Policy Planning Staff Files

Mr. Vannevar Bush 1 to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Bradley)

top secret

Dear General Bradley: I have recently worked with the Army, in a group assembled by Secretary Gray,2 on problems concerning defense of a line in Europe. The direct results have been embodied in a report which will no doubt have serious attention.3

In the course of that study I have again after a considerable interval delved into many military matters, and I have come to a number of personal conclusions which reach far beyond the scope of the directive which initiated that study. They are serious and disturbing conclusions. I have accordingly summarized them briefly in this letter, which I place in your hands to use as you may see fit.

The problem of defense of the United States is in a serious condition, at which I am appalled. If this problem is attacked vigorously at this time, and properly coordinated, with first things coming first, it can be put in satisfactory condition in a few years. If we drift as we are going, it will remain in unsatisfactory condition and might well lead to disaster.

There has been, since the war, a profound alteration in conditions, and we have not yet altered our approach to meet them. Soon after the war it appeared, with the A-bomb in Our sole possession, and with adequate means of delivering it, that we would thus maintain the peace of the world. Further, if war broke out suddenly, we could promptly bring it to a successful conclusion by this means alone. This may or may not have been true at the time; it is certainly not true now. We have no monopoly of the A-bomb, and the defense against bomber attack has increased enormously and is increasing every day.

The result is that if war should break out tomorrow it would be a long desperate war, in which we would suffer major initial disasters, and in which we could hope to prevail only after a period of years by the ultimate weight of our industrial potential, and after irreparable damage.

We have recognized the altering conditions in our national policy. The Marshall Plan has prevented the conquest of Western Europe [Page 228] by subversion. The Truman doctrine has ended advance by military catspaws in Europe, if not in the Far East. We trust these are permanent checks and can be maintained. We extend military aid to Europe. The Atlantic Pact and our military policy recognize that our forward lines lie in Europe, we trust well to the east. These are wise steps. But our military programs have not evolved correspondingly to meet the issues.

The result is that, while we recognize the position of the front line, neither we nor our Allies are in a position to defend it. While we recognize that we must support our Allies we are not in a position successfully to do so.

The situation is not a desperate one in the long run for three reasons:—first, I believe our people are facing the facts as far as they know them with courage and determination; second, our potential enemy has his troubles and probably will not move at once; third, there are real and important technical developments which can form the basis for a vigorous, intelligent program to place us in condition to carry out our commitments. We wish to be so strong we can prevent war. We are not in that condition now. We will not get into that condition along the present path. But it can be done.

To be adequately strong, we must accomplish several very definite things and these break down readily in terms of the missions of our three Services. I will treat them in that manner, and come to the Army last, for there is where I can be most definite.

First let me consider the mission of the Air Force. The keynote here is that we should face facts. We should have an adequate strategic bomber force to deliver our A-bombs successfully on the optimum targets. But we should not assume that these are the targets of five years ago. There should be, and is under way, a factual and analytical study of the probability of penetrating to key Russian targets with acceptable attrition. In my personal opinion it is not now possible to make such penetration to some targets and more will soon be excluded, but our plans should rest on a more secure foundation than personal opinion. The analysis needs to include the rising power and effectiveness of radar warning nets and ground control, antiaircraft artillery of modern type, ground to air missiles, and jet pursuits. It may be, even now, that the use of A-bombs to slow the march of Russian armies would be wiser than to attempt to place them on key Russian industrial sites, or on secondary targets of that nature if the primary targets are highly defended. I do not pass judgment on this, as I have not examined it closely, but it should be ruthlessly examined. On the basis of such examination we should have in being a strategic force capable of delivering A-bombs as needed in a reasonable time to the right spots, and no more. If we are still operating under the theory that a force [Page 229] that could handle our entire stock in a short time could thus end the war, we are engaging in wishful thinking and wasting our substance. Beyond this, if we are building bombers to carry ordinary high explosives to industrial targets we are certainly living in the past. Along with a reevaluation of this matter should go intense effort on every new and promising device which will enhance our ability to penetrate, without devoting effort to the fantastic.

But strategic bombing is not the sole responsibility of the Air Force. There are others, and as the scene shifts they increase in importance. They have been neglected. This may be no more the fault of the Air Force than of national thinking generally, but it is time we snapped out of it. The war is not going to be won by the Air Force alone, but by the Army, Navy, and Air Force in collaboration and concert.

We cannot win a war and emerge in sound condition without adequate armies of our own and of our Allies to hold a line, preserve industrial power for our use, and furnish a secure base for later advance. A modern army cannot fight a modern war without adequate tactical air support in all its many phases. We have no tactical air force worthy of the name, nor have our Allies. Our enemy has always placed great weight on tactical air and is doing so now. We cannot allow our armies or those of our Allies to fight without such support or they will be overwhelmed. We had better get at it. It will require more than a system by which the Air Force supplies the Army with such cover of this sort as it thinks the Army needs.

We have to look to our home defense, for we cannot ignore A-bombs in enemy hands. In so doing the primary principle should be that we will not be deluded by a Maginot Line complex. An attempt to defend every point in this country fully could bankrupt us and moreover could never be successful. But there are new forms of radar, new guided missiles, new antiaircraft rockets, new ways of handling interceptors. With careful planning we can do a reasonable job, and not attempt the extreme job that would wreck us. I warn against overburdening the economy and impairing the offensive if there is clamor for extreme measures for home defense. We must remember that our forward line is in Europe, and that no war was ever won by remaining on the defensive. Still I would rather see an adequate radar defense network than a television set in every home, which seems to be about what we are going to get.

The Air Force needs to do a thorough job of re-evaluation and soul searching. It has got to get down to earth in doing so in a real sense. Moreover, it must be in the position of having to substantiate its programs before a tribunal competent and willing to judge them from every angle on a ruthlessly analytical and factual basis. This applies to every Service, of course. But it applies particularly to the Air Force, [Page 230] for, in their enthusiasm, which is an indispensable and invaluable asset, I feel that they have been drawn down a single line of reasoning much too long.

I now turn to the Navy, and I am going to be equally critical. I do so with profound sympathy for the Navy’s dilemma, but I cannot be realistic and be otherwise than critical. Having defended the country as its first line of defense for generations, sometimes in spite of itself, having fought a war in which it covered itself with honor, the Navy entered a period of uneasy peace in which it was no longer the first line and in which it faced an antagonist which had no surface navy of moment. It would have been strange had there been no divided councils, no searching for glorious paths. When strategic bombing was regarded as a cure-all, before its unique importance faded, the Navy sought to participate in this. Perhaps it might have to advantage; there are technical possibilities here which should not be ignored; but it is certainly not the main job of the Navy. Having reluctantly abandoned the battleship built to fight battleships, it has clung tenaciously to the carrier with which it won great battles. Now the carrier is not obsolete. It certainly has a use in carrying force promptly to remote places, and in small sizes it has a use in anti-submarine warfare. But the great carrier, in my opinion, is now not worth the cost of building, maintaining and supporting it. I do not ignore the great strides which have been made in means for antiaircraft defense of carriers, but I believe a carrier cannot today successfully operate within the range of land-based aircraft in the hands of an enemy which has them in quantity, and would fight them well and press attacks home. We face such an enemy.

The primary mission of the Navy is to control the seas, to insure in time of war the transport of armies and the supply of friendly civilian populations. I am of the firm opinion that, if war broke out tomorrow, we would not be able to perform that mission successfully. I realize that there has been a recent report on this matter coming to this conclusion, which in the judgment of its authors is preliminary only and based on intelligence of doubtful validity. I am convinced that further careful study will bear out its conclusions.

There has been much talk of the snorkel and of the high-speed submarine of long underwater endurance. These are truly important, but they are not the innovations which leave me appalled when I view the problem of maintenance of overseas transport. The long range homing torpedo, the modern mine, and the guided bomb are much worse.

When a torpedo appeared which could outrange sonar by a wide margin, which could home on its target by one of several methods, and which could be launched by submarines having the snorkel and [Page 231] high speed, much of the paraphernalia by which we fought submarines in the last war became obsolete. When mines were developed which could be placed from the air, which could be swept only with great difficulty and serious losses, the power of an enemy to deny the use of ports was multiplied radically. At present we are in no position to cope with these threats.

If we cannot maintain transport over the seas, all else is in vain. We should lose our troops and our friends, and be driven back to this continent to face a decade or a generation of desperate strife. It is of no use to speak of airlift; we consider millions of tons of cargo, which has to move in displacement ships of relatively low speed, whatever we may do for the supply of bases or the like. Nor is it helpful to expect some scientists to pull a rabbit out of a hat and alter the whole affair. There will be no rabbits. What lies ahead is an intricate, prolonged program, advancing and developing dozens of promising leads and new devices. Most important, what lies ahead is a change in our manner of thinking. If we live in the past we will be defeated.

The situation is by no means hopeless. The most encouraging factor is a new spirit and a new facing of hard facts in the Navy itself. But mere resolution and determination in the Navy alone will not do it. The swing in emphasis must be real and complete, the Navy must truly devote its main energy to its primary mission, and the Navy’s will to proceed must be backed by the Defense Establishment, the President, and the Congress. That, and some years of hard inglorious work, will do the job. There are technical possibilities in embryo which give encouragement and there will be more if the ones now present are really pushed. It is our present number one national military problem.

I turn finally to the Army, and here my criticism takes a different form. Traditionally, air and sea fighting have involved complex techniques and land fighting has been relatively simple. This is a fallacy. Fighting on land, with mechanized armies, rocket-bearing aircraft, modern communications, and tactical aircraft, is as complex as either sea or air fighting. Yet, traditionally, in every war land warfare has begun with the implements of the previous conflict. The tank, for example, could have been ready in the first war and was used to advantage only in the second.

Since the war ended the Army, burdened as is no other Service by its occupation duties, has not advanced new techniques and methods adequately. Its expenditures on research and development have been half of those of either other Service. Its new procurement of advanced material has been almost negligible. It has been thinking primarily, in its higher echelons, in terms of numbers of divisions, conventional logistics, relations with the civilian economy, mobilization, and reserves. [Page 232] These it must think of, and I do not wish to seem oblivious to the many tough problems it has had to face, nor to the remarkable record it has made in occupation in which we take pride. But its thinking has not been, on the whole, and in the upper echelons, modern and imaginative. This is shown by its research, development, and procurement policies. These have been forced on it by the budget, but the budget would have been different had there been real drive and conviction present.

The main mission of the Army, if war comes, will be first to hold lines, and this will continue to be its mission until rising strength allows the mounting of an offensive. The holding of a modern line is a complex matter involving armor, land mines, tactical air, antiaircraft, and such else.

Here lies opportunity. It is an opportunity such as appears once in a military generation.

The Russians have 40,000 tanks. Their whole program rests on these, and on masses of men, artillery and air cover. The tanks are the spearhead and the focus. Many of them are heavy tanks, and the best tanks in the world by current measure.

We have the means of rendering those heavy tanks obsolete, of turning a great asset into a liability, of throwing the enemy preparations into confusion and forcing upon him sweeping readjustments which will take him years. We have the means in embryo in our hands now. If we had been sufficiently alert we could have had them several years ago, but at least we have them now.

There has been built and tested ammunition for a gun which can penetrate any armor a tank can carry. It can be used in guns of high precision and of adequate range. Moreover, it can be used in light inexpensive guns, which can be used as squad weapons or carried in a jeep. When, for the cost of one tank, 100 guns can be built which can destroy it at a single shot at considerable range, the day of the tank fades. When a jeep can meet a heavy tank and be a match for it, the day of the heavy tank is done. All that is justified thereafter is the light vehicle armored against machine guns and fragments. The main reliance for the breakthrough, the heavy tank, is countered.

Whether we seize the opportunity or not depends upon whether we live in the past or in the future. We will undoubtedly do the obvious: speed up research and development in this area, develop new guns, new vehicles and ammunition. But really to seize the opportunity means to put our backs behind it; to bring forward trial production, to conduct maneuvers for evaluation and guidance, to cut red tape if it interferes with progress. Moreover it means getting our Allies going, with their own development, production, and training, with all the complexities this involves under our system of foreign aid. There is one thing sure. [Page 233] Nothing we would do for our Allies would so raise their morale, so stimulate their will to fight, as to place in their hands ample weapons with which to stop the tank.

This opportunity to defeat armor is the focus, but it does not stand alone. For an army to fight and hold lines it must defend itself against the low-flying aircraft carrying machine guns for strafing and rockets for penetration. There are also promising new weapons against these. It must defend its ports and its depots against the bomber. There are under development devices, such as new antiaircraft guns and rockets, and ground to air missiles, which can impose 50% attrition on any high-flying bombers, that attack such a strong point, and with concentration and effort more attrition even than this. There are antitank mines, and there can be new means of laying them rapidly. There must be tactical air, and this has been discussed.

By vigorous action now we can, in time, place Europe in the position where it, alone, could hold off the Russian hordes until we could arrive in force. When that day comes we will live in a different sort of world.

This discussion would be incomplete if I did not write of costs. On everything I have written I have had in mind primarily a change in emphasis rather than new additions to effort. With the amount we are putting into national defense, with all of it including our aid to allies of one form or another, much can be accomplished, very much if we merely realign our sights. Can all that I have outlined be thus accomplished? I do not know. This requires a full examination of where we can safely retract as well as where we must add. I do know that I would sacrifice some conventional things to the ends I have in mind if this were necessary and I believe some of this is necessary and should be done. Beyond this if necessary I would go farther. The American people are willing to pay taxes, they are willing to forego more pleasant things if necessary, for real defense, if convinced the money is well spent. If necessary to accomplish the end of placing ourselves in sound military condition I would increase the national expenditure for military purposes. But certainly most of what I here consider involves a change of emphasis rather than merely more money, and to that extent it is now possible if we have the will and agility to meet the issue, quite apart from the profound question of how much of our national income we can spend on military matters without wrecking the national economy.

The primary desideration is that we should think fearlessly, without prejudice or false service interests, that we should face tough facts, and that we should act. We have the organizational machinery for all this, if it will function with sufficient vigor, and if it is allowed to do so. We need to get up to date, and to tackle our really central [Page 234] military problems with all our energy. We have the opportunity, if we have the will.

Cordially yours,

V. Bush
  1. President of the Carnegie Institution of Washington; Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II.
  2. Gordon Gray, Secretary of the Army.
  3. For documentation on the report under reference, see vol. iii, pp. 1 ff.