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Cataclysm: General Hap Arnold and the Defeat of Japan

by Herman S. Wolk, University of North Texas Press, Denton, 2010, $24.95.

Most of the books about U.S. Army Air Forces leaders during World War II mention General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, but none have dealt specifically with his air strategy— until Herman S. Wolk, former Air Force senior historian, took on the task.

Nicknamed “Hap” for his perpetual half smile, Arnold became chief of the Army Air Corps in 1938, in the aftermath of a successful flying career. At that point he’d survived the dangers of early flying as well as years of fighting with the Navy and Congress about forming an independent air force. Historians agree that Arnold was a risk-taker; he set outlandish goals, he was hard-driving and impatient—and he wasn’t especially articulate. But he had a natural ability to organize and gather together the people and essential materiel needed to succeed as a wartime leader.

Wolk quickly traces Hap’s early life, then outlines the prewar situation in Europe as FDR sought to rearm America. As commanding general of the Army Air Forces, Arnold led the effort to train and equip those forces for war in Europe. Meanwhile, however, he played a leading role in planning the air war in the Pacific that has largely escaped attention. He realized early on that a far different command structure was needed because of the vast distances involved and differing views about how to conduct the war against Japan.

Arnold was a strong believer in the Boeing B-29’s potential to wage a longrange strategic bombing campaign against the Japanese Home Islands. The prevailing planning emphasis until then was on a combined sea and air blockade to isolate the Home Islands and eventually enable ground forces to proceed with a massive invasion. Wolk credits Arnold’s selection of Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay to lead the B-29s in early 1945, along with Russia’s entry into the war and the atomic bombs, with rendering the invasion unnecessary. Arnold thus became the originator of a concept of strategic destruction by air power that he called “the new cataclysmic force,” which could operate hundreds of miles from areas controlled by Army and Navy forces and strike targets far beyond their reach.

Wolk concludes that Arnold was clearly more broad-minded than historians have perceived. He believed that wars were no longer fought solely by armed forces,“but by all citizens united in a joint effort which touches every phase of national and private life. The danger zone of modern war is not restricted to battle lines and adjacent areas but extends to the innermost parts of a nation.”In his view America’s military establishment must always be structured with one thought uppermost: keeping the peace.


Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here