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THE LIMITATIONS OF CONTINENTAL DEFENSE
by
Richard A. Best Jr.
Library of Congress

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been for so many years the basis of the national security policy of the United States that it is hard for many of us to think of American defense planning since the end of World War II in any other context. It is difficult now for Pentagon planners coping with post-Cold War realities; it is equally difficult for historians to recognize alternatives that could have been pursued by the Truman administration. Yet in the formative, first postwar years, an Atlantic alliance was by no means widely anticipated in Washington, especially a military alliance involving the stationing of U.S. troops in Europe. America now clearly had international responsibilities, but these would still not require specific military commitments outside the Western Hemisphere (and, to an extent, in the Western Pacific.

Pentagon planning had been initially based on other assumptions, on a continuation of something close to the framework of hemispheric defense that had characterized prewar American defense planning. Although there were forces at work which would shortly bring about entangling alliance with Europe, a form of continentalism was the initial and perhaps reflexive goal of senior defense officials as they wrestled with conditions of turmoil and complexity.

American security, postwar planning documents indicate, would depend on the country's inherent industrial strength and its ability to generate large, powerful forces from citizens prepared by a Universal Military Training (UMT) system. UMT would be buttressed by possession of a capability to retaliate for any future Pearl Harbor with devastating force and effectiveness in a strategic bombing campaign. Acquisition of the atomic bomb led some military planners (albeit to a lesser extent than some civilians) to assume that a nuclear force-in-being could by itself serve as an adequate deterrent to potential disturbers of the international peace. This planning preceded the conviction that the Soviet Union was an implacable enemy. Wartime plans were not based on the assumption that the Soviet Union would inevitably become a postwar adversary, but in 1946 and 1947, in a series of developments well known to everyone here, it came to be accepted that Moscow was America's number one enemy.

Planners had to face up to the permanent hostility of the Soviet Union in conjunction with revolutionary developments in aviation and nuclear technology. They had to accept that, for the first time, North America faced a threat of aerial attack from abroad, especially across or near to the frozen Arctic wastes--the most direct route from Soviet territory to the industrial centers of the United States. Planning became less an artificial construct used to size military forces; there was now a need for a viable defense strategy against a real-life danger.

The threat of a Soviet air attack on the continental United States led planners to focus on the possibility of creating capable air defenses for CONUS-through a network of radars and bases for interceptor aircraft. Creating an air defense system for North America was an approach consistent with traditional U.S. planning for hemispheric defenses. It was also consistent with practical politics, as it did not involve tying the country to any other nations, even to principal wartime allies (who had many international problems which Americans had no desire to share).

Since an attack by the Soviets would have to come across the polar region, air defenses would inevitably involve close cooperation with Canada. Concern about entangling alliances-which continued to be a formidable American political concern-did not seem to apply to cooperation with the friendly northern neighbor. An intimate security relationship had existed between the United States and Canada since 1940, when the Permanent Joint Board on Defense (PJBD) had been created by President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Mackenzie King.1

Pentagon planners began in 1945 and 1946 to give serious thought of erecting a network of radar sites supporting interceptor aircraft stationed at appropriately located bases in Canada, Alaska, and along the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. Despite the continuity with prewar experience and a need for a strategy which would accommodate the public's determination to see the boys brought home, this approach quickly proved to be unrealistic. The technological and geopolitical realities of the emerging postwar world made it so. There were two major factors which undermined the continentalist strategy. First, a system of realistic air defenses for the continental United States would have required an enormous investment in radars and interceptors and bases that would have absorbed an unacceptable percentage of declining defense budgets. Secondly- and these points are the focus of my remarks this morning-a security policy based on continental defense would have required active cooperation and a sizable financial commitment from the Canadians.

A great deal has been written about the evolution of the Army Air Forces strategic thinking during World War II. The concentration on strategic bombing campaigns was all-encompassing and tenaciously defended. Although the results of strategic bombing in the campaign against Germany remain in dispute to this day, the atomic attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seemed to provide definitive evidence that strategic airpower could destroy an enemy's will and capability to resist. Proposals to concentrate on continental defense competed directly against the Air Force's intended goal of a sizable force of offensive strategic bombers. It is not necessary to delve into internal Air Force politics to understand that bomber advocates could make a persuasive case that building radar sites and fighter bases far to the north was a less effective allocation of resources than acquiring a force of bombers capable of delivering atomic bombs on major targets deep in Eurasia.2

At the time, however, strategic bombers-mostly B-29s with a 2,000 mile radius-based in CONUS could not effectively launch retaliatory attacks on the Soviet Union and return. As Air Force historian Harry Borowski has conclusively demonstrated, any intention of basing planes at airfields in the extreme northern latitudes had to overcome a host of then-insurmountable problems.3 The Canadian dimension (which is crucial but occasionally ignored by American historians) of the air defense problem has been carefully detailed by Professor Joseph Jockel of Saint Lawrence University in his book No Boundaries Upstairs.4 Jockel details the growing ties between military staffs in the two countries. As World War II was drawing to a close, Canadian defense officials were also giving consideration to future security issues. An Advisory Committee on Post-Hostilities Problems concluded in January 1945 that although a direct military threat to North America was unlikely "for several years at least, adequate protection against airborne attacks, especially from the North, northeast and northwest has become an essential part of North American defences." The committee further concluded that Canadian defenses should be closely coordinated with those of the United States and that Canada would have to accept greater defense responsibilities than before the war. In part, of course, the committee's work reflected a reality that in the postwar world Canada's principal partner would inevitably be the United States and not the United Kingdom as had earlier been the case.5

In October 1945, the PJBD was asked to undertake a joint assessment of potential threats to North America. It began to look to a revision of its Basic Defense Plan designed to defeat Nazi Germany. An appreciation of the threat to North America and a new Basic Security Plan designed to provide protection against a hostile Soviet Union were duly drawn up by a separate committee of military planners (the Military Cooperation Committee (MCC)) and forwarded to senior government officials in Washington and Ottawa in June 1946.

The new Basic Security Plan was based on close military cooperation between the two countries, including a program of air photography, mapping and charting, tests of personnel and equipment in the Arctic environment, exchanges of personnel, and standardization of combat equipment. Its most significant aspect, however, was its recommendation for the construction of extensive air warning and interceptor sites in the Canadian north to provide protection for the entire continent. Included was a radar network stretching across northern Canada as well as both Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the deployment of hundreds of U.S. and Canadian aircraft. Its costs would inevitably run into many millions of American and Canadian dollars.

Although the need for close U.S.-Canadian cooperation was widely accepted among Canadian leaders, it was quickly perceived by Prime Minister Mackenzie King that such plans would place enormous demands on Canadian taxpayers. Ottawa was also reluctant to launch a policy patently antagonistic to the Soviets, with whom relations had already soured dramatically after exposure of a Soviet spy ring in Ottawa in 1945. The plan was put on hold by the Canadian cabinet while the strategic and fiscal implications were weighed.

Canadian leaders had an awareness of the need for a primary connection to the United States, but they remained especially sensitive to British security concerns (even though the prime minister was a dedicated opponent of schemes for coordinated Imperial defense planning). A logical approach was to encourage a close Anglo-American relationship in which Canada would retain the good will of both. The British, needless to say, were not keen to see the United States or Canada single-mindedly focus on the Arctic ice flows while they were stretched to the limits in the Middle East, Mediterranean, and central Europe. London was doing its best to steer the Canadians (and, as I have argued elsewhere,6 the Americans) towards playing a role in collective security arrangements to deter the Soviets.

What the Canadians did not realize (as has been demonstrated by Professor Jockel) was that the U.S. input to the BSP, albeit approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was not fully reflective of American priorities. The American delegation to the MCC, headed by Army Major General Guy Henry, a former Chief of Cavalry recalled to active duty during the war, was in fact operating on a rather long leash. Henry and his colleagues felt themselves free to draw up a plan based on North American defense requirements as they understood them. The Basic Security Plan arrangements were not, however, systematically brought into alignment with the priorities of the Bureau of the Budget nor of the Pentagon. To those experienced in Pentagon practices this is not especially surprising, but the Canadian government thought they were being presented with an elaborate and expensive American plan, coordinated at the highest levels, for radars and bases on Canadian territory and in Newfoundland, which they would be expected to help build, maintain, and staff.

In reality, Henry and his colleagues were not taking into adequate account (or were not sufficiently advised of) other factors that would determine U.S. national security policy. The pressure for massive reductions in defense spending would grow until the Korean War. Bombers with greater capabilities for offensive operations were the Air Force's all-consuming ambition and easily overshadowed interest in air defense.

Consideration of the Basic Security Plan seems to have been kept separate from planning for European and Middle East contingencies, but I am not sure this resulted from tight compartmentation. More likely, Henry was left to do his thing in an area that was not on the Pentagon's front burner and requirements for North American were left in place, but--unbeknownst to the Canadians--it was accepted in the Pentagon that they were by no means the first priority.

Canadian skepticism of the Basic Security Plan did not diminish in the summer and fall of 1946, even though the reality of Soviet capabilities was understood and Ottawa shared Washington's concerns with the drift of Moscow's policies. Even a meeting between King and President Truman in October 1946 did not clarify in the Prime Minister's mind the lack of zeal that existed in Washington for an expansive air defense network.7

The record shows, moreover, that an important factor in shaping Canadian skepticism was an unwillingness to accept the reality of a genuine Soviet threat from the North; instead they believed that the real danger lay in Europe and that attacks on North America would be at most diversionary. At a cabinet meeting on November 15, 1946 to consider the issue, Brooke Claxton, shortly to become Minister of National Defence, emphasized "in the strongest terms . . . a fundamental difference in the concepts of the American and Canadian Staffs." The Americans, Claxton maintained, "say that they are to be the object of the main attack, and we say that at the outset we would be the object of a diversionary attack." Claxton's views, shared by some, but not all senior military officials, had a sympathetic listener in Prime Minister Mackenzie King-no fan of expansive military projects and as determined to reduce defense expenditures as his American counterpart.

The Canadian cabinet's unhappiness with the Basic Security Plan led to the call for a meeting with the Americans at the political level. Secret talks were arranged to be held in an Ottawa hotel to avoid attracting undue speculation; military men were to wear civilian attire to avoid press notice. Significantly, however, the U.S. delegation to the talks in mid-December 1946 included not only the officials who had helped prepare the plan but also the Counselor of the State Department, George Kennan, who had recently returned from the Moscow Embassy from which he had dispatched several memorable messages on the nature of Soviet policy. In the context of an extensive discussion of the relative threats facing the West as a whole, Kennan contributed a major infusion of realism to the U.S.-Canadian discussions, emphasizing that the threat was not so much one of a surprise military attack but rather a long drawn-out geopolitical struggle.8

In ending the Ottawa meeting, the two sides acknowledged that any rapid implementation of the air warning and interceptor aspects of the plan was out of the question, although planning would continue at the military staff level. Plans for North American air defenses were essentially put on hold. U.S. and Canadian military officials concentrated on improving liaison and coordination, joint exercises, exchanges of personnel, and other worthy projects. Announcement of continuing U.S.-Canadian defense cooperation was dutifully, if blandly, announced in February 1947.9

The Ottawa meeting represented the point at which a continentalist strategy was definitively recognized as being inappropriate. Both Canada and the United States would subsequently base their defense planning on being prepared to deter and, if necessary, resist Soviet aggression in Europe. The Ottawa meeting is an important marker on the road to the North Atlantic Alliance which would formally commit both countries to the defense of Western Europe.

Planning for North American air defenses did continue, it being recognized that the Soviet Union would eventually acquire capabilities for intercontinental bombing attacks as well as long range missiles. Authorization for a system known as Plan Supremacy was sought in late 1947, but no appropriations became available. Funds for extensive radar systems did become available with the rapid expansion in defense spending at the time of the Korean War and eventually the well-known series of radar lines (Pinetree, Mid-Canada and DEW) was eventually constructed in the 1950s. But before this happened Canada and the United States were thoroughly enmeshed in the North Atlantic Alliance. By the time the various radar lines were installed, they were connected more to the protection of a second strike capability than simply with continental defense.

It is true that as the international situation deteriorated throughout 1946 some American planners were shifting their attention towards countering Soviet capabilities to overrun Western Europe and the Middle East, as reflected in the series of Pincher plans drawn up (but not officially adopted) in 1946 and 1947.10 Nonetheless, there were miles to go before Washington would base its force structure and strategy on defending Western Europe against a Soviet attack. It is noteworthy that Canadian political leaders were somewhat quicker than their American counterparts to accept the fact that the perimeters of North American defenses now had to run through the heart of Central Europe. This realization no doubt encouraged the early and important role Ottawa played in the negotiation of the North Atlantic Treaty, but that is another story.


The views express above represent those of the author and not those of the Congressional Research Service, the Library of Congress, or any Federal agency.


ENDNOTES

1 Canadian defense policy is ably treated by James Eayrs in a number of works. For this period, see In Defence of Canada: Peacemaking and Deterrence (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972); also, Denis Smith, Diplomacy of fear: Canada and the Cold War, 1941-1948 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988). The standard account of the PJBD in wartime is Stanley W. Dziuban, Military Relations Between the United States and Canada, 1939-1945 (Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1959).

2 The evolution of air defense is treated by Kenneth Schaffel, The Emerging Shield: the Air Force and the Evolution of Continental Air Defense, 1945-1960 (Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1991). More general aspects of Air Force history is analyzed by Robert Franck Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: A History of Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force, 1907-1964 (Maxwell, Alabama: Air University, 1971); also Herman S. Wolk, Planning and Organizing the Postwar Air Force, 1943-1947 (Washington: Office of Air Force History, U.S. Air Force, 1984).

3 Harry R. Borowski, A Hollow Threat: Strategic Air Power and Containment Before Korea (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982).

4 Joseph T. Jockel, No Boundaries Upstairs: Canada, the United States and the Origins of North American Air Defence, 1945-1958 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987. Also important is the same author's "The Canada-United States Military Co-operation Committee and Continental Air Defence, 1946," Canadian Historical Review, Vol. LXIV, No. 3, 1983.

5 See Report of the Advisory Committee on Post-Hostilities Problems, 'Post-War "Canadian Defence Relationship with the United States: General Considerations,' 23 January 1945, reprinted in Eayrs, In Defence of Canada: Peacemaking and Deterrence, pp. 375-380.

6 In my "Co-operation Among Like-Minded Peoples:" British Influences on American Security Policy, 1945-1949 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986).

7 An oral message had been prepared by the State Department that seemed to endorse an expansive system of defenses "as far out from Canadian and American industrial centers as possible," but Truman apparently did not read the message to King. It was nonetheless forwarded in diplomatic channels to Canada shortly thereafter. Memorandum by the Acting Secretary of State to President Truman, October 26, 1946, reprinted in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1946, V, pp. 57-61. See Jockel, Boundaries, pp. 25-26.

8 The Canadian account of these talks is found in Memorandum from Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs to Prime Minister, December 26, 1946, printed in Canada, Department of External Affairs, Documents on Canadian External Relations, 1946, Vol. 12 (Ottawa: Ministry of Supply and Services, Canada, 1977), pp. 1721-1725. The U.S. version is found in Memorandum of Canadian-United States Defense Conversations Held in Ottawa in Suite "E" Chateau Laurier Hotel, December 16 and 17, 1946, reprinted in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1946, Vol. 5 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1969), pp. 68-75.

9 "U.S.-Canadian Permanent Joint Board on Defense to Continue Collaboration for Security Purposes, Department of State Bulletin, February 23, 1947, p. 361.

10 See Steven T. Ross, American War Plans, 1945-1950 (New York: Garland Publishing,Inc., 1988), pp. 25-52.


22 September 2003