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INDEPENDENCE AND RESPONSIBILITY
THE AIR FORCE IN THE POSTWAR WORLD
by
Mr. Herman S. Wolk
Head, General Histories Branch
Office of Air Force History

I would like to begin my brief overview of the Air Force in the post-World War II period with a few words from General George C. Marshall: "Military victories are not gained by a single arm...but are achieved through the efforts of all arms and services welded into a team.... The most difficult problem...is the determination of the best organization...within the limits of the funds available.... It is...literally impossible to find definite answers for such questions as: who will our enemy be in the next war; in what theater of operations will the war be fought; and what will be our national objective at the time? ...There is no series of facts that will lead to the one perfect solution, and short of war, there is no method for testing a solution." These are the words that General Marshall delivered on October 1, 1938 to the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, Alabama. The Air Force, however, thought it had at least a partial answer to these questions posed by General Marshall. After World War II, the enemy was the Soviet Union, as so stated in January 1945 by Air Force planners. The national strategy should be one of strategic deterrence. If there was no real method for testing an operational solution, this was at least where the facts seemed to lead.

The Army Air Forces (AAF) in the post-World War II period had three major objectives: 1) to gain independence 2) to nail down the atomic mission and 3) to position the air arm as the lead service in a unified defense establishment.

The AAF believed that the air wars in Europe and the Pacific during World War II proved the effectiveness of strategic bombing and also the effectiveness of the tactical air and air lift missions. As far as the AAF leaders were concerned, air power had come into its own during the war. I use the term Air Force here synonymously with AAF. The key to AAF policy and strategy was the experience of World War II, including, of course, the dropping of the atomic bomb. The war, with the perceived success of air power, defined almost everything for the AAF leaders.

To them, the Navy was no longer the "first line of defense;" the AAF having delivered the atomic bomb. The Air Force had now replaced the Navy as the leading bulwark in America's defense phalanx--as the force ready instantly to retaliate with immense power and destructiveness. So, the Air Force would see itself ultimately in the postwar world as the "first service" in the new defense establishment.

However, despite this apparent confidence, General Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General of the AAF, was fearful. He observed: "I'm afraid that from now on there will be those who will forget the part we have played." Arnold, who at Potsdam expressed the view--much to Truman's consternation--that it was not necessary to drop the atomic bomb to end the war, was fearful that this new weapon had in effect diminished the perceived role played by the conventional B-29 bomber offensive in vanquishing the Japanese empire. All along it was Arnold's objective to have the B-29 conventional onslaught play the major role in defeating Japan without an invasion.

The AAF, and the War Department, were convinced that one of the major lessons of the war was the overriding importance to victory of unity of command. Marshall, Eisenhower, and Arnold all agreed with the Joint Chiefs of Staff Special Committee for Reorganization of National Defense, which stated: "Any system which depends upon committee action for high-level military decisions in time of stress is unsatisfactory, as it lacks the quality of prompt and decisive action that springs only from true unity of command.... History...indicates that as funds grow tighter...each service withdraws into its own shell, as it has done in the past, and each concentrates on those things essential to its own profession without giving consideration to common problems."

Truman, of course, the old Army man, was a strong advocate of unity of command and of defense economy (as was Eisenhower). The Air Force saw in President Truman not only a strong advocate of so-called "air parity," but also a man who believed deeply in economy and was extraordinarily sensitive to what he called "explosive inflation" in the funding of large military procurement programs. When Truman demanded that the services subordinate their parochialism, he meant for them to get behind his budget, to stop recommending large military programs, and to stop the carping and the knifing.

So, although Truman supported a separate Air Force during 1945-1950, the Air Force never did achieve its goal of seventy groups. It took the Korean War, of course, to bust the budget open. But, economy and efficiency were the keys according to Truman, according to Eisenhower, and according to General Arnold. Eisenhower believed that in the postwar period the military would have to practice maximum efficiency and eliminate duplication between the services. "The empire builders in the military," Eisenhower emphasized, "would have to be rooted out with a sledgehammer." No one service could be totally self-sustaining; the nation simply could not afford it in the postwar world.

So, the Air Force saw all these drives as paving the way for its program of an Air Force-in-Being of sufficient size and composition, strategically deployed, and in constant state of readiness. "Time," said General Vandenberg, "is the essence of modern strategy." All of this fit in with Arnold's conviction that the United States after World War II would no longer fight what he called "personnel wars," but would rely on technology and long-range, land-based air power--the Air Force-in-Being.

The U.S. required a ready force, the Air Force. The key was instant preparedness. This, of course, was unprecedented in peacetime 20th century America--a standing military force ready to retaliate against the aggressor's capacity to wage war.

Although the postwar Spaatz Board report on the atomic bomb failed to recommend a change in the size or composition of the AAF, the atomic bomb was a major, if not controlling factor. The bomb, the air leadership emphasized, was a strategic weapon to be carried by long-range, land-based bombers. The Spaatz Board report did envision the atomic bomb as a weapon against urban-industrial targets, in a period when there were fewer atomic bombs available. Of course, the 1947 Crossroads Report stressed the potentially devastating effects of a surprise atomic attack.

Before and after the Air Force gained its independence, in September 1947, the service saw air power (especially its strategic forces) as the prime instrument of American foreign policy.

The postwar period then, had two major distinguishing characteristics: 1) the drive for reliance on strategic deterrence and 2) a vastly reduced budget, that by fiscal year 1948 was ten percent of its wartime peak. Within this framework, the major objectives of the independent postwar Air Force were: 1) to nail down the strategic mission 2) to keep the aircraft industry alive--30 million pounds of air frame weight was recommended by the Air Coordinating Committee and the Finletter Commission and 3) to build an Air Force-in-Being, including a trained National Guard and Air Force Reserve. The two major missions of the Air Force-in-Being were: 1) the defense of the United States and 2) the destruction of the potential enemy's industrial capacity.

In the middle of these swirling currents and objectives was James V. Forrestal, who in this period was really more of an equal to the service secretaries under the National Security Act of 1947. He advocated a so-called "balanced force." One thing that Forrestal and Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington absolutely agreed upon was that--as Forrestal put it--"the nation's economy could not stand fulfillment of all our military requirements." Forrestal's dilemma, in my view, was not of his own making. His first annual report as the Secretary of Defense, in 1948, was a remarkable document, candid and forward-looking. He called for a "harmony of thought," a cultivation of a broader vision, by which he meant that the military should cast off its service-oriented, parochial view. This was a major part of the whole postwar problem, a view, incidentally, strongly shared by General Eisenhower. The problem with air power, according to Forrestal, was "what is to be the use and who is to be the user?" He said, "my own view is that the concept of the strategic Air Force has established itself as an essential part of modern warfare, although I also believe that the Air Force must see that its tactical air remains capable of close cooperation with the ground troops."

And so, as I have hinted here, postwar ironies abound as far as the Air Force is concerned. For example, in my view, one of the so-called founders of the Air Force has to be General Eisenhower, a consistent advocate of independence for the Army's air element, whose statesman-like position influenced crucial elements of the National Security Act. Eisenhower has really failed to receive his due in this regard. His major contribution was to point out that with legislation like the National Security Act, you don't get deep down into a jungle of specific details, but you make it a statement of general principles. And note that for all of the apparent confidence and certainty of the postwar leadership, there was really a good deal of uncertainty on their part; first, as to organization of the independent Air Force itself; and secondly, as to the outcome of the budget battle and its effect on just about everything. Too, despite the emphasis upon the strategic mission, the deal over an independent Air Force--the price of General Eisenhower's strong support--was the guarantee by General Carl Spaatz that a Tactical Air Command would be established. And yet, note that in late 1948 the Tactical Air Command and the Air Defense Command were submerged in the so-called Continental Air Command.

And also in the period between the end of World War II and the Korean War, as we know, the B-36 bomber came to symbolize the strategic mission (also an issue in the "Admirals' Revolt), and yet production of this bomber was opposed by the Commander in Chief of the Strategic Air Command, General George C. Kenney. And finally, within the Air Force itself, there was strong disagreement as to the allocation of resources--between, especially, the strategic and the tactical. As mentioned, the breaking off of the Air Force from the Army was predicated on the Eisenhower-Spaatz agreement for a separate Tactical Air Command.

But, as time passed and we get into the 1950s, the argument within the Air Force, between the tactical and the strategic, becomes increasingly contentious. So, the Air Force's view about its own contribution to World War II and about the leading role of the Air Force in the postwar period naturally led to its concept of postwar defense organization, and this was that even greater unification was desirable. The Air Force leadership thought that a stronger Secretary of Defense would--as Eugene Zuckert subsequently put it--"institutionalize what it regarded as the Air Force's justifiable domination of the defense structure." Well, the Air Force got a stronger Office of the Secretary of Defense, but the long-range result of this was anything but Air Force domination of the defense establishment. What ultimately came to pass was the Air Force sharing the strategic nuclear mission with the Navy and all the armed services coming under a strong centralized Office of the Secretary of Defense. This was not what Arnold, Spaatz, Vandenberg, Eaker, and Symington envisioned, but in fairness to them it was in a real sense the success of their postwar programs and objectives based on revolutionary technology that led to centralized direction of the U.S. defense establishment.

Fundamentally, one might observe that in this period circumstances were controlling. Here was a time in which military leaders attempted to catch up with technology and stake out their claims. What would be the impact of nuclear technology upon organization, doctrine, missions, and strategy? A truly revolutionary era had begun. And, despite all the heat engendered, there were neither victors nor vanquished. The ultimate winner was the principle of civilian dominance of the military.


24 February 2003