A defining feature of the modern American way of war is a reliance on high-tech weapons and a prodigious amount of airpower. But, that has not always been the case. What changed? Well, that is what The Rise of American Air Power is about; how and why America’s soldiers began using air power to destroy their enemies.
It covers the strategic calculations behind that change, the technical and industrial advances that made it possible, and the vast destruction wrought by American air power in World War II.
While The Rise of American Air Power by Michael Sherry does have some flaws that I will describe in my analysis of it, it is, overall, an excellent work of military history that charts how the American aviation industry became the behemoth it is today and why the American military relies on air power far more than any other nation.
Summary of The Rise of American Air Power
Before World War I, using air power was mostly impossible (other than balloons), so American troops had to rely on other sources of firepower. And even with the beginning of the Great War, the American arms and aviation industry was unprepared to produce high-end warplanes, a trend that continued until a short time before World War II. But, when that war began, Americans grasped the power of air power and aviation companies jumped at the opportunity to begin producing mass numbers of warplanes. That is, in essence, the story that begins The Rise of American Air Power.
There are other details that Sherry touches on, namely the vast amount of strategic and fictional works between World War I and World War II that were focused on the vast destruction that could be wrought by strategic bombers. Authors and officers imagined vast swarms of them attacking national capitals and wiping them off the face of the Earth in a matter of hours. Those writers imagined that strategic bombers could destroy the will of nations to fight and end wars in a matter of hours.
The beginning of World War II proved that vision to be untrue, as Sherry recounts many times in The Rise of American Air Power. German bombers terrified British civilians, Japanese bombers pounded Chinese villages, and Allied strategic bombers leveled city after city in Germany and Japan. Vast resources went into building vast fleets of ever-larger bombers and casualties on both sides mounted. Yet bombers did not end the war. The myth of air power being a silver bullet turned out to be a lie; World War II was settled on the ground, not in the air.
That is not to say that the thesis of The Rise of American Air Power is that strategic bombing had no effect on the outcome of the war. Sherry notes the problems caused for Germany by Allied bombing of factories, oil refineries, and ball-bearing plants. And the leveling of city after city certainly demoralized German civilians.
Similarly, in Japan, the atomic bombs finally induced the Japanese to surrender and Curtis LeMay‘s firebombing of pretty much every significant Japanese city caused vast destruction and hurt the Japanese war effort. Sherry does not discount those contributions in The Rise of American Air Power.
However, he does note that the promised benefits of strategic bombing never materialized. Civilian morale did not plummet in the face of bombing; it either aroused indignation, as in Britain, or resigned war-weary civilians to their fate, as happened in Germany and Japan. So, the war was not ended by vast fleets of bombers.
Another point Sherry takes pains to make in The Rise of American Air Power is that, contrary to what military chiefs said, strategic bombing was not “precision” bombing. It was more along the lines of destroying cities to knock out a few factories. Area bombing was the name of the game, not precision bombing, so it led to incredibly high numbers of civilian casualties and depopulated vast swathes of people.
Similarly, Sherry describes how in the American Army Air Force, tactics were often developed without keeping a political outcome in mind. They were instead designed to produce measurable outcomes; acres destroyed, factories knocked out, etc. In what was a prelude the data-collection campaigns of Vietnam by the “best and brightest,” Air Force officers focused on what they could measure, not what was most effective or most economical.
He uses all of that evidence in The Rise of American Air Power to show that World War II was not won by the Air Force, despite the humongous number of resources invested in it. It was instead won by the men on the ground and on the seas. The men described in D-Day, Inferno, The Two-Ocean War, An Army at Dawn, Reminiscences, and Armageddon. The Air Force contributed to that victory, but its effect was not as decisive as pre-war theorists predicted.
Analysis of The Rise of American Air Power
I had conflicted feelings about The Rise of American Air Power while reading it.
One hand, from a historical perspective, much of the actual information in it was quite interesting. I was drawn into the book by Sherry’s descriptions of how the war in the air changed, the incredible feats of destruction it was able to accomplish, and how technological innovations made the Air Force more effective.
Similarly, Sherry does an excellent job in The Rise of American Air Power of depicting the major figures involved in the air war during World War II. He shows the complexities of General LeMay, how “Hap” Arnold wanted to carry out the war, and how the vast build-up of the Air Force that FDR directed led to, in effect, the rise of American Air Power as a major force on any battlefield.
Additionally, Sherry notes the strategic calculations behind America’s emphasis on air power as a war-winning force. He discusses books and papers written on both sides of the Atlantic and how they led to the development of strategic calculations that, while proven largely incorrect by the actual events of the war, were kept in mind throughout it and led to the destruction of many cities.
Finally, I thought that The Rise of American Air Power was an excellent account of why America places the emphasis it does on air power; while it is expensive, it does allow us to destroy our enemies and exact vengeance on them at a relatively low cost in American lives. While our airmen might have suffered grievous casualties, the enemy soldiers and civilians on the ground suffered many more.
Despite those positive characteristics, there is much to criticize about The Rise of American Air Power.
One obvious flaw in it is that Sherry focuses on the supposed “racism” of our bombing campaign against Japan. Despite noting that German cities received similar treatments at the hands of American bombardiers, he remains fixated on his assumption that we destroyed Japan not because we wanted to win the war, but because of some phantom “racism.”
Yes, there were likely racist attitudes directed toward Japan that were not directed toward Germany. But America destroyed Japanese cities because it wanted to win the war more quickly and pre-war strategic thought indicated that strategic bombing would be an effective strategy for doing so. Racism does not explain why we firebombed Tokyo; the horror of war does.
The other flaw of The Rise of American Air Power is that it is solely focused on strategic bombing. While that would be fine if Sherry’s conclusions were directed entirely at the efficacy of strategic bombing campaigns, they are not. They are instead an indictment of our focus on air power generally. The fact is, tactical bombing assisted the American ground and naval forces that won the war mightily. Germany could not assemble large forces to oppose us without them being bombed mercilessly and Japan’s naval forces were eradicated by American warplanes. Bombing did have a positive effect on the allied prosecution of the war, especially if looked at from a tactical level.
Even disregarding that, the evidence Sherry presents does not square with his conclusion; which is that strategic bombing killed far too many civilians to be worth it. Yes, many Axis civilians died because of the campaigns described in The Rise of American Air Power. But the strategic bombing campaigns also destroyed countless factories, forced millions of workers away from their homes and factories, and gave us a material edge over our enemies. Strategic bombing did have a non-negligible effect on World War II, even if the “unjust” killing of Axis civilians is factored in. War is hell, bombing or not. That has been the case forever. The Napoleonic Wars, for example, were brutal and led to millions of deaths.
Finally, I thought that Sherry missed a chance to describe how American air power has changed. The Rise of American Air Power was written in 1987; by then our Air Force was using precision weapons. So, although precision bombing was not possible during World War II, it is possible now. We can knock out factories without massacring civilians, which was always the point of strategic bombing. But Sherry declined to comment on that change, which I was disappointed by.
So, would I recommend that you read The Rise of American Air Power? Absolutely. I might disagree with Sherry’s conclusions, but there is no reason that everyone will. And, as the evidence he uses to support them is interesting, you’ll probably like reading it if you’re interested in military history.
Finally, I think it is worth reading works with which you might disagree, as long as they are well written. The Rise of American Air Power is neither unpatriotic nor poorly written. I just disagreed with a few points that Sherry made. And hearing what he had to say made me think more critically about the American reliance on air power and the assumptions under-girding them.
By: Gen Z Conservative