Standing Up for Airpower

Sept. 1, 1986

When President Harry S. Truman decided to reorganize the US military establishment after World War II, Stuart Symington, then Assistant Secretary of War for Air, was given the job of getting a reorganization bill through Con­gress. There were two key provi­sions in the original bill. First, the new Department of Defense would be headed by a Secretary of De­fense with statutory administrative control over the services. Second, a new service, the US Air Force, would be formed.

“It was a tough assignment,” Mr. Symington recalled during an inter­view with AIR FORCE Magazine at his retirement home in New Ca­naan, Conn. “The services, espe­cially the Navy, were adamantly op­posed to a Secretary of Defense who could do more than coordinate the activities of the services. A lot of fellows in the Army weren’t too happy over the prospect of losing their Air [although the official Army position, reported to Congress, favored a separate Air Force]. And the Navy was adamant that no Naval air activities, people, or planes were to go under the authori­ty of the new Air Force. These points of view had strong support in Congress.”

Mr. Symington, of course, was successful. After almost two years of tough selling on Capitol Hill and negotiating with the Army and Navy, the National Security Act of 1947 was passed. It was signed into law on July 26. Executive Order 9877, which laid out the functions and roles of the three separate but equal services, was issued from the White House.

A Separate Air Force

Exactly thirty-nine years ago this month, on September 18, 1947, the US Air Force became a separate service. The Navy retained its own air arm and missions, however, and the new Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, was given only co­ordinating authority over the ser­vices. The new Secretary of the Air Force was Stuart Symington.

In a narrow Air Force sense, he recalled, the fight had been won de­cisively, and the situation was fine. The country had a separate Air Force. But from a broader Air Force viewpoint, the situation was not perfect. Mr. Symington and the Air Force uniformed hierarchy, led by Gen. Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz, first USAF Chief of Staff, had want­ed a stronger Secretary of Defense, as provided for in the original bill. Under the reorganization, the ser­vice Secretaries retained as much power as the Secretary of Defense. This has sometimes precluded the presentation of a unified military position to the President.

The role of the Air Force Secre­tary, he said, “is to support his ser­vice chief, but not to become involved in purely military or opera­tional matters. Logistics support, budgetary matters, and systems ac­quisition are some of the biggest re­sponsibilities of a service Secre­tary.”

In the middle and late 1940s, Mr. Symington was firmly behind the acquisition of the Convair B-36, the world’s first intercontinental bomb­er. He had seen it in mockup form at the manufacturer’s plant in San Diego in 1941. It was powered pri­marily by conventional reciprocat­ing engines. Opponents of an inter­continental bomber wanted the Air Force to wait for the Boeing B-47, which was still on the drawing board. The B-47 was an all-jet, much-faster bomber, but with less range than the B-36. The Air Force bought the B-36, followed by the B-47 and then the Boeing B-52.

Questions and Claims

A big part of the job, Mr. Sym­ington said, even after the Air Force was established, was fighting “the denigration of airpower.” Secretary of Defense Forrestal once called him and said, “I understand bomb­ers cannot operate without fighter support, and that was proved in World War II.”

Mr. Symington responded by tak­ing Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, USAF’s top strategic bombardment expert, to the Secretary’s house for dinner. There, General LeMay described leading a bombing mission with no fighter escort over one of the tough­est targets in Europe. The Ameri­cans suffered losses, he reported, but most of the force survived, and the target was completely de­stroyed. ” ‘That’s good enough for me,’ the Secretary said, and we nev­er heard that slur again,” Mr. Sym­ington recalled.

On another occasion, Mr. Sym­ington said, President Truman want­ed to fire an Air Force general because he had said B-29s had suffi­cient range to bomb the Soviet Union. At the time, the State De­partment was concerned that the Soviets might be insulted. Mr. Sym­ington arranged an appointment for the general with the President, and the general’s career stayed intact.

One of the biggest impediments to getting a separate Air Force, he said, had been the group of people, some of them with high Air Force rank, who believed and stated pub­licly that airpower alone could de­fend the country. These people, fol­lowers of the Italian air strategist Giulio Douhet, “hurt us all pretty bad because everybody resisted that. And, of course, it’s not true.”

Top Air Force leaders believed that airpower, in concert with land and seapower—not airpower alone—could win wars, he said. As an example, Mr. Symington re­called, “When General Spaatz de­cided to retire, he eliminated from the eligibility list one of the three top candidates to succeed him be­cause he was ‘on the record’ too often claiming wars could be won by airpower alone.”

But there were pleasures, too. One was seeing the famous Gen. George S. Patton change his mind about the effectiveness of airpower. In 1942, Patton had confronted a young officer escorting Mr. Sym­ington on an overseas trip. Flicking the Air Force wings on the officer’s tunic, he said contemptuously, “Those things never killed anybody. They’re not worth a good goddamn. Tanks kill. Tanks are what count.”

After the invasion of Europe, Pat­ton led his armies deep into enemy territory, but then had to halt be­cause his tanks were out of gasoline. “They were sitting ducks,” Mr. Symington said, “but his flank was solidly protected solely by Gen. 0. P. Weyland’s XIX Tactical Air Com­mand.” (In fact, one German divi­sion surrendered to Weyland.) La­ter in the war, General Patton, remembering how effectively air-power had shielded his tanks, walked up to General Spaatz and asked, “Will you do me a favor? Turn me around and kick me!”

Unjust Criticisms

Mr. Symington is particularly in­censed about unjust criticisms of World War II airpower still being published in this decade. For in­stance, he singles out Harrison Salisbury, former Moscow corre­spondent for the New York Times, and his memoir, A Journey for Our Times.

Mr. Salisbury claims in his memoir that the USAAF bombed Germany by day because the Brit­ish, who were there first, had taken the night bombing mission for them­selves. “Salisbury turns the truth around. The British flew at night because they had experienced large losses bombing in daylight, espe­cially when their bomber forces at­tacked in single file,” Mr. Sym­ington explained. “Furthermore, they believed in area bombing, which could be done at night, whereas the Americans believed in pinpoint, precision bombing, which worked much better in daylight. We also believed that with our tightly knit box formations, we could de­fend our bombers much better than could the British. The British chose area night bombing because it fitted their equipment and their beliefs. We flew daylight raids for the same reason,” he said. “Salisbury’s ver­sion is patently absurd.”

One of his toughest jobs, Mr. Symington said, was fighting to re­tain enough equipment and people to provide sufficient strategic, tactical, and air defense forces for a viable defense of the country during the period of peace between the end of World War II and the start of the Korean War. The Air Force mini­mum recommended force was sev­enty groups.

“When we started, I went to Tooey and said, ‘What do you need—minimum—to carry out the mission the Air Force has been given?’ He ordered a study that took several weeks. Then he came back and said,.’We need seventy groups.’ It was a well-thought-out, well-documented requirement.” But as military funding got tighter and tighter, supporting a force that large became impossible.

Mr. Symington stated publicly that he could not support the tight 1949 military budget, and he per­sonally told President Truman that he could not support the 1950 bud­get, which was even tighter. By then, the Air Force was down to forty-eight groups. “We were being criticized in the press for, in effect, being disloyal to the Administra­tion. We weren’t disloyal, we were -just trying to say, ‘If you want us to do this job, we’ve got to have that much.’ “

Finally, in early 1950, he resigned in protest against inadequate de­fense spending. Later that year, the United States became embroiled in the Korean conflict, and military spending was on the upswing again.

Clear-Cut Chain of Command

Mr. Symington believes that early attempts to give the Secretary of Defense administrative control over the services are analogous to to­day’s attempts to reorganize the Joint Chiefs of Staff and give the Chairman more authority. “There should be a clear-cut chain of com­mand from the President on down,” he said, “and the JCS Chairman should be in it.”

Yet, he said, he has observed strong opposition to this today, es­pecially from some high-ranking Navy leaders testifying before Con­gress. He strongly supports the pro­posals of retired JCS Chairman Gen. David Jones that would put the Chairman in the operational chain of command and give him his own staff (at present, the Joint Staff works for the JCS as a body, not for the Chairman).

This view is based on experience. Before he came into government, Mr. Symington recalled, he had been head of the giant Emerson Electric Co. Before that, he was a consultant who specialized in re­ organizing corporations and com­panies that were having operating difficulties.

“I learned there are three things a man has to know to do a good job,” he said. “The first thing is, to whom does he report? The second thing is, who reports to him? And third, what is he supposed to do? Under the current arrangement, the first two questions, so far as the relation­ship between the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service chiefs is concerned, are not an­swered. I believe in civilian control of the military. But under the civil­ian leadership, there should be somebody who is the boss of the building. That’s true every place else.”

Results of this JCS reorganiza­tion, Mr. Symington believes, will be lower military spending and much more efficient use of resourc­es by the services. “With somebody definitely in charge, the organiza­tion will work much more effi­ciently,” he said.

(Stuart Symington was elected to the US Senate from the state of Mis­souri in 1952. He was never defeat­ed for reelection and retired in 1977.—The Editors)

James P. Coyne is a veteran fighter pilot who, after his retirement from the Air Force in 1984 as a colonel, served this magazine as Senior Editor before accepting the position of Executive Editor of Signal Magazine last spring.