Real Air Power for the Defense of the United States


By MAJOR AL WILLIAMS, Famous Aviator

Radio address delivered May 29, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 565-568.

LADIES and gentlemen of America, of all ages, good evening. I have been invited to speak to you on the subject of air power and the national defense of the United States. Let us devote a moment to calm, reasoned thinking—worthy of Americans who believe in themselves, in the destiny of this Nation, and in our determination to preserve this Nation free from the hysteria and conflagrations which today are devastating many portions of the world beyond our boundaries. Let us refrain, therefore, from following the all-too-prevalent practice of making the gestures for putting out a fire by pouring gasoline on the flames. With wide-open eyes and cool minds, let us survey the situation.

I am speaking to you as an ordinary American citizen who wants nothing from his Government except peace, stability, and a sense of security—and who is deeply worried because for 5 years this administration has persistently meddled in international power politics and, at the same time, failed to provide an adequate national defense system for the country.

And, above all, I am speaking tonight because I believe that it is the sheerest folly to paint a vision of adequate defense until we have, as the first essential, a separate and independent air force which can plan, develop, and operate real American air power without interference and restraint from the Army and Navy.

This recital is not for the purpose of recrimination, but is directly in line with the old-fashioned American practice of looking backward to see where we have been—in order to appreciate where we are—and where we are going.

This country is not the Knight Errant of the human race. The blood of America belongs to America—to no man or group of men—and it must not be shed or mortgaged again in foreign wars, nor on foreign battlefields. That blood is for the defense of America—to the last drop. Defense of America—her safety, the peace of her people, and the ideals for which she stands—can never sanely be construed as waging a war on the battlefronts of Europe, nor in Asia's zone of influence. As a Knight Errant of the human race,some men would have the United States pose before the world, while the knight's armor, his sword, and his shield are made of tin and of obsolescent design.

According to military experts, about 18 months of emergency effort would be required to equip and train an American Army competent in size and power to rate consideration as a first-class fighting force. Woefully deficient in anti-aircraft guns of all calibers, strategic reserves, mechanized and motorized equipment, and lacking even the cloth to make uniforms for an army—that, fellow Americans, is the status of the battle efficiency of the United States Army.

The Secretary of the Navy, himself, has admitted that our battleships are not fit to meet this new weapon of air power. After 20 years to watch the development of foreign air power—as it worked to a position of dominance in Europe's skies—the Navy now reports to us, in this crisis, that it must remodel. No; to be safe, the Navy wants to scrap all our present battleships and build a new fleet.

General Arnold, of the United States Army Air Corps, says our planes are obsolete. I am speaking primarily as an airman, and it has been my privilege to study intimately the air power of the several European nations now at war. Over a period of years I have acquired first-hand knowledge of their principles, organization, administration, policy, and air tactics. I have flown some of the foreign fighting planes whose performances are tossing war-college textbooks and the tactics of sea power and land power into the scrap heap. And in confirmation of General Arnold's appraisal, I say that there is not one squadron of American Army or Navy planes capable of meeting the performances of the British Spitfires or the German Messerschmitts and Heinkels. In the face of this disgraceful accounting our politicians are following the death march of the British admirals in preventing the full development of real American air power by opposing the creation of a unified, separate air force. Our aircraft production has been muddled through this administration's persistent dumping of everything to the Allies.

The British people first lost control of the administrators of their Government, and they in turn lost control of the army and navy blocs. These naval and military blocs dominating England's rearmament period—from 1936 to the outbreak of this war—went overboard in buying battleships and the wrong kind of war tools, and in throttling the development of British air power. The British Navy could only see the necessity for defending the air over the water around England. The British Army could only visualize the defense of the air over England. Edward, Prince of Wales, upon ascending to the throne, told England that her first line of defense was no longer the British Navy but the Royal Air Force.

We are confronted by coiners of dangerous international phrases, coined in subversion of the safety and peace of America.

Congress alone can save us, and we alone—we ordinary Americans—can save Congress by telling these representatives of ours that we are determined to mend and put our own house in order; that we are demanding the formulation of a coordinated national defense system—competently organized, administered, and adequately equipped to protect this country—and above all, a unified air force, free from Army and Navy domination.

The complete answer, as I see it, is (and I can almost feel the gallant spirit of General Billy Mitchell at my shoulder as I say these words): The United States must have a separate air force under a three-way Department of National Defense—Army, Navy, and Air. The development of true American air power must no longer be left in the jealoushands of the land Army and the sea Navy and politicians. To do so is to court the present plight of England, and eventual disaster. Remember these words—because words of similar import were spoken by the airmen of England time and again to the politicians of England, but these politicians all wanted more billions for warships. They got the billions and England got the warships—instead of the air power she needs today to defend herself against the air power invader. Of course, the President tells you we need more warships—and some air power dominated by warship people. The President's information came to him second-hand. My information as to what air power could and would do was acquired first-hand—and much of it from the cockpits of foreign war planes. And that cockpit experience was shared by none of his advisers.

Of course, the President cannot see the new winged war machinery if he depends upon advisers who are blinded with warships, and blinded as was Prime Ministers Baldwin, Chamberlain, and Churchill. Loose-thinking men tell you of the wartime weaknesses in a democracy, compared to the dictatorships. That is falsehood. The weakness of England in air power at this moment was not created in wartime. It was created in peace-time by political lobbies refusing to permit the nation to prepare for the future. Democracy is not on trial—it is these weak leaders of democracy who are on trial. What has the form of government got to do with selecting the right or the wrong kind of war tools? Absolutely nothing—and the excuse is a red herring to cover political falsehood.

The American first line of national or hemispheric defense is to be found in American air power—not in warships, and not in the two tiny air services which act as messenger boys for the Army and Navy. Such messenger boys, under competent management abroad, have developed the capacity of destroying their one-time masters. We must now—and God knows the reason is clear—merge our two air services into a separate department and permit the airmen of America to work out the destiny of real power in the air for the protection of this country.

The failure of British sea power—the greatest sea power in the world—to cut the line of German sea communications through the Skagerrak because of German air power was the death knell of sea power as any nation's first line of defense. This, with the complete dominance of air power over the present battle fronts of Europe, gives conclusive evidence that no army on the land and no fleet on the sea can move with safety within the range of air power unless control of the air over the combat zone is first established. These factual lessons must be incorporated immediately in our own national defense, and this is no time for half measures nor compromise.

We must have a departmental system of national defense —Army, Navy, and air—the civilian leaders of each to be members of the President's Cabinet. We need a supreme council of defense, headed by the Executive, with members of this council drawn from the Senate and from the House of Representatives. Under such a system the United States would revert to the American way of doing business, with the President and Congress jointly formulating the foreign policy—peace or war—the supreme council of defense interpreting that policy and the joint board of secretaries of the Army, Navy, and air applying that interpretation. These things can and must be done—now.

Under the system of a separate air force, the main striking power of America in the air will be coordinated under a single command.

Air power dominates the European War and spells thedifference between victory and defeat. None but the politically blind could fail to see this. None but the blind could refuse to recognize that air power already has relegated land and sea power to secondary positions in this war. None but those who will not see could refuse the prime lesson of this war: the need for airpower, built and administered as an independent arm of national defense, comparable to the Army and Navy.

The President knows all this—but I fear that the President wants airplanes in great numbers right now—to toss into this war. If he wants thousands of planes as soon as he can get them—and without waiting to build an air force first—then production of planes for Europe is his goal-not the defense of America.

A Congressional Committee should be formed immediately by Congress to carry out the constitutional responsibilities of formulating a modernized national defense policy by providing a three-way plan for Army-Navy-Air Departments. We have time to do this, and now is the time. Oceans and extended lines of communication are still vital factors in modern warfare. President Roosevelt's panicky flight schedule for the air invasion of America is ridiculous, worthy of Hollywood and certainly not of the White House. Four hours from Greenland to Newfoundland, 5 hours to Nova Scotia, and then 6 hours to New England. As an airline commercial schedule those figures might be sustained, but given to us as the flight schedule of an air invasion of America, they are deceiving and panic-creating for ordinary people who the President knows are not able to interpret them.

Such figures, creating panic and terror, are expected to induce peace-loving Americans to plunge into this conflict now, in the belief that they would be forestalling some future disaster.

To support my argument against President Roosevelt's wild flight schedule for a foreign air invasion of the United States, I offer a single incontrovertible reason. With all their air power, the Germans could not attack and subdue England from air bases 300 to 500 miles distant. Instead, they seized air bases on the north coasts of Holland, Belgium, and France—20 to 100 miles from the coast of England. Each and every stage of Mr. Roosevelt's fantastic itinerary for the air invasion of America would have to be conquered for the establishment of major air bases for the enemy attempting the job. The President must know this—but apparently the pattern is panic first, and then war.

Assume that Germany wins and takes over British sea-power. Then what? Would the Germans be fools enough to send warships against us and our air power (if we had air power), using the same ships that had failed for the British against German airpower? Nonsense! The United States is in no immediate danger of air invasion, or any other kind of military or naval invasion.

We, therefore, have time—time to provide a competent air defense—but no more time for nonsense and baseless panic, no more time for shipping aircraft to the Allies by men who are more interested in helping the Allies in licking Germany than in saving the United States.

With real air power we could treat any invader of our shores or the shores of any of the Americas to a series of Skagerraks and Norways. If they (whoever they might be) should attack Central or South America, what would our defense be? If the attack is by air, will we invite disaster and defend the Monroe Doctrine with warships? That would be folly, after what we have seen happen in Europe. Is it not sensible that our defense of the entire Western Hemisphere should be attempted with an overwhelming airpower that America can and must build—an air power that will strike and return home in far less time than warships would require to reach a distant scene of action. Air power has a most dominant place as an independent factor in the hemisphere defense as well as in the national defense of America.

British sea-navy admirals and land-army generals resisted the full development of British air power, and their lack of vision is costing England the war and killing thousands of men. Plans and time build air power—not money. All the $18,000,000,000 of gold in Kentucky cannot produce one expert airman or one additional plane for America tomorrow morning. The air is an atmospheric ocean. Its machinery and navigation are complicated, and mastery of them is no matter for part-time careers. We are safe against air invasion now. Who dares say how long this immunity will last? Shall we, therefore, wait until that immunity is actually dissolved before we organize to provide full experts and competent machinery—both of which are only possible under another department of national defense?

When the Allies contemplated opening up Norway as a new theatre of war with preponderant sea power, air power beat them to the punch. When the Allies pressured Italy with sea power, land power, and some air power, the Italian counter-threat of real air power stymied the Allies.

No matter where we look, air power holds the trump cards. This is a fact, not a theory.

The United States can build American air power only by entrusting its development to specialists and freeing those specialists from service and party politics. From the lessons of this war, sea power never will be used again by sane commanders within the range of shore-based aircraft. And under a three-department system of defense, our strategy should be shaped to fit this startlingly clear picture.

If England loses this war, there will be but two sizable sea fleets left in the world, ours and that of the Japanese. The Germans never will get the British Fleet. That sea fleet will be destroyed in the English Channel attempting to prevent air invasion of England or it will be distributed to the several British Dominions, where it will be beyond the range of major aircraft concentrations.

But let us never lose sight of our first need, namely, the development of real American air power, for which airplanes are the last thing to be provided. A national air-defense policy must come first—to lay down the principles of our needs, which, in every event, must encompass a separate and unified air force. From there on we will need research—aeronautical research—to find out what kind of airplanes and engines must be built. We will need a flight-training program under air-force direction to fit the selected ships and the tactics necessitated by these ships. Then— and only then—comes the mass-production program, to provide ways and means for building air-power machinery in great quantities. These are the three timing gears of air power: (1) Research, (2) pilot training, and (3) production. Let one of them falter and air power becomes air confusion.

I, for one, resent the warning that "the American people must recast their thinking about national protection." I maintain that it is the President who must recast his thinking about national protection. We see air-power lessons in this war, but we can do nothing about incorporating these lessons into our national-defense system. That is the President's job and the job of Congress. The President is Commander in Chief of the armed forces of this Nation. He knew Germany was building 600 planes a month in 1938—and he did not then warn America to do likewise. His recent hope—publicly interpreted as a recommendation—for 50,000 airplanes has only confused the minds of laymen andexperts alike. "Ship for ship," he claims for our Navy, "ours are equal to or better than those of any foreign power."

Again I say, Then what? Are our ships better able to stand up to air attack than the warships of England? Certainly not. The Secretary of the Navy himself admits that they are not. Those 50,000 airplanes—certainly we can't pay for them out of the last emergency request to Congress. Those 50,000 planes would cost between eight and ten billion dollars, and if we started to build 50,000 airplanes right now what kind would we build? Our research facilities are puny when compared to those of Germany, and that is the starting point to air power—research.

But even if we had 50,000 airplanes, who would handle them, and who would handle the half-million men necessary to fly and service them? The Army or Navy certainly couldn't do that job since they evidently are unable to handle their own problems now.

It is a blinding flash of the obvious that we need an entirely new department of national defense to handle the air power of the proportions now under discussion. If we had a competent air department today, and had only 10 airplanes in each category, superior or even comparable to the warplanes of Europe, we then would be 10,000 times better off than we are right now. At least, we would have our homework done and we would be ready to move toward acquiring real American air power. Then—only then— would we be in position to talk in terms of mass production.

But of what avail is logic or reason? The Allies don't want our Army or Navy; They want our airplanes—to make good their neglect to see the light we are trying to make Mr. Roosevelt see—now, and they want those planes right now, and Mr. Roosevelt wants to give the airplanes rightnow—without first providing an American air-force organization for the permanent air defense of America.

The airplanes are for Europe. Additional proof of this is to be found in the recommendation of Senator Pepper (who has been close to the administration) to turn our present United States Army Air Corps' planes now in active service, over to the Allies.

We have been inarticulate too long; it is time for the real blood of America to take stock of these men who are running our Government, and to demand that they free themselves from bureaucratic prejudices and taboos, and heed the lessons of dominant air power which are being so cruelly taught in Europe today.

Stand up, America. Stand on your feet, and make known your demands for actually keeping America out of war and building a modernized, efficient national-defense system, which will cause any potential foreign aggressor to shudder at the prospect of attacking the United States. For this, all our resources and our blood. I am speaking directly and forcibly because I saw British politicians throttle and mismanage the development of air power and bring England to her present crisis—short on air power.

Not one penny for any such system as recommended by the President for buying airplanes—since this system is typical of the years eaten by the locusts. And not one penny until we are sure that with a three-department national defense—Army, Navy, and Air—the return of the locusts will be prevented. Real American air power is possible only under such a system, and it is the only means by which our so-called "mystic security" can be converted into the actual security we deserve for the safety of America, and for peace, instead of panic, in the minds of Americans.