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  • A Question of Loyalty: Gen. Billy Mitchell and the Court-Martial that Gripped the Nation
  • Phillip S. Meilinger
A Question of Loyalty: Gen. Billy Mitchell and the Court-Martial that Gripped the Nation. By Douglas Waller. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. ISBN 0-06-050547-8. Photographs. Source notes. Index. Pp. 439. $26.95.

Billy Mitchell was a controversial figure during his lifetime, and the decades since have not dimmed the controversy. Supporters hailed him then and continue to do so today as a courageous visionary who saw the future of war more clearly than his colleagues. Because he challenged traditional military [End Page 259] thinking, he was silenced and then destroyed by hidebound surface officers. Detractors see a different Mitchell. To them he was an arrogant troublemaker who played loose with the facts and got what he deserved.

This new study of Mitchell, written by a senior correspondent for Time magazine, focuses on the climactic event that defined and ended the airman's career—his court-martial for insubordination in 1925.

Waller begins his story by recounting the events that led up to the court-martial, primarily the crash of the Navy airship Shenandoah in a thunderstorm over Ohio. Mitchell, who had been "banished" to Texas and demoted in rank to colonel after having served in Washington as a brigadier general, used the crash as justification to issue a stinging attack on senior officers in the Army and Navy. His press release accused them of "incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration of the national defense." These were harsh words and retribution was swift. Mitchell was recalled to Washington for a court-martial.

Waller shows that the trial initially went Mitchell's way. His defense attorney, Congressman Frank Reid, understood that the trial was as much political spectacle as it was legal proceeding, and scored telling points. But then the Army brought in Major Allen Gullion to help the prosecution. Gullion was very capable and quickly began to turn the tide of the case by cleverly and clinically dissecting the testimony of Reid's witnesses. The climax came, however, when Mitchell himself took the stand.

Reading the trial transcript—and Waller's faithful recounting of it—is compelling. Bluntly, Mitchell's performance was an embarrassment. Gullion showed on point after point that Mitchell knew very little about naval aviation—especially of dirigible operations, which had generated his accusations in the first place. Moreover, Mitchell appeared surprisingly ill-informed about conditions within the Air Service.

Waller also discovered new and damning information about Mitchell's private life. A forgotten file in the Army's Inspector General (IG) papers recounts a 1920 incident that occurred between Mitchell and his first wife. During an altercation Mrs. Mitchell was shot in the chest—fortunately, it was not serious. She claimed that her husband shot her in a drunken rage; he claimed that she shot herself in a drunken stupor. (Waller claims that Mitchell had a serious drinking problem during this period.) The shooting incident was hushed up and no charges were brought—although the Army ordered Mitchell to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

Despite this amazing new bit of information, Waller concludes that Mitchell was a great airman. The horrors of the trench carnage in the First World War convinced him that war must change and that the airplane must be the instrument of that change. Traditional surface officers in the Army and Navy refused to expand their horizons beyond acknowledging that airpower could perhaps play a useful role in assisting those surface forces. Mitchell's vision of the future was the more accurate. On the other hand, his method of expounding that vision was outrageous. He was guilty as charged. [End Page 260]

Waller's discovery of Mitchell's IG file should give historians pause. Why did historians and biographers not discover these facts regarding Mitchell's personal life over the past seventy years? Are our research methods fundamentally deficient? Waller is a journalist, not a trained historian; yet he was able to ferret out key documents and facts that others could not. Perhaps it is time for us to go back to school.

Overall, this is an excellent and readable account...


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pp. 259-261
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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