Symington Remembers

July 1, 1984

Speaking recently at the air Force Academy, the first Secretary of the Air Force harked back to the earliest days of flying and gave some good advice to today.

My interest in aviation started many years ago when my Uncle Pete, a Naval officer, cam back on leave to our hometown of Baltimore. He was mighty proud of his new Oldsmobile and one day asked if I would join him in a ride over to Halethorpe, Md., just outside of Washington, D. C., where a man was scheduled to take off in something called a “flying machine.”

Needless to say, this eight-year-old boy was delighted to accept; and from nearby hills hundreds of us watched a Mr. Latham run his object along the ground, soar into the air, and actually disappear from sight.

When this pioneered returned in a few minutes from where he had started, those of us on the hills expressed approval by pumping hard on large rubber bulbs, at that time the horn on all automobiles.

Some thirty years later during the Battle of Britain, when from June 1940 to June 1941 that nation stood alone against Hitler and his allies, it was my privilege to be an observer from our government of the air war being conducted over England. Those were the days of those magnificent men whose immortality Winston Churchill nailed down forever with his famous remark: “Never in history have so many owed so much to so few.”

This nation must never allow its own Air Force to be decimated as was the RAF just prior to the beginning of World War II. I can never forget Air Chief Marshal Sir John Slessor’s telling of the time, not long before the start of the Battle of Britain, when Sir John Simon. Chancellor of the Exchequer heavily reduced the size of the RAF. With stroke after stroke of his pen, Slessor said, the Chancellor cut out one group after another, admonishing: “What you gentlemen don’t realize is that England’s first line of defense is its economy.”

The Struggle for a Separate Service

On January 31, 1946, President Harry S. Truman appointed me Assistant Secretary of War for Air, whereupon a friend whose place I was taking, that great statesman Robert Lovett, suggested I visit him in Florida. It was during this visit that I met Gen. Carl A. (Tooey) Spaatz, combat pilot of World War I, Head of our Eighth Air Force in England during World War II, and later the first Chief of Staff of the newly created US Air Force.

That was a lucky day for me. Tooey Spaatz represented all that was best in an officer and a gentleman. We who knew him, all of us, respected him and were devoted to him.

To this day I do not believe Carl Spaatz has received the recognition he so richly deserves. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower once told me that, with the exception of Gen. H. H. (Hap) Arnold, Tooey Spaatz was without question the leading airman of the war.

Tooey was a quiet man, but full of humor. Two of his remarks remain with me. When talking to his generals about their impending appearance before Congress, he admonished: “Don’t lie, but don’t blab the truth.”

Another one: I asked if he had talked to a certain person about one of our people. Stuttering a bit, as was his custom, Spaatz replied, “Yes, I did. He said he would think it over. You know he always thinks things over before he goes off half-cocked.”

A separate service for air was the dream of Carl Spaatz. That dream came true.

Based on actual battle experience, Spaatz, along with many others — such as the flyer who to me is our greatest living airman, Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle — returned from Europe and the Pacific convinced that airpower was indivisible. After listening to these “voices of experience,” I too became convinced; and we all worked together for our separate service.

We had important help. Based on their knowledge of what occurred in World War II, President Truman, Secretary of War Robert Patterson, and then Army Chief of Staff General Eisenhower were strong for a separate Department of Air, and also for one true head of our Military Establishment, not just a coordinator but an actual administrator who would be the head of the services — ground, sea, and hopefully, air.

Early in 1946, Secretary Patterson assigned to me the task of obtaining legislation that would give actual administrative control to the civilian head of the proposed new Military Establishment.

The Navy adamantly opposed any administrative control at the top of the new Department. In effect, their position was: “We do not care what the Army does with its air force, but we don’t want anyone outside of the Navy to take control of Naval air.”

Secretary Patterson and General Eisenhower thereupon assigned to me that able Air Force officer, Gen. Lauris Norstad, to help get a bill through Congress. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal assigned an equally able officer, Adm. Arthur Radford, to steer opposition to any administrative control at the top. (Admiral Radford was later appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and went out of his way to be especially fair with respect to the problems of the new Air Force.)

At a point in 1946, we realized we just could not obtain legislation that year, so we regrouped our forces and finally achieved our aim in the National Security Act of 1947. It was approved by the President and then sent to Congress. This bill, as sent up, gave the proposed new Secretary of Defense administrative control of all three services.

Congress thereupon approved the recommendation for a separate Air Force; but because of heavy lobbying, as expressed by resistance from powerful forces in and out of the government, the proposed bill was watered down to the point where the new headman, the Secretary of Defense, became only a coordinator instead of an actual administrator.

General Spaatz and the rest of us Air Force people felt this to be a sad and expensive mistake; but when we received authentic word from Congress that we could either accept this revised legislation or obtain nothing, we agreed to the revised bill and so recommended to the President. On September 18, 1947, the United States Air Force came into being.

New Structure, New Problems

From the beginning, General Spaatz and I also agreed as to how we were to function together. I was to work on establishing a more independent and efficient logistics setup. (In the past, the War Department — Army — had first to examine and then approve all major logistics requests of the Army Air Forces. This resulted in delay and costly duplication.)

As Secretary, I emphasized continually that the Chief of Staff and his staff would, as they did, make the military decisions.

Of course, we discussed all major matters, but the decision by Spaatz and his staff on military policy and actions was final. Thereupon, together, we all did our best to obtain approval of our unanimous recommendations to the Secretary of Defense and the President.

Promptly after we had commenced operations under the new legislation, failure to achieve administrative authority at the top resulted in disagreement, at times bitter, among the three services, primarily about who was to do what with respect to “mission” but also much about ground support and who had the range to be the first line of defense.

These differences were exacerbated in 1949. That year, the total amount of money finally allocated for all three services was less than $14 billion. Naturally, each service thereupon did its best to persuade both the Administration and Congress to give it a larger piece of the monetary pie.

Many of these differences came into the open at the time of the famous co-called B-36 hearings held by the House Armed Services Committee during much of the summer of 1949. Anyone interested in what went on during those days should read the record of those hearings.

Our new Air Force faced problems. As the art of flying developed, accelerated by the experiences of the recent war, we needed — and needed rapidly — new-type planes; at the same time we were being forced to reduce our personnel by hundreds of thousands.

Consider that from some 240 groups during World War II we were told to scale down to forty-eight. Needless to say, we objected vigorously all the way.

Then the Korean War started in June 1950. That changed everything. Almost immediately the Air Force received all that it had previously requested — and soon afterward a lot more.

Statute after statute gave increased authority over the services to the new Secretary of Defense; but especially from the standpoint of maximum security at minimum cost, the structure of the Joint Chiefs of Staff remained wrong. And it is wrong today.

The Need for Change

One of the most effective current advocates of proper change in this regard is that universally respected officer, Gen. David C. Jones, Chief of Staff of the Air Force and later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The eloquent testimony of General Jones and others before Congress has recently stirred renewed interest on this subject as our national debt soars over $1 trillion and our incredibly high annual federal deficit continues.

As but one illustration of unnecessary duplication: Some years ago the Senate Armed Services Committee found that in the Mediterranean Theater six different United States agencies were monitoring the same message from various other countries.

Let us hope that the sound thinking of people like Dave Jones with respect to the structure and functioning of the Joint Chiefs is soon recognized. The great and growing financial problems this country faces today can only remind us of that sign on General Motors Vice President­­­­­­ Charley Kettering’s wall: “The greatest incentive to sound thought is the sheriff.”

However, of one past, present, and future military fact all of us can be certain: No nation can ever hope to win possible future combat unless that nation controls the airspace over both the battlefield and the area that surrounds it.

The Clements Award

The accompanying article is from an address delivered by Mr. Symington during the presentation of the Clements Award at the US Air force Academy on May 1, 1984. The award is named for former Deputy Secretary of Defense William P. Clements, Jr., and is presented annually to the outstanding military educator who has completed less than four years of teaching service at the Academy. This year’s recipient was Capt. Barbara J. Kuennecke, USAF, Assistant Professor of German in the Academy’s Department of Foreign Languages.

Mr. Symington’s appearance at the Academy was especially fitting since it was he who conceived and first formulated a plan for a United States Air Force Academy while serving as the first Secretary of the Air Force.

Stuart Symington became the first Secretary of the Air Force on September 18, 1947, when the Air Force became a separate service. He had previously served since 1946 as Assistant Secretary of War for Air. Born in Amherst, Mass., in 1901, Mr. Symington enlisted in the Army as a private in 1918 and was discharged in 1919 as a second lieutenant. Later that year he entered Yale University, from which he received a B.A. degree. Before entering government service in July 1945, Mr. Symington had been President and Board Chairman of the Emerson Electric Co., St. Louis, Mo. In 1952, Mr. Symington was elected to the US Senate from Missouri, and held his set until his retirement in 1977. AFA has twice presented Mr. Symington its highest honor, the H. H. Arnold Award, in 1948 and 1956. Mr. Symington is presently Vice Chairman and a Director of First American Bankshares, Inc., of Washington, D. C.