Sasha the Salesman

Aug. 1, 2003

During World War II, Alexander P. de Seversky was one of the best-known aviation figures in America. He was a fighter ace, war hero, aircraft designer, and writer. His passion was airpower, and his mission was to sell the American people on its importance. He did a good job of it.

He was born in June 1894 in Russia and, at age 10, went off to military school, graduating from the Russian Naval Academy in 1914 just as the Great War erupted. After several months on a destroyer, Seversky transferred to the Navy’s flying service, soloing after a total flight time of six minutes and 28 seconds.

Seversky—“Sasha” to his friends—was posted to the Baltic Sea area, but his first combat mission met with disaster. While attacking a German ship at night, his aircraft crashed into the water. The concussion detonated one of the bombs, which killed his observer and blew off his own right leg below the knee. Seversky, after eight months in convalescence, returned to duty with an artificial limb.

Assigned a job in aircraft production, Seversky designed devices that made a pilot’s job easier: hydraulic brakes, adjustable rudder pedals, and special bearings for flight controls. His inventions won him an award in 1916 for the top aeronautical ideas of the year.

Although this work was important, Seversky wanted to return to flying. He was told that this was impossible. Nevertheless, when a group of dignitaries arrived to witness the test flight of a new aircraft, Seversky replaced the scheduled pilot and put the aircraft through its paces for the assembled crowd.

Upon landing and revealing himself as the pilot, there was an uproar, with talk of a court-martial. But the Czar heard of the incident and, deciding Russia needed colorful heroes, intervened to have Seversky returned to flying duty.

There he did well. Over the next year he flew 57 combat missions and shot down 13 German aircraft. On one mission he bombed a German airfield and then attacked seven airplanes in the air, shooting down three. This exploit earned him a Gold Sword presented by the Czar. His wooden leg seemed not to bother him. In fact, he claimed it made him a better flier because it forced him to think about what he was doing rather than rely on physical ability.

It’s Only a Wood Wound

Even so, the war remained dangerous: His good leg was broken in an accident, and on one mission he was shot in the right leg—although now he needed a carpenter rather than a doctor.

In mid-1917 Lieutenant Commander Seversky’s squadrons on the Baltic came under shell fire from the German fleet. Jumping into one of his airplanes, he took off, but his damaged aircraft did not get him far. After stripping his airplane of its guns, he set it afire and began walking toward the Russian lines.

Unfortunately, he ran into a band of Estonian peasants who considered turning him over to the Germans for a reward. Upon learning their captive was the famed “legless aviator,” however, Seversky was sent on his way—with his machine guns.

For this escape he received the Order of St. George, Imperial Russia’s highest decoration. After the October 1917 Communist Revolution, he was posted to Washington as an attache and elected to remain in America.

Seversky was young and aggressive and soon opened a restaurant in Manhattan. He fell in love with America, and when fellow immigrants would complain, he would grow impatient and exclaim, “If you don’t like it in this country, you can always go back to Brooklyn.”

Sasha still viewed aviation as his chief interest, and he soon began working for the Army Air Service at McCook Field, Ohio.

Over the next several years, he worked on an idea he had conceived during the war. Seversky, while flying in formation with another Russian airplane, had playfully reached up and grabbed the trailing wire radio antenna of his mate, flying along “connected” to the other airplane for several minutes. He suddenly realized that a tube could also be used to transfer fuel from one aircraft to another in flight.

Combat had taught him that bombardment aircraft were vulnerable to enemy fighter airplanes, so escorts were necessary. However, fighters had not the range to escort bombers all the way to the target and back. Air refueling offered a solution.

Seversky’s wartime superiors were not interested, but he revisited the idea at McCook Field. The result was the air refueling device used on the Question Mark flight of 1929 when an Air Corps aircraft remained aloft for seven days.

The Major

In 1927 Seversky became a US citizen and, in 1928, was commissioned a major in the Air Corps Reserve. He was always proud of regaining military rank and for the rest of his life preferred to be addressed as “Major.”

He founded Seversky Aircraft Corp. in 1931. Over the next decade, he perfected a host of patents and designs, including split flaps, metal monocoque construction, fire-control units for aircraft guns, retractable landing gear and pontoons, and specialized aircraft flight instruments. His innovative SEV-3 amphibian set world speed records in 1933 and 1935, and a derivation of this model became the P-35.

The P-35 was the first all-metal monoplane fighter with an enclosed cockpit to be mass-produced in the US. It incorporated such innovations as retractable landing gear and cantilever wings. It was also extremely fast; a civilian version won the Bendix Air Race in 1937, 1938, and 1939. Considering that contemporary fighter airplanes were barely able to keep up with the new B-17, this was quite a feat.

In addition, the P-35 had an unusually long range—it could fly from coast to coast with only two refuelings. Remembering his war experiences, Seversky recognized the need for fighter escorts. One solution was his air refueling device, but, in the late 1930s, such a practice was considered inefficient and costly. The question was: How to extend the range of aircraft without air refueling

Designers thought a long-range escort fighter technically impossible, reasoning that an airplane with the necessary range would have to be so large it would be like the bombers it was designed to protect—easy prey for enemy fighters.

Seversky, however, believed a long-range escort could be made possible by use of internal fuel tanks (“wet wings”), which would not sacrifice the attributes that also made a successful fighter. When Seversky suggested this to the Air Corps, he was turned down. Air leaders would come to regret that decision.

Seversky was a talented aeronautical engineer (in 1940, President Roosevelt awarded him the prestigious Harmon Trophy), but he was not a skilled businessman. His corporation never made much money and was constantly behind in meeting its production orders. Seversky argued this was because his aircraft were so original they required new manufacturing techniques, and creating them took time. The Air Corps—and, indeed, most of his senior colleagues in his own company—disagreed.

Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, the Chief of the Air Corps, liked Seversky’s airplanes.

However, as war approached, he had an even greater attraction to aviation companies that were able to meet the challenges of greatly increased production. The Seversky Corp. had a part to play in mobilization but only if it would restructure its senior management. In short, Arnold wanted Seversky out of Seversky.

Corporate Putsch

In May 1939, while he was out of the country, the firm’s board of directors removed The Major from the post of president, and, in October, it ousted him from the company entirely. The corporate name was changed to Republic.

In truth, Seversky’s removal from the business had positive results: Republic was reorganized. The P-47 Thunderbolt, the descendent of The Major’s P-35, was built in huge numbers and would become vital to American air success in the war. On the basis of his track record, many have concluded that Republic would never have responded so effectively if Seversky had been at the corporate helm. In addition, unemployment left him with time for other pursuits. Specifically, he used his considerable charm and communication skills to write and talk about his favorite topic: airpower.

Seeing it as his duty to educate the American public about modern war, Seversky over the next decade produced two books, wrote scores of articles, and gave hundreds of radio addresses. Several campaigns in the European war left lasting impressions on him. First, Germany’s quick defeat of Poland in September 1939 convinced Seversky that airpower had come to dominate ground forces, and this lesson was reinforced by Germany’s campaign in France in 1940. Most of the world was shocked by France’s rapid collapse, but Seversky simply remarked that the Maginot Line had become the tomb for a nation that refused to look skyward.

Other campaigns gave different lessons: Norway and Crete demonstrated the superiority of airpower over naval forces. In both instances the Royal Navy, reputedly the finest in the world, had been decisively repulsed by the Luftwaffe. At Crete, for example, the Luftwaffe sank three British cruisers and six destroyers, while severely damaging several other major warships. Weakened by such staggering losses, the fleet was unable to prevent the island’s loss.

Seversky collected these thoughts and, in February 1942, published Victory Through Air Power. The book’s purpose was twofold: to alert America to the challenges of a modern total war and to offer a strategy based on airpower for fighting that new form of war.

Victory first took the reader through a brief—and selective—history of the war to that point. Seversky reasserted that airpower was the key to victory and that traditional forms of land and sea warfare had been eclipsed by the airplane.

Seversky emphatically declared that war was undergoing a revolution and that America needed revolutionary responses. Unfortunately, the United States was not prepared for this challenge.

Seversky argued that American fighter airplanes were inferior to those of other belligerents. They had not the speed, range, altitude capability, or armament of front-line enemy fighters. Yet press releases emanating from the Army Air Forces and the government pretended American airplanes were the best in the world. Seversky rejected such claims with disdain.

He did not argue that airpower alone could win the war. Rather, he maintained the airplane had become the dominant and decisive element in modern war. The vital role of land and sea forces was to hold the enemy in place while airpower pounded him into submission. In addition, the Army and Navy were needed to seize air bases from which to launch strategic air strikes against the enemy’s heartland.

In his book, Seversky rejected the notion that “popular will” could be a legitimate target. The war had demonstrated that the civilian populations have a surprising resiliency, and prewar predictions of how quickly urban dwellers would panic and break under air attack had been proved wrong. Seversky therefore emphasized industrial targets.

Catcalls and Cheers

Victory Through Air Power provoked a mixed critical reaction. Soldiers and sailors characterized it as inaccurate and dangerous. Some airmen also were concerned, upset about The Major’s stinging attacks on his old nemesis, Hap Arnold—the man who had helped his erstwhile colleagues wrest away control of the Seversky Corp.

On the other hand, the public’s response was enthusiastic. Because it was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, it was guaranteed a wide and literate audience. More than five million Americans read it. Pollster George Gallup estimated that Seversky and his message were known to more than 20 million Americans—an astounding figure in pre-television days.

So well-known was Seversky that Walt Disney proposed turning Victory into a movie.

The famed cartoon filmmaker said that, although millions had read Seversky’s book, many others had not. His ability to use visual images and cartoons would serve to educate them as well. Disney expected to lose money on the movie. However, he stated, “I’m concerned that America should see it and now is no time to think of personal profits.”

Disney’s movie opened in July 1943. It showed The Major in his office, surrounded by maps, airplane models, and blueprints. There, he related his message of airpower’s importance in modern war. In 1933, Seversky had taken a Dale Carnegie course in an effort to improve his speaking skills. Nonetheless, in rehearsing the movie script, he stated that German troops landed on Norway’s beaches—pronouncing the last word as if it were a female dog. At that point, Disney decided that The Major needed elocution lessons.

Superb graphics illustrated his ideas. Nazi Germany was depicted as a huge iron wheel with factories at the hub, pumping airplanes, tanks, ships, and other war equipment out the spokes to be used along the thick rim. Allied armies chipped away at this rim by attacking individual tanks and artillery pieces, but the Nazis simply redirected war material from one spoke to another to counter the threat; the rim was too strong to be broken. Aircraft then bombed the factories of the hub, destroying them and causing the spokes to weaken and the rim to collapse.

In another memorable movie sequence, Disney depicted Japan as an octopus with its tentacles stretched across the Pacific and encircling dozens of islands. Allied armies and navies attempted to hack away at these thick tentacles and free the islands, but it was futile. American airpower, represented by a fierce, powerful eagle, repeatedly struck the head of the octopus with its sharp talons, forcing the beast to release its hold on the islands and attempt to defend itself. It was unable to fend off the eagle and eventually expired under the attacks. Victory was achieved through the air.

Even Hirohito

Although not a commercial success, the film had a significant impact. The film did not repeat the Seversky book’s nasty comments about Arnold. As a result, the Army Air Forces embraced the motion picture wholeheartedly. Winston Churchill saw the film and insisted that President Roosevelt watch it with him during their August 1943 summit in Quebec. Soon after the war, Seversky interviewed Emperor Hirohito, who claimed to have watched the movie and been deeply troubled by its predictions concerning the fate of his country at the hands of US airpower.

As the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union turned confrontational, Seversky became a cold warrior, deeply suspicious of Kremlin intentions. He saw violent confrontation as being inevitable. To Seversky, it was common sense to face such an enemy utilizing America’s unique strength—aeronautical technology. Airpower, especially armed with nuclear weapons, seemed the only sane path to provide a “Pax Democratica.”

When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, Seversky argued strongly against American involvement, believing it played into Soviet hands. The US would be drained of its resources fighting a peripheral war against Soviet proxies, he argued.

A second Seversky book—Air Power: Key to Survival, which was published soon after the outbreak of the war—prophesied that Korea would fester inconclusively for years. Seversky claimed that the Book-of-the-Month Club wanted to feature his new work, but it was displeased with his comments regarding the Korean War. The club’s contacts in Washington said the Korean “police action” was a minor distraction and would be over quickly. Seversky, however, would not modify his views. When he refused, club officials backed out of the deal. Seversky noted ruefully that, because he told a truth no one wanted to hear, his book sold 30,000 copies instead of 600,000.

In the Eisenhower years, “massive retaliation” became official US strategy. The Major embraced it (indeed, his writings since the end of World War II had called for much the same thing, though without the catchy title). He rejected notions of limited war, stating they inevitably ended in stalemate. Moreover, the special advantages of airpower were lost in such conflicts; Korea was an aberration, he argued, and it must stay that way.

Seversky continued to write until the mid-1960s, but his published works became repetitious and technologically dated. The Major periodically lectured at Maxwell AFB, Ala., instructing young officers in airpower theory. He could, even in his seventies, still deliver a spellbinding speech.

The Major died in 1974 at age 80.

Seversky was the most effective and prolific airpower advocate of his era. Because of his homey, down-to-earth style, he spoke the language average Americans could understand. His ideas on airpower were not original. Virtually everything he proposed had already been articulated by someone else. Seversky’s role was to take these ideas, repackage them, cover them with a modicum of technical credibility, and then sell them to the American people. His popularity was enormous, and his publication record was staggering. Scarcely a month went by, during World War II and the decade after, when his articles did not appear in major magazines.

Because his target audience was the average American, he wrote for publications like Reader’s Digest, The Atlantic Monthly, Ladies Home Journal, and Look—a huge and diverse readership. Tens of millions of Americans knew of Seversky, and he enjoyed an access to the media and the people that was the envy of anyone attempting to influence public policy.

The ideas Seversky was selling were basic and uncomplicated, and this was not altogether good. Like many other air theorists, Seversky exaggerated the effectiveness and efficiency of airpower. He was convinced that a finite number of airplanes and bombs, delivered on a variety of targets, would equate to victory. Air strategy consisted of destroying target sets—a far too simplistic view.

Yet, Alexander P. de Seversky was able to capture the essence of the air weapon and then convey an understanding of that essence to millions of Americans like no one else before him or since. He made terms like “victory through airpower” and “peace through airpower” familiar to an entire generation. Sasha was indeed an unparalleled salesman.

Phillip S. Meilinger is a retired Air Force command pilot with a Ph.D. in military history. His latest book is Airwar: Theory and Practice. He is currently deputy director of the Aerospacecenter at Science Applications International Corp. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “More Bogus Charges Against Airpower,” appeared in the October 2002 issue.