SO MUCH of America seen, so much still to see. Since I began this book I have added another two states, Washington and Minnesota, to my tally, but there are still vast patches of personal terra incognita. I do not know the desert, I do not know the upper Great Lakes, I do not know the Canadian wheat belt. I pore over the map, immerse myself in photographs, but the reality is missing. Will I have time?
Will I have time in particular to visit the one spot above all others I should like to see with my own eyes, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina? It is off on the Outer Banks, which close Albemarle Sound from the Atlantic, near Roanoke Island, site of the “Lost Colony,” the first, mysteriously extinguished, plantation of English settlers in North America. Sand and wind: that is all it offers. It was all Wilbur Wright wanted. “I am intending to start in a few days for a trip to the coast of North Carolina,” he wrote to his father, Milton, a bishop of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, on 3 September 1900, “in the vicinity of Roanoke island, for the purpose of making some experiments with a flying machine.”
There is a sublime modesty about Wilbur Wright which makes him one of the most attractive as well as creative of all the world’s geniuses. “It is my belief,” he went on, “that flight is possible, and, while I am taking up the investigation for pleasure rather than profit, I think there is a slight possibility of achieving fame and fortune from it. It is almost the only great problem which has not been pursued by a multitude of investigators, and therefore carried to a point where further advance is very difficult. I am certain I can reach a point much in advance of any previous workers in the field, even if complete success is not attained just at present. At any rate, I shall have an outing of several weeks and see a part of the world I have never before visited.”
No one visited the Outer Banks; almost no one lived there. Fishermen passed that way, and navies. The French and British fleets had manoeuvred off the banks in the campaign that would lead to Washington’s victory at Yorktown eighty miles to the north in 1781; the United States Navy had knocked on the head a chain of small Confederate posts behind the banks in 1862. Since that time they had fallen back into forgetfulness. There were no bridges, no ferries, no connections with the country or even with the state. The only representative of government was a meteorologist of the Weather Bureau who took wind readings. It was these that had persuaded Wilbur that Kitty Hawk was the place for him. It was the sixth-windiest place in the United Sates, bereft of vegetation, offering low hills and sandy beaches several miles in length; and it was far from the public eye.
Wilbur was disingenuous in writing to his father that the problem of flight had “not been pursued by a multitude of investigators.” Flight had been a Western obsession since the Renaissance. At the end of the eighteenth century the Montgolfier brothers had achieved aerostation, ascent by balloon, made lighter-than-air in their case by lighting fires under an open-mouthed envelope. In the nineteenth century the application of gases to aerostation had made balloons a common sight and their employment of practical use; Custer, as we have seen, had ascended in such a balloon to survey Confederate lines near Yorktown in 1862. Aerostation, however, did not satisfy man, since balloons had to be tethered if they were not to be playthings of the winds. What Wright wanted was to fly as the birds did, from point to point of choice, always under control and from a source of energy independent of the earth. The dirigible, a balloon with an engine and control surfaces, was half an answer; but it was large, clumsy, and fragile. It was not birdlike. In the last decades of the nineteenth century a “multitude of investigators” were indeed experimenting in the problem of birdlike flight. Some thought the solution would be found in imitating a bird’s soaring capacity by building aerofoil gliders. Some thought it would be solved by applying brute mechanical power to a lifting surface. Some thought catapulting would allow an aerofoil with an on-board power source to proceed into controllable flight. All persisted with their experiments and all were disappointed; some were killed; none could demonstrate a machine which could do what a bird could do, which was, under its own power, to rise from the earth, sustain level and controlled flight, and land at a point not lower than that from which it had taken off. These were the criteria of true flight; they were those Wilbur Wright had taken as his challenge and believed he could meet.
It was an odd ambition for a small-town bicycle manufacturer from the Midwest. Wilbur and his brother, Orville, were American nobodies, of the sort who have so often surprised humanity; Dayton, Ohio, their home town, would still be a dull little place if it were not now the site of the greatest aeronautical museum on earth. Yet in the 1890s it was also a city typical of the United States during its surge to world industrial dominance: eighty thousand people, a thousand factories manufacturing farm implements, castings, railroad cars, cash registers—and bicycles. The Wright brothers’ factory was small-time, scarcely more than a handwork shop. Because they made almost everything themselves, however, the Wrights were excellent practical engineers. They were also, like the Eisenhowers, members of a God-fearing family which venerated education and encouraged rigorous habits of mind. Bishop Wright, moreover, was a nicer man than the Eisenhower father, perhaps because he found advancement through his church—an offshoot of the Eisenhowers’ Mennonites—rather than consolation in it for worldly failure. He brought his children toys when he came back from episcopal trips; one was a version of the Leonardo da Vinci helicopter, four blades on a spindle, which had been a popular European plaything since the sixteenth century. It engaged the brothers’ attention; as they grew up they began to read the popular scientific literature, then appearing in sheaves, about experiments in flight. Neither was to go to college. Their sister attended Oberlin, one of the classic Midwest liberal art schools, and there was talk of sending Orville to Yale, but nothing came of it. The boys had nothing better than a high-school education, of the sort Ike had had before he secured a nomination to West Point; Latin, algebra, botany. The Wrights moved about even more than the Eisenhowers, between Indiana and Ohio; there were twelve moves before the bishop came back to Dayton to settle for good. Brothers went to farm in Kansas and Iowa. It was a very American family history. Orville and Wilbur tried printing before they turned to bicycles. They were also fascinated by the automobile. The predominant interest, however, was in flight. They sent for papers from the Smithsonian, reworked the calculations of European and American would-be aeronauts, identified the problems. They saw that the chief one was control: how to manage a machine which moved in three dimensions: pitch—longitudinally; roll—latitudinally; yaw—side to side. They also saw that a controllable machine would have to combine all these movements, to produce what would later be called bank, turn, climb, and dive. Some kites they built seemed to obey the necessary rules. By 1900 Wilbur was ready to try out a glider, tethered and unmanned at first, manned and free-flying later, which would be the test-bed for powered flight.
Wilbur took the components of their first glider by train from Dayton in September 1900. He detrained at Old Point Comfort, Cornwallis’s naval base for the Yorktown campaign, McClellan’s for the Peninsula—eerie how the crosscurrents of American history run together—found some long wooden spars unavailable at home, loaded all the parts on a cranky schooner, and got to Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks, after much bailing and tacking, on the afternoon of 12 September. There was a wooden post office, there were kindly people, nothing else; reading about his arrival, I felt tremors of Lumber City fifty-seven years later. He made arrangements to board, boiled some potable water, got down to work. The postmistress’s sewing machine was conscripted to sew wing panels from sateen fabric; Orville turned up after a fortnight with a tent. They began to fly the glider off a rope in Kitty Hawk’s steady Atlantic winds.
The machine worked but not well enough. They went back to Dayton, made test devices out of bicycle parts, recalculated, worked out from first principles optimal ratios of wing camber, perfected what would become the crucial feature of the true aeroplane—the aileron, which in their elegant version, never bettered, took the form of warping at the wing tips—and, as a by-blow, designed and built a gasoline internal-combustion engine producing enough power to lift itself, a flying machine, and its pilot from the ground. On top of all these extraordinary achievements—imagine a meeting between Leonardo and the brothers Wright—they also conceived flight’s breakthrough idea. Everyone before them had, in one way or another, been fettered by the belief that an aeroplane—the word had not yet been coined—must, like a ship, be inherently stable. A ship, if rudder and sails were set right, would point itself into the seas, righting itself whatever the force of wind and water playing on its surfaces, and so sail as long as it retained its buoyancy. The Wrights hit on an alternative conception, that of an inherently unstable craft which, by the pilot’s constant correction or application of pitch, yaw, and roll, could be made either to maintain level flight or to dive, climb, bank, and turn. It was a conception of genius. On 17 December 1903, in their fourth year of experiment, the Wright brothers set up their latest machine upwind on a wooden launching rail underneath Big Kill Devil Hill outside Kitty Hawk. Orville took the controls and ran up the engine. Wilbur stood alongside to steady the wing tip. In a wind gusting to twenty-seven miles an hour, the areoplane was released from its checks, accelerated, rose from the ground, flew 120 feet, and made a controlled return to the surface of the sand dunes twelve seconds later at an equal height to that from which it had taken off. The Wright brothers had shown that man could fly like a bird.
They made three more flights that morning, taking turns; the fourth lasted fifty-nine seconds and covered 852 feet. Then a sudden gust of the Atlantic wind which had brought them to Kitty Hawk flipped a wing and turned the aircraft upside down. The engine was unseated, the elevator broken. The pieces were carefully packed up and taken back to Dayton. Orville telegraphed ahead: “Success four flights Thursday morning.… started from level with engine power alone.… home Christmas.” They brought with them, beside the broken Flyer, the glass negative snapped by a local lifeboat man at the instant of take-off, today the most famous and frequently reproduced of all photographs. It is also one of the most beautiful, an ethereal composition of horizontals and verticals, black struts against white fabric, grey sand and pale Atlantic sky, Wilbur in dark clothes and cap frozen in mid-stride as he releases his hold on the wing tip, his gaze fixed on the figure of Orville prone between the faint blur of the propellers. Chanced upon uncaptioned, it would speak for itself as the image of a revolutionary event. There is an extraordinary tension between the logic of the machine and the apprehension of the man left behind on the ground, who seems to be willing the frail construction skyward by locked muscle and psychological force. It is one of those rare photographs which has claims to be a chance work of art, for it captures a sense of moment which would escape the imagination of all but the greatest painter.
The photograph and the Flyer have survived to come down to us despite accident. In 1913, a year after Wilbur’s death, aged only forty-five, Dayton was swept by flood. It was a recurrent event. The city stands at the confluence of four tributaries of the Ohio, and the river system of America is far mightier than man. Fire followed flood, and the city fathers spoke of $100 million of damage. The old bicycle shop escaped destruction, but its contents were soused. Orville, who treasured the glass negative, rescued it from the attic; only the bottom left corner of the collodion had lifted. The Flyer, still crated after its return from Kitty Hawk, had been under twelve feet of water but was protected by a thick layer of mud. Sentimentally—the brothers had a habit of abandoning old models around the countryside when an improved version engaged their enthusiasm—Orville scraped the remnants clean and stored them elsewhere. They remained forgotten until 1916, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology asked permission to exhibit the machine at the opening of a new building. Orville and an assistant reassembled the bits, which subsequently became a much-seen centrepiece of displays at New York and in Dayton itself, the last in 1925.
By then the Flyer was the focus of a bitter controversy. The “multitude of investigators” whose existence Wilbur had so blithely dismissed in 1900 had stood forth in armed ranks as soon as the Wrights had shown what they could do. Some who had failed to fly before 1903 claimed to have done so none the less; others who suddenly saw wealth and fame awaiting them if they imitated the Wrights’ achievements plagiarised their designs. Glenn Curtiss, a competitor of the Wrights in the aeroplane business, not only plagiarised; he invoked claims that others than the Wrights, notably Samuel Pierpont Langley, later Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, had designed the first practicable aeroplane. There was method in his mischief. If Langley had indeed forestalled the Wrights, their patents, which they defended vigorously in the courts, would be invalid and he, like the Wrights a successful bicycle and motor engineer, could build aircraft without paying royalties. He did so in any case; but he went further. Langley’s experimental machine, the Aerodrome, had been lodged in the Smithsonian Museum. In 1914, with the connivance of Langley’s successor, Curtiss took the Aerodrome out of the museum, altered it enough to make it fly briefly and shakily before witnesses, removed the alterations, put it back in the museum, and brazenly challenged Orville in the courts. Orville was outraged. He was now less interested in the money than in his and his brother’s reputation before history.
The rescue of the Flyer from the flood proved to have been auspicious. It was physical proof of all the claims the Wrights had made. Famous though Orville was, however, he could not clinch his argument that the Flyer was a true aeroplane while the unaltered Aerodrome had never been one, because authority would not agree to a fair comparison. The prestige of the Smithsonian, a great national institution, was at stake. Langley’s successor had not only colluded in falsehood; he compounded it by further falsehoods which became part of the official Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution; that of 1915 stated that “Secretary Langley had succeeded in building the first aeroplane capable of sustained free flight with a man.” The disputes over the rival claims, and the means of settling them, dragged on long after the patent and royalty cases had been resolved. The courts made Orville a very rich man; the Smithsonian left him embittered. In 1925 he decided to use his own prestige against it. The Flyer, he announced, would be sent abroad for exhibition in the Smithsonian’s British equivalent, the Science Museum in London, and would not be returned until the Wright claims were conceded; if this did not happen before his death, the Flyer would be willed to the Science Museum in perpetuity.
It was an inspired stroke of propaganda, but it took time to make its effect. Flight was still mysterious in the 1920s; many pioneers had their fingers in the pie. There were so many curious old machines, so many ancient mariners of the air with tales to tell. Over the years, however, the indignity of the situation bore in. Americans began to feel that it was monstrous for the Wright machine to languish abroad. Scholars progressively demolished the claims of anyone but the Wrights to have flown first; foremost among them was the keeper of the Department of Air Transport at the Science Museum itself, Charles Gibbs-Smith. He, more than anyone, was the man who disposed case by case of the pretensions of all other early flyers. With the departure from the Smithsonian of the last of the old guard after the Second World War the way was opened for the Flyer’s return. It was brought back in 1948 and hung in the entrance hall in the place of honour previously allotted to The Spirit of St. Louis, the aeroplane in which Lindbergh had made the first solo Atlantic crossing. Lindbergh announced he was honoured that his machine had once occupied the position belonging by rights to the Flyer. At its ceremonial unveiling the band of the United States Air Force, the independent air arm created the previous year, played “The Star-Spangled Banner” in front of the flag flown over Fort McHenry under British attack in 1814, which had inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words that became the national anthem. On the Flyer was affixed an inscription which proclaimed all the Wright brothers’ achievements. It ended: “By Original Research the Wright Brothers Discovered the Principles of Human Flight. As Inventors, Builders and Flyers They Further Developed the Aeroplane, Taught Man to Fly, and Opened the Era of Aviation.” Justice had been done. The date was 17 December, the time ten thirty-five, forty-five years to the minute since Orville had launched the Flyer into an Atlantic gale at Kitty Hawk. He had lived not quite long enough by a few months to witness his and Wilbur’s apotheosis.
The Flyer hangs there to this day. Nine million visitors walk underneath it every year. I walked underneath it a year or two ago, on my way to give a lecture in the aeronautical collection, and stopped to salute an old friend. For I remembered it well from schoolboy visits to the Science Museum in dreary post-war London. There it had a place of honour too; but it seemed odd, even to a twelve-year-old, that it should be where it was. The aeroplane was so quintessentially American. The British built beautiful aircraft, the Spitfire, the Mosquito; we were even taught to believe, falsely, that the British had invented the jet aeroplane. Flight and fibbing seemed fated to go hand in hand. We were not taught, however, that anyone but the Wrights had flown first, and we had seen with our own eyes throughout the war years the skies filled with American aircraft. Mustangs there were, and Lightnings, that alluring and futuristic twin-boomed single-seater, and sturdy Liberators and tub-nosed Thunderbolts and workaday Dakotas and light bombers we called Bostons and Marylands, and, special in a way on which we could not quite put a finger, Flying Fortresses, which the Americans called the B-17. The B-17, of course, was special for reasons not frequently mentioned after the war, when the occupiers of Germany and the administrators of Marshall Aid were struggling to keep the survivors of defeat from starvation. The B-17 had been a principal instrument of the strategic bombing campaign which had reduced Berlin and the Ruhr to rubble. That slim, elegant, gleaming, high-finned creation, a model of which I had treasured from early in the war years, had been a cause of terror and certainly of death also to thousands of Germans of my own age in the years when I had flicked the model’s tin propellers and imitated the sound of its four engines in front of the nursery fire. Those were not things to be mentioned in time of peace. They were not things to remember. Remember the omnipresence of American air power I did none the less. There was a weight and presence and self-confidence to American aircraft that seemed natural and appropriate. Long before I knew about the quarrel of Orville Wright with the Smithsonian, I accepted the aeroplane, just as I accepted the cinema, as something at which Americans were best.
They were best at it, of course, because America needed the aeroplane and the aeroplane was made for America. There is, in a poetically truthful sense, nothing accidental about the nationality of the Wrights. In Europe, aviation, before the Wrights, was a hobby, and it remained so even after Kitty Hawk. For the Wrights it was a deadly serious business. They were not interested in demonstrating that man could hop into the air. They wanted a machine that could cover real distance and perform useful tasks. In the aeroplane’s potentiality to defeat distance, the enemy of American collective life, they glimpsed the means of transforming existence in the continent. Even after Kitty Hawk, therefore, they shunned stunting for publicity. They went back to Dayton, borrowed a ninety-acre field, the Huffman Prairie, from a well-wisher, and settled down to improve the Flyer and perfect their flying skills. When they were ready they decided to show the world what they could do. The place they chose was Le Mans in France, for the excellent reason that, while the American government shortsightedly refused to discuss business terms with them, the French government took the idea of the aeroplane seriously. The Wrights, canny businessmen, correctly perceived that until a passenger aircraft became a commercial viability, only government money could sustain their enterprise.
Nevertheless, before coming to France in 1908 the Wrights had made the first passenger-carrying flights in history, back in the obscurity of the Outer Banks, Mr. C. W. Furnas of Dayton sitting on the leading edge of Flyer No. 3’s lower wing beside each of the brothers in turn. On 8 August, Wilbur took the controls of a new Flyer at the Le Mans racecourse before an audience of European aviators. Some of them had flown after a fashion in cranks of their own design; Léon Delagrange had actually managed to keep airborne, on 22 June, for sixteen minutes. When Wilbur took off they did not know what to expect. Attempts to build versions of the Flyer in Europe from inexact descriptions had failed; reports of the Wrights’ achievements in America were unverified. Wilbur therefore departed into the blue. Only two minutes later, during which he had banked, turned, and completed four perfect circuits of the track, many of the watchers were speechless. Delagrange, when he found words, blurted out, “We are beaten. We don’t exist.”
Over the next five months, Wilbur made longer and longer, more and more complex flights, turning figures of eight, climbing, diving, and gliding with the engine switched off, all under perfect control. On 31 December he stayed in the air for two hours twenty minutes and covered a distance of seventy-seven miles. Major Baden-Powell, a British War Office observer, gave as his judgement: “that Wilbur Wright is in possession of a power which controls the fate of nations is beyond dispute.”
Neither of the Wrights wanted that. Though they sought government money, and accepted that their aircraft would initially be used for military observation, they had a vague, idealistic feeling, beyond their hard-headed determination to be rewarded for their discoveries, that the aeroplane might be a means of bringing people together rather than setting them at each other’s throats. During the First World War, Orville told reporters that he and his brother had never had any regret about their invention of the aeroplane because they believed that it would end warfare. On his seventy-fourth birthday in August 1945, thirteen days after the destruction of Hiroshima, he said: “I once thought the aeroplane would end wars. Now I wonder if the aeroplane and the atomic bomb can do it.” This wistful retrospection harked back to their high-minded, Brethren in Christ upbringing in the innocent Ohio of the 1880s. The Wrights had been mighty fighters. Bishop Milton was a valiant battler against error as he saw it, in his own church, in the wicked world, and in public life; he opposed the influence of Masonic lodges and the power of the liquor trade. Orville and Wilbur were teetotallers all their lives, non-smokers, notably pure in speech and conduct, shy bachelors whose affections were given within the family. They, too, battled for the rights that they were owed, but always with words and strict legality. They were the least rapacious of industrialists who ever had the chance to make a fortune. They were also among the most moral.
It was inevitable, however, that a practicable aeroplane, the Wrights’ bequest to the world, would be used for war-making purposes. Their competitor Glenn Curtiss dropped dummy bombs on to the outline of a battleship in 1909; in 1911 the U.S. Army tested the dropping of live bombs near San Francisco; in 1912 the recently founded Royal Flying Corps conducted artillery-spotting tests on Salisbury Plain from a purpose-built military aircraft; in the same year a short biplane took off from HMS Hibernia while under way. All, in any case, had been anticipated: in 1849, during the first war for Italian unity, the Austrians had launched explosive, pilotless Montgolfier balloons against Venice. Human ingenuity all too swiftly serves the devil. Boys brought up in Bishop Milton Wright’s household must have been warned of that.
Yet the Wrights themselves never sought to exploit the military potentiality of their invention. That was left to others. During the winter of 1910 the Wrights had taken their flying team away from the harsh Ohio weather and established a base at Montgomery, Alabama. The city stands in a level plain; even December days, though crisp, are calm and sunny. During the First World War the old Wright aerodrome at Montgomery became a military flying station, known as Maxwell Field. In the years after the war the base languished as a backwater for Air Corps observation squadrons. In 1927, however, it was chosen as the new site for the Air Corps Tactical School, the training centre for future commanders, and in 1930 a building programme was undertaken to provide teaching facilities and living quarters. Under the Roosevelt programme of economic revival during the Depression, more money came Maxwell’s way. By 1935 the station had become a handsome place, planted with shade trees standing between red pantiled, Spanish-style buildings; the architecture was appropriate, for Hernando de Soto, the marauder after gold, had wintered at Montgomery in 1540. The centrepoint of the station was the Tactical School itself, a colonnaded, two-storey building near the old Wright flying field.
“That’s where they worked it all out,” an air force colonel said to me as we circled the campus on a fall day in 1990. I had been summoned to address the Flag Officer course on the nature of leadership, a wholly inappropriate commission, for all I know about leadership is book learning. The visit was memorable none the less for meetings with the recently sacked Air Force Chief of Staff, cast into darkness for revealing that he planned to bomb Saddam Hussein in his bunker, and with Newt Gingrich, who failed to convince me that he would one day be Speaker of the House of Representatives.
“What do you mean,” I said, “they worked it all out?”
He flapped a hand at the Tactical School. “Spaatz, Eaker, the bomber barons. That’s where they did all the thinking.”
I peered at the building, which, with appropriate signs, might have been a minor Holiday Inn. There was not a uniform in sight, not even a military vehicle, only a few Chevrolets and Buicks parked in the forecourt behind mown grass and clipped bushes.
“What do you mean, all the thinking?” I repeated.
“Bombing,” he said. “Pushing Germany over by the acre, burning Japan out. That’s where they made the plans. Spaatz, Eaker, McNarney, Vandenberg, Stratemeyer, they were all here, captains, majors in the thirties. They worked out bombing from first principles. It shouldn’t have been called the Tactical School. Strategic bombing was what came out of that little building. Firestorms, precision attack, victory through air power, you name it, they thought of it.”
The day was sunny, the air still. Maxwell is a long way from anywhere.
“I’m going to Montgomery, Alabama,” I had said to a Washington sophisticate.
“You get all the choice spots,” he answered.
Peering again at the Tactical School, I reflected that he might not have been as smart as he thought.
I resolved then to come back. The chance did not offer until two years later, when I was invited to speak about how air power might alter the situation in Bosnia to an Air Force Chief of Staff’s symposium. In the intervals of the meeting I dropped into the air force archives at the historical centre, ordered files, and consulted the base historian, Jerome Ennals. He confirmed all the colonel had told me. Maxwell had indeed been the old Wright winter field in 1910; he showed me where they flew. It had been the centre of Air Corps planning in the 1930s; he produced photographs which showed the hacienda building of the Tactical School under construction. It had been the place where the future lords of life and death, junior officers then in an under-funded and ill-equipped Air Corps, a mere appendage of the army, had argued and lectured and written their position papers in an aeronautical world of biplanes, pioneering postal flights, airship disasters, and stunt flying at state fairs. Air Corps officers wore riding breeches and took tea on pillared verandas. All that America knew of Montgomery was that it had been the first capital of the Confederacy. The idea, Jerome Ennals said, that an American bomber would bring wrath from heaven all over Europe and Asia was as near to fantasy in Roosevelt’s Alabama as the thought that an American might one day stand on the moon.
The papers I pulled from the air force archives told another story. The first, oddly, from the Military Geography and Strategy Course of 1932, was a study of McClellan’s operations in the Peninsula in 1862. The Peninsular campaign, the paper suggested, illuminated the difficulty of attacking the economic base of an enemy power. By 1936 the Tactical School had moved on to examining the modern city as a profitable target of air attack, against water supply, public utilities, transportation, and industry. The second course of 1936 used analysis of the economic structure of the United States itself as a guide to the destruction of what a later generation would call a “target-rich environment.” It was all a bit theoretical. General Ira Eaker, reflecting in the record of an interview held in 1964, said as much. “You may have decided,” he told the young officer questioning him, “that the Air Corps Tactical School told the active flying groups and commanders what to do. It was the other way around. We worked out what we thought was sound doctrine and they adopted it and codified it and put it into proper documentation.” The general spoke true; the most useful military teaching comes from, not before, practice. The course of 1939, Air Operations Against National Structures, nevertheless contradicts him. Its subject matter is the theory of the destruction of the Japanese economy by bombing, and it tackles the matter under thirty-four headings, including aero-engine factories, coal liquefaction plants, hydroelectric facilities, mines, quarries, shipbuilding yards, and inter-island ferry terminals. The appendices to the study include detailed target maps, in which Nagasaki is identified as a key objective. Air Operations Against National Structures may have been drawn up as a teaching exercise. In practice it is a detailed war plan, on which the actual campaign of strategic bombing against Japan in 1945—which burnt out 60 per cent of the country’s sixty largest cities before the atomic bombs had been dropped—could scarcely improve.
It is a shaking experience to hold in one’s hand a sheaf of foolscap paper that spells out the future death of a society; Japanese imperial society died in 1945, and the instrument of its death was American air power. I fiddled about with the other papers the archivists found me. I kept on turning back to Air Operations Against National Structures. It was dated 11 April 1939; the impress of the typewriter keys was still sharp, the red and blue pencil markings fresh and bright on the target maps. A student or an instructor had taken a great deal of trouble with his presentation all those years ago in a Southern spring when the flowering trees were beginning to blossom along the neat concrete sidewalks, over the pretty pantiled roofs of Maxwell. The Second World War had not started in Europe. The Pacific Fleet cruised the untroubled waters around Pearl Harbor. A few squadrons of ageing aircraft droned in practice flight from the old Wright flying ground. The last time a decisive act of war had touched Montgomery was in April 1861, when the orders to bombard Fort Sumter had gone down the telegraph wire from a building near Jefferson Davis’s house. Forts again, I thought; forts always turn up at the beginning of American wars. It was not accidental that Fort McHenry’s flag had been displayed behind the returned Flyer. It was, after all, the parent of the Flying Fortress. I wondered if the Tactical School archives had anything to say about that memorable aircraft.
I went back to the card index, made enquiries of the archivists. I knew a good deal about the Flying Fortress already, of course. It was the first successful four-engined bomber, and it had been built, officially, to guard the United States against invasion. The United States Navy and the United States Army had an agreement; it was not one the army liked much, still less the Air Corps, which the army controlled, but it was policy and could be broken only at the cost of an inter-service quarrel. The navy and its aircraft carriers were responsible for the strategic, long-range defence of the American coastline. After 1938 the Air Corps was allowed to patrol only one hundred miles from the coast. The Flying Fortresses were literally that—airborne equivalents of Fort McHenry and Fortress Monroe—dedicated to preventing, with their bombs and machine guns, enemy warships and troopships from entering American harbours and estuaries, just as the great Federalist system of forts was dedicated to denying entrance with their cannon. Air power extended the range a little, that was all. The point was made in a test of 1937, before the hundred-mile limit had been imposed, when a flight of Fortresses intercepted the Italian liner Rex far out in the Atlantic. The New York Herald Tribune headline proclaimed: FLYING FORTS, 360 MILES OUT, SPOT ENEMY TROOPSHIP.
The Air Corps, however, had a different, secret idea, just as “Flying Fortress” had an alternative meaning: that of an aircraft capable of defending itself—it mounted thirteen machine guns—while dealing disabling blows against an enemy. The archivists produced for me a slim research pamphlet which revealed what the Air Corps had really been thinking while the navy was still trying to fetter it to coastal defence. It was thinking of carrying war to the enemy. In the early 1930s it began commissioning advanced bombers based on the designs of the new all-metal, monoplane airliners which were revolutionising air travel within the United States. They were quite unlike the clumsy tri-motors and giant biplanes which the European airline companies and air forces were still operating. At the head of the field stood the Boeing 247, a sleek twin-engined airliner with a range between airports of 750 miles, enough to get from coast to coast in four hops. The 247 fathered the Boeing 299 of 1935, its military equivalent. A year earlier the Air Corps had issued the specification for its successor. Most of the contractors tendering submitted designs for another twin-engined aircraft. Boeing, though stuck away at Seattle in the extreme northwestern state of Washington, was thinking further ahead. It proposed a four-engined bomber, designated the YB-17, and, though given only a year to transform a paper design into a working aircraft, had the prototype ready within the time-limit.
It proved a sensation. With a top speed of 250 miles an hour and a service ceiling of 30,000 feet, it could carry more than a ton of bombs for over 2,000 miles, enough to cross the Atlantic. The advocates of the doctrine of air attack against national economic structures as a means of winning wars were exultant. Here was the machine which would make their theories work; here was the instrument which those teaching at the Tactical School at Maxwell needed to turn aspiration into reality. Foremost among them was Colonel Henry “Hap” Arnold, one of the most senior officers of the Air Corps bombardment branch. Recalling the arrival of the first group of B-17s at Langley Field in Virginia in 1936, he wrote, “This was the first real American air power.” The new aircraft, he recognised, were not just aircraft for coastal defence, flying equivalents of the Federalist fortresses, but “for the first time in history air power that you could put your hand on.”
For a young country, the United States shows a strange dedication to the apostolic succession in its public life. The defence of Fort McHenry, built to resist the British at Baltimore, had, as noted earlier, inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Its star-spangled banner was to be displayed behind the first Flyer at its installation in the Smithsonian, when the claims of the Wrights to have been the first men to fly were endorsed by Federal authority for good. Among those present was Hap Arnold, who had commanded the Army Air Forces (successor of the Air Corps) during the Second World War, now first Chief of Staff of the new independent United States Air Force. One of the earliest American pilots, he had been trained to fly at the Huffman Prairie in Dayton, Ohio, under the auspices of the Wright brothers. There is a certain inevitability in discovering that the official test flight of the B-17 (“sensational, record-breaking”) was made from the Boeing works at Seattle to the Air Corps base at Wright Field, Dayton.
The Wright Field was the B-17’s first destination. Its destiny lay elsewhere, above all in my own country. In Britain’s time of desperation, when it alone among European nations continued to defy Hitler, though its cities burned and its women and childen died under the Luftwaffe’s attack, President Roosevelt authorised the transfer of some Flying Fortresses to the Royal Air Force so that it could sustain its retaliation against the Reich; it was a model of one of these first fighting Fortresses with which I had played in the nursery of the country house to which my family had been evacuated from the Blitz on London during the winter of 1940. The terms of the deal were cash-and-carry; Britain liquidated most of its Victorian wealth to buy weapons while Roosevelt awaited the casus belli to bring the United States to Britain’s aid. The occasion of war came in an unanticipated fashion; it was not Pearl Harbor but Hitler’s quixotic decision to open hostilities against America four days later which provided this. Token forces were sent at once but it would be more than a year before the great build-up of American ground forces in Britain would begin. In the meantime the U.S. Army Air Force began to mobilise its squadrons for transfer to England. They were the first effective anti-Hitler units that could be deployed to the fighting front. It took seven months to complete preparations, but on 1 July 1942 the first Flying Fortress—a model B-17 E, serial number 41-9085—to cross the Atlantic as part of the Eighth Air Force, USAAF, landed at Prestwick in Scotland. It was to be followed during the course of the Second World War by another 6,500.
The arrival of the Flying Fortresses in Britain required the building of a small United States overseas. Admiral Byrd’s base at the South Pole had been called “Little America.” Soon bases many times the size of Admiral Byrd’s outpost were springing up all over the flat farmland of East Anglia, from which the bombing routes towards Germany are shortest. There were to be sixty-three bomber bases eventually, lying about five miles apart in a crescent west, south, and east of the ancient university city of Cambridge, most of them alongside small villages whose names must have tripped haltingly at first off American tongues: Chipping Ongar, Great Saling, Grafton Underwood, Little Staughton, Steeple Morden, High Roding, Earls Colne, Thorpe Abbots, Snetterton Heath, Old Buckenham, Deopham Green, Horsham St. Faith. Many were places in which little had happened since the Norman Conquest. Almost overnight each acquired a Little America of Quonset huts, control tower, PX, and a population of Americans which grew as fast as the bases could be finished. The standard strength at a bomber base was around 3,000, though some of the headquaters had many more During 1943 the Eighth Air Force deployed about 150,000 airmen to East Anglia, a sizeable proportion of the 1.7 million Americans who were to find themselves in Britain at the height of the build-up before D-Day.
Fewest among them, perhaps only one in twenty, were the aircrew, who flew the Fortresses to Germany and often did not come back. The Army Air Forces lost 52,173 aircrew in combat in the Second World War, four-fifths of them in Europe and the majority of these from the Eighth Air Force bomber crews who flew from Britain. Each crew had an obligation to fly twenty-five missions before earning a rest from operations. There was, roughly, an even chance of surviving the course; put the other way about, there was an even chance of not. The odds were worsened, however, because some individuals were lost to a crew by death in action. In a big and robust aircraft like the B-17, with two pilots, navigator, and seven gunners, it was not uncommon for antiaircraft or fighter fire to hit one or more of the crew without disabling the machine; a damaged aircraft might fly home with dead or wounded men aboard, some so severely wounded that they would succumb after it had made a safe landing. An analysis of the fate of 2,051 aircrew who set out on their series of twenty-five missions over Germany revealed that 1,195 were killed or missing in action, over 200 died of wounds, and only 599 survived to the end—about one in four of those who had begun.
Bomber Command, the Royal Air Force’s equivalent to the Eighth Air Force, suffered similar casualties. Over 55,000 aircrew were lost in its bombing campaign against Germany. The human cost of what between them they did to Germany scarcely bears contemplation. Some 600,000 German civilians were killed by Allied bombing, almost all in 1942-44, and of those about 120,000 were children and nearly 400,000 women. They died in a series of raids which progressively destroyed urban Germany from its western border inwards—first the cities of the Ruhr, then those of the North Sea and Baltic coasts, then those of the interior, culminating in the destruction of the eastern city of Dresden in February 1945. The RAF bombed by night, from 1942 onwards according to a doctrine of “area” bombing which eschewed precision and simply sought to burn German cities to the ground. The U.S. Army Air Force clung longer to the idea of precision attack on “National Structures,” first studied in the paper of 1939 I had found in the archive at Montgomery, Alabama, but it, too, was eventually drawn into the campaign of indiscriminate destruction. The madness which seized Europe in 1940–42, the madness of nihilism, ultimately seized the U.S. Army Air Force also, and at the end of the war it bombed and bombed and bombed as if bombing were simply an industrial process, a form of work, the human activity at which America excels above all other nations.
It was an extraordinary culmination to the history of Europe’s and America’s joint involvement in the business of warfare which is the substance of this book, an involvement with which my own life has been intertwined for nearly forty years. At the outset of that history, it was Europeans who fought each other in North America for possession of the continent, French against English, British against French. Then, when the issue seemed settled, it was immediately reopened by Americans settling to fight Europeans over who should be master. The defeat of the British appeared to determine that, as the Founding Fathers of the Republic wished, there should be no more war in America. Americans judged otherwise, and, in the Civil War, fought each other over the issue of whether there should be one America or two. The one America of 1865 decided that it had one more war to fight, a war with the native Americans who obstructed its passage to the Pacific coast and settlement of the Great Plains, a war that native Americans were foredoomed to lose but protracted none the less to the last decade of the nineteenth century. The defeat of native America appeared to close the last act, pacifying the continent for good. Thereafter honest friendship, as the Founding Fathers had willed, should have ensured its isolation from the world outside in perpetuity. Honesty in friendship negated that hope. In 1917 it drew the United States into the First World War. In 1941 it drew the United States into the Second. By a strange and unanticipated circularity, Americans came from 1942 onwards to be fighting in Europe over who should be master in that continent, on the side of the French and British, who had once contested ownership of theirs, from bases in the United Kingdom, to which nearly two hundred years earlier they had expelled their colonial rulers.
It was the beginning of an American military involvement in Europe, decisive in its effect, that persists to this day. Fifty years after the closing of the strategic bombing campaign, some of the Eighth Air Force’s bases in East Anglia remain in American hands. Closer to home, on the outskirts of my village in the West Country, traces of wartime Little America linger. Older residents still speak of “the airfield” where a base depot of the Eighth Air Force was opened in July 1943; the control tower, now a private house, and parts of the airstrip remain. A little further away there is a more poignant reminder, a memorial tablet to a B-17 crew who did not go home. “This tablet,” the inscription reads, “was erected by the people of Wincanton in honour of United States airmen who lost their lives when their Flying Fortress ‘Old Faithful’ crashed in flames on Snag Farm near this spot when returning disabled from an operational mission on June 25th, 1944.” A list of names follows which is a short biographical history of European emigration to the United States, from England, Ireland, Scotland, Greece, perhaps Scandinavia and the Jewish diaspora, and ironically from Germany as well: 2nd Lt. Peter Mikonis, Margate City, New Jersey; 2nd Lt. Frank Pepper, Jr., Berkeley, California; 2nd Lt. Joseph Sullivan, Belmont, Massachusetts; 2nd Lt. Will Stevens, Smithfield, North Carolina; S/Sgt. Roy Anderson, Sacramento, California; S/Sgt. Douglas Deurmyer, Topeka, Kansas; Sgt. Ralph Stein, Savannah, Georgia; Sgt. Richard Mehlberg, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Sgt. Dan McDowell, Omaha, Nebraska. How far they had come to die, those young men, from places which reverberate with the echo of battles long ago—Topeka and Nebraska in Indian territory, Belmont and Smithfield in the campaign theatre of the American Revolution, Savannah from the Civil War.
There are other traces of the connection between this tiny place, with its two hundred people, and the other England across the ocean. A daughter of the house in which I live, the village manor house, married a young architect who worked on the famous mansion of the Brown family on Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island; a farm at the bottom of the village is Berkeley Farm, once the property of the great Berkeley family who founded the Berkeley Plantation on the banks of the James River outside Richmond, Virginia, family seat of a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and of a President of the United States. The Berkeleys and America belong together from the beginnings. My family does not. I am, I believe, the first member to have visited North America; but now, too, I belong in a way to it also. I have an American son-in-law, four American grandchildren. The tides which carried the Berkeleys across the Atlantic from the Old World have brought my descendants from the New World back again. Benjamin, my solemn, six-year-old grandson, a citizen of London, tells me he is “half-English, half-American.” There seems nothing wrong with that.
Yet, even after forty years, after fifty transatlantic crossings, after uncountable transcontinental journeys, the sense of the American mystery remains strong with me. Canada I think I begin to understand, a bit of the European world implanted south of the icecap, alien in geography, familiar in custom and culture. The United States continues to elude me. If I understand it at all, it is through the strange profession that has shaped my life, the study of war. War is repugnant to the people of the United States; yet it is war that has made their nation and it is through their power to wage war that they dominate the world. Americans are proficient at war in the same way that they are proficient at work. It is a task, sometimes a duty. Americans have worked at war since the seventeenth century, to protect themselves from the Indians, to win their independence from George III, to make themselves one country, to win the whole of their continent, to extinguish autocracy and dictatorship in the world outside. It is not their favoured form of work. Left to themselves, Americans build, cultivate, bridge, dam, canalise, invent, teach, manufacture, think, write, lock themselves in struggle with the eternal challenges that man has chosen to confront, and with an intensity not known elsewhere on the globe. Bidden to make war their work, Americans shoulder the burden with intimidating purpose. There is, I have said, an American mystery, the nature of which I only begin to perceive. If I were obliged to define it, I would say it is the ethos—masculine, pervasive, unrelenting—of work as an end in itself. War is a form of work, and America makes war, however reluctantly, however unwillingly, in a particularly workmanlike way. I do not love war; but I love America.