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Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force

Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force by Brian D. Laslie. The University Press of Kentucky, 2017, 229 pp. 

Architect of Air Power is a biography of USAF Gen Laurence S. Kuter. Brian D. Laslie is the deputy command historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and US Northern Command, as well as an adjunct professor at the USAFA. He is also the author of The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam. Laslie’s work joins a collection of other Air Force biographies that he references in the preface, namely works covering George Kenney, Carl Spaatz, Pete Quesada, and Claire Chennault (p. xi). As an examination of the birth of the USAF, the biography joins works such as Bernard Nalty’s Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force, Herman Wolk’s Reflections on Air Force Independence, and Walter Boyne’s Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the U.S. Air Force.

The creation of an independent USAF in 1947 by the National Security Act was the culmination of persistent planning and uphill struggle on the part of US military aviation going back decades. Several notable individuals were key players in this process—Gen Billy Mitchell, Gen Henry “Hap” Arnold, Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower—and others—but Laslie argues that General Kuter—an officer not covered as frequently or as completely— played a highly significant role in USAF development as well.

The stated purpose of Laslie’s work is to correct this historiographical oversight by providing a biographical account of Kuter’s life that is—in the author’s own words—“as much about what was occurring around Kuter as it is about the man himself” (p. 4). Laslie is cognizant of the dangers in writing biography, namely that the work can lose its objectivity and become unnecessarily laudatory in its coverage of the given subject. This is a challenge, however, that Laslie recognizes and addresses, even if there are relatively few (but forthright) mentions of Kuter’s shortcomings (pp. 53, 55, 67–70, 138, 143–144, 162). The portrait that emerges is one of a career aviator, an officer not given to the bravado and maverick nature that often characterized the more famous military leaders from the period, but notable because of his quiet and persistent influence, masterful organizational skill, and successful leadership (p. 160).

Laslie moves quickly through Kuter’s early years in Illinois and at West Point, demonstrating the quiet, honest, and determined outlook that would come to characterize Kuter’s career (pp. 5–18). Kuter’s entrance into military aviation came, by his own admission, to simply become a “better field artilleryman” (p. 16). However, Kuter succeeded in his flight training, survived washout, and soon gained considerable experience with flight testing, bombardment, and organization. It was Kuter’s next assignment, as a student at the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS), that would place him at the center of American airpower development (pp. 27–28).

Laslie’s approach is to focus on the accomplishments and events that demonstrate Kuter’s contributions to the growth of American aviation as well as the events that comprised and surrounded this development. Kuter’s time at the ACTS as a student and an instructor prepared him for intimate involvement with the future of airpower in more powerful venues and established Kuter as a strategic thinker, ardent supporter of aerial bombardment, and a rising star within the Army Air Corps. This experience also prepared him for one of the notable contributions as Laslie heralds in his introduction—the development of the Air War Plans Division—Plan 1 (AWPD-1), a document that would serve as the first articulation of a comprehensive air plan (pp. 31–47). Laslie asserts that Kuter not only played an instrumental role in the development of AWPD-1, but he was a principal author of the document and responsible for securing much of the required approval (p. 48).

Laslie’s coverage of Kuter’s assignments and activities during World War II illustrate the consistent, as opposed to dramatic, progression of Kuter’s career and development as a skilled organizational leader. By the end of 1942, Kuter had become the youngest general of his time and the youngest since William T. Sherman, was directly involved with the internal organization of the Army Air Force (AAF), and successfully managed various moving pieces of the war effort as the deputy chief of staff, AAF (pp. 56–62). While Kuter’s rank as brigadier general limited his opportunities for combat assignment overseas, combat experience was necessary for further career development. The lack of significant combat distinction, Laslie points out, perhaps explains the lack of biographical treatment hitherto, though in error (p. 2). Laslie highlights that while Kuter’s overseas assignments frequently changed rapidly, leaving little time for him to lead or to see his projects through (p. 122), this was because Kuter’s organizational acumen was constantly in demand (pp. 71, 85, 128). By the war’s end, Kuter had served in every major theater of conflict and was being pursued by civilian airlines, political appointments, and further military assignments (pp. 64–136).

Following the Berlin Airlift, where Kuter’s new command, the Military Air Transport Service, performed an instrumental role, Kuter’s career ascended through a variety of increasingly important and strategic administrative positions—commander, Air University, commander of the Far East Air Forces (FEAF), commander of the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), and commander in chief of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) (pp. 137–169). Throughout this time, Kuter’s leadership consistently exhibited the same calm, firm, and determined influence that characterized his earlier assignments, and he was responsible for significant achievements, such as the creation of the PACAF (p. 148) and the development of the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center at NORAD (pp. 167–68).

Laslie’s conclusion, rather than a traditional restatement of argument and evidence, is an epilogue fitting of a narrative biography. It reveals the efforts of Larry and Ethel Kuter, intent on recording Kuter’s compelling experiences for posterity, even as Kuter himself was succumbing to emphysema. Laslie reiterates that Kuter’s contributions to the birth and growth of the USAF warrant an effort to fill the historiographical gap that had hitherto overlooked his importance and the “mountain of archival sources” Kuter left behind as a prolific writer and diarist (p. 175). Here, as in his introduction, Laslie’s feelings toward Kuter are clear, the biographer’s bias that is difficult to mask.

If his assertions regarding Kuter’s importance, and thus his validity as the subject of historiographical attention, are not sufficiently demonstrated throughout the body of the work, perhaps it is because Laslie intended for Kuter’s accomplishments to speak for themselves—and it is an impressive record. The inclusion of additional analysis and argument would serve as useful guideposts for the reader, otherwise adrift among Kuter’s various achievements. Ultimately, Laslie presents carefully a researched and well-composed work. His source material draws from the collections of the USAFA, the Air Force Historical Research Agency, and the National Archives and Records Administration, to name a few, and includes oral history material as well as declassified documents and personnel records germane to the subject at hand (pp. 203–206). This biography is recommended both for the general reader as well as those examining the early history of American airpower and its principals.

Philip C. Shackelford
El Dorado, Arkansas

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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