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Posted on Apr 14, 2021 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

From Biplanes to Ballistic Missiles — The Career of General Thomas S. Power. “To Rule the Skies: General Thomas S. Power and the Rise of Strategic Air Command in the Cold War”. Book Review.

From Biplanes to Ballistic Missiles — The Career of General Thomas S. Power. “To Rule the Skies: General Thomas S. Power and the Rise of Strategic Air Command in the Cold War”. Book Review.

Ray Garbee

To Rule the Skies: General Thomas S. Power and the Rise of Strategic Air Command in the Cold War. 2021.  Author: Brent D. Ziarnick. Naval Institute Press. 312 pages. ISBN: 978-1-68-2475874

The National Museum of the United States Air Force has an impressive collection of artifacts representing the Cold War and the Strategic Air Command. The hulking airframe of a B-36 Peacemaker heavy bomber dominates the hall. The Peacemaker is flanked by the sleek lines of the B-47 Stratojet and B-58 Hustler jet bombers. The adjacent missile gallery houses the silent pillars of ballistic missiles that made up a third of the nation’s nuclear triad. But you can walk the length and breadth of the museum and not find a mention of General Thomas S. Power. It’s surprising as General Power led the Strategic Air Command through both the trying test of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the transformation of SAC into a strike force encompassing both the bomber and the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).


Dr. Brent D. Ziarnick aims to raise the profile of General Power’s contributions to the United States Air Force through his biography To Rule the Skies: General Thomas S. Power and the Rise of Strategic Air Command in the Cold War. Through the lens Thomas S. Power life, Dr. Ziarnick conveys both the rise and fall of Strategic Air Command as well as General Power’s own vision for transforming the United States Air Force of the early 1960’s into a true “Aerospace Force” with literal global strike capabilities.

Using a conventional biographical model, the narrative leads the reader through the early years of the young Thomas Power. Dr. Ziarnick’s narrative casts the image of the classic American story of a self-reliant man who seized the opportunities that were available. This is manifested in Power’ early educational background and how his fascination with aviation lead to joining the Army Air Corps as a pilot.

Out of flight school, Power was assigned to the 49th Bombardment squadron. From this initial assignment Dr. Ziarnick illuminates how Thomas S. Power’s career was intertwined with the evolution of aerial bombing. Initially cast in more of an administrative and technical role, Dr. Ziarnick explores Power’s role in the strategic bombing campaigns in Europe and how that prepared him for leading squadrons of B-29 Superfortress bombers against Japan. The narrative explores how it was those Pacific campaigns that were pivotal in preparing Power for the Cold War with the Soviet Union in the 1950’s and 60’s.

It was in the Pacific theater that Power was first teamed with Curtis LeMay prior to leading the Strategic Air Command (SAC). It was a partnership that would last for much of the next two decades and gave Thomas Power a key role in transforming the United States Air Force into the atomic embodiment of De Seversky’s Victory through Air Power.

Dr. Ziarnick weaves three themes into his narrative of Power career. Starting with the foundation of Power’s career as the last senior general without a college degree, Dr. Ziarnick intertwines Power’s role in the development and deployment of the Strategic Air Command covering both SAC’s technical evolution and the crisis of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the third thread is also the most interesting – how Thomas Power’s vision for space dominance through a transformed US Air Force became a vision deferred, but maybe not lost.

The book lacks maps that place events into the place in which they occurred. Given the global nature of General Power’s career, maps would have been a nice addition to the narrative. The illustrations show Thomas Power across the breadth of his career and show his involvement in key moments of history.

Dr. Ziarnick has crafted an engaging narrative. As a biography, it’s interesting to see a person’s ‘path to success’ as well as the challenges they faced in their life and career. The life of Thomas S. Power is a classic American story of success through hard work and leadership. It’s a reminder that innovation does not require a college degree. The narrative works to paint a multi-dimensional portrait of General Power. This portrayal is aimed at challenging the conventional narrative that painted General Power as a cold martinet who slavishly carried out Curtis LeMay’s orders.

The narrative reminds us that Strategic Air Command was a product of both the outcome of the Second World War as well as the Cold War with the Soviet Union and later the People’s Republic of China. SAC was an iconic institution of the Cold War – possibly the icon in terms of defining the risks posed by that Cold War.

While the history of General Power involvement with SAC’s operations is an informative story, the more engaging part of the narrative is centered on Power’ efforts to transform the United States Air Force into a true aerospace force. Here you’ll find the story of a road not taken – a road that would have led to the sci-fi future that the 1950’s and 60’s suggested was possible.

In crafting a strategy for facing the Soviet Union, Power’ vision comes across like a space age version of De Seversky’s classic work Victory Through Air Power. De Seversky’s vision of strategic bombing dominating the battlespace was realized by LeMay and Power in the form of SAC. Now Thomas Power stood at the cross roads in 1962 and aimed to position the Air Force astride the stars as the planet’s dominant aerospace power through the creation of a manned Aerospace Force.

How Power sought to do this is the stuff of a pulp science fiction fan’s dreams. Power envisioned aerospace as a warfighting domain that unified both the atmospheric elements of the current Air Force mission with the idea of a Space Force that lived up to the name. Dr. Ziarnick illuminates the origins of several Air Force initiatives and how they were designed to transform the Air Force into a true Aerospace Force through two key projects –Project Dyna-Soar and Project Orion

Project Dyna-Soar has been relegated to the history museums as nothing more than a test bed for lifting body research. This research in turn became a technological proof of concept that supported NASA’s space shuttle program. This conventional narrative does not capture the original intent of Dyna-Soar being a prototype for a manned aerospace global strike fighter.

But Dyna-Soar would not amount to much with the grander ambition of Project Orion – an immense manned spacecraft powered by a nuclear-pulse propulsion system. For numerous reasons, Project Orion never made it off the drawing board, but General Power’s enthusiasm for the project reflects a sense of the technological “can-do” optimism of the early 1960’s.

The decision not to develop Project Orion reflects the larger clash of vision between General Power and the Department of Defense. Dr. Ziarnick documents the multiple fronts where Power’s initiatives were shot down by Secretary McNamara and the ‘whiz kids’ within the DoD. The details of these conflicts were illuminating as the decisions made echoed down over the decades in cancelled programs and systems that shaped the later decades of the twentieth century. While it can be presented as a clash of military and civilian cultures, the narrative suggests it to be driven more by competing views of national goals and the strategies by which to pursue those goals. As the saying goes, “history is written by the victors”. Having lost the policy debate, General Power’s career was pushed to the edge of the margins of the narrative.

To Rule the Skies is a timely book, as the recent formation of the Space Force is an outgrowth of the SAC aerospace force which General Power envisioned back in the 1960’s. Reviewing the Space Force mission requirement:

The USSF is a military service that organizes, trains, and equips space forces in order to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force. USSF responsibilities include developing Guardians, acquiring military space systems, maturing the military doctrine for space power, and organizing space forces to present to our Combatant Commands. 

In an interview with Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, General John W. Raymond the Chief of Space Operations stated:

“…The challenge is that the access to space, and the freedom to maneuver in space, can no longer be treated as a given. We have to be able to protect it because there are threats that exist today,” Raymond said.”

“…It’s been clearly recognized that space is a warfighting domain. We now have a service that is focused on protecting and defending that domain.” Raymond said. “The U.S. decided to act on an opportunity, to not wait, but focus this new service to be able to move at speed to stay ahead of that growing threat and respond to it… “

There’s more than an echo of Thomas S. Power in General Raymond’s words.

Reading To Rule the Skies brought to mind George Santayana’s famous quote “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Projecting aerospace power into space is even more relevant now than it was in the 1960’s. Thomas S. Power’s vision of an aerospace force is reflected in the recent foundation and current structure of the US Space Force.

The modern arena for geopolitical competition seems to be focusing on space. The competition for orbital space and the renewed focus on both the Moon and Mars are reminiscent of both the Twentieth Century cold war as well as the earlier 19th century Great Power competition for resources and geopolitical position.

While resources and basing will play an important role, the modern competition is currently systems driven. Space is a key element for missions ranging from C3I and civilian communications to reconnaissance and civilian remote sensing programs. The ability to operate in space means ensuring access and protecting orbital assets. General Power might argue that being able to deny those things to an opponent is just as important.

The current doctrine for Space Force in evolving, but it appears to place no emphasis on manned space systems. For example, look at the X-37B, and the various reconnaissance and communication systems. To Rule the Skies suggests that this is the legacy of McNamara’s policy decisions and how the United States focused on civilian manned space exploration versus an arms race for the ‘militarization’ of space.

To Rule the Skies in an engaging read. Dr Ziarnick brings the story of Thomas S. Power from shadows of history and places that story into a modern context. The narrative echoes the confrontational, direct style for which Power was known. Ziarnick’ s view of Power may be controversial as it challenges the conventional wisdom regarding Power’s character and career. The book provides insights into how Power’s legacy has been minimized in the historical narrative of the Air Force.

Crafted as a rebuttal to the ‘conventional perception of Power as a person, a leader and a visionary. The book showcases Power’s operational successes with the B-29 in WWII and at AFDC and SAC in the post war period.

The review of General Power’s career makes parts of To Rule the Skies feel like an echo of Power’s own book “Design for Survival” in that it dissects the outcome of Power vision for a secure future through a ‘call to action’ to seize the High Frontier through new aerospace platforms and strategies.

To Rule the Skies is a book that’s more than a biography. It’s also a mirror on which to view how earlier challenges shaped our current geopolitical landscape and a lens through which to view current choices and decisions regarding access to and control of the expanding aerospace frontier.