1925 Seventy-five Years Ago

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On October 28, in Washington, D.C., the Army began proceedings in the court-martial of Gen. William ("Billy") Mitchell. For the last six years, as the Army’s assistant chief of air service, Mitchell had tirelessly evangelized military officers, government officials, and anyone else who would listen about the coming importance of airpower in warfare. Although he had many good points to make, his disregard for protocol, which some saw as more of a thirst for self-promotion, earned him a host of enemies. Their number increased as his hectoring turned into outright insubordination. At Mitchell’s trial, as at the Scopes evolution trial a few months earlier, the formal charges were uncontested, and the defense instead used the proceedings as a forum to propound its views.

A dozen years before, on the eve of World War I, Mitchell had argued that flying was primarily for reconnaissance and thus should stay under the control of his Army branch, the Signal Corps. But his war experience had shown him the much greater role that aviation could play. In Europe he became the Army’s air-combat commander, sometimes flying battle missions himself. He learned how valuable airpower could be not only in supporting maneuvers on the ground—the tactical role—but also in destroying enemy infrastructure behind the lines—the strategic role.

After the war, as Congress slashed military budgets, Mitchell spoke out increasingly boldly about the obsolescence of surface ships; the need for a single, unified air service; the military threat from Japan; the necessity of establishing air bases in Alaska, where he had served with the Signal Corps at the beginning of the century; and the potential of strategic bombardment. While many of his predictions sounded absurd with the technology then available, Mitchell knew what airplanes would be capable of when they got faster and increased their range.

In a series of tests that Mitchell made sure were widely publicized, his bombers sank surplus battleships with little difficulty. Navy men are said to have cried at this demonstration of how vulnerable their capital ships were, despite their fearsome guns and heavy armor. Faced with the reluctance of some (but far from all) military commanders to consider his innovations, Mitchell continued the barrage with a series of increasingly strident public statements and newspaper and magazine articles.

As the oldest of nine children and the son and grandson of congressmen, Mitchell was accustomed to speaking his mind and getting his way. He also suffered from the delusion, common to zealots of all stripes, that mocking and browbeating an opponent will make him more likely to agree with you. Eventually Mitchell’s superiors, most notably President Calvin Coolidge, lost patience with their brilliant but erratic airpower prophet, and in the spring of 1925 they reduced his rank to lieutenant colonel and assigned him to an obscure job in San Antonio, Texas. Instead of resigning, Mitchell provoked a trial by publicly accusing the War and Navy Departments of “incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense” in early September after a Navy flying boat en route to Hawaii ran out of fuel and the naval airship Shenandoah crashed in Ohio a few days later.

The court-martial, one of whose members was Gen. Douglas MacArthur, found Mitchell guilty of “conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the military service,” among other charges. He was suspended without pay (later changed to half-pay), whereupon he resigned and spent the rest of his life, up to his death in 1936, promoting his vision of the importance of airpower. Although Mitchell was an Army officer, the results of his crusade are most visible today in the Air Force, which was finally established as a separate service in 1947, and the Navy, which before and during World War II adapted to the new age of warfare by shifting its emphasis from battleships to aircraft carriers.