Air Warfare and the Political Implications of Flight

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: TURNING POINTS IN MODERN HISTORY

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee

Commercial flying made many incredible things possible for the first time. One could travel from one country to another in a matter of days instead of weeks. Airmail became a reality. Pilots became the new global celebrities. Flying also had a major impact on politics and how wars were fought. Let’s find out how this technology was used in war.

Four bomber aircrafts flying in formation, one above the other, surrounded by dense white clouds.
Air warfare in World War I ushered in the reality of total war, in which everyone, including civilians, became participants and potential targets. (Image: Matt Gibson/Shutterstock)

In 1935 there took place the first transpacific commercial flight: the Pan American airline’s flying boat, the China Clipper. The China Clipper actually flew through the Golden Gate in San Francisco as it headed for China. President Roosevelt’s telegram with best wishes really said it best. He communicated, “I thrill to the wonder of it all.”

The name of the flying boat, China Clipper, was intentionally reminiscent of those ships that had carried tea from China in the age of sail, and the hope was that American trade with Asia would surge again. In a real sense, aviation was redrawing the world, making it smaller and more accessible in modern technological ways.

Learn more about the turning points in modern history.

The Westphalian Order Became Obsolete

This modernity also brought peril. The political and military implications of flight were just as far-reaching. In a word, aviation threatened to upset the Westphalian order of territorial sovereignty that was launched at the Peace of Westphalia back in 1648.

That Westphalian Order had established the authority of rule over land or territory. But who would enforce sovereignty in the skies? When the first airplane flight took place in Europe, a British newspaper magnate announced that the real news that had taken place that day was that the English Channel had essentially disappeared. What he meant was Britain was no longer safe from the air.

An early model of a powered airplane flying above a green field, with buildings visible on both sides of the field and at the horizon.
Within just a few years of the invention of powered flight, it was put to military use. The Wright brothers got their first contract in 1908 from the U.S. Army. (Image: U.S. Army/Public domain)

Because no sooner had powered flight been invented than it was put to military uses; to rain death down from the skies. This was not only a matter of the perversity of particular arms dealers and generals at work. In fact, the Wrights themselves marketed their invention as a formidable tool of war and got their first contract in 1908 from the U.S. Army.

Learn more about the treaty of Westphalia.

Birth of Strategic Bombing

The first use of the airplane for war came in 1911 in the Italian-Turkish War over Libya; airplanes were used for reconnaissance and then for bombing. It took only eight years from the invention of planes to their use for war. World War I saw both celebrated fighter aces dueling in the skies, as well as the first beginnings of strategic bombing.

More than anything else, it was air warfare that ushered in the reality of total war. When we speak of total war as a historical phenomenon, we mean industrialized warfare—not of armies alone on the battlefield, but of entire societies and home fronts, in which everyone, including civilians, is a participant and a potential target.

Strategic bombing brought all of this home, and it terrified political and military leaders and populations at large. From those first tentative bombings of cities in World War I, contemporaries drew the terrifying lesson in the phrase of the time, that ‘the bomber always gets through.’

It was Hitler’s air force that pioneered dive-bombers equipped with sirens that wailed as they attacked targets, to terrify those who were on the ground. In World War II, Nazi terror bombing of Warsaw in Poland, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and London, was followed by round-the-clock bombing of Germany by Allied air forces, and the obliteration of Hamburg and Dresden.

Civil defense sirens, bunkers, crowds hunkered underground with gas masks at the ready: This is what modern total war looked like for much of the world.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

H.G. Wells Had Predicted Air Warfare

Incredibly, the prolific British writer H.G. Wells actually predicted this development in really uncanny ways. What today we call science fiction, H.G. Wells preferred to call ‘fantasias of possibility’, an opportunity to imagine and think through the consequences of turning points.

H.G. Wells’s novel The War in the Air was written in 1907, and then published as a book in 1908. The core thesis of the book was correct and prophetic. The airplane alters the character of war. With airplanes, war will no longer be fought on fronts, but everywhere, including behind the lines. No one is safe; no one is immune. Just as war was getting more destructive, Wells argued, it was also becoming less decisive and ever more meaningless.

The Tower Bridge across River Thames in London stands tall to the right of the frame, the sky above the left bank of the   river is completely hidden behind thick plumes of black smoke and burning fire can be seen as well, the left bank is lined   with small boats and some small buildings, and this entire view has been captured from another bridge some distance away.
H.G. Wells accurately predicted that airplanes will completely alter the character of war, and that war would no longer be fought on fronts, but everywhere, including behind the lines. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Wells’s novel follows a humble British bicycle mechanic who witnesses by accident world historical events. He sees a German air fleet attacking New York and smashing that city. He sees how Germany ultimately proves unable to master America even after this attack, because even as the government surrenders, the American people keep fighting below.

He witnesses an Asian alliance of China and Japan attacking the Europeans and defeating them. Finally, as governments and cities collapse, in this novel, civilization as a whole is destroyed.

Wells was in a real sense the prophet of air war. When the book was republished again during World War II, Wells said bitterly that when he died his tombstone should eventually bear the words, “I told you so. You damned fools”.

But paradoxically, Wells also hoped that air-power might be the answer as well as the problem. Elsewhere in his fiction, Wells speculated that a world government that ruled from the air with air-power could reconstruct all of human society.

Wells was convinced that the solution was world government by scientifically-minded intellectuals. Even this prophet, otherwise so insightful, proved touchingly naïve or innocent in his view of benevolent elites holding overwhelming power over others.

Where are we now, more than a century after this turning point? How air-minded are we today? Flight is a turning point that’s so woven into the lives of many people that we take it for granted. It’s reported that in 2010 global air passengers topped five billion for the first time.

How routine flight has become. Yet, to fly and arrive hours later on a different continent still has its effects. Being that mobile can broaden horizons intellectually, and in essence, produce a different you, a you that would not have existed without human flight.

Learn more about the Russo-Japanese war.

Common Questions about Air Warfare and the Politicization of Flight

Q: What was the historical significance of the China Clipper?

The Pan American airline’s flying boat, the China Clipper undertook the first transpacific commercial flight in 1935. The name of the flying boat, China Clipper, was intentionally reminiscent of those ships that had carried tea from China in the age of sail, and the hope was that American trade with Asia would surge again.

Q: Who invented air warfare?

Just a few years after the invention of powered flight, it was put to military uses. The first use of the airplane for war came in 1911 in the Italian-Turkish War over Libya. Airplanes were used for reconnaissance and then for bombing.

Q: What is the idea of total war?

When we speak of total war as a historical phenomenon, we mean industrialized warfare. So, it’s not just armies alone on the battlefield, but entire societies and home fronts, in which everyone, including civilians, become a participant and a potential target. It was air warfare that ushered in the reality of total war.

Q: When was The War in the Air written?

H.G. Wells’s novel The War in the Air was written in 1907, and then published as a book in 1908.

Keep Reading
The World Before the Treaty of Westphalia
H. G. Wells and the Quest for Utopia
Mary Shelley and the Birth of Science Fiction