- Cold War at 30,000 Feet: The Anglo-American Fight for Aviation Supremacy
The demise of Great Britain's aviation industry in the aftermath of World War II is an oft-repeated object lesson among the aviation policy community in Washington, D.C. Usually, it is interpreted as a warning [End Page 215] to American policymakers not to decrease federal funding for both aeronautical technology and infrastructure, lest USA decline as an air power like the British did after World War II. As Jeffrey A. Engel shows in Cold War at 30,000 Feet: The Anglo-American Fight for Aviation Supremacy, the story of British fortunes in aeronautics after World War II is both more complex and interesting than the simplistic morality play that policy analysts have used repeatedly to turn back the budget cutters.
Instead, we learn that both USA and Great Britain recognized aviation's primacy in not only winning the war, but also in ensuring continued sovereignty and hegemony in the postwar world. It would become, as leaders on both sides of the Atlantic realized, a critical linchpin in cold war rivalries. Accordingly, as Cold War at 30,000 Feet makes clear, these two allies jockeyed for position in controlling the aviation business after the war. They knew that supplying airplanes to the world—both commercial and military—would help ensure economic well-being, create well-paid jobs, enhance international trade, tightly link postwar allies, and assure nuclear superiority. Both sought to control this situation, but USA had the advantage in industrial capacity left intact despite the war. Moreover, its prewar aviation industry had built excellent transport aircraft in large numbers, especially the incomparable DC-3 of which thousands were flying by 1945.
The Americans intended to use this advantage to control postwar international relations with the Soviet Union and China, as well as others. The British sought to concentrate on this high-technology capability to help recover from the desolation of war. As early as 1942, Engel reports, the two nations fashioned an agreement in which Britain concentrated on fighter and bomber production, a historic strength of its firms, while America built transports to go along with its military aircraft. This was a win-win during the war years, but aided the Americans long-term. As Engel concludes: "The 1942 Arnold– Powers agreement did more than just rationalize Anglo-American wartime aircraft production; it also placed American producers in an overwhelmingly advantageous position for postwar civil aviation dominance" (p. 31).
British leaders voluntarily gave up transport production knowing full well that it would damage their aeronautical competitiveness for at least five years after the war, but desperation reigned in 1942. The best they could hope for was to emphasize outstanding technologies and Britain did so remarkably effectively. Its aircraft engines, its military airframes, and its jetliners—all led aviation technology in the 1940s and much of the 1950s. For example, the "Comet" jet transport beat Boeing's 707 airliner to the market by a full five years, did very [End Page 216] well in international sales, and prompted major complaints from the American aeronautical industry which pulled out all stops to lessen its popularity.
The majority of Cold War at 30,000 Feet outlines a succession of parries and thrusts, bobs and weaves, and competitive actions and countermeasures between the United States and Great Britain to gain the upper hand in international aeronautical policy. The United States sought to ensure its hegemony in relation to aviation, especially in military capabilities, while denying advanced technology to opponents in the cold war. At the same time, this approach had, from the perspective of American leaders, the advantage of ensuring that such allies as the British remained dependent on American aeronautical technology. The British, while sympathetic to cold war concerns over dual-use technology reaching its rivals, were much more focused on selling aircraft and components to other nations, including China and the Soviet Union. They viewed this as important...