[Access article in PDF]
Airlines and Air Mail: The Post Office and the Birth of the Commercial Aviation Industry. By F. Robert van der Linden. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. Pp. xv+349. $35.
To some degree, F. Robert van der Linden wrote his book to right a wrong. Most accounts of the rise of commercial airlines in the United States focus on the role played by the sometimes colorful, certainly entrepreneurial individuals who started the companies. The role of the Post Office is mentioned mostly in passing and mostly in relation to the so-called Air Mail Scandal of 1933. Van der Linden seeks to detail the pivotal role played by Post Office officials, particularly Postmaster General Walter Folger Brown, in the creation of the nation's commercial airline industry. He also explores in detail the circumstances surrounding the scandal, with the aim of correcting the rather simplistic version presented in those works that do mention it.
Van der Linden begins with a short rendition of the Post Office's early role in promoting aviation in the United States. He then looks in more detail at the legislation that turned the operation of the air mail routes over to private contractors. The bulk of the book deals with the interaction between Brown and the emerging airline industry, in particular his attempts to apply Progressive principles to the government's support of the new enterprise. The last chapters deal with the congressional investigations of the air mail contracts, their cancellation, and the eventual near-restoration of the system created by Brown.
Airlines and Air Mail represents the first extensive examination of the role of the Post Office in the creation of the nation's airlines. As such, it provides a picture of the complex interaction between Brown and the entrepreneurs who created the aircraft manufacturing concerns and the first airlines. Van der Linden very successfully argues that the standard version of the story surrounding the cancellation of the air mail contracts is indeed simplistic and that the issues and politics were far more complex than normally reported. He also clearly and persuasively places the Post Office's role in the creation of the airlines within the larger context of the history of Progressive politics. Walter Brown was a Progressive Republican in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt and his New Nationalism. Those principles guided his efforts on behalf of the emerging industry.
As noted, van der Linden wrote this book to right a wrong and in his effort to redeem Brown's image he perhaps swings too far in the other direction. If in the simplistic version Brown is a corrupt politician who willingly colluded with the capitalists who dominated the early aviation industry, in van der Linden's version Brown is often portrayed as entirely selfless, perfectly principled, and almost infallible. And perhaps there is a [End Page 182] little bit of an equating of "is" with "ought." If indeed the nation's airline system today resembles the one that Brown sought to establish, this does not mean that the system necessarily had to develop that way. Van der Linden is clearly a fan of the current U.S. airline system. Yet Brown's was not the only possible model for that system.
One question not well answered here is why the airline industry seemed to bear the brunt of what little trust-busting activity took place during the early years of the Franklin Roosevelt Administration. Van der Linden basically sums up (and nearly dismisses) those pushing for the abolition of Brown's system as Wilsonian Progressives, believers in the New Freedom and in trust-busting. The role of any regional component is not explored. Yet the senator leading the charge against Brown's actions was a Southerner. The small airline that prompted much of the investigation was based in the South. By 1934, when the issues came to a head, Roosevelt's New Deal was under challenge, particularly from the southern wing...