≡ Menu

There was a nice piece by Cheryl Brumley in the London School of Economics Impact Blog this past week, “Academia and storytelling are not incompatable – how to reduce the risks and gain control of your research narrative.” Brumley, Multimedia Editor for the LSE Public Policy Group blogs, does a nice job of framing both side of the issue. From the post:

Mistakes made when communicating research to the wider world make one vulnerable to undue critique or worse, opprobrium. Why should anyone bother turning their research into a pithy narrative if the risks to their reputation are so great? Well, quite simply because it’s too risky not to. Silo-ing the great work that academics do within the hallowed, inherently exclusive institutions is a disservice to the public and also, to one’s own research. With the world of academia becoming increasingly digital, it is now more important than ever that these very different methods of communication, find a happy meeting place.


(Note: I wrote this paper for a grad class last Fall. Posting it online now, as I’ve given up on revising it for publication anywhere else!)


On 18 April 1942, little more than four months after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, 16 bombers under the command of US Army Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle bombed Tokyo and nearby cities in Japan. It was a bold and risky mission, planned quickly with men who were inexperienced and aircraft that were untested, and which resulted in an attack so audacious that it shocked both Japan and the United States equally. Later being described as “materially insignificant, but morally important,”1 the raid made headlines around the world, even though the bombing did minimal physical damage to Japan, and achieved few if any strategic military objectives.

Perhaps more surprisingly than the raid itself is the fact that the mission was not led by Claire Chennault, a retired Army Air Forces2 officer living in China. Chennault had been working closely with Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese government since 1937, first to improve the Nationalist Chinese Air Force (CAF), and then to build the American Volunteer Group (AVG), a US-supported military unit in China made up of former American military pilots flying military aircraft supplied by the United States. The US had invested significantly in the AVG, building up an offensive force in Japan’s backyard, yet President Roosevelt and his military leaders ignored that force in the days after Pearl Harbor, and instead turned to Washington, DC-based Doolittle and his risky plan when it came time to strike Japan. The question this paper seeks to answer is this: What role did trust, or a lack of trust, play in the decision to have Jimmy Doolittle lead the 18 April 1942 bombing of Tokyo instead of Claire Chennault?

The conflict between the United States and Japan in the Pacific Theater, including the 1942 bombing of Tokyo by Doolittle and his Raiders, is well covered ground for historians. “General Doolittle’s Report on Japanese Raid,”3 combined with official post-war Government histories including “The United States Army in World War II,”4 provide a solid base of foundational information: The who, what, where, when, and how of the attack on Tokyo. The more nuanced description of events, along with the personal opinions, thoughts, and feelings of the men involved, come from autobiographies of Doolittle’s men, like Ted Lawson,5 and from Doolittle himself.6 Additionally, Doolittle’s co-author, Carroll Glines, has written numerous book-length studies of Doolittle, the Raiders, and the Tokyo mission, examining the event from multiple perspectives.7

In contrast, understanding Chennault and the his time in China is more challenging. As a United States Air Force profile noted, “He has been the subject of a number of biographies – probably more than he deserves.”8 Many of these have failed to take a critical view of the man, puffing up the perception of Chennault the Successful, and downplaying that of Chennault the Challenged. Martha Byrd provides one of the most worthy biographies of Chennault,9 showing him as a success tactically, challenged strategically, and a flawed hero throughout his career. Jack Samson, one of Chennault’s pilots, has also written a strong biography,10 including details from Chennault’s private papers, and Samson’s personal interactions and experiences. Chennault’s autobiography,11 while important to read, is best understood as an attempt to settle scores (and which, as a result, stands in stark contrast to Doolittle’s autobiography, and his warm remarks and balanced assessments).

Dan Ford, author of a biography of Chennault12 has created a robust online archive,13 capturing and hosting materials from the men involved in China with Chennault, allowing scholars to read first-person accounts of their actions, helping to verify or refute some of the wilder claims. Government reports, including Eisel,14 help frame Chennault’s work within a broader historical context of World War II; and journal articles, including Bergin15 and Schaller,16 do a strong job of showing how Chennault’s work advanced the practices of military intelligence and clandestine operations.

What has largely been missing from the academic work to date is an scholarly examination of the decision making process at the senior-most levels of Government in early 1942, and the choice between Chennault’s proposals for China-based bombing of Japan compared to Doolittle’s plan of attack. We know little of what President Roosevelt, General Arnold, Admiral King, or other key decision makers were thinking and feeling when faced with choosing between Chennault and Doolittle, with the exception of one key fact: Jimmy Doolittle was ordered to bomb Tokyo, and Claire Chennault was never given the chance.

This paper proceeds in three parts. First, it provides a history of Chennault, Chiang Kai-shek, and their efforts around building a strong air force in China in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and their proposals to the United States Government for an air war against Japan. Second, it examines the creation of a proposal for a US-based raid on Tokyo in early 1942, the challenges involved in being able to execute the attack, and the role Jimmy Doolittle and his men played in making it a reality. Third, it introduces the concept of “trust,” and the four key elements of competency, compassion, communication, and consistency; and shows how Chiang and Chennault failed to establish a relationship of trust with American leaders in the late 1930s and early 1940s, ultimately costing them the opportunity to bomb Tokyo in 1942.

Claire Chennault in China

Claire Lee Chennault was a talented and stubborn military officer, a man who would be described as “successful against the enemy, [but] not so much with his superiors.”17 Chennault joined the Army in 1917 and received orders to flight school on his fifth request in early 1919.18 A talented pilot, by 1923 he would be in command of the 19th Pursuit Squadron based in Hawaii, where he would find himself succeeding in the cockpit, but struggling on the ground.19 His flying was aggressive and innovative, but caused consternation among senior officers for his repeated failures to follow protocol, and his frequent rule violations during war games.20 Preparing to retire in 1937 due in part to declining health (it is believed he suffered from early onset hearing loss, a frequent ailment plaguing pilots of open cockpit aircraft21), Chennault and his team flew one last public demonstration flight in December 1935, in front of an audience that included CAF General Mow Pang Tsu. Mow was impressed with what he saw, and shortly afterwards, CAF began negotiating with Chennault to come to China to undertake a review of the Chinese military.22 Chennault would be one of many retired military personnel from around the world recruited to China in the 1930s, as the country tried to modernize their military while simultaneously struggling against both internal strife and Japanese aggression.

Doolittle arrived in China in June 1937, less than a month before the Marco Polo Bridge Incident and the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War. At the outbreak of the war, Chennault, in China to simply undertake a review of the CAF, quickly wrote to Chiang and offered to become his chief military air advisor. Chiang accepted immediately. Over his twenty year career in the Army, Doolittle had developed numerous innovative theories about air combat, and he believed that the emerging war would give him a “chance to give them an acid test in combat.”23

Chiang ordered Chennault to Nanchang to take charge of training squadrons of attack aircraft and bombers. The pilots he would command had previously been trained by Italian military advisors hired by Chiang, and the results were abysmal. Many pilots were incapable of flying with any level of skill. Most of the Chinese pilots felt insulted by the expectation that they practice flying, believing that it insinuated that they were not doing a good job. They treated their aircraft (which they often crashed) as being easily replaced.24 Despite Japan’s ongoing, aggressive advance into the Chinese mainland, Chennault would note in his diary that “he did not think the Chinese Air Force was ready for war.”25

Struggling against the abysmal condition of the CAF when he arrived, Doolittle was able to squeak out some early victories. In August 1937, Japan was sending bombers into China without providing them fighter aircraft escorts, leaving them essentially defenseless, but believing that the Chinese did not know how to attack the aircraft (which, until Chennault’s interventions, had been more or less true). Under Doolittle’s direction, CAF fighters learned how to strike back against the unprotected bombers, shooting down more than half of the Japanese aircraft one night. The surprise aggression caused the Japanese to stop their bombing of Nanking for six weeks, saving the lives of countless civilians.26

Still, there was only so much Chennault could do with the men he inherited, who seemed to lack flying skills and the self-awareness necessary to recognize that fact. When the Chinese pilots weren’t being killed by the Japanese, they were killing themselves. From the fall of 1937:

“One clear morning [Madame Chiang] joined Chennault to watch the return of 11 dive bombers. They counted the incoming planes and noted that all had survived the mission, a rare event. The planes circled over the field and prepared to land. The first pilot overshot the runway and crashed in a rice paddy behind it. The second pilot ground-looped and his plane exploded in a fireball. The third landed safely, but the fourth crashed into the fire truck that was speeding toward the burning wreckage of the second plane. Of the 11 dive bombers, none of which had sustained battle damage, 5 crashed on landing and 4 pilots were killed.”27

By October 1937, most of Chennault’s qualified pilots were dead, and about 85% of the fighter aircraft he had when the war started in July were destroyed. Of the dozen bombers he had at his command in Canton, he lost 11 to Japanese fighters in one mission, and the twelfth bomber on the next, shot down by the Japanese seconds after taking off.28 The other 138 bombers under Chennault’s command in China – 150 total – would all meet a similar fate.29

In order to continue taking the aerial fight to the Japanese, the Chinese government established an “International Squadron” under Chennault’s command, comprised of mercenary pilots from France, Holland, Germany, and the United States. These international volunteers flew side-by-side with Chinese pilots, in 30 Vultee bombers the Chinese purchased from American William Pawley, an aviation entrepreneur.30 There were problems from the start. Many Chinese pilots refused to fly under the command of a foreign officer, and many of the foreign pilots were not as qualified as they had sold themselves as being. The result was “the most disorganized mess you ever saw,” according to Tommy Walker, one of the American pilots. “The flying was ragged as hell, and it was just plain dangerous to fly with most of the men.”31 They were careless and lazy on the ground, too. Leaving their aircraft fully loaded with bombs and gasoline one night so as to be able to sleep later the next morning, they created an alluring target for the Japanese. The next morning, the Japanese attacked the air base. A single Japanese bomb struck one of the fully-loaded Vultee bombers, causing an explosion that started a chain reaction down the entire flight line. Within a minute, all the aircraft were destroyed, and the International Squadron along with it.32

Chennault’s efforts to organize the CAF had failed. It was becoming clear that if China wanted to be a launching point for air attacks against the Japanese, they would either need to build a new suitable air force from scratch (a herculean effort), or find an international partner who would base themselves in China, yet operate semi-autonomously to avoid the intercultural conflicts the International Squadron had faced.

By October 1940, Chiang was increasingly worried that Japanese aggression against the Chinese would increase, including potential attempts to seize Singapore or cut off the Burma Road. He proposed to United States Ambassador Nelson Johnson a “fundamental solution:” To use American aid and aircraft to destroy the Japanese navy in their home ports before the Japanese could launch an offensive attack against the Chinese. The United States Government’s response was lukewarm, refusing to commit resources at that time, but promising to continue to study the proposal.33

Chiang and Chennault would continue looking for ways for the United States and China to collaborate militarily. In early November 1940, Chennault, along with CAF Major General Mao Pang-tzo, travelled to the United States, arriving in San Francisco on 14 November.34 In Washington, DC, later that month, Chennault and Mao requested 500 combat aircraft and the necessary pilots and crew to fly them, along with equipment to build 14 airfields and 122 landing strips, and the ammunition and bombs necessary for a year of operation.35 Unlike Chiang’s earlier proposal, this one would be partially accepted by the United States, which agreed to provide 100 P-40B aircraft and the men necessary to fly and support them, leading to the creation of the 1st American Volunteer Group.

In early December, while the United States Government was in the process of final approvals of this request, Chennault and the Chinese delegates put forward a second proposal: Have B-17 bombers, manned by American pilots and crew and operating from Chinese military bases, bomb Japan. This proposal initially received warmer support than the October proposal, including being blessed by Chief of Staff of the Army Marshall, Secretary of State Hull, and Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau. Even President Roosevelt remarked in December 1940 that “it would be a nice thing if China bombed Japan.”36 Unfortunately for the Chinese, this support wasn’t enough to garner approval for the proposal. The War Department, examining the request, noted that the Chinese had already commanded a group of B-10 bombers, but failed in their efforts to successfully use them against the Japanese, neglecting to provide them with fighter aircraft support while on missions, and failing to protect them with antiaircraft support while on the ground.37 This is a clear reference to the 12 bombers under Chennault’s command in Canton, destroyed over the course of two missions. This earlier failure, combined with the logistical difficulties of getting men and equipment to the Chinese airfields within striking distance of Japan, led the War Department to decline to endorse the Chinese proposal.

This was the second time Chiang and Chennault had proposed bombing missions against the Japanese, only to have the American say no. But it is important to note what these discussions represent: By the end of 1940, at the highest levels of the United States Government, there was already consideration and debate around the idea of bombing Japan (both military targets and major cities), and how to launch those attacks from the Chinese mainland.

The following spring, 1941, the idea would come up again for consideration, but not from Chiang or Chennault. Lauchlin Currie, a special assistant to President Roosevelt who had been sent to China earlier that year to assess the condition of the Chinese military, wrote a report stressing the potential value that could come from a robust air force in China being able to defend Singapore, the Burma Road, and the Philippines, and encouraged the United States to provide additional military support to China.38 In addition to playing a defensive role, the report noted that this force could also play an offensive role, since “Kobe, Kyoto, Osaka, as well as Yokohama and Tokyo could be attacked by bombers operating from existing airfields in China.” Currie – an economist by training – also highlighted the ability to strike Japanese industrial complexes and destroy “Japanese factories in order to cripple production of munitions and essential articles for maintenance of economic structure in Japan.”39 Recognizing that the initial amount of support he proposed might be too large to gain approval, Currie drafted a modified version of his proposal, “Short Term Aircraft Program for China,” and sent it on to the Joint Board40 for consideration.41

In July 1941, the Joint Board endorsed the recommendation. The United States would increase its military support to China in the following ways: 269 attack aircraft and 66 bombers would be supplied to enable “effective action against Japanese military and naval forces operating in China and in neighboring countries and waters.” The US would provide men and supplies to equip and train the force, and would also send military advisors to China to improve the performance of the Chinese military.42 The 66 bombers would include 33 Lockheed Hudson models, and an equal number of Douglas aircraft.

Most of the American volunteers would sail from San Francisco in late November 1941, headed first to Australia, and then on to China. The Douglas bombers, unassembled, would be shipped to Africa, assembled, and then sent on to China. The Lockheed Hudson bombers, already assembled, would be flown by the military pilots from San Francisco in early December.

For Chiang and Chennault, the “fundamental solution” would be within reach at the end of 1941. China would finally get the bombers they had started requesting years earlier, and the support of the United States to use them against Japan. Unfortunately for them, while the Americans and their aircraft were headed on a long indirect route to China, the Japanese navy was making a straight line for the United States.

A Date Which Will Live in Infamy

Just before 8:00am on Sunday 07 December 1941, 351 Japanese aircraft launched an attack against United States naval forces stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The United States, which until this time had been at peace with the Japanese (if not plotting otherwise), was caught completely by surprise. Twenty-one naval ships were sunk or damaged, as were 347 aircraft. Two-thousand four-hundred and three people were killed in the attack.43 The nation was shocked.

The next day, President Roosevelt addressed Congress: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941— a date which will live in infamy— the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…” Four out of every five American homes listened to the seven-minute address live over the radio. A half-hour after completing his remarks, Congress declared war on Japan.44

In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt was vocal about his desire for a quick assault on the Japanese homeland,45 and the American military was eager to fulfill the request. Yet instead of turning to Chennault and leveraging his existing proposals for attacking Japan with China-based forces, the military came up with a new plan, which, while ultimately successful, was exceptionally complicated, full of risk, and involved technologies and tactics never before used.

The men and aircraft that had departed for China in the days before the attack on Pearl Harbor would be diverted and used elsewhere during the war. Chiang and Chennault would never get their bombers.

Doolittle’s Raiders

On the evening of 10 January 1942, Navy Captain Francis Low proposed to Admiral Ernest King that Army bombers could be modified in such a way that they could launch from, and land on, an aircraft carrier at sea. If so, this would enable bombers to be shipped across the Pacific, bomb Tokyo, land on the same aircraft carriers they launched from, and return quickly to the safety of American waters.46

Tokyo and its suburbs offered an alluring target for the United States in early 1942, providing the opportunity to strike not only Japanese military and government buildings, but also centers of industry and commerce that supplied the Japanese war effort and fulfilled the everyday needs of Japanese citizens. An attack on Tokyo would also come with a high degree of risk. Military intelligence believed there were approximately 500 combat aircraft stationed in the Tokyo Bay area.47 The western part of the city was believed to have antiaircraft batteries,48 and east-central Tokyo had barrage balloons.49 Both defensive mechanisms were in place to prevent a bombing raid or other attack on the city.

While uncertain of the feasibility of Low’s proposal, King reacted warmly to the idea, and over the following seven days, a number of senior military officers in the Army and Navy weighed in. Army Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, on the staff of General Hap Arnold, Chief of Staff of the Army Air Forces, was given responsibility to lead the mission.50 It was quickly realized that while launching a bomber from an aircraft carrier was possible, landing that bomber on the aircraft carrier was not. The pilots would have to land somewhere else after their assault. And the only bomber with the potential to meet the technical and logistical requirements of the mission was the B-25 Mitchell bomber, which would need to be heavily modified, and which had yet to be used in combat.51

The modifications to the bombers were largely focused on reducing weight to enable the aircraft to launch from the relatively short 500 foot runway of an aircraft carrier (compared to some military runways, which can be over 5000 feet long), and adding fuel capacity to enable it to fly all the way to Tokyo and then on to a landing site in Asia. Smaller modifications involved changes in radio equipment, and modifications to the bombing sights. Every changed involved weighing costs and benefits. Removing guns from the aircraft reduced weight, but meant the aircraft couldn’t defend themselves. Adding fuel increased the distance the aircraft could fly, but made it harder to take off from the aircraft carrier. Changing bombing sights reduced the chance this critical tool could fall into Japanese hands, but made it harder for the bombers to target their attacks.

The technical challenges were easy compared to the problem of figuring out where to land after the bombing mission. Returning to the aircraft carrier was out; Army bombers weren’t designed to mate with Navy aircraft carrier arresting apparatus, and the risk of hitting the ship’s tower structure was too great due to the broad wingspan of the B-25, which would leave only a 7.5 foot margin of error.52 Landing in either the Soviet Union or China was the obvious alternative. Unfortunately, neither nation agreed. The Soviet Union had signed a neutrality pact with Japan in April 1941, and had little interest in violating it and having an enemy on both their Western and Eastern sides.53 China, likewise, was concerned about Japanese retaliation if they were involved, especially in the coastal areas and Manchuria, where the Japanese had been present for several years. Ultimately, the mission planners decided that the raiders would land in China, against Chiang Kai-shek’s wishes. He would not be informed that the mission was taking place until the aircraft had launched, and it was too late for them to stop.54

Doolittle was realistic about what any bombing mission could accomplish: “The bombs could do only a fraction of the damage the Japanese had inflicted on us at Pearl Harbor, but the primary purpose of the raid we were about to launch against the main island of Japan was psychological.”55 The psychological effect was meant to bolster American spirit after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor and the rapid, early losses in the Pacific (Wake Island, Guam, Bataan, and Corregidor), and to damage the image of the Japanese leadership in the eyes of the Japanese people. “The Japanese people had been told they were invulnerable,” Doolittle would later write. “Their leaders had told them Japan could never be invaded. […] An attack on the Japanese homeland would cause confusion in the minds of the Japanese people and sow doubt about the reliability of their leaders.”56

Once the decision was made in late January 1942 to bomb Tokyo using a fleet of modified B-25 bombers, Doolittle had to move quickly. In late January, he ordered 24 bombers at Wright Airfield in Ohio to be heavily modified, per his peculure and detailed specifications, but without explaining why.57 In a way, he was putting the cart before the horse. It wasn’t until 02 February that two stripped down B-25s were successfully test launched from the USS Hornet off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, proving what had until now only been assumed: That take-off from an aircraft carrier was even possible.58

Aircrews qualified to fly the B-25 were in short supply, but Doolittle located some in Pendleton, Oregon, and asked for volunteers for an “extremely hazardous mission.”59 The volunteers were transferred cross-country to Columbia, North Carolina. At the same time they were moving, Doolittle was shuffling between Minneapolis, Ohio, Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, and Washington, DC, to finish planning and coordinating the mission. His men and aircraft, once assembled in North Carolina, were shipped to Eglin Field in Florida for training, where Doolittle would eventually meet up with them on 03 March 1942.60 Less than three weeks later, on 23 March, they departed for Sacramento, California, arriving three days later.61 The aircraft were loaded onto the Hornet on 01 April, and the ship set to sea the next day. The other ships in the taskforce, which would be led by Admiral Halsey, launched from California and Pearl Harbor over the next several days, all meeting up in the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii on 13 April, and setting course for Japan.62 It wasn’t until this time that the pilots and crew were finally told where they were going, and what their targets were. Until now, they had been training under a cloak of total secrecy.

Each aircrew was given a set of primary and secondary targets, mostly related to Japanese industry: Steel works, oil refineries, oil tank farms, ammunition dumps, docks yards, munitions plants, and aircraft manufacturing plants were the primary objectives.63

Around 3:00am on the morning of 18 April, the American naval group detected Japanese activity while approximately 650 miles off the coast of Japan. The fleet had intended to get within 500 miles of Japan before initiating the raid, but decided to launch the aircraft early in case the Japanese decided to attack the fleet, or to radio Tokyo to alert them to the inbound ships. The pilots successfully launched from the Hornet – the first time any of them had attempted to launch from an aircraft carrier – and began their flight to Tokyo.

Doolittle knew that there was a risk his aircraft would be intercepted by Japanese forces, but what the crews experienced was a welcome relief. “The comparatively few fighters encountered indicated that home defenses had been reduced in the interest of making the maximum of planes available in active theaters,” Doolittle reported. “The pilots of such planes as remained appeared inexperienced. In some cases they actually did not attack, and in many cases failed to drive the attack home to the maximum extent possible.”64 Indeed, “with their minds on victory, the Japanese had not contemplated the air defense of the homeland, and not a single fighter squadron was devoted to it.”65

Similarly, there were limited defensive forces on the ground: “The anti-aircraft defense was active but inaccurate. […] Several of the airplanes were struck by anti-aircraft fragments but none of them was damaged to an extent that impaired their utility or impeded their progress. Although it was to be assumed that machine gun fire from the ground was active, none of the crew members […] saw any such action nor was there evidence of machine gun fires in the bottom of any of the airplanes.”66 Also lacking was any attempt by the Japanese to camouflage the industrial sites, even though they would be considered obvious military targets.

While the bombing run went smoothly for Doolittle’s raiders, their escape to China did not. They were unable to reach the Chinese airfields via radio, and as such, the chance of any of the crews landing safely was “just about nil.”67 The crews would have to jump from their aircraft and hope to come down safely, in Chinese-controlled lands. Of the sixteen B-25 bombers, six crashed near Chuchow, China; two crashed near Nanching, China; and two crashed near Shangjao, China. Another three were lost at sea: Two near Changchow, China; and one near Wenchu, China. The last aircraft, piloted by Captain York, landed in Primorsky Krai, in the Soviet Union, where the aircraft and crew were interred. Despite the total loss of aircraft, 69 of the 80 men on the mission survived, and managed to get to freedom, mostly in China. Eight men were captured by the Japanese and held as POWs (three would be executed, the rest imprisoned; 1 would die of illness in captivity), two died in aircraft crashes, and a third died under unknown circumstances.68

Reflecting on the raid several months afterwards, Doolittle would attempt to highlight the two-fold objective of the mission: “It was hoped that the damage done would be both material and psychological. Material damage was to be the destruction of specific targets with ensuing confusion and retardation of production. The psychological results, it was hoped, would be the recalling of combat equipment from other theaters for home defense thus effecting relief in those theaters, the development of a fear complex in Japan, improved relationships with our Allies, and a favorable reaction on the American people.”69

While that is true, for Doolittle, the most immediate reaction after the mission was his realization that he had lost all his aircraft. Doolittle speculated that he would be court-martialed and spend the rest of his life in jail, his reputation ruined for the loss of aircraft and life – both precious commodities for the United States in the early days of World War II.70 It wasn’t to be. The raid on Tokyo made headlines around the world. President Roosevelt promoted Doolittle, advancing him from Lieutenant Colonel to Brigadier General, skipping the rank of Colonel entirely (a very rare, but not unheard of action). Additionally, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for the raid. He would end the war as a Lieutenant General, in command of the Eighth Air Force in Europe.71 A few years before his death in the 1990s, President George H.W. Bush also awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Clearly, Doolittle’s worst fears about his reputation and career in the hours after the raid never materialized.

A Cascading Failure of Trust

In January 1942, the shock of the attack on Pearl Harbor turned into a feeling of determination to strike back against Japan. President Roosevelt and senior military leaders had an obvious option right at their fingertips for such an attack. Chiang and Chennault had been proposing for years ways in which the United States and China could collaborate to strike Japan from the Chinese mainland. As recently as six months earlier, the White House’s Currie had documented the offensive opportunities an air force unit in China could provide, and the Joint Board had agreed to ship men, bomber aircraft, and supplies to Chennault. Men and aircraft had already started on their way to China when the Japanese struck Hawaii, and could easily have continued on to their destination, and then to Tokyo.

Yet rather than use these forces, led by Chennault, a man they knew well, based in China and within easy striking distance of Japan, Admiral King and others turned to Doolittle, with his fleet of unproven aircraft, modified in unusual ways, piloted by men who had virtually no experience in their aircraft completing the tasks they would be asked to complete, and all being led by a man with no combat experience. Why? I would argue that by the time of Pearl Harbor, there was a fundamental lack of trust between the United States and China generally, and between U.S. leaders and Chiang and Chennault specifically. This lack of trust was so strong that it dwarfed the exceptional amount of risk and uncertainty that Doolittle’s plan entailed.

Psychologists and organizational behavior experts have argued that there are four key elements critical to the establishment of trust – consistency, compassion, communication, and competency – each of which is “necessary in a trusting relationship, but insufficient in isolation.”72

Consistency emerges through numerous and frequent interactions, is measured in both words and actions, and enables predictability, which reduces threatening feelings, and increases feelings of safety.73 Compassion comes from a belief that individuals care for each other, and will work to protect each other, as well as protect individuals in an “extended web of relations.”74 Communication is the two-way sharing of information, both positive and negative, that leads to the perception of “openness.”75 Lastly, competence in the “execution of an individual’s role responsibilities,”76 comes about through direct viewing of behaviors and actions, and from an awareness of external measures (awards won, rank achieved, etc.).

From the summer of 1937 to the spring of 1942, Chiang and Chennault had given the United States reason to doubt them in each of these four critical areas, damaging if not outright eliminating any feelings of trust.


Chennault’s challenge of being viewed as competent began almost the minute he put on the Army uniform in 1917. Bruce Holloway, who served with Chennault and would eventually rise to the rank of General, described him as “about the poorest loser that I have ever seen.”77 Rejected for flight school, he reapplied four more times until the military granted his request. Once, during a disagreement with a flight instructor during a training flight, Chennault took his hands off the controls and refused to continue flying the aircraft. Without a pilot in control, the plane entered into a dive, and the a view of the ground rapidly began to fill the windshield. The instructor grabbed the controls and saved both their lives with only seconds to spare. Once they landed, Chennault was recommended for discharge, only to have another instructor intervene and keep him in.78

United States Air Force General George Kenney has noted that, “In time of war, the rebel against accepted doctrine who wins is decorated, promoted, and hailed as a great military captain, but in time of peace the nonconformist is looked upon as a troublemaker. He is seldom marked for promotion to higher rank and is generally retired or induced to resign.”79 Unfortunately for Chennault the Rebel, there was no major war while he was in uniform, and he was repeatedly viewed by his peers and the Air Force as being a troublemaker. In addition to an increasingly poor reputation within the small community of military officers in the 1920s and early 1930s, Chennault was also failing to get the external rewards of rank, medals, or commendations. By his retirement in 1937, he had spent 20 years in the military, only to be promoted twice, achieving the rank of Captain.

By contrast, Doolittle joined the military the same year at Chennault, and was a Major by 1940 (one rank higher), and shortly later promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in late 1941.80 In his career to that point, he had advanced the science of instrument flight,81 set aircraft speed records,82 was a member of a national board of inquiry (the Baker Board),83 and had won three major aeronautical trophies: The Schneider, Bendix, and Thompson awards. His achievements – while never coming about during the heat of battle – never the less defined him as a man who knew what to do, and how to do it well. He was friendly and agreeable, well-liked by those he worked with. He was a man who – literally and figuratively – would keep his hands on the controls during flight.


In addition to competency, Chennault also struggled with consistency, both because of his own decisions in life, and because of the state of the CAF when he inherited it in 1937. Chennault was all too happy to leave the Army in 1937, retiring with his full pension in one hand and a $1000 a month contract from Chiang in the other.84 But when he experienced professional difficulties in China, he tried several times to get a new military commission in the United States. In 1939, he reapplied to the Army Air Corps to be a pilot, only to be turned down, being told that there were no funds available to pay him. He tried again in winter 1939/1940 to the same result. In 1940, he wrote to General Arnold, the Air Corps Chief of Staff, requesting reinstatement. Arnold offered him a position in the Coast Artillery School, which he declined. In Washington later that year to meet with the War Department, he made his request again, received the same offer again, and he declined it again. He was gaining a reputation as a man who (rightly or wrongly) left the Army for money, then tried to come running back home when things got difficult for him. 85

Chennault faced similar challenges in the consistency of the performance of the CAF pilots under his command (whose performance ultimately reflected on him as their leader). His men could win one day, only to lose overwhelmingly the next. Their performance was inconsistent; they could successfully bomb targets, only to return home and crash during a straightforward landing. His performance – personally and professionally – was inconsistent, often fluctuated greatly, and raised questions and concerns about his performance, rather than making people feel comfortable with him as a leader and as a person.

Doolittle’s career by contrast had been the single-minded pursuit of the advancement of aeronautics. His successes (including those identified earlier), while not successful victories in combat, were consistent throughout his career, and he was recognized and rewarded for it. Based on the consistent strength of his performance during his career, when the United States went to war against Japan, he was able to request and receive orders to Washington, to support the effort from the top of the War Department. His knowledge of military aeronautics was extensive, and senior military leaders trusted his recommendations and responses to their questions.86 When it came time to select someone to take over the planning of the Tokyo raid, they had no reason to question his performance, or to argue with his involvement or leadership.


It is one thing for political or military leaders to launch a sneak attack against a military target; it’s another entirely to attack a hospital, school, or residential area, overtly or covertly, intentionally or unintentionally. Schaller argues that discussions in 1940 about a potential attack on Japan included the intentional targeting of civilians, and Chennault and Morgenthau, “seem to have given virtually no thought to a Japanese counterattack upon United States territory or forces,” in response to the action, “nor were any moral objections or issues raised by either man.”87 In “The Maverick War,” Schultz additionally notes that they also did not “seem to be concerned about world opinion or the reaction of the American public”88 to such an abhorrent act.

This cavalier attitude about potential bombings establishes two challenges to the perception of compassion. First, that there is no awareness of the moral and ethical issues related to intentionally killing Japanese civilians, even during the brutalities of war. And secondly, failing to recognize that a Japanese counterattack would likely target American civilians, including family members and friends, people who are in that valued “extended web of relations.” Both of these show a lack of compassion, as well as indicating a lack of competence as military professionals, that they did not recognize and consider these issues.

Chennault’s behavior stands in stark contrast to Doolittle, who clearly understood the potential ramification of intentionally or unintentionally bombing non-military targets in Japan. He admonished his men on two occasions: “You are to bomb military targets only. There is nothing that would unite the Japanese nation more than to bomb the emperor’s home. It is not a military target! And you are to avoid hospitals, schools, and other nonmilitary targets.”89 And later, when he heard his pilots were still considering bombing the emperor’s palace: “It’s not worth a plane factory, a shipyard, or an oil refinery, so leave it alone.”90 Doolittle shows additional depth by addressing the topic on two levels: The likelihood of a desire for revenge (emotion) and the reality that an attack on a civilian target would mean one less attack on a military target (logic).


Lastly, there were regular and ongoing challenges with open communication between China and the United States in the 1930s and early 1940s. The United States and China lacked a clear view into each other’s countries, and an understanding of each other’s needs. Roosevelt’s relationship with Chiang was much weaker than his relationship with Churchill (who would also request American support during this period), or even with Stalin. While there were Americans in China, and advocates for China in Washington, there was not an exceptionally close relationship between the two nations. Secondly, the United States, rightly or wrongly, viewed Britain as having more interest in, and responsibility for, China than the United States did. As a result, the United States likely did not push as hard to resolve the communication problems between them and China. As Romanus notes:

“Apart from the Mao program [the aircraft requested and approved in November/December 1940], Washington has little specific, itemized information as to what China’s overall needs were, for Soong’s staff had offered only vague generalities. The British, on the other hand, had presented concrete programs on which the estimate of the first lend-lease appropriation was based. A second reason lay in the fact that, though the War Department wanted Japan to be contained in China, the British Commonwealth with its vast holdings in the Orient was considered to have a predominant interest in maintaining China as a belligerent. The Commonwealth would have received U.S. approval of any reasonable program of transfers to China.”91

These challenges weren’t limited to military equipment. Similar challenges arose in China’s requests for engineering and medical supplies, which were made in “general statements… to be followed by detailed information as soon as possible” according to War Department reports, a level of “vagueness and unreality” that led the War Department to view Chinese requests unfavorably.92


There are four elements critical to the existence of trust, and Chiang and Chennault had failed in each of them as individuals, as military leaders, and as representative of the nation of China. Their inability to establish trust with the United States doomed their requests for bombers and military support in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and ensured that when the United States finally decided to bomb Tokyo in early 1942, the nation would turn to someone else to lead the effort.

The 18 April 1942 raid on Tokyo was ultimately a success, but it could just as easily have been a complete failure: The fleet could have been spotted and attacked by Japan during their long voyage across the Pacific; the pilots could have crashed trying to take off from an aircraft carrier; Japanese aircraft or antiaircraft weapons could have destroyed the unprotected bombers; their improvised bomb sights could have failed when used in combat; and any of the hundreds of other improvised or newly-created parts could have failed during the assault. President Roosevelt and the military leadership accepted a huge amount of risk and uncertainty in endorsing Doolittle’s mission to bomb Tokyo, all because of a cascading failure of trust in their partners in China, who they had been working with for years.

1Max Hastings, All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945 (London: HarperPress, 2011): 237.
2The United States Air Force would not come into existence as a separate military branch until 1947. Until 1947, military aircraft would belong to the United States Navy and to the United States Army Air Forces, a component of the United States Army.
3United States Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942 (Washington, DC: Department of War, 1942).
4Romanus, Charles, and Riley Sunderland, United States Army in World War II: China-Burma-India Theater: Stilwell’s Mission to China (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1952).
5Lawson, Ted, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (New York: Random House, 1943).
6Doolittle, James, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again (New York: Bantam, 1991).
7Glines, Carroll, Doolittle’s Tokyo Raiders (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1981). Glines, Carroll, Four Came Home: The Gripping Story of the Survivors of Jimmy Doolittle’s Two Lost Crews (Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 1996). Glines, Carroll, Jimmy Doolittle: Daredevil Aviator and Scientist (New York: Macmillan, 1972). Glines, Carroll, Master of the Calculated Risk: James H. ‘Jimmy’ Doolittle, A Pictorial Biography (Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 2002). Glines, Carroll, The Doolittle Raid: America’s Daring First Strike Against Japan (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2000).
8“Claire Chennault,” American Airpower Biography.
9Byrd, Martha, Chennault: Giving Wings to the Tiger (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1987).
10Samson, Jack, The Flying Tigers (New York: Doubleday, 1987).
11Chennault, Claire, Way of a Fighter: The Memoirs of Claire Lee Chennault (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1949).
12Ford, Daniel, Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942 (New York: Harper Collins, 2007).
13Ford, Daniel, “Annals of the Flying Tigers.”
14Eisel, Braxton, “The Flying Tigers: Chennault’s American Volunteer Group in China,” Air Force Sixtieth Anniversary (2009): 1-36.
15Bergin, Bob, “Claire Lee Chennault and the Problem of Intelligence in China,” Studies in Intelligence, vol. 54, no. 2 (June 2010): 1-10.
16Schaller, Michael, “American Air Strategy in China, 1939 – 1941: The Origins of Clandestine Air War,” American Quarterly, vol. 28, no.1 (Spring 1976): 3-19.
17Eisel, “The Flying Tigers:” 1.
18Eisel, “The Flying Tigers:” 2.
19Eisel, “The Flying Tigers:” 3.
20Eisel, “The Flying Tigers:” 3-5.
21Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 212.
22Eisel, “The Flying Tigers:” 5.
23Duane Schultz, The Maverick War: Chennault and the Flying Tigers (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987): 57.
24Schultz, The Maverick War: 57.
25Schultz, The Maverick War: 58.
26Schultz, The Maverick War: 62-63.
27Schultz, The Maverick War: 67.
28Schultz, The Maverick War: 67.
29Schultz, The Maverick War: 72.
30Schultz, The Maverick War: 72.
31Schultz, The Maverick War: 73.
32Schultz, The Maverick War: 73.
33Romanus and Sunderland, US Army in WW2: 9.
34Romanus and Sunderland, US Army in WW2: 10.
35Romanus and Sunderland, US Army in WW2: 10-11.
36Alan Armstrong, Preemptive Strike: The Secret Plan That Would Have Prevented The Attack on Pearl Harbor (Guilford, CT: The Lyon Press, 2006): 31.
37Romanus and Sunderland, US Army in WW2: 12-13.
38Schaller, “American Air Strategy in China:” 14.
39Schaller, “American Air Strategy in China:” 15.
40Predecessor to today’s Joint Chiefs of Staff
41Schaller, “American Air Strategy in China:” 16.
42Joint Board Paper 355 (Ser 691), quoted in Romanus and Sunderland, US Army in WW2: 24.
43”Overview of The Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941,” Naval History and Heritage.
44”FDR’s ‘Day of Infamy’ Speech: Crafting a Call to Arms,” Our Heritage in Documents, vol. 33, no. 4 (Winter 2001).
45Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 213-214.
46Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 216-218.
47Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942
48Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 7.
49Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 8.
50It wasn’t until two months later, in March 1942, that he requested and received the additional order to fly the mission, in addition to simply overseeing it’s planning and execution. See Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 230.
51Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 212, 217.
52Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 212.
53Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 3.
54Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 7.
55Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 1.
56Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 1.
57Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 222.
58Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 220-221.
59Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 224.
60Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 225-226.
61Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 231, 233.
62Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 238.
63Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942
64Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942
65Anthony Bruce and William Cogar. “Raid on Tokyo, 1942.” Encyclopedia of Naval History (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1997).
66Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942
67Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 9.
68Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942
69Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942
70Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 11.
71Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942
72Devon Vodicka, The Four Elements of Trust, Principal Leadership, vol. 7, no. 3 (November 2006).
73Vodicka, Four Elements of Trust: 29.
74Vodicka, Four Elements of Trust: 29.
75Vodicka, Four Elements of Trust: 29.
76Vodicka, Four Elements of Trust: 30.
77Schultz, The Maverick War: 17.
78Schultz, The Maverick War: 27-28.
79Schultz, The Maverick War: Frontpiece.
80Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 210.
81Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 120-141.
82Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 99.
83Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 183-185.
84$1,000 in 1937 would be worth approximately $16,500 in 2013.
85Schultz, The Maverick War: 73-74
86Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 210
87Schaller, “American Air Strategy in China:” 11.
88Schultz, The Maverick War: 4.
89Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 246.
90Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 247.
91Romanus and Sunderland, US Army in WW2: 13.
92War Department reports, quoted in Romanus and Sunderland, US Army in WW2: 15.


I stumbled upon an oldie but goodie today, Gen. James Mattis’ letter in late 2003 on the importance of professional reading by military officers. A few choice quotes:

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun.

Perhaps if you are in support functions waiting on the warfighters to spell out the specifics of what you are to do, you can avoid the consequences of not reading. Those who must adapt to overcoming an independent enemy’s will are not allowed that luxury.


The eleven commandments:

1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
5. When you can’t create, you can work.
6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
9. Discard the Program when you feel like it – but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all those come afterwards.

These eleven seemed to work for Miller, who published Black Spring in 1936. Here’s an “Art of Fiction” interview he did with George Wickes of The Paris Review in 1962.


Let me start with some disclosures. First, I have, at several points in my career, worked at Harvard Business School. That experience certainly influences the views I am about to share here, but I am not, in any way, shape, or form, speaking in an official capacity or on behalf of HBS or Harvard. What follows is my personal opinion, nothing more. Second, as a result of my work at HBS, I briefly met both Michael Porter and Clay Christensen back in the early 2000s, but that’s the limit of my interactions with them. I feel reasonably certain that they don’t go around talking about that one time back in ’03 that they met PJ Neal. I also worked closely with Nitin Nohria, dean of HBS, for a brief period, but have not interacted with him much since the first time I left HBS, in December 2004. I have numerous business and personal relationships with people at Innosight, Christensen’s consulting firm (I’ve hired their executives to speak at events, and have friends who have worked there at various points in time). I have never met Jill Lepore, but I am familiar with her academic work as a historian, and her work as a features writer in the New Yorker and elsewhere. Now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way…

As the old saying goes, “academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” Internal university disagreements are a dime a dozen, and in most cases, no one really cares about them outside of the people directly involved. But a debate taking place at Harvard Business School today involves two of the biggest names in business – Michael Porter and Clay Christensen – and that means that the idea of “normal” goes out the window pretty quickly.

The result of all of this is that June 2014 will go down in academic history as the month when an internal conflict at Harvard Business School broke free, spilling out of Morgan Hall and into the pages of several major publications of our day: The New York Times, the New Yorker, BusinessWeek, and others.

If you’ve missed the articles or the overall debate, here’s quick recap:

On 01 June 2014, The New York Times Magazine ran a long piece on HBx, HBS’ most recent entry into online learning. Titled “Business School, Disrupted,” the article highlighted an internal debate between Michael Porter and Clay Christensen on the basic nature of strategy, the future of education, and the ongoing expansion of HBS into online learning. Here are a couple highlights:

At Harvard Business School, the pros and cons of the argument were personified by two of its most famous faculty members. For Michael Porter, widely considered the father of modern business strategy, the answer is yes — create online courses, but not in a way that undermines the school’s existing strategy. “A company must stay the course,” Professor Porter has written, “even in times of upheaval, while constantly improving and extending its distinctive positioning.”

For Clayton Christensen, whose 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” propelled him to academic stardom, the only way that market leaders like Harvard Business School survive “disruptive innovation” is by disrupting their existing businesses themselves. This is arguably what rival business schools like Stanford and the Wharton School have been doing by having professors stand in front of cameras and teach MOOCs, or massive open online courses, free of charge to anyone, anywhere in the world. For a modest investment by the school — about $20,000 to $30,000 a course — a professor can reach a million students, says Karl Ulrich, vice dean for innovation at Wharton, part of the University of Pennsylvania.

“Do it cheap and simple,” Professor Christensen says. “Get it out there.”

But in an article that could have been about a fundamental disagreement about what HBS should do, an added dimension came up. First, Porter makes a statement about his personal relationship with the dean of HBS, Nitin Nohria:

“Nitin and I are close friends, and we’ve talked about this repeatedly,” Professor Porter said.

Professors and deans can be friends in addition to colleagues. Nothing wrong with that. But then this happened, the last two paragraphs of the article:

What is to stop a Coursera from poaching Harvard Business School faculty members directly? “Nothing,” Mr. Nohria said. “The decision people will have to make is whether being on the platform of Harvard Business School, or any great university, is more important than the opportunity to build a brand elsewhere.

“Does Clay Christensen become Clay Christensen just by himself? Or does Clay Christensen become Clay Christensen because he was at Harvard Business School? He’ll have to make that determination.”


It’s important to highlight that in the NYT article, Porter called Christensen “phenomenal” and “one of the great management thinkers.” It’s also worth noting that a couple days after this article came out, Christensen gave the morning keynote at the 2014 Harvard IT Summit and dismissed the Porter/Christensen conflict that was part of the New York Times article as being a story line the author included to try and make things seem more exciting than they really were.

I believed him when I heard him say that, and I didn’t think much about the Times article after that… until a few weeks later, when the New Yorker ran an article called “The Disruption Machine.” Written by Jill Lepore, a history professor at Harvard who is also a well-regarded features writer, the article was a vicious attack not only on the theory of Disruptive Innovation, but on Christensen himself. Some excerpts:

Ever since “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars. This fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: “The degree is in disruption,” the university announced. “Disrupt or be disrupted,” the venture capitalist Josh Linkner warns in a new book, “The Road to Reinvention,” in which he argues that “fickle consumer trends, friction-free markets, and political unrest,” along with “dizzying speed, exponential complexity, and mind-numbing technology advances,” mean that the time has come to panic as you’ve never panicked before. Larry Downes and Paul Nunes, who blog for Forbes, insist that we have entered a new and even scarier stage: “big bang disruption.” “This isn’t disruptive innovation,” they warn. “It’s devastating innovation.”

Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable. His single citation for his investigation of the “disruptive transition from mechanical to electronic motor controls,” in which he identifies the Allen-Bradley Company as triumphing over four rivals, is a book called “The Bradley Legacy,” an account published by a foundation established by the company’s founders. This is akin to calling an actor the greatest talent in a generation after interviewing his publicist. “Use theory to help guide data collection,” Christensen advises.

These could be damning indictments from a well-regarded academic… if they were independent to the debate, and the parties involved. Lepore, however, is no independent. As she acknowledges in her article:

Not long after that, I got a better assignment: answering the phone for Michael Porter, a professor at the Harvard Business School. I was an assistant to his assistant. In 1985, Porter had published a book called “Competitive Advantage,” in which he elaborated on the three strategies—cost leadership, differentiation, and focus—that he’d described in his 1980 book, “Competitive Strategy.” I almost never saw Porter, and, when I did, he was dashing, affably, out the door, suitcase in hand. My job was to field inquiries from companies that wanted to book him for speaking engagements. “The Competitive Advantage of Nations” appeared in 1990. Porter’s ideas about business strategy reached executives all over the world.

(Historians of the future, please note: Google seems to indicate that this is the first recorded instance of someone referring to Michael Porter as “affable.”)

Drake Bennett, a writer for BusinessWeek, got an interview with Christensen a few days after the New Yorker article came out to get his response. The quotes are, understandably, heated, and show a level of irritation and frustration that people seem to indicate is abnormal of Christensen. Bennett prefaces the article with this summary of Lepore’s attacks:

Disruption, as Lepore notes, has since become an all-purpose rallying cry, not only in Silicon Valley—though especially there—but in boardrooms everywhere. “It’s a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence,” she writes. In the article, she accuses Christensen of poor scholarship (handpicking case studies that conform to his theory); misreading history (some companies he casts as doomed continued to perform well); and myopia (missing, for example, the role unions played in the collapse of U.S. Steel). Lepore also notes that a fund manager who used Christensen’s theory as an investment strategy lost even more than most in the Nasdaq implosion of 2000.

Here are a few of his quotes from “Clay Christensen Responds to New Yorker Takedown of Disruptive Innovation”:

Well, in the first two or three pages, it seems that her motivation is to try to rein in this almost random use of the word “disruption.” The word is used to justify whatever anybody—an entrepreneur or a college student—wants to do. And as I read that, I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years.

And then in a stunning reversal, she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way. And mean is fine, but in order to discredit me, Jill had to break all of the rules of scholarship that she accused me of breaking—in just egregious ways, truly egregious ways. In fact, every one—every one—of those points that she attempted to make [about The Innovator’s Dilemma] has been addressed in a subsequent book or article. Every one! And if she was truly a scholar as she pretends, she would have read [those]. I hope you can understand why I am mad that a woman of her stature could perform such a criminal act of dishonesty—at Harvard, of all places.

I’m just stunned that any honest scholar would have done what she did to disparage the person and the theory. She [appears to have] only read one book at the beginning in the naive belief that the end comes out at the beginning.

At one point in Leopre’s New Yorker article, she writes that, “On March 10, 2000, Christensen launched a $3.8-million Disruptive Growth Fund, which he managed with Neil Eisner, a broker in St. Louis. Christensen drew on his theory to select stocks. Less than a year later, the fund was quietly liquidated: during a stretch of time when the Nasdaq lost fifty per cent of its value, the Disruptive Growth Fund lost sixty-four per cent.” Christensen responded:

This guy [Neil] Eisner—I’d never known him before—he came to see me and he was a dealer-broker in St. Louis and he wanted to start a mutual fund to invest in disruptive companies, and I thought that would be interesting. I have no money of my own, but he said he and his family have money. So I talked to a guy on our faculty, a finance guy, Dwight Crane, and he said you actually can’t act [as] an adviser in any way—an adviser means you help the portfolio manager decide what companies to invest in. I cannot do that, according to the rules of HBS and the SEC, because I’d create a conflict of interest if we have a case about a company that I advise him to buy or sell. I could just advise him about starting a new business. So that money was put in the market by somebody who is not Clayton Christensen. So what does that tell you about the theory of disruption, or about Clayton Christensen?


If [Lepore] was actually interested in the theory and cared enough about it to walk 15 minutes to talk and let me know she’s doing this, I could have listed 10 or 15 problems with the theory of disruption that truly need to be addressed and understood. I could list all kinds of problems that we still need to resolve, because a theory is developed in a process, not an event. [Disruption] has never happened in the hotel industry, for example. And so if she’s interested and wants to help me—she’s just an extraordinary writer—and if she’s interested in the theory or its impact, I mean, come over! I would love to have you openly invite her to come do this, if she’s interested.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re now caught up on the fundamental readings at the heart of this ongoing debate. Let’s acknowledge that there is one thing everyone can probably agree on, and that is that people have taken the term “disruptive” far beyond how Christensen has identified it in his writings, and have turned it into an overused phrase. But, as Michael Roberto, a former HBS professor, noted in a recent blog post, “We should be careful not to blame Christensen for all the mistakes of his readers.” Amen.

Let’s also acknowledge that there’s an open question about what happened – and is happening to – US Steel, a company at the heart of Christensen’s writings, and that came up in Lepore’s article. John Miller at the Wall Street Journal has chimed in to provide a little background, and if you’re interested in learning more, it’s a quick read (“Lepore vs. Christensen: Was US Steel Disrupted, Or Did It Evolve?“).

And, it’s critical to understand what we’re comparing Christensen’s theory of Disruption to. A commentator on Michael Roberto’s blog, “Jim Greene,” posted something that I thought was a good observation about theories in general:

I have been in the computer industry since the early 1980’s. I have been using the Disruptive Innovation theory quite successfully in managing the products and services since the early 1990’s. While the theory is not perfect, show me one business theory that is … I honestly have not seen many other theories, other than Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, that are as useful in the technology business.

So what’s going on in the halls of Harvard, and what are we seeing taking place in these very public debates? For what it’s worth, here’s my take:

First, I struggle to see Lepore’s arguments as being independent and solely hers, and not influenced by her past history with Porter, especially due to the viciousness of her attacks against Christensen. I’m not saying that Porter was involved in her article, but just that Lepore might be considering the same points I’m about to highlight, and decided to act to influence things. All of the issues she raised have been raised about Porter’s work, too, yet she ignores that fact. It’s hard not to attribute that to her personal relationship with Porter. That, alone, is a questionable act among any writer, but seems to be almost a mortal sin among an academic, and one at the same institution as the person she’s attacking.

Second, HBS has historically focused the idea of strategy around Porter’s work, to the determent of any other professor or theorist. One can argue that this is a good thing because it centers the academic work of the department, which is very common in many fields. On the flip side, that means a creation of a cult of personality around a single theorist, and the minimization or dismissal of contradictory ideas. If there is a fundamental, theoretical disagreement between Porter and Christensen, but Christensen’s theory remains alive, that means that Christensen has broken through the boundary that no other theorist has penetrated in nearly thirty years.

Third, Christensen’s success may be in part due to the fact that more and more questions are being raised about the validity of Porter’s theories in today’s economy. I hate quoting Wikipedia, but I’m going to for this one:

Porter has been criticized by some academics for inconsistent logical argument in his assertions. Critics have also labeled Porter’s conclusions as lacking in empirical support and as justified with selective case studies. They have also claimed that Porter fails to credit original creators of his postulates originating from pure microeconomic theory. Others have argued Porter’s firm-level analysis is widely misunderstood and mis-taught.

Doesn’t that sound familiar! In a Harvard Business Review blog post on 29 February 2012, Nilofer Merchant makes the argument that Porter just isn’t relevant in today’s market. From the post:

Most existing big organizations — the 800-pound gorillas — subscribe to Michael Porter’s value chain framework. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, this model optimizes for efficient delivery of a known thing. Organizationally it means Z follows Y, which follows X. It carries with it one fundamental assumption: that customers are tangential to the process.

There is no question that Porter’s work has helped shape (some would say, “invent”) modern-day strategy. I’ve used his ideas for over 20 years of running companies big and small, and I consider myself a fan of his thinking. But, to put it bluntly, Porter’s value chain is antiquated in the light of the social era. It was created at a time when being big and having scale was in itself a key aspect to competitive advantage and profitability.

Fourth, I think we have to recognize that when it comes to discussions of strategy, Christensen is the new hotness. You hear a lot about the theory of Disruptive Innovation these days in boardrooms, and not much about the Five Forces outside of classrooms. Part of this is because of what Merchant writes about in the HBR blog post. Part of it is because of the clear applicability and approachability of Christensen’s work, which makes it much more likely to be used in the day-to-day lives of executives. The words “applicability” and “approachability” are not often used to describe Porter’s theories. I can remember, as a consultant, trying to avoid heavy use of Porter’s work because it would raise so many questions, and so much confusion, among my clients.

A few years ago, Joan Magretta wrote a book, “Understanding Michael Porter: The Essential Guide to Competition and Strategy.” It’s hard to imagine anyone ever needing to write an equivalent volume for Christensen’s works.

Fifth, and most importantly, I think this is a question of legacy for both Michael Porter and Clay Christensen.

The last few years have not been great for Michael Porter’s reputation. In addition to the questions about continued validity and applicability of his theories, and an internal shift of focus away from him and toward Christensen, the consulting firm that he helped found, and that placed his theories central to their work, recently crashed and burned. Founded in 1983 by Porter and five others, Monitor Group quickly grew to being a global player in strategy consulting, before quickly becoming bankrupt. It was acquired in January 2013 by Deloitte – hardly the quality of savior that Monitor employees felt they deserved.

The media coverage at the time was hard on Porter. Forbes covered the failure under the headline, “What Killed Michael Porter’s Monitor Group?” The Boston Globe: “Why Did The Smartest Guys In The Room Go Bankrupt?” and “Monitor Group, Founded by Harvard’s Michael Porter, Files for Bankruptcy and Plans Merger.”

Both Porter and Christensen are about the same age (mid 60s). Porter, seemingly of good health and with a long life ahead of him, is seeing his reputation dwindle at a time when he should be considering slowing down and retiring. It’s hard to not go out on top.

At the same time, Christensen, with his reputation growing by leaps and bounds, has been very open and public about his health problems (stroke, cancer, etc.). Questions about how much longer he can work (or, sadly, live) are a matter of open discussion.

There’s a quote from the New York Times article that’s worth highlighting at this point:

“If Clay and I differ, it’s that Clay sees disruption everywhere, in every business, whereas I see it as something that happens every once in a while,” Professor Porter said. “And what looks like disruption is in fact an incumbent firm not embracing innovation” at all.


“The disrupter doesn’t always win,” argued Professor Porter.

I wonder if Porter was talking about the companies Christensen writes about, or about Christensen himself. It’s hard not to see Christensen as the disrupter among strategy theorists, among HBS faculty, or among the dominant theorists. It’s hard not to see him as having disrupted Porter in the same ways the companies he studies have disrupted their markets. If so, then Porter and his theories of competitiveness have been replaced by the “upstart” Christensen and his theory of disruption. That will be both their legacies.

The King of Strategy is dead. Long live the King of Strategy.


A letter from Arthur Kudner to his son:

Dear Son,

Never fear big long words.
Big long words name little things.
All big things have little names –
Such as life and death, peace and war.
Or dawn, day, night, hope, love, home.
Learn to use little words in a big way –
It is hard to do
But they say what you mean.
When you don’t know what you mean –
Use big words.
That often fools little people.


Harvard’s latest “Experience” profile is of Stephen Greenblatt, John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, who was profiled in “So That Represented My Own Little Rebellion.”

As the author notes, Greenblatt has managed to cross cultural boundaries like few others in recent memory: “How many scholars of the Renaissance wind up as guests on ‘The Colbert Report’? It’s safe to say that Harvard literary theorist and critic Stephen Greenblatt is the only one.”

Part of that cross-boundary success comes from how Greenblatt writes and communicates, using “sentences that don’t erect a barrier between scholarship and the common reader.”

That was back in 1968. I did not suddenly wake up a few years ago and think it would be worth trying to write literary criticism for more than a handful of people assigned to read it. I’ve always been interested in that possibility: to write sentences that don’t erect a barrier between scholarship and the common reader.

Q: You embraced writing that has clarity.

A: God knows I’ve written plenty of opaque sentences. But I think the key point, and it’s true for my teaching as well, is that for me there are no fundamental intellectual differences between what you tell the initiated — your colleagues and graduate students — and what you tell the uninitiated. You have to explain allusions to those who do not know them. You can’t be willfully or needlessly obscure. But the complexity or difficulty of the thought is whatever is required, as it were, by the subject and by your own vision.

I don’t have many regrets as a writer. With a particular book of mine, called “Hamlet in Purgatory,” I almost could see my way clear to figuring out how to make what I had to say accessible to a much larger group of people than I reached. The issues involved in “Hamlet in Purgatory” are genuinely powerful ones having to do with the change in the fundamental relationship between the living and the dead. But to my regret, the best way to convey them to a broad public eluded me. In recent years I’ve managed to improve. But from the Ralegh book on I’ve always been interested in that possibility.

I’m amazed at the number of academics who still hold the belief that academic writing must be staid, formal, and overly rigid. The arguments I have heard in grad school in defense of this belief have been eye opening (that they’re still being made – not that I find them compelling!). I’m increasingly believing that all graduate students should be required to take a creative writing course (or similar) to not only open them up to the possibility that academic writing can be more than it currently is, but to equip them with the tools to go out and successfully live into that potential.


The Harvard Gazette has been printing a series of interviews with senior, successful faculty members. While the interviews touch on their teaching and research, they also spend quite a bit of time talking about their faculty, childhood experiences, career mistakes, and how their success came about.

I find these interviews compelling, and each for a different reason. I posted earlier about the interview with Steven Pinker and his thoughts on teaching and writing. Here are some snippets and reactions to the other interviews in the series:

From Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, the Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education, in “I Have Always Been Temperamentally Wired to Carry On:”

Good teachers are lifelong learners who throughout their careers continue to be curious; who model for their students a love of, and a quest for, learning; who ask deep and probing questions of their students and also of themselves; who know their students well and get a kick out of being among them. I also think that good teachers are open to learning from their students — class discussions are encounters of mutual discovery. And good teachers are interested in their students’ stories and are willing to reveal their own. Teachers are also at heart good listeners; they are observant witnesses, receptive and empathic. I love teaching and work very hard at it. I love lecturing to huge gatherings of students, enjoy the creative, artful process of trying to put a compelling lecture together, and I enjoy — really dig — the performance. But I also relish teaching small seminars where students are full participants, where there is a range of voices and perspectives, where the encounter is improvisational and requires living in the moment. In these smaller settings my favorite part of teaching is, by far, the listening, being fully attentive to what is being said and discovered through the exchange. I want to listen carefully enough and intervene strategically enough so that my students and I can collectively develop a rich discourse, maybe even surprise ourselves with rare moments of insight and epiphany.

This is, I think, my ideal description of not only a classroom experience, but a relationship between a teacher and a leaner (and not just in the academic use of the words). “A range of voices and perspectives,” not just one voice from the “sage on the stage.” “Class discussions [that] are encounters of mutual discovery,” not the one-way transmission of information and ideas, where the person lecturing thinks there is nothing to get back from the audience.

From Martha Minow, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School, in “My Life Was Going to Have to Deal With Issues of Social Injustice:”

I really didn’t think about gender until I was in law school. And then, it was just very palpable that this was a very male institution. I was at Yale, and in criminal law class discussions of rape were astonishingly insensitive, or so it seemed to me. But I don’t think I had self-doubt particularly related to being a woman. My question about coming here was, “Would I be comfortable at Harvard Law School?” I was very lucky. I had invitations to join the faculties at Yale and at Harvard and at Stanford and Michigan, a lot of schools. Harvard was the place that intrigued me the most, but it had a reputation for not being a good place for women. I sat with Walter Dellinger, later the solicitor general of the United States, [and said] “Harvard has had a series of women come teach on the faculty and they’ve all left.” There was one tenured woman on the faculty when I joined. He said, “That’s not a reason not to go if that’s the place you want to go.” Abe Chayes was on the faculty here — he was one of the people who recruited me — and I raised the question with him and he said, “You’re tough as nails.” And I thought, “I’m not tough as nails, but I’d like to be tough as nails.” So it was definitely on my mind that this was not a place that was known to be hospitable to women and I was concerned about that.

This quote reminded me of a situation I observed last summer at Harvard Business School. I watched a middle-aged woman – likely an HBS graduate – looking for a woman’s bathroom in a long, rectangular-shaped building. She was at the far end of the building and only found a men’s room. She erupted, yelling at no one and everyone at the same time, denouncing the mistreatment of women, the inappropriateness of only having a men’s room, and what is says about the culture of the institution and the people associated with it. What she overlooked was that the men’s room was at one end of the building, and the woman’s room was at the other end.

Harvard, as the institution would likely admit itself, has a poor history of equality and openness to women and minorities. For those who experienced it first hand, the discrimination or mistreatment is something they’ll never forget.

Later, from Minow on making mistakes:

Oh, many, many mistakes. My sister Nell is a big source of inspiration on this. She says, “If you’re not failing some of the time, then you’re not risking enough.” So I’ve written things that have bombed, [received] negative reviews, [been] rejected from peer-reviewed journals. I started a project here at Harvard that got some funding that went nowhere and then people said, “We told you it wasn’t going to go anywhere.” I’ve had things that haven’t succeeded. I don’t beat myself up about any of those.

We repeat the quote “failure is not an option” too often in our society. Yes, there are times when you don’t want to fail, but the reality is that failure is one of the best teaching experiences we can face in our lives. And, in society today, we almost never experience failure that we can’t move past or overcome.

From E.O. Wilson, Museum of Comparative Zoology Faculty Emeritus and Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus, in “Search Until You Find a Passion and Go All Out to Excel in Its Expression:”

Q: Were you surprised at the response? Did you have no idea it would be controversial?
A: I had no idea. I really wish I could say I knew it was coming, but it really blindsided me. And it took me a while to figure out how to respond.

Q: Did you have an emotional reaction? Did you feel hurt or was it more intellectual?
A: It was more intellectual. The first time I saw one of these counterattacks appear in The New York Review of Books, I saw I was going to win this one. With the reasoning and evidence, I felt confident. It was science versus political ideology. But I really was upset at being called a racist, promoting racism and sexism. I was accused of trying to reintroduce a retrograde, outmoded, dangerous philosophy. There was nothing in “Sociobiology” to suggest such a thing. The words had to be taken out of context and tweaked. On one occasion, I had a little mob in Harvard Square parading and protesting and holding placards demanding that Harvard dismiss me. On another occasion, when I was to give a lecture at the Science Center, a crowd of protesters gathered at the entrance with signs and shouts and chants and so on. I was ushered in through the rear by University police. My class was disrupted at least once. Not seriously, but yeah, that’s annoying. Looking back at that now, it was a very strange period. This created a sensation, but at least students were exposed to new ideas. I say to myself to this day, “Is this not what a university is for?” This is what a university is supposed to be doing.

Wilson is describing an experience that happened half a century ago, but the reality is that the problem still exists in campus. We still see people who don’t want to be exposed to opinions they don’t agree with, views they don’t hold, people they don’t like. (Just look at the recent spate of graduation speakers being boycotted and having to withdraw their participation.) But as Wilson notes, “Is this not what a university is for?”

From Walter Willett, Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and Chair, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, in “I Spend a Fair Amount of Time Thinking About What Might Go Wrong:”

Q: What advice do you have for a young researcher starting out today?
A: I found it tremendously useful to have had experiences from a wide variety of fields that may sometimes seem disconnected. However, that’s where the interesting new connections often arise and how we can bring a different perspective to an unsolved problem. This may not work for every field, but at least for [those going into] public health, I would encourage a young researcher to take every opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. That may turn out to be very useful in an unpredictable way, and if not, it will have made your life more interesting. Obviously, we need to dig down deeply into our research topic, but too often we’re only told to focus, focus, focus. Finding the right balance between focusing and having a broad perspective is critical.

And from Melissa Franklin, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Chair of the Department of Physics, in “Physics Was Paradise:”

The Society of Fellows is wonderful. You come in with a group. At that point it was eight people a year for a three-year fellowship, so there were 24 fellows. They’re all in different fields and the only requirement is that you eat dinner together once a week. Normally, when you come into the university, you meet people in your department but you don’t actually have a lot of chances to meet people outside. But this is a situation where you get to meet the whole university.

Both Willet and Franklin touch on a similar theme: The value of diverse relationships, of expansive knowledge, and of cross-organizational collaboration. More and more people today seem to be focused on building a deep, narrow expertise. That’s all well and good, but it will only get you so far. Eventually you need broad understanding and the ability to move across organizational silos and groups, and if you lack that skill, you’ll find yourself stalled out or not having the impact you desire.

More thoughts to follow as the Gazette posts more of these interviews.


VS Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners

V.S. Naipaul proposed these seven “Rules for Beginners” at Tehelka. I would argue more non-beginners should consider adopting them, too:

1. Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words.

2. Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.

3. Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.

4. Never use words whose meaning you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.

5. The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.

6. Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.

7. Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; short, clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.

This isn’t a new list – a quick Google search shows it’s been around for several years – but I just saw it for the first time.


The Old and the New

I’m battling some significant organizational change issues in my day job, and simultaneously, as part of something I’m writing, researching a period of extensive organizational change in another organization. Taking a break this morning from work, I came across this quote:

“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” – John Cage

It’s perfect. I know that’s how I feel. I wonder if it’s how the people whose files and records I’m sifting through felt, too.