Proclaiming Airpower

Air Force Narratives and American Public Opinion from 1917 to 2014

by Alan J. Vick

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Research Question

  1. How have public narratives about the U.S. Air Force and popular attitudes toward airpower evolved over the past century?

This report examines the evolution and interaction of U.S. Air Force narratives and popular attitudes toward civil and military aviation over the past century — from the "golden age" of aviation in the first half of the 20th century, when flight and airpower captured the American public's imagination, to 2014, when aviation had long since become taken for granted. The study first examines the social currency of aviation and airpower, drawing on a historical review, the frequency with which airmen appeared on the cover of Time magazine during the period, and the frequency with which airpower and aviation concepts appeared in books. It then examines Air Force narratives, including the Air Force's origin story as well as the dominant ideas uniting the organization at various points in its history. Finally, drawing on polling data from more than 50 opinion surveys conducted over the past 80 years, the study traces the evolution of the American public's attitudes toward the Air Force since 1935.

The American public today does not view airpower or the Air Force with the same fascination and enthusiasm that it did during the "golden age" of aviation, but the report concludes that shortcomings in Air Force narratives are not to blame: Airpower's enormous social currency during the first half of the 20th century was due to real-world events and technological advances, not narratives. However, the report emphasizes that an effective narrative is still important as a means to help the public and key decisionmakers understand the contributions that airpower makes to U.S. national security today, and offers recommendations for the Air Force in this regard.

Key Findings

The Golden Age of Airpower Is Past, but an Effective Airpower Narrative Is Still Important

  • The social currency of aviation — a measure of public enthusiasm and visibility — rose steeply between 1910 and the late 1940s, then fell in a similar manner between 1950 and 1960.
  • Public opinion toward the Air Force was most favorable when the social currency of aviation was highest.
  • Air Force narratives — the way the Air Force "tells its story" to the public and decisionmakers — although important for educational purposes, were not the primary driver of public attitudes toward the service. Rather real-world events and technological advances were responsible for changes.
  • The American public was inclined to have strong preferences for one service over another in the 1950s, but the gap among service scores in surveys has consistently shrunk over the intervening years.
  • An effective narrative is still important as a means to help the public and key decisionmakers understand the contributions that airpower makes to U.S. national security.

Recommendations

  • Explore means to increase the social currency of airpower.
  • Anchor Air Force narrative in big problems of concern to the American public.
  • Use long-term public opinion trends to inform the Air Force narrative.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    The Social Currency of Aviation and Airpower

  • Chapter Three

    U.S. Air Force Public Narratives, 1917–2014

  • Chapter Four

    Public Attitudes Toward the U.S. Air Force, 1935–2014

  • Chapter Five

    Conclusions

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.