The Rise of American Air Power

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Michael S. Sherry. The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon. New Haven: The Yale University Press, 1987. xiii plus 363 pp. $ 30.00, ISBN 0-300-03600-0




1.The Age of Fantasy [subheads: The Limits of Fantasy, Fantasy and Improvisation, The Test War]

2. The Age of Prophecy [subheads: Prophecy as Reassurance, Prophecy and Politics, The Cultural Context of Prophecy]

3. The Decline of Danger [subheads: Public Image and Professional Doctrine]

4. The Attractions of Intimidation [subheads: The Lessons of "International Blackmail", "Fifty Thousand Planes a Year", "Command of the Air by the Democracies", "The Paper Cities of Japan"]

5. From Intimidation to Annihilation [subheads: The Confusion of Initial Expectations, The Limits of Official Guidance, Propoganda and Prophecy, The Limits of Journalism, The Limits of Controversy, The Importance]

6. The Dynamics of Escalation [subheads: 1942-43: The Perils of Dispersion, 1943: The Collapse of Restraints, 1943-44: The Return of Battle, 1943-44: The Twisting Paths to Tokyo, Escalationand Operational Necessity]

In The Rise of American Air Power, historian Michael S. Sherry chronicles the development on American bombing strategy from the dark prophesies of writers such Mark Twain, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells, to the terrible reality of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As such, Sherry intertwines the fantasy or possibility of scientific warfare and Armageddon with the development of United States strategic bombing strategy through World War One and World War Two. In the examination of this strategy, the author eschews a traditional military history. He approaches his subject as a cultural study that weaves in military history, technological history, organizational history, politics, racism, and sociology. Sherry uses this rich approach to argue his central thesis that the development and use of nuclear arms as a strategic weapon was not simply a product of World War Two technological development, but a “continuity” of the fantasy of scientific warfare and evolution of social, political, and military views that made bombing an attractive option. In the closing days of World War Two, these factors coalesced into making dropping the atom bombs inevitable. Subsequently, in Sherry’s narrative, nuclear bombing became preferable for defensive deterrence, because of its terror potential of annihilation. Also it was seen as an offensive strategy to shorten the duration of conflict by eliminating the enemy’s ability to wage war. In Sherry’s examination the former won out over the latter in the evolution of aerial bombing strategy, especially in forcing the Japanese into unconditional surrender.

Sherry asserts through out his work that implementation of air power strategy, bombing, was often a chaotic and haphazard affair. More often than not it fell short of expectations or in the case of the incendiary bombing of Dresden Germany, it yielded unintended consequences; massive civilian casualties with hardly any corresponding military damage. He singles out the concept of strategic bombing as a failure because it did not address the real problem of the necessity to defeat the main body of enemy military forces in any significant way. A lesson from World War One that he claims was largely ignored. (145) Also strategic precision bombardment often missed its target and added fuel for revenge between combatants because of horrors inflicted upon civilian populations through collateral damage. These were two factors that seemed lost on the decision makers. Sherry quotes a historian as stating: ‘ If the object had been to stimulate the German war economy and to encourage the Germans to fight, no better technique than the clumsy [British] air offensive of 1940-1943 could have been devised.’ (94)

An important component to Sherry’s thesis is the detachment of strategy and moral consideration from the actual effects of bombing. Throughout the work, he references the cant of aerial bombing, which was placed into the terminology of technology. Sherry states in the passage, “ The Sources of Technological Fanaticism”, that: “Their plans revealed a kind of strategic distance on the consequences of their actions that paralleled and reinforced the distance created by their professional pursuit of technique, by the command and bureaucratic arrangements they made to organize that technique, and by the language and methodology they employed to use it.” (239) For example, the potential for civilian casualties in targets for bombing became the “de-housed” workers of enemy wartime industry. Sherry goes on to state that this sort of economic and technical lexicon developed into moral subterfuge designed to avert attention from the human cost of bombing strategy.

Sherry ends his work, by tying the bombing strategy of both World Wars to contemporary military strategy and the fallacy of Mutually Assured Destruction, a derivation on the idea that that war would be prevented by the ability of one side to annihilate the other. Again he asserts that this doctrine had it origins in the technological fantasy of the early twentieth century and has persisted in various guises through the time of writing the book. For example, he asserts that the nineteen eighties, political and military preoccupation with the MX missile system and “Star Wars” anti-missile defense was simply another variation of this idea; instead of making mankind safer such doctrines ignored history and added a measure of instability in the balance of destruction.


Scott Abeel Spring 2011

Michael Sherry has written a very impressive narrative of the evolution of a single aspect of air power, bombing. His sources are extensive and he presents a good argument by incorporating a cultural history approach towards a subject that is often solely tackled by military history.

That being said The Rise of American Air Power, lacks objectivity, as the author clearly is biased against nuclear strategy and bombing in general. One example of this can be seen in the author’s assertion that famous buildings were not targeted, but people were as they were not part of strategic consideration. (122) As Alan McGill comments in Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice: “The distinctive aim of the historian is not to show the truth or desirability of some particular theory or political orientation, although his work, if it is of any significance, will likely be relevant to such issues. The historian’s distinctive aim is to illuminate the past.” (109) Unfortunately, Sherry eschews this ideal in his work.


Alan S. Brody, Spring, 2011

The Rise of American Air Power is not the story of the Air Forces ascendancy, rather it is a retelling of the changes in American attitudes towards bombing and the revelation of the political infrastructure that negotiated and controlled the use of air combat and bombing policies. Set primarily in World War Two, Sherry notes that the force of personality or personal lobbying was an effective tool for gaining support for building and using bombers. The most appealing part of this work is when it delves into the till unresolved dichotomy of deterrence or defeat, how has and was the atomic bomb seen? The premise of the Cold War is well set up and while technology does get short shrift in this work, Sherry makes an astute observation about the use of aerial warfare, “the problems created by modern military technology could be solved by further advances in it.” (p.357). One persistent theme is that the military leaders , civilian experts and the Executive branch were locked in a struggle over the use of bombing, particularly cities and that the rhetoric was well scripted to reflect changing American attitudes.

There is a lot of detail in this massive volume, however, the voice of the flyer and the victim are often missing. As other critics have noted, Sherry does not seem unbiased in his recounting of the war. For example, he seems focused on rationalizing the marginal early status of airmen and justifying their professionalism. His narrative is all encompassing and to improve a tighter scope would help, for example, the most meaningful contributions for the social historian are those where American reaction was recovered. I applaud his use of magazines, advertising, movies, radio and other primary sources as well as the short photographic essay “bombing in the American Imagination”, although it would have benefited from more in depth analysis. Clearly, Sherry is very well versed in military history and has made extensive use of military archives to ground his work. The 1988 winner of the Bancroft Prize this work filled a hole in the historiography and it is very evident that this work was a massive effort and it is obviously well styled and written.

For the non military historian, the questions about the use of bombing and its underlying questions about Armageddon provide the easiest entry point to this complex topic. Different audiences will have not just entry points but exit points as well. Sherry does meet and exceed his intent to document the way that, “the rise of American air power rested on arguments whose collective force was greater than the sum of its parts.” (p. xii). Arguably, his central thesis is that the rise and reaction to aerial war, writ large, was only possible within the context of other horrors of war and that it was in fact those horrors that became the handmaiden of a war policy that culminated in the atomic bomb. While he hints at it and it is not his focus, I would be most interested in looking at related works that examine American attitudes toward and the acceptance of civilian aviation. Sadly, the questions that Sherry asks have only become more relevant over time, although, he could continue his argument and research in the Vietnam era asking again how World War 2 paved the way for that policy and action.

Sherry, Professor Michael S. The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon. Yale University Press, 1989.


Roger D. Connor, Spring, 2012

Michael Sherry attempts to resolve a critical paradox of twentieth century power relations – why, if strategic airpower was so fearsome in its destructive application, was it so ineffective in achieving the goals of its visionaries in shortening war (and thus civilian casualties) and eliminating the need for costly ground and naval campaigns. His narrative is largely one of “technological fanaticism” that he defines as, “an approach to making war in which satisfaction of organizational and professional drives loomed larger than the overt passions of war.” [xi] Temporally located in the interwar and World War II years he finishes with the defeat of Japan in World War II. His approach is analytical more than narrative but with a strong evidentiary basis.

Sherry marks an interesting counterpoint to Clodfelter. On one hand he notes that “the enchanting prospect of an armada of American bombers bringing swift and painless victory … fell victim to the production failures, tangled communications, and faulty planning that embarrassed Woodrow Wilson and the progressives” [18], which is Clodfelter’s core argument. However, where Clodfelter plots an episodic narrative of a tension between the desire for a swift and relatively bloodless victory and operational reality, Sherry makes a more convincing case that air power was always poorly defined and subordinate to inevitable political and battlefield contingencies. Like Franklin, Sherry argues that “practical developments were usually secondary to imagination in shaping strategic air war” [xi], but instead of seeing military leaders and policy makers as blinded by the allure of an ultimate weapon, he sees a disconnect between the capabilities of strategic bombing and a lack of discourse in defining the moral and ethical implications of those capabilities leading to a lack of focus and slide down the slippery slope from precision targeting to indiscriminate area bombardment of urban population centers.

Given the endless debates over the employment of the atomic bomb against Japan, Sherry’s most useful contribution may be his convincing argument that by Americans focusing “on the ‘decision’ to use the atomic bomb as the supreme moral choice … they telescoped … they telescoped years of moral action into one instant of responsibility.” [362] Rather, a slow accretion of “large fears, thoughtless assumptions, and incremental decisions” [363] resulted in the widespread destruction wrought by air power. The key to the problem of “escalation” in the application of airpower by the allies in a manner which they abhorred in Guernica or Shanghai in the 1930s was that “the intangible criteria by which the bomber was measured invited escalation in its use.” [358] The “intangible criteria” that Sherry identifies largely came down to a poor definition between “military target” and “cities.” As Franklin and Clodfelter have also pointed out, the fungible yardsticks applied to enemy morale and will of the people were exceptionally vague and the metrics for defining economic and other targets in the “technological system” of enemy societies were scarcely any better. This inevitably allow contingency to dictate targeting policy, with the outcome that cities, which were easy to hit and which gave an easy metric of destruction (acres of ruins), while avoiding the much more problematic assessment of what all of the effort was really adding to the war effort.

The intriguing paradox is that as Operations Analysis improved with the addition of experts who actually understood the complex economic and technological systems of the enemy states, targeting became far less selective with civilian populations becoming the de facto “easy pickings” for aerial commanders. Sherry demonstrates that this wasn’t simply apathy or laziness on the part of Army Air Forces leadership, but a complex interaction of background noise that erupted from a disconnect between a fairly autonomous military force with extensive internal ambitions, a political leadership that did not clearly understand the path to “victory,” and a public that was both ill-informed and willing to accept vengeance as a legitimate objective.

Finally, one of Sherry’s most useful conceits is the consistent American response to imagined enemies. His “shop window air forces” remained a problem through the Cold War to the present day where massive investment goes towards defeating paper tigers and prospective opponents know that to inspire American anxiety merely requires the cosmetic appearance of capability.

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