Billy Mitchell's War with the Navy: The Interwar Rivalry over Air Power

  • Published
Billy Mitchell's War with the Navy: The Interwar Rivalry over Air Power by Thomas Wildenberg. Naval Institute Press, 2014, 304 pp.

Billy Mitchell's War with the Navy by Thomas Wildenberg examines the crucial arguments, ideas, and rivalries that shaped US airpower policy during the 1920-30s and continue to influence modern airpower thought and theory. The author, a historian specializing in naval aviation development, delivers a balanced account of the ideas, people, and events that prompted the airpower debate in the interwar period. The book seeks to give readers of any service or background a richer understanding of Gen William "Billy" Mitchell's role as a leader, theorist, and airpower advocate during a period when airpower theory greatly outpaced technology.

Focusing on Mitchell's actions between World War One and World War Two, Wildenberg appropriately bases his initial analysis on the protagonist's background, rise through the Army, and historic accomplishments during World War One. The author chronicles those achievements as well as Mitchell's historic encounters with the Royal Air Force's Hugh Trenchard following the war, which, according to Wildenberg, molded the American's vision of an independent Air Force. After documenting Mitchell's rise, Wildenberg's analysis shifts to an examination of both his methods and ideas. Mitchell's primary focus on coastal defense following World War One placed him in direct conflict with the Navy; however, his advocacy for an independent Air Force infuriated the Army as well.

His desire for an independent service had both a political and public dimension. Mitchell's background gave him unusual access to political leaders in Congress who heard his arguments for Air Service funding and autonomy. Perhaps more important, his connections created a public venue to voice his notions at critical junctures in the interwar airpower debate. Public opinion became Mitchell's greatest weapon in his war with the Navy and, ultimately, the Army.

The best of Wildenberg's analysis is the contrast between public perception and the realities of airpower events--most notably the sinking of the captured battleship Ostfriesland--that serve as monuments to the creation of the US Air Force. Other costal defense tests, the US Navy's failure to conduct a nonstop flight to Hawaii, and the crash of the airship USS Shenandoah also greatly influenced the public's perception of airpower. Wildenberg superbly documents the details of each event designed to determine the effectiveness of airpower in costal defense, giving equal weight to the facts of the test or exercise, public perception, and Mitchell's interpretation. Simply put, the author is masterful in his simultaneous presentation of airpower's perception and reality in the interwar period. Perception and public opinion culminated in the court-martial of General Mitchell in December 1925 and his resignation in January 1926. Wildenberg briefly documents the trial and chronicles the next series of tests and events in the debate over coastal defense.

Billy Mitchell's War with the Navy offers excellent reading for practitioners of airpower theory because it highlights the gap between that theory and the technological reality that persists today. Ultimately, none of the tests conducted in the interwar period conclusively proved Mitchell's theories regarding costal defense and an independent Air Force. The technology of that time prevented the demonstration of decisive airpower sought by Mitchell. However, his influence in Congress and the battle for public perception successfully established the conditions for an independent Air Force on which advocates such as Mason Patrick and Henry Arnold could capitalize. This book provides a fair chronicle of Mitchell as a skillful airpower theorist and an adroit politician. Wildenberg presents a well-written account of the development of airpower theory in a highly politicized environment framed by constrained defense budgets. Consequently, the concepts presented in Billy Mitchell's War with the Navy are as critical to the nation's defense today as they were nearly a century ago.

Maj Kyle Bressette, USAF
United States Air Force Weapons School
Nellis AFB, Nevada

"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."