Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendency by Jenifer Van Vleck (review)
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Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendency. By Jenifer Van Vleck. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. 370. $45.

In his 1941 Life magazine editorial proclaiming “The American Century,” publisher Henry Luce asserted that Americans should have “the right to go with … our ocean-going airplanes where we wish, when we wish, and as we wish” (p. 10). The “Logic of the Air,” he later explained, compelled it. In Empire of the Air, Jenifer Van Vleck examines this “logic” and American efforts to extend its commercial aviation globally. Insisting its policies were free of designs on foreign territory or peoples, American ascendency was nevertheless challenged and constrained, Van Vleck argues, not least by foreign resistance.

Empire of the Air contains seven well-researched and cogently argued chapters, beginning with the “Americanization of the Air.” There Van Vleck describes the process, starting with the successes of the Wright brothers in the 1900s and solidified by the U.S. Army’s around-the-world flight in 1924 and Lindbergh’s solo Atlantic crossing in 1927, whereby aerial primacy became widely associated with the United States, as if Americans were genetically chosen to dominate and rule the skies. In her final chapter, “Empires Rise and Empires Fall,” she looks at events, from deregulation in the 1970s through the ascendency of Chinese and Middle-Eastern airlines in the 1990s and 2000s, that undermined American dominance. In the middle sections, Van Vleck deals with the efforts of government officials and airline executives to harness aviation to American economic and geopolitical interests. Central to this story is Pan American World Airways. Founded in 1927 by Juan Trippe with a government contract to fly mail between Miami and Havana, Pan Am until 1945 was the only American carrier licensed to operate internationally. The government looked on the airline as its “chosen instrument” for implementing American aviation needs abroad. During the late 1920s and the 1930s, Pan Am rapidly expanded its routes throughout the Caribbean and South America and by the end of the decade, its large flying boats plied routes from San Francisco to the Philippines and China and from New York to Europe.

During World War II, the Roosevelt administration relied on Pan Am for important military work, as Van Vleck shows in a perceptive chapter on “America’s Lifeline to Africa.” Starting in November 1940, with contracts from the War Department secretly paid for out of the President’s Emergency Defense Fund, Pan Am constructed landing facilities in Trinidad, Brazil, and Gambia on the coast of Africa. Although American neutrality legislation banned American involvement in the war, these bases allowed Pan Am to take over and expand routes pioneered by Britain’s Imperial Airways in Africa, thereby relieving British aircraft and pilots for [End Page 1025] combat duty. After the passage of Lend-Lease in March 1941, Pan Am ferried supplies across the Atlantic in support of the Allies fighting Hitler.

The United States had barely entered the war when, in 1942, the Roosevelt administration sought to secure policies guaranteeing an “open sky” for the postwar era, rejecting the idea that a nation’s sovereignty extended to the airspace above it and dismantling the imperial preferences some countries used to privilege their own airlines over foreign carriers. In spite of many negotiations and meetings, however, even former Allies rejected the open-sky concept. In 1946 the USSR and its satellites lowered an iron curtain, closing their territories and airspace entirely to American planes and those of other Western nations. “The Limits of American Power,” in Van Vleck’s phrase, were becoming evident; they would become even clearer with the advent of the jet age in the 1960s and the surging economies of the Middle East and Asia in the 1970s and 1980s. By millennium’s end, American global ascendency had ceased. Pan Am and many other U.S. airlines had gone out of business, and by 2012 the UK-based research firm Skytrax reported that the top ten international airlines all were Asian.

Skillfully narrating the complex story of America’s battle for global dominance in the air, Van Vleck also treats a number of subordinate...