Per Wikipedia: Derek Leebaert is an American technology executive and management consultant who writes books on history and politics, which evoke insights on leadership. He is the winner of the biennial 2020 Truman Book Award and also one of the founders of the National Museum of the United States Army.
I'll admit to being a bit surprised. I was alerted to Leebaert's 2018 Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945–1957, by a highly positive review on H-Net last month, and have been picking my way through the book, which is peppered with references leaving me with the impression of a long-time foreign relations specialist putting a book together from an eclectic selection of notes the author no longer has time to check. (In particular, many references to articles in Time are surely taken from clippings rather than a skim of the 650 issues covering the period from the end of WWII to the Suez Crisis, easy enough to do in a library or online.
With that and a few other petty caveats, and after the de rigeur jurisdiction policing (it's okay for historians to invade technology and archaeology and linguistics, but the favour is not to be returned!), I will endorse the H-Net reviewer, and, apparently, the New York Times, this is a pretty good, if not always convincing book. Okay, there I go with the caveats again, but I honestly do not think that John Snyder was the eminence grise of the Truman Administration and single-handed architect of the postwar order. I just don't.
Leebaert's main argument is directed at the "rise of the American empire," which he wants to postpone from 1945 to 1957. Inter alia, that requires arguing that Britain was a much more significant presence on the world stage in this period than most accounts allow. To get even more specific, he has a brief with Peter Clarke's "last thousand days of the British Empire" thesis that brings the curtain down, not with Indian independence, but with the financial shenanigans of the next year. Without going so far as to actually read Clarke (the horror!), I'm going to guess that he is using "thousand days" loosely. Whatever. The key point is a call to re-evaluate the "end of the Great Siege" waged by Germany against Britain, to see its end at Suez rather than the 19 September 1949 reduction of the exchange rate of pound sterling from 4.08 USD to the pound, to 2.80.
Well, first, the financial argument will take a heavy load, and is fairly convincing. "Economists," I am told in some reading I did mainly to get the sequence of events right [Schenck, 2009], do not believe that there can be two reserve currencies in a world system, but that is what we had between 1945 and 1957, and for much of that period, due to the persistent American trade surplus, a far larger amount of the world's wealth was held in pound sterling than in USD. As Catherine Schenck notes in the introduction to the paper linked above, in 1947, sterling represented 87% of global foreign exchange reserves, and it took until Suez for the dollar to catch up.
In that light, the devaluation of the pound would have wiped out a very large part of the savings of a very influential group of people even if it had not hit major, involuntary, British creditors such as Iran and Egypt in particular. The great crises over Abadan, the end of the Farouk regime, and the 1956 Suez war were clearly shaped by this blow. Also, in retrospect, it was quite a blow against global inequality!
But let's talk about trivial things instead. Like flying.
Leebaert's argument is wide ranging. He is not oblivious to the specifics relevant to this blog. Farnborough '51 is one of a series of "spectacles" that misled the world about the underlying fragility of the British situation, even if he spends more time on the 1948 Olympics and the Festival of Britain. At one point we hear that the British have the world's only heavy jet bomber "and the world's fastest jet fighter." These off-the-cuff observations are a bit facile. We have to pile on the caveats to make them work, and surely what matters in the air is actual RAF bombers attacking Malayan guerillas and spending fifty million pounds a month doing it (all spending taken together), and not some "V-bombers" in the pipeline.
There is one exception to this:
As of March, 1952, the de Havilland Comet is rushing towards its first service flight, 2 May 1952. Vancouver's own airline, Canadian Pacific, is going to be operating the Comet across the Pacific from Vancouver to Sydney. De Havilland is building its overhaul base in Sydney, rather than in Allan Fotheringham's "sleepy village in the rain forest," but it strikes close to home. CP is only a decade out from being a consortium of bush pilots led by Wop May, and America's got nothing like this. Prince Philip will fly the Comet home from the Helsinki Olympics in August, and thirty thousand passengers will fly the Comet in its first year of operation. The only things holding it back are delays in the Avon engine that, it is hoped, will make the Comet 4 Atlantic capable, and Weybridge's inability to guarantee early deliveries, discouraging many airlines from placing orders. A new production line at Short Belfast is supposed to make up the production shortfall, and will play its strange part in the cancellation of the VC7. However, the story of production failures is essentially a familiar one, also afflicting the Centurion tank. The workshop of the world can't make enough stuff!
CP's plans for the Comet were curtailed when it lost its first hull at Karachi. With only one plane left in its order, it could not operate the planned service, and no replacements were available. Everyone's plans for the plane were curtailed by a series of mid-air hull losses in 1954. Airliner crashes were a dime a dozen at the time, but planes falling apart in mid-air were not, and the structural problems implied, were found and fixed only after an exhaustive investigation that delayed the resumption of Comet service to the point where the American crash jetliner development programme caught up. With their larger passenger capacity, the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 were able to overcome de Havilland's first mover advantage.
The financial side of this story is one thing. It is far from clear that sterling needed to be propped up, and as long as it was propped up, the excessively high exchange rate made it difficult and perhaps unprofitable for Britain to be "workshop to the world." This is the technological that concerns me here, and in particular the airline accidents of the winter of 1951//2.
February 4 – A Sabena Douglas C-47A Skytrain suffers a propeller failure in flight over the Belgian Congo. Debris from the propeller failure cuts some of the aircraft's control cables, causing the crew to lose control. The plane crashes near Kikwit, killing all 16 people on board.[
February 11 – Just after National Airlines Flight 101, a Douglas DC-6 (registration N90891), takes off from Newark International Airport in New Jersey, its No. 3 propeller reverses. Misunderstanding the problem, the crew feathers the No. 4 propeller and attempts to return to the airport, but the aircraft crashes in Elizabeth, New Jersey, narrowly missing an orphanage and killing 29 of the 63 people on board and four people on the ground. It is the third in a string of airliner accidents at Newark International since December 1951 and prompts the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close the airport until November 15.
February 17 – Flying over Sicily, a Hunting Air Transport Vickers Model 614 Viking 1 (registration G-AHPI) strays off course and crashes into Monte la Cinta, killing all 31 people on board. It is the second-deadliest aviation accident in Italy's history at the time.
Read from accident reports, this list frustratingly inconclusive when read from accident reports. The Miami Airlines accident was clearly caused by an engine fire, and can be written off to poor maintenance. The cause of both the Sandspit and 11 February Elizabeth accident were propeller failures. The Continental Charters accident was caused by decisions almost too inane to call "error." Rather than make an instrument-only flight in difficult weather conditions, the crew attempted to fly through the Alleghenies on the deck, in order to maintain visual reference to the ground. In reality, crew error is the most likely cause of all the unexplained accidents. The KLM and LaGuardia Convair accidents were almost certainly caused by crews trying to get visual identification of the ground, while crew of the American Airlines Convair failed to de-ice the carburetors. Crew error also contributed to the 11 February Elizabeth crash, as the crew cut the wrong engine.
It is the "visual reference" that is astonishing here. It is one thing for a Continental Charters crew to distrust their instrument flying skills. If it is true that a National Airlines and a KLM crew were similarly flying by the seat of their pants, the rot is deep.