The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
PROGRESS in establishing air services across the Pacific has been slow. Except for a few enthusiasts, those interested in civilian aviation after the World War, both here and abroad, did not feel the same urge to explore the Pacific as they had to experiment with trans-Atlantic flights. The younger generation, in whose hands lay the development of civil aviation, conceived of foreign relations primarily in terms of intercourse between America and Europe. And there were no Northcliffes or Orteigs to offer prizes for flights across the Pacific. In 1921 air mail service had been put into operation between New York and San Francisco, and in 1929 the Dutch had opened a mail line from Amsterdam to the East Indies. But only in 1935 did a regular air service span the great 10,000 mile gap between. Even now, the aërial development of the Pacific area as a whole is still in a tentative stage.
Until recently American interest in the Pacific was largely confined to the Army and Navy. They had long been concerned with the strategy of that ocean and with the balance of power in China. Both evinced a desire to operate aircraft in the Pacific area at an early date, but were frustrated by the enormous distances and by the airplane's limited technical capacity. The problem of Pacific flying was, and remains, the problem of finding a route.
The first trans-Pacific route to be flown was a detour. After the World War the late General William Mitchell began to urge the possibility of skirting both the Pacific and the Atlantic by their Arctic fringes, and to proclaim the dangers of an aërial invasion of America by those routes, especially by the Arctic stepping-stones from the Orient. A desire to test these Arctic routes played a large part in the Army's plans for its flight around the world in 1924. The successful completion of this flight served to show that the Pacific could be flown with no single jump of more than 800 miles in length; but the weather conditions in the Aleutian area and north of Japan were so appalling, even in summer, as to give little encouragement for the establishment of regular operations there.
The respective rôles of the Army and Navy in the aërial defense of American coastal areas were at that time ill-defined. Indeed, this is still the case to some extent. The rivalry between the two services made each eager to be first to fly from the mainland to Honolulu. The Navy's bid was made in the late summer of 1925, when the late Commander John Rodgers and a crew of four took off in a flying boat from San Francisco. But they ran out of fuel short of their destination, were forced to alight on the water, and only managed to reach the island of Kauai, by drifting and improvised sailing, nine days after they had been given up for lost. The Army's attempt was made in June 1927, and succeeded. In a three-engined landplane, Lieutenants Maitland and Hegenberger flew from San Francisco to the Army field near Honolulu.
This feat, duplicated three times by the end of August 1927, excited great public interest; but it had no immediate commercial results, for the airplane was not yet ready to cross either the Atlantic or the Pacific with reasonable regularity in both directions. All the early flights -- which were from the continent to Hawaii -- were made on the down-hill slope, meteorologically speaking, since they had the trade winds on their tail; the planes never returned to the mainland under their own power. The first trans-Pacific flight directly suggestive of commercial possibilities drew upon the immensely longer cruising range of the rigid airship: when Dr. Eckener took the Graf Zeppelin around the world in 1929, he flew non-stop from Tokyo to Los Angeles.
There is no practicable North Pacific air route that does not include a stop in the Hawaiian Islands. The distance from Honolulu to San Francisco is 2,400 statute miles. From Hilo, on the volcano-island of Hawaii, it is a little less; but the harbor facilities at Hilo are unsatisfactory for the departure of heavily-loaded seaplanes. The distance from Honolulu to the mainland is within the commercial capacity of existing seaplanes, but it leaves little reserve for extra range or for payload. The present Pan American Clippers, with a gross weight of over 80,000 pounds, carry a maximum of 25 passengers and 1,000 pounds of mail between California and Hawaii; on the shorter hops to the west of Honolulu they can handle much larger loads. Thus the Hawaiian Islands have an importance in oceanic air transport hardly equalled by any other single spot upon the earth's surface.
The North Atlantic can be crossed from Canada to the British Isles without stopping on non-British territory; it can also be crossed from the United States to France or Portugal, either by way of the Azores or direct, without touching British soil. The South Atlantic permits non-stop passage from Brazil to the African possessions of at least three European Powers. But in crossing the North Pacific by plane no feasible way to avoid Hawaii has been found except at the price of dealing with the Arctic climate, difficult at all seasons and a virtually impassable barrier at some. Even so, a plane could avoid American territory only by flying from Canada to Russia either to the south of the Aleutian Islands or to the north of Alaska -- almost impossible projects by reason both of distance and of weather. Further south, however, there is an alternative route which so far has been left entirely undeveloped. It would be possible to fly from a point on the Pacific coast of Mexico or Central America to Clipperton Island. Clipperton is an atoll under French sovereignty 780 miles from Mexico and 2,000 miles due west of the Panama Canal. It is separated from the Marquesas group (also French) by a distance almost exactly equalling that from Honolulu to San Francisco.
To the west of Honolulu (or of the Marquesas) the selection of landing places would present no problem if the question of nationality could be disregarded. Reefs, atolls and volcanic rocks rise in unnumbered thousands along a broad arc sweeping from the Japanese Islands southward and eastward to the Tuamotus. A circle drawn with Honolulu as the center and with a radius of 2,350 miles touches no land to the east or north. To the south and west, however, it encloses a large number of islands -- half a dozen between Kingman Reef and Jarvis, the entire Phoenix group, scattered islands of the Ratak chain in the Marshall Islands, Wake Island and the outlying members of the Hawaiian group out to Midway.
Considered from the aviation point of view, the innumerable islands of the Southern and Western Pacific fall into three classes. There are atolls that offer a reasonably sheltered lagoon for seaplane operations; there are "solid" islands of sufficiently firm and level surface to allow the preparation of runways for landplanes; and there are rocks too precipitous and eefs too open to the sea, or enclosing lagoons too small or too thickly strewn with coral heads, to be of any aëronautical use. Islands large enough to have genuine harbors permitting a seaplane take-off are quite exceptional. Though a number of them have harbors of a sort, they all -- with the exception of Pearl Harbor on Oahu -- are too open in one direction and too small to be really satisfactory for seaplane purposes. They would be even worse were it not for the almost perfect constancy of the trade winds and for the fact that most of the harbors lie to leeward.
The time will no doubt come when the perfection of aircraft engineering and aërial navigation will render it practicable to fly across 2,000 miles, and more, of open water in machines capable of making a safe landing only on solid ground. One school of aëronautical opinion holds that this time has already come. But the majority of the experts maintain that passenger-carrying oceanic operations by landplane still lie some years ahead. The first true trans-Pacific flight made in temperate latitudes in a landplane was that by Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, who in 1928 flew from California to Australia by way of the Hawaiian and Fiji Islands. This route is still available, with an alternative stopping place on Howland Island. Miss Earhart was to have been the first pilot to land on Howland: the runways which were prepared for her still await the first aërial voyager.
Quite aside from questions of safety, in the Pacific the advantage remains with the seaplane. The harbors there do not have the ice problem which vexes operations in the North Atlantic, and the atolls are well distributed. On the central Pacific route now followed by the Pan American Clippers the seaplane is indispensable. On this route either Midway or Wake must be used if flight from the United States to Japan or the Philippines is to be reasonably direct and at the same time keep to the south of the Aleutians. On Midway it might not be impossible to build a landplane runway a mile in length. On Wake, however, the construction of a runway to face the prevailing and virtually omnipresent wind is absolutely out of the question. Since the distance from Midway to Guam, without a stop at Wake, is slightly longer than that from San Francisco to Honolulu, the difficulties of landplane operations on this route are readily seen. On the other hand, both Midway and Wake are almost ideally designed by nature for seaplane activity. Also feasible for seaplane bases, though not ideal, are Kingman Reef, 1,100 miles south of Honolulu, Christmas Island near Kingman, and most of the Phoenix Islands, 500 miles farther on to the south and west.
For the moment, the central route is the only one in full commercial exploitation. Each week the seaplanes of Pan American Airways depart from San Francisco for Honolulu, Midway, Wake, Guam, Manila, Macao and Hong Kong. At Hong Kong they make connection with British and French lines running to Singapore and to Indo-China, respectively, where they join lines from Europe. Connections are also made at Hong Kong with lines going into the interior of China -- to Chungking and other points under the control of Chiang Kai-shek. Flying into the interior is done at night, and both schedule and route are constantly changed in order to avoid Japanese pursuit planes.
Pan American's service from Honolulu to New Zealand by way of Kingman Reef and American Samoa, which was experimentally operated more than a year ago, was kept from commercial exploitation only by a shortage of suitable seaplane equipment. That company's present project for operations to New Zealand contemplates a different route. Kingman Reef and Samoa having been found somewhat unsatisfactory technically, the new plan is to use Canton Island and French New Caledonia as the intermediate fueling points. The California Clipper completed its survey flight via Canton Island August 30 of this year; and Pan American has requested an appropriation to enable it to carry the mails regularly by that route, putting Auckland within four days of San Francisco.
From a commercial and technological point of view the line across the center of the Pacific might be supplemented by a right-angle spur from Guam to Tokyo. But flights along that route would pass over the Marianas and Bonin archipelagoes from which Japan tries rigorously to exclude foreigners. For purely commercial reasons we also might reasonably expect to see operations opened from the Dutch East Indies, French Indo-China and Japan to the Philippines.
Two historical facts have an important bearing on the present outlook for trans-Pacific aviation. The first is the extraordinary prescience shown by various American naval officers and by officials at Washington. They acted forty years ago as though they foresaw not only the coming of the airplane, but its present technical limitations. The second is the bland indifference assumed by officials in many foreign countries towards possible repercussions of aviation in the Pacific up until five years ago, when the sudden appearance of commercial airplanes over that ocean stirred up a furious burst of claim and counterclaim.
The United States owes to the farsightedness of its officials, before and during the Spanish-American War, its present ability to operate a trans-Pacific airline without touching any non-American soil this side of the quasi-American Philippine Commonwealth. Had it not been for the readiness of the American people to acquire overseas territories at the turn of the century, and had it not been for the watchfulness of the American Navy at an even earlier date, it would have been impossible for Pan American Airways, by a few swift strokes, to convert deserted strips of coral into flourishing ports of call. The inauguration of trans-Pacific air services would have been held up by the same sort of protracted and cautious international negotiation that so delayed the development of trans-Atlantic air transport. Midway was acquired in 1867, the Hawaiian group and Guam in 1898, and Wake in 1899. In each case the motive for annexation may be described as naval. However, only Hawaii and Guam were ever endowed with real naval establishments; the attempt to locate a base at Midway was abortive, while Wake lay almost entirely neglected, receiving visits from naval vessels only very casually and at intervals of several years.
In 1935 came a sudden awakening of interest in the aërial possibilities of islands which theretofore were regarded merely as menaces to navigation. This interest served to draw attention to the very slender basis for the claims to sovereignty over many of these islands. In many cases, sovereignty by one Power had been allowed to acquire the sanction of time merely through the failure of other Powers to push counterclaims. Attention was drawn in particular to the tenuous nature of certain claims to whole archipelagoes in which islands often were separated from one another by a hundred miles or more and lacked formal occupation or government of any sort.
Take, for example, the recently celebrated cases of Howland, Baker, Jarvis, Canton and Enderbury Islands. The classic study on American geographical discoveries in the Pacific by Mr. Boggs of the Department of State[i] lists all of those islands except Canton as having been explored by Americans before 1876. Further, these islands, then collectively known as American Polynesia, were in some cases supplied with American governors and in general were recognized as American territory in European atlases. However, the guano operations that took the first settlers there were later abandoned and the islands themselves were vacated. In the course of time whatever recognition British official opinion had once given to American possession was forgotten and British maps began to show the islands as British territory. Consequently, the announcement of actual American colonization in 1935 occasioned indignation in the British press and caused questions to be asked in Parliament. Though there has been no formal surrender of claim by Britain, she seems at least tacitly to have accepted exclusive American rights to Howland, Baker and Jarvis, all islands of the "solid" type. On the other hand, Canton and Enderbury, the former an atoll well suited for seaplanes, are now jointly occupied by British and American parties. A recent executive order of the President of the United States placed both islands under the administrative jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior; at the same time the British Government has given inquirers assurance that British rights will be fully protected. An exact determination of the respective rights of each nation obviously remains for later negotiation. It should be mentioned that there are also islands where the British claim to unqualified sovereignty, though not formally challenged, is nevertheless not fully conceded by American opinion. Hull Island, close to Canton and Enderbury, is one such case, and Christmas Island is another. The cordiality of Anglo-American relations insures an amiable composition of these differences, and we are probably safe in predicting that the claims will be settled so that one will offset another. In some cases a genuine condominium may possibly be set up.
It is a generally accepted principle that the airlines of one country can enter or pass over the territory of another country only after obtaining the latter's consent. However, the Pan American Convention on Commercial Aviation -- ratified by the United States, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Panama -- is equally explicit in granting to air commerce the free right of passage from one nation to another. Article 21 reads: "The aircraft of a contracting state engaged in international air commerce shall be permitted to discharge passengers and a part of its cargo at one of the airports designated as a port of entry of any other contracting state, and to proceed to any other airport or airports in such State for the purpose of discharging the remaining passengers and portions of such cargo . . . provided that they comply with the legal requirements of the country over which they fly, which legal requirements shall be the same for native and foreign aircraft engaged in international traffic."
In any event, the United States will for the next six years be able to operate across the Pacific at least as far as the Philippines without seeking anyone's permission. After 1945 the Philippine Commonwealth will presumably be in full control of its own foreign relations and therefore able to decide for itself what foreign airlines are to operate over its territory. Up to now no foreign airline has entered the Philippines, and though there have been periodic reports that the Royal Dutch Air Lines were on the point of extending their services from the East Indies north to Manila, it appears that thus far no formal action has been taken upon any official request for permission to operate such a line.
To enter China, Pan American Airways found it necessary to deal with several foreign governments. Before the current war, operations into ports under Chinese sovereignty were hindered by China's disinclination to admit Japanese airlines to Chinese territory and by Japan's unwillingness to see other Powers get into China ahead of her. Only the foreign-controlled ports in South China were available; Pan American hence made private agreements with the Portuguese and British for admission to Macao and Hong Kong. Being of a private nature, and thus not binding on the United States Government, these agreements obviously could contain no provision for reciprocity. In Macao this fact has so far been of little importance, since the Portuguese have announced no plans for organizing intercontinental air transport under their own flag. But in Hong Kong the question is more serious, and the agreement concerning that colony consequently contains safeguarding provisions which allow cancellation under certain conditions. It is under another of these privately negotiated contracts that the line to New Zealand was launched a year ago. Though New Zealand's action occasioned some indignation in London, the Dominion Government has shown no disposition to subordinate its own interests to the wish of the British authorities.
The scope of British intentions in the eastern Pacific is not yet clear. The interest of the British in Canton and Enderbury Islands at least suggests that they do not intend to leave the trans-Pacific route to exclusively American exploitation. In that case, the key to their problem would seem to be the right to enter Honolulu. And unless the United States overcomes its aversion to foreign operation in an area of such military importance, there will be no alternatives except the very roundabout Marquesas-Clipperton route or a non-stop flight of 4,000 miles from Christmas Island to San Diego. On neither of these routes would the British give any real competition to Pan American's much more direct service.
At least theoretically, the French possess a better opportunity to operate a Pacific airline under their own sovereignty than do the British. If a French line used Clipperton, the only non-French soil on which it would have to stop between the Asiatic and American mainlands would be New Guinea (Dutch or British). However, such a line would run well to the south of the Equator and would thus have to depend upon the use of one of the tiny French islands lying just west of Samoa (e.g., Wallis or Futuna) where there are no facilities for seaplane bases. In any event, the French have so far shown little interest in extending their air routes from Indo-China to French Polynesia, and still less to the coast of America.
Among the European nations, The Netherlands makes the most purely commercial approach to air transportation. Yet although the Dutch are less concerned than many with imperial motives, even they have laid out their major line from Amsterdam to Borneo. After several years of negotiation they now operate a service to Australia. Their aspirations certainly include lines to the Philippines, though they do not, so far as can now be seen, extend beyond 150 East.
There remain the Japanese. Though Japan is a party to the International Convention for Air Navigation, she has so far made no agreements with any of the other signatories. Japanese-controlled airlines have been limited to Japanese territory, which in recent years has come to include Manchukuo and more lately northern China. The Japanese have lines to Formosa, to Korea, and now to Peiping; and they would no doubt like to enter the Philippines. But the full extent to which they have developed airlines outside the home islands is not known. There have been constant rumors that an operating base has been set up on Saipan, 120 miles north of Guam. A Japanese report to the Mandates Commission in November 1936 announced that an air service to cover the islands under Japanese mandate would soon be put into operation. Yet, after three years, the status of this project is still shrouded in mystery.
[i] S. Whittemore Boggs: "American Contributions to Geographical Knowledge of the Central Pacific," Geographical Review, April 1938, p. 177-192.