Aviation vs. Isolationism


By MAJOR ALEXANDER P. de SEVERSKY, Famous Aviator and Designer of Planes

Delivered at Federal Union Dinner, Yale Club, May 20, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, 557-558.

THE word "isolation" has become, since the outbreak of the Second World War, a kind of political football. I wish to make it clear at the outset, therefore, that I am not using the word in its new political sense, but in its old geographical sense. I am not going to tell you whether I am for isolation or against it. I am only going to tell you what I believe to be a physical fact: that isolation no longer exists, except in political vocabularies.

As a designer and pilot of aircraft, as one who has devoted many years to studying the science of war and actually fighting in war, I think of isolation in terms of space relations and not in terms of national policy. The issue, it seems to me, is not whether isolation is desirable for America, but whether it is possible for America.

The idea that we can construct a Chinese Wall of military defense and live safely behind it forever after seems to me a fairy tale carried over from an earlier period in our history. There are still plenty of earnest and honest Americans who believe that the Atlantic and Pacific constitute our "impregnable ramparts" and that the Navy constitutes an impregnable "outer defense." Those people, in my opinion, simply have failed to catch up with the realities of a changing physical world—a world that has been growing narrower with every advance of modern science.

The reason that no wall can separate us from the outside world, outside problems, outside aggressions is that the newest and most important weapon—aviation—can step over walls as easily as you and I step over a chalk-mark on the floor. The people of France thought they could isolate themselves from the rest of Europe by building a powerful Maginot Line—a wall of steel and concrete. Their leaders encouraged them in this self-deluding belief. Well, it was a beautiful wall; a marvel of mechanical and engineering skill. But Nazi aviation simply ignored it. There is the clear danger that our two oceans may play the same disastrous role here as the Maginot Line played in France—the role of lulling us into a false sense of safety.

Aviators have an entirely different understanding of space than the layman. It happens to be the element in which we live and work . . . just as a fish lives in water. For us space is not a fixed and settled concept—it is relative. We no longer measure space in miles—we measure it in the time it takes to cover the distance. When I'm plugging along at 200 miles an hour, space is one thing. If I cruise at 350, it is quite another. I'll never forget how the vastness of theUnited States shrunk when I broke the transcontinental record, when it took me just a few hours to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific. How beautiful, yet unimpressive, the Alleghany and Rocky mountains appeared from five miles up—just small undulations below me. What an anti-climax it must be for the ferry pilots who fly our bombers to England across the ocean in a few hours to realize how snug America is to the British Isles. I have been in aviation for more than a quarter of a century, flying as a combat fighter, as a test pilot, working as a designer and manufacturer. What I know better than those not connected with aviation is that with every year, space is becoming narrower and narrower and easier to deal with.

The elementary fact is that every advance in the science of human communication—the railroad, the automobile, radio, aeronautics—has made the world smaller. Each of these things has reduced sharply the scale of continents and oceans. Also—and that is especially important—every such advance has ended somebody's cherished isolation. The Indians in the Western hemisphere were completely isolated—until white men in their sailboats, white men equipped with terrible engines of death called guns, crossed the ocean. Then the isolation of the Indians was ended, for good or ill. The interior of Africa was isolated until railroads and automobiles and finally airplanes ended that isolation.

By this time the process of reducing the size of our planet has proceded so far and so rapidly that only small margins of isolation remain for America or for any other part of the world. And those margins, too, are crumbling at their edges, with every extension of the range of aviation, so that it is only a matter of a short time before there will not even be a sliver of it left anywhere.

The other day I read two news stories on the front page of the same paper. One of them quoted a Senator to the general effect that America is perfectly safe from intrusion, because it is shielded by its two great oceans and soon will be shielded also by its two-ocean Navy. The other told about a new giant air bomber, the Douglas B-19, being groomed for its initial flight by the Army in Santa Monica, California—a super-bomber with a range of nearly 8,000 miles and able to carry 18 tons of explosive on that long journey. The two stories, obviously, were in direct contradiction. The 8,000-mile aircraft simply cancelled out the fine rhetoric about natural isolation.

The fact is that long-range Air Power is no longer avague idea. It is a solid reality and one which revolutionizes old principles of warfare, whether we like it or not. It's a reality that must be faced. Heretofore, the North Atlantic was immune from air attack. Today Hitler's Air Power is attacking British shipping 500 miles west of Ireland and even beyond. More than a third of the ocean distance between Europe and America is thus under the constant blow pi aviation. Soon, you may be quite sure, it will be half the ocean, and technically it is altogether possible to build bombers that will bridge the entire ocean. For all we know such bombers, swarms of them, are already under construction.

Even the 8,000-mile reach of our newest American bomber will seem, soon enough, the beginning rather than the climax of the process of expanding ranges. The B-19 can readily span the Atlantic, deliver its 18-ton load of death and destruction, and return to its home airport. And that, unfortunately, works both ways. I mean that a similar plane could take off from any part of Europe, bring its presents of annihilation to a thickly populated industrial area in the United States, and return to its European base. One of these long-range bombers, which are already in existence, has a striking power equal to approximately 40 German Stuka dive bombers—3,000 of them (which would cost only what twelve or thirteen capital battleships cost) represents the equal of 120,000 dive bombers. Assuming that England's Coventry has been demolished by 500 such planes, about 250 cities could he annihilated simultaneously by such an armada, which could negotiate the oceans with their navies with the same ease as if there were nothing but a fence between us. It could lay the nation to waste in one stroke, unless we have an adequate air defense prepared to meet the challenge.

I know that this may sound alarming, but it is my duty, as an aeronautical expert, to tell you that this is no fantasy. It is the grim, emerging reality and we barely have time to cope with it if we start now. In the light of such facts, the talk of isolation sounds a bit silly. Five years longer, at the outside, and it will sound ridiculous to the least imaginative among us.

There is a measure of truth in one of the claims of the so-called isolationists. It is a fact that the advent of Air Power has clipped the wings of navies and to that extent has made the American shores less accessible to naval attacks.

But it would be not only short-sighted but suicidal to lull ourselves into the belief that this defensive edge is permanent. Because the grim truth is that Air Power is rapidly going beyond its purely defensive function and turning into the most effective and most devastating weapon of offense that humanity has ever known. In the momentous Battle of Britain we are already watching the German attempt to use aviation as a purely offensive instrument—as a battering ram to break down the British Isles. If it is not successful in that task, it is for two simple reasons: First, because Hitler did not provide the appropriate airplanes for this job and second, because the British possess an effective Air Power to fight off the attack.

We need only imagine the range of aviation extended three to five times. Our strategic position would then be about the same as that of the British Isles, with the Atlantic in the same role as the British Channel.

By way of illustration, think of a small town somewhere in the vast American prairies. For generations it has been isolated from the rest of the country. Suddenly the spur of Some railroad reaches that town. Then other railroads are extended to it, until the town becomes a junction in the busy traffic. Its isolation is only a memory.

Even thus modern aeronautics is swiftly breaking down the isolation of our American land. Soon enough, and inevitably, air traffic will crisscross these United States from all parts of this earth. We are destined to be the transportation center of the coming aviation era—planes spanning oceans as a matter of routine, just as they now span narrower bodies of water. What of our vaunted isolation then? We shall be open from all directions of the compass to the swarming commerce of the air—and by the same token we shall be open to destructive attack from all directions. That isn't a matter of policy or politics but a matter of cold physical fact which we cannot avoid. Isolation has practically evaporated. Its final blotting out is only a matter of time, and short time at that.

Our safety then will depend neither on oceans nor on navies. It will depend on the strength and the reach of our own Air Power. We must be prepared to meet the challenge of any potential enemy or combination of enemies—to strike first and strike harder and to frustrate the enemy at the source of danger, on his own home grounds.