unforeseen events created situations in which the effectiveness of strategic bombing both in Europe and Japan have become hotly contested issues because of the high cost both in military and civilian casualties and the precedents set in regard to making civilians targets of warfare. In the post-World War II era, there have been numerous attempts to restrict the bombing of civilians (see Adam Roberts and Richard Guelff, Documents on the Laws of War, eds. 2d ed. (Oxford UP, 1989), either directly or as a result of “collateral damage” (unintentional damage to civil property and civilian casualties) and also to control or prohibit nuclear warfare. The United States has devised precision-guided munitions (PGM) to minimize “collateral damage, intentional or otherwise,” and an ambiguous position on internationally-recognized restrictions on aerial warfare in regard to civilian casualties. Likewise, the U.S. has developed UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) for a variety of reasons (initially for surveillance) but when it was realized that these vehicles could keep pilots and crew members out of harm’s way, they began to be employed as offensive weapons.As a result, they have become controversial because of their involvement in situations that have caused “collateral damage” in the attempt to targeted individuals suspected of being terrorists. In the effort to avoid the hazards of bombing like those experienced in WWII, other, more subtle problems have arisen, not the least of which is an ambiguous position on internationally-recognized restrictions on aerial warfare in regard to civilian casualties. As Sahr Conway-Lanz points out in Collateral Damage: Americans, Noncombatant Immunity, and Atrocity after World War II (Routledge, 2006), “forsaking the norm of noncombatant immunity promised international condemnation and distrust. It also threatened Americans’ perceptions of themselves as a humane people. Giving up massively destructive war threatened to heighten Americans’ sense of vulnerability and insecurity. Instead, Americans kept their devastating weapons and adapted the international tradition of noncombatant immunity to their circumstances and purposes.”