The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory

  • Published

The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory by Craig F. Morris. Naval Institute Press  2017, 272 pp.

Some form of strategic bombing is tightly woven into our military doctrine. Of course, this wasn’t always the case, and students of US military history often assume Gen Billy Mitchell led the drive to develop a strategic bombing doctrine during World War I and the 1920s. While partly true, this view doesn’t do justice to the complex 20-year struggle to formulate a strategic bombing doctrine and put it into practice. In his book, Craig F. Morris explains how simplistic versions of the development of strategic bombing theory fall short of describing the actual events.

Morris, a 25-year Air Force veteran and assistant professor of history at the USAFA, wrote The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory to provide a more detailed, broader look that explores how outside factors such as political pressures, economic stresses, and organizational conflicts intertwined to shape strategic bombing during its evolution in World War I and the interwar years (p. 6). In this, Morris admirably succeeds.

Beginning with the use of aircraft during the Mexican Punitive Expedition in 1916, Morris explains how officers used their experiences to push the bounds of traditional thought regarding the employment of aircraft for military purposes. From the beginning, airpower advocates were hamstrung by funding, technological, and organizational problems; indeed, the author shows how these three issues continued to be a problem for at least 25 years.

With the Mexican Expedition, the author introduces then-1st Lt Edgar S. Gorrell to his readers. Gorrell was part of the 1st Aero Squadron in Mexico, and his trials and tribulations, according to Morris, got the young officer thinking of ways to make the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps more efficient. Indeed, it is the lieutenant who looms largest in the first half of this book. The author makes a strong case for Gorrell as the putative leader of strategic bombing thought. After the US entry into World War I, Gorrell held key positions in the Air Service; his experience in American Expeditionary Forces led him to formulate plans for Air Service autonomy and for strategic bombing. Morris shows how Gorrell was influenced by his association with British and Italian strategic bombing proponents. Returning to his theme of interconnected causes, the author demonstrates that US efforts to form a strategic bombing theory during the war were doomed by a lack of organization that resulted in competing priorities for valuable air assets.

It is here, also, that Morris discusses the distinction between strategic and strategical bombing. The former, favored by Gorrell and others, involved striking enemy nodes of industry deep in enemy territory, while the latter, favored by Mitchell and many ground forces commanders, involved striking enemy troop concentrations and transportation nodes behind the lines.

For the US, World War I showed the difficulty of trying to develop a strategic bombing strategy from scratch while simultaneously fighting a large ground war. The fact that almost no effort along those lines had been made before the US entry into the war further exacerbated this problem.

After the war, Gorrell was chosen to lead the effort to document the Air Service’s contribution to victory. Gorrell made sure that almost nothing was overlooked; indeed, Air Service officers were told they could not return to the US until they had provided a report of their activities to him. The result, History of the American Expeditionary Air Service, 1917–1919, is not so much a book as it is a compilation of reports, histories, and memoranda. Its value, according to Morris, was in its comprehensiveness and its accessibility to future airpower theorists. Gorrell’s History is a treasure trove of information, as anyone who has dug into its mountain of digital files can attest.

The 1920s were marked by competing demands for funds. After all, it wasn’t only the Air Service that sought new technology. Army ground forces desired funding for the development of tanks, for example. Even within the Air Service/Air Corps, officers disagreed on the way ahead, with some wanting to work within the system and bolster ground-support capability with others wanting full independence and a formulation of a true strategic bombing doctrine. Mitchell, by “selling” airpower as a means of coastal defense—attractive to politicians who regarded aircraft as an offensive weapon in a time of isolationism—was able to garner support for bomber development. The Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS), first at Langley Field, Virginia and later at Maxwell Field, Alabama, continued theoretical research into bombing strategy during the 1920s and 1930s. Morris ably navigates the complexities of these competing factions, against a backdrop of political and funding issues, to demonstrate how the notion of strategic bombing survived into the 1930s.

The author examines the progression of Air Corps organizational evolution and shows how this led to efficiencies in command and logistics. This progression, in turn, led to a command infrastructure that engendered doctrinal development. Finally, in July 1941, with war raging in Europe and the US on the brink of entering, President Franklin D Roosevelt asked the military “to develop a production plan for the weapons and equipment it would need if the United States went to war with Germany” (p. 194). The Air Corps portion of this task went to the Air War Plans Division of the Air Corps staff. These men were all “alumni” of the ACTS. They produced a plan, Air War Plans Division Number 1 (AWPD-1), that “went far beyond a production schedule and offered a comprehensive plan for the defeat of Germany” (p. 195). Morris rightly sees this as the culmination of an effort that began in the heat of the Mexican desert in 1916.

Morris’s conclusion neatly summarizes how a linear interpretation of the development of strategic bombing theory is outdated. Rather, it was a confluence of people and events in a series of starts and stops, with some digressions, that resulted in the first true statement of strategic bombing in AWPD-1. Twelve photographs enhance the text, and Morris’s notes and extensive bibliography will help those looking for further reading on the topic. The book is well-written and very readable. It is highly recommended to anyone interested in how the US military developed the doctrine that did much to help win World War II.


Maj. Peter L. Belmonte, USAF (Retired)
O’Fallon, Illinois


"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."