1-513 Editorial Note on Air Corps Development

Publisher: The George C. Marshall Foundation

Editorial Note on Air Corps Development


The authoritative formulation of United States Army combat doctrine in the 1920s and 1930s was the field service manual issued in 1924. That document stated that the destruction in battle of the enemy’s armed forces by the combined offensive employment of the army’s six combat arms—Infantry, Artillery, Cavalry, Signal Corps, Engineer Corps, and Air Service—was the prerequisite to victory in war. But while teamwork was essential, the Infantry was the key to success. “The special missions of other arms are derived from their powers to contribute to the execution of the infantry mission.” (War Department, Field Service Regulations, United States Army, 1923 [Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1924], pp. 11, 77.) The role of the Air Service— called the Air Corps beginning in 1926—was to control the sky over the battlefield, to attack the enemy on the battlefield and beyond the range of the Field Artillery, and to gather information about the enemy. (Ibid., p. 21.)

In the two decades following the World War, air-minded people around the world began to believe that the primacy of the infantry on the ground and of the battleship at sea had passed; the airplane was the new queen of battles. The United States Army Air Corps was strongly influenced by the ideas enunciated by Brigadier General William Mitchell. Victory in war, Mitchell asserted, was achieved by destroying the enemy’s homefront resources for making war and his civilian population’s morale. This would be accomplished by the destruction rained by fleets of bombers. “Aircraft operating in the heart of an enemy’s country will accomplish this object in an incredibly short space of time, once control of the air has been obtained and the months and even years of contest of ground armies with a loss of millions of lives will be eliminated in the future.” (William Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power—Economic and Military [New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1925], pp. 126-27.)

Air Corps leaders chafed increasingly at the restraints imposed upon them by the War Department General Staff. The rapid growth and increasing sophistication of air forces in Europe—particularly in Germany—after the mid-1930s contrasted unfavorably with the slow progress in the United States. Assistant Secretary of War Louis A. Johnson observed in the War Department’s 1938 annual report that “our former technical superiority in aeronautical development is no longer clearly apparent. Recent advances in other countries have equaled if not exceeded our efforts. We have known for some time that foreign nations far surpassed us in the number of military aircraft at their disposal but we also knew that we led the field technically. It now appears that our research and development programs must be accelerated if we are to regain our position of technical leadership.” (Annual Report of the Secretary of War, 1938 [Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1938], p. 26.)

The fountainhead of American military air power doctrine was the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, Alabama. The ideas taught there are summarized in Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate, editors, The Army Air Forces in World War II, volume one, Plans and Early Operations (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1948), pp. 51-52. After he arrived at the school to present his speech, Marshall found it advisable to make certain changes in the text he had brought with him. No copy of the original draft has been found. Upon returning to Washington, he rewrote the speech as printed below (Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #1-514 [1: 631-5]).

Recommended Citation: ThePapers of George Catlett Marshall, ed.Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens(Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 1, “The Soldierly Spirit,” December 1880-June 1939 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), pp. 630-631.

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