So we've seen American claims of a British secret air defence weapon in the Battle of Britain; American claims of British secret air defence weapons in the mid-1930s; and American ideas for superweapons to break the deadlock of the First World War. What do I mean suggest by these examples? Why have I called these posts 'The superweapon and the Anglo-American imagination'?
Actually, the phrase 'Anglo-American imagination' is misleading, because I think the British and the American imaginations were significantly different, at least when it comes to technology and war. And the difference is this: at least in the period of the two world wars, Americans found it much easier to imagine that technology could help them win wars than the British, who were more pessimistic and tended to see new technologies as a threat. It's easy to get into trouble with big generalisations like this, and I definitely can't quantify it in any useful way. But I don't think it's accidental that it American journalists imagined British superweapons more readily than British journalists, or that American science magazines had superweapons on their covers, and British ones didn't.
My argument on the American side is mainly from secondary sources. The inspiration for the title is a book by H. Bruce Franklin which has the subtitle 'The Superweapon and the American Imagination'.1 Franklin covers a broad swathe of cultural and polical history from Fulton's submarine through to SDI and shows how embedded the idea of better security through higher technology is in American culture. Complementing this is Joseph Corn's The Winged Gospel.2 Here the argument is that Americans generally believed that aircraft -- and the new connections they would create between people and peoples -- would bring about a golden age of peace and prosperity. The same could not be said of the British (at least, not in general).
Having hesitantly asserted a bold generalisation, I probably ought to try and explain it. Here are some possibilities, none of them particularly compelling:
- Time. The First World War was much more traumatic for Britain than for US. Technology didn't make things better. Artillery, gas, machine guns, barbed wire, brought stalemate on the Western front, not victory. Britain's lead in dreadnoughts didn't help much against U-boats. And so on. But America entered the war as a fresh force; and its army had only recently become seriously engaged in combat by the time of the Armistice. So even though it had its own learning curve to follow, it had no time to become embittered with the apparent fruitlessness of military technology.
- Space. Britain is both geographically smaller than the United States, and closer to its neighbours (in terms of the distance between population centres, at least). It had less need for faster transportation internally, and as for for bringing Europe closer, this has not always been a universally cherished ideal in Britain (cf. Channel Tunnel, European Union, Napoleon, Wilhelm II, Hitler). America is far bigger and more dispersed; it's easy to see why it would embrace aviation.
- Power. When you're on top, every direction is down. Britain was a status quo power: it had everything it wanted, pretty much. So why embrace change? This is why there were some dissenting voices when HMS Dreadnought was launched: Britain's heavy investments in ironclads would be set at nought, and rival powers given a chance to catch up. America was, by contrast, a rising power, and change was to its advantage.
As I said, none of these explanations are particularly compelling. The United States didn't abandon pursuit of hi-tech weapons just because they didn't help it win in Vietnam. Who (aside from inhabitants of the Foreign Office) would internalise a concern about preserving Britain's global status quo? And different parts of Britain placed different values on better transport: the Scotsman, for example, regularly ran stories about how regional airlines were bringing rural and island Scottish communities into closer contact with civilisation. But I think the difference between British and American attitudes towards the 'superweapon' is, or was, real, so an explanation there must be!
H. Bruce Franklin, War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). ↩
Joseph J. Corn, The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983). ↩
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