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Biographies: Hoyt S. Vandenberg

Hoyt Sanford Vandenberg, air force officer, chief of staff, U.S. Air Force, 1948-1953, and nephew of prominent U.S. Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg (R-Michigan) was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 24, 1899. He graduated near the bottom of his class at the United States Military Academy in 1923 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Service. In the 1920s and early 30's, he was assigned to various flight schools, both as student and instructor, and as a flight commander. In 1936, he attended the Command and General Staff School, and in 1938, the Army War College. During World War II, he earned an outstanding reputation as a top planner and organizer. In 1942 he was instrumental in forming the 12th Air Force. The following year as chief of staff, Northwest African Strategic Air Force, he played a major role in directing airpower in the North African, Sicilian, and Italian campaigns. The year 1944 found the skilled P-51 and B-17 pilot involved in planning and providing Allied airsupport for the Normandy invasion. He then commanded the 9th Air Force, whose success paved the way for the Allied advance through Europe.

Following the end of the war, he became director of military intelligence (G-2) of the Army general staff, and in 1946, President Harry S. Truman appointed him director of the newly created Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The next year he became vice-chief of staff of the recently independent Air Force, and in 1948, Truman appointed him chief of staff, U.S. Air Force, thereby making him the nations highest ranking Air Force officer.

No sooner had he assumed his new post than he was faced with the challenge of airlifting the means to sustain the city of Berlin and its citizens against the Soviet blockade. In ten months, the Berlin Airlift flew the nearly 300,000 missions needed to convince the Soviets to abandon their efforts to cut off the city. Even more taxing was the ongoing battle among the Army, Navy, and Air Force for the limited dollars available in the very austere pre-1951 Truman defense budgets. Even though the Air Force was a favorite of the administration and the Congress, a total defense budget of only $13 million made for extremely limited spending. Although a believer in a balanced force, he was forced by fiscal considerations to make his top priority strategic rather than tactical air power. His position was in line with public and political opinion that all the U.S. had to do to win the next war was to have the long-distance bombers needed to drop atomic bombs on the enemy.

When war came to Korea in the summer of 1950, Vandenberg was a supportive but less than enthusiastic advocate of U.S. involvement. His caution rested primarily on a conviction that the Soviet Union was using the Korean theater as a diversionary operation for an ultimate attack on Europe. That belief played a major role during his first year of the war, because he did not want to do anything that would widen the war by bringing the Soviet Union into the hostilities. Initially he believed that U.S. air and sea power would halt the aggression, but following a trip to the theater of operations, he backed General Douglas MacArthur’s call for land forces. He supported advancing into North Korea to destroy enemy forces but did not want to proceed too close to the Chinese or Russian borders lest such action precipitate their entry into the war.

From the early fighting until the end of the war, Vandenberg was under heavy pressure from Army commanders to shift the control of tactical air support from the Air Force to the Army. He withstood such pressure by stating his conviction that the World War II experience demonstrated the soundness of his position. He reduced the pressure somewhat in the fall of 1950 when he reestablished the tactical air command (which he had previously eliminated), but he never really quieted his Army critics on the matter.

While the Inchon invasion was a high point in the career of General MacArthur, it marked the beginning of Vandenberg’s concern about MacArthur’s ability properly to use the considerable military power that he had received. Like the other members of the joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), Vandenberg was resentful that MacArthur had delayed informing them of his invasion plans to a point where they had no alternative but to go along with it. Although an admirer of MacArthur, Vandenberg felt the U.N. commander’s growing advocacy of military actions that would widen the war were ill advised. Consequently, he supported Truman’s April 1951 decision to remove MacArthur.

In late 1950, following Chinese entrance into the war, and again in late 1951, Vandenberg seriously considered the advisability of U.S. withdrawal from the conflict. Such thinking and his concern with avoiding expansion of the war led to some criticism that he failed to give proper attention to the conduct of the war. Like many other commanders of the time, he never fully learned to deal with the new situations brought on by limited war. For example, Vandenberg and his staff never came up with new nighttime tactics to meet the Communists’ ability to move supplies under cover of darkness. Sometimes he just moved slowly. Such was the case when he held a number of the new, badly needed, F-86 Sabre jets in the U.S. and Europe rather than commit them to Korea.

In spite of his shortcomings he was a popular and highly regarded chief of staff. His high standing among the administration, his peers, politicians, and the public rested upon unquestioned integrity, an ability to articulate the Air Force position, and interpersonal skills in dealing with subordinates and superiors. It was such factors, along with a desire to maintain continuity of leadership in wartime, that led the president to extend Vandenberg’s appointment for two years, until 1953.

Early in 1952, as the stalemate continued and U.N. casualties mounted, Vandenberg became increasingly committed to intensifying the military pressure on the enemy in hopes of increasing their willingness to more seriously negotiate an end to the war. Prior to this time, he had been a strong advocate of interdiction, but he began urging action that would destroy the enemy’s resources. Thus, in April, he convinced the JCS to bomb heretofore off-limits targets such as hydroelectric plants, oil refineries, and dams. It was therefore not surprising that in March of 1953, Vandenberg joined with the JCS to recommend to President Dwight D. Eisenhower the extensive use of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons to end the war. His new more belligerent tone was brought about in part by the frustration of a protracted war and a desire to end the war before he retired or before his cancer-ridden body gave out. On June 30, 1953, just four weeks before the ceasefire was signed, Vandenberg retired, and nine months later, April 4, 1954, he died in Washington, D.C.

Keith D. McFarland

Bradley, Omar, with Clay Blair. A General’s Life (1983). 
Condit, Doris M. History of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2, The Test of War, 1950-53 (1988).
Meilinger, Phillip S. Hoyt S. Vandenberg: The Life of a General (1989). 
Schnabel, James F., and Robert J. Watson. The History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Policy, 3, The Korean War (1979).

Reprinted with permission from The Korean War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Stanley Sandler and published by Garland Publishing, Inc.