Not-so Secret Weapons: America’s Rise to Dominance through the Use of European Technology
“There has never been a race that can match the progress made in World War II,”1 states Brian J. Ford in the opening of Secret Weapons: Technology, Science, and the Race to Win World War II. Ford, a widely acclaimed author and researcher, maintains his focus on the effects of technology on the Second World War as well as the effects of the Second World War on technology. World War II, an era of international and intranational conflict, served as a catalyst for the escalating arms and technology race. He also mentions the incorrect assumptions held by many regarding the great technological innovations of the Americans during the war, but he refutes these beliefs throughout the whole book, proving the Americans had been more financially secure than innovative in developing arms and technology. He commends not just a single nation, but all of the nations involved in the “race to win World War II,” and he continually strives to create an informative text that is steadfast in its role of explicating to its reader the far reaching effects of World War II technology.
In the first two chapters of the book, Ford concentrates on the causes and early stages of the race for technological gain during World War II. Throughout his opening sections, Ford repeatedly mentions how war in itself is a strong catalyst for innovation. He states, “War is a more powerful stimulus to progress than peace.”2 He expresses his strong belief that no single country was responsible for the progress achieved during the war, but the urgency felt as a result of the war was responsible for the innovations of the time period. The specific event Ford attributes to the start of the race is the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, which pushed the Germans to quickly develop arms before the start of the war. Ford states: “Deny a nation its right to development, and it will do it covertly…Tell it to eschew airships, and –who knows? - it might even opt to develop space rockets instead.”3 This reflects the motif of Germany’s initial development of technology and the United States' capitalization on these developments. As is shown, Ford establishes early in his book that “American technology” often had its roots either in Britain or Germany.
In the third and fourth chapters of the book, Brian Ford delves deeply into the forms of technology developed during the war designed specifically for aerial attacks. Ford states, “Aircrafts of every conceivable size and shape appeared during World War II.”4 Over 10,000 planes were developed in Long Beach and Santa Monica, California, as well as Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In addition, the Boeing Company in Seattle, Washington launched its B-247, the world’s first all-metal liner, in 1933. The United States was developing aircrafts that were on par with those of Germany, which had some of the most dangerous and successful aircrafts during the war. Germany produced the infamous Me-163 “Komet,"5 while the United States built the “N-1M,”6 more commonly known as the “delta-winged plane.” Although the designs were initially produced by the Horten Brothers in Nazi Germany, the United States had the financial stability to actually build the aircrafts. These aircrafts, however, were rarely used throughout the war. Many were built towards the concluding stages of the war, and the only real effects of this development were shown in Germany’s success with the Luftwafte. In terms of aerial rockets, America attempted to develop the “flying bomb” during Operation Aphrodite and Anvil, which were plans to fill old airplanes with explosives. These attempts escalated into attempts to build rockets, which resulted in the invention of the “Bazooka,”7 which ultimately were utilized by the American soldiers early in World War II. America was able to produce "legitimate" rockets when Von Braun, one of Germany’s top engineers, and his team moved to America through Operation Paperclip. Operation Paperclip, which built the stage for the founding of NASA later in the century, was a plan to covertly bring in German scientists to develop weapons of mass destruction in the United States. The United States benefitted substantially from innovations made in European countries, which, whether intentionally or accidentally, gave away substantial amounts of information to different nations.
Ford discusses the dangerous aspects of United States technology in the fifth and sixth chapters of the book. Although many associate human experiments with Nazi Germany and Japan, the United States actually also held human experiments before and during the war. Ford writes, “During the 1930s experiments were carried out in which people were unwittingly injected with cancer cells and injected with radioactive nucleotides…”8 Intended to obtain medical and technological information to be used during the war, these experiments, although operated on a relatively small scale, were a source of controversy in the United States throughout the early stages of the war. Four thousand soldiers were unwittingly injected with plutonium, and few were tested with poisonous gases under the Manhattan Project. Moreover, a few civilians and prisoners in Alabama, Iowa, and Chicago were injected with the syphilis bacterium and the malaria virus. However, “the most important medical research in the wartime United States was purely beneficial,”9 for the United States developed penicillin during this time. Discovered by the British, Penicillium notatum was grown experimentally in broth by Sir Alexander Fleming, who noted that it could kill bacteria. However, it was the United States that took it from a laboratory curiosity to a major new product for general use, saving of millions of soldiers and civilians throughout the war. Soon after, the United States began to search for its own nuclear weapons as a result of other European nations’ progress in this field. The Manhattan Project consisted of scientists of various nations searching for uranium and plutonium atom bombs. The success of this project led the United States to drop the uranium bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and the plutonium bomb over Nagasaki three days later. America continually utilized the ideas of other nations to produce successful medicine and weapons and ultimately win the war.
In the last two chapters of the book, Ford discusses projects that were destined to fail as well as the electronic innovations of the Second World War. American inventor Edwin R. Scott claimed to have perfected a death ray before the start of the Second World War, but his claims were never substantiated. American reports in the “1930s used to speculate on claims that a death ray could bring down aircraft – in large numbers – hundreds of miles away. It is easy to dismiss this as a scientific nonsense, but to the non-scientific mind there is always the consciousness that [the possible was once seen as impossible].”10 Ford continued by discussing Japan’s attempts to capitalize on the idea of a death ray, but its efforts were quickly deemed fruitless. In addition, the electronic innovations of World War II dealt primarily with RADAR. Americans began to use a cavity magnetron transmitter that could fit into an aircraft by 1940. The idea of RADAR initially came from Christian Hulsmeyer, a radio engineer from Dusseldorf, Germany, but the United States further developed the technology to produce the H2S radar, which was used by the United States Air Force bombers. This technology, however, fell into the hands of Germany when an American Bomber was brought down near Rotterdam, Netherlands. This was one of the few instances in which Germany utilized information from the United States to produce further technology of its own.
Ford’s thesis in Secret Weapons: Technology, Science, and the Race to Win World War II is that the Second World War led to progress at a rate unseen until then, forcing nations, especially the United States, to create technology that would give the modern world the science it depends on today. The United States arrived late in the race for technological gain, so it “rushed to produce innovative aircraft and state-of-the-art shipping, and gathered together experts who were harnessing the atom to produce the most terrible and destructive weapons ever used in warfare.”11 The nation actually invented a relatively minimal amount of wartime technology, but it capitalized on its financial stability to produce some of the best technology (much of which was initially developed in Europe) to be utilized during the war. Ford maintains this viewpoint throughout the entire book. Also, early in the book, he establishes the idea that war provides a great medium for progress. He mentions several times in the first few pages of the first chapter that, “[w]artime research gave rise to some of the most revolutionary developments and to some of the craziest ideas…”12 In addition, he constantly strives to tie in the effects of technology produced during the Second World War into both the war itself and the modern era. Believing that his readers wouldn't easily recognize the wartime technology as significant to their lives, he consistently references modern times to place emphasis on the success and magnitude of the technology produced during World War II.
Coming from a very colorful background, Ford has gained much history and experience to apply. Currently a research biologist, author, and lecturer as well as a former television personality for over forty years, Ford possesses versatility in various professions. As a website dedicated to Ford states, “Ford’s work has revolutionized many major areas of science. His BBC programmes (Science Now, Where are You Taking Us) broke new ground in…public accessibility [to] science and were enthusiastically reviewed.”13 This also reflects his role in broadening the audience for subjects like science and technology. However, much of his experience does not directly relate to the technology of the Second Great War. Although he has written German Secret Weapons and Allied Secret Weapons, he has also written extensively on different topics, ranging from the future of food to how animals communicate. However, a significant figure in the British Broadcasting Corporation, Ford gained mastery of the topic of World War II technology after becoming the Chairman of the Science and Technology Authors Committee at the Society of Authors. Born and raised in Britain, Ford possesses an outsider’s view into American technology. This is how he maintains an objective outlook over American technology’s role and development during World War II, as well as overlook many misconceptions held towards American technology and its influence during the war. Although he comes from a wide variety of professions, Ford incorporates his knowledge accumulated throughout his experience regarding World War II technology into Secret Weapons, his most recent work.
Ford began writing Secret Weapons in 2002 and published it merely two years ago in 2011. He states in the introduction of the book that our modern era holds many misconceptions concerning the technology of World War II. As a result, he was strongly influenced by the desire to write an objective paper that neither glorifies nor demeans any nations involved in the technological race to win World War II. Also, Ford believes that the modern society feels distant with the subject of secret weapons. However, he writes, “Books on secret weapons are traditionally seen as quirky, backward-looking, specialist volumes that appeal to historians, in the same way that strange aircraft attract plane-spotters. The subject is closer to the present day than we think.”14 This viewpoint pushed Ford to write in a tone not limited to an erudite audience, in order to reach a broad audience of non-specialists. It also influenced him to make connections with the modern era, which he held as a rather distant generation.
The book has received much praise. Daniel K. Blewett of the Library Journal writes, “Ford writes with a light touch, providing obscure details as he describes inventing and producing weapons to fulfill a particular need, evaluates their effectiveness, and notes postwar applications of the equipment or techniques.”15 Blewett continues and writes, “With plenty of photos, this will be lots of fun for military history fans, including younger history buffs.”16 He praises Ford for his ability to pull together substantial amounts of information to create an overview of technology ranging from tanks to biological warfare. Similarly, Richard P. Hallion of the Air and Space Smithsonian writes, “British scientist and TV personality Ford (German Secret Weapons) pulls back the curtain in this fascinating, accessible study of the weapons and tactics that changed the course of World War II.”17 Although he criticizes how he errs on the side of too much detail, he commends his ability to drawn in a wide variety of interested readers. Both critics had nothing but praise for Ford, for they saw Secret Weapons as a work rich both in information and rhetorical finesse.
This book, overall, is highly informative, although hard to follow at times. Secret Weapons: Technology, Science, and the Race to Win World War II does not follow a chronological order but rather follows the development of the different forms of technology, making it prone to throwing the reader out of perspective regarding the respective time periods of development of different technologies. For example, Ford writes of aerial technological development based on a timeline of progress rather than of time. Also, because Ford’s book covers a wide variety of information regarding the technologies of World War II, it is imperative that he writes his material in a highly organized fashion. Because this is the case, Ford’s uses headings and subheadings such as “The Horrors of Human Experiments”18 to keep his work both detailed and well organized, allowing his readers to better understand the path of his information. His remedy of organization is highly commendable, for works with broad topics tend to turn into hodgepodges of information rather than works with both direction and purpose. Above all, Ford maintains his meticulous style through his use of headings, which groups information into big ideas somewhat like a textbook.
Brian J. Ford supports the contention that the 1940s was a watershed in American history. Moreover, he holds to the idea that the 1940s was a watershed for all nations involved in World War II. He states this quite explicitly when he writes, “The story of the secret weapons is not purely a matter of history, or of specialist interest to military history enthusiasts, for it matters to us all and the legacy is all around us to this day.”19 Ford constantly makes references to how this time period led to groundbreaking innovations regarding technology and warfare. Although he generally remains in the confines of the time period of World War II, Ford maintains a very broad perspective over the continuous changes in technology as a result of the war. Also, he holds the idea that wartime in general leads to great innovations, but he also adds that World War II led to innovations at a rate unparalleled by that of any conflict from the past. The effects of the 1940s transcended the decade, and Ford mentions how the rest of the century was affected as a result of the Second Great War. Changes in mentality and methods of warfare as well as the dominance of the United States as a result of the war validate Ford’s agreement with the idea that the 1940s was a watershed in American history.
Brian J. Ford’s Secret Weapons: Technology, Science, and the Race to Win World War II provides deep insight into how “science and technology took on a new and terrifying urgency.”20 It strongly delivers the message that, contrary to popular belief, the United States rose to prominence as a result of its capitalization on previously developed technology from Europe.
1. Ford, Brian J. Secret Weapons: Technology, Science and the Race to Win World War II. Oxford: Osprey, 2011. 8.
2. Ford, Brian J. 12.
3. Ford, Brian J. 20.
4. Ford, Brian J. 24.
5. Ford, Brian J. 31.
6. Ford, Brian J. 58.
7. Ford, Brian J. 136.
8. Ford, Brian J. 180.
9. Ford, Brian J. 181.
10. Ford, Brian J. 222.
11. Ford, Brian J. 13.
12. Ford, Brian J. 12.
13. "Biographical Summary." Brian J. Ford, a General Biography. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2013.
14. Ford, Brian J. Secret Weapons: Technology, Science and the Race to Win World War II. Oxford: Osprey, 2011. 12.
15. Blewitt, Daniel K. Library Journal. 136. 16(2011):88-91. Print.
16. Blewitt, Daniel K. 88-91.
17. Hallion, Richard P. Air and Space Smithsonian. 27. 3(2012): 78-79. Print.
18. Ford, Brian J. Secret Weapons: Technology, Science and the Race to Win World War II. Oxford: Osprey, 2011. 171.
19. Ford, Brian J. 12.
20. Ford, Brian J. 13.
Brian J. Ford, born in Corsham, England in 1939, has attained success throughout his career as a research biologist, author, and lecturer. Formerly a television personality, Ford has received attention and fame for works such as German Secret Weapons, Blue Print for Mars, which deals with the rather futuristic aspirations of Germany. Ford graduated from The King’s School in Peterborough and Cardiff University.