In response to:
Aerie Visions from the March 17, 1988 issue
To the Editors:
Mr. Garry Wills’s review of Professor Michael Sherry’s excellent Rise of American Air Power [NYR, March 17] in pursuing wild hares does justice neither to the book nor the historical record. As a World War II airman and, latterly, a military historian who has been as critical as anybody of Air Theory—or, as some might call it, Air Theology—I write briefly to set parts, anyway, of that record straight.
President Roosevelt no doubt overdid air power in the late 1930s but he was no “aeromantic,” to use Mr. Wills’s catchphrase. He saw clearly that Britain and France at the time were weakest in the air and that it was precisely here that the United States could most advantageously help, while giving fewest forfeits to prevailing isolationist sentiment. “Hard-headed” might be a better word to characterize the policy.
During the “Blitz” on Britain (October 1940 through May 1941) Sir Arthur (“Bomber”) Harris was on the Air Ministry staff and then in Washington as Air Member of the British staff mission. He went to Bomber Command only in February 1942. The fact that this gallant and tenacious commander was churlishly cast aside by his political masters at the war’s end tells more about them than him.
Mr. Wills’s statement that the strategic air offensive “did not demonstrably help the invasion” (of Normandy in 1944) reveals an incredible ignorance of military history, elsewhere so piously invoked. All it did was to decisively defeat the Luftwaffe, certainly not in ways foreseen, not even nearly, but sufficiently to the purpose. On D-Day the Luftwaffe managed only about a hundred sorties over the Normandy beachheads. Never again was it a factor in the European War. Military history can be ransacked in vain to discover so complete a victory; Trafalgar pales by comparison.
Similarly no student of Japan’s surrender in 1945 would agree that XX Bomber Command’s efforts had “not the anticipated psychological effect of ending or even of shortening (sic) the war.” The decisions of the Jap Government at this time were complex and tortuous and the atomic bomb gave it the “out” it needed, as did the Allies’ decision to permit the Emperor to remain. But the bombing campaign was not the least important of the factors behind them.
But one’s largest argument with Mr. Wills’s review must be with his implication that Allied leaders in World War II regarded the strategic air offensive as the be-all and end-all, apart from the other efforts they were making by sea and by land. Publicists of the “Victory through Air Power” school did, ringing up rewarding book sales thereby, and a few ardent air officers did; “Bomber” Harris certainly did. But most did not and this was assuredly the case at the higher levels of the Alliance militarily and politically.
If at the mid-period of the war they momentarily placed exaggerated emphasis on bombing it was because until about 1942 so little else was to hand. And this of course was because of the ignorance, the illusions and the neglect of the democracies during the 1930s, for which, among many others, the bomber crews of those days paid the price.
William R. Emerson
Hyde Park, New York
Garry Wills replies:
Anyone capable of writing about “the Jap Government” is obviously still fighting the war, not analyzing it.
November 24, 1988