The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America

by Christopher Bassford

Oxford University Press, 1994

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Chapter 17. The Air Power Theorists

In his 1966 book, The Military Intellectuals in Britain, 1918-1939, Robin Higham stated that "Like the philosophes, the air power theorists in a perfectly logical way had created another heavenly city built, this time, upon a solid nineteenth-century Clausewitzian base."(*1) It is rather difficult to determine what Higham meant by this, since his long discussion of the air power thinkers contains few meaningful references to Clausewitz. British airman E.J. Kingston-McCloughry—who, Higham says, "took the Clausewitzian assumption that the only way to defeat the enemy was in battle"—later derided Clausewitz's work as a "dead schema" and discussed his ideas only in the past tense.(*2) Higham's definition of "Clausewitzian" appears to derive from Liddell Hart's, but Liddell Hart thought that his own "Argument for Airpower" was a decisive refutation of Clausewitzian thought.(*3)

It is in fact difficult to find any positive reference—or, for that matter, any reference at all—to Clausewitz in the works of any of the major interwar air power writers in either Britain or the United States. As far as I can determine, Billy Mitchell (1876-1936) never mentioned Clausewitz. Neither did the influential Italian theorist Giulio Douhet (1869-1930), whose book contains no direct reference to Clausewitz although it clearly is influenced by the quasi-Clausewitzian currents of pre-World War One continental military writing.(*4) In his post-World War II book, Air Power, the Russian-born American Alexander de Seversky remarked that the air power theorists "might not always find a common language with Clausewitz, but they speak the same strategic idiom as Mahan. The military problems and laws of action of air and sea power are almost identical—merely transposed to the third dimension." In his single direct reference to Clausewitz, he quoted him to the effect that "the destruction of enemy military forces is the chief objective of the whole act of war."(*5)

This absence of interest is not too surprising given that Mitchell and Douhet, like most of the air power enthusiasts, felt that the coming of the air age represented a new era in human history and that the determinants of the form of war in any epoch were essentially technological. Dated historical theories were of little relevance.(*6) Still, it is a bit curious that the early proponents of strategic bombing did not attempt to use Clausewitz's discussion of "absolute war" for theoretical justification.

Although Clausewitz made no appearance in the works of the major air theorists, he received at least some attention from the U.S. Army Air Corps at the doctrinal level. Lieutenant (later Major General) Haywood S. Hansell was an instructor at the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) at Maxwell Field, Alabama, from 1935 to 1938. Later, he was a member of Hap Arnold's staff and helped to develop AWPD-1, the Air Corps basic doctrinal manual for strategic air warfare during World War Two. His lectures at ACTS make some reference to Clausewitz, and Clausewitzian terms like "center of gravity" appear in Air Corps doctrine. In fact, the key difference between Army and Air Corps doctrine lay in the location of that center; the soldiers saw it in the enemy's army, the airmen in the enemy's industrial war-making capacity. ACTS training materials, however, contain very little overtly theoretical discussion, and there does not appear to be any reason to consider Clausewitz to have been a significant influence on either Hansell or AWPD-1.(*7)

On the other hand, historian Martin Kitchen recounts an interesting incident in the air war that might lead somewhere for a diligent researcher. "In the summer of 1943," he reports, "the allies dropped leaflets on Germany saying that Hitler should have read his Clausewitz more carefully."(*8)

NOTES to Chapter 17

1. Higham, Military Intellectuals, 119; the airpower theorists are discussed on pp119-234.

2. [Air Vice-Marshal, R.A.F.] E.J. Kingston-McCloughry, Global Strategy (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1957), 44, 196. Kingston-McCloughry's pre-World War Two books make no reference to Clausewitz.

3. Liddell Hart, "Argument for Airpower," Memoirs, v.1, 137-158.

4. Giulio Douhet, trans. Dino Ferrari, The Command of the Air (New York: Coward-McCann, 1942).

5. Air Power: Key to Survival (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 104, 206. De Seversky's Victory through Air Power (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1942), frequently mentions Mahan but never Clausewitz or Corbett.

6. See Edward Warner, "Douhet, Mitchell, Seversky: Theorists of Air Warfare," in Earle, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy (1943); David MacIsaac, "Voices from the Central Blue: The Air Power Theorists," in Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy (1986). Neither writer found a need to make any significant mention of Clausewitz in his survey of interwar airpower thinking. Neither did Robert Frank Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force, 1907-1960 (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 1989).

7. Major [USAF] James B. Smith, "Some Thoughts on Clausewitz and Airplanes," Air University Review, May-June 1986, 52-59, provides the basis for this paragraph on Hansell and ACTS. He acknowledges that the theoretical basis for ACTS thinking was "at best, vague," but perceives a number of "distinct parallels" between On War and ACTS thinking on strategic bombardment.

8. Martin Kitchen, "The Political History of Clausewitz," Journal of Strategic Studies, v.11, no.8 (March 1988), 27-50, citing Norbert Krüger, "Adolf Hitlers Clausewitzkenntnis," Wehrwissenschaftliche Rundschau, 18 (8) (1968).

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