Master of Air Power: General Carl A. Spaatz
General Carl Spaatz was Commander in Chief of all the US Air Forces that fought in Europe during World War II—in numbers, probably the largest assemblage of aircraft that ever came under one man’s direct control. After Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945, General “Hap” Arnold, the Chief of Staff of the Army Air Forces, wanted him to assume the corresponding position in the war against Japan. General MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Pacific, disagreed. Spaatz was therefore sent to command the US Eighth Air Force, whose redeployment from the United Kingdom was just beginning, and of a fleet of “Superfortresses,” the new B-29s.
In addition, Spaatz had something that the other US commanders in the Pacific, including General George Kenney, MacArthur’s top airman, did not have—the atom bomb, about which he had known nothing until his return to Washington to prepare for his new assignment. After he was briefed about the nature of the new weapon, Arnold gave Spaatz a list of four Japanese cities that Henry Stimson, the secretary of war, had agreed were to be the targets against which the weapon was to be used, if an imminent test to see whether it worked proved successful. On August 6th, 1945, only a week after his arrival in the Pacific, and in accordance with explicit presidential authorization, Hiroshima was effaced. Nagasaki was destroyed three days later. After witnessing the ceremonial surrender of Japan on September 2, Spaatz returned to Washington, where after some six months he succeeded Arnold as Chief of Staff of all the Army Air Forces. At his own wish, he retired from the post after two years. He was then aged fifty-seven.
The biography that Dr. David Mets has written contains much interesting information about Spaatz up to the time he took command of the US Eighth Air Force in the UK in 1942, and about his years of retirement, but the account of what happened during the period of Spaatz’s European command is more than a little lopsided. Nor does Dr. Mets’s sequential record of the events in which Spaatz figured bring to life a picture of the warm-hearted, unpretentious, and friendly man whom I knew and who devoted his life with single-minded and unflagging attention to the service whose independence from the Army he managed to secure during his two years as Chief of Staff.
Spaatz graduated from West Point in 1914, gaining his wings in 1916, and spending the final year of the First World War in France. He was an ardent admirer of Brigadier General “Billy” Mitchell, the most glamorous American airman to emerge from the First World War, and shared Mitchell’s commitment to the doctrine that wars can be won over the heads of battling armies by bombing the enemy’s homeland. In promoting this doctrine, Mitchell publicly denounced Washington’s military establishment for “their incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration of the national defense.” He was court-marshalled …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
How We Bombed June 28, 1990