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The Jet Makers

The Aerospace Industry from 1945 to 1972

• Title
• Introduction
• Preface
• Acknowledgements

• I: World War II: Aviation Comes of Age
• II: The Aerospace Industry since World War II: A Brief History
• III: The National Military Strategy: Background for the Government Markets
• IV: The Principal Government Market: The United States Air Force
• V: The Other Government Markets: The Aerospace Navy, the Air Army, and NASA
• VI: Fashions in Government Procurement
• VII: The Heartbreak Market: Airliners
• VIII: Design or Die: The Supreme Technological Industry
• IX: Production: The Payoff
• X: Diversification: The Hedge for Survival
• XI: Costs: Into the Stratosphere
• XII: Finance and Management
• XIII: Entry into the Aerospace Industry
• XIV: Exit from the Aerospace Industry
• XV: The Influence of the Jet Engine on the Industry

• Notes
• Acronyms
• Annotated Bibliography



The controlling element behind the fluctuations within the American aerospace industry has been the national military strategy. There was no such strategy immediately following World War II. Some Air Force generals expected a resurgence of Germany and Japan, but the postwar condition of the losers must have made those ideas seem ludicrous. Navy Secretary James Forrestal and AAF Intelligence accurately assessed the possibilities for a Russian threat, but the top AAF generals believed the Red Air Force was so backward technologically that it would be unable to catch up for at least twenty years. Further, to them, the Red Army and Navy were unimportant in modern war: there was no conceivable enemy with a navy that could seriously threaten the United States. Perhaps most important, the United Nations (UN) was expected to prevent war, and the formation of a UN permanent international police force to enforce peace was anticipated. U.S. military strategy would be simply to contribute to the international body.

Other circumstances delayed formation of a military strategy. The effort to prevent chaos during massive demobilization demanded so much attention that little effort was given to strategy: the world situation of the time appeared stable enough that the government could defer the problem of military planning. The available service energies were consumed in the intense political struggle over the autonomy of air forces, which was called a struggle over unification. The Army Air Forces saw autonomy as necessary for survival, fearing that continued subordination to the Army would result in renewed neglect of airpower. The Navy saw autonomous airpower as a threat to its own survival as a major force because of the popular support for airpower concepts. The Army regarded air autonomy as inevitable. The concern over survival by two parties accounts for the intensity of the controversy. President Truman shared the AAF's fears over the possibility of neglect, and his views were decisive.

The AAF became the USAF in 1947; and subsequently, with demobilization and autonomy no longer overriding issues, and with the emergence of a distinguishable postwar international framework, more attention was given to a national military strategy.


The immediate postwar years witnessed growing concern over Russian noncooperation with American international concepts. Simultaneously, the prospects of an effective UN international police force faded. As awareness grew of the need for a national military strategy, two proposals became major contenders. Both accepted military preparedness as the means to deter armed aggression. President Truman, General George C. Marshall, and Secretary Forrestal advocated strength through the Army, in the continental European tradition: there would be universal military training (UMT), and the associated masses of reserve forces would be ready for national mobilization. The competing proposal was to adopt an airpower strategy according to which a strategic bombing force would be assembled which could destroy the economic fabric of Russia with atomic bombs. The Navy would keep the seas open, and allies would furnish the bulk of land forces. Since America had a monopoly of the bombs and was believed to be technologically superior to Russia, the forces in being could be small, and of course a force capable of dealing with Russia could crush lesser powers. The airpower proposal, resting upon technology rather than upon masses of men in a compulsory system, and costing less, had a far greater appeal to Americans than did universal military training. UMT failed in Congress and, after the Finletter Commission action, the USAF concept was adopted.

The Navy's status in either proposal was to keep the seas open, primarily an antisubmarine mission. The Navy had hoped, instead, to dominate or at least to share in the air strategy, regaining the primacy in defense it had held before the war. And when the Navy's main means to achieve a strategic bombing role, the U.S.S. United States, was canceled while under construction, the Navy believed it was faced with a renewed threat to its survival. It took drastic action, a "revolt of the admirals," to upset the dominant position of the Air Force and restore a future for carrier aviation. Its course was to challenge the Air Force's main means to implement its air-nuclear strategy, the B-36. Claims were made that the B-36 could not execute its mission, and that strategic bombing and nuclear weapons were ineffective and their use immoral. Later the Navy reversed its position on strategic nuclear attack and weapons, and in the meantime it did achieve its objective of getting carriers suitable for long-range bombardment.


The one-war, air-atomic strategy did not survive the opening of the Korean War. The circumstances of that war had been partially foreseen by General Carl Spaatz, chief of staff of the Air Force from 1946 to 1948, who had expected that the most likely form that Red aggression would take in the face of American air-atomic strategy would be a limited attack on the communist periphery. Spaatz further believed that the American response would be implementation of the air-atomic strategy against the source of power: Russia.

Faced with the awful situation come true, the U.S. did not strike with atomic weapons, either at Russia as the supposed principal, or at North Korea or its armies as the proxy. The reasons are manifold. The commander in chief, Truman, shrank from using nuclear bombs in a peripheral war and deferred a decision on the matter; General Hoyt Vandenberg, Air Force chief of staff, believed it would impair his capability to handle Russia if American nuclear bombs were expended in the Far East; and for a while Truman feared that the Korean aggression might be only a first step in a series of attacks which would culminate in general war. Finally, the United States wanted to keep its allies, and there was opposition among the latter to the use of atomic bombs.


The end of the Korean War came soon after Eisenhower took office, and he and John Foster Dulles believed that his threat to use nuclear weapons against Chinese sources of power was the reason that the Communists suddenly accepted terms they had rejected for two years. New developments in nuclear weapons increased their importance in strategy as well.

The Russians exploded a nuclear bomb in 1949 and a thermonuclear one in 1953, so the United States now faced a nuclear-armed potential enemy with the ability to build long-range, aerospace delivery systems. Tactical nuclear weapons were being developed, and the Korean War had shown that the Russians were not technologically inferior to the United States in aircraft equipment.

The product of these circumstances was a "one-and-one-half-war" strategy. The United States was to be ready to fight a sudden air-nuclear general war with Russia, and also be ready to fight a short, sharp, limited nuclear war. Because the military forces now had no choice but to provide an air defense, a larger strategic air force to ensure crushing a competent Russian defense, the tactical nuclear forces to prevent a Russian overrun of Western Europe, and a limited-war force, as well as keep up with rapidly advancing technology, the total costs were much higher than in the Truman era. Eisenhower's fiscal conservatism and his belief in the efficacy of swift atomic strikes as a deterrent led to a nuclear strategy for limited war; and the United States, for a relatively small sum, established small, fast, mobile forces equipped with tactical nuclear weapons and little conventional armament. Nuclear weapons, strategic and tactical, gave, in common phrases of the time, "more bang for the buck" and promised "massive retaliation."

The Air Force dominated the general war air-nuclear strategy, with the Navy as a junior partner. Development of the ICBM and IRBM did not change this relationship, as the Navy's Polaris system supplemented the Air Force's Atlas, Titan, Thor, and Jupiter. All services shared the limited mission, however. The Air Force Was able to move its tactical airpower and Army strike forces nearly globally by air refueling and airlift. At least two international crises, at Lebanon and Quemoy, occurred during the period of this strategy, and it was believed that they could result in limited war. The three services put into action the proposed swift deployment of small, nuclear-equipped forces, and the United States appeared both able and willing to use nuclear weapons. The crises evaporated, and it appeared that this strategy had kept peace, but an all-nuclear concept was never popular.


President Kennedy, like Eisenhower before him, came to office with the belief that his predecessor had neglected defense, especially the ICBM. His strategy called for expanded forces which could take care of a nuclear general war, or a limited conventional war with a simultaneous second crisis: a "two-and-one-half-war" strategy. Under Eisenhower the conventional forces had been our shield, and the aerospace-nuclear forces our sword. Kennedy reversed the functions.

The aerospace-nuclear general war forces, also called strategic retaliatory forces, were enlarged by 100 percent in deliverable weapons. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara believed that the growing Russian air-defense strength, which was further augmented by an increasing superiority of the fighter over the bomber and the better effectiveness of missiles over flak, greatly reduced the usefulness of bombers. He expected a bomber loss rate of 75 percent per mission. As a result, the Strategic Air Command's (SAC) bomber force was reduced, and the aircraft-carrier strategic bombers converted to reconnaissance aircraft.

The major increase came in Army and Navy forces for conventional war. Kennedy believed that a limited-war capability which depended on nuclear weapons did not give sufficient flexibility, and more versatile limited-war elements, called general-purpose forces, were prepared. As it turned out, as soon as the buildup of conventional forces was completed, they were committed to a new land war in Asia: Vietnam. In contrast to the swift-strike concept of Eisenhower, the forces were committed piecemeal in a strategy called gradual response. Also in contrast, nuclear weapons were spoken of in such a way as to indicate they would never be used, as in the Johnson presidential campaign in 1964. In carrying out this new strategy and war, Kennedy and Johnson spent over half of the $1 trillion expended for the military from 1946 to 1969, and the aerospace industry was a major recipient.


A new era in national military strategy began with Nixon and the disillusionments of the Vietnam War. Improvements in the aerospace-nuclear strategic forces continued, but in the new era, unlike previous periods, there was an unwillingness to compete with Russia for superiority and a tendency to settle for "sufficiency." The distaste for nuclear weapons became more pronounced, and the fact they have not been used, even in the difficult Vietnam War, casts doubt on the likelihood of their use ever in a limited war. Enthusiasm for conventional war, furthermore, was reduced to a low ebb by the Vietnam War.

The national military strategy after the Vietnam phasedown was not clear-cut, although it appeared to be the same as during the Kennedy-Johnson era but on a reduced scale. The aerospace-nuclear strategy for general war continued. The limited-war strategy appeared to be to use conventional forces only, and to prefer to use tactical airpower rather than ground forces. Also apparent was a partial return to Eisenhower's desire to use U.S. airpower together with allied armies.

It is evident that the aerospace industry benefited for twenty years from changing national military strategies; until Nixon, each change brought increased demands for aerospace products. The market was not only for increased quantities but also for major improvements in capabilities, in new technology. Technology, in turn, supported broader strategies: the power of the jet engine made possible the long, swift weapon of Eisenhower's quick-strike, limited-war strategy, and it provided the capacity for the airlift of the masses of men called for in Kennedy's conventional limited-war strategy.