Billy Mitchell's War with the Navy

The Interwar Rivalry Over Air Power

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When Billy Mitchell returned from WWI, he brought with him the deep-seated belief that air power had made navies obsolete. However, in the years following WWI, the U.S. Congress was far more interested in disarmament and isolationist policies than in funding national defense. For the military services this meant lean budgets and skeleton operating forces. Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy recounts the intense political struggle between the Army and Navy air arms for the limited resources needed to define and establish the role of aviation within their respective services in the period between the two world wars.

After Congress rejected the concept of a unified air service in 1920, Mitchell and his supporters turned on the Navy, seeking to substitute the Air Service as the nation's first line of defense. While Mitchell proved that aircraft could sink a battleship with the bombing of the Ostfriesland in 1921, he was unable to convince the General Staff of the Army, the General Board of the Navy, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, or Congress of the need for an independent air force. When Mitchell turned to the pen to discredit the Navy, he was convicted by his own words and actions in a court-martial that captivated the nation, and was forced to resign in 1925.

Rather than ending the rivalry for air power, Mitchell’s resignation set the stage for the ongoing dispute between the two services in the years immediately before WWII. After Mitchell’s resignation, the rivalry for air power between the two services resurfaced when the Navy's plans to procure torpedo planes for the defense of Pearl Harbor and Coco Solo were brought to the attention of the Army. The book concludes with a description of the events surrounding the Air Corps' abysmal performance at Pearl Harbor and Midway followed by a critical assessment of how the development of aviation was pursued by the Army and the Navy after WWII.

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Editorial Reviews

"In Billy Mitchell's War with the Navy, Wildenberg offers a fine-grained analysis of the fierce competition for aviation missions, status, equipment, publicity, and funding that roiled Army-Navy relations during the interwar period. Wildenberg zeroes in on the role of Gen. William Mitchell, the Air Service's 'stormy petrel,' in driving the controversy. He stresses the general's masterful deployment of tactical air power during the closing days of World War I, highlights the importance of coastal defense in the postwar debate, and adeptly deflates later descriptions of Mitchell as the father of strategic bombing. At stake was nothing less than the future of the Navy."—Geoffrey L. Rossano, author of Stalking the U-Boat: U.S. Naval Aviation in Europe during World War I
"Wildenberg presents a well-written account of the development of airpower theory in a highly politicized environment framed by constrained defense budgets. Consequently, the concepts presented in Billy Mitchell's War with the Navy are as critical to the nation's defense today as they were nearly a century ago."—Air & Space Power Journal
"Billy Mitchell's War with the Navy showcases strengths common to Wildenberg's work, including a keen insight for analyzing how military organizations operationalize new concepts. In this book, however, Wildenberg has shown how the Army Air Corps failed to transform their ideas into a workable concept. He also has a knack for finding hitherto unknown or unseen sources. This is especially important when the historical subject matter is as well-trod as Billy Mitchell. To that end, Wildenberg also thoughtfully includes two appendices based on his thorough research, one of which is a thorough analysis by Captain Alfred W. Johnson of a Mitchell article published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1925, and also a detailed historiographical analysis of the previous published works covering Mitchell's life and career."—H-Net
"It's a good one volume account of how bitterly the Navy and the Air Service fought for prominence in the interwar period."—Robert Farley for Information & Lawyers, Guns & Money
"Thomas Wildenberg has produced a well-balanced study of a seminal personality in military aviation, objectively drawn as partly evangelical visionary, partly self-destructive zealot. Mitchell's tempestuous relationship with the U.S. Navy was equally ambiguous, supporting sea-based aviation while demanding Army primacy in coastal defense. Even readers well acquainted with the Billy Mitchell legend will find the facts engagingly presented with some nuanced interpretations for discussion."—Barrett Tillman, author of Whirlwind: The Air War against Japan, 1942ù1945
"By focusing on Mitchell's seven-year war with the Navy, historian Thomas Wildenberg has given us a fresh perspective on Mitchell and his messianic quest for air power. . . . In the process, Wildenberg has achieved an often elusive goal--a book that is both a scholarly tour de force yet eminently readable and approachable by everyone wanting to learn about this bitter, high-stakes interservice confrontation that shaped the modern air Navy."—William F. Trimble, author of Admiral William A. Moffett: Architect of Naval Aviation
"This book makes one think about how to generate change in a defence environment where funding is extremely limited. It also reveals how significant efforts can be made to improve survivability instead of just accepting the claims of a new wonder weapon. The work also makes one think about the contemporary discussion over what resource priorities Australia needs to allocate to air-sea operations and whether it resides largely within the RAN or the RAAF should not matter. Billy Mitchell's War with the Navy is well worth a read. I suggest it will go well with a glass of wine and a comfy chair so that one can contemplate the alternative futures of Australian naval aviation and air-sea operations."—Australian Naval Institute
"The book highlights the fine line between displaying the moral courage to stand up for your beliefs and the personal motives that may be lying underneath. Whether you believe Mitchell was a hero and a patriot fighting for national defense or a self-serving individual trying to further his own ambitions, Wildenberg's latest book will have you thinking twice about your conviction."—Military Review
"Wildenberg presents a history of interwar aviation developments, skillfully woven into a biography of Mitchell, and enhanced by over fifty images. This insightful interpretation provides an interesting read for knowledgeable scholars and casual readers of history alike."—Sea History
"This is a very readable and well-researched account of Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell's campaign to consolidate all American airpower within an independent air force. This story has been the subject of a number of books and articles and even a 1955 movie starring Gary Cooper, but never has it been told so well."—Journal of America's Military Past
"Billy Mitchell's War with the Navy is such a rich biographical treatment as the reader learns history as well as gets to know the man with all of his strengths and foibles. Wildenberg illustrates the path Mitchell traveled in a most revealing, dramatic (there is no other way to tell the story of this complex, incendiary and forward thinking man) and understandable way. This is not a book for those who look for a polarized and clear understanding of this significant part of history ù it is the book for those who knows that human history, especially history involving war and politics, is a gumbo where some flavors remain identifiable and some blend to make other flavors. This book is so well written it can be used to teach a college level course about the man as well as a course about the business of historically researching for a biography."—Seattle Post-Intelligencer"Thomas Wildenberg accomplished the challenging task of writing a narrative that will appeal equally to both general readers and informed professionals. The book is supported with meticulous notes, an extensive bibliography, and highly useful appendices. Mitchell's passion, intelligence, and recklessness clearly emerge from the book's pages, as does the U.S. naval leadership's frustration with and animosity towards this high-energy proponent of an independent U.S. Air Force."—Naval History Book Reviews"...A fascinating look at interwar American defense doctrine and politics."—Military Heritage
"...a seminal and extraordinary contribution that is especially recommended for academic library 20th Century American Military History reference collections in general, and American Military Aviation Studies supplemental reading lists in particular."—The Midwest Book Review