William “Billy” Mitchell was born in Nice, France, to American parents, educated at Columbian University (later George Washington University) and in 1898 enlisted in the infantry for service in the Spanish-American War. Stationed a various times in Cuba, the Philippines and Alaska, Mitchell was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps. He graduated from the Army Staff College in 1909 and six years later was assigned to the aviation section of the Signal Corps. In 1916, the middle-aged Mitchell took private flying lessons at his own expense to gain first-hand knowledge of the intricacies of flight. During World War I, Mitchell organized and commanded the American expeditionary air force in France. During the Meuse-Argonne campaign, he presaged aerial assaults by massing more than 200 planes in a single attack against a German position. His 18 months in combat were rewarded by the bestowal of the Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Service Cross and several foreign commendations, as well as promotion to brigadier general. In the immediate postwar period, Mitchell was the assistant chief of the Army’s Air Service and began lobbying efforts for the establishment of an independent air force. He urged policy makers to develop strategic bombing capabilities for future wars and explore the use of polar air routes. Mitchell, much to the dismay of his superiors, staged highly publicized ship sinkings by aircraft as a means to make the point that the services should reduce their emphasis on battleships and increase their interest in airplanes. In 1925, Billy Mitchell’s criticism of the Navy Department reached new heights in the wake of the loss of the dirigible Shenandoah, arguing that the tragedy was the result of criminal negligence. Writing in the journal Aviation, Mitchell wrote:
About what happened, my opinion is as follows: These accidents are the direct result of the incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments. In their attempts to keep down the development of aviation into an independent department, separate from the Army and Navy and handle by aeronautical experts, and to maintain the existing systems, they have gone to the utmost lengths to carry their point. All aviation policies, schemes, and systems are directed by the nonflying officers of the Army or Navy, who know practically nothing about it. The lives of the airmen are being used merely as pawns in their hands.
President Calvin Coolidge did not accuse Mitchell directly in public, a tactic that might have been seen as prejudicing the outcome of the trial. However, there was no doubt who Coolidge was talking about when he spoke to the American Legion convention in early October.
Any organization of men in the military service bent on inflaming the public mind for the purpose of forcing government action through the pressure of public opinion is an exceedingly dangerous undertaking and precedent. It is for the civil authority to determine what appropriations shall be granted, what appointments shall be made, and what rules shall be adopted for the conduct of its armed forces. ... Whenever the military power starts dictating to the civil authority by whatever means adopted, the liberties of the country are beginning to end.
In December, he was court-martialed, found guilty of insubordination and suspended from service for five years without pay. Mitchell resigned from the Army in 1926 and spent the remainder of his life writing and lecturing on the need for a robust air force. He repeatedly argued that the United States needed the ability to take war directly to the industrial heart of enemy powers and that that aim could only be accomplished by strategic bombing campaigns. Some opposed that type of warfare on moral grounds because of the likelihood of heavy civilian casualties. Mitchell, however, maintained that such bombing was probably less costly than the trench warfare of World War I. Mitchell wrote a number of books advancing his ideas during these years, including Our Air Force (1921), Winged Defense (1925) and Skyways (1930). Billy Mitchell’s last years were not happy. He anticipated rehabilitation through a major appointment from Franklin Roosevelt, but failed to receive one. A media darling of the 1920s, Mitchell faded as a public figure in the next decade. Many have argued that after his death, Billy Mitchell’s advocacy was vindicated by events in World War II. The era of the dominance of the great battleships had indeed passed and strategic bombing played prominently in the conflict, but its results are still debated. In 1948, Mitchell’s sons received a special Congressional medal that honored their father’s service. Billy Mitchell’s career and contributions have been reflected favorably in both film and print, where he was portrayed as a prophet struggling against hidebound navy brass. Others, however, have not been so charitable. They have viewed Mitchell as monomaniacal, egotistical and vicious. Despite his determined campaigns, there is little evidence that his efforts really changed the minds of those who made decisions. Some have felt that he contributed to an unnecessary and destructive rivalry between the advocates of air and naval power.