The Importance of Alaska

IN THE SUMMER OF 1901, THE U.S. ARMY assigned a young first lieutenant named William Lendrum Mitchell (1879-1936) to a distant post in Alaska. Mitchell (his friends called him “Billy”) had a tough job in front of him. His task was to oversee the construction of a telegraph line from Valdez on the Gulf of Alaska coast to Eagle, near where the Yukon River flows into Alaska from Canada.

It was no simple feat to build this telegraph line. The wires had to wind over 1,500 miles of trackless wilderness and cross two major mountain ranges — one of them dotted with volcanoes. Much of the work would take place in the bitter arctic cold and darkness of winter. (And remember — these were the days before global warming.) The wilds of Alaska were filled with hazards, including earthquakes, hungry bears, and forest fires that blacked out the sun. Yet despite the difficulties, on June 27, 1903, 1st Lt. Billy Mitchell personally crimped a wire that completed the last connection of the telegraph line.

Mitchell’s superior officers were impressed. They suspected that the young lieutenant was destined for greater things. So they posted Billy Mitchell to the Army Signal Corps, a “high tech” sort of job in those days. In that new job, Mitchell talked his bosses into buying some flying contraptions called “aircraft” from an early aviation pioneer named Glenn Curtiss.

The idea was to use these rickety machines to facilitate communication within the Army, and maybe even help with artillery spotting. By 1914, the U.S. Army owned eight aircraft and employed all of 14 trained pilots. Later on, as it turned out, Billy Mitchell became the father of the U.S. Air Force. But this gets ahead of the story:


The Kindergarten of Aviation

During World War I, Mitchell was posted to France and assigned to aviation duty. When he showed up to meet the British commander, Mitchell had just one simple request. “I’d like to see your equipment, your stores, and the way you arrange your system of supply,” Mitchell said. “Also, I need to know all you can tell me about operations, because we will be joining you in these before long.” Yes, indeed. This was a simple request to a commanding officer in the midst of fighting a war.

Mitchell became the first American pilot to fly over German lines. He disdained the notion of pilots as “knights of the air,” just flying hither and yon in search of opponents. Flying was too risky, and resources were too scarce to waste on just drilling holes in the sky. So Mitchell began to formulate a doctrine for aerial warfare. Step by step, Mitchell focused on using aircraft for dedicated intelligence gathering, bombing important targets, supporting ground troops, and engaging with enemy aircraft.

Finally in 1918, in a climactic aerial effort, Mitchell led a bombing attack on St. Mihiel with an astonishing number of aircraft — over 1,400. In a remarkable event of combined arms, this gigantic air armada included French, British, and Italian aircraft under Mitchell’s overall operational commend. In his after-action report, Mitchell wrote of the German efforts to retreat from St. Mihiel: “Our air force, by attacking their transportation trains, railroads, and columns on the roads, piled them up with debris so that it was impossible for many of their troops to get away quickly, resulting in their capture by our infantry.”

Mitchell became a favorite of the American Expeditionary Force’s commanding general, John “Black Jack” Pershing. With Pershing’s support, Mitchell participated extensively in operational planning as the war moved into its closing phases.

Based on his experience in combat in World War I, Mitchell saw the clear need for air superiority in any future war. He rejected the belief that the Great War (renamed World War I several decades later) was the so-called “war to end all wars.” Mitchell said, “If a nation ambitious for universal conquest gets off to a flying start in a war of the future, it may be able to control the whole world more easily than a nation has controlled a continent in the past.”

Mitchell envisioned combined arms operations in which air power supported ground and naval forces. Mitchell thought deeply about the future importance of military air power. “The European war was only the kindergarten of aviation,” he wrote. In another article, Mitchell stated that the conflict had “conclusively shown that aviation was a dominant element in the making of war.”

Mitchell requested funding to conduct research on better aircraft, and to train pilots and aircrew. But Army leadership and Congress ignored Mitchell’s requests. Congress ignored Mitchell even after the fateful day of July 21, 1921, when he demonstrated that an airplane could sink an armored battleship:


The Real Objectives; the Vital Centers

Undeterred by the lack of interest from Congress, Mitchell continued to argue in favor of air power. Mitchell’s success in sinking a battleship did cause such a commotion that he all but shamed Navy leaders into establishing the Bureau of Aeronautics in 1921. BuAir, as it was called, became the cradle of naval aviation developments under its commander, Adm. William Moffett. And within weeks of sinking the battleship, the Navy diverted funds to begin designing a vessel that would become its first aircraft carrier.

Mitchell spoke and wrote in broad strategic terms. Mitchell incorporated in his thinking the idea of the “center of gravity.” This was one of the central concepts first discussed by the father of modern strategic thinking, Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831). “It is now realized,” wrote Mitchell, “that the hostile main army in the field is a false objective and the real objectives are the vital centers.” The opposing army is a “false objective”? The real objectives are the “vital centers”? This was an intellectual revolution in the making, certainly in American military thinking. For every nation, of course, each situation or confrontation is different. But Mitchell’s approach to strategic thinking — using such broad and conceptual themes as “vital centers” within a military context — opens up new vistas to the strategist and operational planner.

Adamant and Insubordinate

Mitchell gave his pitch to anyone who would listen. He simply would not back down. He was adamant in promoting air power. After a terrible aviation accident in 1925, in which a number of Navy aircrew were killed, Mitchell published a hard-hitting article that lashed out at the lack of investment in airpower by the Army and Navy. Mitchell stated, “All aviation policies, schemes, and systems are dictated by the non-flying officers of the Army and Navy, who know practically nothing about it. The lives of airmen are being used merely as pawns in their hands.”

Moffett, who was in command of the Navy’s fledgling aviation program, was incensed. “Did you see what Billy Mitchell said?” asked Moffett of an aide. “That son of a bitch is riding over the Navy’s dead to further his own interests. I’m going back to Washington and put a stop to this!”

And within two days, the Army began court-martial proceedings against Mitchell on a charge of “insubordination.” Mitchell was found guilty. Only one officer voted for Mitchell’s acquittal: Douglas MacArthur.

Whoever Holds Alaska

After his conviction at court-martial, Mitchell resigned from the Army. He spent the next decade traveling across the U.S., speaking about aviation and writing about the need for improving U.S. air power. In 1935, Mitchell testified before the U.S. House of Representatives and its Committee on Military Affairs. Mitchell harkened back to his Alaska experiences as he urged Congress to buy airplanes and equipment with which to survey and defend the extended reaches of U.S. territories.

In his last public appearance before he died, Mitchell pleaded with Congress to recognize the strategic importance of Alaska. Mitchell said, “I believe that, in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world…I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.”

A Sentimental Old Man; Other Priorities

Mitchell spoke to Congress during the depths of the Great Depression. To be sure, in 1935, Congress had more immediate issues on its plate. Thus, the legislators ignored Mitchell and his arguments about Alaska. Perhaps the members of Congress just viewed Mitchell as a famous, but sentimental old man. Here before them was a court-martialed and retired Army colonel, a hero to some and a troublemaker to others. They gave him the courtesy of listening as he recalled his youthful adventures in the wilds of the Chugach Mountains and Yukon Valley.

Was Alaska really important? Was Alaska strategic? Maybe it was. Or maybe it was not. But a few things were certain in 1935. Alaska was a sparsely populated, largely unknown territory. Alaska was far away. And the U.S. economy in the lower 48 states was profoundly broken. Congress had other priorities.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
January 8, 2008