By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black
Brian D. Laslie, Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. Lexington, KT: The University Press of Kentucky, 2017. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 21 b/w Photos. Hbk. 236 pp.
With Architect of Air Power Brian D. Laslie, Deputy Command Historian at NORAD and US Northern Command and an Adjunct Professor at the US Air Force Academy had two mutually supporting goals. The first is to offer readers a biography of General Laurence S. Kuter, one of the select few US Air Force (USAF) officers to serve the majority of his 35-year career as a general officer (the others were Generals Curtis LeMay, Lauris Norstad, and Hoyt Vandenberg). The second is to acknowledge that Kuter’s
[c]areer dovetailed with the rise of an adolescent air power and ended with a fully grown and mature air force capable of global monitoring and response. (p. xi)
In other words, Kuter was an architect of the USAF. Many of the modern USAF’s principles and methods owe their origins to his work.
The biography is organised chronologically, beginning with Kuter’s adolescence and time at West Point and ending with his service as a four-star general commanding the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) and North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), retirement, and passing. Laslie has assembled an impressive array of sources to discuss Kuter’s life and career. He draws on Kuter’s incomplete autobiography, collections at the USAF Academy library (including Kuter’s papers and those of several his contemporaries), oral histories, diaries, and letters. One highlight of the book is how Laslie captures Kuter’s relationship with his high school sweetheart and wife, Ethel Kuter (née Lyddon). Ethel’s diary was slowly overtaken by references to Kuter beginning in 1922, and the pair wrote over 1,000 letters to each other during his time at West Point.
Laslie takes his readers on a mission to understand why so little has been written about Kuter. One reason is that Kuter did not make a name for himself with flying exploits or by leading air formations into battle. Kuter did not join the US Army Air Corps because of romantic visions of flight. Instead, he joined to be a better artillery officer. Only later did he become fully immersed in exploring a new kind of warfare – mainly at the operational rather than tactical level. In August 1941, Kuter became one of the authors of AWPD-1, the first comprehensive plan for winning the war against Germany through aerial bombardment. In the early months of America’s Second World War, Brigadier General Kuter (one of the youngest general officers in the US Army) was a go-between for General George C. Marshall and Lieutenant General Henry H. Arnold. He also had a significant hand in setting up the latter’s Air Staff as the US Army Air Forces achieved autonomy. Kuter made a name for himself with his organisational skills rather than his combat command ability.
Recognising this, Arnold sent Kuter to Europe in late 1942 to gather command experience. Kuter commanded the Eighth Air Force’s 1st Bombardment Wing under Brigadier General Ira Eaker. One of Eaker’s assistants, James Parton, later claimed that Eaker had fired Kuter for declining to fly on combat missions. Laslie has proven these accusations to be unquestionably false. In fact, while Eaker gave Kuter the worst performance reviews of his career, he also tried to retain Kuter’s services. Laslie believes Eaker did this to provide Kuter with more time to prove himself; he had served under Eaker for only five weeks.
This is another of the reasons for the lack of attention afforded Kuter. He never stayed in one place long enough to make a name for himself. Kuter’s next stop was North Africa. He would serve as the deputy to Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, commander of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force. He served in this position for only four months, but he still made immense contributions to the war effort and the future of the US air power. Kuter’s brainchild was FLAX, a well-planned and executed operation to destroy the Axis air bridge between Sicily and Tunisia. He also learned how to implement a proper ground support system in the field. When he returned to Washington to work under Arnold his experiences in North Africa were codified in Field Manual 100-20. This document is considered both the air force’s ‘declaration of independence’ and the basis for the USAF’s tactical air power concepts to this day.
Kuter’s next command opportunity overseas was in the Pacific. Now a Major General, Kuter was quickly replaced in a reshuffling of officers following the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945. He then moved to Air Transport Command, where he supported General Douglas MacArthur’s buildup in Japan following the island nation’s surrender. After less than a month, Kuter once again returned to Washington. As Laslie notes, ‘as soon as [Kuter] established and organized the flow of men and material, he was pulled from the theater.’ (p. 122)
Another reason Laslie offers us for Kuter’s relative obscurity is the man’s level-headedness. People want to write about innovators and controversial figures, not respectable architects. Laslie makes this observation early in the book: ‘If the famous early aviators – men like Curtis LeMay and Jimmy Doolittle – were cowboys, then Kuter represented the first-generation lawman who came to town to impose order.’ (p. 18) One of the arduous tasks Kuter had to handle while working under Arnold in 1942 were the requests from various theatre commanders for more and better aircraft and properly trained crews. At the time, there just were not enough aircraft to train crews in the United States and supply US Army Air Forces in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. President Roosevelt had also promised the Royal Air Force a share of American aircraft production. This added strain was worth it since many British Commonwealth pilots already had combat experience. Although the theatre commanders could be quite forceful in their requests, Kuter never let it get the better of him, and his level-headedness set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Perhaps, therefore, when Arnold could not attend the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Kuter attended in his place. In doing so, Kuter jumped the queue in front of three-star generals.
Kuter’s Cold War career is equally fascinating. He never held or coveted the positions of Chief of Staff or Vice Chief of Staff of the USAF (perhaps another factor in his relative obscurity). His work establishing the USAF Academy and achieving accreditation for the Air University were architectural moves that produce new generations of air force officers that continue to mould the modern USAF. As a four-star general, Kuter commanded America’s aviation in the Pacific theatre, consolidating these forces under one command: PACAF. He also oversaw NORAD as it dealt with growing Soviet missile offensive capability in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In his preface, Laslie notes the difficulty associated with writing biography suggesting that:
Historians must tread the perilous course of being objective while at the same time proclaiming why subject needs individual attention in the first place. (p. xi)
Laslie has played this balancing act marvellously. He pulls no punches, willingly calling out Kuter when his ideas or actions were wrong, especially his belief in strategic air bombardment as a war-winning approach. Laslie carefully provides the reader with enough context so that he or she may understand why Kuter made these errors. In fact, it is these very moments, so well captured by Laslie, that make Kuter and the history of the USAF such a fascinating subject.
Alexander Fitzgerald-Black has a Master of Arts in Military History from the University of New Brunswick and is a Master of Arts in Public History candidate at the University of Western Ontario. Alex’s first book, Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943, will be published in early 2018. His research interests include air power in the Second World War, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean, and Canadian military history. He operates his blog at alexfitzblack.wordpress.com and can be reached on Twitter @AlexFitzBlack.
Header Image: Republic of Korea Air Force Lieutenant General Cho Won Kun flies with the 35th Fighter Squadron out of Kunsan Air Base, c. 2009. The 35th Fighter Squadron forms part of the 8th Operations Group of the 8th Fighter Wing. The 8th Fighter Wing is assigned to the Seventh Air Force, which reports to PACAF. (Source: Wikimedia)