Soldier for Airpower

Jan. 1, 2007

Historians often describe Gen. George C. Marshall, United States Army Chief of Staff during World War II, as the “organizer of victory.” Usually, these words refer to his role in formation of the nation’s massive wartime ground forces, but that does not tell the whole story. Just as important, though less well known, was his role in the development of American airpower.

His strong support of the US air weapon had a decisive impact before and during World War II. Afterward, Marshall played a big part in the creation of an independent Air Force.

The leaders of the wartime Army Air Forces, including Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Gen. Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz, and Gen. Ira C. Eaker, each noted Marshall’s leading role in the prewar buildup of United States air capabilities. These early Air Force leaders considered Marshall an enormously important figure in the evolution of American airpower.

Arnold said that, when Marshall became Chief in 1939, War Department attitudes toward airmen underwent sharp change.

Marshall knew that the air arm would play a critical role in any conflict and insisted that the Army Air Forces be granted autonomy during the war. Marshall had agreed with Arnold that, once the war ended, a United States Air Force should be created, and he pledged his support for that effort. Marshall kept that promise.

The Andrews Influence

In the summer of 1938, with war coming both in Europe and the Far East, Marshall got a firsthand look at the Air Corps’ contemporary problems. Maj. Gen. Frank M. Andrews, commander of General Headquarters Air Force, flew Marshall to Langley Field, Va., and invited him to inspect Air Corps installations across the country.

Andrews subsequently took Marshall on a tour of Air Corps bases as well as the Boeing plant in Seattle, site of B-17 bomber production. Marshall was impressed. The nine-day tour gave the Chief of Staff a new perspective on the Air Corps and cemented his relationship with Andrews. (See “The First Air Staff,” June 2001, p. 66.)

The importance of Andrews’ tutelage of Marshall cannot be overstated. Marshall learned a great deal about the status of the air arm and its requirements. With a global war on the horizon, he soon was applying this newfound knowledge to Army programs and reorganization.

Marshall became Army Chief of Staff in 1939. He named Andrews to head operations and training for the War Department General Staff, making Andrews the first airman to hold this position. During the war, and before his death in 1943 in an airplane crash in Iceland, Andrews was appointed by Marshall to three theater commands, the last being as commander of all US forces in the European Theater.

This appointment as European commander has fueled speculation that Marshall ultimately intended to appoint Andrews as commander of the Overlord force being assembled to invade German-occupied Europe. In his memorial service eulogy, Marshall described Andrews as one of the Army’s “few great captains” and indicated that, had Andrews lived, he would have been charged with even greater responsibilities. (See “The Influence of Frank Andrews,” February 2002, p. 84.)

Marshall and Arnold faced large obstacles to building up American airpower. The issue of aircraft production was among the most difficult. Their nemesis, oddly enough, was none other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

During the period 1939-41, when US entanglement in the world war seemed increasingly likely, Arnold’s top priority was to build up a US air force. Roosevelt, like Arnold, was committed to heavy bomber production, noting that “no single item of our defense today is more important than a large four-engine bomber capacity.” Roosevelt’s prewar calls for massive aircraft production put great pressure on Arnold, who in turn placed enormous heat on his staff.

Roosevelt, wanting to shore up Britain in its desperate struggle with the Nazis, included US aircraft production as part of Lend Lease—the program in which American weapons were made available on concessionary terms to US allies. Arnold meanwhile, desperately tried to build up his own air forces, worrying that in “giving everything away,” he would end up commanding a paper air force.

This tension between the President and Arnold put Marshall in an uncomfortable position. The Army Chief said the attempt to fill British aircraft requirements presented “a tremendously complicated task here in Washington.” (See “When Arnold Bucked FDR,” November 2001, p. 86.)


Arnold noted, “On top of other headaches, [there] was the daily business of satisfying White House, Congressional, and War Department superiors who were constantly receiving phone calls, visits, and letters from people, official and unofficial, American, British, French, Dutch, Chinese, Polish, Russian, … and what not, criticizing the Air Forces’ procedures, offering free advice and recommendations, or demanding a priority share of our equipment.”

As one historian commented, “American airpower was getting strangled in the cradle by an excess of Presidential generosity.”

Marshall’s biographer wrote that “the President’s requirements were almost more than he could bear.” Strongly supporting Arnold, Marshall informed Roosevelt that it was not possible to give the British, Soviets, French, and Chinese everything they wanted—and simultaneously to build an American Air Force.

The Army Chief determined that Arnold’s requirements would command top priority while he would give the Allies whatever he could.

In late 1940, Marshall played a key role in a little-known episode with major significance. FDR planned to send B-17s to the Chinese Air Force. The President, outraged at the Japanese Imperial Army’s rampage through East Asia, expressed the desire to bomb Tokyo. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. discussed this subject with Chinese officials, including T.V. Soong, who would become Foreign Minister. In November and December 1940, Claire L. Chennault and the Chinese Air Force were brought into the discussions. Roosevelt was enthusiastic about the plan.

In late December, however, Marshall weighed in, sinking the plan. He emphasized to Roosevelt that the Air Corps did not have sufficient B-17s for its own purposes and thus could not afford to send any to China. Washington dropped the idea of sending B-17s, agreeing instead to ship 100 fighters.

The Marshall-Arnold relationship was crucial to solving difficult problems facing the air arm in its massive buildup. Marshall and Arnold had first become acquainted in 1914 in the Philippines. “Marshall was always senior, but I never heard of his pulling rank over Arnold,” said Maj. Gen. Laurence S. Kuter, who later was Arnold’s assistant.

Arnold was free to announce his intentions and plans. I never heard of him asking Marshall’s permission. Theirs was a unique top-side relationship.”

In mid-1940, Arnold’s view dovetailed with Marshall’s. “It looks to me,” the Air Corps Chief emphasized, “as if it might be a serious mistake to change the existing setup when we are all using every facility available in order to take care of the present expansion of the Air Corps.”

Arnold also agreed with Marshall that air independence should be put off, especially as Marshall had ensured the air arm had received autonomy, flexibility, and equipment.

The Unseen Guest

With war raging in Europe and the Far East, the problem of air organization turned critical during the period 1939-41. Arnold commented that in the 1930s, “airpower was the unseen guest at those grim conferences which marked the Nazi rise to power.”

Marshall, in 1939, had inherited a General Staff organization dating back to the National Defense Act amendments of 1920. Adequate for peacetime, it was clear after Pearl Harbor that a radical reorganization was required.

On the eve of American entry into the war, the problem faced by Marshall and Arnold was twofold: first, to streamline the General Staff, in line with FDR’s desire to quickly build up airpower, and secondly, to reorganize to foster efficient and effective wartime operations, should the US become involved in the conflict.

Among objectives of this reorganization would be to provide Arnold and the Air Staff, formed in June 1941, sufficient clout and flexibility to be able to move their requirements through the War Department General Staff.

The specific difficulty was that the General Staff was unable to make decisions. In late 1940, Arnold, deputy chief of staff for air, and Maj. Gen. George H. Brett, acting Chief of the Air Corps, pointed out to Marshall that it was exceedingly difficult to ram air requirements through the General Staff.

Marshall thought that the General Staff had “lost track of its purpose” of its existence. It had become a “huge, bureaucratic, red-tape-ridden operating agency.” He added, “It slowed down everything.”

Moreover, the Army Chief was convinced that officers on the General Staff “had little interest in the air, mostly antipathy, and it was quite marked.” Marshall felt “everyone” on the staff was hostile to the airmen. He concluded that the airmen had something to complain about.

Arnold, of course, kept Marshall informed of the problems confronted in the effort to build up the air forces. Marshall, for his part, was sensitive to air requirements and to the movement within the Air Corps and in Congress to legislate an independent air arm.

Influenced by Andrews and Arnold, and realizing that the air forces would play a major role in the global war, Marshall was far more receptive to the needs of airmen than the typical ground officers of the War Department General Staff. Marshall needed “plenty of indoctrination about the air facts of life,” Arnold said, but what set him apart “was his ability to digest what he saw and make it part of as strong a body of military genius as I have ever known.”

Once the United States entered World War II, Marshall informed the General Staff that it needed to move requirements with dispatch and that “the time was long past when matters could be debated and discussed and carried on ad infinitum.”

The fact was that the War Department simply could not cope with the demands of this rapid buildup. In late 1941 and early 1942, Marshall moved to reorganize the department.


Forrest C. Pogue, Marshall’s biographer, called it “a whirlwind campaign that was to shake the War Department as it had not been shaken since the turn of the century.”

Sensitive to Arnold’s needs during the critical buildup, Marshall made a special effort to give his air chief as much flexibility as possible. “I tried to give Arnold all the power I could,” the Army Chief emphasized. “I tried to make him as nearly as I could Chief of Staff of the air without any restraint although he was very subordinate.”

Having agreed to put off the question of an independent Air Force until after the war, Marshall and Arnold devoted their energy to organizing for victory.

With revision of Army Regulation 95-5, the Army Air Forces had been established in June 1941. The change made Arnold Chief of the AAF and provided him an Air Staff—but the larger issue of reorganization of the War Department General Staff remained unresolved.

Marshall stated in the fall of 1941 that the air forces enjoyed autonomy “within the framework” of the War Department. He emphasized that Arnold now had responsibility for all aviation matters and that the AAF could proceed with “unrestricted development.”

Just before the Pearl Harbor attack, Marshall had asked the War Plans Division to look into reorganization. The General Staff had become so bogged down in details that it couldn’t get much done nor make timely decisions. Maj. Gen. Joseph T. McNarney, whom Marshall chose to head the 1942 reorganization committee, emphasized that the General Staff “must not operate and be bothered by minor details.” The staff, McNarney said, should make policy and stay out of operations.

The March 1942 Marshall Reorganization officially gave the Army Air Forces virtual autonomy within the War Department. It reduced the General Staff, making it—as Marshall desired—a policy-making staff focused on strategic direction.

The reorganization created an Army composed of the War Department General Staff and co-equal Ground Forces, Air Forces, and Service Forces under the Army Chief of Staff—a recommendation proposed by Arnold and Spaatz before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

A few months removed from Pearl Harbor, the AAF had essentially gained autonomy and equality with the ground and naval forces. Marshall’s rapid reorganization after US entry into the war catapulted the AAF into position to make an enormous contribution to ultimate victory.

After the war, Marshall kept his word and became a strong voice arguing for a separate Air Force and a “single department system for the armed forces.” Like Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower—to succeed Marshall in November 1945 as Army Chief of Staff—Marshall’s postwar view was influenced by the wartime performance of the Army Air Forces. (See “Ike and the Air Force,” April 2006, p. 84.)

Immense Contribution

“The Air Forces have developed in a remarkable manner,” he said. “In personnel, in planes, technique, and leadership, the Army Air Forces of more than two million men made an immense contribution to our victory.”

Marshall made a strong case for a single department with co-equal air, ground, and naval services. The arguments resonate even today: Control of the air was essential to victory. Airmen should be in charge of the development of “basic airpower.” Unified command was a necessity in the postwar world. Moreover, Marshall envisioned a single department of national defense, with an independent Air Force, as the fulcrum of an integrated program of national security. No longer could the nation’s security program evolve on a piecemeal basis.

Like Eisenhower and Arnold, Marshall emphasized the military forces as a team. National security is “measured by the sum, or rather the combination of land, air, and naval forces,” he said. “The urgent need is for an overall, not a piecemeal, appraisal of what is required to solve the single problem of national security with the greatest economy compatible with requirements.”

Marshall thought that the military services needed to work out their requirements before presenting them to Congress and the President. He opposed the wartime system of relying on the JCS and its joint committees for coordination and elimination of duplication. This system was no substitute for unified direction. The Joint Chiefs could not be effective as a peacetime coordinating agency.

“Committees,” Marshall emphasized, “at best are cumbersome agencies. Even under the stress of war, agreement has been reached in the Joint Chiefs of Staff at times only by numerous compromises and after long delays. With the end of the war, there is no longer a compelling necessity to reach at least compromise agreements on major matters.”

Based on the wartime experience with combined operations, Marshall stated that “no one will suggest that we should now revert to the complete separation of the Army and Navy which prevailed in the years before the war.”

Moreover, noted Marshall, it was important that in resolving the question of unity of command, the details not be allowed to obscure the fundamental principles. Once agreement was reached on the fundamentals, larger problems could be rapidly resolved.

Marshall however, did support continuation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff within a unified department. The Chiefs would submit policy and budgetary recommendations to the President, but through the civilian head of a unified department. Thus, Marshall’s vision of the Joint Chiefs was basically a policy-making entity, divorced from operations and administration.

The Navy opposed the Truman Administration’s effort to establish a separate Air Force and single Department of National Defense, fearful that a separate Air Force would aggrandize naval aviation. Navy Secretary James V. Forrestal emphasized that merging the two departments into a single Department of Defense would be a mistake, and that the job of Defense Secretary was too broad to allow one man to have the needed breadth of knowledge.

With the great leverage possessed by Marshall and Eisenhower, the Air Force prevailed on the issues of writing roles and missions into the National Security Act—and on the major point of establishing an independent Air Force.

Herman S. Wolk retired as senior historian in the Air Force History Support Office. He is the author of Fulcrum of Airpower (2003). His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Lovett,” appeared in the September 2006 issue.