Winged Defiance: The Air Force and Preventive Nuclear War in the Early Cold War

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Koonz, Claudia

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This dissertation examines a continuum of insubordination in the Air Force during the early Cold War. After World War II, a coterie of top generals in the Air Force embraced a view held by a minority in American government and the public, which believed that the United States should conduct a preventive war against the Soviet Union before it could develop its own nuclear arsenal. This strategy contradicted the stated national security policies of President Harry S. Truman and his successor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This influential circle of Air Force leaders undermined presidential policy by drafting preventive war plans, pushing preventive war strategies on civilian leaders in the executive branch, and indoctrinating senior field grade officers at the Air War College in preventive war thinking and strategies.

Previous accounts of preventive war activity in the Air Force centered about the Air War College and its first commandant, General Orvil Anderson. In 1950, General Anderson disparaged President Truman and urged for preventive war against the Soviet Union an interview to a local news reporter. Syndicated newspapers reprinted General Anderson's remarks, and the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, relieved General Anderson from his command of the Air War College. The traditional interpretation views General Anderson's firing as the culmination of preventive war discourse and activity in the Air Force.

Examining senior leaders' private and public remarks, declassified transcripts from Air Force commanders' conferences in the early 1950s, and student essays from the Air War College, I show that the preventive war behavior persisted in the Air Force long after General Vandenberg relieved General Anderson in 1950. The culmination of the preventive war movement came in 1954, when a preventive war strategy called Project Control, devised by the Air War College and sponsored by Air Force Headquarters, stalled before the State Department. Following Project Control's failure, Air Force Chief of Staff General Nathan F. Twining finally began to direct the service to develop air power strategies that supported President Eisenhower's nuclear policy of massive retaliation.

The preventive war episode in the Air Force demonstrates an extreme example of how the military bureaucracy regulates and undermines the Constitutional authority of the president to govern national security policy. That this behavior is normal implies that active steps must be taken to ensure proper civilian control over the military. I argue that three prominent theories of civil-military relations--Samuel Huntington's objective control, Morris Janowitz's constabulary theory, and Peter Feaver's agency theory--are notable contributions to U.S. civil-military relations; however, none of these approaches could have solved the breakdown in civil-military relations that prompted the preventive war activity in the Air Force. My concept for civilian control over the military mirrors modern preventive medicine, and assumes that the military is "at risk" for undermining presidential policy. "Preventive control" empowers civilian authorities to actively monitor the military for evidence of insubordinate behavior, and to establish liberal military education programs in order help all airmen to understand and accept political limits on the use of force.






Redman, Edwin Henry (2012). Winged Defiance: The Air Force and Preventive Nuclear War in the Early Cold War. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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