There is no shortage of companies extant today that trace their lineage into an Axis past. Most of Japan’s major zaibatsu made it through the MacArthur era, albeit modernized in ownership and management. Fiat made fighter planes for Mussolini yet remains Italy’s most blue-chip industrial enterprise. And Krupp, the most infamous of the “merchants of death,” exists today as part of European heavy industry giant Thyssen-Krupp.
Volkswagen is arguably the most visible of these Fascio-capitalist legacies.
I have spent my career working with companies and their reputations, and I have come to understand that history is not destiny: success is rarely permanent, failures need not be fatal, and a founder’s foibles can be expunged. But a company’s skeletons, however well closeted, are brutally difficult to bury because heritage becomes woven into culture in ways that are often variable and unpredictable.
VW is a fascinating case study, a legacy of National Socialism that has been over the past seventy years alternately beloved and reviled outside of Germany. It would be hard to argue that the company has risen above its past.
What will forever plague the firm – and others like it – is the degree to which the ideology that birthed lies dormant within the company’s cultural fabric. One would hope that, like Ford, VW can remain cleansed of the ugliness in its past even as the past echoes through modern Europe. But the burden of assuring as much remains an obligation of the firm’s leadership.
“There are two kinds of people in this world,” a Chinese executive told me once. “The kind of people who speak for themselves, and the kind who let their deeds speak for them.”
This insight not only compelled me to look at my own life (which one am I?), it also forced me to re-evaluate my heroes. Who among my pantheon was a doer, and who did some good things but was really exceptional at tooting his own horn (or paying others to toot if for them?) What does it say about an individual who crafts his or her life after one type or the other? And what does it say about nations that make heroes of narcissists?
Old “Electric Brain”
Admiral Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations in World War II, thought Raymond Spruance was the single most intelligent U.S. naval commander in the war. Given the competition – Nimitz, Turner, Halsey, McCain, Leahy, and King himself – this was high praise. Yet Spruance today is largely unknown outside of the relatively small circle of mariners, historians, and history buffs. Why?
Thomas Buell, himself a naval officer, offers an answer with his definitive portrait Spruance, the enigmatic commander who made the critical decisions at Midway and led the US Navy-Marine Corps team in their legendary drive across the Central Pacific. Throughout his life, his subordinates and superiors all came in turn came to rely on his quiet intellect, his preternatural calm under fire, and his ability to size up a situation and act with deliberation, neither vacillating like Ghormley nor impetuous like Halsey.
Working from a relatively small number of sources on Spruance, Buell gives us no great insights that will change the way we think of war, but it will change the way we think of warriors, their flacks, and their biographers. Buell paints a credibly human picture of Spruance, and rather than inflate him to larger-than-life size, offers us the spartan, taciturn, stone-faced career officer whose deeds remain greater than the man himself. It would have been easy for the author to write a panegyric, but you can almost hear the ghost of Spruance whispering over his shoulder, telling Buell not to go down that path. While ably defending Spruance against criticism of his actions at Midway (later proven to be correct), Buell uses the same historiographical care to excoriate the admiral’s actions during his tenure as Ambassador to the Philippines.
The Smartest Man in the Navy
Buell also points out more sublime examples of Spruance’s leadership that resonate today. Spruance led his fleet with a staff that was a fraction of the size of Halsey’s, demonstrating an economy that the brass-bloated navy of today has forgotten: he was early to recognize and defend geniuses like Kelly Turner and Carl Moore against the capricious politics of the Navy; he was a battleship officer who never learned to fly, yet absorbed so much about carrier aviation that he became one of the country’s ablest commanders of airpower; he oversaw the reinvention of naval logistics, a factor the Japanese navy recognized as the keystone to the US victory in the Pacific; and he grasped early that American bases in postwar Asia would be an irritant that would lead to further conflict.
And then there was that intellect: rebelling against the provincial, trade-school approach the navy had taken to professional education, he spent the last years of his career turning the Naval War College into an outstanding graduate school with unparalleled programs in strategy, national security, and world affairs. While nothing he did will surpass his feats as a commander, in terms of its importance to the nation, to sea power, and to global security his two years as President of the College are unmatched.
Buell also offers us an illustration as to why, seven decades after the end of the conflict, we are still unearthing truths that compel us to reevaluate how we understand the war, history, power, and leadership. As we do, we are finding that many of the lessons our fathers learned from their victories are wrong, and many of the right lessons have been forgotten. The time has come for a reappraisal of that conflict: as we watch the rise of a new set of world powers, now more than ever we need to understand why World War II was won (or lost), and we need to find the people who were really responsible, not just the heroes and villains our fathers’ textbooks served to us. Raymond Spruance offers us a timeless model of leadership in crisis. We would be wrong if we did not go looking for more.
N.B.: Ray Spruance spent his final years living in California, and passed away in Monterey in 1969.
In the new National Geographic film “Living in the Age of Airplanes,” narrator Harrison Ford says that aviation has changed our world permanently.
With respect to the creators of this wonderful film, may I offer some moderation: perhaps aviation has not changed our world. It has, however, changed our species and the way we relate to our world.
More than perhaps any other single factor, the perspective afforded by aviation and its offspring, space exploration, have made us aware of how tiny, how fragile, how isolated, and how precious this planet is for all of us.
Like no other place in the world – whether Kitty Hawk, Seattle, or Toulouse – California is the cradle of aviation and aerospace. True, most of the great, cavernous airplane factories and their satellite subcontractors no longer punctuate the California landscape the way they used to. But flight runs deep in the bones of this state, and if you know where to look, you can still see how aviation formed California, how California formed aviation, and how the quest for the sky and the stars is a core part of our future.
To understand how, though, we must begin by exploring the past. In the coming weeks, we will be posting a series of pieces examining California and aerospace.
When you scan the landscape of California’s museums, the giants cast a wide, deep shadow. To the north, the de Young, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, and the stunning new California Academy of Sciences. To the south, the Getty, LACMA, the California Science Center, and the dozen museums that line El Prado in Balboa Park. For any state this list alone would constitute an embarrassment of riches.
Yet these titans all too often (and unfairly) overshadow the hundreds of more modest but equally enticing jewels in the crown, the small, private, and specialty museums supported by die-hard donors and volunteer docents that shed loving light on often-overlooked aspects of the arts, science, history, and culture and industry.
Starting this summer, it will become a significant focus of this blog to catalog those gems, but for now let us begin with a modest treasure: the World War II Aviation Museum in Camarillo.
The Commemorative Air Force (formerly known as the Confederate Air Force) is a national group of aviation veterans and enthusiasts who spend their time rebuilding, maintaining, flying and teaching about the men, women, and planes that helped win World War II from the air. The Southern California Wing of the CAF makes its home at Camarillo Airpot, a former Air Force base that formed a part of California’s early Cold War defenses. With a runway designed to handle jet fighters and hangars made to military specifications, the place is made-to order for a the impressive squadron of operational, beautifully maintained planes of historic significance.
One hangar is set up as The World War II Aviation Museum, with interpretive exhibits, a gift shop, docents, and, of course, planes. Next door is where the real work happens, where the CAF’s volunteers continue to fight the ravages of time and physics to keep the birds together and keep them flying. The collection is small, but what it lacks in size it makes up in sheer quality. Not only are these planes complete, they still fly 68 years after the end of the war. The squadron includes:
If it were just a bunch of pretty planes parked on a ramp, the museum would be worth the stop off of US 101 on your way into or out of the Los Angeles area. What really makes it worthwhile, however, are the docents, several of whom have masters’ degrees in related topics, who are able to adjust their presentation to the level of knowledge and enthusiasm of the audience. It is this small corps of aviator-scholars that make this place a worthy visit, whether you are just a casual observer (like my wife) or an unabashed plane-geek (like my son and I).
Those coming through town in mid-August will get an extra treat: the Wings over Camarillo Air Show. In addition to the 90-odd aircraft filling the ramp of the airport, many of the vintage aircraft offer rides. Be aware, the rides aren’t cheap: they’ll set you back the equivalent of a cross-country airfare. But you’re not paying for transportation – you are paying for an experience that cannot be duplicated anywhere else: the chance to feel what it was like to go to war in the air with the Greatest Generation.
The World War II Aviation Museum is not the National Air and Space Museum, and it doesn’t try to be, even in miniature. What it offers, though, is something the NASM cannot: a highly personalized, unhurried, hands-on experience with magnificent machines that made history, all in a setting that is both beautiful and realistic.
One final word; if you get hungry while you’re there, the place to recharge is The Waypoint Cafe just a few hundred feet east of the museum along the flight line. A well-kept secret among flyers and locals, Yelp gives it 4 stars out of 5, and we make it a point to stop in for eats whenever we get the chance. Make sure you get there early: it’s breakfast and lunch only, and lunch gets busy (although we like their breakfasts best.)
Of all of the capital ships that fought World War II, the cruisers have been all but forgotten. We remember the roles of the aircraft carriers, the battleships, the destroyers and the frigates that escorted convoys, and the Liberty ships that got the supplies through. But what about the cruisers?
Novato businessman and scholar Steven George Bustin takes an important step toward filling in this blank spot in popular history with his “Humble Heroes.” An entertaining and informative if sometimes trying read (his inconsistent handling of names and ranks will grate on specialists and confuse the layman), in focusing on his father’s ship, the USS Nashville (CL-43), the author demonstrates how these multi-mission workhorses actually did some of the most interesting and essential work of the war.
Nashville did a little of everything: convoy escort in the North Atlantic; transporting a secret load of British gold from London to New York; escorting the carriers that launched the Doolittle raid; serving as a flagship for Douglas MacArthur; taking the Japanese surrender in Shanghai; and finally bringing thousands of troops home from the war. If there was a naval mission to be assigned in World War II, Nashville probably accomplished it.
Built on a mix of oral history and naval documents for the core of his account, Bustin stretches his material as far as possible, and perhaps a bit further. What comes out of this account for the serious historian is that there is a larger story to be told here about the role cruisers played in World War II. Nashville was useful because she combined powerful, multi-purpose armament with endurance and survivability. Expensive to build (she cost as much as a much larger heavy cruiser when built), in the end, she and her fellow Brooklyn-class light cruisers wound up being a great bargain for the country.
Today the U.S. Navy and other maritime forces around the world grapple with tradeoffs as they design and build ships. Do we make this ship great at one thing (anti-submarine, anti-air, anti-surface, amphibious, etc), the admirals ask themselves, or try to make it adequate at a lot of things? While Nashville makes an argument for the latter, it is also a reminder that such capabilities do not come cheaply.
For the California historian, there are tidbits to enjoy throughout the book. Despite the Nashville’s East Coast origins, she was a Pacific ship from before the beginning of the war. The crew saw as much of San Diego, Mare Island, Oakland, and San Francisco more often than Pearl Harbor, and Bustin, who has taught at universities in the Bay Area, spices his account with local California color often enough to make the reader feel that the Nashville was a California ship.
In all, the book is a fun read, and appealing especially to those of us for whom World War II is – or is becoming – relevant.