The B-36 Affair

Last revised July 23, 2017

Many people both inside and outside the Air Force thought the B-36 was already obsolete, and believed that fast jet bombers should be acquired instead. However, these were still many years away, and in any case promised to have a much shorter range than the B-36. Others wanted to use the B-36 as an all-purpose bomber, capable of delivering a wide range of conventional as well as nuclear ordnance in tactical as well as strategic missions. Yet others favored the B-50 over the B-36 because of its higher performance and lower cost. After much discussion, it was decided to retain the B-36 as a special-purpose bomber for long-range nuclear attack, with the hope that the fleet of B-36s would eventually be replaced by the B-52 when it became available

One possible cure for the B-36's performance problems was the B-36C VDT project. Unfortunately, the VDT B-36C project ran into some severe technical difficulties, and by the spring of 1948, it had become apparent that the VDT-equipped B-36C was not going to materialize, and the Air Force once again considered cancellation of the entire B-36 program. By this time, SAC had lost faith in the B-36 as a long-range strategic bomber, and believed that this relatively slow aircraft would probably be useful only for such tasks as sea-search or reconnaissance. For these purposes, the extra speed offered by the VDT engines would be of no real benefit. However, by that time 22 B-36As had already been produced, and the Air Force decided to postpone any final decision at this time. Many Air Force officers still favored the B-50, but tests showed that the standard B-36 surpassed the B-50 in cruising speed at long range, had a higher altitude, a larger load capacity, and a much greater combat radius. It now seemed that the B-36 might be a better plane than anyone had expected, and that any hasty reduction in the program might be a mistake.

It was probably the Soviets who bear the actual responsibility for saving the B-36 program from cancellation at this stage. On June 18, 1948, the Soviets began their blockade of Berlin. On June 25, 1948, Air Force Secretary W. Stuart Symington decided that it was best to stay with the B-36 since it was the only truly intercontinental bomber then available. General Kenney endorsed this decision, even though only a month earlier he had been recommending that the entire B-36 program be halted. The VDT-equipped B-36Cs that had been ordered would revert back to standard B-36B configuration, assuring that the Air Force would get 95 of the 100 B-36s it had ordered. The missing 5 aircraft had to be cut to meet inflation and to pay for the cost of the ill-fated B-36C project.

When the B-36B started entering the SAC inventory in the fall of 1948, the Air Force had 59 groups. The Air Force had wanted to expand its capability to 70 groups, but a severe budgetary crunch was encountered at the beginning of FY 1949. President Harry Truman wanted to hold the FY 1949 defense budget to 11 billion dollars. The three services immediately began to squabble with each other over what was left. The Air Force was forced to cancel the purchase of various fighters, bombers, and transports in mid-January of 1949. However, at the same time, General Curtis E. LeMay, who had taken over as commander of SAC in October of 1948, recommended that more B-36s be acquired. The General expressed certainty that a larger B-36 fleet, combined with stepped-up production of the forthcoming B-52, was the way to go. Later, it was recommended that the Boeing B-54 project be cancelled and that even more B-36s be acquired. The President authorized the re-certification and release of funds for the first B-36 increase on April 8, the second on May 4.

The National Security Act of 1947 established a Department of Defense (with James V. Forrestal as the first secretary) and called for the creation of an independent Air Force, which was formally established on September 18, 1947. However, this was the trigger point for a lot of interservice rivalries and bickering, particularly between the Navy and the new USAF. The Navy was resentful of the Air Force's monopoly on nuclear weapons, and proposed building a larger class of supercarriers to provide mobile bases capable of launching nuclear strikes. A new carrier, named the United States (CVA-58) had been included in the FY 49 shipbuilding program to provide the Navy with strategic bombing capability. However, the Air Force opposed what it saw as the Navy's intrusion into its natural role. The severe budgetary constraints imposed by cuts in the FY 49 defense budgets did not help, and a lot of favorite programs of both the Navy and the Air Force had to be dropped. Forrestal and the Joint Chiefs tried to reconcile their differences in special meetings held in Florida and in Rhode Island. At these meetings, it was resolved that the Air Force was to have primary responsibility for strategic warfare.

However, Forrestal's political support and influence began to rapidly erode, and he lost favor with the White House. During the 1948 presidential campaign, he had met with the Republican presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey (who just about everyone expected would win the election) and it was agreed that Forrestal would continue to be Secretary of Defense uinder a Dewey administration. Angered by Forrestal's continued opposition to his proposed severe cuts in defense spending, irritated over his pre-election meeting with Dewey, and concerned by press reports over his mental condition, President Truman asked Forrestal to resign. He submitted his resignation on March 28, 1949. A few days later, exhausted from overwork and suffering from severe depression, he entered psychiatric treatment at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, apparently against his will. On May 22, Forrestal was killed when he was either pushed, jumped, or fell from the small window of the kitchen across from his 16th floor hospital room in Bethesda, Maryland. Many conspiracy theories have appeared concerning Forrestal's death, arguing that it was either a suicide, or that he was murdered by person or persons unknown. Theories of who might have murdered Forrestal range from Zionist or Soviet agents, all the way to the "Men in Black" who wanted to silence him for his knowledge of UFOs.

The B-36 became deeply embroiled in this interservice rivalry, and was the subject of a lot of criticism, especially by Navy officers. Navy officers charged that the performance of the B-36 did not live up to Air Force claims, that it was as slow as the old B-24 Liberator of World War 2 and far more vulnerable. It had been claimed that even under the most favorable conditions it would take up to 12 hours to get a B-36 aircraft ready for flight. At that time, the Secretary of Defense was Louis A. Johnson, who had replaced James Forrestal on March 28, 1949. On April 23, 1949, Secretary Johnson abruptly cancelled the large aircraft carrier, the United States, and went ahead with plans for a fleet of B-36D long-range strategic bombers. Secretary Johnson had formerly been a director at Convair, and since the B-36 had been one of the few survivors of the mass cancellations of early 1949, anonymous reports began to circulate charging that Secretary Johnson, Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington, and financier Floyd Odlum had all been involved in undue favoritism and corruption in the awarding of the B-36 contract.

The Navy was enraged at the cancellation of its supercarrier, but the Air Force insisted that strategic bombing was strictly an Air Force responsibility. The decision was justified on the basis that both President Harry Truman and Defense Secretary Johnson were under severe budgetary constraints, and felt that the government could not afford both new strategic bombers and a new carrier force. However, on May Day of 1949, the Soviets had publically demonstrated a new swept-winged jet interceptor (later to be known as the MiG-15), and there were now doubts expressed that the B-36 could successfully defend itself against attacks by this new Soviet jet fighter. Many officers expressed concerns that the Air Force had spent a fortune on what would turn out to be a sitting duck. In August, another anonymous report had accused the Air Force of grossly exaggerating the importance of strategic warfare.

In the summer of 1949, the House Armed Services Committee carried out an investigation of what came to be known in the press as the B-36 Affair. Committee chairman Carl Vinson charged the committee with determining the truth or falsity of the various charges of corruption that were being spread around, as well as the determination of what the relative missions of the Navy and the Air Force should be in the future. In addition, the committee would also determine if the B-36 was a satisfactory weapon. The hearings were held in public, and luminaries such as Generals Curtis LeMay, George Kenney, Henry "Hap" Arnold, as well as Floyd Odlum and Secretary Stuart Symington all testified. Northrop Aircraft Corporation founder and chairman John K. Northrop also testified before the committee. He said that he thought that General LeMay's recommendation of the cancellation of his company's YB-49 flying-wing bomber project had been made in good faith and without any political implications. In addition, he said that there was nothing to the report that had been circulating that charged that the proposed merger between Northrop and Convair had been a result of threats or intimidations from Secretary Symington. (In later years, John Northrop said that he had deliberately lied at the hearings, fearing that his company might be destroyed by an enraged Secretary Symington).

On August 25, the investigation closed down after clearing the Air Force and Convair of any misdeeds. Although the B-36 contract survived unscathed, one of the results of these hearings was an attempt to cut down on the amount of interservice rivalry and bickering. This took the form of an amendment to the National Security Act of 1947 which enlarged and strengthened the office of the Secretary of Defense and severely weakened the authority of the service secretaries.

In October of 1949, B-36 congressional hearings were resumed, this time focussing on the question of whether the defense of the USA should rely on a fleet of strategic bombers or on the Navy's fleet of aircraft carriers. Many high-ranking Navy officers testified, including Admirals Denfield, Halsey, Nimitz, King, Carney, Conolly, Radford, Kinkaid, Spruance, Blandy, and Oftsie. Generals Vandenberg, Bradley, Collins, Eisenhower, Marshall, Clark, and Cates testified, as well as former President Herbert Hoover. The Navy was still enraged at the cancellation of its supercarrier, and Admriral Arthur W. Radford, CIC of the Pacific Fleet, denounced the B-36 as a "billion dollar blunder". Although there were still doubts about the B-36s ability to survive enemy fighter attack, the Air Force's B-36 program survived uncut.

The committee's final report was issued in March of 1950. It criticized Secretary Johnson's handling of the supercarrier cancellation, and urged that there be less rigidity when dealing with interservice issues. Greater effort should be made in joint planning and training to increase military effectiveness and to overcome interservice rivalries. Partly because of all of the controversy surrounding these hearings, Secretary Johnson resigned as Secretary of Defense in September of 1950.

The Korean War went a long way to resolving some of these issues. Military appropriations quadrupled during this time, leaving enough money for both the B-36 and new Navy carriers. One of the positive results of the October hearings was to convince many members of Congress of the importance of naval aviation, and eventually led to support of the development of Forrestal-class supercarriers.


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