#Reviewing Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the U.S. Air Force

Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. Brian D. Laslie. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2017.

Biographies are often among the best-selling history books, but for many academic historians they are among the most difficult to write. The attraction to some subjects over others has also led to limitations in the literature. Many biographers are attracted to top-level commanders or to the lower level individuals making tough combat decisions in the tactical realm. Rarely do mid-level managers get a thorough treatment that can accurately relate the importance of their work to the larger trends of history. This is exactly what Brian Laslie’s new book Architect of Air Power seeks to remedy for General Laurence S. Kuter. In this brief but lively survey of Kuter’s life, Laslie successfully argues that although Kuter may not have risen to the fame of other Air Force leaders of his day, he nonetheless deserves recognition. Kuter was the father of the United States Air Force’s history program and a key developer of U.S. Air Force doctrine from the Second World War through the early days of the Cold War. As Laslie claims, he was the architect of American air power.

Like many airmen before the Second World War, Kuter began his career at West Point, deciding to attend the school in 1923 thanks to the insistence of his high school Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) commander. Similarly serendipitous, the decision to pursue aviation came neither from romantic notions of the nature of flight nor an aggressive desire to become a knight of the air in the vein of fighter aces such as Eddie Rickenbacker. Kuter simply wanted to improve himself as an artilleryman, and he saw the burgeoning air arm as a means to achieve that. After his flight training and an assignment to the Second Bombardment Wing at Langley Field, Virginia, Kuter was selected to attend the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) in the fall of 1934.

At Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama, the Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s was not only a center of advanced education for airmen, it was the locus of strategic air war planning and doctrine formation. After graduating in 1935, Kuter stayed on as an instructor and became the intellectual leader of the bomber advocates within the school. Along with his close friend Haywood “Possum” Hansell and other instructors, Kuter argued vehemently for strategic bombing as the dominant role for air power. At the time, these ideas were fiercely contested by pursuit (fighter) advocates, led by another instructor, Claire Chennault. Not only does Laslie’s work paint a vivid picture of Kuter’s efforts to establish bomber dominance—a view that remained standard in the Air Force until the 1960s—but also emphasizes the role of personal relationships. The creation of bombing doctrine in this case was as much the story of Kuter and Chennault’s troubled personal relationship as it was an intellectual exercise.

The culmination of this effort was Kuter’s hand in drafting Army War Plans Division—Plan 1 (AWPD-1), the first comprehensive and formal definition of the role of air power in the Second World War. The document called for a strategic air campaign against Germany and Japan, arguing, “if an air power offensive was successful, a land invasion would not be necessary.”[1] Whether or not the plan’s assumptions were correct—and they were not—this formed the foundation upon which future American air doctrine was built. Not only did Kuter contribute to the composition of the foundational plan for U.S. operations in the Second World War, he also played a major role in reorganizing the Army and establishing the Army Air Forces as a separate command element, with its head, Hap Arnold, reporting directly to General George Marshall, as opposed to the head of ground forces, Lieutenant General Leslie McNair. As Laslie notes, “Kuter had now a hand in both the development of the air force’s war plan (AWPD-1) and the internal organization of the army air force. No other air officer, including Hap Arnold, could say the same thing.”[2] Clearly, Laslie’s analogy of Kuter as the architect of the Air Force is more than apt.

Kuter simply wanted to improve himself as an artilleryman, and he saw the burgeoning air arm as a means to achieve that.

Kuter served in Washington during the opening stages of World War II, developing a reputation for being calm and self-controlled. He was soon assigned to command a B-17 wing in England—a position that lasted only a few weeks before he was reassigned to North Africa as the deputy commander of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force (NATAF), under its British commander, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham. Although Kuter was a seminal member of the bomber mafia, his ideas evolved while he served in the leadership of a tactical force. He began to argue for the important roles tactical air power could fulfill in support of ground operations. Later in life, Kuter even expressed “deep regret” for his role in marginalizing pursuit aviation.[3] This more balanced view did not, however, shake Kuter’s overall contention that strategic bombing was the most important role for air power, and “the use of bombers for anything other than strategic bombardment was a waste of the aircraft’s full potential.” Laslie correctly asserts that this view proved shortsighted, but that it was the standard view of the times, noting that “Kuter was one among many army air force officers who simply refused to see air power assets used in any role other than strategic bombing.”[4]

After the war, Kuter commanded the newly created Material Air Transport Service (MATS), where he helped implement the Berlin Airlift. Kuter’s attention was divided, however, due to his need to balance the requirements of the airlift with the global responsibilities of his primary command. This is likely why he received less fame than his deputy, Major General William Tunner, yet another example of a builder (Tunner in this case) receiving more recognition than the architect.

Berlin Airlift: Children Hope for Chocolates (July 1948) | Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Berlin Airlift: Children Hope for Chocolates (July 1948) | Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Perhaps the best example of Kuter as the architect of the U.S. Air Force was the series of institutions he created that are still in existence today. His experience at the Air Corps Tactical School influenced his desire to create multiple levels of officer education. He thus had a key role in creating the Air Force Academy and later became the commander of the Air University at Maxwell. Then, in 1955, Kuter received a promotion to full general and took command of the Far East Air Forces (FEAF) before consolidating it into the still-extant Pacific Air Forces (PACAF). Another form of architecture came in Kuter’s final assignment as commander of North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), during which he oversaw the development of the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center that is still an iconic symbol of American Cold War defense, as featured in the classic film Wargames (1983).

In addition to all these roles, Kuter, back in 1942, had directed the Air Staff Historical Section to gather documents, reports, and any significant records from the war and after, to get information “while it is hot” and create “an agency set up for a clear historian’s job without axe to grind or defense to prepare.”[5] These collections became the core material of the official Air Force Archives, currently at the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell. Laslie is therefore right to refer to Kuter as “the father of Air Force history.”[6]

Thus, Kuter was both one of the main architects of the Air Force and the guardian of its history. Laslie does not stretch the truth in arguing, “The story of Laurence Sherman Kuter is…in a sense, the autobiographical story of the U.S. Air Force.”[7] Laslie’s work goes beyond this, however. Although Kuter’s reputation was that of a cool, levelheaded professional, Laslie interjects a sense of humanity to the story of designing the Air Force. The book describes Kuter not only as a designer, but also as a man deeply in love with his wife, who played a key role in supporting Kuter. Laslie also shows the power personal relationships can have, not only on individual lives, but also on institutions.

The creation of bombing doctrine in this case was as much the story of Kuter and Chennault’s troubled personal relationship as it was an intellectual exercise.

Balancing these insights, the book’s greatest flaw is its brevity. Many sections could easily be expanded, and Kuter’s time as deputy chief of staff for personnel at the Pentagon, as well as his planning for the Air Force Academy, are particularly wanting. Although Laslie adequately handles Kuter’s roles at the Air Corps Tactical School and NORAD, additional historical context could help readers unfamiliar with those periods understand the significance of Kuter’s actions.[8] Moreover, Kuter’s years spent working for Pan Am during the development of the 747 (a subject to which he himself devoted a book-length work, The Great Gamble) is hardly mentioned. However, in part because of its brevity, the book does what good history books should do: point the way toward further scholarship. Laslie’s calls for further study on Kuter and others are welcome, but his tone at times comes across as a bit defensive. He insists Kuter has been too long ignored, and a book-length biography is necessary because “[t]he historiography needs one, and the air force and historians of aerial warfare should demand one.”[9] Laslie is certainly correct in this assertion, but his repetition of this point throughout the work is unnecessary.

Ultimately, airmen and historians of all stripes will benefit from this book, as it certainly fills a gap in the literature. An examination of this often-overlooked figure reveals the conception, birth, and growth of the Air Force as an institution. As Laslie points out, “Architects seldom get the same notoriety as builders.”[10] Thanks to this work, in one instance that is no longer the case.

A Few Minutes with the Author:

Michael Hankins: Why do you think Kuter has escaped the attention of previous writers?

Brian Laslie: There are several reasons for this. He's not senior enough to have the operational commands of Spaatz or Doolittle, and he doesn't have the combat record of LeMay or Quesada. He's at the in-between level. With the exception of his short time as a wing commander in England, he's usually serving in a deputy role or as chief-of-staff, positions often overlooked by historians. As I've said before, he's the quintessential background man and staff officer that every organization needs around to keep things moving in the right direction.

MH: What drew you to Kuter specifically as a subject?

BL: Kuter was a name I kept running across in books, but it was only ever a sentence or two. In a book about Hap Arnold, Kuter would turn up, but then I'd be reading about North Africa or the Pacific and he'd turn up there as well. I'd see streets named after him, paintings hanging at Air University, and I guess curiosity eventually got the better of me. Once I began diving into archives at the Air Force Historical Research Institute and the Air Force Academy, I realized there was a trove of information, and I could not believe no one had already written extensively about him.

...he's the quintessential background man and staff officer that every organization needs around to keep things moving in the right direction.

MH: Kuter seemed to have a large role in defining officer education in the Air Force (at the Air Force Academy and at the Air University, among other places). Can you expand on his role and vision in creating these education systems? Does his influence in these schools have any surviving legacy today?

BL: First off, Kuter's time at the Air Corps Tactical School in the 1930s had a huge impact on him. I think he really developed as thinker and writer there, and I think that time was really important to him, and it showed throughout his career. So as far as education goes, I think he always had a desire to give something to the generation of officers coming behind him. You see this in World War II when he's sending stuff back to the Air Force School of Applied Tactics. He also spends a lot of time talking to Muir “Santy” Fairchild about the future of education in an independent Air Force.

MH: One element of your work that jumps out is the way personalities and personal relationships are important factors in decision-making, planning, and doctrine formation. How did Kuter get along with his peers, superiors, and subordinates? Are there any particular relationships that had a particular influence on the U.S. Air Force as an institution?

BL: I really don't think you can overstate the importance of relationships with your bosses, your peers, and your subordinates. From every record I looked at, it's pretty clear Kuter was an easy guy to get along with. He was close with Haywood Hansell and there's a great story of an event that cemented their friendship in the book that I won't give away. Arnold and Spaatz both thought highly of him, as did Eaker and Kenney, but it's equally important to note that Kuter worked well with allied partners as well, especially in North Africa. Coningham and Kuter made a great team. Kuter also took care of his subordinates. He highlighted some of LeMay's tactics to Eaker when LeMay was one of his squadron commanders. Later, he sent Tunner over to lead the Berlin airlift, because he knew he was the right man for the job. The only time I can find of Kuter having a difference with someone that went beyond a professional disagreement was later in his career when it's fairly obvious that Kuter and Secretary of the Air Force Talbott just did not get along.

The only time I can find of Kuter having a difference with someone that went beyond a professional disagreement was later in his career when it's fairly obvious that Kuter and Secretary of the Air Force Talbott just did not get along.

MH: What sets Kuter apart from the other leadership figures of his time that have gotten so much more attention from historians?

BL: He's younger than they are. His promotion to Brigadier General at 36 was a big deal. He's a one star during the war and most of the attention seems to go to the senior leaders or the tactical leaders. Of course Hap Arnold gets a lot of very deserved attention, as do Spaatz and Doolittle. I think what sets Kuter apart is the fact that he was in so many places during the war: Washington, D.C. England as wing commander; with the tactical air forces in North Africa; back to D.C.; Yalta; in the Pacific at war's end. He's everywhere. Looking at his career overall, you really get a sense that he's involved in so many incidents, operations, and events. The Air Mail Fiasco, doctrine development at the Air Corps Tactical School, helping to author AWPD-1, his actions in World War II. Then later he commands so many different type of organizations: the Material Air Transport Service, Air University, Far East Air Forces an Pacific Air Forces, and finally NORAD.

Air Corps Tactical School, ca. 1930s

Air Corps Tactical School, ca. 1930s

One thing I think is interesting is that from a depth and breadth of experience standpoint, the case could be made that Kuter was the perfect person to become Air Force Vice Chief of Staff and later Chief of Staff in 1957 and 1961, but those jobs went to Curtis LeMay.

MH: In arguing that Kuter is the architect of the Air Force in many ways, you have focused on his thinking and doctrinal ideas. Can you sum up his effect on the strategic approach of the Air Force during his time? How much of that legacy (if any) is still with us today?

BL: The legacy of the efficacy of strategic bombing is certainly still around and his teaching at the Air Corps Tactical School in the 30s influenced an entire generation of officers. His authoring/promotion of FM 100-20 saw the Air Force raised to a status co-equal to ground forces and was a solid step towards independence for the Air Force. And his desire for continuing officer education is alive and well at both the Air Force Academy and at Air University. However, short a few street names and the Air Force-Hawaii football trophy, it is difficult to find anything named after him. I'd certainly like to see the U.S. Air Force give him more recognition.

MH: What are you working on now?

BL: I currently have two manuscripts under contract, and I'm working on finishing those up in 2018.

MH: You've written a couple of books now. What's your research and writing routine?

BL: I've been lucky, I guess, in that I've had two long periods where I was able to focus almost exclusively on writing to the exclusion of everything else. Now, I try to get into the office early do some reading, open the manuscripts and do a little writing before I get to work. It helps that my day job is also to write, so I think once I get the neurons firing it's easy to keep going. I try to write over my lunch breaks as well, and I believe my personal and professional writing dovetail nicely with each other, which helps. I also try to be very disciplined with my time.

It helps that my day job is also to write, so I think once I get the neurons firing it's easy to keep going.

MH: How has your research on Kuter affected the way you teach the history of the Air Force and the history of airpower? Is there a change you'd like to see in the way the Air Force treats its "founders"?

BL: I certainly try to bring in names of officers and leaders we don't normally talk about: Kuter, Hansell, George, Twinning, Partridge, Norstad, etc. I'd like to see more work done on these individuals, and maybe updated work on Vandenberg and Eaker as well. I think historians of air power have done a great job in recent years of moving beyond the Billy Mitchell, Hap Arnold, Curtis LeMay view of Air Force history, and, luckily for folks in our field, there is still so much work to be done.

Michael Hankins is an instructor of military history at the U.S. Air Force Academy and an Assistant Editor at Balloons to Drones. Michael is a doctoral candidate at Kansas State University, and received his Masters’ in history from the University of North Texas in 2013. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header image: A Royal Air Force Bristol Beaufighter Aircraft (No 252 Squadron) being serviced in the North West African Desert.


[1] Brian D. Laslie, Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2017), 49.

[2] Ibid, 56.

[3] Ibid, 66.

[4] Ibid, 112.

[5] Ibid, 1.

[6] Ibid, 27.

[7] Ibid, xi.

[8] Kuter’s role in developing Cold War nuclear strategy has received some attention in Edward Kaplan’s recent To Kill Nations: American Strategy in the Air-Atomic Age and the Rise of Mutually Assured Destruction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015).

[9] Laslie, 175.

[10] Ibid