When Arnold Bucked FDR

Nov. 1, 2001
On the eve of Pearl Harbor exactly 60 years ago, the United States was clearly unprepared for a global conflict. Building the American war machine to a size and strength suitable to the task of battle against Japan and Germany took years.

Even so, America had not been totally idle in the run-up to the Japanese attack. By late 1941, the US had for some years been making modest war preparations. These actions reflected Franklin Roosevelt’s concern about Germany’s rampage in Europe and Japan’s aggression in East Asia.

President Roosevelt was especially worried about Britain’s ability to stay the course in battle against Hitler.

During the period 1939 to 1941, Roosevelt pushed the American military and American industry to plan for a wartime footing. He moved the Joint Army-Navy Board, predecessor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Munitions Board into the newly created Executive Office of the President.

Keenly aware of and deeply troubled by the pivotal role played by the Luftwaffe in Germany’s victories, Roosevelt placed special emphasis on the “increased range, increased speed, [and] increased capacity of airplanes abroad.” He advocated an enormous increase in the production of aircraft–to 50,000 airplanes per year, counting estimated requirements of the Royal Air Force.

This was a huge number-sufficient, said Maj. Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Corps, to “stagger any mere officer.” Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt’s confidante, warned Robert A. Lovett, assistant secretary of war for air, that he might fall out of his chair when he heard the figures.

Presidential Pressure

After Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act in the spring of 1941, Roosevelt pressured the Army Air Forces to give up large numbers of production aircraft to Britain, which was then locked in a desperate struggle with Germany. The President also insisted that US-produced airplanes and equipment be sent to the Soviet Union and China, which were also fighting the Axis powers.

Nor did Roosevelt stop here. In the summer of 1941, he clamped a defacto oil embargo on Japan and took military measures to reinforce Hawaii and the Philippine Islands. Once the US was in the war, FDR left strategy and tactics to the military, but when the US was a nonbelligerent in 1941, he was determined to throw all available switches to funnel the fruit of America’s productive capacity to the Allies.

Roosevelt’s actions were taken to shore up Allies and to prepare the United States for a potential two-front war. However, it put dramatic pressure on the AAF. Roosevelt’s determination to send aircraft to the British meant that Arnold had to fight tooth and nail for airplanes to build up his own air forces. Arnold observed, “The Air Force was rapidly changing its status from one of peace to one of war.” But the task of quickly deploying men and equipment overseas and within the continental United States confronted Arnold and the AAF with daunting organizational, personnel, and equipment problems.

Indeed, Roosevelt’s commitment to Britain brought the President and his uniformed Air Chief into sharp conflict. (Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, also felt the heat, of course. He noted that British requirements presented “a tremendously complicated task here in Washington.”) Arnold’s problem revolved around the need to build up a US air force– “the world situation demanded it”–while simultaneously supplying the British and keeping Roosevelt at bay. So tense were the relations between President and commander that Arnold was worried that he would be relieved.

Meanwhile, Hopkins had visited Britain and returned home to recommend shipping the RAF more B-17Cs. Arnold’s reaction was pointed: “It eliminates the present objectives in building up our air force, and it prevents the forming of a striking force and reduces, to the vanishing point, the low combat strength of this force.”

Well aware of the developing rift between FDR and Arnold, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Lovett recommended to Arnold that he visit England and see for himself. Arnold followed through and spent two weeks in April talking with British leaders, civilian and military.

He saw firsthand what the British were up against. In addition, while in England, viewing the air war up close, Arnold became convinced that “destruction by airpower could make a landing of ground forces possible.” He went on, “The Navy could ensure the existence of England but airpower and airpower alone could carry the war home to central Germany, break down her morale, and take away from her the things essential to combat.”

Out of the Doghouse

Stimson made certain that Arnold personally briefed the President. At this meeting in the first week in May 1941, said Stimson, Arnold presented “an admirable statement” on what he had found. Roosevelt commented that it was the best briefing he had received on the British situation. Stimson, who held a high opinion of Arnold, was convinced that the Air Chief’s splendid briefing was all that got Hap Arnold out of FDR’s doghouse.

Arnold, meanwhile, was anxious in early 1941 to determine how the B-17C would perform in Europe under RAF command.

RAF Bomber Command wanted to use the heavy aircraft for high-altitude daylight raids. The Americans recommended a maximum altitude of 25,000 feet for combat operations. Also crews should take special training with the Sperry bombsight which was new to the RAF. However, the RAF failed to follow these recommendations, and beginning in May 1941, the B-17Cs operated from altitudes above 30,000 feet. RAF crews took little bombing practice. After a mere 22 missions spanning two months, only 12 of the original 20 B-17s were left.

According to Arnold, this trouble with the B-17s was “to hound us in our bombardment relations with the RAF for a long time.” The performance of these Flying Fortresses, in Arnold’s words, turned out to be “a fiasco.” The British had been warned to use them with caution and to fly in formation. They ignored this advice, and as a result, the entire operation was “badly mishandled” by Bomber Command. On the other hand, the B-17s demonstrated that they could take a great deal of punishment. Arnold marveled, “Sometimes they were literally shot to pieces, but still they came back.”

By the summer of 1941, Army planners had succeeded in crafting basic objectives and plans should the US enter the war. The initial dialogue in spring 1941 with the British to address coalition warfare, termed “ABC-1,” for American-British Conversations, sketched fundamental goals. The European theater was judged to be decisive, and a sustained air offensive against Germany was contemplated. Subsequently, the Rainbow No. 5 war plan, reflecting the conclusions of ABC-1, detailed a strategic offensive in Europe and defensive posture against Japan in the Pacific.

The Joint Army-Navy Board approved Rainbow No. 5 in May 1941, and several weeks later it was approved by the Secretaries of War and the Navy.

President Roosevelt continued to call for accelerated war preparations–dragging along a reluctant American public–and on July 9, 1941, almost three weeks after Germany had stunned the world by invading the Soviet Union with 160 divisions, he asked the Army and Navy for an estimate of the “overall production requirements needed to defeat our potential enemies.”

First War Plan

Arnold received approval from the War Department to have the new Air War Plans Division of the Air Staff–created when the AAF was established in June 1941–prepare the requirements, known as the Air Annex. The plan, called AWPD-1, was developed and refined under enormous pressure, day and night. In many ways, the United States already was at war, although the actual declaration of war had not yet arrived.

The plan was drawn up by Lt. Col. Harold L. George (head, Air War Plans Division), Lt. Col. Kenneth N. Walker, Maj. Laurence S. Kuter, and Maj. Haywood S. Hansell Jr. (recently returned from England with folders on German targets). It identified the following major target systems: aircraft assembly plants, electric power, transportation, and synthetic oil. This became the blueprint for the conduct of the air war against Germany in the early months of conflict.

AWPD-1 stated a requirement for more than 63,000 aircraft, about 7,500 of which were to be heavy bombers. The AAF planners foresaw Britain functioning as the site of many airfields from which the bombers would decimate Nazi Germany’s industrial base. These plans depended heavily on the ability of American industry to produce huge numbers of aircraft, since in the summer of 1941, the AAF had fewer than 700 bombers of all types–heavy, medium, and light.

In late August 1941, the AAF’s George briefed the war plan to Marshall, who could have dissented or asked for major revisions. Instead, he stated: “I think the plan has merit. I should like the Secretary and assistant secretaries to hear it.”

According to one of AWPD-1’s authors, Hansell, this response “marked a crucial turning point in the evolution of American airpower.”

Stimson also approved the plan, emphasizing: “General Marshall and I like the plan. I want you gentlemen to be prepared to present it to the President.” However, Imperial Japan struck on Dec. 7, and the US entered the war before Roosevelt ever received the briefing. In late December 1941, an Anglo-American conference in Washington endorsed the plan’s concept, although it never did reach the President’s desk.

The Nazi attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, had generated a sense of urgency in US war planning. While the AAF’s planners in Washington drafted AWPD-1, Arnold found himself at sea in August aboard HMS Prince of Wales at Argentia, off the coast of Newfoundland. Arnold had been on one of his frequent inspection tours in early August when he received a message from Marshall directing him to return immediately to Washington. What followed was a sea voyage over several days to Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, where Marshall, Arnold, the US Chiefs of Staff, their British counterparts, and high-ranking US and British diplomats met with Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Our Friends

The key issue was production and allocation of aircraft. This was no surprise to the AAF Chief, who observed: “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.”

Until passage of the Lend-Lease Act, British crews had picked up aircraft at US factories. In May 1941, Roosevelt directed Stimson to “take full responsibility” for delivering the aircraft to “the point of ultimate takeoff.” AAF crews then began flying aircraft from the manufacturing plant to terminals where British airmen or American civilians took over for the flight across the Atlantic. This was the forerunner to the AAF Ferrying Command. The British subsequently termed the ferry route across the Atlantic the “Arnold Line,” honoring the AAF Chief. By the end of the war, British Commonwealth nations had received 26,000 aircraft, the Soviet Union 11,450, and China almost 1,400.

Prior to meeting with the British, Arnold had convinced Roosevelt and Marshall that no aircraft should be given to Allies until the Americans had met their own needs. No commitments would be made to Britain until AAF had studied their requests. As it was, Arnold noted, “The British as usual asked for everything they wanted, regardless of whether we have or ever will have an air force. They never blinked an eye when they asked for 100 percent of our production.”

As it turned out, the British had acquired erroneous US production figures. Consequently, they were requesting numbers of airplanes that exceeded actual production by a wide margin. Arnold explained this to the British officers, prompting their representative, Air Vice Marshal Wilfred Freeman, to emphasize to Arnold: “When Air Marshal Peter Portal comes over, I am going to insist that he see just two people-one is the President of the United States and the other is you.”

Thus, said the AAF Chief, the service was able to get away without losing “everything we owned, including our pants.”

Subsequently, Arnold was able to persuade Stimson that the AAF had first priority. He emphasized to the Secretary of War that it would not be possible to create the air force needed “to take decisive action” if large quantities of long-range aircraft were exported.

Meanwhile, the AAF had taken action to improve air defense of the continental US and to build up its overseas forces. The War Department had created four distinct geographical areas in the United States-Northeast, Central, Southern, and Western Defense Commands. Arnold redesignated the existing continental US air districts-Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest-as First, Second, Third, and Fourth Air Forces. Across the North Atlantic, the AAF moved to establish installations across the air route to Britain. During 1941, AAF personnel worked on communications and weather stations in Labrador, Baffin Island, Newfoundland, Greenland, and Iceland. By late 1941, the foundation for an airways communications system had been built across the North Atlantic to the British Isles.

In the Caribbean, Maj. Gen. Frank M. Andrews organized the Caribbean Air Force. The fulcrum was the Panama Canal Zone, and by late 1941, 183 aircraft were assigned there. The Caribbean Air Force, covering the entire theater, was responsible for air defense and all air operations. In September 1941, Marshall appointed Andrews to be commander of all US forces in the Caribbean, the first time an airman had occupied a unified command post.

Summer of 1941

While it intensified efforts to sustain England with the tools of war, the Roosevelt Administration was well aware of the threat to American interests posed by Japan in the Pacific. In the summer of 1941, the Far Eastern situation had turned ever more dangerous. The Japanese had moved south, occupying French Indochina. As a result, the Administration placed a freeze on Japanese assets in the United States, in effect creating an economic blockade of Japan.

The need for improved air defenses in Hawaii and the Philippines was in fact a requirement of exceptionally long standing and had been emphasized by Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell in his 1924 report on his Far Eastern trip. Mitchell suggested that it seemed inevitable that at some point in the future Japan and the United States would be at war with each other.

Japanese aggression in East Asia and the worsening diplomatic situation between the US and Japan prompted Stimson to warn that “all practical steps” needed to be taken to increase defensive strength in Hawaii and the Philippines. Stimson was also much concerned about a secret letter he had received in early 1941 from Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, who pointed out that the Navy had re-examined the security of the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. Knox emphasized “the increased gravity of the situation with respect to Japan and by reports from abroad of successful bombing and torpedo plane attacks on ships while in bases.” Knox added: “If war eventuates with Japan, it is believed easily possible that hostilities would be initiated by a surprise attack upon the fleet and the naval base at Pearl Harbor.”

Not only had the War Department been building up forces in Hawaii, but Arnold had sent 21 B-17s to Hickam Field. Commanded by Maj. Gen. Frederick L. Martin, the Hawaiian Air Force had been activated in November 1940 and consisted of the 18th Bombardment Wing at Hickam and the 14th Pursuit Wing at Wheeler Field. In late 1941, of 231 aircraft assigned to the Hawaiian Air Force, only half were regarded as up-to-date airplanes.

Aggressive Defense

The AAF’s strategy was to give the Hawaiian islands an aggressive defense, featuring long-range aircraft to locate and attack enemy aircraft carriers. However, the decision by the War Department in 1941 to reinforce the Philippines meant that the Hawaiian Air Force received a lower priority in the allocation of aircraft.

With the change in War Department policy to in fact reinforce the Philippines–subsequently reflected in the Rainbow No. 5 plan and approved by the Joint Army-Navy Board–Arnold in October 1941 sent Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton to the Philippines to command the Far East Air Force under Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Retired as Army Chief of Staff, MacArthur had been building up the Philippine military as a field marshal in the employ of the island government, and in July 1941 the War Department recalled him to duty and placed him in command of the newly created US Army Forces in the Far East. With the Administration’s directive to not only defend but reinforce the islands, Roosevelt was attempting to send the Japanese a message. Brereton had more than 300 aircraft under his command but less than half of them combat ready.

As Arnold saw it, the key to defense of the Philippines was the B-17, and he was prepared to allocate several heavy bombardment groups to Brereton. He ordered the 19th Bombardment Group, which had flown the first B-17s to Hawaii in May, to transfer to the Philippines. By October, Col. Eugene L. Eubank had arrived with the first echelon of the 19th Group. In September, the 14th Bombardment Squadron, commanded by Maj. Emmett O’Donnell Jr., in a historic flight, flew nine B-17Ds from Hickam Field–via Midway, Wake, Port Moresby (New Guinea), and Darwin (Australia)–to Clark Field, near Manila.

These moves by the AAF to reinforce the islands meshed with Marshall’s September directive that “United States Army Forces in the Philippines be placed in the highest priority for equipment.” Stimson, a former governor-general of the islands, cheered deployment of the B-17s to the Philippines, stating that this gave the US the opportunity to “get back into the islands in a way it hadn’t been able to for 20 years.”

Stimson applauded the AAF concept of using the B-17, with its great range, to attack an invading fleet far out at sea. Marshall subsequently observed: “If we could make the Philippines reasonably defensible, particularly with heavy bombers in which the Air Corps at that time had great faith, we felt that we could block the Japanese advance and block their entry into war by their fear of what would happen if they couldn’t take the Philippines and we could maintain heavy bombers on that island.”

As the Roosevelt Administration in 1941 moved American industry toward a wartime configuration and accelerated shipment of war equipment to Britain, the Soviet Union, and China, the Army Air Forces prepared for war. These preparations took on staggering proportions-not only aircraft production but training of pilots and aircrew, establishment of a myriad of technical schools, and building bases and their supporting infrastructure.

As Marshall put it, “It used to be we had time and no money; now we have money and no time.” Personnel strength of the AAF between the end of 1939 and December 1941 increased from 43,000 to almost 300,000. Of utmost importance, the AAF formulated war plans and engaged in coalition planning with the British. This provided a strategic framework that created the backdrop for the AAF’s landmark AWPD-1, which estimated wartime requirements.

Deeply concerned about aircraft production and unit readiness, and trying to build up forces, Arnold left in late November for the West Coast to inspect bases and production facilities. Diplomatic negotiations with the Japanese-ongoing since February-had broken down and Army and Navy commanders in the Pacific were being warned that hostile action by the Japanese was “possible at any moment.”

On Dec. 6, 1941, Arnold met in California with the pilots and crews who were planning to fly more B-17s to the Philippines, with a brief stop in Hawaii. The next day, he joined Donald Douglas, an aircraft manufacturer, to discuss production issues. Before the day ended, the US was at war, and the Army Air Forces would be put to the test.

Herman S. Wolk is senior historian in the Air Force History Support Office. He is the author of The Struggle for Air Force Independence, 1943-1947 (1997) and a coauthor of Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force (1997). His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The First Air Staff,” appeared in the June 2001 issue.