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Hap Arnold and the Evolution of American Air Power

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Hap Arnold is a figure rather hard to warm to, and one that until now hasn't been blessed with a serious biography. Dik Daso--one of a handful of fighter pilots to earn a Ph.D. in history--fills the gap, and in the process uses Arnold's life as a metaphor for the development of American air power in the first half of the 20th century.

As a West Point cadet, he was indifferent in his studies, conduct, and athletics, excelling only as leader of a hell-raising band of pranksters, the Black Hand. But he did learn one invaluable lesson at the Point: "how to work the system." Still, he was blackballed from his first love, the horse cavalry. As a disgruntled infantry officer, Arnold became interested in aviation mostly because it offered him a way out of an unglamorous assignment.

Arnold was the second army officer to earn wings, but he wasn't a great pilot, either. After a near-fatal stall, he lost his nerve and grounded himself for several years, thereby acquiring the experience in logistics and administration that would serve him and his country so well in the 1940s. He also missed World War I, though he did manage (literally in the war's last hours) to earn the decorations needful for his career.

He was a consummate politician, able with equal ease to schmooze presidents and factory workers. He was a visionary, too, who in 1940 told his subordinates to "be bold" in estimating how many planes they'd need over the next several years. They wanted about 100. "To hell with you!" Arnold said, and asked the president for 100,000.

And he was a strategist, who almost single-handedly built the U.S. Army Air Forces into an organization as mighty as the ground forces, and with a distinct mission: "breaking down the will of the [enemy] people." To achieve that power, Arnold was willing to sacrifice the AAF's near-term combat capabilities. In 1941, he spent $42 million on the B-29 Superfortress, which didn't pay off until the war's final year. In the end, his vision was great enough to see beyond the juggernaut he'd created: "We must bear in mind that air power itself can become obsolete."

Hap Arnold retired when the war ended and died three years later. He never wore Air Force blue, but he did live long enough to see an independent USAF, whose missiles were as important as its manned aircraft.

Hap Arnold and the Evolution of American Air Power by Dik Alan Daso. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000. 314 pp., $29.95 (hardbound)

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