On March 19, 1918, Robert Abercrombie Lovett, a 22-year-old United States Navy lieutenant, was about to embark on a series of night bombing runs against the heavily defended German submarine pens on the North Sea coast of occupied Belgium. Those Royal Air Force missions were considered so dangerous that merely surviving seven won an airman the Distinguished Service Cross, among the highest medals the British awarded. The evening before his first mission, Lovett wrote a letter to his future wife, Adele Brown, telling her, “the more one has to live for the more readily one is willing to die for it.” The fortunate son of the head of the Union Pacific railroad had much to live for.
Over the next five nights, he flew four harrowing missions through intense anti-aircraft fire. After that, he was called back to the U.S. Navy Air Service Headquarters in Paris where he had risen swiftly up the ranks during the intensive build-up of the nation’s first true air force. On its next mission, the bomber Lovett had crewed on was shot down, with all hands lost. The grieving young flier wrote his fiancée that he only wished that he could have been along, believing somehow he might have saved the ill-fated heavy bomber.
Lovett, though, was not flying just to fill out the bomber’s crew. One of the earliest Americans to earn his Naval Aviator Wings, he risked all with another, strategic goal in mind — the creation of America’s first strategic bomber force. His experiences flying on those missions and the fitful process of designing and building that pioneering air force would inform his work for the rest of his life.
Few people today know much about Robert Lovett. He never published a memoir, sought no political office, rarely appeared in the press, and wielded power largely behind the scenes, leaving few fingerprints. No published biographies have appeared about him (though he figures as one of “The Wise Men” in Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas’s magisterial 1986 book of that title and I recount his Great War years in my 2006 book The Millionaires’ Unit: The Aristocratic Flyboys Who Fought the Great War and Invented American Air Power). Yet Lovett did more, perhaps, than any other individual to fulfill what he viewed as the nation’s destiny to become the world’s preeminent air power. Despite his desire not to be in the limelight, Lovett rightly should be recalled as one of the greatest of the Founding Fathers of the American Century. His amazing effectiveness stemmed largely from his willingness to live the realities of war that other men of his stature often only theorized about.
Those Great War bombing missions, for instance, were part of his hands-on research into the effectiveness of strategic bombing. Knowing as a result of watching his father’s work for the railroad that heavy transport machines like U-boats required frequent refueling, resupply, and repair, he thought to render them hors de combat while in their pens rather than chase them futilely out at sea. He flew those missions to observe their effectiveness in reducing enemy resistance. He saw that steady, concentrated bombing raids could work. Night after night, the British bombers sapped the Germans’ capacity to make war. “Due to the enormous expenditure of anti-aircraft ammunition,” he reported back to headquarters, “the continuous use of their guns, and the effect on the morale of the gun crews, their defenses became weaker each succeeding night.” As the German defenses weakened, continuing offensive missions could operate ever more safely and at lower elevations, enabling more accurate bombing of objectives. Here was the proof he sought that “a submarine stronghold . . . could be made untenable if not stamped off the map.”
In Paris, he drafted the blueprint for America’s first strategic bomber force, what became the combined Navy and Marine day and night Northern Bombing Group. His dear friend from the famous Yale First Unit, Kenneth MacLeish — later shot down and killed in a dogfight — watched his Yale classmate at work in Paris, making his way rapidly through a stack of Navy operations reports “about two feet high.” Awed by his ability to concentrate, synthesize, and quickly develop widely accepted war-planning recommendations, MacLeish wrote, “Without him, we would never get anywhere. They don’t give men ability like that more than once in a million times.”
He wasn’t just a planner, though. By the end of summer 1918, the first bombers were flying. In a service branch where Naval Academy graduates zealously guarded their command prerogatives, the young enlisted man took charge of the more than 1,300-man night bombing wing of the Northern Bombing Group as America embarked on its first strategic bombing campaign.
He returned home after the war, eventually becoming a partner at Brown Brothers, the ancient Wall Street banking firm. With the Great Depression threatening the bank’s survival, he and his childhood friends, brothers E. Roland and W. Averell Harriman, helped oversee the complex merger that forged Brown Brothers Harriman, the nation’s largest private bank then and now.
After Europe again went to war — a war likely to entangle the U.S. — on his own initiative in 1940 he visited every major aircraft manufacturer in the land while on his annual inspection tour of the Union Pacific Railroad network, of which he was now board chairman. His bleak assessment issued in a memo he circulated following the trip was that the nation’s factories “will not get the plane production” needed to fight “a quantitative war.” That memo reached Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Stimson promptly hired Lovett as Assistant Secretary of War for air, putting him in charge of building a military aviation industry geared to production for a world war. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. possessed the weakest air force of any warring power. Two years later assembly lines were turning out 8,000 military airplanes a month. Before the war ended, every Air Corps commander knew Lovett’s strategic bombing mantra by heart: “Keep it incessant!”
His military vision for American strategic air power did not, however, hinder his ardent internationalism and Atlanticism. He worked easily alongside those whose views might appear contrary to his own. In one consequential instance, Lovett convened with Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican known for his earlier staunch isolationism, to draft the resolution leading to the creation of NATO. In another, he managed — while serving as Undersecretary of State to George Marshall — to convince Congress, then feeling the nation’s “let Europe go” mood, that his boss’s eponymous plan was not a “socialist idea” but a way to prevent “Russians swarming over Europe.” That was just the first step: the Marshall Plan needed to be launched over the objections of the Soviet Union and implemented in concert with European leaders worried about U.S. dominance. None of this proved simple or smooth, so much so that not long after moving back to Washington, Lovett wrote to a friend, “I now refer to the wartime problems as the ‘good old days.’” The jewel in the crown of his achievements at State may well be the Berlin airlift, which broke the Soviet blockade of the western half of the divided city without provoking any further military conflict.
That same strategic thinking never flickered during his years as Secretary of Defense, either. He served from 1951 until 1953. At a time when many Americans thought the U.S. should reduce its forces and return to prewar isolationism, he advocated strength — a tempered, rational strength. “There is no other way,” he found. “We tried weakness. It didn’t work. As a result of aircraft, electronics, and other forms of communication which annihilate distance, the oceans that once protected us no longer provide defense. Our task is to get ourselves geared to these realities.” His vision remained bright even after the end of his government career: he advised John F. Kennedy to respond to the Soviet placement of missiles in Cuba with a blockade as a “not very bloodthirsty first step.”
Lovett once remarked, “You may think this is a small thing, but you’d be appalled at the number of people . . . in Washington . . . who never learned to handle anything by themselves.” The father of American air power was a thinker and a doer, always looking ahead, strategizing for the next war, not refighting the last. Our current Establishment — with its credibility at low ebb — would do well to look for men and women for whom knowledge and action meld as seamlessly as they did for Lovett.
Marc Wortman’s most recent book is 1941: Fighting the Shadow War: A Divided America in a World at War (Atlantic Monthly Books, 2016).