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The Struggle for Air Supremacy

A Phase of Imperialist Conflict

(April 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 4, April 1943, pp. 103–106.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A great battle of words, both the shadow of a more substantial battle within the world economy and a prelude to the even greater battle still to come, has broken out in the press of the United Nations over the rôle of commercial aviation in the post-war world. Though the popular imagination was first stirred by the now famous “globalony” speech of Representative Clare Booth Luce, largely because of the carefully premeditated publicity campaign given her by the Scripps-Howard and Luce press, the controversy has far deeper roots, extending into the very question of the inter-imperialist relations among the United Nations if they win the war.

It is difficult for a layman to estimate accurately exactly what degree of technical progress has been made in the construction and planning of large-scale transport aviation and those planes, such as the helicopter, which are planned primarily for private and small-scale business purposes. One thing is certain, however: tremendous progress has been made, a new technical era has been opened, already rivaling and showing signs of overshadowing in significance the rise of the automobile. This development is hailed by the apologists of capitalism as an indication of the continuing virility of that economic system. In reality, of course, it is a bitter indictment of capitalism that this tremendous development in the field of international transport and commerce, with its still incalculable possibilities tor the improvement of the welfare of humanity, was so stunted in its development during peacetime and began to achieve prominence only as a result of the tragic stimulus of the needs of the imperialist war. A few figures will indicate, however, what a potent factor the airplane industry has become in the American economy. In 1942, production, according to Charles I. Stanton, U.S. Civil Aeronautics Administrator, was some $6,250,000,000, nearly thirteen times as large as that of 1940 and more than fifty times that of 1938. Its 1943 production will be some $20,000,000,000. By contrast, the automotive industry in its greatest year reached an output of $3,700,000,000. These few key figures are sufficient to give an indication of the crucial rôle which this industry will play in the post-war period. The collapse of the airplane industry would immediately result in a major trend toward economic depression. Conversely, an imperialist success in obtaining world air bases, routes and trade, with the resultant need for continued transport production and the maintenance of a giant air industry, is a pleasing prospect for the imperialist planners.

Prospects for the Future

What, in brief, is the present status of international commercial aviation and its prospects for future development? At the present, America is indubitably in the most advantageous position for the conquest of virtual hegemony of the world commercial air routes after the war. She is producing today, in quantity, standard transport planes that can carry six-ton cargoes at about 200 miles an hour. According to reliable surveys conducted by Newsweek magazine and the semi-official trade magazine, Aviation, it may also be expected that in the near future planes will be produced that can carry 100 tons at a speed of about 350 miles, and that an average speed of from 275 to 300 miles an hour might even be expected on long runs. At present, because of the limitations imposed by the war as well as the inherent limitations imposed by the fact that capitalist economy functions with profit and not service as its main aim, the longer routes, broken up into frequent short stops and taken at considerably less than maximum speeds, are used. Thus, for example, what is theoretically the shortest, quickest and most feasible route – the Great Circle across the North Pole – is being developed for possible post-war use, but remains sidetracked to the advantage of the immediately profitable routes such as the “cross hemisphere” route from Chicago to Calcutta via New York, the Azores, Casablanca, Cairo, etc. This route provides more possibility of passenger trade and saves gasoline, since the shorter routes do not require such great expenditures of fuel and oil. However, from the long-range point of view of world economic planning – which is ultimately consistent only with the creation of a socialist economy – it is the Great Circle route that presents the greatest potentialities. Even within the limitations of capitalism, however, there will be growing importance for commercial aviation. While it will not succeed in supplanting railroads and ships in the immediate future, it will take over many important facilities: rapid mail services which would save the costs of cable tolls; transport of light, small but precious materials; transport of perishable materials; rapid passenger services.

When one translates this into the language of world politics and economics, it is more readily seen what tremendous importance commercial aviation has for the post-war world which the Allies are planning. An entire new growth of imperialist expansion into previously neglected areas such as many of the Pacific islands and large sections of Asia can be envisaged. Whichever power will have control of the world airways will be in a fair way of obtaining imperialist world dominance. And, inversely, those powers with the major bases and routes will be able to seize control of this vast new industry for the purposes of knitting closer together their present empires, profiting from the revenues brought in by the new industries (the rate of profit of the airplane industry in the United States last year was among the highest of any industry of the nation) and maneuvering themselves into position for further economic conquests. What is more, it is not too difficult to convert from transport to war plane production; the imperialists of every nation see in the plane a potent weapon for the continuation of their rule even in the most far-off areas. Is it any wonder that even now, before the United Nations have come anywhere near winning the war, and before they have heard what answer the people of the world will give to their post-war plans, they are feverishly planning, frantically maneuvering for strategic positions in the post-war aviation field?

“Legal” Restrictions in the Air

An illuminating instance of the fact that a decadent capitalist economy imposes intolerable restrictions on the development of world production and trade can be seen when one examines the fantastically intricate “rules” which govern present aviation trade and which threaten to either sharply limit it in the post-war period or push it into a bitter economic war. No more intricate set of restrictions, based on the inter-imperialist rivalries, has ever been developed in any other field of transport or commerce. At present, commercial aviation is governed by two “principles.” One is the so-called principle of “national sovereignty” – each nation holds sovereign rights over its own air space (legally, a plane cannot fly over any foreign nation without permission). Secondly, there is the “closed port” system, which, unlike the “open port” arrangement of sea commerce, does not permit a foreign plane to land at a base without permission of the government which controls that base. It is apparent, of course, that with two such crippling measures in effect, it is impossible at present for any substantial development of commercial aviation to take place without getting involved in a series of national restrictions, imperialist rivalries and struggles. The situation is not unlike that produced on international sea commerce by the tariff walls.

It is in the planning for the post-war status of commercial aviation that the conflicts between the various imperialist powers become most sharp. If the Allies win the war, and if their rule is not immediately toppled by socialist revolutions, then America and Britain will be the two main rivals for aviation hegemony. The defeated Axis powers probably will be grounded, France and Russia hardly will be in a position to enter the struggle, and the two small imperialist powers, Belgium and Holland, which did have some commercial aviation strength, will be so busy reconsolidating their power that they will not be able to even peep into the controversy. The only significance which all the talk about “freedom of the skies” and “closed and open ports” and all the other aviation jargon can possibly have, therefore, is in light of the mounting rivalry between American and British imperialism. What, then, are the relative positions of the two antagonists?

There are, first, some general politico-economic considerations. America has undoubtedly set itself the prospectus of coming out of this war as the leading capitalist power. This has been discussed at length elsewhere in this magazine and need not be elaborated here. For this perspective it has many advantages and, at present, in the opinion of this writer, there are only two possibilities which might annul those advantages: 1) a war of such inordinate length that America would be dragged down to the levels of sacrifice of Russia and Britain and would therefore be unable to take advantage of what it hopes will be its comparative post-war economic strength; or 2) an alliance between Britain and Russia aimed against any attempt of America to climb to the top of the imperialist pile. Otherwise, America will have the general advantages of superior financial strength, greater military power and far less of a toll exacted by the war.

British-American Conflicts

Specifically, however, there are a number of advantages which American aviation has. First of these is the fact that American imperialism has contrived to arrange the war production program so that Britain concentrates on the production of fighter and giant bomber planes, while America concentrates on certain types of bombers and transport planes. In the worried words of Peter Masefield, aviation expert of the London Times, “The government appears to be evading the issue and to be afraid of offending the United States, which not only is building up a virtual monopoly in transport aircraft among the United Nations, but is acquiring nearly all the operational experience ...” The second major advantage which America has is the fact that it has been building many bases in far-flung parts of the world, most of them adjacent to or within the British Empire, and that these bases are ideally suited for post-war commercial use.

It is therefore not for nothing that the spokesmen of British imperialism have been so agitated over this issue. For, at present, it is undeniable that they are coming off second best. The Tory MP Perkins says that “in the Pacific the Americans have a complete monopoly. In the South Atlantic the Americans have a complete monopoly. In the North Atlantic ... for every British-owned air liner crossing it there are at least two American ... In Africa the Americans were given an entrée ...” It is this situation which prompted the Lord Privy Seal, Viscount Cranborne, to declare in the House of Commons on March 11, 1943, that the British government had “a secret report” designed to safeguard her commercial aviation interests after the war. It was likewise this situation which prompted his threat that “If other nations (obviously the U.S. – R.F.) insist upon cut-throat competition, we are quite prepared to enter the fray against them.” And there is somewhat more than idle boasting, though there is plenty of that too, in this threat. For, although Britain is at present in an unfavorable position, it is by no means without resources for putting up a stiff fight in case the aviation struggle breaks out into the open after the war. Its main trump-card is, of course, the Empire. Regardless of the restrictions on air travel that continue to pile up, Britain can continue her air development so long as she holds on to the Empire. With the possible exception of the Pacific, where American refusal to allow foreign planes to land on the Hawaiian islands effectively eliminates any competition as long as America retains those islands, British planes can travel round the world and still be completely within the Empire. It is this great geographical-economic advantage which is Britain’s main trump card. It has already yielded results. In Australia, for example, the British have terminal rights which American interests have never been able to acquire. Likewise in New Zealand. (It is this fact which explains the agitation conducted by American Army officials for commercial rights for those bases they have constructed on British territory.) And likewise in Africa, air routes initiated by the Pan American system, America’s major air company, have been taken over by the British Overseas Airway. In Canada, the United States has agreed to turn over to Canada one year after the end of the war all permanent airport facilities built there with lend-lease funds. The one redeeming feature of this situation, from the point of view of American interests, is the fact that in places like Canada, and to a lesser degree New Zealand and Australia, the power of the American dollar is becoming stronger than that of the British legal tie.

Beginning of the Struggle at Home

With the status of this ripening struggle between America and British imperialism for control of the airways in the background, we can more readily understand the abstruse disputes over “freedom of the skies” and “closed and open ports.” Clare Luce to the contrary notwithstanding, it becomes apparent that American imperialism, even if it doesn’t know it yet, has found a spokesman with extraordinary vision in Vice-President Wallace. Mrs. Luce speaks up for a policy of “national sovereignty” in the air – that is, perpetuation of the present scheme, which is of temporary and limited advantage to American aviation. But when Henry Wallace proposes “freedom of the skies” he would give American aviation an even greater advantage than “freedom of the seas” gave to British merchant shipping. For, under this scheme, there would be allowed: the right of “innocent passage” over the air of any foreign country by non-military planes; the right of “free landing” or “open port” for refueling”; and similar measures. This is clearly a setup for a country which has the planes, the financial backing, the world influence that America has, and only lacks entrée into the bases now controlled by Britain. For Britain, there are no readily discernible advantages in this scheme. That Wallace tacks on his scheme for a United Nations Investment Corporation to operate a network of global planes, is not essential to the previously noted and main part of his plan; such a corporation has precious little chance of existence in the imperialist-rivalry-ridden post-war world, except perhaps as a means of militarily maintaining the might of world capitalism by using war planes against any revolution that might arise.

But while Wallace champions this “freedom of the air” scheme which would assure first place to American aviation, he is not in favor of an all-out commercial war against British aviation interests. Here again he shows himself to be a sensible statesman – from the capitalist point of view. For Wallace understands the need for some kind of capitalist solidarity on an international scale to organize against the threat of proletarian revolution, as witness his remarks against Trotskyism in a recent speech. He sees that if the Luce perspective of an all-out struggle against the British Empire is adopted, the result may be disadvantageous to both American and British imperialism. So he has adopted the perspective, and in this he appears to be speaking for the Roosevelt Administration, of a sort of post-war “limited hegemony.”

This is a brief and very incomplete sketch of the aviation situation as it now stands. It is by no means an independent equation; what will happen in the war and in world politics will in the long run determine the relationship of forces in this field, too. It is worth noting, however, that here is offered an incredible opportunity for progress on the part of humanity. The uses to which a socialist society could put the airplane are incalculable and stagger the imagination. That capitalism, on the contrary, can use the airplane only as a means of horrible destruction at present, and can plan for it only the rôle of a mechanism for the furthering of post-war imperialist struggles, is but one more indication that socialism today stands at the very top of the human agenda, and that not the slightest progress toward peace and security can be made without struggling for socialism.

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