“Be not the first by whom the new is tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside."
There are fashions in military policy, as surely as there are fashions in belles lettres, women’s clothes, and architecture. Rut to follow fashion unwarrantably in national defense can be an exceedingly serious blunder. Great nations have been caught up in whimsical currents of fashion, have built their defenses around weapons and strategies of purely ephemeral renown, and have come in consequence to catastrophe. The most familiar tragedies in this pattern have come from the sterility of a stereotyped military doctrine, from the tendency of backward-looking military officers to study the strategic patterns of past wars without making due allowance for the technical developments of their own generation and the generation just ahead. So familiar is this phenomenon that it has come to be accepted almost as a truism—although it is untrue— that generals and admirals customarily devote their mature lives and their countries’ resources to preparing for the last war, never for the next.
There is just enough evidence for this case, so appealing to lay writers and politicians, to stack the cards in the public mind against any orthodox military strategy. And so in almost every major debate on a nation’s military policy, we find the battle lines forming in a standard pattern. On the one side, dogmatic brass and braid plead for money to maintain a great military establishment, astonishingly like the one with which they managed to win their last war. On the other side, there arc highly articulate chaps in journalism or politics or engineering who want to go whole hog, scrap the weapons of past victories, and forge new weapons embodying the latest technical advances. More, they want to build the nation’s basic strategy around those new weapons.
In a democratic state such as our own, basic military policy is made by civilian legislators. At least it should be; and it usually is, in fact. They may follow the brass and braid, or they may follow the eager beavers of the popular scientific magazines, depending on various down-to-earth political forces. The alignment today, shortly after a great military victory, is in this familiar pattern—even though all the armed services include some elements committed to traditional strategic and tactical concepts, and likewise some elements ready to plump for Buck Rogers warfare with all the trappings. Of course it is not a clear-cut alignment. In fact the feud is more largely within the military services, this time, than between their leaders and the glib, venturesome laymen.
Whatever the alignment of divergent groups and divergent notions may be, the outcome is awesomely important. Having seen great nations go down to disaster in the past through the unwise molding of military policy, we must be at some pains to read the signs of the times aright. It might help, in this formative period, to re-examine this recurring conflict in national military policy— especially since we are at an undoubted turning point in the technology of warfare.
The common error of politico-military history, as we have noted, is to cling to strategic concepts of proved value, and their tactical appendages, to the point of ignoring the technological advances of the time, and the new weapons and tactics thus made possible. The less common but no less serious error is to become so fascinated by the superficial implications of technological progress as to lose sight of fundamental geographical and strategic realities. Especially in the last half century, there has been an increasing disposition to misread the military implications of technological change, largely I suspect because technology has overshadowed geography in military and civilian minds alike.
Thus the First World War was dominated, and in the western European theater immobilized, by certain technical advances which made the rapid-firing machine-gun and standard fieldpieces the preeminent weapons of that struggle. Those weapons gave the defense an immense advantage, made movement costly, and penalized tactical or strategic initiative. Out of this there emerged a whole school of military thought committed to passive defense as a nearly exclusive reliance for national safety. It was widely supposed that all future wars would be wars of position, tactically, and wars of attrition, in strategic terms. The notion nearly brought the doom of the British Isles, where it was widely accepted for a time between world wars, and led citizens and government alike to be content with wholly insufficient striking power.
Similarly, naval blockade happened—for purely geographical reasons—to be an extraordinarily large factor in the defeat of Germany in 1918. Imperial Germany was a highly industrialized state, heavily dependent on imports of many strategic raw materials. She was confined to her own national territory plus Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, with the addition of Belgium and a slice of northern France during most of the war. Unable to break through the cordon of naval power to bring in foodstuffs or industrial raw materials save from Sweden, the Germany of Wilhelm II slowly suffered economic strangulation.
This led to the hasty assumption that command of the oceans naturally would enable a maritime Power to break the industrial strength of any adversary. There followed an over-emphasis on blockade as a function of sea power; and this, leaving its mark on the composition of the principal fleets, left the two great English-speaking Powers singularly ill-equipped to deal with Axis submarines when war came again. Both nations were far better prepared to blockade Germany than to protect their own sea routes from German raiding warfare. It had not been foreseen that a resurgent Germany, poised to spring upon all her continental neighbors, might quickly corral all the economic resources of the entire Continent of Europe, and create a fortress of industrial power well-nigh immune to sea blockade.
Now let us notice another instance. In the years just after World War I, it was established experimentally that an airplane could sink a heavy naval ship, difficult though it proved for the primitive bombardment aircraft of that day. There began thereafter an untiring war of attrition in the newspaper and magazine press, to show that the battleship was obsolete. That idea was not accepted in the Navy, and not outright in Congress. But added to a temper of hopefully pacifist parsimony, it made enough of an impression on the American public that we began World War II with only two really up-to-date battleships in commission. Until the end of 1942, consequently, we could not seriously challenge the Japanese fleet’s mastery of the far Pacific. For lack of first- class battleship strength, we were reduced to the raiding warfare the Germans were using against us in the Atlantic. Those of us who saw the work of our battleships, in either ocean, know how great was their usefulness and how slight their vulnerability to air attack—and how much better off we would have been if we had had the four South Dakotas and the four Iowas when war began.
And so we have some modern examples of the misreading of the implications of technology. This is patently the danger today. For science in its military applications has moved in late years at a tempo wholly unprecedented in history. The people of America have read of fabulous and quite unbelievable new weapons which seem to add up to something popularly called pushbutton war. The fashion of our time, in matters military, is to prepare for another and greater war of gadgets. The plain American’s view is unmistakable. He does not think of strategies, but of weapons. And if it isn’t atomic, or at least electronic, it’s practically a muzzle-loading musket, and he wants none of it. The average American stripling, shortly to come of military age, is not so much opposed to going to war some day—although he might well be. What he doesn’t like is the idea of slogging in mud with a Springfield on his shoulder. What he wants—if there’s to be a new war for him— is to sit in front of a large instrument panel full of knobs, dials, and hand-wheels, taken right out of the Westinghouse laboratories and mounted on Long Island, there to take readings, make calculations, pull levers, and then without getting out of his scat drop atomic warheads by guided missile on targets staked out somewhere east of Suez, where the best is still said to be much like the worst.
Now this popular enthusiasm for gadget war is by no means an evil thing. Something of the sort is needed, undoubtedly, to prod the lagging spirit of those legislators—and a segment of our officer corps as well—-for whom imagination is a taxing and neglected form of exercise. But there is a risk, a real one, that the nation’s popular interest in technology and its spawn of fascinating weapons may divert responsible policymakers from the eternal verities of strategy. And basic strategic concepts rooted in geographical fact, let it be said with emphasis, are not only more precious than rubies, but more precious even than atom bombs. For the easiest and most unforgivable way to lose a war, having abundant resources of men and material, is to employ them in the pursuit of an ill-considered strategic plan. It has been done.
What we are really dealing with, in this perpetual struggle to find the right military policy for our nation, is an interplay of geography and technology. To risk a broad generalization, we might say that geography orders strategy for the most part, while technology determines weapons, techniques, and tactics in greater measure.
Obviously this is no dictum to be followed slavishly. Switzerland has no need for naval weapons, for reasons of geography. Technology has nothing to do with that choice of weapons. And vice versa, let us assume a purely technical development that puts atomic power plants into tanks and heavy trucks and aircraft, as well as ships, eliminating all large uses of petroleum. That wholly technological factor would alter profoundly the strategy of any succeeding war. Yet in the main, there is a well-defined compartmentation. Geography, which changes almost not at all, dictates the main contours of any nation’s strategy. Technology, which never stops changing, is the prime arbiter of weapons and their tactical uses.
The shaping of an adequate military establishment is and must always be a synthesis of these two elements—strategic concepts, on the one side, emerging from the facts of geography, and technological trends in warfare, on the other side, growing out of the advance of pure and applied science. In other words, military policy, like Scotch whiskey, must always be a blend if it is to satisfy the customer.
There are some, not counting the special pleaders for special gadgets, who hold that our danger today is that of all history—the danger of doctrinaire military thought, of sterile, routine maintenance of orthodox armies and fleets, to the gross neglect of scientific research and its military applications. And undoubtedly there is the risk that we may fall behind in research and developmental work, relying unduly on the lead we established during the war. But the greater danger, I am persuaded, and a more subtle and insidious one, is that we may so misread the implications of the new technology as to ignore the plain facts of geography.
Our technology, like our capacity for mass production, is of course a stupendous military asset. It is our arsenal, and the breeding- ground for new weapons and new tactics. Properly maintained, our technology will insure both our qualitative and quantitative superiority in weapons and other material. But if we wander too far from sound reasoning, in our absorption in gadgets atomic and electronic, we may find ourselves superbly equipped to defend some other country, yet unable to defend our own! For our military problem is always framed by certain basic geographical realities—our oceanic position, our comparative self- sufficiency, our reliance on a single inter- oceanic canal, the vulnerability of our coastwise shipping, and the dispersion of our probable allies over several widely separated continents, to name a few of those geopolitical realities.
We have now to examine some of the more common fallacies, current in American thought today, which stem from a misreading of the implications of the new technology of this atomic and electronic age.
One such fallacious notion is that surface fleets and carrier-based air power have lost their value because “ships are so vulnerable to atomic bombs.” As a matter of fact, naval ships are not particularly vulnerable to atomic bombs. They are surprisingly resistant to atomic attack, as I was able to see for myself at Bikini Atoll in the summer of 1946. More important than their resistance to atomic blast, however, is their capacity for evasive action, along with their capacity for self-defense against bomb-carrying aircraft. Ships can be sunk with atom bombs, of course. Ships also can be sunk with conventional bombs, with submarine or aerial torpedoes, with mines, or with gunfire. And they can be lost by poor navigation!
On any realistic reckoning, with allowance for probable wartime conditions, it is safe to say that naval ships under way at sea in standard cruising formations with their own air cover are likely to be singularly unprofitable targets for atomic attack—especially in comparison with such land targets as industrial, transport, and population centers. A modern task force under competent command has virtually nothing to fear from high- altitude bombers, whatever they have to drop.
A second fallacy is that command of the sea is no longer of importance, because the next war, if it comes, will be an atomic war waged wholly by long-range aircraft or guided missiles or both, and will be over in a week or two, without any major movement of military forces at all. This idea of a brief war of stupendous initial destructiveness is undeniably fascinating, as well as horrifying, but it has no more solid foundation as prophecy than did Douhet’s familiar theory of total war by bombardment aircraft, with certain catastrophe for the nation attacked in a matter of hours or at most days.
Because it is so closely analogous, General Douhet’s doctrine may be worth recalling briefly. It was the first publicized formulation of a strategy aimed solely at the industry, transport, and public administration of an enemy state, ignoring his armed forces. Although Italian in origin, the idea is more commonly known today as aerial Blitzkrieg, since the Germans made far more use of it than did the Italians. It differed from the older idea of naval blockade, and from the newer idea of saturation bombing, in that it was intended to paralyze the enemy state as a going concern before it could even be mobilized for conventional war. It relied on air bombardment in overwhelming strength for its execution. That easy road to early victory has been borne out in practice (if at all) only in warfare between grossly unequal adversaries. Italy’s defeat of Albania might be regarded as a valid though incomplete example. Germany’s rapid conquest of Poland is not, for there air power was merely an effective supporting arm in a swift and terrible advance of motorized and armored columns of ground forces. Our own defeat of Japan is in no sense an example of Douhet’s system, but rather a strangulation by sea blockade and air bombardment—a combination of horizontal and vertical blockade, as the terms are sometimes used.
Now if atomic weapons are not successfully outlawed, we may suppose the United States will retain them. And thus the United States will be the only Power ever to have a monopoly of them. We cannot suppose this country will launch atomic war, by surprise or otherwise, against any nation great or small, in the period of our exclusive possession of the atom bomb. So we are obliged to conclude as a practical matter that there never will be an atomic war of large dimensions, unless between Powers both armed with atomic weapons of some character. World War II assuredly is going to be the only great war in history finding but one side making use of atomic energy in military application.
On the grim assumption that atomic war is to come, therefore, the likely pattern would be initial onslaughts against major strategic targets, heavy damage to them, partial paralysis of the war-making capacity of both adversaries, and then a prolonged struggle between the two weakened nations with conventional weapons—including infantry masses. If the contending states are separated by water, as they would be in any war of immediate interest to us, sea power will be quite as important as ever in bringing troops and their equipment and supplies to the theaters of action.
A closely related fallacy is the assumption that any future war necessarily will be fought with atomic weapons. On the contrary, it is entirely conceivable that neither belligerent in a future war will want to invite the destruction of its own cities which reprisals with atomic bombs would entail. We cannot • reason from the willingness of the United States to use the atom bomb in World War II, for in that case reprisal in kind was known to be impossible. In future, it will be a powerful deterrent. Weapons of known effectiveness, such as poison gas, were withheld throughout the recent war—and not for humanitarian reasons. There is also the possibility, materially advanced by the decisions of the United Nations General Assembly in November and December of 1946, that the military use of atomic energy will be effectively proscribed, and that war will come, nevertheless. So we cannot take it for granted that any major war in future will be fought with atomic weapons. And by the same logic, we cannot safely abandon the weapons and strategies of non-atomic warfare.
Closely related is one of the most dangerous of current fallacies, most evident in the United States. This is the disposition to over-rate the atom bomb, as the instrument of certain victory. It is the common notion, shared by many intelligent laymen, some scientists, and perhaps some few military men, that a Power with exclusive possession of the atom bomb, or enjoying a clear superiority in atomic weapons over its enemy, can be automatically certain of victory. For these folk, the bomb has so captured the imagination as to preclude any possibility of employing it and still falling short of prompt, decisive victory. These may know much of atomic physics, but they know little of warfare, an art which sometimes ignores the seeming imperatives of science.
This is in fact a mischievous interpretation of a technological development, resulting from a cavalier disdain for the stubborn facts of military history and for geography, the bed rock of all calculations in warfare. Neither the atom bomb nor any other device of modern technology can be relied on as the key to certain victory. If one wishes simply to speak of destruction, there is little danger of over-rating the atom bomb. Its destructive power quite surpasses the human imagination—which after all is a plodding, pedestrian thing, alongside a phenomenon that generates 10,000,000 degrees of heat in the elapsed time of the quiver of an eyelash.
But the capacity to destroy, although basic to victory, does not constitute victory. For victory is not the ruin of an enemy’s fields and factories, and the decimation of his population. It is the overcoming of his capacity and his will to resist. That may be accomplished by defeat of his forces in the field. It may be achieved by the blockade of his coasts. It may come through the shattering of his major industrial centers and prostration of his economy. But again, it may come only through seizure of the primary strategic positions in his homeland. And one does not seize anything with bombs—or with artillery shells, or with guided missiles. One takes strategic positions in enemy territory with troops. And troops, as a practical matter, do not march afoot across continents. Not in the twentieth century. Nor do they swim across oceans. The use of troops calls for transport of various kinds, and for a vast complex of logistical services, along with specialized arms for the protection of communication lines over land and sea.
Coming down to concrete cases, we must recognize (1) that the United States is unlikely to enjoy a monopoly of atomic weapons for more than a few years, and (2) that such weapons, whether the enemy has them or not, are in themselves no positive assurance of victory. They assure only our ability to work dreadful havoc upon an enemy nation. In short, we are obliged to reckon with the ultimate necessity, in the event of future war, of dispatching forces to hostile shores, covering their landings, and then supplying and reinforcing them. The sundry arms and weapons of amphibious war are still needed, if we mean to be prepared not merely to punish our future enemy but to achieve victory and impose our will upon him.
Yet another fallacious assumption of our time is that long-range aircraft, now capable of missions of several thousands of miles, have eliminated the need for surface fleets and sea-going air power. Although not new with the atomic age, this doctrine has picked up some additional currency by virtue of the extended range of bomber aircraft, now that so much more destructiveness can be put into a given weight of useful load. The destructive power of an atom bomb is usually calculated as equivalent to that of 20,000 tons of TNT. This means that a single heavy bomber aircraft with a pay load of (shall we say) one ton can deliver the destructive power of a vast fleet of planes hauling conventional block-busters, and can use most of its weight-carrying capacity for gasoline. Thus one of the principal military results of the atom bomb is simply to extend the operating ranges of existing heavy bombers—and to facilitate the design of yet longer- range aircraft.
In reality, however, the basic problem is not changed. Long-range aircraft may span the oceans. They may even interdict the movement of the enemy’s merchantmen in some areas of sea. But they cannot exercise command of the sea in the full sense of the term, nor can they provide a concentration of fighter air power at selected places remote from existing land bases. Carrier-based air power remains the one weapon by which local air superiority can be established on short notice at great distances from one’s own bases, or along the enemy’s own coast lines.
From the increased ranges of heavy aircraft there has come also a questionable enthusiasm for trans-polar operations, in the event of future war. If the great circle were always the logical route to any objective in warfare, there would have been no campaign in the Solomons or New Guinea, and indeed no action through the Central Pacific. Neither would there have been a network of Army air transport lines across the heart of Africa.
It is not enough to throw away the Mercator projection, take up an equidistant polar map, and plot the course of the next war across the top of the world. To be sure, neither ground nor air forces, nor indeed naval forces, can ignore the possibility of war over the northern pole. And our services are not ignoring it. They have all devoted a good many hundreds of thousands of man-hours to practical maneuvers planned to learn something of the special problems of Arctic war. But to put too many eggs into this one basket is once more to build a strategy upon a single technological development—long-range bombardment by air—instead of facing the cold realities, literal in this case, of unchanging geography.
Our military policy in coming years may be greatly affected by international political agreement. Armament reduction plans already are afoot in the General Assembly of the United Nations, as is entirely proper. But we shall have to guard against a reduction of armament which looks equitable and is not. Ours is not by tradition or temperament a “nation in arms.” Once at war, the American people would rather spend an extra ten billion dollars, or fifty billion, if by so doing they can save an appreciable number of American lives. In short, it is our settled policy to wage war, when it is enforced upon us, by the lavish use of raw materials, industrial production, scientific research, and technological weapons and equipment. For us in America, technology is made to go a long way towards replacing sheer manpower under arms.
Now and again, the United States is criticized for using the atom bomb against two Japanese cities, when it already had Japan defeated. That criticism ignores the important fact that by using the atom bomb it appeared possible to conclude the war without invasion of Japan’s home islands. If the use of the atom bomb averted that colossal amphibious operation, as may well be the case, it saved scores of thousands of American lives, and probably also made a net saving of Japanese lives. The use of the bomb was in the American tradition, for it was a use of technology in lieu of expendable American manpower.
We Americans, in other words, have an outlook which we like to describe as humanitarian—using goods instead of lives. But in reality it is merely an expression of our economy, which is one of material abundance. If we had more people, and less wealth, as in the case of India or China, we would trust in raw manpower, instead of qualitative and quantitative superiority in matériel. And this brings us to the relevant fallacy of current thinking—the supposition that the risk of war can be lessened, and the burden of armament reduced, by international agreement outlawing or restricting “offensive weapons.” The atomic bomb, let us recognize at once, is in a class by itself. And efforts to eliminate and forever proscribe the use of atomic energy for destructive military purposes have well-nigh universal approval, always provided proper safeguards are assured. But with respect to other “offensive weapons,” we cannot afford even to acknowledge a distinction between “offensive” and “defensive” weapons.
The reason for this is clear, if we take pains to remember the basic facts of geography which are so easily obscured by this obsession with weapons and techniques. Ours is an oceanic position. We must plan either to strike at any attacker at his own outlying bases or in his homeland, or else to stand on our own shores, give ground as expedient, and fight an invader on our own soil—with all that entails of tragedy for our land and people. That choice will not stir up any controversy. If we must have war, every citizen will say readily, let it be on the enemy’s territory. Let it be his cities and fields that are despoiled. But while this is unanimously agreed, there is a tendency to forget the corollary—that we must rely chiefly on sea power, long-range air power, and amphibious assault forces. The weapons most generally classed as “offensive” are precisely the weapons that will keep war away from our shores.
Lest this seem quibbling or academic, it should be pointed out that there is no other substantial military Power in the world, unless Australia be considered in that class, which today enjoys a truly oceanic position. All the others are separated from potential enemies only by land frontiers or by narrow waters. For them, long-range aviation and sea power are of secondary import. But for us, and for us exclusively, the only practicable “defense” lies in weapons habitually called “offensive.”
We may all allow ourselves the hope that armament reduction will come soon, and in substantial measure. The world cannot afford to carry the crushing burden of armies and fleets it now supports. But we shall invite grave risks if in negotiating for arms reduction we lose sight of our unique geographical position, and become trapped in a bargain to sacrifice heavily in weapons which for us peculiarly are as truly defensive as offensive. These arms are naval striking forces, long-range aircraft, and—if technology ordains them—long-range guided missiles.
There is yet another perilous assumption, gaining currency as the war recedes from popular consciousness. This is most simply stated as the belief that we do not need a large fleet because there is no other sizeable fleet in existence—except that of Great Britain, with whom there is no risk whatever of hostilities in future. Now it is true that our naval power today, by the usual yardsticks for such comparisons, is somewhat in excess of the total of all other fleets. It probably could be somewhat reduced in total tonnage with no material risk. That might even be wise, instead of laying up most of our combat ships, for it probably would give the Navy Department a better chance to get funds for more new ships from year to year, thus averting the hazard of winding up 15 or 20 years from now with a large but obsolescent fleet.
But any such decision ought to rest on careful studies of the force required for the missions which may be assigned to the fleet. It ought not to rest on the glib assertion that we do not need much sea power, if other nations—prospective enemies—do not have much. This is one of the favorite arguments of the facile folk disposed to depreciate sea power, fastening their hopes for security on the new weapons so dear to the illustrated magazines.
Again, it is a case of ignoring geography. We are the only major Power of the world all of whose possible major enemies are at least an ocean’s breadth away. And equally important, we are the only major Power all of whose probable major allies are cut off by oceanic space. We need sea power, in all its branches, to insure that we can deploy our forces on the battlegrounds of our own choosing. And we need sea power likewise to insure that we can munition and reinforce our allies, and draw upon them for munitions and trained manpower if need be.
From all sides, the men ultimately responsible for shaping the military policy of the United States are going to be importuned to “face the atomic age squarely”—to break with the stodgy past and measure up to the challenge of the new era dawning. They are going to be urged, persuasively and persistently, to “stop wasting public money” on such picturesque and traditional luxuries as infantry masses, surface fleets, amphibious assault forces, and field artillery units. With push-button war “just around the corner,” they are going to be set upon by eager (and entirely sincere) technicians confident that we can wage war in Europe or Asia from rocket-launching installations on our own shores. Our policy-makers will be ridiculed by the gadget-conscious whenever they suggest that it might be provident to keep a great pool of merchant ships for logistic support of expeditionary armies. They will be told a thousand times that armored ships— and armored tanks and heavy field pieces— are obsolete and fit only for military museums.
The “counter-measure” for these ill- considered pressures is not, of course, to depreciate technology, for technology is the foundation of modern military power, and it is peculiarly the foundation of American military power. The answer must be supplied by simple insistence on a balanced appraisal of our military problem—an appraisal which defines the main strategic problem in terms of geography, and then calls upon technology for means with which to pursue that strategy.
The forging of a comprehensive strategic plan for our future national security is admittedly a more complex task than ever before. It can never be rigid and arbitrary, because we do not know, for example, whether the far-flung petroleum-bearing lands of the Middle East will remain of pivotal importance in two more decades, or whether some as yet undiscovered uranium deposits at the southern pole will emerge as the key to future power politics instead. We do not know whether a future enemy will threaten us from across the Arctic, or from the jungle of tropical America in a drive to seize the Panama Canal, or indeed whether our primary danger will lie in long-range attack by air, directly across the broad oceans.
But we do know what it is we seek to protect. We must safeguard the industrial complexes of the North and East, and the teeming granary of the Middle West; the rail and motor transport lines that make our continental area an economic unit, and the Great Lakes waterway that marries iron ore to coal to spawn the immensity of our heavy industry; and finally the coastwise and foreign sea routes by which our industries are fed an endless stream of raw materials. We know also that our concern with defense upon the broad oceans is a problem faced by no other Power in similar degree. We know that global war, for us, is inescapably sea war.
From these fundamental factors of straightforward geography, we can shape a viable strategic plan, valid for any stage of technological development. Having made that plan in those terms, we should then, and only then, design the tools of military policy —in that task making the utmost of an ever-unfolding technology.