Reviewed by C.V. Glines
By Rondall R. Rice
University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 2005
Rondall R. Rice, the author of The Politics of Air Power, has taken on the daunting task of untangling the perplexity of relations between the U.S. Army’s aviation leaders and their civilian masters during the 1920s and ’30s. In his introduction, he boldly declares that from the end of World War I until General Billy Mitchell’s court-martial in 1925, “a group of the Army’s Air Service officers engaged in what amounted to an insurrection.” At Mitchell’s behest, these officers “used propaganda and worked behind the scenes with powerful allies in Congress and the press” to advocate an independent air force.
The pages that follow trace the alleged political intrigues of “a cadre of politically astute officers” to arouse public support. We learn that in order to enlist this support, “airmen often lived on the edge of proper conduct with their civilian masters.”
This statement is reinforced in an epilogue accusing these airmen of “threatening, by their behavior, the system of civilian control of the military of the United States.” Rice continues: “In a fundamental sense, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, the air leaders were insubordinate with their military superiors, attempting to overturn the policies of the civilian administration they served, and trying to influence Congress to change the laws against the wishes of the civilian and military leadership in the executive branch.”
Rice makes a strong case to back up his statements about those confrontational days when Billy Mitchell led the charge and paid for it by court-martial and resignation. Afterward, moderate officers eventually stepped in and ushered in a period of cooperation with the ground-bound Army. Yet the author states that air leaders still managed to scheme and pull political strings to an extent that “would be considered inappropriate behavior from the standpoint of civilian control of the military.”
Beginning with Mitchell and his “politics of insurgency,” Rice supports his accusations with examples from then Major Henry H. “Hap” Arnold and Maj. Gen. Mason M. Patrick. The passage of the Air Corps Act in 1926, and with it the appointment of F. Trubee Davison as assistant secretary of war for air with his “five-year plan,” was a favorable turning point in the history of the Army’s air arm. But battles with the Navy over budgets, roles and missions developed during Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. Resentment by the Army General Staff about the power and money being allocated to the Air Corps during the Depression years led to renewed political action by air enthusiasts.
The author is especially critical of Air Corps chief Maj. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois for not actively supporting the appointment of a new assistant secretary of war for air when Davison left office. The office was not filled but, according to the author, would have been if Foulois had acted vigorously. Although Foulois had cultivated good relations with several congressmen, he ran into problems thanks to FDR’s budget-cutting economic measures when he fought for increased aircraft procurement and air independence.
As the co-author of Foulois’ autobiography (From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts, McGraw-Hill, 1968), I must take issue with Rice for blaming Foulois so harshly throughout the four-year period he was chief of the Air Corps, especially during the weeks when Air Corps pilots flew the mail. He claims that Foulois lied to Congress and misled the president, and therefore “should have stepped down and let the Air Corps repair its relationship with both Congress and the administration.”
Rice states that Foulois “resigned for the good of the service,” but this is not true. As he was completing his four-year tour as Air Corps chief, he requested retirement to which he was entitled after 37 years of continuous active duty. However, Rice does acknowledge that the Air Corps “bid farewell to a leader who probably knew more about Army aviation and all its intricacies, from war to budget to procurement to personnel.”
The battle with the Roosevelt administration continued to prove the value of an independent air arm and obtaining funds to produce large bombers. It was the deceptive Munich Pact signed by Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain promising “peace in our time” that brought an end to most squabbling and a new focus by the president on the expansion of the Air Corps.
The concluding chapter is titled “The Politics of Air Corps Expansion, 1938-1940.” Aviation History readers who served in the Army Air Corps or Army Air Forces just before or during World War II will learn about the machinations among the leaders of the two political parties on Capitol Hill that determined the number and types of aircraft we were given to fly. Heroes of this battle were those who softened their strident tones and thus gained congressional support. Those who introduced impediments were overcome by the course of events in Europe.
Students of U.S. Air Force history may want to add this thought-provoking, albeit controversial, book about its tentative beginnings to their libraries. They may also wish for someone with Rice’s passion to show how airmen of the Navy and Marines also plotted to get their share of the pie. As the author states in his epilogue, “While the interwar period of confrontation shows that internecine struggles between this country’s political and military leaders are to be expected, it also demonstrates the enduring dominance of the principle of civilian control.”