Law and Famous Trials

Billy Mitchell

Why is the court-martial of Billy Mitchell famous?

The 1925 military trial of William “Billy” Mitchell (1879–1936) made headlines because of the defendant’s open and controversial criticism of the U.S. military.

A U.S. general in World War I (1914–18), Mitchell returned from the experience convinced that the future military strength of the country depended on air power. In fact, he had commanded the American expeditionary air force during the war in Europe and had even proposed to General John Pershing that troops be dropped by parachute behind German lines; Pershing dismissed the idea. The war over, in 1921 Mitchell declared that “the first battles of any future war will be air battles.” But when the navy and war departments failed to develop an air service, Mitchell was outspoken about it, charging the military with incompetence, criminal negligence, and describing the administration as treasonable. Those were fighting words. Charged with insubordination and “conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the military service,” Mitchell’s trial began on October 28, 1925. After lengthy hearings, on December 17 of that year Mitchell was found guilty and was suspended without pay from the military for a period of five years. Congress entered the fray, proposing a joint resolution to restore Mitchell’s rank, but President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933) upheld the court’s decision. Mitchell responded by resigning. He returned to civilian life but continued to write and speak about his belief in an air force. He died in 1936, about five years too soon to see his predictions come true: In surprise air raids on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked U.S. military installations in the Philippines and Hawaii. Though the U.S. military rose to the occasion, entering World War II and building an impressive and mighty air fleet, many observers felt the military could have been better prepared to stage that monumental effort had Mitchell’s advice been heeded years earlier.


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