Billy Mitchell
Billy Mitchell; drawing by David Levine

Who remembers Billy Mitchell? If he is remembered at all, he may be confused with Gary Cooper who played the screen version of his screen-version life: the brilliant officer who correctly understood that airplanes would change warfare and ruined his career trying to advance military aviation against the designs of army men who were either too obtuse or too self-protective to read the handwriting on the wall. The story has a benign shape, like the story of Robert Fulton or of other visionaries who were later proven right; Mitchell’s just happened to be a vision of destruction, honored today only by the most obviously destructive institution in our society, the United States Air Force.

Burke Davis, Mitchell’s latest biographer, is a cool and scholarly researcher, neither wholly worshipful nor hysterically derogatory in the manner of Mitchell’s earlier partisans or detractors. He clarifies a number of points which seemed to arouse people in the 1920s but which have lost much of their interest with the years. Thus we learn, for instance, that Mitchell was not “martyred” by his 1925 court martial, but welcomed the chance for a spectacular exit from the Army. We learn that he was a particularly clever strategist, predicting not only the course of aerial warfare but also (in 1923) the precise form of the war in the Pacific, including the timing of the attack on Pearl Harbor. We get a judicious look at the chicken-and-egg question that consumed the public during the height of his notoriety—whether Mitchell was promoting airpower or simply promoting Mitchell. Reading Davis’s biography, one comes to admire Mitchell’s foresight; one can even share his frustration with the generals and admirals who failed to see that their military role was changing, and who confined their own strategic inquiries to the question whether Japanese people could teach themselves to fly. (Most thought not.)

But it is easier to write about a “prophet vindicated” than to deal with the implications of his vindication. Davis finishes his 350-page study without raising any questions that seem pertinent to the present. He hardly seems to notice that Mitchell was the first American to advocate mass bombing of civilians. The saturation bombing of World War II, the raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the daily missions against Hanoi are all part of Mitchell’s legacy. Perhaps we are so accustomed to aerial murder that its origins seem to merit no special attention. Davis teaches us to “respect” Billy Mitchell. But it is the kind of respect the last human might have for Herman Kahn were pages of On Thermonuclear War to flit before his eyes in the seconds between the holocaust and extinction.

MITCHELL’S FATHER was a pacifist, an anti-imperialist Senator from Wisconsin who denounced the adventures of 1898. “Since the advent of the white man every leaf in the history of Hawaii is either red with blood or black with intrigue and jobbery,” he said in a Senate speech, and he argued, on the eve of the Spanish-American war, that “No soldier should be mustered in for the purpose of shooting our ideas of liberty and justice into an alien people.” For reasons that neither Davis nor Mitchell’s other biographers make clear, his nineteen-year-old son, Billy, did not share these views: he joined up, anxious to get to Cuba and shoot away. By the time he did, the action was elsewhere, and, hearing of Aguinaldo’s rebellion, he requested transfer to the Philippines. There he had better luck, working under MacArthur and leading his own column through the jungles. He completed a seventy-five-mile telegraph line through enemy land by warning tribesmen that he would return to kill them if the line were broken in their territory. He led a group of fifteen Negro soldiers in a night raid, and captured Aguinaldo’s adjutant, Captain Mendoza, the next best thing to Aguinaldo himself. His next post was Alaska where, working for the Signal Corps, he spent two years building a 1700-mile telegraph line linking the coast with the interior. We next find him in the US, working on radio communications, then a field receiving much attention; but he returned to the Far East, traveling through Japan, Manchuria, and China to review military preparedness.

Mitchell’s considerable experience in the East made him something of a premature “globalist”; certainly it affected his expansive view of the necessary military underpinnings of US foreign policy. In 1912 he was rewarded for his intelligence work by appointment to the Army General Staff. He was assigned to follow the progress of aviation, which he learned was booming in Europe and neglected in the United States.1 He developed a passionate interest in airplanes and learned to fly himself, but found few colleagues who shared his enthusiasm. In March 1917 he was sent to Paris to observe the manufacture and development of aircraft. By the time he arrived the US had entered the war.


Mitchell’s ideas about airpower grew out of his experiences and observations of the trench warfare of the European front. By flying back and forth across the lines he became one of the few officers who had a comprehensive picture of what was going on. He wrote in his diary:

[The War]…is a slaughterhouse performance from beginning to end on the ground. Maybe one side makes a few yards or maybe a mile and thousands of men are killed. It is not war it is simply slaughter. War is decided by getting at the vitals of the enemy, that is, to shoot him in the heart. This kind of war is like clipping off one finger, then a toe, then an ear, then his nose, and gradually eating into his vitals.

Is the implication that it is more merciful to slaughter civilians than soldiers? If all your buddies are soldiers, perhaps it seems reasonable to think so.

Mitchell’s statement can be seen as an early version of one of the underlying aims of twentieth-century strategic thinking, particularly as the Air Force has had charge of it—to shift the risks of war from military organizations to the people. States used to hire soldiers to be killed as proxies. Now they hire them to plan how to kill us. The current “counterforce” doctrine is no exception: Air Force generals provide themselves with underground Pentagons while the rest of us are meant to be satisfied with black-and-yellow stickers pasted on our hallways. The Army has always resisted this trend, perceiving from the beginning of the Mitchell era that its existence as an organization depended on holding on to its share of the opportunity to kill and be killed. The battle in the 1950s between the Air Force doctrine of “massive retaliation” and the Army’s (and later Kennedy’s) position of “flexible response” revolved around the same service interests that obstructed Mitchell: it was the Army defending its right to kill and be killed in conventional fashion. Most campaigns opposing the Air Force, beginning with the opposition to Mitchell and including such contemporary efforts as General Maxwell Taylor’s The Uncertain Trumpet, are waged not on behalf of humanity but on behalf of the Army. Domination by the Air Force of the tools and strategy of war threatens to sweep away the Army’s raison d’être.

AIRPOWER was used during the first war chiefly for observation, reconnaissance, and, to some degree, in support of ground troops. But the war also produced the concept of strategic bombardment. The Germans began attacking London as early as 1915, and retaliation was prevented only by the lack of suitable planes. By the end of 1918 the British were bombing industrial cities in western Germany and the allies were planning a sustained attack on German industry under Major General Hugh Trenchard, commander of the British Royal Flying Corps and later of the Inter-Allied Independent Air Force. Trenchard, whose organizational and strategic ideas were a major influence on Mitchell, saw the mission of the Air Force as “the breakdown of the German Army in Germany, its government, and the crippling of its sources of supply.” Within the American Air Service itself a doctrine of long-range bombardment was also taking shape, differing from Trenchard’s in that it emphasized round-the-clock saturation attacks to overpower defenses and wreck production, whereas Trenchard emphasized light attacks aiming chiefly at the destruction of civilian morale. After the war both themes were pursued not by Mitchell alone but also by Trenchard and the Italian theorist, Giulio Douhet.2 However, Mitchell was the only one to make the campaign for strategic bombing into a spectacular career. His theme, repeated constantly after the war in articles, speeches, and congressional appearances, was that “To gain a lasting factor in war, the hostile nation’s power to make war must be destroyed. This means manufacturing, communications, food products, and even bombs and fuel and oil and places where people live and carry on their daily lives.” In other words, total war.3

Mitchell’s post, when he returned to the US after the war, was Assistant Chief of the Army Air Service. In the eyes of most of the fliers he was its chief, but was denied the position because his Army superiors understandably found him disagreeable and, by their lights, irresponsible. Mitchell’s struggle for acceptance of the doctrine of strategic bombing was accompanied by his fight for the development of an independent Air Force severed from its connection with the Army. The struggle had in fact begun during the war itself, with proposals for a separate air force emanating not only from Mitchell but from numerous congressmen and from a special board appointed by Secretary of War Newton Baker. Baker resisted, partly because he agreed with General Pershing that “an air force acting independently can of its own account neither win a war at the present time nor, so far as we can tell, at any time in the future.” But Baker had reasons of his own. He believed that the fliers were already taking on the character of “supermen” and had to be restrained, and he warned the Air Service shortly before the Armistice that the US would not participate in an offensive “that has as its objective the promiscuous bombing upon industry, commerce, or population in enemy countries.” Those were the days.


In any case, the connection between an independent air force and strategic bombardment was clear. If military aviation were controlled by the Army and Navy it would be poorly understood and left to wither, as was in fact happening. More important, it would be confined to maneuvers in support of land and sea operations conducted by the existing agencies. Freed it could invent and carry out its own missions—such as long-range bombing of enemy territory. It was during this jockeying for independent power that Mitchell conceived and promulgated the still current fantasy that if wars were more deadly, as they would surely become if he had his way, they would also be more quick. It was his justification then, just as today it is LBJ’s.

It was not only scruple and conservatism that prevented Mitchell from putting across strategic bombing as the mission of a separate air force, though ample quantities of both stood in his way. An official Air Force history records regretfully that “In the 1920’s the climate of opinion in the United States was not favorable to military theories that smacked of the total-war concept.” Mitchell was warlike when the Twenties were not. He continually fought for more—more men, more planes, more weapons, more inventions—when military budgets were being cut. He opposed the disarmament talks, publishing in Liberty magazine an article called “Exploding Disarmament Bunk: Why Have Treaties About Battleships When Airplanes Can Destroy Them?” It was not a foolish question but an uncomfortable one in a country hopeful about peace pacts. He was involved in interservice rivalry of a particularly rancorous kind, in a series of incidents that would be comic were not such rivalry then, as now, a spring of military energy.

Mitchell was certain that airplanes meant the end of seapower and he fought with the Navy for jurisdiction over coastal defense. He broke the hearts of the admirals by demonstrating in a spectacular test in 1921 that even his flimsy aircraft could destroy battleships—a history-making event which, according to a former naval officer, is still omitted from the Navy’s officer-training curriculum. Mitchell’s methods were not simply indiscreet—tales told out-of-school about Army and Navy maladministration of aviation affairs—they sometimes appeared menacing. He spent a great deal of time organizing small armies of Legionnaires to lobby on his behalf, and, on at least one occasion, Legion intervention was crucial in keeping Mitchell from being fired. Finally Coolidge himself denounced Mitchell in an address delivered in the lion’s den, a Legion convention shortly before the 1925 court martial:

Any organization of men in the military service bent on inflaming the public for the purpose of forcing government action through the pressure of public opinion is an exceedingly dangerous undertaking…. Peace and security are more likely to result from fair and honorable dealing and by mutual agreements for limitation of arms than by any attempt at competition in squadrons and battalions.

When the Navy dirigible Shenandoah crashed, killing thirteen men, during a public-relations tour of Midwest state fairs to drum up interest in Naval aviation, Mitchell accused the War and Navy Departments of “incompetency, negligence, and almost treasonable administration of our national defense.” (Mitchell was by no means above such stunts himself and had in fact promoted a good many of them, but he could not tolerate seeing them bungled.) At that point the military brass could stand him no more. Mitchell was court-martialed for insubordination and suspended from the Army for five years; he resigned instead to carry on his fight privately—without much effect—until his death in 1936. If it had not been that, it would have been something else, for governments have ways of dealing with their misfits, and Mitchell posed a challenge too strong to be ignored.

Mitchell’s “vindication” is now complete. A bronze statue of him stands in the Smithsonian Institution. He was awarded a special Congressional medal “in recognition of his outstanding pioneer service and foresight in the field of American military aviation.” A chapter in a semi-official Air Force history describes the emergence of a separate Air Force after World War II as “The Day Billy Mitchell Dreamed Of.” He is honored for fathering the mythology by which the Air Force continues to live, that strategic bombing wins wars. The Vietnamese are telling us differently, as did the British—and for that matter the Germans—in World War II. Mitchell’s “vindication” lies only in that what he predicted would happen is happening; he was wrong about the results it would achieve. But the Air Force cannot afford to listen. When, prior to Mitchell’s court martial, he was removed from his Washington post and sent to an obscure base in San Antonio, a group of his fliers plotted to transfer with him, and, if refused permission, to resign. Mitchell ordered them to stay put. “We obeyed him,” one of the officers present told Davis. “We obeyed him for the rest of our lives. And long after he was dead.”