FDR’s Fifty Thousand Airplanes

June 1, 2009

“Ominous Days”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Address at Joint Session of Congress

The Capitol, Washington, D.C.

May 16, 1940


In 1939, the Air Corps had only 1,200 bombers and fighters, many obsolete. The US public, however, was shocked by Germany’s early 1940 blitzkrieg into Holland, Belgium, and France. President Roosevelt delivered this short but stirring speech six days after that attack, when the Allies faced catastrophe. In it, Roosevelt issued his famous call for an air force of 50,000 airplanes and production of 50,000 more each year. That level of production was not possible, and Roosevelt was not using numbers literally. He was, rather, alerting Americans that a huge new level of effort would be required of the nation.

These are ominous days—days whose swift and shocking developments force every neutral nation to look to its defenses in the light of new factors.

The brutal force of modern offensive war has been loosed in all its horror. New powers of destruction, incredibly swift and deadly, have been developed; and those who wield them are ruthless and daring. No old defense is so strong that it requires no further strengthening and no attack is so unlikely or impossible that it may be ignored. …

Motorized armies can now sweep through enemy territories at the rate of 200 miles a day. Parachute troops are dropped from airplanes in large numbers behind enemy lines. Troops are landed from planes in open fields, on wide highways, and at local civil airports. …

Lightning attacks, capable of destroying airplane factories and ammunition works hundreds of miles behind the lines, are a part of the new technique of modern war.

Our own vital interests are widespread. More than ever, the protection of the whole American hemisphere against invasion or control or domination by non-American nations has the united support of the 21 American republics, including the United States. More than ever in the past, this protection calls for ready-at-hand weapons capable of great mobility because of the potential speed of modern attack. …

The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were reasonably adequate defensive barriers when fleets under sail could move at an average speed of five miles an hour. … But the new element—air navigation—steps up the speed of possible attack to 200 to 300 miles an hour. …

Surely, the developments of the past few weeks have made it clear to all of our citizens that the possibility of attack on vital American zones ought to make it essential that we have the physical, the ready ability to meet those attacks and to prevent them from reaching their objectives.

This means military implements—not on paper—which are ready and available to meet any lightning offensive against our American interest. It means also that facilities for production must be ready to turn out munitions and equipment at top speed.

We have had the lesson before us over and over again—nations that were not ready and were unable to get ready found themselves overrun by the enemy. So-called impregnable fortifications no longer exist. A defense which allows an enemy to consolidate his approach without hindrance will lose. A defense which makes no effective effort to destroy the lines of supplies and communications of the enemy will lose.

An effective defense by its very nature requires the equipment to attack the aggressor on his route before he can establish strong bases within the territory of American vital interests. …

Combat conditions have changed … rapidly in the air. With the amazing progress in the design of planes and engines, the airplane of a year ago is out of date now. It is too slow, it is improperly protected, it is too weak in gun power.

In types of planes, we are not behind the other nations of the world. Many of the planes of the belligerent powers are at this moment not of the latest models. But one belligerent power not only has many more planes than all its opponents combined, but also appears to have a weekly production capacity at the moment that is far greater than that of all its opponents.

From the point of view of our own defense, therefore, great additional production capacity is our principal air requisite. …

During the past year, American production capacity for war planes, including engines, has risen from approximately 6,000 planes a year to more than double that number, due in greater part to the placing of foreign orders here.

Our immediate problem is to superimpose on this production capacity a greatly increased additional production capacity. I should like to see this nation geared up to the ability to turn out at least 50,000 planes a year. Furthermore, I believe that this nation should plan at this time a program that would provide us with 50,000 military and naval planes. …

I ask for an immediate appropriation of $896,000,000. And may I say that I hope there will be speed in giving the appropriation.