/ Published August 13, 2012
Selling Air Power: Military Aviation and American Popular Culture after World War II by Steve Call. Texas A&M University Press, 2009, 224 pp.
In Selling Air Power, Steve Call assesses the influence of American popular culture on public perceptions of airpower, describing popular culture as “media aimed at the largest audience possible” (p. 5). Films about airpower and the Air Force were a large part of the popular culture that Call analyzes, but he also offers in-depth coverage of novels, general-interest magazine articles, and even plays. Regarding the 1940s through the 1960s, he first examines the growing influence of airpower advocates, who promoted their subject as revolutionary and heroic; he then notes the advocates’ decline as airpower critics began to sway opinion toward a more sinister view, painting airpower as a grave threat to civilization. After World War II, airpower became virtually synonymous with nuclear bombing, so Strategic Air Command and nuclear strategy occupied the attention of advocates and critics alike, although Air Defense Command and its shield against incoming bombers also became a factor.
Call leads readers through the decade or so after World War II, when, for example, the novel Twelve O’Clock High was made into a successful movie in 1949, and writers such as Alexander de Seversky published numerous proairpower articles in mainstream magazines. Airpower also entered the spotlight with the release of films like Strategic Air Command (1955) and Bombers B-52 (1957). Until the late 1950s, most writings and films about airpower were complimentary, praising the Air Force and its vital importance in keeping the peace. The last hurrah of proairpower films came with A Gathering of Eagles (1963), but by then the scales had tipped, giving airpower critics the upper hand. Call points out that the launch of Sputnik and the looming threat of nuclear missiles made airpower (strategic bombers) seem less invincible; furthermore, as flying became more accessible to the public, the airplane itself began to lose its novelty. Movies such as On the Beach (1959) and The War Lover (1962) deglamorized war and, with it, strategic airpower. The pendulum had swung to the critics’ favor, with hit movies such as Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove in the early 1960s and 1970’s Catch-22 painting a much darker, more dangerous picture of airpower.
The narrative does assume a conspiratorial tone at times, the author using the catchall terms air power advocates and air power critics almost as if they represented organized groups: “For several years air power advocates exploited their opportunity and through popular culture preached faith in air power with considerable success” (p. 132). To be fair, Call does move from general statements to very specific examples of who did what and what motivated them. He provides his readers an understanding of the context of the times and of the behind-the-scenes arrangements between the Air Force and filmmakers.
The book is meticulously researched and chock full of endnotes and bibliography entries, reflecting its origin as a dissertation. Selling Air Power is a keeper, a study that will stay on readers’ shelves for future reference. Air-minded readers who consider themselves fans of both military history and the history of popular culture may enjoy it, whereas a student of airpower history but not popular culture may find the book too arcane. But Airmen who can quote lines from Bombers B-52 and recognize Steve Canyon should give it a try. They may find some useful context for understanding their own perceptions of airpower.
Scott D. Murdock
Buckley AFB, Colorado
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."